“Read that,” said Studer, thrusting a telegram under his friend Madelin’s nose. It was dark outside the Palais de Justice, the Seine gurgled as it lapped against the quai and the nearest street-lamp was a few yards away.
“Greetings from young Jakobli to old Jakob Hedy.”
The commissaire read out the words haltingly once he was under the flickering gaslight. Although Madelin had been attached to the Sûreté in Strasbourg some years before, and therefore was not entirely ignorant of German, he still had difficulty working out what the message meant.
“What’s this all about, Studère?” he asked.
“I’ve become a grandfather,” Studer replied morosely. “My daughter’s had a little boy.”
“That calls for a celebration!” Madelin declared. “As it happens it fits in rather well. A man came to see me today. He’s leaving tonight for Switzerland, on the half-past-ten train, and he’s asked me to recommend him to a colleague there. I’m meeting him at nine in a little bistro by Les Halles. Just now it’s -” keeping his woollen gloves on, Madelin unbuttoned his overcoat, its collar raised in a protective curve round his neck, and took an old silver watch out of his waistcoat pocket – “eight o’clock. We’ve plenty of time,” he added in a self-satisfied voice. With the north wind whipping at his unshielded lips, he became philosophical. “When you get old, you always have plenty of time. Strange, isn’t it? Don’t you find that too, Studère?”
Studer muttered something. But then he looked round abruptly as a high-pitched, squeaky voice said, “And I may offer my congratulations too? Yes? To our revered inspector? My heartiest congratulations?”
Madelin, tall, lean, and Studer, equally tall only thickset, with broader shoulders, turned round. Trotting along behind them was a tiny figure. At first it was impossible to say whether it was male or female: its long coat came down to its ankles, its beret was pulled down over its eyebrows and its nose was wrapped in a woollen scarf, leaving only its eyes uncovered, and even they were hidden behind the lenses of a huge pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.
“You be careful you don’t catch cold, Godofrey,” said Commissaire Madelin. “I’ll need you tomorrow. The Koller business is unclear, but I only got the papers this evening. You’ll need to examine them tomorrow. There’s something not right about Koller’s papers…”
“Thanks, Godofrey,” said Studer, “but it’s me that’s inviting you two. After all, you have to splash out a bit when you’ve just become a grandfather.”
He sighed. Greetings from young Jakobli to old Jakob, he thought. Now you’re a grandfather, that means you’ve lost your daughter for good. Once you’re a grandfather, you’re old – on the scrap heap. But it had been a stroke of genius to escape from the empty apartment in Bern and the dirty dishes in the sink, even more from the green-tiled stove in the living room that only his wife knew how to light; whenever he tried, the monster just belched out smoke like a badly rolled cigar, then went out. Here in Paris he was safe from such disasters. He was staying with Commissaire Madelin, he was treated with respect, was not addressed as “Sergeant” but as “Inspector”. He could spend all day with Godofrey, ensconced in the laboratory at the top of the Palais de Justice, watching the little man analyse dust and X-ray documents. There was a soft hissing from the Bunsen burners, a somewhat louder one from the steam in the radiators, and there was a pleasant smell of chemicals and not of floor polish, as there was in police headquarters in Bern…
The marble tables in the bistro were square, with ribbed paper napkins on them. In the middle of the room was a black stove, the top glowing red hot. The large coffee machine on the bar was humming and it was the owner himself – he had arms as fat as a normal person’s thighs – who was serving.
They began with oysters, and Commissaire Madelin’s favourite pastime. Without asking Studer, he had ordered a 1926 Vouvray, three bottles at once, and he downed one glass after another. In between he quickly slurped three oysters, chewed and swallowed them. Godofrey took little sips, like a shy girl; his hands were small, white, hairless.
Studer was thinking of his wife, who had gone to Frauenfeld to be with their daughter. He was silent and let Godofrey babble on. Madelin was silent as well. Calm and unperturbed, two huge dogs – a skinny Great Dane and a shaggy Newfoundland – ignored the yapping of a tiny fox terrier…
The landlord put a brown terrine of tripe on the table. There followed some bitter lettuce, and another three full bottles appeared in front of them; they were suddenly empty, at the same time as the plate with the runny camembert – it stank, but it was good. Then Commissaire Madelin opened his mouth to make a speech. At least that’s what it looked like, but nothing came of it, for the door opened and a man entered who was so strangely dressed Studer wondered whether the Parisians had their carnival before the New Year.
The man was wearing a snow-white monk’s habit and a cap on his head that looked like a huge red flowerpot made by an incompetent potter. On his feet – they were bare, totally and completely bare – he wore open sandals; his toes and instep were visible, his heel covered.
