It is snowing. The snow falls on the young girl’s face, on her cheeks, mouth, and nose, and on her eyes. She does not blink it away. She lies very still in her nest of snow, slightly curled up, with a fur coat covering her like a quilt.
Around her the city is living its nightlife, the hansom cabs clatter by in the cobblestone slush on the boulevard, just a few steps away. But here in the passageway where she lies, there is no life.
Her brother is the one who finds her. He has been to the theater with some friends, and then to a dance hall, and he is happy and lighthearted when he returns home, happy and a little bit tipsy. That is why he does not understand what he is seeing, not at first.
“Hello?” he says when he notices that someone or something is lying at the entrance to his family’s home. Then he recognizes the coat, which is unusual: astrakhan with a collar of ocelot. “Cici?” he asks, because that is the girl’s pet name. “Cici, why are you lying there?”
Only then does he discover why she does not blink and makes no move to get up.
“It is unusual,” said the Commissioner to my father. “It is difficult to believe that it is a natural death, considering the circumstances, but there are no external signs of violence.”
The young girl lay on a stretcher in the hospital’s chapel. They had removed the fur coat, which was now hanging across the lid of the waiting coffin. Papa had turned the gas lamps all the way up in order to see as clearly as possible. The hospital had recently had its first electric lights installed, but the chapel had not yet seen such progress. Light for the living was more important than light for the dead, it was thought, and that was probably true. But it made my father’s work even more difficult.
Beneath the cloak, Cecile Montaine was wearing only a light white chemise and white pantalets. Both were filthy and had been worn for a while. Her narrow feet were naked and bloodless, but there was no sign of frostbite. Someone had closed her half-open eyes, but you could still see why she was considered a beauty, with long black eyelashes, sweetly curved lips, a narrow nose, symmetrical features. Her hair was pitch-black like her eyelashes and wet with melted snow.
“Dear Lord,” said the third person present in the chapel. “Oh, dear Lord.” The hand holding the prayer book shook a bit, and it was clear that Father Abigore, the Montaine family priest, was in shock.
“Could the cold have killed her?” asked the Commissioner.
“It’s possible. But right outside her own door?”
“No, that is not logical. Unless she died somewhere else and was later placed where her brother found her?”
“I think she died where she was found,” said my father. “The clinical signs suggest as much.”
They both stole a glance at the priest and refrained from discussing lividity while he was listening.
“Sickness? Poison?” asked the Commissioner.
“It is difficult to say when the family will not agree to an autopsy.” My father bent over the girl and carefully examined the halfway open mouth and the nostrils. Then he straightened up. “Did she suffer from consumption?”
The Commissioner looked over at the priest, passing on the question. Father Abigore stood staring at the dead girl and did not realize at first that he was being addressed.
“What?” With a start, the priest focused on them. “Consumption? No, certainly not. When she left her school a few weeks ago, she was as sound and healthy as one could possibly expect of a young lady of seventeen.”
“And why did she leave school?” asked the Commissioner.
“I must confess that we thought it was because of an unfortunate attachment she had made to a young man who disappeared at the same time. But now . . . Perhaps we have done her an injustice.” His gaze was once again drawn to the young dead girl, as if he were unable to look anywhere else. “Consumptive? Why would you think that?”
“There is dried blood in the nasal and oral cavities,” said my father. Suddenly, he leaned forward with a wordless exclamation.
“What is it?” asked the priest nervously.
But my father had no time to answer. He grabbed a pipette from his bag and quickly bent over the young girl’s face again.
“What are you doing?” asked the priest indignantly and took a step closer. “You promised, nothing unseemly. Nothing undignified for the dead!”
“It is not undignified,” my father cut him off. “But absolutely necessary. Move, you are blocking the light!”
My father later said that it was perhaps just as well that the family had insisted on having a priest present for the examination, because it was a miracle of God that he saw them in the poor light, and even more incredible that he managed to capture two in the glass tube of the pipette.
“What? What?” asked the Commissioner. “What have you found?”
My father shook his head. “I don’t know. I have never seen anything like this before. But they look like some type of mites.”
“Yes.” He held the pipette toward the Commissioner. “Do you see it? One is still moving.”
The priest swallowed abruptly and held the hand with the prayer book in front of his mouth.
“But I thought you said she had not been dead for very long,” said the Commissioner.
“Nor has she,” said my father slowly, once again holding the glass up toward the light of the gas lamp in order to more clearly observe the pale minute creatures he had caught. “These are not carrion parasites. I think they lived in her while she lived and are leaving her now that she is dead.”
Of course, I cannot know that this is precisely what occurred. I was not there. My father was reluctant to let me assist when he examined the dead. He said it could only hurt my reputation and my future—by which he meant my chances of marriage. For the most part, my father was a man of progress, absorbed by the newest ideas and the latest technology. But he was incomprehensibly old-fashioned on this particular point.
“It is bad enough that I engage in such activities,” he had said when I tried to convince him. “But if it becomes common knowledge that I let my daughter assist . . . No, Maddie, it is out of the question. Out of the question!”
“I thought one was not supposed to let the limited horizons of others stand in the way of progress,” I said. That was his standard argument when people called him Doctor Death, or accused him of desecrating the dead. Some of his living patients, especially the more well-to-do, had left him because they did not like the fact that his hands had also touched the dead. But every time the Commissioner sent for him, he went.
“The dead can no longer speak for themselves,” he was in the habit of saying. “Someone needs to help them tell their story.”
But this “someone” was not supposed to be me.
“This discussion is over,” he said. And so I just had to wait at home with as much equanimity as I could muster until he and the Commissioner returned from Saint Bernardine in the early hours of the morning.
We lived on Carmelite Street, behind the old monastery and conveniently close to the Hospital of Saint Bernardine, where my father often worked. Ours was not a large house, in fact it was the narrowest on the whole street, but the second floor let out into the small rooftop garden my mother had created many years ago above what had then been the kitchen. Because it was so elevated, it received plenty of sun in the summer in spite of the taller buildings surrounding us. Right now all the bushes wore tall, powdered wigs of snow, and the small basin in the middle was frozen so solid that I feared all the goldfish might be dead. My toes were well on their way to joining them; I wriggled them inside my button boots to bring some life to them again, but I did not go inside. If I did, the two men in the salon would cease talking about Cecile Montaine, and I would not get to hear any more of the clinical details that I have just described.
Perhaps I now appear as cold as the snow that covered her body, but do not misunderstand me. I had all the compassion in the world for her family, and when I thought about how prematurely and inexplicably she had departed this life, tears sprang to my eyes. She was three years younger than me, and the realization that often seizes the living when they encounter death—that might have been me—felt more urgent than usual.
But feelings had no place here. In spite of my father’s resistance, it was my plan to one day follow in his footsteps, and that meant I had to learn what I could where I could—including here in the rooftop garden with the door to the salon open just a crack.
“I will have to examine the mites tomorrow, in daylight,” said Papa. “It is hopeless to attempt to determine what species they are now. It is not even certain that they have anything to do with the cause of death, but they did come from her nostrils, and my best guess is that she died from respiratory failure.”
“She stopped breathing, you mean?” growled the Commissioner. “Is that not how we all die?”
“Most of us are lucky enough to die before we stop breathing, Monsieur le Commissaire, not the other way around. As you know perfectly well.”
The Commissioner sighed and stretched his strong, robust legs.
“The family would like to have the funeral over with. And I would like to have a cause of death before they are allowed to bury her.”
“Tomorrow. Perhaps. If only I was allowed to look at her lungs . . .”
“Unfortunately that is out of the question, my dear friend. Her father will not permit it. And I cannot lawfully twist his arm, especially considering that everything until now suggests a natural, if peculiar, death.”
“But that is reactionary and illogical!” my father exclaimed. “Think how much more we could learn, how many illnesses we could cure, and how many lives we could save, if only all corpses were professionally autopsied and examined. Or at least all interesting corpses.”
The Commissioner set down his cognac glass and got up.
“That may be. But how would you feel if it was your own sweet Madeleine lying there?”
My father waved his hand dismissively. “It is not.”
“But if it were?”
My father had risen as well. He was half a head taller than the Commissioner, but rangy and thin in the worn overcoat that he had not yet discarded.
“As long as the autopsy was performed by an experienced and dedicated scientist,” he said with dignity, “I would allow it.”
Upon which they shook hands.
Most young women would probably have run away screaming if they had heard their father declare that he would be willing to let an unknown man disembowel them for closer scientific examination. But I am not like most. I felt a small warm glow of pride out there in the cold.
In the chapel of Saint Bernardine’s, Cecile Montaine lay lifeless and unmoving on her bier, as Father Abigore watched over her. He had dimmed the gaslights and had lit candles instead and was now on his knees praying next to the dead girl. In the weak light he could not see that more of the little pale white mites were crawling from her nostrils and mouth, across the white cloth that covered her, and toward the prayer book that he held in his folded hands.
It was fortunate that it was such a cold night, as the mites could not survive for long in the chill air. Most of them died quickly.
But not all.
“Clearly an arachnid,” my father dictated. “With eight legs that are strongly developed in relation to the body size. The legs are eight jointed and have noticeable claws. The oral aperture is small, again relative to the size of the body and head. The abdomen appears flexible, as with ticks, which suggests a parasitic, possibly blood-sucking existence, but there is no chitin back shell, for which reason I postulate that the specimen can be classified as belonging to the soft mites . . .”
He broke off his recitation and stood up straight. There was a purposeful frustration to his movements.
“I don’t know enough about parasitology,” he complained. “Maddie, would you draw it? Then we might consult an expert—if we can find one.”
“Of course, Papa.”
I pulled my tall stool over to the microscope. For me it was immeasurably more absorbing to register bacterial life-forms and parasites than to reproduce the flower arrangements and natures mortes that Madame Aubrey’s Academy for Young Ladies had considered appropriate subjects for the daughters of the bourgeoisie. But the lessons in watercolor and art appreciation had given me a certain basic competence with pencil, pen, and brush—one of the few lessons from the academy that I had found useful in real life.
While I sat there in the sunlight streaming through the tall windows and drew mandibles and scaly legs with carefully measured accuracy—on a scale of 1:100 since the creature measured barely 2.4 millimeters—my father and the Commissioner conversed over the cups of coffee Papa had made with the aid of the Bunsen burner. My father had turned the former kitchen into his laboratory more than a decade ago, and we had never built a new one. It simplified our housekeeping quite a bit, for which I was grateful. Madame Vogler came in a few days a week to do laundry and housecleaning, and her daughter Elise did the rest—received guests, when any came, lit the stoves, aired the rooms, ran errands for us, and took care of the modest daily shopping we required. Beyond that we usually ate at Chez Louis, which was right around the corner.
“Mademoiselle Montaine disappeared on the third of February,” said the Commissioner. “And since Emile Oblonski vanished at the same time, it was assumed that the young couple had eloped together. Which might of course be the case, but Cecile’s fate places Oblonski’s absence in a somewhat different light.”
“Are you implying that he in some way is responsible for the death of our young lady?”
“I am implying nothing. Especially not while I still do not have a cause of death.”
My father eyed the Commissioner.
“I have been denied even the permission to examine her unclothed body,” he said. “How am I supposed to venture an opinion on a reasonably scientific basis?”
The Commissioner looked at the ceiling as if he could find an answer to his dilemma by deciphering its various paint flakes and soot marks. Finally he said, “Half an hour. Not a second more. No visible signs of the examination afterward and bring Madeleine with you, so that we may at least be said to have shown the proper respect, should we be discovered.”
Yes! I thought triumphantly. Now he cannot continue to refuse.
My father’s forefinger was tapping the table lightly with a tiny metronome-like sound. It was a sign of indecision, but this time I knew in advance what the result of his deliberations would be.
“Maddie, will you do us that small favor?”
“Of course, Papa.”
The dead body is precisely that—dead. All life processes have ceased, the blood separates into its basic elements, the skin turns bluish and sallow, all secretions dry up. And still the body continues for a time to have an identity. It is a human being, not just a temporary collection of tissue, bones, and organs that have ceased to function. Cecile was still recognizably Cecile, and to undress the dead body was a strange and intimate act that disturbingly interfered with the dispassionate objectivity I was trying to maintain.
The silk of the chemise was soft and smooth except under the arms and at the back, where the salt of dried sweat had caked and stiffened the material. I folded it and the soiled pantalets carefully and set them aside, because when the examination was over, I would need to dress her again to meet the Commissioner’s second demand—that after the fact there be no visible signs of what had taken place.
We don’t lay the dead naked in their graves. We dress them, even if they are unlikely to need it. We see it as our duty, the last dignity we can give them, even though we know that the clothes will just rot with the body.
Cecile was naked now.
And still she appeared neither exposed nor desecrated in my eyes. Even in death there was a symmetry, a completeness to her that made it seem as if she were missing nothing except life. That absence hit me suddenly, so deeply that a tiny wordless exclamation escaped my lips.
“What is it?” asked my father. He stood together with the Commissioner just outside the half-open door and waited to be called in when I was done with the undressing.
“Nothing,” I said. And then I saw something that did mar the body’s symmetry. “That is . . . she has some marks on her. Some scars.”
“Maddie, you are not supposed to examine her. Just to undress her.”
