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The Mysterious Sketch






ERCKMANN-CHATRIAN


I

Opposite the chapel of Saint Sebalt in Nuremberg, at the corner of
Trabaus Street, there stands a little tavern, tall and narrow, with a
toothed gable and dusty windows, whose roof is surmounted by a plaster
Virgin. It was there that I spent the unhappiest days of my life. I had
gone to Nuremberg to study the old German masters; but in default of
ready money, I had to paint portraits--and such portraits! Fat old women
with their cats on their laps, big-wigged aldermen, burgomasters in
three-cornered hats--all horribly bright with ochre and vermilion. From
portraits I descended to sketches, and from sketches to silhouettes.

Nothing is more annoying than to have your landlord come to you every
day with pinched lips, shrill voice, and impudent manner to say: "Well,
sir, how soon are you going to pay me? Do you know how much your bill
is? No; that doesn't worry you! You eat, drink, and sleep calmly enough.
God feeds the sparrows. Your bill now amounts to two hundred florins and
ten kreutzers--it is not worth talking about."

Those who have not heard any one talk in this way can form no idea of
it; love of art, imagination, and the sacred enthusiasm for the
beautiful are blasted by the breath of such an attack. You become
awkward and timid; all your energy evaporates, as well as your feeling
of personal dignity, and you bow respectfully at a distance to the
burgomaster Schneegans.

One night, not having a sou, as usual, and threatened with imprisonment
by this worthy Mister Rap, I determined to make him a bankrupt by
cutting my throat. Seated on my narrow bed, opposite the window, in this
agreeable mood, I gave myself up to a thousand philosophical
reflections, more or less comforting.

"What is man?" I asked myself. "An omnivorous animal; his jaws, provided
with canines, incisors, and molars, prove it. The canines are made to
tear meat; the incisors to bite fruits; and the molars to masticate,
grind, and triturate animal and vegetable substances that are pleasant
to smell and to taste. But when he has nothing to masticate, this being
is an absurdity in Nature, a superfluity, a fifth wheel to the coach."

Such were my reflections. I dared not open my razor for fear that the
invincible force of my logic would inspire me with the courage to make
an end of it all. After having argued so finely, I blew out my candle,
postponing the sequel till the morrow.

That abominable Rap had completely stupefied me. I could do nothing but
silhouettes, and my sole desire was to have some money to rid myself of
his odious presence. But on this night a singular change came over my
mind. I awoke about one o'clock--I lit my lamp, and, enveloping myself
in my grey gabardine, I drew upon the paper a rapid sketch after the
Dutch school--something strange and bizarre, which had not the slightest
resemblance to my ordinary conceptions.

Imagine a dreary courtyard enclosed by high dilapidated walls. These
walls are furnished with hooks, seven or eight feet from the ground. You
see, at a glance, that it is a butchery.

On the left, there extends a lattice structure; you perceive through it
a quartered beef suspended from the roof by enormous pulleys. Great
pools of blood run over the flagstones and unite in a ditch full of
refuse.

The light falls from above, between the chimneys where the weathercocks
stand out from a bit of the sky the size of your hand, and the roofs of
the neighbouring houses throw bold shadows from story to story.

At the back of this place is a shed, beneath the shed a pile of wood,
and upon the pile of wood some ladders, a few bundles of straw, some
coils of rope, a chicken-coop, and an old dilapidated rabbit-hutch.

How did these heterogeneous details suggest themselves to my
imagination? I don't know; I had no reminiscences, and yet every stroke
of the pencil seemed the result of observation, and strange because it
was all so true. Nothing was lacking.

But on the right, one corner of the sketch remained a blank. I did not
know what to put there.... Something suddenly seemed to writhe there, to
move! Then I saw a foot, the sole of a foot. Notwithstanding this
improbable position, I followed my inspiration without reference to my
own criticism. This foot was joined to a leg--over this leg, stretched
out with effort, there soon floated the skirt of a dress. In short,
there appeared by degrees an old woman, pale, dishevelled, and wasted,
thrown down at the side of a well, and struggling to free herself from a
hand that clutched her throat.

