The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2018

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OCT 2018 Issue

inSerial: part two
The Mysteries of Paris

4. The History of Chourineur

The reader may recall the two patrons in the bar who were under close observation by a third person who had arrived sometime after them. As mentioned, one of the two men wore a Greek cap, kept his left hand hidden, and had, upon entering the premises, inquired of the Abbess regarding the arrival of the Schoolmaster. While La Goualeuse was telling her story, which they could not hear, the two men spoke to one another in low voices as they cast anxious glances toward the door. The man wearing the Greek cap said to his friend: “The Schoolmaster isn’t coming; unless his pal did him in and made off with the goods.”

“That would be bad news for us; after all, we set up the job,” replied his accomplice. 

The newcomer, who had been observing the two men, was too far away to overhear these words. He consulted, repeatedly and without notice, a small piece of paper hidden inside his cap, and appeared satisfied with what he had read. He got up from the table and said to the Abbess, who had been dozing at the bar with her feet on the brazier and her large black cat on her knees: “So, Mother Ponisse, I’ll return shortly; keep an eye on my pitcher and my plate, you can never be too careful with these freeloaders.” 

“Rest assured good man if your plate and your pitcher are empty, no one will touch them.” 

 The man laughed at the woman’s joke and disappeared without anyone noticing. As he was leaving, through the open doorway Rodolphe caught sight of the blackened figure of the colossal coal porter we have spoken of. Before the door was closed, Rodolphe had time to display, by his impatient gesture, just how unwelcome was the porter’s manner of protective surveillance. But the latter, though he noticed Rodolphe’s annoyance, did not leave the vicinity of the bar.

In spite of the brandy she had consumed, La Goualeuse’s gaiety did not return. On the contrary, under the influence of this stimulant, her physiognomy became increasingly sorrowful. With her back to the wall and her head bent over her breast, her large blue eyes wandering mechanically from side to side, the unfortunate creature seemed to be overcome by the darkest thoughts. On several occasions Fleur-de-Marie, upon encountering Rodolphe’s gaze, had turned away. She was not fully aware of the impression this stranger had made upon her. Irritated and annoyed by his presence, she reproached herself for being so ungrateful to the man who had saved her from Chourineur’s hands. She even began to regret the sincerity with which she had narrated her life story before him. 

Chourineur, on the other hand, was in a fine mood. He had eaten the harlequin all by himself, and the wine and brandy had made him talkative. The shame of having found a better man than he, as he put it, had vanished in the face of Rodolphe’s generosity, and his humiliation had given way to a feeling that was a mixture of admiration, fear, and respect. The absence of bitterness, the raw honesty with which he acknowledged having killed and having been justly punished, the fierce pride with which he defended himself for never having resorted to thievery, showed at least that, in spite of his crimes, He was not completely unredeemable. This nuance had not escaped Rodolphe’s perceptiveness, and he was curious to hear  his story. Man’s ambition is so insatiable, so strange in its infinite pretensions, that Rodolphe longed for the arrival of the Schoolmaster, the fierce criminal whose reign he had nearly toppled. Eager to curtail his impatience, he encouraged Chourineur to narrate his adventures. 

“Let’s go, my boy, we’re listening.” 

Chourineur emptied his glass and began: “In your case, my poor Goualeuse, at least the Owl — may she rot in hell — took you in! You had a place to live until you were sent to prison for vagrancy. Me, I don’t recall ever having slept in what might be called a bed before I was nineteen years old—a good age to be—when I became a soldier.”

“Were you in the service?” Rodolphe asked. 

“Three years. . . but I’ll get to that in a moment. The stones of the Louvre, the kilns in Clichy, the quarries of Montrouge — those were the homes of my youth. You see, I had a home in Paris and a place in the country.”

“And your profession?”

“Well, I’m a bit foggy about my childhood, when I drifted around with an old rag picker who used to beat me with his walking stick. It has to be true, because every time I see one of those grubbers with their wicker baskets I want to beat the tar out of him — which proves they must have beaten me as a child. My first job was helping a knackerman slaughter horses at Montfaucon. I was ten or twelve. When I first started killing the poor old beasts, it had a strange effect on me, but after a month I stopped thinking about it. In fact, I began to enjoy my job. My knives were smoother and sharper than anyone else’s. But that just made me want to use them! When I had killed the horse, they threw me a piece of fat from some disease-ridden animal. The ones we slaughtered were sold to cooks who worked near the School of Medicine. They made beef, mutton, veal, and game from them — they catered to every taste. But when I managed to grab a piece of real horse meat, I was as good as any king! I ran to my kiln, like a wolf to its den, and there, with the permission of the kiln operator, I carefully grilled my meat on the coals. When the operators weren’t working, I would collect dry wood in Romainville. I made a fire and cooked my roast alongside one of the walls surrounding the bone yard. Damn, I ate it bloody and nearly raw, but at least it provided a bit of variety. 

“And your name? What was your name?” asked Rodolphe. 

“My hair was even paler than it is now and the blood ran into my eyes. They called me the Albino. Albinos are like white  rabbits, and they have red eyes,” Chourineur added gravely, by way of physiological commentary. 

“And your parents, your family?” 

“My parents? They lived at the same place as La Goualeuse’s. Place of birth? The first corner of any street, left or right side, take your pick, coming or going on the way to the stream.”

“You cursed your mother and father for having abandoned you?”