“Yes, Papa. I have done that now.”
The two men entered. I took my notebook and began to make notes while my father carefully and systematically described Cecile Montaine’s corpse. Age and gender, approximate height and weight, state of nourishment (generally good but with signs of recent weight loss), hair color, eye color, and so on. Only then did he focus on the scars I had observed.
“Half-moon-shaped symmetrically opposed scars and bruises. Some quite faint and of an older date, others fresh and only newly healed. About half a dozen in all, primarily occurring in the region of the breasts, on the stomach, and on the inside of the thighs.”
“They are bite marks, aren’t they?” asked the Commissioner.
“Yes,” said my father. “Some have been quite deep, others more superficial.”
My father shook his head. “I do not think so. A dog, for example, would leave a much more elongated configuration, with deeper penetrations from the canines. I think these are of human origin.”
The Commissioner was not a man whose face mirrored his soul; he nonetheless raised one eyebrow.
“Are you telling me she was bitten, multiple times and over an extended period of time, by a human being?”
“Yes. That is what I have to conclude.”
“Is this relevant to the cause of death?”
“Not directly. The lesions have all healed. But human bites can of course carry infection just as animal bites can, so an indirect connection cannot be ruled out.”
I looked at the scars. Some were faded pale white lines now, others more garishly mauve and purple. Breasts, stomach, thighs. Not arms, shoulders, or neck. Only areas that would normally be hidden by her clothing. There was an unsettling intimacy and calculation to the damage.
“Is this something that has occurred voluntarily or . . . ?” The Commissioner did not finish his sentence.
“That is difficult to determine. But I can say this much—the pain must have been considerable.”
The scars in no way solved the riddle of Cecile’s death. They just raised more questions. Nevertheless, while I dressed her corpse, with some difficulty because rigor mortis had not yet dissipated, my father had no choice but to write out a death certificate that stated that her death was natural. Cecile Montaine had taken ill. She had died from her illness. And with that the case was officially closed.
On the day of Cecile Montaine’s burial, the thaw set in. Heavy gray snow fell in sodden clumps from the branches of the elm trees along the wall facing Hope Avenue, and the paths were a slippery mess of slush on top of old crusts of dark ice. It was not just for show that the ladies clutched at the supporting arms of the gentlemen of the party—button boots, even with a sensible heel, were not suitable footwear under these circumstances. The sky was leaden, and showers of drizzling cold rain swept across the churchyard at regular intervals.
“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable . . .” Father Abigore did his best, but the words sounded hollow when one gazed down at the rain-filled hole into which Cecile’s coffin had just been lowered. He sneezed violently and had to blow his nose into a big black-bordered handkerchief before he could continue.
Madame Montaine’s moans came in surges, like the labor pains of an animal, and she seemed utterly oblivious of her son’s meek attempts to console her. Every sob unleashed a chain reaction around the grave, especially from the four black-clad friends from Cecile’s convent school. The largest of them, a pale blond girl whose black robe had originally been tailored to another, more slender figure, cried shrilly, on the edge of hysteria. One of the accompanying teachers placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder, but that only made it worse.
Cecile’s seven-year-old little sister was standing a bit closer to the grave, her eyes shiny with fright, her mouth half open; the bouquet she had been given to hold hung limply down her side like a bundle of herbs. No one seemed to notice her shocked stillness, nor did anyone think to calm or comfort her; they were all so caught up in their own sorrow or in the mother’s more voluble grief.
Papa, the Commissioner, and I stood some twenty paces away from the mourners, a space that was meant to signal respect for the feelings of the bereaved, but I feared it looked merely as if we wished to distance ourselves. However, once the graveside ceremony had been completed, Cecile’s father, Adrian Montaine, approached. The rain dripping from the brim of his black chapeau made the fur collar on his long coat look like a drowned animal. His graying whiskers drooped around his broad jaw, burdened by moisture, and even in his eyebrows there were drops of icy rain.
“Gentlemen,” he said, nodding briefly. “Mademoiselle.”
He could not continue. His entire body leaned forward in search of an answer, but he could not pose the question.
“My condolences,” said the Commissioner and held out his hand. “I am so sorry for your loss.”
My father mumbled a similar sentiment. I know he meant it, but on so cruel a day it sounded as hollow as the priest’s words of resurrection. Dead was dead. Cecile’s body was degrading into basic elements. Physical processes were at work in it, but they were no longer life processes. The coffin suddenly appeared to be a futile barrier that prevented the juices from seeping away, merely prolonging the time it would take before the bare, white bones could rest quietly in the ground.
I might perhaps with a little effort believe that Cecile was with God. But the idea that her body would one day rise from the grave, living and eternally whole—this was more than my rational mind would allow me to accept.
Cecile’s father did not look as if he had found any consolation in the ritual. His eyes were swollen, and the furrows on his face looked like wounds.
“I . . . ,” he began and stumbled. He suddenly grabbed my father’s arm. “I have to know . . . why.”
My father cleared his throat.
“As far as we have been able to determine, your daughter died of respiratory failure.”
Monsieur Montaine shook his head—not in denial but because the answer was so clearly inadequate.
“She was healthy,” he said. “Then she disappeared. And when she came back to us, she was dead. Tell me how this could happen, Doctor Karno. Tell me that!”
Father Abigore had bid farewell to the rest of the bereaved. Madame Montaine stumbled away from the grave, supported by her son and an uncle. The four convent girls also left the graveyard as a group, accompanied by their two teachers. Through the wrought-iron fence, I caught a glimpse of a waiting coach, a black chaise with a hastily put up hood and a broad-shouldered man in the coachman’s seat.
The priest came over, with his handkerchief still clutched in one hand and his prayer book in the other.
“Adrian,” he said, “you have to go home now. Your wife needs your support, and so does your son.”
“I cannot leave her,” said Adrian Montaine. “Not yet, Father.”
“You must,” said Abigore with a sudden and sharp authority in his voice. “Go home and turn to your life and your loved ones. Cecile is safe with the Lord.”
Cecile’s father remained where he was, his mouth slack and open, his breathing troubled. His gaze wandered from my father to the priest and back again. Then he suddenly spun around in an awkward wobbling turn as if he were ill or intoxicated. With no word of farewell, he stalked away from us, past the grave and on toward the gate through which his living family had disappeared a few moments earlier.
“The poor man,” said the priest. “He was here all of yesterday afternoon, watching them dig the grave. It was as if he needed to make sure they did it properly. Young Adrian Junior told me that he had not been home to sleep, just to change his clothes.”
Abigore looked somewhat fatigued himself. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy, and seemed to water on their own. He dabbed at them with his handkerchief, snuffled, and sneezed again.
“My apologies,” he said automatically. “I am afraid I am coming down with a cold. It is this horrific weather. Let us go inside. May I offer you a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you. We had better get home,” said my father. “We just wanted to show our respect.”
“Naturally. Perhaps another time?” He raised his prayer book as a gesture of parting. There was perhaps a degree of relief beneath the courteously offered invitation.
“He seems to be a good priest,” said the Commissioner as we watched the stooped figure head to his residence with a not entirely dignified haste.
“At least he managed to get the father to go home,” said Papa. “Those poor people. I suppose they are unlikely to receive an explanation for the girl’s disappearance?”
“Not with our help, at least,” said the Commissioner. “A natural death does not require further investigation.”
My father shook his head. “Those poor people,” he repeated. “But there you are. Nothing more we can do. Let us go home. Will you join us, Mr. Commissioner?”
“Delighted, dear friend. Delighted.”
I noticed them just as we were about to leave. A scatter of tiny droplets of blood in the sunken snow. They were already losing their shape and becoming paler and fuzzier at the edges as they seeped into the collapsing crystals of the snow.
“Look,” I said.
My father looked down at the crimson spots.
“Blood,” he said. “Where did that come from?”
“It must be either from Monsieur Montaine or Father Abigore,” I said. “It is fresh.”
“Is it of any significance?” asked the Commissioner.
My father frowned. “Probably not,” he said. “There is so little of it. A small scratch, perhaps?”
The gravedigger and his assistant were filling the hole that was Cecile’s grave. The hiss of the spades and the wet, hollow thuds of snow and dirt hitting the coffin lid followed us all the way out into the avenue.
In the days following the funeral, spring crept hesitantly across Varbourg. The snow had melted completely, and hailstorms and bursts of brilliant sunlight alternated in confusing shifts. The daffodils that had poked their delicate green shoots up through the dirt looked as if they regretted it. One hardly knew whether to wear a straw hat or a winter cape. It was on just such a wet and fickle spring evening, six days after Cecile Montaine’s burial, that Louis Mercier nearly made his life’s greatest heist.
Louis Charles Napoleon Mercier was named after two kings and an emperor. His mother always told him, “Louis, stand up straight. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are named after two kings and an emperor!” But Louis had long ago learned that this argument had no effect on the other children in his street or on Monsieur Le Baton at the factory. And certainly not on Grandmother Mercier, who took care of him.
His mother did not come home very often. Only on an occasional Sunday afternoon, and for Christmas and Easter and such. In the past he believed her when she said it was to celebrate the Lord’s holidays with him and Grandma, but now he knew that husbands stayed home with their wives on those days, which meant that there wasn’t much money to be made.
Louis was not quite as proud of his mother as he had once been. But he still waited for her every Sunday on Place des Patriotes. And when he saw her get off the streetcar and straighten her skirts a bit before searching the square for him . . . in those moments, he still felt all warm inside. She was so beautiful, even when she was tired and her features a little too sharp, even on the days when it rained and the careful lines of kohl became fuzzy at the edges and made her eyes startlingly large and carnival-like.
On the street he had gradually learned to size people up. He knew who was likely to tip him if he carried a bag or held an umbrella and who would just chase him away. He also knew who would be a good mark for Mouche and his gang, and sometimes got half a sou for pointing out a potential victim, even though he still hadn’t dared to stick a hand in any pocket that wasn’t his own. This hard-won ability was also why he knew that his mother was not the elegant lady he had once thought she was. He could not prevent his assessing gaze from noticing the cheap quality of the fabric of her dress, the worn, crooked heels of her boots, the grayish tint to the gloves that had been washed too many times with poor-quality soap. He saw as well that her makeup could no longer completely hide the age sneaking up on her. He could not help seeing it, though he would have preferred not to.
That Sunday she did not come.
He had waited until long past noon to be absolutely sure. But when the 3:10 had come and gone without letting her off at the Invalides monument, he had to face the fact that he had waited in vain.
Anger and misery roiled within him. He felt a pressure building up that he did not know what to do with. He was hungry and had not eaten since breakfast, but still he could not make himself go home to Grandma, could not stand to hear her say, “So, she did not come? She probably had better things to do.” Or, “Yes, she is always so busy, your mother. So very, very busy,” as she did on all the Sundays when his mother did not come, always in the same bitter, accusing tone. She could never take the money Maman gave her without sour insinuations about where it came from, and yet her gall was even blacker when it did not appear.
In the park behind the monument, he found a half-eaten winter apple that someone had dropped or thrown away. He brushed the gravel off and ate it. The shops along Third Boulevard were closed, so there were no errands he could run. Too bad—he was good at that. He could stand up straight and look people frankly in the eye with a polite “Yes, monsieur” or “No, madame” so that they occasionally said, “You look like an honest boy” and felt confident that he would not just disappear with the money.
At last he headed in the direction of Espérance. Day-old bread and frequently also soup were distributed every Sunday behind the church, but still he did not go there very often. There was something about the way they looked at you, those old harpies from the charity. Their mixture of pity and self-satisfaction was hard to take. I was named after two kings and an emperor, he thought as he tried not to hang his head. No one is entitled to look down on me!
He could also have gone home. Sure, he could. If he had been willing to listen to Grandmother Mercier’s snide remarks about his mother, in order to get a piece of bread with lard and salt and a small mug of beer. It was only when his mother was there that Sunday dinner was something special. And today, the menu would probably include a smack on the head because he was so late. It made the charity aunties’ condescending self-satisfaction look almost bearable.
“Boy! Yes, you!”
The quiet but authoritative call came from a tall, broad-shouldered man who stood leaning against the churchyard fence, under one of the tall elm trees. Next to him, on a leash, sat a big rough-coated dog. Louis looked at it with a certain caution—he had occasionally found that some people thought it was entertaining to set their dogs on street children, in earnest or “for a bit of sport.” In fact, he was looking more at the dog than at the man, which was probably a mistake.
“Can you tell time?”
“Yes, m’sieur.” Louis stood up straight but still looked more at the dog than the man. It had pulled back its upper lip so that you could see its gums. He had a feeling it did not like children.
“Are you a man of your word?”
The gentleman’s hat was pushed down onto his forehead, and a gray silk scarf hid most of his lower face so you could really see only his eyes.
“Very well. Then I have a proposition for you.” The gentleman held out two coins. One was a twenty-five centime, which was a considerable amount of money. But the other . . .
“What kind of proposition, m’sieur?” said Louis, who could not stop looking at the other coin. A round shiny franc. A whole franc!
“When the clock up there”—the gentleman pointed at the Espérance church bell tower—“when it reaches eleven fifteen, then you must knock on the green door over there and deliver this message.”
“To the priest? But . . . that’s so late, m’sieur. Perhaps he will have gone to bed by then.”
