Delaunay the Broker

All things there are the same, but the same as what, I could not say.

 

He walked into my antique shop one September afternoon. I knew right away he hadn’t come to buy. I have an eye for these things. Even taking a certain fashionable negligence into account, he wasn’t well-dressed enough. In truth, he was neither well nor poorly dressed: he simply couldn’t have cared less for his appearance. His kind is rare among my clients. I have no complaints about this. I hate mediocrity in all its forms.

So he hadn’t come to buy. I was making ready to turn him away with my customary skill when our gazes met. Make no mistake—I am by no means insensitive to the promise in a gaze...  in fact, I’ve an eye for that too. He wasn’t like that; I would have staked my life on it. Something else gave me pause. A lived-in gaze is so rare these days.

I made my way toward him unhurriedly. Nonchalantly, even. Perhaps he was one of those people for whom every encounter is a joust—in which case he’d already scored a point.

“You have quite a collection of handsome items,” he said.

Neither upper, nor lower middle class. I have an ear for it. But nothing common about him either. Clear speech, firm tones, fine timbre. His voice confirmed his gaze; this was no ordinary man.

“Very... personal items,” he concluded.

I appreciated his adjective without letting it show. Indeed, such items are precisely what I sell: it is up to the right person to present himself.

The stranger carefully picked up a mechanical toy displayed on a low table. “Günthermann’s perambulator...  The lithographs look so fresh!”

He tripped the switch, and the baby whose head surfaced from the stroller shook his noisy rattle. “Charming, really!”

He set down the plaything and turned to face me. “Allow me to introduce myself: I am Delaunay.”

“Delaunay... wait—”

“The broker.”

“Ah! So you’re a real person?”

He smiled in amusement. “So it would seem.”

My heart had begun foolishly to beat harder. Like everyone in the business, I’d heard of Delaunay. Rarely does a conversation among antique dealers end without some mention of his name. “And... to what do I owe the honor of your visit?”

He shrugged. “You must know that Raymann is dead.”

“That’s right, Raymann is dead!  What a loss!”

Every guild has its notables. Raymann had been one of the richest and most influential of that roster to which I belonged. Rumor had it Delaunay worked exclusively for him.

“Doubtless.  But here I am, without employ,” said he prosaically.  “I thought of you.”

I must have blushed with pleasure. Delaunay had thought of me! At the same moment, however, I reproved myself in petto. I practice a difficult profession, in which I must sell at the highest possible price and buy at the lowest. By showing too much joy in his offer, I encouraged Delaunay to overestimate his services, and compromised any anticipated profits.

He must have read these thoughts on my face, for he made a soothing gesture.

“Raymann found it rewarding to work with me,” he said with a little laugh.  “You will too—you’ll see.”

In the months that followed, I saw that Delaunay was indeed the king of brokers—the only, at any rate, to furnish any object on demand in the shortest possible time, no matter how unusual, no matter how uncommon.

I knew—we all knew—that a mystery surrounded Delaunay. He was known in our little world, known to everyone in it. He rarely visited the auction rooms, he placed no want ads, nor did he rummage around flea markets. No one had ever been able to boast of having done business with him. No one had the slightest idea where he acquired his items. The objects he brought me seemed to have welled up from nothingness...or rather from the very desires of those who’d requested them.  A client would come and speak to me about some trinket or a little piece of furniture that he’d glimpsed and missed his chance at in a sale once, or that he’d always loved in the living room of an old uncle now deceased, or which he’d simply dreamed of.  I tried to get as precise and complete a description as possible of the item in question—shape, size, color, material; often I even made a sketch from the information given by the collector. I endeavored to ascertain how much he might be willing to spend. Then, without any absolute guarantees of satisfying his desire—for it would have been tactless to dull its edge—I did not rule out the possibility of hope.

 I had only to give Delaunay the sketch and the description then. Eight to ten days later, he would bring me the coveted item. It always met in every way the wishes of the client who, overcome with joy, usually settled up without turning a hair. I grant you, our services cost a pretty penny.  But for our regulars we procured what they had themselves described as marvels.  It was only fitting that they pay marvelously dear.

#

 Delaunay had his limits. He was not to be asked to track down a Norman wardrobe or an abbey table of solid wood. When I ventured to do so, at the beginning of our arrangement, he was adamant: “I won’t carry large objects. Jewelry, paintings, silverware, lamps, small bronzes, old dolls, glass paperweights, books, albums, miniatures—any and as many of these as you want; light furniture at the most, a footrest, a pedestal, but nothing heavy or cumbersome. After all you’re not the one crossing the bar.”