“A lot of good that would have done me! It doesn’t matter. The biggest joke was bringing me into the world. But I wouldn’t complain if they had made me the way the good Lord1 is supposed to make beggars — no cold, no hunger, no thirst. It wouldn’t cost Him anything, and it wouldn’t cost beggars so much to be honest.” 

“Do I understand that in spite of the hunger, you never stole anything, Chourineur?”

“Never! Yet, I had my share of misery, that’s for sure. I went hungry sometimes for two days at a time, more often than I should have. But I was never a thief.” 

“You were afraid of going to jail?” 

“Oh, that’s rich!” said Chourineur, as he burst out laughing, his shoulders shaking up and down. “You think I didn’t want to steal bread because I was afraid of having bread? An honest man, I was dying of hunger; as a thief in jail at least, they would have fed me. No. I didn’t steal because . . . because it never entered my mind.”

Rodolphe was greatly surprised by this simple, dignified response, whose implications Chourineur did not fully grasp. He felt that the poor man who remains honest in the midst of the most dire poverty was doubly respectable, because punishment might become for him a guaranteed resource. Rodolphe extended his hand to this unfortunate savage whom poverty had not entirely corrupted. Chourineur looked at his benefactor with astonishment, almost respect, hesitant to touch the outstretched hand before him. He understood the gulf that existed between himself and Rodolphe. 

“Bravo, bravo,” Rodolphe said to him, “you still have courage and honor.” 

“Hell, what do I know,” said Chourineur with emotion. “But what you said just now . . . you know . . . I’ve never heard anything like that. What I know is that last flurry of blows you gave me, which were so well aimed and felt like they could have gone on all night. And then you buy me dinner and say such strange things. Enough, enough. In life and in death, you can count on Chourineur.” 

Rodolphe resumed, somewhat coldly this time, not wishing to reveal his emotions: “And did you last long as the knackerman’s helper?”

“I did. In the beginning, I got sick to my stomach killing the poor old nags; but later, I began to enjoy it. And when I was around sixteen and my voice started to change, it became a kind of mania, I had a passion for the knife. I forgot about food and drink. It was all I could think about. You had to see me at work. Aside from an old pair of trousers, I was completely naked. Then, with my big sharp knife in my hand, and surrounded by—I’m not exaggerating—15 or 20 horses lined up waiting their turn, I . . . When I began cutting their throats, I don’t know what came over me. It was a kind of fury, my ears buzzed! I saw red, only red, and I cut, and I stabbed, and I cut till the knife fell from my hands. I loved it. Had I been a millionaire, I would have paid to do the job.” 

“And that’s where you got into the habit of using a knife?” asked Rodolphe.

“Probably. But when I was sixteen, the urge became so great that once, while killing a horse, I went a little mad and messed up the job. Hacking away with the knife, I managed to damage the skin. So they sent me to the bone yard. I wanted to work for the butchers—I’ve always liked that job—but they were all high and mighty. They looked down their noses at me the way a bootmaker looks down his nose at a simple cobbler. With that, and because I was no longer sixteen and had calmed down a little, I tried to earn my living somewhere else. I didn’t find anything right away, so I would often go hungry. After a while, I found a job at the quarries in Montrouge. But after two years I got tired of being a little squirrel in a big cage as we dragged the stone out — and for twenty sous a day. I was big and strong, so I enlisted with a regiment. They asked for my name, my age, and my papers. My name? Albino. My age? Take a look at my beard. Papers? Here’s a statement from my boss at the quarry. I would make a fine grenadier. So they signed me up.” 

“With your strength, your courage, and the way you handle a knife, had there been a war, you would have become an officer.” 

“As if I didn’t know! Skewering Englishmen or Prussians would have been much more flattering than killing old nags. The problem, you see, is that, unfortunately, there was no war, and there was no discipline. When an apprentice tries to smack his boss, that’s one thing. If he’s weaker, he’ll get what’s coming to him; if he’s stronger, he’ll give it. He loses his job, sometimes he ends up in jail, but that’s about it. The army is not like that. One day my sergeant pushed me and told me to get a move on. He was right because I was dragging my ass. But he annoyed me, so I refused to move. He pushed me, I pushed him back. He grabbed me by the collar; I punched him. The other men jumped on me and I flew into a rage. I had my knife in my hand—I was working in the kitchen—and so I began to cut and cut and cut, just like the slaughterhouse. I opened up the sergeant and wounded the two privates. A terrible mess. I stabbed the three of them eleven times in all; yes, eleven. There was blood everywhere, just like an abattoir.”

With a dark, haggard expression on his face, the man lowered his head and remained silent for a moment. 

“What are you thinking, Chourineur?” asked Rodolphe, who was observing him closely. 

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” he replied suddenly. Then he began again with his customary cavalier attitude. “So, they grabbed me and court-martialled me, and I was condemned to death.” 

“So you escaped?” 

“No, I got fifteen years instead. I forgot to mention that in the regiment I had saved two of my comrades from drowning in the Seine. We were garrisoned near Melun. Another time—you’re going to laugh and say that I’m impervious to both fire and water, a savior of men and women alike—another time, we were stationed in Rouen, where all the houses are made of wood, real cheap, once a fire gets started, they go up like matchsticks. I was on fire detail. We get to the fire and someone shouts to me that there’s an old woman who can’t get out of her bedroom and it’s starting to catch fire. I run in. It was hot I tell you. It reminded me of the plaster kilns in the good old days. But I saved her. My lawyer moved heaven and Earth to get my sentence changed. Instead of being sent to the guillotine, they gave me fifteen years of hard labor. When I found out I wouldn’t die, I attacked my lawyer and tried to strangle him. Can you understand that?” 

