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- THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD - 10/39 -
made. Dimitri has six others just like this in his pocket. We got them so as to exchange with other collectors. You understand? At none o'clock this morning we were at the factory. You see we did not waste our time."
"So I certainly perceive, Madame," I replied, bitterly; "but I have lost mine."
I then saw that she was a naturally good-hearted woman. All her merriment vanished.
"Poor Monsieur Bonnard! poor Monsieur Bonnard!" she murmured.
And, taking my hand in hers, she added:
"Tell me about your troubles."
I told her about them. My story was long; but she was evidently touched by it, for she asked me quite a number of circumstantial questions, which I took for proof of her friendly interest. She wanted to know the exact title of the manuscript, its shape, its appearance, and its age; she asked me for the address of Signor Rafael Polizzi.
And I gave it to her; thus doing (O destiny!) precisely what the abominable Polizzi had told me to do.
It is sometimes difficult to check oneself. I recommenced my plaints and my imprecations. But this time Madame Trepof only burst out laughing.
"Why do you laugh?" I asked her.
"Because I am a wicked woman," she answered.
And she fled away, leaving me all disheartened on my stone.
Paris, December 8, 1859.
My unpacked trunks still encumbered the hall. I was seated at a tabled covered with all those good things which the land of France produces for the delectation of gourmets. I was eating a pate le Chartres, which is alone sufficient to make one love one's country. Therese, standing before me with her hands joined over her white apron, was looking at me with benignity, with anxiety, and with pity. Hamilcar was rubbing himself against my legs, wild with delight.
These words of an old poet came back to my memory:
"Happy is he who, like Ulysses, hath made a goodly journey."
..."Well," I thought to myself, "I travelled to no purpose; I have come back with empty hands; but, like Ulysses, I made a goodly journey."
And having taken my last sip of coffee, I asked Therese for my hat and cane, which she gave me not without dire suspicions; she feared I might be going upon another journey. But I reassured her by telling her to have dinner ready at six o'clock.
It had always been a keen pleasure for me to breathe the air in those Parisian streets whose every paving-slab and every stone I love devotedly. But I had an end in view, and I took my way straight to the Rue Lafitte. I was not long in find the establishment of Signor Rafael Polizzi. It was distinguishable by a great display of old paintings which, although all bearing the signature of some illustrious artist, had a certain family air of resemblance that might have suggested some touching idea about the fraternity of genius, had it not still more forcibly suggested the professional tricks of Polizzi senior. Enriched by these doubtful works of art, the shop was further rendered attractive by various petty curiosities: poniards, drinking-vessels, goblets, figulines, brass guadrons, and Hispano-Arabian wares of metallic lustre.
Upon a Portuguese arm-chair, decorated with an escutcheon, lay a copy of the "Heures" of Simon Vostre, open at the page which has an astrological figure on it; and an old Vitruvius, placed upon a quaint chest, displayed its masterly engravings of caryatides and telamones. This apparent disorder which only masked cunning arrangement, this factitious hazard which had placed the best objects in the most favourable light, would have increased my distrust of the place, but that the distrust which the mere name of Polizzi had already inspired could not have been increased by any circumstances--being already infinite.
Signor Rafael, who sat there as the presiding genius of all these vague and incongruous shapes, impressed me as a phlegmatic young man, with a sort of English character. he betrayed no sign whatever of those transcendent faculties displayed by his father in the arts of mimcry and declamation.
I told him what I had come for; he opened a cabinet and drew from it a manuscript, which he placed on a table that I might examine it at my leisure.
Never in my life did I experience such an emotion--except, indeed, during some few brief months of my youth, months whose memories, though I should live a hundred years, would remain as fresh at my last hour as in the first day they came to me.