“Then you will have to keep knocking until he gets up. Not a moment before, is that clear?”
“Eleven fifteen, yes, m’sieur.”
“Here is the first part of your payment.” It was the twenty-five centimes, of course. “You will get the other half when we meet here again—but that will not be until one in the morning. Can you manage that? Or do you have a mother who does not want you to be out that late?”
Grandma would carry on, scold, and maybe hit him if he did not come home before she went to bed. But it wouldn’t be the first time he had stayed out all night, and there was a whole franc at stake.
“No problem, m’sieur. You can trust me.”
“I am counting on that. Adieu, my friend.”
He spent the twenty-five centimes on a paper cone filled with roasted potatoes and garlic sausage ends, a specialty you could buy from Dreischer & Son on Rue Marronier. Ordinarily he would not have used all the money at once like that, but there was more to come. When the church tower clock struck the first toll of the quarter hour, he knocked on the door to the priest’s residence behind Espérance with the note held tightly in his left hand. It took a little while for anyone to answer, and it was not the priest himself but his housekeeper, who eventually came to the door with her hair poking out in disarray from beneath her cap and a big black shawl around her shoulders.
“What do you want?” she asked in an unfriendly tone, blinking her narrowed eyes.
“A message, madame. For the priest. I was to say it was important.”
The last part he came up with himself, but it had to be important when someone would pay that much money to have the message delivered.
She took it and shut the door in his face, with only a quickly mumbled “Thank you.” Just as well that someone else was paying him for his trouble!
He sat down with his back against the church wall, in the shelter of a large bush that provided a bit of protection from the wind as well as partly hiding him from curious passersby. A little later he saw the priest emerge, mount a bicycle, and drive away, with some hollow coughs and an irritated exclamation when one pedal slipped beneath his foot.
Louis smiled. Now all he had to do was wait for his big reward. It had been a good day after all.
Early the next morning, Arturo Udinese received a shock that gave him indigestion. “Shocking, shocking,” he repeated several times to his wife while he calmed his nerves with a cognac.
Mr. Udinese was the proprietor of a modest but popular brasserie just off July the 14th Boulevard, not far from the Varbourg East railway station. His customers consisted primarily of regulars, a builder or two, a few accountants, an occasional civil servant, and three or four retired officers from the nearby Veterans’ Home—all solid people who appreciated good food at reasonable prices. Mr. Udinese was therefore in the habit of buying his ingredients as cheaply as possible, which was the reason he got up this morning a bit after five, while darkness still hung heavily over the town, and made his way to the rail yard behind the station, where he was met by a track worker known to most people simply as the Shovel. The two men walked together across the tracks to a train that had arrived from Stuttgart a bit after nine the previous evening. In the course of the evening, it had been emptied and loaded and was now ready to depart for Paris at six fifteen.
“And these are decent wares?” asked Mr. Udinese.
“First-class quality,” the Shovel assured him. “The entire first car is going directly to Hôtel Grande Duchesse.”
A number of bills changed hands, and the Shovel opened the sliding door—not to the Grande Duchesse’s wares, but to car No. 16AZ, number three in the lineup.
Mr. Udinese climbed into the boxcar. The Shovel handed him the guttering kerosene lantern that served as their only source of illumination. The lantern light flickered across stacks of wooden crates, piles of sacks, and rows of hanging carcasses. Great blocks of sawdust-covered ice kept the temperature at a level that was several degrees lower than the outside, even now in the morning chill. At one end of the car hung the halved or quartered cadavers of several full-grown steers, some pigs, and some lambs, while the plucked and skinned bodies of smaller animals like chickens and rabbits were packed with crushed ice into large wooden crates, a dozen to each one. The rough wooden floor of the boxcar was stained by dark puddles of blood, melted ice, and wet sawdust.
“Those twelve.” Mr. Udinese pointed at a box of plucked cockerels. “And a veal shank, and one of the lambs.” He moved farther into the car to find what he wanted.
“You can’t have all twelve,” said the Shovel. “What about six cocks and six hens?”
“How do you expect me to serve breast of cockerel in thyme sauce with just six cockerels?”
“Not all twelve,” insisted the Shovel. “The overseer is no more stupid than the next man.”
Mr. Udinese straightened up and looked sternly at the Shovel. “Sir,” he said, “there are other suppliers.”
“Not at this price,” said the Shovel. “Make up your mind. It will soon be light.”
Mr. Udinese sighed. “Fine, then. I suppose I will have to make a fricassee instead. Six cocks, six hens.”
He pushed aside a couple of quartered steers to make more room, hung the lantern on an empty meat hook, and raised the lid on a big crate that according to the label contained twelve soup hens.
It did not. The doubled-up figure of a man had been crammed into the box in a squatting position, and most of the body was covered with flakes of crushed ice. The extreme angle of the head revealed a closely shaved gray nape and two large waxlike ears, and you could see a red line where a collar had habitually rubbed against the base of the skull. The collar in question was a Catholic priest’s dog collar, and it was this, more than anything else, that enabled Mr. Udinese to recognize the man in the crate. His hand moved automatically in the sign of the cross.
“Sweet Jesus,” he said. “It’s Father Abigore!”
About an hour later, Father Abigore’s lifeless body was lying on a pallet in an unheated storeroom between the freight train yard and the railroad station. Rigor mortis had set in while the body was still in the soup-hen crate, and it had not been possible to straighten the priest’s sharply bent limbs without considerable use of force. Consequently, he was lying on his side now, curled up like a fetus in its mother’s womb, with his head pressed down against his chest. There were still flecks of ice in his hair.
Dawn had arrived, and in spite of the corpse’s position, one could see that the temple, the cheekbone, and the left eye socket had been hammered flat with a violent blow.
“Suspicious death,” the Commissioner noted. “Presumably murder. What do you think, Doctor?”
“It is hard to imagine that so considerable a lesion can have been caused by a fall or some other accidental occurrence. He was hit with an object more than twenty-five centimeters wide. My guess would be that he has been felled with a shovel or a spade, not with the edge but with the flat side of the blade—a coal shovel, perhaps? There seems to be some sooty residue in the wound. There was a great deal of power in the blow.”
“So we can call it homicide?”
“Everything suggests as much.”
The Commissioner nodded. “Then I will have to inform the préfecture. The chief constable will not be happy. A murder, and of a priest to boot. Can you give us a time of death? An approximation will do for now, for the purposes of the certificate, but Inspector Marot, or whoever will be in charge of the investigation, will no doubt soon be pressing you for a more precise estimate.”
The Commissioner had no jurisdiction over the police investigation. His job was merely to determine and attest the cause of death, and his authority went no further than the inquest. But all of Varbourg’s dead were under his jurisdiction. He was Le Commissaire des Morts—the Commissioner of the Dead.
“Rigor mortis is extensive but not complete. When was he found?” my father asked.
“A little after six. In a boxcar that was inspected at one ten last night according to the stationmaster’s log book. At that point there were no corpses except those of the slaughtered animals.”
“Hmmm. Then I would think that he must have died no earlier than eleven thirty last night. It would not have been possible to place him in the box if rigor mortis had already set in. On the certificate, you may write between eleven thirty and two thirty, but in my opinion death must have occurred in the hour after midnight.”
The Commissioner grunted and made a note in his little black book.
“Who would smash in the head of a man of the cloth?” he said. “And this one in particular? There are much more disagreeable priests.”
“He did seem both compassionate and conscientious,” concurred Papa. “And why arrange the body in such a bizarre way?”
“To hide the crime, presumably. The murderer had good reason to assume that the train would depart for Paris according to plan, that is to say at six fifteen, so that the corpse would not be discovered until much later and in another city. That would have made the investigation considerably more difficult. Merely identifying the good pastor would presumably have taken several days.”
“But it would have been discovered eventually. There must be more effective ways of disposing of a corpse.”
The Commissioner nodded. “Normally they just throw them in the river. What do I know? Maybe it was too far to carry the body. Could the killing have occurred in the boxcar?”
“Perhaps, but unfortunately I do not know a method by which one can determine how much blood came from the animals and how much is poor Abigore’s. I would have expected spatters on the surroundings, not just blood on the floor. In my opinion, the boxcar is not the scene of the murder.”
The Commissioner growled, a short, unhappy sound. “Well. We will have to leave that to the police investigation.”
That clearly did not suit him, and my father permitted himself a small smile.
“You prefer to be closer to a solution before you let go of a case,” he said.
The Commissioner growled again. “I hate homicide,” he said. “If some poor soul has died of pneumonia, then we know the cause. He was taken ill, and he died. And if the family wishes to know why, I can ask them to direct their questions to the Almighty. With homicide, it is different. There is such an unsatisfactory distance between the cause of a death and the reason for it. To know how is not the same as to know why. If someone asks, Why did Father Abigore die? I shall have to direct them not to Our Lord but to Inspector Marot, in whom I have nowhere near the same degree of faith.”
Nevertheless, he immediately thereafter sent a message to the préfecture, as his position required.
“Can we bring him to the chapel of his own church?” he asked my father.
“Why not? He might as well lie there as in the morgue at the hospital.”
“Good. Then let us get him home.”
It was not yet possible to maneuver the corpse into a coffin, so Father Abigore lay on his humble stretcher in the public hearse, covered by only a simple shroud.
“May we offer you a ride, Doctor?” asked the Commissioner.
My father consulted his pocket watch. “Yes, please. I can walk from Espérance to the hospital.”
The hearse was no stately funeral coach; there were no upholstered seats or other comforts. Its unadorned, boxy body was lined with lead, partly to make it easier to clean, partly to lessen the smell when it was necessary to transport what the Commissioner prosaically called “late arrivals”—corpses found in the more advanced stages of decay. Of course, the lead lining increased the wagon’s weight considerably, so on this mild March morning it was pulled across the wet cobblestones by two solid Belgian draft horses. Hooves the size of buckets, muscles that made each mouse-gray rear end about a meter wide. Progress was steady, but not quick. My father might have chosen a faster hansom cab, in which case much would have been different. But he did not.
It happened right by the embankment where the new promenade had just been established in the fall. The spindly linden trees planted at regular intervals along the river were still so young that they needed the support of their wrought-iron stands. At this time of day the wide walkway was empty because no society lady worth her lavender tea had begun even to think about rising from bed, and the working women hurrying across the Arsenal Bridge toward the power looms of the textile factory had neither the time nor the inclination to go for a leisurely stroll.
A dog came running along the riverbank, a very big dog, rough coated and brindled, with pointed ears. Its tongue was lolling out of its mouth, and it was not jogging, it was flat-out racing, heading directly for the hearse and the horses.
“What—?” said the coachman, who sat on the box next to my father and the Commissioner. That was the next-to-last word he spoke in this life. The dog launched itself at the nearside Belgian in a long, rising leap and closed its jaws around the muzzle of the horse. The animal screamed and threw up its head, both horses careened to one side and reared up, jerking the coachman half out of his seat as the heavy wagon teetered and only slowly recovered its equilibrium. The dog could no longer be seen from the wagon, but from the bite marks on the flank and groin of the horse it was later determined that it had continued its attacks from below.
Belgian horses are known for their stoicism, but this was too much. With an ominous creaking of swingletree and traces, they threw themselves forward. The coachman had let go of the reins with one hand to haul himself back onto the box, but this new and more violent jerk flung him first into the air and then down between the horses and the wagon. One of the Belgians lurched into the other with such force that they both began to slide down the embankment. The wagon hit one of the trees of the promenade with a splintering crash, keeled over onto one side, and was dragged for almost fifty meters by the panicked horses. By then, both my father and the Commissioner had long since been thrown from their seats. The Commissioner rolled down the embankment’s grassy slope and miraculously escaped with minor bruises. Papa was less fortunate. He was briefly caught—fortunately not under the carriage’s heavy lead-lined body but under the box’s somewhat lighter wooden construction. When he attempted to sit up, he noted that both the radius and ulna in his left arm were broken, and a fracture of the tibia was quickly confirmed as well. In other words, he had broken both an arm and a leg.
The coachman had the worst of it. He survived, but one of the Belgian’s enormous iron-shod hooves had connected so violently with his head that he never regained the power of speech. Only one word occasionally escaped his lips, randomly and without any connection to what was being said and done around him.
That one word was “devil.”
Papa flatly refused to be hospitalized at Saint Bernardine’s. He ordered two of the ambulance drivers to see the injured coachman off to the hospital with great speed, then directed the third to set and splint his own fractures, after which he allowed himself to be transported back to Carmelite Street in an ordinary carriage.
His face was drawn and pale. I am deliberately avoiding the term “pale as a corpse” because there is a difference, but worryingly pale, all the same, and glistening with the perspiration brought on by severe pain. The hansom cab driver literally had to carry him up the stairs to the salon. Fortunately, the driver Papa had hired was quite a big man.
“What happened?” I asked, between clenched teeth.
My father did not answer. He was busy groaning. The coachman had to explain about “the accident with the carriage,” and it was not until later when the Commissioner came to check on the patient that I got the whole story.
“The beast must have been crazed,” he said of the dog that had attacked them. “It must have been rabid. Healthy dogs do not behave that way.”
“Did they catch it?” asked my father. “Has it been put down? Can we examine it?”