“You didn’t want your sentence commuted?” 

“Yes. Live by the sword, die by the sword. If you’re a thief, they clap you in irons. To each his own. But forcing you to live when you’re a murderer . . . you have no idea how that makes you feel at first.” 

“And you felt remorse for what you did?” 

“Remorse! No, I served my time. But a night didn’t go by when I didn’t have nightmares about the men I stabbed. That is, the sergeant and the soldiers weren’t alone,” he added with a shiver of terror. “There were dozens, hundreds, thousands of them waiting their turn in a kind of abattoir; just like the horses I killed in Montfaucon were waiting theirs. And I saw red, and started to cut. I sliced up those men the way I used to slice up horses. But as I stabbed, others arrived to take their place. And as they died, they would look at me with such a gentle expression on their face, so gentle that I cursed myself for killing them. I couldn’t help myself. But that wasn’t all. I never had a brother, and it turned out that all the men whose throats I cut were my brothers, brothers I would have given my life for. In the end, when I couldn’t go on any longer, I woke up drenched with sweat, as cold as melted snow.” 

“A nasty dream, Chourineur.” 

“Yes, very. In prison, in the beginning, I had that same dream every single night. It was enough to drive you crazy, or mad with rage. Twice I tried to kill myself. One time I swallowed verdigris, the other time I tried to strangle myself with a chain. But I’m strong as an ox. The verdigris only made me thirsty. As for the chain, all it left was a blue welt around my neck. After that, the habit of living got the upper hand, the nightmares became more infrequent, and I did like everyone else.” 

“You were at the right school for learning how to become a thief.” 

“I wasn’t interested. The other inmates laughed at me for it, but I would grab my chain and beat them. That’s how I met the Schoolmaster. But he knew how to use his fists, and he settled scores the way you did.” 

“So, he’s out of prison?”

“Let’s say he was in for life, but managed to release himself.” 

“He escaped? No one turned him in?”

“I’m not going to turn him in, that’s for sure. He still scares me.” 

“And the police haven’t found him? Nobody knows what he looks like?”

“What he looks like? Of course, they do. But it’s been a long time since he changed the phiz God gave him. Now, the only one who would recognize him is the baker who stokes his oven with souls.” 

“What did he do?”

“He began by working away on his nose, which was as long as a country mile. Then he splashed vitriol on his face.” 

“You can’t be serious.” 

“If he shows up tonight, you can see for yourself. He used to have a big beak like a parrot, but now it’s as flat as a—as a skull. His lips are as thick as my wrist, and he has olive skin, so scarred it looks like a rag picker’s jacket.” 

“So he’s unrecognizable?” 

“For six months after he broke out of Rochefort*, the informers must have run into him a hundred times without ever recognizing him.”  

“What was he in jail for?” 

“Forgery, robbery, and murder. They called him the Schoolmaster because of his excellent handwriting and because he knew a lot.” 

“And he was feared?”

“He won’t be any longer once you’ve done to him what you did to me. Damn it, I’d love to see that!” 

“How does he get by?” 

“They say he’s been bragging about having killed and robbed a drover three weeks ago on the road to Poissy.” 

“They’ll arrest him sooner or later.” 

“It’ll take more than two of them for that. He always carries two loaded pistols and a knife under his shirt. Charlot* is waiting, but they can only shear him once. He’ll kill whoever he has to to escape. Don’t worry, he’s not in hiding. And since he’s twice as strong as you and I together, it would be hard to bring him down.” 

“What did you do when you got out of jail, Chourineur?” 

“I went to see the foreman at the docks at Saint-Paul and got a job.” 

“If you’re not a thief, what are you doing living down here?” 

“Where do you want me to live? Who wants to have anything to do with an ex-con? Besides, I’m bored by myself. I like excitement. And here I live among people like me. Sure, once in a while I get into a fight. But here in La Cité, they fear me the way they fear fire, and the police commissioner has nothing on me, except for brawling. But I don’t spend more than a day in jail for that.” 

“And your wages?” 

“Thirty-five sous a day. That’ll last as long as I have two good arms. When they go, I’ll grab a staff and a wicker basket, like the old rag picker I see in the mists of my childhood.” 

“And after all you’ve been through, you’re
not bitter?” 

“There are worse people than me, of course. If it weren’t for my dreams about the sergeant and the soldiers, dreams I still have, I could drop dead in peace like anyone else at the corner of some street or in a hospital. But that dream—I don’t want to think about it.” 

Chourineur emptied the bowl of his pipe against the corner of the table. La Goualeuse had been absentmindedly listening to him as he spoke, absorbed in some unpleasant daydream. Even Rodolphe was pensive. The two stories he had just heard had given birth in him to new ideas. But a tragic event brought them all back to reality.


5. The Arrest

The man who had stepped out, leaving his pitcher and his plate to the care of the Abbess, now returned, accompanied by another man with broad shoulders and energetic features. He remarked “I didn’t expect to meet you here, Borel! Come on in and have a glass of wine.”

Chourineur, nodding toward the new arrival, whispered to Rodolphe and la Goualeuse “There’s going to be trouble . . . He’s a copper. Watch out!”

The two bandits, one of whom wore a toque pulled low over his brow and had made several inquiries concerning the Schoolmaster, glanced rapidly at one another, rose simultaneously from the table and headed for the door. As they were leaving the two officers, jumped on them with a shout. A terrible fight ensued. The tavern door opened and several uniformed men rushed into the room; outside, the gleam of the officers’ rifles could be seen. Taking advantage of the tumult, the coal porter made his way to the threshold of the bar and, accidentally catching Rodolphe’s glance, raised the index finger of his right hand to his lips. With a quick, imperious gesture, Rodolphe ordered him to leave; he then continued to observe the goings-on inside the tavern. 

