The Mummy's Foot
BY THEOPHILE GAUTIER
I had sauntered idly into the shop of one of those dealers in old
curiosities--"bric-a-brac" as they say in that Parisian argot, so
absolutely unintelligible elsewhere in France.
You have no doubt often glanced through the windows of some of these
shops, which have become numerous since it is so fashionable to buy
antique furniture, that the humblest stockbroker feels obliged to have a
room furnished in medieval style.
Something is there which belongs alike to the shop of the dealer in old
iron, the warehouse of the merchant, the laboratory of the chemist, and
the studio of the painter: in all these mysterious recesses, where but a
discreet half-light filters through the shutters, the most obviously
antique thing is the dust: the cobwebs are more genuine than the laces,
and the old pear-tree furniture is more modern than the mahogany which
arrived but yesterday from America.
The warehouse of my dealer in bric-a-brac was a veritable Capharnauem;
all ages and all countries seemed to have arranged a rendezvous there;
an Etruscan terra cotta lamp stood upon a Boule cabinet, with ebony
panels decorated with simple filaments of inlaid copper: a duchess of
the reign of Louis XV stretched nonchalantly her graceful feet under a
massive Louis XIII table with heavy, spiral oaken legs, and carvings of
intermingled flowers and grotesque figures.
In a corner glittered the ornamented breastplate of a suit of
damaskeened armor of Milan. The shelves and floor were littered with
porcelain cupids and nymphs, Chinese monkeys, vases of pale green
enamel, cups of Dresden and old Sevres.
Upon the denticulated shelves of sideboards, gleamed huge Japanese
plaques, with red and blue designs outlined in gold, side by side with
the enamels of Bernard Palissy, with serpents, frogs, and lizards in
From ransacked cabinets tumbled cascades of silvery-gleaming China silk,
the shimmering brocade pricked into luminous beads by a slanting
sunbeam; while portraits of every epoch smiled through their yellowed
varnish from frames more or less tarnished.
The dealer followed me watchfully through the tortuous passages winding
between the piles of furniture, warding off with his hands the perilous
swing of my coat tail, observing my elbows with the disquieting concern
of an antiquarian and a usurer.
He was an odd figure--this dealer; an enormous skull, smooth as a knee,
was surrounded by a scant aureole of white hair, which, by contrast,
emphasized the salmon-colored tint of his complexion, and gave a wrong
impression of patriarchal benevolence, corrected, however, by the
glittering of two small, yellow eyes which shifted in their orbits like
two louis d'or floating on quicksilver. The curve of his nose gave him
an aquiline silhouette, which suggested the Oriental or Jewish type. His
hands, long, slender, with prominent veins and sinews protruding like
the strings on a violin, with nails like the claws on the membraneous
wings of the bat moved with a senile trembling painful to behold, but
those nervously quivering hands became firmer than pincers of steel, or
the claws of a lobster, when they picked up any precious object, an onyx
cup, a Venetian glass, or a platter of Bohemian crystal. This curious
old fellow had an air so thoroughly rabbinical and cabalistic, that,
from mere appearance, he would have been burned at the stake three
"Will you not buy something from me to-day, sir? Here is a kris from
Malay, with a blade which undulates like a flame; look at these grooves
for the blood to drip from, these teeth reversed so as to tear out the
entrails in withdrawing the weapon; it is a fine specimen of a ferocious
weapon, and will be an interesting addition to your trophies; this
two-handed sword is very beautiful--it is the work of Joseph de la Herz;
and this cauchelimarde with its carved guard--what superb
"No, I have enough weapons and instruments of carnage; I should like to
have a small figure, any sort of object which can be used for a paper
weight; for I cannot endure those commonplace bronzes for sale at the
stationers which one sees invariably on everybody's desk."
The old gnome, rummaging among his ancient wares, displayed before me
some antique bronzes--pseudo-antique, at least, fragments of malachite,
little Hindu and Chinese idols, jade monkeys, incarnations of Brahma and
Vishnu, marvelously suitable for the purpose--scarcely divine--of
holding papers and letters in place.
I was hesitating between a porcelain dragon covered with constellations
of warts, its jaws embellished with teeth and tusks, and a hideous
little Mexican fetish, representing realistically the god
Vitziliputzili, when I noticed a charming foot, which at first I
supposed was a fragment of some antique Venus.