It was a murder scene that I was drawing. The pencil fell from my hand.

This woman, in the boldest attitude, with her thighs bent on the curb of
the well, her face contracted by terror, and her two hands grasping the
murderer's arm, frightened me. I could not look at her. But the man--he,
the person to whom that arm belonged--I could not see him. It was
impossible for me to finish the sketch.

"I am tired," I said, my forehead dripping with perspiration; "there is
only this figure to do; I will finish it tomorrow. It will be easy
then."

And again I went to bed, thoroughly frightened by my vision.

The next morning, I got up very early. I was dressing in order to resume
my interrupted work, when two little knocks were heard on my door.

"Come in!"

The door opened. An old man, tall, thin, and dressed in black, appeared
on the threshold. This man's face, his eyes set close together and his
large nose like the beak of an eagle, surmounted by a high bony
forehead, had something severe about it. He bowed to me gravely.

"Mister Christian Venius, the painter?" said he.

"That is my name, sir."

He bowed again, adding:

"The Baron Frederick Van Spreckdal."

The appearance of the rich amateur, Van Spreckdal, judge of the criminal
court, in my poor lodging, greatly disturbed me. I could not help
throwing a stealthy glance at my old worm-eaten furniture, my damp
hangings and my dusty floor. I felt humiliated by such dilapidation; but
Van Spreckdal did not seem to take any account of these details; and
sitting down at my little table:

"Mister Venius," he resumed, "I come----" But at this instant his glance
fell upon the unfinished sketch--he did not finish his phrase.

I was sitting on the edge of my little bed; and the sudden attention
that this personage bestowed upon one of my productions made my heart
beat with an indefinable apprehension.

At the end of a minute, Van Spreckdal lifted his head:

"Are you the author of that sketch?" he asked me with an intent look.

"Yes, sir."

"What is the price of it?"

"I never sell my sketches. It is the plan for a picture."

"Ah!" said he, picking up the paper with the tips of his long yellow
fingers.

He took a lens from his waistcoat pocket and began to study the design
in silence.

The sun was now shining obliquely into the garret. Van Spreckdal never
said a word; the hook of his immense nose increased, his heavy eyebrows
contracted, and his long pointed chin took a turn upward, making a
thousand little wrinkles in his long, thin cheeks. The silence was so
profound that I could distinctly hear the plaintive buzzing of a fly
that had been caught in a spider's web.

"And the dimensions of this picture, Mister Venius?" he said without
looking at me.

"Three feet by four."

"The price?"

"Fifty ducats."

Van Spreckdal laid the sketch on the table, and drew from his pocket a
large purse of green silk shaped like a pear; he drew the rings of
it----

"Fifty ducats," said he, "here they are."

I was simply dazzled.

The Baron rose and bowed to me, and I heard his big ivory-headed cane
resounding on each step until he reached the bottom of the stairs. Then
recovering from my stupour, I suddenly remembered that I had not thanked
him, and I flew down the five flights like lightning; but when I reached
the bottom, I looked to the right and left; the street was deserted.

"Well," I said, "this is strange."

And I went upstairs again all out of breath.


II

The surprising way in which Van Spreckdal had appeared to me threw me
into deep wonderment. "Yesterday," I said to myself, as I contemplated
the pile of ducats glittering in the sun, "yesterday I formed the wicked
intention of cutting my throat, all for the want of a few miserable
florins, and now today Fortune has showered them from the clouds. Indeed
it was fortunate that I did not open my razor; and, if the same
temptation ever comes to me again, I will take care to wait until the
morrow."