The man with the toque was screaming with rage. Half-stretched across the table, he struggled with such force that three men could barely hold him down. His companion, sullen, exhausted, the color drained from his face, his lips white, his lower jaw open and twitching convulsively, made no effort to resist and held out his hands to be handcuffed. The Abbess, seated at her counter and accustomed to such scenes, remained impassive, her hands in the pockets of her apron. 

“What did they do, those two men, my good Monsieur Borel?” she asked one of the detectives. 

“Yesterday, they murdered an old woman in the Rue Saint-Christophe and robbed her apartment. Before she died, the unfortunate woman told us she had bitten one of her murderers in the hand. We’ve had our eye on these two scoundrels. My partner came by earlier to identify them, and now it’s all over.”

“Fortunately, they paid for their pitcher of wine,” said the Abbess. “Wouldn’t you care for something, Monsieur Borel? A glass of Perfect Love, a drop of Consolation, perhaps?”

“Thanks, Mother Ponisse, but I’ve got to lock these characters up. And this one still refuses to go!”

The man with the toque continued to struggle furiously. When it came time to maneuver him into the fiacre waiting in the street, he fought so hard that he had to be carried. His accomplice, trembling nervously, was barely able to stand, and moved his violet lips without uttering a word. They threw him into the carriage like an inert mass. 

“Keep an eye out for Bras-Rouge, Mother Ponisse,” said the detective. “He’s clever and could bring you trouble.” 

“Bras-Rouge! It’s been weeks since anyone’s seen him around here, Monsieur Borel.” 

“It’s when you don’t see him that you know he’s around, as you are well aware. Make sure you don’t accept any packages or parcels from him, though, they’re sure to be stolen goods.” 

“Rest assured, Monsieur Borel, Bras-Rouge is the devil himself. You never know where he’s going or where’s he’s come from. The last time I saw him, he told me he had just returned from Germany.”

“Well, you’ve been warned. Be on your guard.”

Before leaving the bar, the detective looked attentively at the other drinkers. He said to Chourineur, with a tone of voice that was almost affectionate: “Are you here too, you lout? It’s been a while since we’ve heard from you. No fights lately? You’ve become a good boy now.”

“As good as gold, Monsieur Borel. You know I don’t break heads unless I’m asked.” 

“That’s all we need, to have you go around taunting people, you big ox!”

“Meet my new boss, Monsieur Borel,” said Chourineur, placing his hand on Rodolphe’s shoulder. 

“Hey, I don’t know this one,” the detective exclaimed as he eyed Rodolphe. 

“And you won’t either, my friend,” Rodolphe answered. 

“But I’d like to, for your sake,” said the detective. Then, turning to the Abbess: “Good evening, Mother Ponisse. You’ve got a nice little mousetrap here; this is the third murderer I’ve caught in your place.” 

“And let him be the last Monsieur. At your service,” she said graciously, bowing with deference. 

After the detective left, the young man with the leaden face, who had been smoking and drinking brandy, filled his pipe and said to Chourineur in a gravelly voice: “Didn’t you recognize the toque? That’s Boulotte’s man Velu. When I saw the detectives walk in, I said to myself ‘Something’s up;’ and Velu kept his hand hidden under the table.”

“Good thing the Schoolmaster wasn’t here tonight,” the Abbess chimed in. “The fellow with  the toque asked for him several times; said they had business to conduct. But I never go back on my word. It’s not my problem they were arrested. Everybody’s got a job to do. But I’m not turning anybody in. Well, well, speak of the devil,” she added as a man and a woman entered the bar. “There’s the Schoolmaster and his paramour.”

A shiver of terror ran through the crowd. Even Rodolphe, in spite of his natural fearlessness, was unable to overcome a slight sense of uneasiness at the sight of the feared criminal, whom he observed for a few seconds with a mixture of curiosity and horror. Chourineur was right; the Schoolmaster had been horribly mutilated. It was difficult to imagine anything more terrifying than that face. It was crisscrossed in every direction by deep, livid scars. His lips were swollen from the corrosive action of acid and the cartilage of his nose had been cut and two shapeless holes now replaced his nostrils. His gray eyes, small, bright, and very round, glittered with ferocity. His forehead, flat like that of a tiger, was partly concealed beneath a shaggy fur cap, which resembled the mane of a wild animal. The man was no more than five-foot two or five-foot three in height. His head, unusually large for his height, was planted between broad, muscular shoulders, which one could discern even beneath the loose folds of his ivory colored blouse. His arms were long and sinewy; his hands short and thick, and covered with hair to the ends of his fingertips. Although his legs were slightly bowed, his thick calves implied the strength of an athlete. In a word, the man was a living exaggeration of the compact bulk of the Farnese Hercules. But with respect to the expression of ferocity illuminating that hideous mask, or the nervous, flittering, and fiery gaze like that of a wild animal, these cannot be described.

The woman accompanying him was old but neatly dressed in a brown dress with a shawl of black and red plaid, and a white bonnet. Rodolphe saw her in profile—a round, green eye, thin lips, prominent chin. Her face, which was hard and calculating, reminded him of the Owl. He was about to mention this to La Goualeuse when, lifting his eyes toward the young woman, he saw her grow pale. She stared in silent terror at the Schoolmaster’s hideous companion. Finally, grabbing Rodolphe’s arm with her trembling hand, Fleur-de-Marie said to him in a low voice: “The Owl! My God. It’s her—the cyclops!”