It had that beautiful tawny reddish tint, which gives the Florentine
bronzes their warm, life-like appearance, so preferable to the verdigris
tones of ordinary bronzes, which might be taken readily for statues in a
state of putrefaction; a satiny luster gleamed over its curves, polished
by the amorous kisses of twenty centuries; for it must have been a
Corinthian bronze, a work of the finest period, molded perhaps by
"That foot will do," I said to the dealer, who looked at me with an
ironical, crafty expression, as he handed me the object I asked for, so
that I might examine it more carefully.
I was surprised at its lightness. It was not a metal foot but in reality
a foot of flesh, an embalmed foot, a mummy's foot; on examining it more
closely, one could distinguish the grain of the skin, and the almost
imperceptible imprint of the weave of the wrappings. The toes were
slender, delicate, with perfect nails, pure and transparent as agate;
the great toe, slightly separated from the others, in the antique manner
was in pleasing contrast to the position of the other toes, and gave a
suggestion of the freedom and lightness of a bird's foot. The sole,
faintly streaked with almost invisible lines, showed that it had never
touched the ground, or come in contact with anything but the finest mats
woven from the rushes of the Nile, and the softest rugs of panther skin.
"Ha, ha! You want the foot of the Princess Hermonthis," said the dealer
with a strange, mocking laugh, staring at me with his owlish eyes. "Ha,
ha, ha, for a paper weight! An original idea! an artist's idea! If
anyone had told old Pharaoh that the foot of his adored daughter would
be used for a paper weight, particularly whilst he was having a mountain
of granite hollowed out in which to place her triple coffin, painted and
gilded, covered with hieroglyphics, and beautiful pictures of the
judgment of souls, it would truly have surprised him," continued the
queer little dealer, in low tones, as though talking to himself.
"How much will you charge me for this fragment of a mummy?"
"Ah, as much as I can get; for it is a superb piece; if I had the mate
to it, you could not have it for less than five hundred francs--the
daughter of a Pharaoh! there could be nothing more choice."
"Assuredly it is not common; but, still, how much do you want for it?
First, however, I want to acquaint you with one fact, which is, that my
fortune consists of only five louis. I will buy anything that costs five
louis, but nothing more expensive. You may search my vest pockets, and
my most secret bureau drawers, but you will not find one miserable five
franc piece besides."
"Five louis for the foot of the Princess Hermonthis! It is very little,
too little, in fact, for an authentic foot," said the dealer, shaking
his head and rolling his eyes with a peculiar rotary motion. "Very well,
take it, and I will throw in the outer covering," he said, rolling it in
a shred of old damask--"very beautiful, genuine damask, which has never
been redyed; it is strong, yet it is soft," he muttered, caressing the
frayed tissue, in accordance with his dealer's habit of praising an
article of so little value, that he himself thought it good for nothing
but to give away.
He dropped the gold pieces into a kind of medieval pouch which was
fastened at his belt, while he repeated:
"The foot of the Princess Hermonthis to be used for a paper weight!"
Then, fastening upon me his phosphorescent pupils he said, in a voice
strident as the wails of a cat which has just swallowed a fish bone:
"Old Pharaoh will not be pleased; he loved his daughter--that dear man."
"You speak of him as though you were his contemporary; no matter how old
you may be, you do not date back to the pyramids of Egypt," I answered
laughingly from the threshold of the shop.
I returned home, delighted with my purchase.
To make use of it at once, I placed the foot of the exalted Princess
Hermonthis on a stack of papers--sketches of verses, undecipherable
mosaics of crossed out words, unfinished articles, forgotten letters,
posted in the desk drawer, a mistake often made by absent-minded people;
the effect was pleasing, bizarre, and romantic.
Highly delighted with this decoration, I went down into the street, and
took a walk with all the importance and pride proper to a man who has
the inexpressible advantage over the passersby he elbows, of possessing
a fragment of the Princess Hermonthis, daughter of Pharaoh.
I thought people who did not possess, like myself, a paper weight so
genuinely Egyptian, were objects of ridicule, and it seemed to me the
proper business of the sensible man to have a mummy's foot upon his
Happily, an encounter with several friends distracted me from my
raptures over my recent acquisition, I went to dinner with them, for it
would have been hard for me to dine alone.
When I returned at night, with my brain somewhat muddled by the effects
of a few glasses of wine, a vague whiff of oriental perfume tickled
delicately my olfactory nerves. The heat of the room had warmed the
natron, the bitumen, and the myrrh in which the paraschites who
embalmed the dead had bathed the body of the Princess; it was a
delicate, yet penetrating perfume, which four thousand years had not
been able to dissipate.