Studer could hardly believe his eyes. Commissaire Madelin, who ate priests for breakfast, stood up, went to meet the man, brought him back to the table, introduced him – “Father Matthias of the Order of the White Fathers” – and told him Studer’s name, adding that this was the inspector of the Swiss criminal investigation department.
A Père Blanc? A White Father? The sergeant felt as if he were having one of those strange dreams that sometimes come to us after a serious illness. Light as air and full of delight, they take us back to our childhood, when we lived out fairy tales…
For Father Matthias looked exactly like the tailor who killed “seven at one blow” in the fairy tale. His chin was covered in a sparse grey goatee, so sparse you could count each hair of his moustache. And such a skinny face! Just the colour of his eyes, his big grey eyes, reminded you of the sea with clouds passing over it – and sometimes there is a brief flash of sunlight on the surface, which spreads its innocuous veil over unfathomable depths…
Three more bottles…
Father Matthias was hungry. He polished off one plate of tripe in silence, then a second, did not stint himself when it came to the wine, clinked glasses with the others. He spoke French with a slight accent that reminded Studer of home, and indeed, hardly had the man in the white habit eaten his fill than he said, patting the sergeant on the arm, “I’m a fellowcountryman, from Bern.”
“A bah!” said Studer. The wine was starting to go to his head.
“But I’ve been abroad a long time,” the tailor went on – tailor! What was he thinking? He was a monk. No, not a monk, a … a priest. That was it! A White Father. A father who had no children – or, rather, all people were his children. But he was a grandfather himself. Should he tell his fellow-countryman, this expatriate Swiss? No need, Commissaire Madelin was doing it for him.
“It’s a celebration for our inspector. He’s just had a telegram from his wife telling him he’s a grandfather.”
The priest seemed pleased for him. He raised his glass, toasted the sergeant, Studer clinked glasses with him. About time the coffee came. Ah, there it was, and a bottle of rum with it. And Studer, who was starting to feel a bit funny – that Vouvray, not as harmless as it seemed! – heard Madelin tell the landlord to leave the bottle on the table.
Godofrey was sitting next to Studer. Like many short people, he dressed with exaggerated elegance. But that didn’t bother the sergeant. On the contrary, he found the presence of the little manikin, who was a walking encyclopedia of criminology, calming and comforting. The White Father was sitting on the other side of the table, beside Madelin.
Finally, Father Matthias had finished eating. He clasped his hands over his plate, his lips moving silently, his eyes closed. Then he opened them, pushed his chair back from the table a little and crossed his right leg over his left, revealing two sinewy, hairy calves under his habit.
“I have to go to Switzerland, Inspector,” he said. “I have two sisters-in-law there, one in Basel, the other in Bern. And it’s quite possible I may get into difficulties and have to turn to the police for assistance. If that should happen, would you be willing to help me?”
Studer slurped his coffee, silently cursing Madelin, who had fortified the hot drink all too generously with rum. Then he looked up and replied to Father Matthias, also in French.
“The Swiss police does not usually concern itself with family matters. If I’m to help you, I have to know what it’s about.”
“It’s a long story,” said the priest, “and one I hardly dare tell. You’ll all,” he made a circular gesture with his hand, “laugh at me.”
Godofrey protested politely in his parrot’s voice. He called the priest mon père, which for some unknown reason struck Studer as extremely funny. His laugh was concealed by his moustache, and he was still spluttering with laughter as he raised his cup, which had been refilled, to his lips. In order not to give offence he pretended he was blowing on his hot coffee to cool it.
“Have you ever had anything to do with clairvoyance?” Father Matthias asked.
“Cartomancy? Crystal balls? Telepathy? Cryptomnesia?” Godofrey reeled off his litany of questions.
“I see you’re well informed. Have you had much to do with that kind of thing?”
Godofrey nodded, Madelin shook his head and Studer muttered a curt, “Con tricks.”
Father Matthias ignored him. He was gazing into the distance, though in the little bistro the distance was the bar with its shining coffee percolator. The landlord was sitting behind it, hands clasped over his belly and snoring. The four at the table were his only customers. The bistro didn’t start to liven up until around two in the morning, when the first carts with hothouse vegetables arrived.
“I would like to tell you,” the White Father said, “the story of a little prophet, a clairvoyant, if you prefer. It’s because of that clairvoyant that I’m here, instead of visiting the little forts in the south of Morocco, reading mass for the lost sheep of the Foreign Legion.