 “Bar?  What bar?”

 “My point exactly,” he muttered.

 He was too valuable for me to run the risk of alienating him. My profits had tripled since he’d walked through my door. Nevertheless, my curiosity was keen. But each time I raised the question of his sources, he interrupted bluntly.

 “Have you ever had a broker who let slip a word on the subject? You have the buyer, I have the item, together we sell it, and for a tidy sum! What more do you want?”

 As I’d returned yet again to the topic, he grew incensed. “I’ll tell you this much: even if I revealed my suppliers, it wouldn’t do you any good... Now back off or I’m gone!”

 His behavior was understandable, but it infuriated me. I am curious; it’s in my nature; I’ve chosen to spend my life in the business of curiosities. I sought neither to poach on Delaunay’s territory nor to evict him from it. I only wanted to know. I suspected Raymann had died without knowing anything about his broker’s secrets. The idea that the same thing might happen to me was intolerable. I brooded over this entire days at a time in my shop. That’s how I am: a brooder, easily obsessed. Capricious, but persistent. Passionate! Now that I think back on it, was I perhaps in love with Delaunay? I’d understood at once that he wasn’t part of my brotherhood, and I’d suffered too much in the past from such incompatibilities to expose myself once more to the inconveniences they occasioned. I’d committed myself; yet my entire temperament as an antique dealer urged me to discover what he hid from me. I had to make up for it somehow. It occurred to me that I might do him one better. I’d send the mighty hunter Nimrod on a wild goose chase!

I took up pad and pencil, and gave my fancy free rein. The result was a snuffbox whose cover was adorned with an engraving that depicted neither a hunting scene nor a libertine tableau—motifs too common to try a sleuth of his talents—but instead a semaphore tower set atop a hill in the heart of a pleasant countryside. Such snuffboxes couldn’t have been so common as to be easily located today. In any case, none had ever passed through my hands. To perfect my snare, I specified that my imaginary client wished the body of the object to be made of rowan wood and the lid of ivory or, failing that, horn. I wrote these desiderata beneath my drawing, added this to an actual order for a silver, helmet-shaped sauceboat, preferably on a pedestal base, signed Boulanger if possible, and had it all sent to Delaunay.

#

Delaunay called at the shop three or four times a month. He never came empty-handed. If he happened not to have located an item yet, he was diligent about bringing me a few charming or original baubles that always sold quickly and turned a nice profit. I’d sent him the messenger on Tuesday. He dropped by Saturday morning.

Delaunay opened his valise and removed a helmet-shaped sauceboat on a pedestal base, hallmarked pre-Empire, and signed Boulanger. I’d sold the piece for nine thousand francs, and counted out three thousand for him on the spot. I would settle with him later for the little knick-knacks that rounded out his delivery: a toiletry bag from the time of Louis-Philippe and a gaily decorated billiard cue in its sheepskin sheath.

“Oh!  I almost forgot!” he said, stuffing the money in his pocket.

He held out an object wrapped in newspaper. A feeling of unease overtook me. Even before undoing the paper, I knew what I’d find inside. At a certain level of insolence, luck no longer amazes us; it terrifies. I finished opening the package and took hold of the snuffbox with a trembling hand. It was indeed as I’d imagined and drawn. The body was of rowan wood. The rectangular lid of yellowed horn was embellished with an engraving of unsophisticated workmanship, depicting a semaphore atop a knoll in a rural setting.

“The scene is simple and the etching clumsy,” said Delaunay. “Mid-nineteenth century, no doubt. But your client wanted a semaphore, and got one! The configuration of the arms on the tower means ‘T.’ I suppose some Thénard or Tournier, in charge of a signal post, wished to keep some souvenir of his vacation.”

“It’s perfect!  Perfect!” I said expressionlessly. “My client will be satisfied…”

“My commission, then?”

“Right away!”

I added four hundred francs to the three thousand I had already given him.

“No new orders for the moment?”

“No…not yet.  Really, this snuffbox…It’s most uncommon. You have a knack.”

“Yes, yes,” he agreed absentmindedly.

He pocketed the bills, shut his suitcase, bid me farewell, and set off at an easy pace.

#

From that day on I knew no sleep. The incident had made the facts plain: all this was unnatural. I should have realized earlier, of course. Even the cleverest, luckiest, most well-connected and zealous broker could not repeat such tours de force week after week. For even if the affair of the snuffbox with a semaphore had impressed me the most, the truth was that Delaunay brought me the most eclectic and singular curios every week.