At that moment the Schoolmaster, who was speaking in a low voice to one of the bar’s regulars, advanced slowly toward the table where Rodolphe, La Goualeuse, and Chourineur were sitting. Addressing Fleur-de-Marie with a rough, hollow voice that sounded like the growl of a tiger, he said: “Well, well, the beautiful blonde. Why don’t you dump those two louts and come with me?”

La Goualeuse remained silent and moved closer to Rodolphe as her teeth chattered with fear. 

“I promise not to get jealous” the Owl exclaimed, roaring with laughter. She hadn’t yet realized that La Goualeuse was the young Pégriotte, her child victim. 

“So what about it little one, didn’t you hear me?” said the monster advancing. “If you don’t get up, I’m going to pluck out your eye so you’ll look like the Owl. And you, Monsieur Mustache (addressing Rodolphe), if you don’t toss the blonde over here, your days are up.” 

“Oh! Dear God, Help me!” cried La Goualeuse, addressing Rodolphe and clasping her hands together. Then, realizing that she was about to expose him to considerable danger, she resumed in a calm voice, “No, no, Monsieur Rodolphe, don’t get up. If he comes any closer, I’ll scream. The Abbess will take my side; she knows the commotion will draw the police.”

“Relax, child,” said Rodolphe as he gazed intently at the Schoolmaster. “Stay right where you are, right by my side. And since this ugly brute turns my stomach, I’m going to drag him outside and . . .” 

“You?” exclaimed the Schoolmaster. 

“Me!” replied Rodolphe. And, in spite of La Goualeuse’s efforts, he got up from the table. The Schoolmaster backed up a step when he saw the terrifying look on Rodolphe’s face. Fleur-de-Marie and Chourineur were equally struck by the expression of cruelty and diabolical rage that, at that moment, contracted their companion’s noble features. The man was unrecognizable. In his struggle with Chourineur, he had remained disdainful and mocking, but face to face with the Schoolmaster, it was as if he were possessed by a fierce hatred: his pupils, dilated with fury, shone with a strange light. 

Certain men have an irresistible magnetic power in their expression. Some duelists, it is said, owe their bloodstained triumphs to the fascination of their gaze, which demoralizes and weakens their adversaries. Rodolphe was endowed with just such a fearful stare, a piercing and terrifying gaze, whose victims were unable to escape its power, which troubled and dominated them. They experienced it physically and, no matter how hard they struggled, they were forced to confront it, unable to turn away. 

The Schoolmaster shivered, backed up another step and, no longer trusting in his prodigious strength, felt around under his blouse for the handle of his knife. It is certain there would have been blood in the bar that night if the Owl, grabbing the Schoolmaster by the arm, hadn’t cried out, “Wait, let me have a word. You can take care of these two fools later, they won’t get away.” 

The Schoolmaster looked at the Owl with surprise. For several minutes she had been observing Fleur-de-Marie with increasing attention, as she tried to bring back her memories. Finally, she had no doubt at all, she recognized La Goualeuse. 

“Is it possible?” she cried, clasping her hands in astonishment. “It’s Pégriotte, the little candy thief. How’d you end up here? The devil must have sent you,” she added, raising her fist to the young woman. “You’ll always end up in my grasp, I see. Rest easy, when there are no more teeth in your head, I’ll wring from your eyes every tear in your body. Now, now, don’t get angry! I knew your parents you know. When he was in prison, the Schoolmaster met the man who gave you to me when you were just a little girl. He told him your mother’s name—your parents are a couple of swells!”

“You know my parents!” cried Fleur-de-Marie.

“The Schoolmaster knows your mother’s name. But I’d rip out his tongue before I let him tell you. Just yesterday he met the man who first brought you to me; they had stopped paying his wife, who had been your wet-nurse. Your mother didn’t care about you, she would have been just as happy to see you dead. But that’s of no consequence now. If you knew her name, how easy you might blackmail her, my little bastard. The man I spoke of has papers. Yes, Pégriotte, he has letters from your mother, and if he hasn’t used them yet, he has his reasons. That’s it. Get mad. Cry. But you’ll never find out; you’ll never find out who your mother is.”

“It’s just as well that she thinks I’m dead,” said Fleur-de-Marie, drying her eyes. 

Rodolphe, ignoring the Schoolmaster, had listened attentively to the Owl, in whose story he took a deep interest. During this time, the outlaw, no longer captivated by Rodolphe’s stare, had plucked up his courage. He refused to believe that this young man, of average height and thin, was any match for him. Sure of his herculean strength, he moved toward Rodolphe and said to the Owl with authority: “Enough of your jabbering. I want a shot at this pretty fool so I can bust his face. That way our little blonde will know who’s who.”

In one motion Rodolphe leaped over the table. 

“Watch out for my plates!” yelled the Abbess. 

The Schoolmaster put his hands in front of him and shifted his torso backwards, leaning into his powerful back and supported by one of his enormous legs, which resembled a stone column. As Rodolphe leapt, the door to the tavern burst open. The coal porter, a man nearly six feet in height, rushed into the room, shoved the Schoolmaster aside, approached Rodolphe and whispered in his ear: “Monsieur, Tom and Sarah—they’re at the end of the street.” 