“Do you know where Géryville is? Four hours beyond the back of beyond! In Algeria, to be precise, on a plateau 5,000 feet above sea level, as the inscription on a stone in the middle of the barracks square tells you. Ninety miles from the nearest railway station. The air is dry, which is why the Prior sent me there last September, since I’ve got a weak chest. Géryville’s a small town with only a few French living there; most of the population is made up of Arabs and Jews. You don’t get anywhere with the Arabs, they don’t want to be converted. They do send their children to me – that is, they allow their little ones to come to me … There’s a battalion of the Foreign Legion up there as well. The legionnaires came to see me sometimes. My predecessor had set up a library, so along they came – corporals, sergeants, now and then a private – and went off with books, or smoked my tobacco. Occasionally, one of my visitors felt the need to confess. Strange things go on in the souls of those men; there are moving conversions of which people who think of the Foreign Legion as the dregs of humanity have no conception.
“Well … One evening a corporal came to see me. He was shorter than me, with a face like a crippled child, he looked sad and old. He was called Collani, he said, paused and then started to speak in a feverish rush. It wasn’t a regular confession in the sense the Church understands it. More of a monologue, almost as if he were talking to himself. He spoke for quite a long time. There were lots of things he had to get off his chest which have nothing to do with my story. It was evening and the room was filled with a greenish halflight; it comes from the skies they get there in autumn, they often have strange colours…”
Studer was resting his cheek on his hand and was so engrossed in Father Matthias’s story he didn’t notice he had pushed up the skin round his left eye so that it was a slanting slit, like a Chinaman’s.
The high plateau! … The wide-open spaces! … The green twilight! … The soldier making his confession!
It was so completely different from what you saw around you every day! The French Foreign Legion! The sergeant remembered he had once been going to enlist, when he was twenty, after an argument with his father. But he hadn’t wanted to cause his mother distress, so he’d stayed in Switzerland and made a career for himself, even rising to the rank of chief inspector in the Bern city police, before that business with the bank had cost him his job. Then, too, he’d felt like dropping everything and … But he had a wife, a daughter, so he’d given up the idea, swallowed his pride and started at the bottom again, patiently working his way up. But deep inside there still slumbered a yearning for the wide-open spaces, the desert, the battles. And then along came a White Father and awakened it all again.
“So he spoke for quite some time, did Corporal Collani. In his pale green greatcoat he looked like a chameleon in need of a rest-cure. Then he was silent for a while and I was just about to get up and send him back to barracks with a few words of comfort when he suddenly started to speak in a completely different voice, deep and hoarse, as if there were someone else speaking from inside him. And the voice sounded strangely familiar to me:
“‘Why’s Mamadou taking the sheet off the bed and hiding it under his coat? Aha, he’s going to sell it in the town, the swine. And it’s me who’s responsible for the linen. Now he’s going downstairs, across the barracks square to the railings. Of course, he’s too scared to go past the guards. And Bielle’s waiting for him at the railings, takes the sheet from him. Where’s Bielle off to? Aha! He’s going to the Jew in the alley, sells the sheet for a duro -‘”
“A duro,” Madelin explained, “is a silver five-franc coin.”
“Thank you,” said Father Matthias. He was silent for a while as he rummaged in his habit under the table. It must have had a deep pocket somewhere, for he brought out a magnifying glass, a rosary, a wallet woven out of strips of red leather and, finally, a snuffbox, from which he took a generous pinch. Then he blew his nose with a loud blast. The landlord behind the bar woke with a start, but the priest went on with his story:
“I said to him, *ŠñCollani! Wake up, Corporal, you’re dreaming!’ But he went prattling on: *ŠñI’ll teach the pair of you to swipe Legion property. I’ll show you tomorrow!’ Then I grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a good shaking, I was finding the whole thing pretty eerie. He woke up and gave me an astonished look. *ŠñDo you know what you were telling me?’ I asked. *ŠñOf course,’ Collani replied and repeated what he had said in his trance – that’s what it’s called, isn’t it?”
“Certainly,” Godofrey hastened to assure him.
“- in his trance. After that, he left. When I came out of the house at eight the next morning – it was a very clear September morning, you could see the chotts, the great salt lakes, sparkling in the distance – I ran straight into Collani with the quartermaster and the captain. Captain Pouette told me Collani had reported that sheets had been going missing and claimed he knew both the thieves and the receiver. The thieves were already locked up, now it was the turn of the receiver. Collani looked like a water-diviner without his divining rod. Though he was completely conscious, there was a fixed look in his eyes and he was pressing forward.