After making these judicious reflections, I sat down to finish the
sketch; four strokes of the pencil and it would be finished. But here an
incomprehensible difficulty awaited me. It was impossible for me to take
those four sweeps of the pencil; I had lost the thread of my
inspiration, and the mysterious personage no longer stood out in my
brain. I tried in vain to evoke him, to sketch him, and to recover him;
he no more accorded with the surroundings than with a figure by Raphael
in a Teniers inn-kitchen. I broke out into a profuse perspiration.

At this moment, Rap opened the door without knocking, according to his
praiseworthy custom. His eyes fell upon my pile of ducats and in a
shrill voice he cried:

"Eh! eh! so I catch you. Will you still persist in telling me, Mr.
Painter, that you have no money?"

And his hooked fingers advanced with that nervous trembling that the
sight of gold always produces in a miser.

For a few seconds I was stupefied.

The memory of all the indignities that this individual had inflicted
upon me, his covetous look, and his impudent smile exasperated me. With
a single bound, I caught hold of him, and pushed him out of the room,
slamming the door in his face.

This was done with the crack and rapidity of a spring snuff-box.

But from outside the old usurer screamed like an eagle:

"My money, you thief, my money!"

The lodgers came out of their rooms, asking:

"What is the matter? What has happened?"

I opened the door suddenly and quickly gave Mister Rap a kick in the
spine that sent him rolling down more than twenty steps.

"That's what's the matter!" I cried, quite beside myself. Then I shut
the door and bolted it, while bursts of laughter from the neighbours
greeted Mister Rap in the passage.

I was satisfied with myself; I rubbed my hands together. This adventure
had put new life into me; I resumed my work, and was about to finish the
sketch when I heard an unusual noise.

Butts of muskets were grounded on the pavement. I looked out of my
window and saw three soldiers in full uniform with grounded arms in
front of my door.

I said to myself in my terror: "Can it be that that scoundrel of a Rap
has had any bones broken?"

And here is the strange peculiarity of the human mind: I, who the night
before had wanted to cut my own throat, shook from head to foot,
thinking that I might well be hanged if Rap were dead.

The stairway was filled with confused noises. It was an ascending flood
of heavy footsteps, clanking arms, and short syllables.

Suddenly somebody tried to open my door. It was shut.

Then there was a general clamour.

"In the name of the law--open!"

I arose, trembling and weak in the knees.

"Open!" the same voice repeated.

I thought to escape over the roofs; but I had hardly put my head out of
the little snuff-box window, when I drew back, seized with vertigo. I
saw in a flash all the windows below with their shining panes, their
flower-pots, their bird-cages, and their gratings. Lower, the balcony;
still lower, the street-lamp; still lower again, the sign of the "Red
Cask" framed in iron-work; and, finally, three glittering bayonets, only
awaiting my fall to run me through the body from the sole of my foot to
the crown of my head. On the roof of the opposite house a tortoise-shell
cat was crouching behind a chimney, watching a band of sparrows fighting
and scolding in the gutter.

One cannot imagine to what clearness, intensity, and rapidity the human
eye acquires when stimulated by fear.

At the third summons I heard:

"Open, or we shall force it!"

Seeing that flight was impossible, I staggered to the door and drew the
bolt.

Two hands immediately fell upon my collar. A dumpy, little man, smelling
of wine, said:

"I arrest you!"

He wore a bottle-green redingote, buttoned to the chin, and a stovepipe
hat. He had large brown whiskers, rings on every finger, and was named
Passauf.

He was the chief of police.

Five bull-dogs with flat caps, noses like pistols, and lower jaws
turning upward, observed me from outside.

"What do you want?" I asked Passauf.

"Come downstairs," he cried roughly, as he gave a sign to one of his men
to seize me.

This man took hold of me, more dead than alive, while several other men
turned my room upside down.

I went downstairs supported by the arms like a person in the last stages
of consumption--with hair dishevelled and stumbling at every step.

They thrust me into a cab between two strong fellows, who charitably let
me see the ends of their clubs, held to their wrists by a leather
string--and then the carriage started off.

I heard behind us the feet of all the urchins of the town.