“No,” said the Commissioner. “It disappeared. We have three riflemen patrolling the area, and we have distributed leaflets. But so far no one has seen it.”
“Get ahold of Pasteur’s vaccine,” said my father. “Make sure you get plenty. It is a cruel disease.”
The Commissioner nodded. “We have sent word to the Institute in Paris,” he said. He sat on the edge of the plush-covered mahogany armchair that he preferred. He had not relinquished his hat but sat turning it in his hands, seemingly undecided whether to stay or go.
“May we offer you some refreshment?” I asked, because I wanted him to stay. It was easier to extract details from him than from my father. “Cognac? Coffee? A glass of wine?” I knew better than to offer him tea.
“I probably should be getting on . . . ,” he said.
“Presumably the search for the dog is not within your jurisdiction?” I asked.
“No, but the . . .” He interrupted himself. “No, I have to go. I will come back later.”
“What is it?” asked my father, who like me had noted the Commissioner’s unease. “Is it the coachman? Is he dead?”
“No,” said the Commissioner. “They say he will probably live.”
The Commissioner got up abruptly. “I have no wish to tire you,” he said.
“And you do not. You are, however, making me very impatient, and that is not good for my health. What has happened?”
The Commissioner shook his head. “It is Father Abigore. Or rather his earthly remains. They have disappeared.”
“Yes. Someone used the confusion after the accident to abscond with the body. We have not yet been able to determine who or how, to say nothing of why.”
My father blinked a few times, a sign that his thoughts were racing in close succession through his head.
“There must be something,” he said. And repeated it, loudly and with frustration: “There must be something!”
“What do you mean?”
“From the murderer’s perspective. Can’t you see that? We found the body too soon. It was not supposed to have been discovered until Paris. And now he has taken care of that by abducting the dead priest. And that means . . .” He attempted to sit up but found it difficult. “It means that there must be something about that corpse. Something I missed!”
His eyes were glistening and his breathing was labored. He had taken some laudanum drops for the pain and was not used to their effect. Even though he could appear delicate, with his naturally slender body and his slightly stooped posture, he was seldom sick and apparently was not harmed by physical exertion or the long hours he habitually worked. He took his own good health for granted and did not accept the helplessness of being a patient with good grace.
“Papa,” I said. “Please be careful. Lie down.”
“That corpse must be found,” he said, pointing at the Commissioner with his good hand. “And as soon as you find it, you must inform me. Without delay. Do you understand?”
He would never have spoken to the Commissioner in this peremptory manner if he had been himself. I think the Commissioner understood that. He placed a calming hand on my father’s bony shoulder.
“My dear friend,” he said. “Of course. Now lie down and await events. I am on the case.”
Out in the hall I helped the Commissioner into his coat and handed him his cane and gloves.
“Sweet Madeleine,” he said. “Take care of him. He is not well.”
I almost began to cry. I had not cried when the coachman arrived carrying Papa nor when I understood how badly he was injured. But now the tears burned behind my eyelashes, and I had to bow my head to hide them.
“I shall,” I said, and wished right then, in a moment of weakness, that there was someone to take care of me.
Perhaps now is the time to mention my mother. We might as well get it over with. She died when I was ten years old, of cholera. There. I have said it, and we do not need to discuss it any further.
At first my father lay on the chaise longue in the salon, but it was not well suited as a sickbed, so I asked our neighbor, Monsieur Moulinard, and his strapping son to carry Papa’s own bed down from his bedroom. It would have been easier to carry Papa up to a bed than the other way around, but he would not hear of it. I think he found the thought of increasing the physical distance to the laboratory unbearable, even if he was at present incapable of making the short trip from the bed through the service pantry and down the kitchen stairs.
The salon, never particularly spacious, was now decidedly cramped. One had to edge around the tea table and the book cabinet, and any touches of bourgeois elegance the room might once have had evaporated entirely under the influence of pillows, bedpans, hot-water bottles, and all the usual paraphernalia of the invalid. It felt utterly wrong to see my father bedbound like this, with the distant, sweaty, damp expression the pain and the laudanum drops gave him. It made me feel uneasy.
“Should I get another pillow?” I asked.
“No, thank you,” he said.
“Do you think you could sleep a little?”
He looked at me. “It is four o’clock in the afternoon.”
“Yes, but . . .”
“I have a broken leg, Madeleine. I have not lost my mind. There is a copy of Médecine Aujourd’hui on my bedside table. Perhaps you would care to fetch it.”
I fled up the stairs.
I did not enter my father’s bedroom very often. Elise made the bed and did the cleaning, and my contact with him usually did not commence until he, fully dressed, shaved, and hair neatly brushed, came down to join me for breakfast. It made me hesitate for a moment on the threshold as if I were about to invade a foreign territory.
The journal was indeed lying on the bedside table next to the photograph of my mother. At first glance one might think it a wedding picture. My mother was dressed in white and seated in an armchair, while my father stood half a step behind her and held one of her hands. Only when one looked more closely did one see that her head was supported by pillows and still drooped a little bit to the right, against my father, and that her eyes were closed. I, or a pale and very frightened ten-year-old version of me, had withdrawn as far into the background as the photographer would permit.
The day the picture had been taken was missing from my memory. I had been there; anyone could see that. But I could remember almost nothing. Only Aunt Desirée combing my hair with water and braiding it with decisive hands, and putting powder on my face, which I had never tried before, all the while murmuring, “Poor child, oh, my poor child.”
I stared at the picture for a few seconds without touching it. Many people exhibited their mourning portraits more ostentatiously. Madame Vogler, for example, had a picture of Elise’s father in his coffin proudly placed on top of the sideboard in the parlor, but I was glad this one was not in a place where I would have to see it every day. I probably ought to have brought it downstairs with me, so that my father could have it by him—it was the only photograph of Maman that we had—but I could not make myself.
People who knew my mother always say that I look like her. I have her narrow nose, her prominent, not entirely feminine eyebrows, her blue eyes. My hands are like hers, too, long and narrow, with slender fingers. Her hair was darker than mine, but ten years of sunlight had bleached and yellowed the photograph so the difference was erased, and because she had been placed sitting, you could not see the difference in height. Une petite, Aunt Desirée always said about her, and when my own body unexpectedly shot up so that even as a fourteen-year-old I was only ten centimeters shorter than my lanky father, her disappointment was palpable.
We never spoke of my mother. Never. But she was there on the bedside table nonetheless, and in spite of everything the photographer had done to make her look alive, what we were posing with, Papa and I, remained a corpse.
My father was calling me from the salon. I grabbed the journal, turned my back on the picture of my dead mother, and hurried down the stairs.
In spite of the laudanum drops, he slept badly that night, and I, who had settled on the chaise longue so that I could help him if necessary, slept even less.
The next morning I sent Elise Vogler to the boulangerie and made tea for both of us by the fireplace in the salon. Papa looked terrible. There were deep shadows under his eyes, deep furrows around his mouth, and his skin tone was so alarming that I feared internal bleeding.
“I am going to send for Doctor Lanier,” I said, referring to his orthopedically interested colleague at Saint Bernardine. “When he hears it is you, he will no doubt come right away.”
“Absolutely not,” said Papa. “I feel fine. Lanier has more important things to do. Besides, you are going to Heidelberg.”
“I am what?”
“You are going to call on August Dreyfuss. He is professor of parasitology at the Forchhammer Institute, and I am sure he will be able to identify the mites for us.”
“Mites,” I said. “Who can think about mites now? I can’t leave you!”
“Of course you can. Elise will take care of me. We will send a telegram to Professor Dreyfuss, so he knows you are coming. You can leave this very morning.”
And so it was. In his laudanum haze, my father had convinced himself that there was a connection between the brutal killing of Father Abigore and Cecile Montaine’s death. He was so tormented by the notion that he had not examined Abigore with sufficient diligence that I finally agreed to his request, even though it pained me to leave him in Elise’s care. She was sweet and helpful, but she would not be able to stand up to him if he should suddenly decide to get out of bed.
The Forchhammer Institute was situated close to Heidelberg University’s library behind St. Peter’s Church. It was a large, newly built yellow brick building with a generally plain exterior that made the classical columns along the front look oddly pasted on.
“The professor has been waiting for you,” said the terrifying concierge who showed me to his office, and there was no mistaking the reproach in her tone and choice of words. She was dressed completely in black, and in spite of her relative youth—she must have been in her midthirties—one got the clear impression that she was wearing widow’s weeds.
Perhaps her hostility was simply due to the fact that I was French. Even though the last shot in the Franco-Prussian War had been fired several years before I was even born, there was still a great deal of bitterness on both sides, and it was only seven years since the Schnaebelé Affair had almost ignited a new conflict between the two countries.
“I am sorry,” I said with my most careful German pronunciation. “We were delayed in our departure from Strasbourg.” I overcame a desire to smooth both my hair and my clothes and hoped the professor was less irritable than the Black Widow.
My German is very good—Varbourg is, after all, more or less bilingual, even though the French authorities prefer not to admit it—but I had to search a little longer for the words I needed, and right now I could have done without that handicap. As it was, I felt sufficiently hampered by my sex, my age, my not particularly elegant traveling suit, and the fact that I was here to ask the important man a favor.
“This way,” said the widow and led me down a long corridor made bright and modernized by the daylight that came flooding in through an elongated cupola overhead. She stopped at the last of a series of tall, black-painted doors and knocked discreetly.
“Avanti,” someone said cheerfully from inside, even though the professor as far as I knew was not the least bit Italian. The widow’s lips tightened a bit, and I sensed that she did not approve of the lighthearted tone.
“Fräulein Karno,” she said and opened the door for me. She pronounced it Karno and not Karno, which made my own name sound foreign to my ears.
I don’t know what I expected a professor of parasitology—especially one from Heidelberg—to look like. Definitely spectacles and gray temples. Possibly also a certain bulk across the middle or perhaps an ascetic leanness like my father’s.
Professor Dreyfuss had none of these. He was young in a slightly indeterminate way that covered the territory between twenty-five and thirty-five; his prominent chin was marked by a very short and extremely elegant beard with no sign of gray, and his dark hair hung down over his brow with a boyish unkemptness that did not seem to match his title. He was wearing knickers, a shirt, and a padded vest, all in bright white, and had a slender rapier in his hand. He was a bit out of breath and a little sweaty, and the large window facing the institute’s atrium yard had been opened wide.
“I must beg the young lady’s apology for my appearance,” he said in perfect French. “I am off to the fencing club once we finish here.” He had clearly used the waiting time to warm up. With an elastic flick of the wrist he threw the rapier from his right hand to his left, took my hand, and kissed it lightly in a way that was at once gallant and formal. “Welcome to Heidelberg, Mademoiselle Karno.”
Had I not been wearing gloves, I would have felt his lips, I thought spontaneously, and felt a ridiculous blush rising to my cheeks.
“Thank you for seeing me, Professor,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “I have read several of your father’s articles. I understand that he has suffered a slight misadventure?”
“Slight? Is that what he wrote? He broke both an arm and a leg, Professor, in a terrible accident that might easily have cost him his life.”
“I am so sorry. Please convey my warmest wishes for a full recovery.”
“And so what is this fascinating specimen that you have brought me, Mademoiselle Karno?”
“A mite.” From my little chatelaine bag I brought out the microscope slide case containing one of the two mites Papa had managed to collect, along with the description and drawing of it. “We think it must belong to the soft mites, but my father has never seen anything like it.”
“Hmmm. Let me see.” He tossed the rapier casually in an armchair and accepted the specimen with unvarnished curiosity. His enormous desk overflowed with a judicious mixture of books, papers, and sports equipment—I noticed among other things a tennis racquet, a pair of riding spurs, and a cap of the type that rowing crews use—but on a contrastingly tidy laboratory bench by the window there was a microscope. I could not help noticing that it was Zeiss’s latest model, and it was with difficulty that I repressed a wave of envy. He placed the slide under the Zeiss lens and bent over the microscope. At that moment, everything that was flamboyant and boyish fell away and was replaced by a searching intensity, and he looked what he was—a serious scientist. It suited him.
He studied the mite for several minutes. Then he smoothed the drawing and looked at it. Then back to the microscope. Then to the drawing. He compared them perhaps half a dozen times before he straightened up.
“Interesting,” he said, and stared out the window for a few more seconds. Then he suddenly turned to me with a completely different expression from the one he had worn when he bid me welcome. The humor and gallantry were gone. He observed me with more or less the same searching intensity that he had devoted to the mite. I felt myself caught in his examination, pinned and studied to such a degree that it was difficult to breathe.
“Did you execute the drawing?” he asked.
He nodded briefly. “Very precise. Extremely precise, in fact. You have a scientist’s eye for detail, Mademoiselle Karno.”
My heart swelled with pride. He could have given me no compliment that would have made a greater impression.
“Can you identify the mite, Professor?” I asked.
“Not offhand, but with certain additional studies I will probably be able to classify it. Where did you get it?”
“My father found it while examining a young deceased woman. It apparently crawled out of her nose.”
“I see . . .” He looked in the microscope one more time. “May I keep it? I would like to make some comparisons with various specimens from the institute’s collection.”
“Of course.” I thought for a moment. “But can you perhaps venture a guess at whether the mite infection could have caused the young woman’s death?”