“I won’t bore you any more. At the bottom of an orange box in a tiny shop run by a Jew who sold onions, figs and dates, we found four sheets. Mamadou was a negro in the fourth company, he admitted the theft. At first Bielle, a red-haired Belgian, denied it, but then he too confessed.
“From then on Collani was always called the clairvoyant corporal and the battalion doctor, Anatole Cantacuzène, organized seances with him: tableturning, automatic writing, in short they tried all the accursed nonsense on him that the spiritualists practise here without the least idea of the danger they’re putting themselves in.
“You will be asking yourselves, gentlemen, why I have told you this long story. It was just to explain why I could not ignore Collani when, one week later, he told me things that affected me personally.
“It was 28 September, a Tuesday.”
Father Matthias paused for a moment, put his hand over his eyes and continued:
“Collani came to me. I spoke to him, as is my duty as a priest, imploring him to give up these satanic experiments. He remained defiant. And suddenly his eyes glazed over again, his upper lids came halfway down over his eyeballs and his lips were twisted in a disagreeable, mocking smile, revealing his broad, yellow teeth. Then he said, in a voice I knew so well, *ŠñHello, Matthias, how’s things?’ It was the voice of my brother – my brother who died fifteen years ago!”
The three men round the table in the little bistro by Les Halles listened in silence. Commissaire Madelin gave a faint smile, as you might after a weak joke. Studer’s moustache quivered, though it wasn’t obvious why. Only Godofrey attempted to relieve the feeling of embarrassment at the improbable story.
“Funny how life keeps forcing you to deal with ghosts …” It could be a profound statement.
Very quietly Father Matthias said, “This strange and yet so familiar voice was coming to me from the lips of the clairvoyant corporal…”
Studer’s moustache stopped quivering, he leant over the table. The stress on that last sentence. It sounded false, feigned, affected. He shot a glance at Madelin. There was the hint of a grimace on the Frenchman’s bony face. So the commissaire had sensed the false note too. He raised his hand and placed it gently on the table. “Let him speak. Don’t interrupt.” And Studer nodded. He had understood.
“*ŠñHello, Matthias, d’you remember me? Did you think I was dead? Alive and kicking, that’s me.’ That was the point at which I suddenly realized Collani was speaking German. *ŠñYou’ll have to hurry, Matthias, if you want to save the old ladies. Otherwise I’ll come for them. In …’ At that point the voice, which was not Collani’s voice, became a whisper, so that I couldn’t understand what came next. But then it was loud and clear again: *ŠñCan you hear the hissing? That hissing noise means death. Fifteen years I’ve waited. First of all the one in Basel, then the one in Bern. One was clever, she saw through me, I’ll save her till last. The other brought up my daughter badly, she must be punished for it.’ There was a laugh, then the voice fell silent. This time Collani was in such a deep sleep, I had difficulty waking him.
“Finally his eyes opened fully and he looked at me, astonished. So I asked him, *ŠñDo you know what you have just told me, my son?’ At first he shook his head, then he replied, *ŠñI saw a man I nursed in Fez fifteen years ago. He died, he had a nasty fever … in 1917, during the Great War. Then I saw two women. One had a wart by her left nostril … The man in Fez, what was his name now? What was his name?’ Collani rubbed his forehead, he couldn’t remember the name and I didn’t prompt him. *ŠñThe man in Fez gave me a letter. I was to post it – fifteen years later. I sent it. On the anniversary of his death, on 20 July. The letter’s gone, yes, the letter’s gone!’ he suddenly shouted. *ŠñI don’t want anything more to do with it. It’s beyond bearing. I did!’ he shouted even louder, as if he were responding to an accusation from someone invisible, *ŠñI did keep a copy. What am I to do with the copy?’ Collani wrung his hands. I tried to calm him down by telling him to bring me the copy. *ŠñThat will ease your conscience, my son. Go and bring it now, at once.’ *ŠñYes, Father,’ the clairvoyant corporal said, got up and went out. I can still hear the screech of his hobnails on the stone outside my door…”
“And I never saw him again. He disappeared from Géryville. They assumed he had deserted. The battalion commander instituted an inquiry, which discovered that a stranger had come by car to Géryville that evening and left that same night. Perhaps he took the clairvoyant corporal with him.”
Father Matthias fell silent. The only sound to be heard in the little room was the snoring of the landlord interspersed with the quiet tick-tock of the clock on the wall…
The White Father took his hands away from his face. His eyes were slightly reddened, but their colour still recalled the sea – though now there was a bank of mist over the water, hiding the sun. The old man who looked like the tailor from the fairy tale scrutinized his audience.