The Dream of Egypt was for the Eternal; its odors have the solidity of
granite, and last as long.
In a short time I drank full draughts from the black cup of sleep; for
an hour or two all remained in obscurity; Oblivion and Nothingness
submerged me in their somber waves.
Nevertheless the haziness of my perceptions gradually cleared away,
dreams began to brush me lightly in their silent flight.
The eyes of my soul opened, and I saw my room as it was in reality. I
might have believed myself awake, if I had not had a vague consciousness
that I was asleep, and that something very unusual was about to take
The odor of myrrh had increased in intensity, and I had a slight
headache, which I very naturally attributed to several glasses of
champagne that we had drunk to unknown gods, and to our future success.
I scrutinized my room with a feeling of expectation, which there was
nothing to justify. Each piece of furniture was in its usual place; the
lamp, softly shaded by the milky whiteness of its ground crystal globe,
burned upon the console, the water colors glowed from under the Bohemian
glass; the curtains hung in heavy drooping folds; everything suggested
tranquility and slumber.
Nevertheless, after a few moments the quiet of the room was disturbed,
the woodwork creaked furtively, the ash-covered log suddenly spurted out
a blue flame, and the surfaces of the plaques seemed like metallic eyes,
watching, like myself, for what was about to happen.
By chance my eyes fell on the table on which I had placed the foot of
the Princess Hermonthis.
Instead of remaining in the state of immobility proper to a foot which
has been embalmed for four thousand years, it moved about in an agitated
manner, twitching, leaping about over the papers like a frightened frog;
one might have thought it in contact with a galvanic battery; I could
hear distinctly the quick tap of the little heel, hard as the hoof of a
I became rather dissatisfied with my purchase, for I like paper weights
of sedentary habits--besides I found it very unnatural for feet to move
about without legs, and I began to feel something closely resembling
Suddenly I noticed a movement of one of the folds of my curtains, and I
heard a stamping like that made by a person hopping about on one foot.
I must admit that I grew hot and cold by turns, that I felt a mysterious
breeze blowing down my back, and that my hair stood on end so suddenly
that it forced my night-cap to a leap of several degrees.
The curtains partly opened, and I saw the strangest figure possible
It was a young girl, as coffee-coloured as Amani the dancer, and of a
perfect beauty of the purest Egyptian type. She had slanting
almond-shaped eyes, with eyebrows so black that they appeared blue; her
nose was finely chiseled, almost Grecian in its delicacy; she might have
been taken for a Corinthian statue of bronze, had not her prominent
cheekbones and rather African fullness of lips indicated without a doubt
the hieroglyphic race which dwelt on the banks of the Nile.
Her arms, thin, spindle shaped, like those of very young girls, were
encircled with a kind of metal ornament, and bracelets of glass beads;
her hair was twisted into little cords; on her breast hung a green paste
idol, identified by her whip of seven lashes as Isis, guide of souls--a
golden ornament shone on her forehead, and slight traces of rouge were
visible on the coppery tints of her cheeks.
As for her costume, it was very odd.
Imagine a pagne made of narrow strips bedizened with red and black
hieroglyphics, weighted with bitumen, and apparently belonging to a
mummy newly unswathed.
In one of those flights of fancy usual in dreams, I could hear the
hoarse, rough voice of the dealer of bric-a-brac reciting in a
monotonous refrain, the phrase he had kept repeating in his shop in so
enigmatic a manner.
"Old Pharaoh will not be pleased--he loved his daughter very much--that
One peculiar detail, which was hardly reassuring, was that the
apparition had but one foot, the other was broken off at the ankle.
She approached the table, where the mummy's foot was fidgeting and
tossing about with redoubled energy. She leaned against the edge, and I
saw her eyes fill with pearly tears.
Although she did not speak, I fully understood her feelings. She looked
at the foot, for it was in truth her own, with an expression of
coquettish sadness, which was extremely charming; but the foot kept
jumping and running about as though it were moved by springs of steel.
Two or three times she stretched out her hand to grasp it, but did not
Then began between the Princess Hermonthis and her foot, which seemed to
be endowed with an individuality of its own, a very bizarre dialogue, in
an ancient Coptic tongue, such as might have been spoken thirty
centuries before, among the sphinxes of the Land of Ser; fortunately,
that night I understood Coptic perfectly.