It was, indeed, the very manuscript described by the librarian of Sir Thomas Raleigh; it was, indeed, the manuscript of the Clerk Alexander which I saw, which I touched! The work of Voragine himself had been perceptibly abridged; but that made little difference to me. All the inestimable additions of the monk of Saint-Germain- des-Pres were there. That was the main point! I tried to read the Legend of Saint Droctoveus; but I could not--all the lines of the page quivered before my eyes, and there was a sound in my ears like the noise of a windmill in the country at night. Nevertheless, I was able to see that the manuscript offered every evidence of indubitable authenticity. The two drawings of the Purification of the Virgin and the Coronationof Proserpine were meagre in design and vulgar in violence of colouring. Considerably damaged in 1824, as attested by the catalogue of Sir Thomas, they had obtained during the interval a new aspect of freshness. But this miracle did not surprise me at all. And, besides, what did I care about the two miniatures? The legends and the poem of Alexander--those alone formed the treasure I desired. My eyes devoured as much of it as they had the power to absorb.
I affected indifference while asking Signor Polizzi the price of the manuscript; and, while awaiting his reply, I offered up a secret prayer that the price might not exceed the amount of ready money at my disposal--already much diminished by the cost of my expensive voyage. Signor Polizzi, however, informed me that he was not at liberty to dispose of the article, inasmuch as it did not belong to him, and was to be sold at auction shortly, at the Hotel des Ventes, with a number of other MSS. and several incunabula.
This was a severe blow to me. It tried to preserve my calmness, notwithstanding, and replied somewhat to this effect:
"You surprise me, Monsieur! Your father, whom I talked with recently at Girgenti, told me positively that the manuscript was yours. You cannot now attempt to make me discredit your father's word."
"I DID own the manuscript, indeed," answered Signor Rafael with absolute frankness; "but I do not own it any longer. I sold that manuscript--the remarkable interest of which you have not failed to perceive--to an amateur whom I am forbidden to name, and who, for reasons which I am not at liberty to mention, finds himself obliged to sell his collection. I am honoured with the confidence of my customer, and was commissioned by him to draw up the catalogue and manage the sale, which takes place the 24th of December. Now, if you will be kind enough to give me your address, I shall have the pleasure of sending you the catalogue, which is already in the press. you fill find the 'Legende Doree' described in it as 'No. 42.'"
I gave my address, and left the shop.
The polite gravity of the son impressed me quite as disagreeably as the impudent buffoonery of the father. I hated, from the bottom of my heart, the tricks of the vile hagglers! It was perfectly evident that the two rascals had a secret understanding, and had only devised this auction-sale, with the aid of a professional appraiser, to force the bidding on the manuscript I wanted so much up to an outrageous figure. I was completely at their mercy. There is one evil in all passionate desires, even the noblest--namely, that they leave us subject to the will of others, and in so far dependent. This reflection made me suffer cruelly; but it did not conquer my longing to won the work of Clerk Alexander. While I was thus meditating, I heard a coachman swear. And I discovered it was I whom he was swearing at only when I felt the pole of a carriage poke me in the ribs. I started aside, barely in time to save myself from being run over; and whom did I perceive through the windows of the coupe? Madame Trepof, being taken by two beautiful horses, and a coachman all wrapped up in furs like a Russian Boyard, into the very street I had just left. She did not notice me; she was laughing to herself with that artless grace of expression which still preserved for her, at thirty years, all the charm of her early youth.
"Well, well!" I said to myself, "she is laughing! I suppose she must have just found another match-box."
And I made my way back to the Ponts, feeling very miserable.
Nature, eternally indifferent, neither hastened nor hurried the twenty-fourth day of December. I went to the Hotel Bullion, and took my place in Salle No. 4, immediately below the high desk at which the auctioneer Boulouze and the expert Polizzi were to sit. I saw the hall gradually fill with familiar faces. I shook hands with several old booksellers of the quays; but that prudence which any large interest inspires in even the most self-assured caused me to keep silence in regard to the reason of my unaccustomed presence in the halls of the Hotel Bullion. On the other hand, I questioned those gentlemen at the auction sale; and I had teh satisfaction of finding them all interested about matters in no wise related to my affair.
Little by little the hall became thronged with interested or merely curious spectators; and, after half an hour's delay, the auctioneer with his ivory hammer, the clerk with his bundle of memorandum-papers, and the crier, carrying his collection-box fixed to the end of a pole, all took their places on the platform in the most solemn business manner. The attendants ranged themselves at the foot of the
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