Upon hearing those mysterious words, Rodolphe drew up in anger, threw a coin onto the counter, and ran to the door. The Schoolmaster tried to stop Rodolphe as he passed, but turning around, he struck him twice in the face with such force that the old bull staggered back and fell heavily onto the table. 

“Long live the Charter! I recognize those punches. They were what did me in too,” exclaimed Chourineur. “A few more lessons like that and I’ll get the hang
of this.”

When he came to a few seconds later, the Schoolmaster ran after Rodolphe. But he had disappeared with the coal porter among the dark labyrinth of streets around the tavern. They were nowhere to be seen. As the Schoolmaster was returning, foaming at the mouth with rage, two men, running from the opposite end of the street into which Rodolphe had disappeared, rushed into the tavern breathless, as if they had been running for a long time. They looked from one side of the bar to the other. 

“Damn it!” one of them said in a tongue unknown to those in the tavern, “He got away again!”

“Patience. There are only 24 hours in a day, and life is long,” answered the other. 


 6. Tom and Sarah 

The two men who had rushed through the door belonged to a class of society far above that of the customers who frequented the tavern. One of them, tall and thin, had hair that was almost white, black eyebrows and mutton chops, and a dark, bony face, hard and severe. His long black redingote was buttoned to the neck, and over trousers of tight gray cloth, he wore a pair of boots known as hussars. His companion, who was very small and also dressed as if in mourning, was pale and handsome. His long hair, black eyebrows and dark eyes highlighted a lusterless, white complexion. His gait, his size, and the delicacy of his features, however, revealed him to be a woman disguised as a man. 

“Tom, ask for something to drink and make some inquiries,” Sarah said. 

“Yes, Sarah,” replied the white-haired man with black eyebrows. 

Sitting down at a table while Sarah wiped her brow, he asked the Abbess, in perfect French and with barely a trace of an accent, “Madame, please let us have something to drink.”

The entrance of these two individuals in the tavern aroused considerable interest among the crowd—their dress, their manners, all indicated that they were unaccustomed to establishments of this nature. Judging by their uneasy and eager expressions, it was clear that something important had led them here. 

Chourineur, the Schoolmaster, and the Owl watched them with avid curiosity. La Goualeuse, terrified by the encounter with her one-eyed guardian and fearing the Schoolmaster’s threats, took advantage of their distraction to slip through the half-open door and leave the cabaret. Chourineur and the Schoolmaster, each from their respective position, had no desire to engage in a new quarrel. The Abbess, surprised by the appearance of the recent arrivals, shared in the general interest. Tom told her a second time, now with the sound of impatience in his voice: “Madame, we asked for something to drink; please be so kind as to serve us.”

Mother Ponisse, flattered by such courtesy, rose from the bar and graciously leaned over Tom’s table: “Will it be a liter or a sealed bottle?”

“Bring us a bottle of wine, glasses, and some water.” 

The Abbess served them. Tom threw down a hundred sous but refused the change she offered him. 

“That’s for you, my hostess. Please have a drink with us.” 

“You’re very kind, monsieur,” said Mother Ponisse, gazing at Tom more with astonishment than thanks. 

“But tell me. We were supposed to meet one of our friends in a cabaret on this street. Have we made a mistake?”

“This is the Lapin-Blanc at your service, monsieur.” 

“This is the place” said Tom, nodding knowingly at Sarah. “Yes, he was supposed to wait for us at the Lapin-Blanc.”

“And there’s only one Lapin-Blanc on this street,” said the Abbess with pride. “But what does your friend look like?” 

“He’s tall and thin, light chestnut hair and mustache.” 

“Wait a moment, wait a moment, that’s the man who was just here. A tall, strapping coal porter came to get him and they left together.” 

“That’s them,” said Tom. 

“Were they alone?” asked Sarah.

“Well, the coal porter was here only briefly, your other friend had supper with La Goualeuse and Chourineur,” and the Abbess nodded toward Chourineur, who had remained in the bar. Tom and Sarah turned toward the man. After examining him for a few moments, Sarah said to her companion in a foreign language, “Do you know that man?”

“No. Karl lost Rodolphe’s trace when he entered these dark streets. When he caught sight of Murph, disguised as a coal porter, wandering around the cabaret and repeatedly peering through the windows, he suspected something was up and came to warn us.”

During their conversation, which they conducted so no one could overhear them, the Schoolmaster whispered to the Owl as he watched Tom and Sarah: “The tall skinny one gave a hundred sous to the Abbess. It’s almost midnight, raining, windy. Let’s follow them when they leave. I’ll knock out the tall one and grab his purse. He’s with a woman, he won’t dare say a word.” 

“If the little one screams for help, I have a bottle of acid in my pocket,” said the Owl. “I’ll break it over her face. The only way to keep a baby from crying is to give it something to drink.” Then, she added, “You know, my thief, when we find Pégriotte, we’ll have to take her by force. Once she’s with us, I’ll wipe her face with acid. That way she won’t go putting on any airs with that pretty puss of hers.”

“You know, one of these days I’m going to end up marrying you,” said the Schoolmaster. “No one is as quick or courageous. That night at the butcher’s, I said to myself, ‘There’s the woman for me: she works harder than a man.’”

Having reflected for a moment, Sarah said to Tom, while indicating Chourineur, “If we question that man about Rodolphe, maybe we can find out what brought him here.”

“Let’s try,” said Tom. Then, turning to Chourineur, “Comrade, we were supposed to meet one of our friends in this bar. I believe he had dinner with you. Since you know the man, would you happen to know where he went?”

“I only know him because he walloped me two hours ago while defending La Goualeuse.”