He shook his head, just one sharp jerk of his chin. “I don’t yet have sufficient basis for that kind of supposition. If you want to come back in a few days, I’ll be able to give you a clearer and more detailed answer.”
Come back? I had not been planning to make two trips to Heidelberg within a week. Even with the railroad, it was more than six hours in each direction, and the expense was a substantial strain for a modest household like ours. I had somehow imagined that the rest could be taken care of by letter or telegram.
He sensed my hesitation.
“Well, if you can’t come, I shall have to come to you,” he said with a faint smile.
All at once I was very conscious of being alone with a man I didn’t know. True, he had left the door open, presumably out of consideration for my reputation, but still.
“I am not sure that my father can do without me,” I said, embarrassed to note that it sounded like what it was—a schoolgirl’s excuse.
At that moment there were steps in the corridor outside. The professor raised his head and listened.
“You had better discuss that with your father, then,” he said. “I expect to have a result in a few days.”
Through the door burst a long-limbed blond young man, also sweaty and out of breath and dressed in a luminously white fencing costume.
“What is keeping you, Gussi?” he said. “We can’t manage without you! They have brought von Hahn, and Grawitch is about to shit his pants from fear . . .” He came to a sharp halt when he noticed me. “Aha!” he said. “The cause of the delay. I must ask the Fräulein to excuse me. I did not realize that there was a lady present.”
“I was just leaving,” I said quickly. “Professor, my father is deeply grateful for your help. We look forward to learning the results of your studies.”
“Let me show you out,” said the professor.
“I have delayed you long enough,” I protested. “Goodbye.”
I left before he could offer any further objections and walked away with rapid steps that resounded between the corridor’s shiny walls. That there was an element of flight in my retreat, I knew only too well.
“What did he say?” my father shouted as soon as he could hear me in the hallway. “Did he know what it was?”
“He wanted to study it more closely,” I answered awkwardly, with one of my hatpins between my teeth. “It will be a couple of days before we know more. How have things been? Are you feeling better?”
“I am completely fine,” he growled.
But when I came into the salon, I saw that his facial color was still awful and his breathing heavy from laudanum drops. He was not well.
“I am sending Elise for Doctor Lanier,” I said, and this time I ignored his protests. They were not as vigorous as before, I noted, which further increased my concern.
“Has the Commissioner been here?” I asked.
“Yes. At noon. They still have not found Father Abigore’s body.”
“And the dog?”
“No, not that, either.”
Two days later, the Commissioner was once again seated in the mahogany armchair. It was his habit to drop by at lunchtime, and there was usually an evident relief in the way his solid, square figure sank into the chair. The Commissioner had neither wife nor children, and at the age of fifty-two it seemed unlikely that this would change. He lived in a rooming house nearby and in many ways probably led a lonely existence. He was a presentable man with a good position in life, and although his income was not princely, it was still quite reputable. He was perhaps not the type to set young girls’ hearts aflutter, but why not a calm, good-natured widow with a bit of sense? Did the dead scare them off, or did he? If you did not know him, he might seem severe and inaccessible.
In any case, the house on Carmelite Street was the closest he came to a home during this time. He stopped by most days of the week, sometimes even twice a day if he thought a case provided him with sufficient excuse.
“How are you feeling, dear friend?” he asked.
“Fine,” answered my father, and then, with an acknowledgment that it had been more serious than he would previously have admitted, “better.”
It was true. My father was much improved. Doctor Lanier had placed a plaster cast both on his arm and the broken leg according to Antonius Mathijsen’s method, instead of the primitive splints that the medics had used. It was clear that this immobilization led to a dramatic easing of the pain. He now used the laudanum drops only to fall asleep at night and in much smaller doses. This had restored his pallor and his breathing to levels considerably more normal, and he had regained his customary sharp wits.
“Have they found Father Abigore?” he asked.
“No.” The Commissioner sighed. “Marot apparently does not consider that part of the investigation important.”
Police Inspector Marot’s investigation of the circumstances of Father Abigore’s death proceeded slowly, the Commissioner told us. His housekeeper, an elderly widow from the parish, had explained that someone had knocked on the door a little past eleven on the night in question, just as she and the priest were going to bed—a little earlier than usual because Father Abigore was still ill from the cold weather at Cecile’s burial. When the housekeeper opened the door, she found an errand boy who delivered a message and disappeared into the darkness again before she had adjusted her spectacles properly. “No proper description” it said in the report, which made the Commissioner grumble crankily.
“No proper report,” he corrected. “The woman must have said something, no matter how imprecise. Fat, thin, tall, little? They have given up in advance on finding him, in spite of the fact that he may have spoken with the murderer! And she used the note to light the stove.”
But what was clear in spite of everything was that the note had said that a railroad worker had been hurt so badly that last rites were required. Ignoring his own illness, the priest immediately grabbed the bag that always stood ready for precisely this kind of emergency and rushed off on his bicycle. They found the bicycle later, propped against a gable at the Varbourg East railway station, but the bag had not resurfaced, and there was still no sign of the missing corpse.
“Marot’s theory is that the body has simply been stolen and sold by an opportunistic street gang. My dear friend, is it possible for you to ask around? One might tell things to a colleague one doesn’t feel like admitting to the police—or to me.”
My father raised an eyebrow. “Who is it you think I should ask?”
“You probably know better than I,” rebuked the Commissioner. “Varbourg is not Paris, of course, but even here there must be researchers and certain institutes of higher learning that have a hard time procuring sufficient . . . materials.”
“Marot has read too many lurid scandal sheets,” said my father. “As far as I know, there are no doctors in Varbourg who pay people to dig up corpses.”
“But there must still be those who would pay for a cadaver for dissection purposes?”
My father’s lips tightened, but he admitted the point. “Yes. About ten francs. Not a princely sum, but . . .”
“But seven or eight times more than a factory worker makes in a week. So if someone found an ownerless corpse, then . . .” The Commissioner said no more.
My father sighed. “I’ll ask around.”
And when the Commissioner had gone, he asked me to go see Doctor Lanier.
Saint Bernardine’s gray façade had been undergoing repairs in the fall, and the luxurious ivy that had covered it had been cut down. I was still not used to this new stark exterior. It looked peculiarly bald, like a novitiate who had had his hair shorn but had not yet received his habit. A soft vernal rain moistened the gray walls and condensed itself into fat, tear-shaped drops on the windowpanes.
The concierge recognized me at once.
“Well, if it isn’t Mademoiselle Karno,” she said and lit up. She was a cheerful, stocky woman who was always referred to as Madame Bonjour, a nickname she had received as a result of the unusual almost twittering way she pronounced this word. “Is your father feeling better?”
“Yes, thank goodness. Is Doctor Lanier in the hospital?”
“Yes, he is scheduled to operate at one o’clock. The operation is drawing quite a crowd, in fact—he will be employing a brand-new surgical technique.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Where?” I exclaimed. If only I could observe . . .
Madame Bonjour smiled. My eagerness was apparently obvious.
“Theater A. If you stand in the upper gallery, most likely no one will notice you.” She gave me a conspiratorial wink. It was not the first time she had helped me sneak into this masculine domain, albeit usually to observe one of my father’s operations.
Theater A was in the old main building’s center wing, and it really was reminiscent of a theater—double balconies along three of the room’s walls, the so-called galleries, allowed up to a hundred onlookers to observe what was happening in the operating theater. As Madame Bonjour had suggested, I made my way discreetly to the uppermost gallery, which was often empty because it was more difficult to observe the details of the operations from up here. But today I was not alone. A small group of medical students had been exiled because of the crowds below. They chatted while they waited for the operation to begin, nonchalantly leaning against the railing. When they saw me, however, all conversation ceased. Then two of them began to giggle, as if someone had said something funny.
“Madame . . . eh, mademoiselle . . . you must be in the wrong place,” said one of the others, a tall, bespectacled young man who seemed a bit more mature than the rest. “What were you looking for?”
“Theater A,” I said shortly, leaning against the railing at the opposite end of the gallery.
“But . . .”
“Thank you for your kindness, but I am precisely where I wish to be.”
There was a small, astonished pause.
“I was only trying to be of assistance,” he finally said, and the whispering voices of his colleagues sounded like the low hissing of a cave of snakes in the darkened room. I focused my gaze on the operating theater—this was why I was here, and the sibilant clique of students was merely an irritating interruption.
The patient was a boy of twelve or thirteen, and the focus of the operation was his left knee. Even from my elevated perch I could see that it was swollen and discolored, but naturally I was not in a position to determine why. Luckily Doctor Lanier was aware of his audience and began to explain, with a certain dramatic pathos.
“Tumore albus, gentlemen,” he announced. “A source of intolerable pain for the sufferer. I have heard it described as having glowing hot nails pounded through the joint. The patient cannot walk, and even sitting down, the torment is difficult to endure.”
The boy was not yet anesthetized. He was following Lanier’s presentation with intense, almost hypnotic attention, and even from a distance the fear in his eyes was unmistakable. I hoped they would soon produce the ether mask.
“The condition is caused by osteoarticular tuberculosis, and it is irreversible. We can’t return the joint’s original health and painless mobility. But we can, gentlemen, ease the pain and restore the patient’s ability to walk with this new technique, pioneered by my honorable colleague Eduard Albert in Vienna. By fixing the joint with these surgical screws and transplanting tissue from the healthy part of the tibia, we can provoke a fusion of the femur and tibia that will leave the patient with a painless and usable extremity, though the leg will naturally be stiff.” He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, but in spite of the gesture he was in fact still speaking to the hall. “In a month, my boy, you will be able to walk again!”
The boy looked like a paralyzed animal. Only his eyes moved. He was clearly trying to control himself, but although he did not make a sound, tears were trickling down the sides of his face, staining the thin white pillow under his head.
“The procedure is called arthrodesis, and this is only the third time it has been attempted in France,” announced Lanier. “As my honored colleagues can probably imagine, an antiseptic regimen is critical for a successful result. Everything must be sterile. All linens and all instruments have been boiled, but since we can’t boil the patient”—he paused dramatically so that the audience could politely offer a muted laugh—“we must use Lister’s protocol and spray with carbolic acid, just as I am now washing my hands in a carbolic acid solution. Bacteria are the enemy, gentlemen, and they are everywhere in the air around us. Caution is critical! A good surgeon must be able to see them with the inner vision of his intelligence, just as we see flies and other polluting insects with our actual eyes. Do not for a moment let down your guard, it can cost your patient his life!”
This was more than the boy could take. He looked around wildly as if he expected “polluting insects” to attack him, and a thin high-pitched sobbing escaped him. It seemed as if Lanier only now sensed the child’s fear. He placed his gloved, carbolic-moistened hand on his shoulder and said something so quietly that I couldn’t hear the words. The boy stopped whimpering. It was hard to tell if he was really calmer, but now they finally brought the ether pump, and a few minutes later the anesthetic took its effect.
I let go of the breath I unknowingly had been holding. Ether was undoubtedly one of science’s greatest gifts to the surgical patient. But it was a blessing for the surgeon and his assistants, too, who no longer needed to immobilize a screaming, half-crazed human being while they operated.
The operation began. I leaned out as far as I dared over the balcony railing, but what I could see was limited. Mostly I had to be content with Lanier’s running commentary, which I carefully noted in my little notebook.
Just as Lanier was transplanting the healthy tissue, I heard a noisy throat clearing behind me. It was one of the students who for reasons best known to himself had elected to leave the pack and join me instead.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but are you Mademoiselle Karno?”
“Yes,” I said, without taking my eyes off the procedure.
“I thought so,” he said.
He remained at my side even though I ignored him. It was extremely irritating, but there was nothing I could do about it short of leaving myself. Not until the patient was carried away and the quiet hissing of the carbolic pump had ceased did I leave him and the rest of the students to hurry down the narrow staircase and across the room to Doctor Lanier. He was in the middle of an indignant discussion with a white-haired gentleman who had kept his gray overcoat on in spite of the humid heat in the room.
“Bacteria exist,” insisted Lanier. “They can be observed and described by anyone who has a microscope!”
“My good man, please do not speak to me as though I were dim-witted! Of course they exist; I don’t doubt that. I am just asking how you deduce that it is the bacteria, rather than the air’s miasma, that cause infections? Where is the proof that will overturn the classic science of medicine and throw Hippocrates from his throne? It is lacking, sir. Lacking!”
Lanier saw me and lit up in a way that was unlikely to have anything to do with me specifically.
“Excuse me,” he said firmly. “I have an appointment with this young lady. We must resume the discussion another time. Perhaps if you could in the meantime study Pasteur’s simple experiments with the swan-neck flask . . .”
He didn’t introduce me to the man in the gray coat but grabbed my elbow and led me quickly from the operating theater.
“Save me, dear Madeleine, from fossils and their ossified worldview. Miasma! Ffffh. This is a bright new era, doesn’t he see that?” The question was apparently rhetorical, and he continued without leaving room for an answer. “How can I help you? How is your father?”
“Much better,” I said. “The Mathijsen bandages have made a huge difference.”
“Good, I expected they would. And get him off the laudanum as quickly as possible. I wish I could offer him an anodyne that was less addictive.”
“He is aware of the dangers. That is not why he sent me.”
“I see. So how can I help you?”