"What have I done?" I asked one of my keepers.

He looked at the other with a strange smile and said:

"Hans--he asks what he has done!"

That smile froze my blood.

Soon a deep shadow enveloped the carriage; the horses' hoofs resounded
under an archway. We were entering the Raspelhaus. Of this place one
might say:

"Dans cet antre,
Je vois fort bien comme l'on entre,
Et ne vois point comme on en sort."

All is not rose-coloured in this world; from the claws of Rap I fell
into a dungeon, from which very few poor devils have a chance to escape.

Large dark courtyards and rows of windows like a hospital, and furnished
with gratings; not a sprig of verdure, not a festoon of ivy, not even a
weathercock in perspective--such was my new lodging. It was enough to
make one tear his hair out by the roots.

The police officers, accompanied by the jailer, took me temporarily to a
lock-up.

The jailer, if I remember rightly, was named Kasper Schluessel; with his
grey woollen cap, his pipe between his teeth, and his bunch of keys at
his belt, he reminded me of the Owl-God of the Caribs. He had the same
golden yellow eyes, that see in the dark, a nose like a comma, and a
neck that was sunk between the shoulders.

Schluessel shut me up as calmly as one locks up his socks in a cupboard,
while thinking of something else. As for me, I stood for more than ten
minutes with my hands behind my back and my head bowed. At the end of
that time I made the following reflection: "When falling, Rap cried out,
'I am assassinated,' but he did not say by whom. I will say it was my
neighbour, the old merchant with the spectacles: he will be hanged in my
place."

This idea comforted my heart, and I drew a long breath. Then I looked
about my prison. It seemed to have been newly whitewashed, and the walls
were bare of designs, except in one corner, where a gallows had been
crudely sketched by my predecessor. The light was admitted through a
bull's-eye about nine or ten feet from the floor; the furniture
consisted of a bundle of straw and a tub.

I sat down upon the straw with my hands around my knees in deep
despondency. It was with great difficulty that I could think clearly;
but suddenly imagining that Rap, before dying, had denounced me, my legs
began to tingle, and I jumped up coughing, as if the hempen cord were
already tightening around my neck.

At the same moment, I heard Schluessel walking down the corridor; he
opened the lock-up, and told me to follow him. He was still accompanied
by the two officers, so I fell into step resolutely.

We walked down long galleries, lighted at intervals by small windows
from within. Behind a grating I saw the famous Jic-Jack, who was going
to be executed on the morrow. He had on a strait-jacket and sang out in
a raucous voice:

"Je suis le roi de ces montagnes."

Seeing me, he called out:

"Eh! comrade! I'll keep a place for you at my right."

The two police officers and the Owl-God looked at each other and smiled,
while I felt the goose-flesh creep down the whole length of my back.


III

Schluessel shoved me into a large and very dreary hall, with benches
arranged in a semicircle. The appearance of this deserted hall, with its
two high grated windows, and its Christ carved in old brown oak with His
arms extended and His head sorrowfully inclined upon His shoulder,
inspired me with I do not know what kind of religious fear that accorded
with my actual situation.

All my ideas of false accusation disappeared, and my lips tremblingly
murmured a prayer.

I had not prayed for a long time; but misfortune always brings us to
thoughts of submission. Man is so little in himself!

Opposite me, on an elevated seat, two men were sitting with their backs
to the light, and consequently their faces were in shadow. However, I
recognized Van Spreckdal by his aquiline profile, illuminated by an
oblique reflection from the window. The other person was fat, he had
round, chubby cheeks and short hands, and he wore a robe, like Van
Spreckdal.

Below was the clerk of the court, Conrad; he was writing at a low table
and was tickling the tip of his ear with the feather-end of his pen.
When I entered, he stopped to look at me curiously.

They made me sit down, and Van Spreckdal, raising his voice, said to me:

"Christian Venius, where did you get this sketch?"