The Princess Hermonthis said in a tone of voice sweet and tremulous as
the tones of a crystal bell:
"Well, my dear little foot, you always flee from me, yet I took the best
of care of you; I bathed you with perfumed water, in a basin of
alabaster; I rubbed your heel with pumice stone, mixed with oil of palm;
your nails were cut with golden scissors, and polished with a
hippopotamus' tooth; I was careful to select for you painted and
embroidered tatbebs, with turned up toes, which were the envy of all
the young girls of Egypt; on your great toe, you wore rings representing
the sacred Scarab, and you supported one of the lightest bodies that
could be desired by a lazy foot."
The foot answered in a pouting, regretful voice:
"You know well that I no longer belong to myself. I have been bought and
paid for; the old dealer knew what he was about. He bears you a grudge
for having refused to marry him. This is a trick he has played on you.
The Arab who forced open your royal tomb, in the subterranean pits of
the Necropolis of Thebes, was sent there by him. He wanted to prevent
you from attending the reunion of the shades, in the cities of the lower
world. Have you five pieces of gold with which to ransom me?"
"Alas, no! My jewels, my rings, my purses of gold and of silver have all
been stolen from me," answered the Princess Hermonthis with a sigh.
"Princess," I then cried out, "I have never kept possession of anyone's
foot unjustly; even though you have not the five louis which it cost me,
I will return it to you gladly; I should be wretched, were I the cause
of the lameness of so charming a person as the Princess Hermonthis."
I delivered this discourse in a courtly, troubadour-like manner, which
must have astonished the beautiful Egyptian.
She looked at me with an expression of deepest gratitude, and her eyes
brightened with bluish lights.
She took her foot, which this time submitted, and, like a woman about to
put on her brodekin, she adjusted it to her leg with great dexterity.
This operation finished, she took a few steps about the room, as though
to assure herself that she was in reality no longer lame.
"Ah, how happy my father will be, he who was so wretched because of my
mutilation--he who, from the day of my birth, set a whole nation to work
to hollow out a tomb so deep that he might preserve me intact until that
supreme last day, when souls must be weighed in the scales of Amenti!
Come with me to my father; he will be happy to receive you, for you have
given me back my foot."
I found this proposition quite natural. I decked myself out in a
dressing-gown of huge sprawling design, which gave me an extremely
Pharaohesque appearance; I hurriedly put on a pair of Turkish slippers,
and told the Princess Hermonthis that I was ready to follow her.
Before setting out, Hermonthis detached from her necklace the little
green paste image and placed it on the scattered papers which strewed
"It is no more than right," she said smilingly, "that I should replace
your paper weight."
She gave me her hand, which was soft and cool as the skin of a serpent,
and we departed.
For a time we sped with the rapidity of an arrow, through a misty
expanse of space, in which almost indistinguishable silhouettes flashed
by us, on the right and left.
For an instant we saw nothing but sea and sky.
A few minutes later, towering obelisks, pillars, the sloping outlines of
the sphinx, were designed against the horizon.
We had arrived.
The princess conducted me to the side of a mountain of red granite in
which there was an aperture so low and narrow that, had it not been
marked by two monoliths covered with bizarre carvings, it would have
been difficult to distinguish from the fissures in the rock.
Hermonthis lighted a torch and led the way.
The corridors were hewn through the living rock. The walls, with panels
covered with hieroglyphics, and representations of allegorical
processions, must have been the work of thousands of hands for thousands
of years; the corridors, of an interminable length, ended in square
rooms, in the middle of which pits had been constructed, to which we
descended by means of crampons or spiral staircases. These pits led us
into other rooms, from which opened out other corridors embellished in
the same bizarre manner with sparrow-hawks, serpents coiled in circles,
the symbolic tau, pedum, and baris, prodigious works which no living eye
should ever see, interminable legends in granite which only the dead
throughout eternity have time to read.
At last we reached a hall so vast, so boundless, so immeasurable, that
its limits could not be discerned. As far as the eye could see, extended
files of gigantic columns, between which sparkled livid stars of yellow
light. These glittering points of light revealed incalculable depths
The Princess Hermonthis, still holding my hand, greeted graciously the
mummies of her acquaintance.
My eyes gradually became accustomed to the shadowy twilight, and I began
to distinguish the objects around me.