I told him about the corpse that had disappeared and Inspector Marot’s theory. “Mademoiselle!” he said. “Saint Bernardine is not in the business of stealing corpses!”
“Of course not,” I said soothingly. “But who knows if the hospital’s . . . purveyors . . . have fewer scruples? Would you please ask around? My father and the Commissioner are not interested in how the corpse has come into the hospital’s possession . . .”
“It is not—”
“But if it were to be found here, they would naturally wish to see the good Father Abigore’s remains returned. Here, I have copies of my father’s detailed description. Would you be so kind as to circulate it among the hospital’s personnel? Especially among the students, perhaps? Say that we are offering a reward that will fully cover the cost of obtaining another corpse.”
Lanier looked at me with something that seemed close to loathing.
“I have the greatest respect for your father, Madeleine, and I understand that it can be difficult to raise a daughter without the help of a wife. But this . . . the way he uses you. It is unseemly.”
The force of his words was so violent that I blinked. I simply did not understand the depth of his outrage. Had he not just stood there talking of a new era? But certain ossified worldviews were apparently still unshakable.
“Everything I do for my father I do freely,” I said, with the hollow sensation of speaking to deaf ears. “I am just happy I can be of assistance.”
Lanier sighed. “That is precisely what is wrong,” he said. “He abuses your praiseworthy loyalty, but you can’t tell me that it does not offend your female nature when he forces you to be a witness to all . . . this.” He took the description of the corpse and shook it in the air between us as if it were a papal ban.
“In no way,” I said, but it was pointless. I wondered what he would have said if I had shown him the detailed notes I had taken during the operation that I had been “forced” to observe. “Will you make inquiries about the missing corpse?”
He was about to angrily refuse. I could see it. But at that moment inspiration struck and I knew how to convince him. I blinked rapidly a few times to stimulate the tear ducts. Then I placed a pleading hand on his arm.
“Doctor Lanier, I do hope that you can help us. The poor man was a priest, a pious man of faith. If we don’t get him back, his poor soulless body will never rest in consecrated ground. The thought torments me, can’t you see that?”
He stared at me. “Oh . . . ,” he said. “Yes. That . . . I am sorry, that was insensitive of me. I shall do what I can, of course.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” I said, and gave his arm a hopeful squeeze. “That would make me feel so much better.”
When I got home, the house was in an uproar. Madame Vogler was racing around with a broom and a dustpan all the while shouting contradictory orders to Elise.
“And make sure to buy plenty of petits fours. And get out the nice sherry glasses; they must be washed and polished. And flowers. We must have flowers. See if you can get some white lilies. No, wait. Cherry branches! Cherry branches in the Japanese style, that will be perfect for this time of year . . .”
She stopped when she saw me. Her cheeks were flushed, and her pale blond hair was frizzy with humidity and in the process of escaping the tidy chignon she normally arranged it in.
“My goodness,” I said. “What has happened?”
“A professor is coming!” said Madame Vogler. “All the way from Heidelberg!” And then she hurried on, in a cloud of soap vapors and perspiration. Elise headed out the door without as much as saying hello or goodbye and raced down the street while I stood alone in our narrow hall and felt my own pulse rise. Heidelberg. It could only be Professor Dreyfuss, who apparently had decided to seek me out—or at least my father, just as he had said he would. There must be news about the mite!
Professor Dreyfuss arrived half an hour later. We could hear him a mile off, partly because of the engine noise from the automobile in which he traveled, but also because of the uproar and shouting from the children on the street. Such a thing had never been seen in our neighborhood—as far as I knew there were only two in all of Varbourg.
The professor parked in front of our door and stepped out. I had time, just, to draw back from the window when he looked up, so I don’t think I was seen staring in the same openmouthed wonder as the rest of Carmelite Street. Elise ran down to let him in, in a freshly ironed apron and with her hair braided so tightly that her eyes were practically turned to slits.
He looked only a little less eccentric today, in a long khaki-colored duster and knickerbockers, along with a leather helmet with goggles, which he handed to a somewhat bewildered Elise, who was not quite sure how one handled such things.
“Mademoiselle Karno,” he said, and kissed my hand just like last time.
“Professor,” I said. “You have driven all the way from Heidelberg in that?”
“Not all the way,” he said. “From the family’s country house near Heeringen. A little more than eighty kilometers.” He looked proud.
“Perhaps you should drive the car into the neighbor’s courtyard? A machine like that is a great temptation for the street’s children.”
“I paid off two of the most scary-looking,” he said. “I gave them permission to sit in the car and promised them a drive later if they made sure that no one else touched it.”
That sounded to me like a direct invitation to bloodshed, but the chosen were no doubt ready to fight to the last breath for the privilege he had set before them, so presumably his divide-and-conquer tactic meant that the automobile would make it through the battle unscathed. In any case, there was nothing more I could say without being impolite.
My father was still forced to spend most of his time in the salon, but in honor of the professor’s visit he had insisted on being helped onto the chaise longue so he did not look like a “damned invalid.”
Professor Dreyfuss greeted him with an eagerness and a respect that warmed my filial heart.
“I have read your article about the connection between cotton dust and weaver’s cough,” he said, and shook my father’s hand enthusiastically with both of his. “Pathbreaking!”
My father smiled. “I am glad you think so. It was not popular reading among Varbourg’s elite.”
“No, I can well imagine. But science can’t be the servant of popularity.”
“You and I have no disagreement there,” said my father. And then he could not wait any longer. “I understand you arrived in an automobile?”
“Yes, Daimler’s latest invention.”
“Phoenix 4-cylinder. The same type that won Paris–Rouen.”
And then they lost themselves in carburetor-injections, fan belts, and drive shafts with a mutual enthusiasm that ended with my father allowing himself to be carried down two flights of stairs, with the help of the professor and one of his tame street urchins, to take a test drive in the wonder. The sherry and Madame Vogler’s dearly bought petits fours remained untouched. And we had not yet even broached the mite question.
“They will be back soon,” I said, not quite sure whether it was Madame Vogler or myself I wanted to reassure.
They were gone for about a quarter of an hour. And when I saw the color and the excitement on my father’s face, I forgave the delay.
“Fabulous machine,” he breathed. “Absolutely fabulous! Believe me, Madeleine, in just a few years the suffering of the carriage horse will be over!”
I thought of the accident he himself had experienced. That would never have happened if the hearse had been an automobile.
“Then perhaps it will be safer to walk the streets,” I said.
“No doubt. We will be released from the whims of brute beasts. Traffic will be regulated by technology’s dependability and man’s ability to reason!”
Elise served the sherry without knocking anything over, and the glasses shook only a tiny bit on the tray. And then we finally got to the mites.
The professor placed the slide on the tea table with great care.
“The past few days have been interesting,” he said. “And I had better begin by saying that unfortunately I do not have a definite identification. This specimen is not identical in every respect to any that we have in our collection at the institute, even though there is one mite type to which it must be closely related.”
“And which is that?” asked my father.
“Pneumonyssus caninum. This one is larger and has a more yellowish color. It may be an aberration.”
“What is Pneumonyssus caninum?” I asked, hoping it was not too unintelligent a question.
“A mite that normally thrives in the nasal cavity of dogs.”
“Yes, it is relatively common. It is easily transferred from dog to dog, possibly because its presence causes an irritation that results in violent bouts of sneezing and at times a bit of bleeding. It affects the sense of smell, so gundogs and bloodhounds can be rendered completely useless from it, but it is seldom deadly on its own.”
“Do you ever see it in people?” my father asked, and leaned forward with an expression that was not entirely unlike a bloodhound’s when it has caught a scent.
“I do not know of any examples, but with your permission I would like to describe the specimen in The Journal of Parasitology. I should be able to get it into the April issue.”
“As long as you don’t give Cecile Montaine’s name, I see no problem,” said my father.
“Of course. Will you do me the great honor of coauthoring it? The discovery is, after all, yours.”
The pride this request elicited might not have been evident to the professor, but when one knew my father as well as I did, it was obvious.
“Thank you,” said my father. “How are you planning to introduce the article?”
It was midnight before the professor left us to drive to the guest house where he staying. The petits fours were followed by onion soup brought from Chez Louis; Madame Vogler was up in arms at having to serve a simple soup to a professor—“from Heidelberg!”—but I think the two men barely noticed what they ate.
I sat in the armchair that was usually occupied by the Commissioner and listened while they spoke. But it was not long before the professor suddenly shot me a question.
“Mademoiselle Karno, do you recall the measurements of the mite’s claws?”
“The shortest are around one-hundredth of a millimeter, the longest approximately two-hundredths.”
“Splendid. That is yet another trait that distinguishes it from both Pneumonyssus caninum and Ornithonyssus sylvarum,” the professor said, and continued the discussion as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened. Because in all the time that I had assisted my father, in all the time that I had registered, noted, sketched, and calculated for him, no one had ever before asked me instead of him. Not even if the details were ones I had immediately at my fingertips, so that he sometimes had to pass a question on to me with: “What was that again, Madeleine?”
Before the night was over, the “honored doctor” and “honored professor” had become Albert and August, and the professor had even accidentally called me Madeleine in the midst of a lively discussion, even though he quickly corrected himself.
“If this really is a different species, a human nose parasite, and not just an aberration,” said the professor excitedly, “then we can call it Pneumonyssus karnodreyfussia!”
They toasted the idea with eyes shining with port and brotherhood. “Pneumonyssus karnodreyfussia!”
“You too, Madeleine,” said the professor. “Where is your glass . . . mademoiselle.”
It was in every way a successful and celebratory evening. At that moment we didn’t know, of course, that the mites we were so happily toasting would be the cause of much more human suffering, fear, and death.
“There is a Madame Mercier here who would like to speak with the Commissioner,” said Elise.
It was Sunday, and there was a heavy but comfortable mood in the salon on Carmelite Street. Outside it was raining, and we had lit the fire more to keep the damp at bay than because of the temperature. On the tea table was a tray of chocolate éclairs that the Commissioner had brought because they had been my favorite treat as a child. I did not have the heart to tell him that I now found them too sweet.
“Show her in,” I said to Elise. “I hope that you asked her into the hallway so she isn’t standing in the rain?”
A few moments later our guest stepped into the room. The Commissioner shot out of his chair with unwonted haste, and if my father was a bit slower, it was solely the fault of his cane.
“Madame,” said the Commissioner. “How may I help you?”
I myself had trouble wrenching my gaze from her and felt a jab of unfamiliar feminine envy. The first impression was of overwhelming beauty. Shiny chestnut brown curls framed fine regular features, melting nut brown eyes, and a mouth that made even a prosaic and female soul like mine think of dewy rose petals and the dulcet tones of angels. Add to that a figure that actually looked like the illustrations in the fashion magazines.
Only at second glance did I notice how much of that impression of beauty was created with the aid of careful makeup, attention to her clothing, and an unusually effective corset.
“Are you the Commissioner?” she asked.
“At your service, madame,” said the Commissioner, only a tad out of breath.
“They say that you see all the dead in Varbourg,” she said with a voice that vibrated with restrained emotion. “Is it true?”
“At least all the dead that the authorities know about,” he said.
She nodded. “My name is Marie Mercier. If I describe my son Louis to you, would you tell me if you have seen him?”
“Do you fear that he is dead, then?” asked the Commissioner.
“He has been gone for a week,” she said, and although she still held precisely the posture that flattered her figure best, one could suddenly sense how fragile she was and how easily she could collapse. Nor was she as young as I had first thought. At least thirty, and showing the little telltale signs of it if one looked more closely.
“A week?” said the Commissioner. “So since last Sunday?”
“Yes. I did not realize it until today. He lives with my mother, you see, and I am seldom able to visit him more than once a week. Today he didn’t come to meet me at the streetcar as he usually does, and when I got home, his grandmother told me that he was gone and had not been home for seven days. She thinks he has run away, but he is only nine years old, m’sieur, at that age one does not run away . . . And he always comes to pick me up, always.”
“Did you go to the police?”
“Yes, but it was as if they were not listening. They probably think he has run away, too. He is about this tall”—she held a hand out in front of her at the level of the tight corset waist—“and dark haired like me, but with blue eyes. He was wearing his brown serge jacket, short pants, and a leather cap that our milkman gave him. It is a little too big but he loves it. He . . . he has a scar on his right knee, but otherwise . . . otherwise he is just a little boy of nine. M’sieur, have you seen him?”
The Commissioner held out a hand, whether it was to calm her or to halt her outpouring was hard to determine.
“Madame, I don’t know of any dead boys of that age in Varbourg this week.”
“Oh . . .” She swayed once, from one side to the other, then her legs seemed to collapse beneath her, and she sank into a helpless and inelegant pile on the floor. It happened so abruptly that neither the Commissioner nor I had the chance to catch her.
“I am sorry,” she whispered. “I am sorry.”
We helped her to her feet, and my father relinquished the chaise longue so that she might lie there and recover.
“With your permission,” I said. “It would help if I loosened your corset a bit.”
“The dress would not fit,” she gasped. “It has an eighteen-inch waist. No, this is fine. I am feeling better now. At least Louis is not dead. At least not that.”