It was no easy task telling a ghost story to three seasoned members of criminal investigation departments. They let the silence drag on until finally one of them, Madelin, rapped the table with the flat of his hand. The landlord shot up.
“Four glasses,” the commissaire ordered. He filled them to the brim with rum and said, in an expressionless voice, “A little something will do you good, Father.” Father Matthias emptied his glass obediently. Studer took a long, slim leather cigar case out of his pocket and found to his dismay that he had only one Brissago left. He went through the ritual of lighting it, then handed his matches to Madelin, who had filled his pipe, with which he gave his Swiss colleague a sign, clearly inviting him to start the interrogation.
Now Studer pushed his chair back too, propped his elbows on his thighs, clasped his hands and, in slow, measured tones, began his questioning.
“Two women? Your brother hadn’t committed bigamy by any chance?
“No,” said Father Matthias. “He got a divorce from his first wife and married her sister, Josepha.”
“Did he now? Got a divorce?” Studer repeated. “I thought that didn’t exist in the Catholic religion?” He looked up and saw that Father Matthias was blushing. A wave of red swept down from his high forehead over his sunburnt face. When it faded, it left peculiar grey blotches on his skin.
“I converted to Catholicism when I was eighteen,” said Father Matthias in a low voice. “As a result I was disowned by my family.”
“What was your brother?” Studer asked.
“A geologist. He prospected for ore in the south of Morocco: lead, silver, copper. For the French government. Then he died in Fez.”
“You’ve seen his death certificate?”
“It was sent to his second wife in Basel. My niece has seen it.”
“You know your niece?”
“Yes. She lives in Paris. She had a job here with my late brother’s secretary.”
“Now,” said Studer, taking his notebook out of his pocket – it was a new ring binder that gave off a strong scent of Russia leather, a Christmas present from his wife, who was fed up with the cheap jotters bound in oilcloth he used. He opened it.
“Would you be so good as to give me the addresses of your two sisters-in-law?”
“Josepha Cleman-Hornuss, 12 Spalenberg, Basel; Sophie Hornuss, 44 Gerechtigkeitsgasse, Bern.” The priest was slightly out of breath as he spoke.
“And you really believe the two old women are in danger, Father?”
“Yes … really … as I hope to be saved, it is my belief that that is the case.”
Again Studer felt like telling him to stop speaking in such an affected manner, but he couldn’t do that, so he just said, “I’m staying here in Paris for the New Year’s Eve celebrations, then I’ll take the overnight train and be in Basel on the morning of New Year’s Day. When are you going to Switzerland?”
“Today … tonight.”
“Then,” came Godofrey’s parrot voice, “you’ve just got time to get a taxi.”
“My God, you’re right. But where…?”
Commissaire Madelin dipped a sugar lump in his rum and, sucking his canard, called out to the snoring landlord, who leapt up, rushed to the door, stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. It was so piercing Father Matthias put his hands over his ears.
Then the storyteller was gone.
Commissaire Madelin growled, “There’s just one thing I’d like to know. Does the man think we’re little children? I’m sorry, Studère, I thought he would have something more important to tell us. He came with a recommendation. From above. He has friends in high places – and he didn’t even pay for a single round! It’s him who’s the child, really, a little child.”
“Excuse me, chef,” said Godofrey, “but that’s not true. Children can talk to the angels, but our White Father’s certainly not on speaking terms with the angels.”
“Eh?” Madelin stared, wide eyed, and Studer, too, gave the over-elegant manikin a look of astonishment.
Godofrey remained unperturbed.
“You can only talk to the angels,” he said, “if you’re pure in heart. Our White Father’s heart is full of deviousness. You haven’t heard the last of him. But now we’re going to drink the health of our inspector’s grandson.” He waved the landlord over. “In champagne!” And he repeated the German words of the telegram, “greetings from young zhakoblee to old zhakobbe.” Studer laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks, then he raised his glass to his two companions.
And it was a good thing Commissaire Madelin had his police identity card on him, otherwise the three of them would have been arrested for disturbing the peace at two in the morning. Studer had taken it into his head to teach his two friends the song of “The Farmer from Brienz” and a uniform policeman was of the opinion that a Paris boulevard was not the place for a singing lesson. He withdrew his objection, however, after he had established their profession. Thus it was that Sergeant Studer was able to continue to regale his colleagues from the Paris Sûreté with jewels of Bernese culture. He taught them “I Know a Vale So Fair and Merry” in which the word “Emmental” gave him the opportunity to expound on the difference between Emmental and Gruyère cheese. For the French subscribed to the heresy that all Swiss cheese came from the Gruyère region.