He showed me the nocturnal sketch which was then in his possession. It
was handed to me. After having examined it, I replied:

"I am the author of it."

A long silence followed; the clerk of the court, Conrad, wrote down my
reply. I heard his pen scratch over the paper, and I thought: "Why did
they ask me that question? That has nothing to do with the kick I gave
Rap in the back."

"You are the author of it?" asked Van Spreckdal. "What is the subject?"

"It is a subject of pure fancy."

"You have not copied the details from some spot?"

"No, sir; I imagined it all."

"Accused Christian," said the judge in a severe tone, "I ask you to
reflect. Do not lie."

"I have spoken the truth."

"Write that down, clerk," said Van Spreckdal.

The pen scratched again.

"And this woman," continued the judge--"this woman who is being murdered
at the side of the well--did you imagine her also?"

"Certainly."

"You have never seen her?"

"Never."

Van Spreckdal rose indignantly; then, sitting down again, he seemed to
consult his companion in a low voice.

These two dark profiles silhouetted against the brightness of the
window, and the three men standing behind me, the silence in the
hall--everything made me shiver.

"What do you want with me? What have I done?" I murmured.

Suddenly Van Spreckdal said to my guardians:

"You can take the prisoner back to the carriage; we will go to
Metzerstrasse."

Then, addressing me:

"Christian Venius," he cried, "you are in a deplorable situation.
Collect your thoughts and remember that if the law of man is inflexible,
there still remains for you the mercy of God. This you can merit by
confessing your crime."

These words stunned me like a blow from a hammer. I fell back with
extended arms, crying:

"Ah! what a terrible dream!"

And I fainted.

When I regained consciousness, the carriage was rolling slowly down the
street; another one preceded us. The two officers were always with me.
One of them on the way offered a pinch of snuff to his companion;
mechanically I reached out my hand toward the snuff-box, but he withdrew
it quickly.

My cheeks reddened with shame, and I turned away my head to conceal my
emotion.

"If you look outside," said the man with the snuff-box, "we shall be
obliged to put handcuffs on you."

"May the devil strangle you, you infernal scoundrel!" I said to myself.
And as the carriage now stopped, one of them got out, while the other
held me by the collar; then, seeing that his comrade was ready to
receive me, he pushed me rudely to him.

These infinite precautions to hold possession of my person boded no
good; but I was far from predicting the seriousness of the accusation
that hung over my head until an alarming circumstance opened my eyes and
threw me into despair.

They pushed me along a low alley, the pavement of which was unequal and
broken; along the wall there ran a yellowish ooze, exhaling a fetid
odour. I walked down this dark place with the two men behind me. A
little further there appeared the chiaroscuro of an interior courtyard.

I grew more and more terror-sticken as I advanced. It was no natural
feeling: it was a poignant anxiety, outside of nature--like a nightmare.
I recoiled instinctively at each step.

"Go on!" cried one of the policemen, laying his hand on my shoulder; "go
on!"

But what was my astonishment when, at the end of the passage, I saw the
courtyard that I had drawn the night before, with its walls furnished
with hooks, its rubbish-heap of old iron, its chicken-coops, and its
rabbit-hutch. Not a dormer window, high or low, not a broken pane, not
the slightest detail had been omitted.

I was thunderstruck by this strange revelation.

Near the well were the two judges, Van Spreckdal and Richter. At their
feet lay the old woman extended on her back, her long, thin, grey hair,
her blue face, her eyes wide open, and her tongue between her teeth.

It was a horrible spectacle!

"Well," said Van Spreckdal, with solemn accents, "what have you to say?"

I did not reply.

"Do you remember having thrown this woman, Theresa Becker, into this
well, after having strangled her to rob her of her money?"

"No," I cried, "no! I do not know this woman; I never saw her before.
May God help me!"

"That will do," he replied in a dry voice. And without saying another
word he went out with his companion.