She was not vain, I suddenly understood. All the trouble she had taken with her appearance, including the inhuman discipline it required to have an eighteen-inch waist at her age, and after having given birth to child, too . . . all of that was not due to any excessive devotion to fashion but was rather an attempt to guard the only capital she had. Her beauty was her profession.
He is just a little boy of nine. Desperation aged her face, and I couldn’t feel envy or outrage at her choice of survival strategy, only compassion for the loss she had endured.
I caught the Commissioner’s gaze and knew that he had seen the holes in her logic, as I had. Marie Mercier’s little Louis might not be among the dead that had been found and reported to the Commissioner’s office this week. But unfortunately that did not necessarily mean that he should still be counted among the living.
“I must get back to the police station,” she said, and moved to rise. “As he is not dead. They must find him for me.”
But the Commissioner stopped her. “Why not rest a little longer, madame, and let me arrange for the police to come to you this time?”
Police Inspector Clarence Baptiste Marot was not pleased to have his Sunday spoiled because of a runaway street urchin. He listened with ill-concealed impatience while Marie Mercier yet again described her nine-year-old son. Once that was accomplished, the Commissioner managed to convince Madame Mercier to go home to her mother’s to await news. He accompanied her downstairs and hailed a hansom cab, so she would not need to wait in the rain.
When he came back upstairs, Marot’s irritation had erupted. He directed a wave of indignant reproach at the Commissioner. Phrases such as “inexcusable interference” and “gross waste of police resources” flew through the air, accompanied by badly veiled insinuations as to the reason for the Commissioner’s personal involvement.
“That woman is no better than a simple street whore,” he hissed with such force that small pearls of spit lodged in the fringes of his bushy mustache, “and we will no doubt catch her delinquent offspring with his hand in some good citizen’s pocket one day, and that will be that. Case solved. I certainly hope she has rewarded you well for your efforts, because you will not be reaping any benefits for it elsewhere!”
I have never seen an aggressive walrus butt its head against a boulder, but I believe I have a fair idea of what it would look like. The two men were of a similar age, height, and weight, but in temperament they could not have been more different. The Commissioner simply stood there waiting with a gravitas all his own, and this more than anything else finally robbed the inspector of the last of his composure.
“Have you nothing to say, man?” he exclaimed.
“Only if you are done,” said the Commissioner.
“I just want to draw your attention to the date of the young man’s disappearance.”
“He is not a young man, he’s a nine-year-old street urchin.”
“Who disappeared last Sunday and has not been seen since.”
“I permitted myself an interview with Madame Brunot.”
“Father Abigore’s housekeeper. The poor woman is still shocked by her employer’s death and is desperately anxious about her future. Once the new priest is installed, she risks losing both her position and her place of residence. By no means easy for a woman past sixty.”
“What has that got to do with the case?”
“Nothing. I am merely presenting it as an excuse for the fact that her first testimony regarding the night the priest died was not as complete as one might have wished.”
It took Inspector Marot a few seconds to grasp that what the Commissioner was handing him was not really an excuse for Madame Brunot but rather for the inadequacy of that first interview. But he had not yet grasped the rest of the implications.
“I still fail to see . . .”
“Madame Brunot now describes the boy who came with the message as eight or nine years old, but she could barely see his face because his cap covered his eyes. Louis Mercier, who disappeared the same night as the priest was murdered, was most likely wearing a milkman’s cap that was much too big for him.”
Marot fell silent for a while. “We had better find him,” he finally said.
“Yes,” said the Commissioner. “I think so, too.”
Four days later, two events occurred in Varbourg that appeared to have no connection but nonetheless turned out to be of significance for the investigation of our two deaths. A sudden warm front swept over the town and made flowers and trees explode with growth, and Cecile Montaine’s father attempted suicide.
My father had just begun to move around a bit with the help of a crutch. Because of his broken arm he could use only one, which we constantly had to pad with fresh rags so that it would not rub his armpit raw. He grew sweaty and disgruntled from having to fight like this for minimal mobility, but at least he was now capable of descending to our modest bathroom and, of much greater importance to him, to his laboratory.
He was in the middle of taking as much of a bath as the plaster cast would allow when there was a knock on our door. Adrian Montaine Junior suddenly appeared in the hallway, unannounced and clearly shaken. He would not reveal the nature of his errand until “the Doctor himself” was present. At first he would have nothing to eat or drink, but in the end he accepted a glass of cognac, which he swallowed in one gulp without even tasting it. He began to cough and then had to drink a glass of water.
“I am sorry,” he said. “It has been an utterly horrible day.” He was in his early twenties, a slender and extravagantly clad young man with a smooth-shaven chin and a narrow little mustache that looked as if a child penciled it on his upper lip. The closest Varbourg came to a dandy, I presumed. I think that he typically had an open and happy nature, but the burden that weighed on him now made him restless and distracted, one foot tapping ceaselessly on our faded Boukhara carpet, and several of his sentences hung incomplete in the air between us.
The door to the rooftop garden was open, and the scent of pansies and daffodils wafted in from outside.
“Would you like me to show you the garden?” I asked to lighten the mood. “It is quite pleasant right now.”
“Yes, please,” he said, and got up at once, more likely because he found it hard to sit still than because of a true interest in horticulture. But he was nonetheless surprised when we stepped out into our little oasis.
“What an enchanting place,” he said. “Is this your work?”
“No,” I said. “My mother created this garden. I just take care of it.”
“Your mother was an artist in her medium,” he said.
We walked in silence among the flowerbeds, and he especially admired the corner display of ferns and climbing ivy, currently providing a dark, sylvan background for the last spring snowflakes. My mother had not attempted to cultivate exotic orchids or palm trees from more southern climes. Instead, she had grasped the essence of our own rich nature here in the province of Varonne and had re-created it en miniature in the few square meters she possessed. The surrounding walls now suggested a mountain backdrop, and the very modest goldfish pond was somehow transformed into a shaded woodland lake.
“I am so sorry about your sister,” I said at last.
He nodded, but I could see that he had received such condolences so many times that the words had lost their meaning.
“Thank you,” he said politely.
“Please tell me if you do not wish to discuss it,” I said carefully. “But have you learned more about what happened? Has the young man reappeared?”
“No,” he said.
“I am sorry if I am prying.”
He shook his head. “Do you know what? People are so careful not to impose, not to speak of her, not to ask. It is almost as if she is more than just dead, she has been . . . erased. Removed from the family portrait. No longer a part of us. And I find that hard to bear. Yes, it hurts to remember and to speak of her. But if we don’t . . . then we are killing her all over again. Do you understand?”
I spontaneously placed a hand on his arm. “Yes, I do.”
“Cecile was bursting with life—happy and warm and outgoing, and no paragon of virtue. No . . . no demimondaine, you understand? Just in love with life.”
“In the summer she freckled because she refused to wear a hat. Mama could scold her as much as she pleased. It only worked until we could not be seen from the house, then the bonnet came off, and Cici would run and climb trees and catch frogs in the pond with me and François. She ran away from the first convent school she was sent to because she could not stand the discipline, especially being cooped up inside all day. We tried the Bernardine sisters because they are less strict and permit more outdoor activities, and that worked much better.” He looked at me imploringly, repeating his plea for understanding.
“Do you understand what I am saying? She was alive. She hated to be closed in, could not stand not being able to move. But now . . . her body lies in a box in the ground. And her spirit . . . her memory . . . Papa would prefer to make her into a pure and pale saint who must not be soiled by coarse suggestions that she might have been something other than the most innocent and untouched lily of the convent garden. She was always Papa’s little girl, but it is as if he has completely forgotten that what he loved most about her was her passion for life and her inability to be tamed. The gossip—and, yes, we hear that, too, in roundabout ways and in what people are not saying—the gossip paints her as a slut whose sins were justly punished. And they are all merely boxes, do you see what I mean? Whether the label on the box says slut or saint doesn’t really matter. Cici would hate either just as much as she would hate the awful black coffin they buried her in.”
“You loved her very much. That makes it hard now, but . . .”
“I miss her,” he said, and stood for a moment breathing through his open mouth, as if it was difficult for him. “Damn Emile Oblonski and everything he did to her. If I knew where he was, I would kill him.”
“So you are convinced that he is responsible for her death?”
“If he had not brought her along . . . If he had not convinced her . . .” He shook his head several times. “You are right, she might have fallen ill anyway. But at least the illness would have come upon her at the school, where the good sisters would have cared for her, and where a doctor might have been called in time. So, yes, Oblonski has good reason to hide. And I am not going to stop looking.”
Supported by his crutch, my father came limping out into the garden, in shirtsleeves and waistcoat with his hair still damp.
“I am sorry to have kept you waiting,” he said to Adrian Montaine. “What can I do for you?”
Cecile’s brother darted a quick sideways glance in my direction, but our conversation had apparently already been sufficiently confidential for him to feel he could speak freely.
“Monsieur le Docteur, we hope you can help us. My father . . . My father has been in an accident.”
“An accident? How so?”
“His . . . a gun went off. An injury to the jaw. Our own doctor has done what he could to stop the bleeding, but he believes an operation is necessary if my father is to survive.”
“Did you bring him to the hospital?”
“No. We were afraid of that journey . . . and besides . . . My mother has asked me to say that she is hoping you will be discreet.”
My father looked at the young man without expression for a few seconds. He knew as well as I did what this meant. This was no accidental shot, and any doctor who was not blind in both eyes would be able to see as much. Madame Montaine was trying to protect the family and her poor husband against yet another scandal.
“I see,” he said simply. “But at the moment I am not in a position to carry out an operation without assistance.”
“Our own doctor . . .”
“Does he have experience with surgery? Ether? Lister’s antibacterial regime?”
Adrian Montaine looked confused. “I don’t know.”
Papa sighed. “Fine. Either you must permit me to call in a colleague and inform him of the case. Or my daughter will have to assist me.”
An entirely unsuitable little prayer almost escaped my lips. Choose me. Choose me. Choose me.
“Is your daughter . . . ?”
“Extremely well qualified, yes.”
Thank you, Papa.
The Montaine family lived in one of the more stately homes along Boulevard Saint-Cyr. The family fortunes had been founded on a meat extract, Bovillion, which was sold in colorful cans with a picture of a fat soup-tasting cook who ecstatically murmured, “Mmmmh. C’est bon—c’est Bovillion!” But it was produced at a factory down by the railroad, and Madame Montaine’s elegant salons bore no sign of that colorful vulgarity. Here all was pale rose and pearl gray, with silver and crystal accents. Adrian Montaine’s bedroom had a similar aesthetic. The heavy rose velour curtains were closed and the pile in the pastel-colored Chinese carpet was so long and thick that one sank into it as if walking on a lawn.
The man in the bed lay unmoving. His breathing was a wet, animal-like snuffle, the effect of both blood and fluid in the throat, and of the massive dose of laudanum the family doctor had given him to make the pain tolerable.
He had shot himself through the mouth, but had done it at such an angle that the bullet had torn its way out through the cheek and upper jaw instead of going up through the brain, as had presumably been the intention. There was thus no visible entry wound, only the jagged, bloody exit, with a diameter of ten to fifteen centimeters. One could see bone fragments and shattered molars through the hole.
“How much laudanum has he received?” asked my father.
“Twelve milliliters,” answered the family physician, a Doctor Berger.
“Then we will have to wait,” said my father through clenched teeth.
“Wait? But he—”
“If we give him ether now, we risk paralyzing his ability to breathe,” my father interrupted him. “We have to control the bleeding and stabilize him as well as we can, but I cannot operate until his breathing is less labored.”
In the meantime, he chose the adjoining bathroom as a reasonably suitable operating theater. A frightened chambermaid was set to scrubbing the ceiling, floor, and walls with a solution of carbolic acid, and a table from the kitchen was carried upstairs and cleaned. I went down to the kitchen with the maid and asked the cook to boil some water so I could scald the instruments.
“Is it true that the master has shot himself?” she asked. There was a peculiar half-repressed excitement in her gaze, as if she were already imagining what it would be like to regale her friends with the tale: there he was, I tell you, gurgling as if he were choking on his own blood . . . She was a bony, skinny woman with iron gray hair, and I immediately disliked her. I had no desire to add grist to her gossip mill.
“There has been an accident,” I said. “May I borrow a slotted spoon and a tray, preferably metal?”
She showed me two trays, one in silver and a less fancy one in pewter.
“Is he going to die?”
I looked at her. If she had been a decent person, she would have asked me, “Is he going to live?”
“I cannot say,” I said. “Thank you, that one is fine.” I took the pewter tray because she would presumably protest if I dumped the silver one into the boiling water.
At least the place was clean. No dirty dishes, no smell of old leftovers, and only a single winter-surviving fly buzzing against the windowpane in an attempt to get out. The cook stared at me with unfriendly eyes. I think she was having a hard time figuring out how to address me. I was dressed as if I belonged upstairs in the parlors, but then what was I doing down here, performing a task that in her eyes was probably servants’ work?
“All this carrying on,” she mumbled, executing a fly with a quick and efficient swat of a kitchen towel. “And all because of that little missy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I am not one to gossip. But you see things. And a real lady . . . Mademoiselle was hardly that!”
I fished the instruments out of the boiling water with the slotted spoon and arranged them on the tray. Then I went upstairs without saying another word.