I didn’t for a moment think him a thief. But then how did he locate the very personal merchandise I asked of him with the required promptness and precision? I’d sooner have believed he’d made a deal with the devil! I don’t believe in the Devil, but none of the theories I’d put together held up, and I was dying of curiosity.

I waited until I’d taken a few more orders and passed them on to Delaunay, and then I put Lambert on his trail. Lambert was a private eye. I’d made his acquaintance during a love affair that was, as they say of certain illnesses, painful and protracted. I’d learned to appreciate his seriousness and his discretion. I charged him with tracking Delaunay’s every step and keeping me informed from day to day of all his movements. Shabby behavior, maybe—but I wanted to put my mind to rest on the subject.

One, two, three days went by without a call from Lambert. Furious, I phoned him at his agency. I got his secretary. The girl told me her boss had stuck to Delaunay like gum to the sole of a shoe. So to speak, that is, because Delaunay hardly ever left his place. When he did, he never went far. He frequented a restaurant, a movie theater, and the public library, all a stone’s throw from where he lived. He lived alone in two rooms and a kitchen on the highest floor of a modest building. He had no visitors, and barely spoke a word to his neighbors. Lambert hadn’t deemed it necessary to inform me of the poverty of his findings. He’d thought it better to wait and learn more before calling.

I was quite concerned by what was in my eyes a crucial point: “All right, so he isn’t going anywhere for the moment. But does he make any calls?”

“No. Never. He doesn’t have a telephone, and never uses the pay phone in the street.”

“What? But there’s no such thing as a broker without a phone! He never gave me his number so I’d leave him alone, and he’s not in the phone book, but he must have a phone!”

“Mr. Lambert checked, Mr. Thyll. Mr. Delaunay is unlisted because he doesn’t have a phone, simple as that.”

Staggered by this revelation, I hung up after insisting that I be kept abreast of the smallest wrinkle in his routine. I was more intrigued than ever. I’d pictured a frenetic Delaunay, moving heaven and earth, making calls day and night… but he loafed around all day, caught flicks, read paperbacks. He was taking it easy, just as if he wouldn’t soon have to deliver a World War I English officer’s hat in mint condition; a statuette (the subject didn’t matter) about eight inches tall and most importantly, of jade without any saussurite, and more olive than green; and finally a silver sugar bowl with a display stand in the Villard style.

Five days after my call, in the early evening, while I was closing up, Delaunay appeared, suitcase in hand. He seemed weary. It certainly wasn’t from exerting himself for my sake! Ever since my call to order, Lambert had phoned me every night to say that Delaunay hadn’t changed his quiet habits in the slightest.

“Well?” I said.

“I’m still missing the sugar bowl,” he said. “Next time… But the rest was no problem.”

From his suitcase he pulled a heavy object wrapped in newspaper and a splendid box for a regulation English army cap.

I remained seated long after he’d left, my head in my hands, unmindful of the hour, and of an appointment awaiting me on the other side of Paris. In front of me, atop my desk beside a brown woolen cap encircled by a broad red ribbon, an eight-inch hermit in olive jade, standing firmly on his crooked legs, seemed to taunt me with a good-natured condescension.

#

Eight days later, Delaunay brought me the sugar bowl. And yet I knew perfectly well from Lambert that he’d kept on going to the movies or, locked away in his room, reading the books he’d gotten from his local library.

I admit that what follows is not to my credit. Nevertheless, you must imagine my state of mind. I no longer thought of anything else. Sleep escaped me. I lost interest in life. Usually quite the gourmand, I picked at my profiteroles, and I must have seemed so tormented that those around me began to worry for my health.

One afternoon, while Delaunay was at the movies, I broke into his apartment. I’d arranged everything with Lambert. He’d had the keys copied and kept watch in front of the building.

I was exceedingly uncomfortable. After all, the escapade could cost me quite a bit. My shirt grew damp with sweat just thinking about the headlines: Edmond Thyll, Well-Known Antiques Dealer, Caught Red-Handed in Burglary. But you had to know what you wanted, and I wanted to know.