The officers now believed that they had best put handcuffs on me. They
took me back to the Raspelhaus, in a state of profound stupidity. I did
not know what to think; my conscience itself troubled me; I even asked
myself if I really had murdered the old woman!

In the eyes of the officers I was condemned.

I will not tell you of my emotions that night in the Raspelhaus, when,
seated on my straw bed with the window opposite me and the gallows in
perspective, I heard the watchmen cry in the silence of the night:
"Sleep, people of Nuremberg; the Lord watches over you. One o'clock! Two
o'clock! Three o'clock!"

Every one may form his own idea of such a night. There is a fine saying
that it is better to be hanged innocent than guilty. For the soul, yes;
but for the body, it makes no difference; on the contrary, it kicks, it
curses its lot, it tries to escape, knowing well enough that its role
ends with the rope. Add to this, that it repents not having sufficiently
enjoyed life and at having listened to the soul when it preached
abstinence.

"Ah! if I had only known!" it cried, "you would not have led me around
by a string with your big words, your beautiful phrases, and your
magnificent sentences! You would not have allured me with your fine
promises. I should have had many happy moments that are now lost
forever. Everything is over! You said to me: 'Control your passions.'
Very well! I did control them. Here I am now. They are going to hang me,
and you--later they will speak of you as a sublime soul, a stoical soul,
a martyr to the errors of Justice. They will never think about me!"

Such were the sad reflections of my poor body.

Day broke; at first, dull and undecided, it threw an uncertain light on
my bull's-eye window with its cross-bars; then it blazed against the
wall at the back. Outside the street became lively. This was a
market-day; it was Friday. I heard the vegetable wagons pass and also
the country people with their baskets. Some chickens cackled in their
coops in passing and some butter sellers chattered together. The market
opposite opened, and they began to arrange the stalls.

Finally it was broad daylight and the vast murmur of the increasing
crowd, housekeepers who assembled with baskets on their arms, coming and
going, discussing and marketing, told me that it was eight o'clock.

With the light, my heart gained a little courage. Some of my black
thoughts disappeared. I desired to see what was going on outside.

Other prisoners before me had managed to climb up to the bull's-eye;
they had dug some holes in the wall to mount more easily. I climbed in
my turn, and, when seated in the oval edge of the window, with my legs
bent and my head bowed, I could see the crowd, and all the life and
movement. Tears ran freely down my cheeks. I thought no longer of
suicide--I experienced a need to live and breathe, which was really
extraordinary.

"Ah!" I said, "to live what happiness! Let them harness me to a
wheelbarrow--let them put a ball and chain around my leg--nothing
matters if I may only live!"

The old market, with its roof shaped like an extinguisher, supported on
heavy pillars, made a superb picture: old women seated before their
panniers of vegetables, their cages of poultry and their baskets of
eggs; behind them the Jews, dealers in old clothes, their faces the
colour of old box-wood; butchers with bare arms, cutting up meat on
their stalls; countrymen, with large hats on the backs of their heads,
calm and grave with their hands behind their backs and resting on their
sticks of hollywood, and tranquilly smoking their pipes. Then the
tumult and noise of the crowd--those screaming, shrill, grave, high, and
short words--those expressive gestures--those sudden attitudes that show
from a distance the progress of a discussion and depict so well the
character of the individual--in short, all this captivated my mind, and
notwithstanding my sad condition, I felt happy to be still of the world.

Now, while I looked about in this manner, a man--a butcher--passed,
inclining forward and carrying an enormous quarter of beef on his
shoulders; his arms were bare, his elbows were raised upward and his
head was bent under them. His long hair, like that of Salvator's
Sicambrian, hid his face from me; and yet, at the first glance, I
trembled.

"It is he!" I said.

All the blood in my body rushed to my heart. I got down from the window
trembling to the ends of my fingers, feeling my cheeks quiver, and the
pallor spread over my face, stammering in a choked voice:

"It is he! he is there--there--and I, I have to die to expiate his
crime. Oh, God! what shall I do? What shall I do?"