It took more than an hour to remove the bone splinters and tooth fragments, tie up the largest of the damaged arteries, reconstruct the split upper jaw as well as possible, and pull the skin across the wound so it could be closed. I had to carry out a considerable part of the operation, much more than I had ever been permitted to do before, because my father still had only limited use of his left arm. His calm and precise instructions helped me through it, and I could not help thinking that this was the way it could be, the way it should be. He had taught scores of students at Saint Bernardine, not all of them God’s gift to surgery, but it required two broken limbs before he treated me as something more than his occasional assistant.
It was only when the last sutures were in place that my hands began to shake and I felt a deep exhaustion that made my knees a bit unsteady. My father removed the ether mask, and I sprayed the wound one last time with carbolic acid before placing a bandage on it. Montaine was still breathing heavily, but with less difficulty now.
He had not used a powerful handgun but rather a small, ornate pocket pistol, by Flobert. Otherwise he would probably not have survived.
“Do not touch the bandage,” said my father. “My daughter will come and change it once a day.”
He didn’t dare to leave this part of Montaine’s care to the family or to the amicable but not very modern Doctor Berger. Antibacterial treatment required diligence and experience, and an infection now would most likely be deadly.
Montaine was coming around. There was a wet glint under his swollen eyelids, and his breathing contracted in an abrupt gasp. A sound came from him, an unformed word he could not finish because of the immobilized jaw.
“O! O! O!” he gasped, and it was more than an inarticulate keening. It was a denial and a desperate attempt to refuse life. He was trying to say “No.”
Darkness hugged the street, and the night was still unusually warm when the hansom cab stopped in front of our house on Carmelite Street.
“Fffffff . . .” My father inhaled sharply the moment he placed his crutch on the cobblestones and transferred his weight from the cab’s seat to his own legs. Or rather, his own leg. The broken one could not yet support him.
“Let me help . . .”
“No, Maddie, I am perfectly capable. If you would just take the bag.”
The front door opened, and the Commissioner emerged.
“Elise said you would be back soon, so I waited for you,” he said.
“You have news?” asked my father.
“Yes. You can get back into that hansom cab. We have found Father Abigore.”
“Pull yourself together, Sophie,” hissed Madame Ponti to her sobbing maid. “It is hardly the end of the world . . .”
“He . . . he . . . he,” the girl stammered, and pointed in the direction of the ice cellar with her wobbling index finger. “I touched . . . I touched . . .”
She proceeded no further in her explanation. Her wet face looked dark and reddened against the white bonnet she was wearing. It covered her hair completely, so that one could not see the color of it, but her eyes and eyebrows were black, and there were dark hairs on her exposed underarms and a downy shadow on her upper lip. She still clutched the ice pick in her left fist, in spite of the fact that it must have been at least an hour since she had gone down into the ice cellar to get supplies so that Madame Ponti’s guests could enjoy a cool glass of white wine on this unusually warm evening. No one had been able to persuade her to let go of it.
Madame Ponti turned to the Commissioner. “How long will it take to move it?” she asked.
“Not long,” he said. “Doctor Karno and I just need to perform certain examinations in situ, as it were. An hour at the most, I would think.”
She did not look as if this suited her. Madame Ponti was a lady of about fifty, fairly well known in Varbourg society in spite of the fact that she hardly ever stepped out. At the age of forty-five she had married an Italian manufacturer, which in itself wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy. What caused the gossip was her past as a vaudeville artist in Paris.
It didn’t show. She was dressed in a dove-blue taffeta dress, which revealed a still almost perfect hourglass figure but was otherwise quite conservative. Her golden-blond hair was in an elegant evening coiffure, not boldly loose as in one of the postcards that had once circulated in the kiosks of Varbourg.
“I suppose I might as well send the guests home,” she said. “Nothing suggests that Sophie will be capable of serving anytime soon.”
“Madame, unfortunately I must ask that you detain your guests a little longer,” said the Commissioner. “Since we are dealing with a crime, it’s necessary for everyone in the house to be questioned.”
Madame Ponti stared fixedly at him for several seconds.
“One of the guests is a chief justice at the préfecture,” she said. “Claude Renard. I presume you know him.”
The Commissioner smiled politely. “Unfortunately, that makes no difference, madame.”
The Commissioner occasionally resembled his ultimate employer in his impartial obduracy; like Death, he was completely unaffected by position and class. He could not be fired, and there were no promotions to strive for. He was invited to dinner parties like that of Madame Ponti’s no more regularly than my father was. But sooner or later he visited everyone.
Madame Ponti looked him over with the gaze that had once been described by the society pages as “smoldering sapphire.” She determined, quite correctly, that there was nothing to be done.
“Fine,” she said. “I can get the cook to set up a buffet, I suppose. You may find us in the conservatory when you wish to speak to us.”
She gave one last irritable look at the still incoherent Sophie and turned to leave in a swish of taffeta and petticoats. Then she stopped in midexit.
“I assume all the ice will have to be thrown out now?” she said.
“I think that would be wisest, madame. For reasons of hygiene.”
The ice cellar was not under Manufacturer Ponti’s elegant Empire home but behind it, beyond the carriage shed and the stables, and was completely subterranean, so that only the top of the steep stairs was visible. I hastened to take my father’s arm, not just because I knew he needed help to manage the steps, but also because it gave me the opportunity to join him in the cramped cellar.
The blocks of ice had been placed in large zinc-lined wooden stalls, and at this time of year they were all filled up, so it was like turning back the seasonal clock from spring to sudden winter. My short bombazine jacket was completely inadequate and I soon began to shiver.
Father Abigore’s earthly remains lay in one of these stalls, directly on top of the ice block and squeezed in between two of the sturdy beams that supported the ceiling. One arm had slipped and stuck out into the air; otherwise you would not have noticed the dead figure right away.
The Commissioner took one of the two lamps that hung on the wall and attempted to illuminate the scene better, but it was not easy.
“I can’t see a thing,” he said. “We might as well take him down at once.”
At this point almost twelve days had passed since death had occurred, and decomposition had naturally set in. Still, the smell was not as strong as you might expect. When we got the corpse onto the floor, my father’s mercury thermometer showed that the body had cooled to between zero and three degrees Celsius, depending on the extent of its contact with the block of ice.
I was not prepared.
That is the only excuse I have.
One side of his face was his own—brow and eye socket, stubble-covered chin and jaw, and an eye that was carefully closed in the hollow of the eye socket. Death had removed much of his personality, but his humanity was still there.
But the other eye no one could have closed. The blow had been so powerful that both brow and cheekbone had been hammered flat, and there was no longer a socket in which the eye could rest. It had popped out and instead ran and melted down the remains of the nose cartilage.
I had just assisted at an operation of a person who had been equally disfigured without feeling any need to swoon or tremble. Why I reacted so strongly now puzzled me. I thought I had long since left behind my fear of the dead.
But the dead were not usually familiar. I had never before seen a murdered human being whom I had met and known in life.
Suddenly, I could not breathe. At least not enough. The cellar darkness swirled around me, and I grasped frantically at the nearest object on which I could steady myself. This happened to be the Commissioner’s left arm.
“Madeleine . . . what is wrong?”
His words echoed at once far away and much too close. And it was too late to pretend that I was not affected, even though I tried.
“I just stumbled,” I said, lips clenched. “Nothing happened.”
But I had become visible again. I had revealed myself. Woman. Young. Fragile. Everything I did not want to be.
“You had better go up, Maddie,” said my father.
It was no use arguing. I had to leave the cellar and sit and wait in the hansom cab while they brought a stretcher down and carried the body up and across to the ambulance that served as a hearse while the Commissioner’s own vehicle was being repaired.
By the wrought-iron fence that separated the property from the street a number of curious bystanders had gathered. Two nursemaids, each pushing a pram, stood staring uninhibitedly. An older couple had interrupted their evening walk and were observing the scene with slightly more discretion. On the other side of the street, a broad-shouldered man in tweeds had stopped, even though the dog he was walking was whining impatiently. A newspaper boy halfheartedly announced that the evening edition of the Varbourg Gazette could be had for ten centimes, but it was clear that his real interest concerned what was happening on the other side of the fence. That was probably why he noticed me.
“Mademoiselle,” he shouted. “Please.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Is it old Ponti? Has he shot himself?”
“Why on earth would he do that?” I could not help asking.
“Is it him?”
“No,” I said. “It is not someone from the house.”
The gossip mill was clearly already grinding. How thrilling for Madame Ponti, I thought. But then, she was probably used to it.
Even though it was late, and he was presumably about to keel over with exhaustion, my father insisted on performing yet another examination of Father Abigore’s body that very evening. This time, a constable from the préfecture stood guard outside the morgue, and I was not allowed to assist. To my great regret I was sent home in a hansom cab and thus was not present for the autopsy that the Commissioner gave my father permission to perform.
When he came home, I could see at once on his face that something had happened. The Commissioner had to help him up the stairs, and while I presumed he was again in severe pain, this was not what disturbed him. “Turn up the light, Maddie!”
There was an edge to his voice that made me obey without question.
“Sit there. Put your head back.”
“Yes, so the light falls properly.”
On what? Perhaps I understood that he wanted to examine me before the Commissioner handed him the magnifying glass but not why. He bent over me, and I could smell the distinctive perspiration caused by pain even through an otherwise penetrating smell of carbolic acid.
“Raise the lamp,” he ordered the Commissioner. “No, a little higher.”
With a speculum held clumsily with the fingers protruding from his cast, he dilated my left nostril first and then my right, examining them thoroughly with the magnifying glass. Then he extracted some of the nasal fluid with a pipette. He held the pipette up to the light and studied its contents at length.
“Open your mouth,” he commanded, and carried out a more normal examination of my throat.
“I am fine,” I said when he was done depressing my tongue and observing my tonsils.
He did not answer but at least allowed himself to drop down onto the chaise. I could now see that his healthy hand was also trembling with exhaustion or agitation.
“Papa . . . what is wrong?”
He exchanged a glance with the Commissioner.
“I will have to do it again in the daylight,” he said. “But it does not look as if there are any.”
Suspicion began to dawn. I felt slightly queasy.
“Thank God,” exclaimed the Commissioner, and only now did I notice that his normally unshakable calm was also showing some cracks.
“What has happened?” I asked.
The Commissioner silently handed me my father’s notes from his examination of Father Abigore. They were even more hurried and illegible than usual, but I had, after all, had years of practice in deciphering my father’s handwriting.
His conclusions regarding the cause of death remained the same, of course. Father Abigore had been killed by a powerful blow to the head, presumably with a shovel or a spade. But there was more. Abigore had not been in good health when he died.
Punctiform hemorrhage around the eyes indicates advanced respiratory struggles; this is borne out by the examination of the lungs, which revealed six abscesses the size of a coin, as well as another half dozen in initial stages. In addition, in the throat and nasal cavity were found three dead parasites of a type similar to but not identical with the mite Pneumonyssus caninum.
I looked up. “Mites?”
“Yes,” said Papa. “The same as on Cecile Montaine.”
“He must have been infected while he sat beside her bier.”
“We must assume as much. And I am fairly confident that I would have found the same abscess formations in Cecile Montaine’s lungs if a proper autopsy had been permitted.” He ran his hand across his face, and his exhaustion was visible in the gesture. “That means that we are faced with what is probably a parasitically transmitted and potentially deadly lung disease, the type and vector of which we are now only beginning to investigate, after a delay of several weeks.”
I looked across at the Commissioner, who had let himself subside into his favorite armchair.
“Do we know if there have been other deaths?” I asked.
“It is hard to say,” he answered. “Every year, and especially during a winter like this one, many people die due to lung infections, and few are autopsied. There have not been more than usual.”
“Yet,” added my father grimly.
“Tomorrow I will ask the préfecture for a decree that will make autopsies mandatory for every death from lung infections in Varbourg and its environs,” the Commissioner continued. “But it is far from certain that I will get it. The City Council prefers not to frighten the public.”
Epidemic. That was the word that neither man was saying out loud. It hung in the air like a shadow. It was a cholera epidemic that had taken my mother’s life, and my father took such events extremely personally.
Prevent the spread, I thought. Identify, isolate, treat; somewhere out there was the source. I suddenly remembered the three fresh droplets of blood in the snow at Cecile’s burial and understood that Father Abigore had been sick even then. The mites had wandered from her to him while he sat by her dead body and prayed for her soul.
But how had she acquired them?
A Madeleine Karno Mystery
A Madeleine Karno Mystery
Strong-minded and ambitious, Madeleine Karno is eager to shatter the constraints of her provincial French upbringing. She longs to become a pathologist like her father, whom she assists, but this is 1894. Autopsies are considered unseemly and ungodly, even when performed by a man.
So it’s no surprise that when seventeen-year-old Cecile Montaine is found dead in the snowy streets of Varbourg, her family will not permit a full postmortem autopsy, and Madeleine and her father are left with a single mysterious clue. Soon after, the priest who held vigil by the dead girl’s corpse is brutally murdered. The thread that connects these two events is a tangled one, and as the death toll mounts, Madeleine must seek knowledge in odd places: behind convent walls, in secret diaries, and in the yellow stare of an aging wolf.
Eloquently written and with powerful insight into human and animal nature, Doctor Death is at once a captivating mystery and a poignant coming-of-age story.