“And you never saw him before?”

“Never. We met in the alley near Bras-Rouge’s house.” 

“Hostess! One more bottle of your best wine,”
said Tom. 

Sarah and Tom had barely touched their glasses, which were nearly full. Mother Ponisse, no doubt wishing to honor her own wine cellar, had already emptied hers several times over. 

“And please serve us at monsieur’s table, should he be so kind,” added Tom, as he and Sarah sat down next to Chourineur, who was as astonished as he was flattered by their courtesy. The Schoolmaster and the Owl continued to discuss their sinister projects in a low voice. When the bottle was brought, Tom and Sarah, sitting with Chourineur and the Abbess, who had considered a second invitation superfluous, continued the conversation. 

“So, you were saying that you met my friend Rodolphe near the home of Bras-Rouge?” said Tom, as he clinked glasses with Chourineur. 

“Yes, sir,” he said, quickly draining his glass.

“That’s an unusual name. Who is this Bras-Rouge?”

“A sharper” said Chourineur casually. Then, he added, “Damn good wine, Mother Ponisse!”

“A good reason never to leave an empty glass,” said Tom, filling Chourineur’s once again. 

“To your health,” he said, “and your little friend, who . . . Well, enough of that. As the saying goes, ‘If my aunt were a man, she’d be my uncle.’ Go on, I’m listening!”

Sarah blushed imperceptibly. Tom continued: “I didn’t quite understand what you said about Bras-Rouge. I assume Rodolphe was leaving his place?”

“I just told you the man’s a sharper.” 

Tom looked at Chourineur with surprise. 

“What do you mean, a sharper?”

“A sharper, a fence! I take it you don’t speak the lingua franca around here?”

“My good man, I no longer understand you.”

“I said, don’t you speak dog latin like Monsieur Rodolphe?”

“Dog latin?” said Tom as he looked at Sarah with surprise. 

“So, you’re green! But your friend Rodolphe is not. Fan painter though he may be, he’s as good as me with the local lingo. And since you don’t speak our fine tongue, I’ll tell it to you plainly—Bras-Rouge is a smuggler. Mind you, I’m not giving him away. He doesn’t hide it, he thumbs his nose at the customs agents. But try to find him and catch him if you can. Bras-Rouge is a sly one.” 

“And why did Rodolphe go to see this man?” asked Sarah.

“My word, Monsieur—or Madame, as you wish—I have no idea. And that’s as true as this glass of wine I’m drinking. That night, I was about to teach Goualeuse a little lesson. The error was mine; she’s a good girl. She ran into the alleyway by Bras-Rouge’s house, where I followed her. It was dark as the devil in there and instead of grabbing Goualeuse, I ran into Monsieur Rodolphe, and he let me have it, oh, did he ever! Those last two punches—Oh, did he let me have it! He promised he’d show me that move.” 

“And Bras-Rouge, what sort of man is he? asked Tom. “What does he sell?”

“Bras-Rouge? Why, he sells whatever he’s not supposed to sell, he does whatever he’s not supposed to do. That’s what he sells and that’s how he runs his business. Isn’t that so, Mother Ponisse?”

“Oh, the boy has talent,” said the Abbess. 

“And he’s got the customs officers in his pocket,” Chourineur continued. “They raided his place more than twenty times, but they never found anything. Still, he’s out all the time with his goods.”

“He’s a sharp one,” said the Abbess. “They say he’s got a hiding place in his house that leads to a well that goes straight to the catacombs.”

“All the same, no one’s ever found it. They’d have to demolish the place first,” said Chourineur. 

“What’s the address?” 

“Number 13, Rue aux Fèves. Bras-Rouge, the merchant of anything and everything. Everyone around here knows about it,” said Chourineur. 

“I’m going to write that down. If we can’t find Rodolphe, I’ll try to get some information from Bras-Rouge,” Tom said, as he wrote the sharper’s address into his notebook. 

“And you’ve got a good friend there with Master Rodolphe, an honorable fellow. Why, even without the coal porter’s help, he was about to get into it with the Schoolmaster. He’s over there in the corner with the Owl. Confound it! It’s all I can do to keep myself from exterminating that old witch, when I think what she did to Goualeuse. But patience, patience, a good uppercut is never wasted, as the man said.”

“He got the better of you in a fight? You must hate him for that,” Sarah remarked. 

“Me, hate a man who can take care of himself like that? It’s strange. Look, there sits the Schoolmaster. That man beat me once and I’d happily strangle him. But with Monsieur Rodolphe it’s just the opposite, and he walloped me even harder. I only wish the best for him. Why, I’d jump into a burning building for him, and I just met the man tonight.” 

“You say that because we’re his friends.”

“No, no, you have my word. You see, those last couple of blows there—why, he doesn’t think anything of them. For him there’s nothing more to say. He’s a professional, an accomplished professional. And the man has a way with words. It’s enough to make you queasy. And when he looks at you—there’s something in his eyes.  Say, I was a soldier once. With a man like that around, we’d devour the moon and the stars.”

Tom and Sarah looked at one another in silence. 

“This incredible ability to dominate, will he always have it?” asked Sarah with bitterness. 

“Yes, until we’ve managed to conjure up the magic formula,” answered Tom. 

“And come what may, we must, we must,” said Sarah, passing her hand across her brow to chase away a painful memory. 

The clock at City Hall struck midnight. The tavern’s oil lamp cast no more than a hesitant glow. With the exception of Chourineur and his two companions, the Schoolmaster and the Owl, all the other customers had left the bar. 