The door to Delaunay’s opened easily. I slipped through the gap. I closed it without a sound, and started to explore the place. The place: a bare and cheerless foyer, two tastelessly furnished rooms, the kitchenette of a bachelor who takes most of his meals out. I’d been expecting a broker’s lair—that is, a mess. Crates stuffed with bric-a-brac, piles of empty frames, tables and small pieces of furniture awaiting restoration, jam jars full of odd bits of molding and keys kept just in case…  But nothing of the sort. Nothing artistic touches. Nothing in the least picturesque. It was clean, well-ordered, impersonal to an unusual degree. The best broker in the business put out his cigarettes in complimentary ashtrays of enameled metal, with ads in the bottom, and kept his pens in an empty mustard jar.

I cursed my own foolishness and slumped into a chair. What had I been hoping for? That Delaunay might have been so kind as to scrawl his secret on the wall? I stayed seated for a long moment, contemplating his pitiful furniture with a confounded eye. And little by little the notion of writing made its way into my mind. Delaunay might not’ve written his secret on the wall, but maybe he’d written it somewhere else. He lived alone. Lonely people write. I myself began a novel after every break-up, only to abandon it joyously each time I found a new companion. The human heart is a vase filled with humors and tears. One good blow, and out splash its contents.  Neglect it, and it rots; parasites proliferate, spin out their filaments, mount an assault on the walls, scale them, and spread…

I leapt up and ran to the bed. In the drawer of the bedside table, I found a large spiral notebook. I opened it to a page at random and read, in a low voice, the first lines my eyes fell across:

All things there are the same, but the same as what, I could not say…  The streets I pace, the squares I cross there resemble ours as the reflection of a bridge in a river resembles the bridge itself. The slightest thing destroys its order, as a shift in the wind will wrinkle the bridge’s image, or the brush of a bird’s wing strike it from the water’s surface. All things there are the same, but the scenery dissolves and resolves itself ceaselessly beneath the gaze of an observer himself caught up in the current. The instant the reflection unwrinkles, the second the breach opened by the bird’s wing is filled, the cockleshell of my consciousness has already slipped downstream.

These lines might have seemed obscure, but I was certain right away of holding, in this notebook, the key to the mystery. I tucked it in my coat and left the apartment.

That day I photocopied the notebook, and read it that night. I meant to have Lambert replace the original the next day, and I’d already called and told him to come pick it up in the morning, but this turned out to be unnecessary. I’d just opened up shop when Delaunay walked in.

He headed straight for me. “My manuscript! Give it back!”

“What are you talking about, my friend?”

He shook his head menacingly. “You broke into my apartment yesterday afternoon—you, or someone you hired! A manuscript was stolen… the manuscript for a novel. Give it back, if you know what’s good for you.”

“What makes you think—”

He cut me off in a voice trembling with anger. “Who else could it have been?”

I’m no warrior. I gave up trying to outsmart him. “All right, all right, I’ll give it back.”

Despite himself, his face expressed an unspeakable relief.

I took the notebook from the desk drawer where I’d placed it while waiting for Lambert. Delaunay tore it from my hands.

“Why did you do it?” His voice was almost as tense as before.

“I wanted to know. Now I know.”

“It’s only a novel!”

“A fantastical novel, then.”

“That’s right. A fantastical novel.”

In that moment he hated me—I am sure of it—but his desire to deceive me as to the nature of the notebook forced him to keep his hatred in check.

“It was inspired by my work,” he went on. “You’ve read it? What did you think?”

“It’s a… disturbing tale. I’d like to know how it ends.”

"You’ll find out if it’s published someday.”

 “…Or by reading the newspapers. But in that case I’d be the only one to know what story had just come to an end.”

 Our gazes met head-on. He was the first to lower his eyes.

“You’ll have to hire another broker,” said he, lifting his gaze once more.

“No one could ever match you. If you agreed to stay, I’d increase your percentage. I know—”

I shut my mouth. I’d almost added that from now on I knew how much each piece cost him. I couldn’t think about the pages in the notebook devoted to what he called “the bar” without trembling. I had never read anything more terrifying.

“The money’s secondary,” he said. “I want to work in a climate in of trust. And I no longer trust you.”

I have never seen him again since that morning. A few weeks later, I learned that he’d teamed up with Nedelkovich, one of my most gifted competitors.

#

All I have left of this little adventure is the photocopy of Delaunay’s diary. I made another copy, and had them both bound. The first I keep by my bedside. I often reread it, and reflect upon it. The second is tucked safely away in a deposit box, where these pages will join it when they come back, in turn, from the binder’s. Let posterity make of them what it will. As for me, I believe I have done my duty in thus preserving a part of the only diary of the fantastic in the history of literature. For God knows what may happen to Delaunay and his notebook, and to the pages that he will, without a doubt, keep writing every day, every night, upon returning from his expeditions.