A sudden idea, an inspiration from Heaven, flashed across my mind. I put
my hand in the pocket of my coat--my box of crayons was there!

Then rushing to the wall, I began to trace the scene of the murder with
superhuman energy. No uncertainty, no hesitation! I knew the man! I had
seen him! He was there before me!

At ten o'clock the jailer came to my cell. His owl-like impassibility
gave place to admiration.

"Is it possible?" he cried, standing at the threshold.

"Go, bring me my judges," I said to him, pursuing my work with an
increasing exultation.

Schluessel answered:

"They are waiting for you in the trial-room."

"I wish to make a revelation," I cried, as I put the finishing touches
to the mysterious personage.

He lived; he was frightful to see. His full-faced figure, foreshortened
upon the wall, stood out from the white background with an astonishing
vitality.

The jailer went away.

A few minutes afterward the two judges appeared. They were stupefied. I,
trembling, with extended hand, said to them:

"There is the murderer!"

After a few minutes of silence, Van Spreckdal asked me:

"What is his name?"

"I don't know; but he is at this moment in the market; he is cutting up
meat in the third stall to the left as you enter from Trabaus Street."

"What do you think?" said he, leaning toward his colleague.

"Send for the man," he replied in a grave tone.

Several officers retained in the corridor obeyed this order. The judges
stood, examining the sketch. As for me, I had dropped on my bed of
straw, my head between my knees, perfectly exhausted.

Soon steps were heard echoing under the archway. Those who have never
awaited the hour of deliverance and counted the minutes, which seem like
centuries--those who have never experienced the sharp emotions of
outrage, terror, hope, and doubt--can have no conception of the inward
chills that I experienced at that moment. I should have distinguished
the step of the murderer, walking between the guards, among a thousand
others. They approached. The judges themselves seemed moved. I raised up
my head, my heart feeling as if an iron hand had clutched it, and I
fixed my eyes upon the closed door. It opened. The man entered. His
cheeks were red and swollen, the muscles in his large contracted jaws
twitched as far as his ears, and his little restless eyes, yellow like a
wolf's, gleamed beneath his heavy yellowish red eyebrows.

Van Spreckdal showed him the sketch in silence.

Then that murderous man, with the large shoulders, having looked, grew
pale--then, giving a roar which thrilled us all with terror, he waved
his enormous arms, and jumped backward to overthrow the guards. There
was a terrible struggle in the corridor; you could hear nothing but the
panting breath of the butcher, his muttered imprecations, and the short
words and the shuffling feet of the guard, upon the flagstones.

This lasted only about a minute.

Finally the assassin re-entered, with his head hanging down, his eyes
bloodshot, and his hands fastened behind his back. He looked again at
the picture of the murderer; he seemed to reflect, and then, in a low
voice, as if talking to himself:

"Who could have seen me," he said, "at midnight?"

I was saved!

* * * * *

Many years have passed since that terrible adventure. Thank Heaven! I
make silhouettes no longer, nor portraits of burgomasters. Through hard
work and perseverance, I have conquered my place in the world, and I
earn my living honourably by painting works of art--the sole end, in my
opinion, to which a true artist should aspire. But the memory of that
nocturnal sketch has always remained in my mind. Sometimes, in the midst
of work, the thought of it recurs. Then I lay down my palette and dream
for hours.

How could a crime committed by a man that I did not know--at a place
that I had never seen--have been reproduced by my pencil, in all its
smallest details?

Was it chance? No! And moreover, what is chance but the effect of a
cause of which we are ignorant?

Was Schiller right when he said: "The immortal soul does not participate
in the weaknesses of matter; during the sleep of the body, it spreads
its radiant wings and travels, God knows where! What it then does, no
one can say, but inspiration sometimes betrays the secret of its
nocturnal wanderings."

Who knows? Nature is more audacious in her realities than man in his
most fantastic imagining.





Next: Green Branches

Previous: The Deserted House



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