I saw, seated upon their thrones, the kings of the subterranean races.
They were dignified old personages, or dried up, shriveled,
wrinkled-like parchment, and blackened with naphtha and bitumen. On
their heads they wore pschents of gold, and their breastplates and
gorgets scintillated with precious stones; their eyes had the fixedness
of the sphinx, and their long beards were whitened by the snows of
centuries. Behind them stood their embalmed subjects, in the rigid and
constrained postures of Egyptian art, preserving eternally the attitudes
prescribed by the hieratic code. Behind the subjects, the cats, ibixes,
and crocodiles contemporary with them, rendered still more monstrous by
their wrappings, mewed, beat their wings, and opened and closed their
huge jaws in foolish grimaces.
All the Pharaohs were there--Cheops, Chephrenes, Psammetichus, Sesostri,
Amenoteph, all the dark-skinned rulers of the country of the pyramids,
and the royal sepulchers; on a still higher platform sat enthroned the
kings Chronos, and Xixouthros, who were contemporary with the deluge,
and Tubal-Cain, who preceded it.
The beard of King Xixouthros had grown to such lengths that it had
already wound itself seven times around the granite table against which
he leaned, lost in reverie, as though in slumber.
Further in the distance, through a dim exhalation, across the mists of
eternities, I beheld vaguely the seventy-two pre-Adamite kings, with
their seventy-two peoples, vanished forever.
The Princess Hermonthis, after allowing me a few moments to enjoy this
dizzying spectacle, presented me to Pharaoh, her father, who nodded to
me in a most majestic manner.
"I have found my foot--I have found my foot!" cried the Princess,
clapping her little hands, with every indication of uncontrollable joy.
"It was this gentleman who returned it to me."
The races of Kheme, the races of Nahasi, all the races, black, bronze,
and copper-colored, repeated in a chorus:
"The Princess Hermonthis has found her foot."
Xixouthros himself was deeply affected.
He raised his heavy eyelids, stroked his moustache, and regarded me with
his glance charged with the centuries.
"By Oms, the dog of Hell, and by Tmei, daughter of the Sun and of Truth,
here is a brave and worthy young man," said Pharaoh, extending toward me
his scepter which terminated in a lotus flower. "What recompense do you
Eagerly, with that audacity which one has in dreams, where nothing seems
impossible, I asked him for the hand of the Princess Hermonthis. Her
hand in exchange for her foot, seemed to me an antithetical recompense,
in sufficiently good taste.
Pharaoh opened wide his eyes of glass, surprised at my pleasantry, as
well as my request.
"From what country are you, and what is your age?"
"I am a Frenchman, and I am twenty-seven years old, venerable Pharaoh."
"Twenty-seven years old! And he wishes to espouse the Princess
Hermonthis, who is thirty centuries old!" exclaimed in a chorus all the
thrones, and all the circles of nations.
Hermonthis alone did not seem to think my request improper.
"If you were even two thousand years old," continued the old king, "I
would gladly bestow upon you the Princess; but the disproportion is too
great; besides, our daughters must have husbands who will last, and you
no longer know how to preserve yourselves. Of the last persons who were
brought here, scarcely fifteen centuries ago, nothing now remains but a
pinch of ashes. Look! my flesh is as hard as basalt, my bones are bars
of steel. I shall be present on the last day, with the body and features
I had in life. My daughter Hermonthis will last longer than a statue of
bronze. But at that time the winds will have dissipated the last grains
of your dust, and Isis herself, who knew how to recover the fragments of
Osiris, would hardly be able to recompose your being. See how vigorous I
still am, and how powerful is the strength of my arm," said he, shaking
my hand in the English fashion, in a way that cut my fingers with my
His grasp was so strong that I awoke, and discovered my friend Alfred,
who was pulling me by the arm, and shaking me, to make me get up.
"Oh, see here, you maddening sleeper! Must I have you dragged into the
middle of the street, and have fireworks put off close to your ear, in
order to waken you? It is afternoon. Don't you remember that you
promised to call for me and take me to see the Spanish pictures of M.
"Good heavens! I forgot all about it," I answered, dressing hurriedly.
"We can go there at once--I have the permit here on my table." I crossed
over to get it; imagine my astonishment when I saw, not the mummy's foot
I had bought the evening before, but the little green paste image left
in its place by the Princess Hermonthis!
Next: The Rival Ghosts
Previous: The Transferred Ghost