The Schoolmaster said to the Owl: “We’ll hide in the alley across the way. When these fine gentlemen take their leave, we’ll follow. If they turn left, we can wait for them along the Rue Saint-Éloi; we can conceal ourselves there. If they turn right, we can wait in the demolished homes near the tripe shop. There’s a big hole there. I have an idea.” 

The two of them made their way to the door. 

“Not drinking tonight?” asked the Abbess.

“No, Mother Ponisse. We stopped by to get out of the storm.” And the Schoolmaster left with the Owl. 



  1. Isn’t it both strange and revealing that the name of God is found even in this corrupt language?

— Eugène Sue



“Long live the Charter!” — The French Charter of 1814, a constitution implemented under the reign of Louis XVIII after his restoration to the monarchy.
Bras-Rouge — Literally, “Red Arm”
Charlot — The executioner
Grubber — A rag picker
Knackerman — A person who slaughters and disposes of animals that are unfit for human consumption
Rochefort — French jail, closed in 1853, which held prisoners condemned to forced labor.



Eugène Sue, a French author (1804 – 1857), was born near the city of Cannes in southern France and came from a distinguished family of doctors. His father, a renowned surgeon, had been head physician to the Imperial Guard under Napoléon I. Following in his father’s footsteps, Sue also studied medicine. He began his career as a naval doctor but retired in 1829 to write. His life as a writer began with a series of novels based on his experiences at sea. Although the books were moderately successful, they brought him no lasting fame. 

Much of Sue’s early life was spent in dissipating the family fortune and living the life of a dandy in Paris. He maintained a well-known courtisane, developed a passion for race horses, and was one of the fifteen founding members of the illustrious Jockey Club. But by 1836 Sue had run through most of his wealth and literature became a necessity rather than an avocation. Sue decided to leave Paris and retire to the countryside, where he led a quieter but no less elegant life. He returned to Paris in 1838 with Arthur, an autobiographical novel of youthful disillusion. The book was published as a feuilleton in La Presse, a new, daily paper. 

Although not unusual in its subject matter, Arthur breaks with tradition by introducing its hero to the seamier side of life on the streets of nighttime Paris. Eschewing the hôtels particuliers of the beau monde, its hero wanders the dark, dank streets of working-class Paris, where he encounters the poor, the homeless, and the sick. Arthur’s fears were in keeping with the social temperament of the time. Cholera had struck Paris in 1832 and there had been increased awareness of poverty and pauperism as contributing factors to its spread. Connections were discovered between the working class and the criminal underground, “les classes dangereuses.” Middle-class anxiety increased. 

Following the success of Arthur, Sue returned to Paris again, moving in to an elegantly furnished apartment on Rue de la Pépinière. Here, he wrote several more novels, most of which were historical in nature. However, in 1842 he began writing Les Mystères de Paris, a novel in parts published in Le Journal des Débats. It was the first time in a novel that readers had been exposed to the social agitation and mixing of classes experienced in the bars and cabarets of Paris’s dense core on Ile de la Cité. With its hovels and dive bars, its depiction of the prison of Saint-Lazare, which housed prostitutes and female thieves, it portrayed a world rarely described in the literature of the time. 

Although immensely popular, the book was not without its critics. Several accused Sue of venal exploitation, claiming he had used poverty and vice merely to enrich himself. Moreover, the book caused considerable scandal, for it portrayed many of its characters — prostitutes, criminals, and an avenging prince disguised as a worker — openly and favorably. Of course, the socialist press saw things differently; they viewed the book as a denunciation of poverty and a plea in favor of the people of Paris, a call to arms and reform. The wealthy bourgeoisie applauded Sue for his instincts as a reformer but cast a skeptical eye on the book’s inflammatory subject matter. The public, however, adored the novel, and copies of it flew off the newsstands before the ink was dry. Copies were stolen from cafés by those too poor to buy the paper, and for those who could not read, daily installments were read aloud in informal gatherings. 

Most critics view Les Mystères de Paris as the turning point in Sue’s embrace of socialism. He became a shareholder in two socialist papers La Phalange and La Démocratie pacifique, assuming his literary fame would be sufficient to help spread their influence and their ideals. 

In 1844 Le Juif errant was published in Le Constitutionnel, also in serial form. The book combined a virulent anticlericalism with a far more radical social commitment. With Le Juif errant Sue had become a “political” writer, a representative of the people — at least in his writing. In that same year Sue again left Paris for the countryside, establishing himself in the town of Bordes. Here, he wrote several more novels, including Les Mystères du peuple, a history of the proletariat throughout the ages. 

Sue welcomed the revolution of 1848 and supported the effort toward democracy and socialism by editing a paper devoted to republican propagandizing, Le Républicain des campagnes. This was followed by a brochure, Le Berger de Kravan. Distributed by the Fourierists, it sought to convince the rural populace of the dangers of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s candidacy for the presidency. After Louis-Napoléon’s election, the left proposed Sue as a candidate for a vacant seat in the assembly as deputy from the Seine. Although Sue himself wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about becoming a politician, he agreed and, on the strength of his name, was easily elected. Sue, however, made no lasting mark on French politics and proved to be a feckless and fairly incompetent politician, remaining mostly silent throughout the duration of his tenure. 

After Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 1851, Sue was forced into exile along with other elected officials after refusing to dissolve the parliament. He withdrew to Annecy in the Savoy, where he continued to write. Depressed and exhausted, he died there in 1857. 

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


Eugène Sue

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

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

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

Robert Bononno

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


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2018

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