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In the first half of the last century [1700's] there took place in Paris a mysterious affair which roused the greatest interest even in the highest quarters, and in spite of the most eager and repeated investigations was only half cleared up; that is, certain facts were settled; but an impenetrable veil remained suspended over their connexion.
Even today it is unremoved and the future can hardly be expected to lift it.
In the archives of the secret police of Paris which we once received permission to search in reference to this remarkable incident and which probably will disappear in flames during this destruction period of the Commune, the following particulars are recorded.
At the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries there lived in the Rue de l'Hirondelle at Paris in a house which was called the house of Francis I, and in which also the Duchess of Chateaubriand had lived, an attorney of the judicial court of Chatelet, named Dumas.
"Maitre Dumas," (this was the title they used to give him at that time), was an extraordinarily rich man. He was a widower, and in his house there lived with him a son and a daughter; but he was considered very parsimonious, because there was only a single maidservant in the house to wait on three of them. Her name was Marguerite, and, as the investigations of the police showed, she received only twelve dollars a year in wages. For this she had to look after the service of the house by herself alone, attend to the cooking, the washing, and the cleaning of the rooms. She had to fetch water and even feed and groom a mule which Maitre Dumas and his son Eudes used for their excursions; she also had to accompany Mademoiselle Dumas when the latter went to Notre Dame to hear mass, or visited her friends in the neighborhood.
Perhaps it was this economy in the household affairs of Maitre Dumas which caused the fame of his wealth to grow into the proportions of the treasures of a fairy-tale; people said that he understood magical arts, and that he stood in relations with the devil. This rumor was yet further strengthened by the fact that no one ever saw him in a church and that he had never had a confessor. He studied in old books a great deal and had had built for himself a kind of observatory on the roof of his house where he observed the stars at night, certainly more in order to consider their astrological constellations than for the purposes of legitimate astronomy, for he also understood the art of casting horoscopes; and mysterious people often came to him by night in order to have their future told by the astrological attorney.
Every Friday, exactly at three o'clock in the afternoon, this remarkable man shut himself up in his room and no one, not even his son or daughter was allowed to enter. Always, too, a few minutes after Maitre Dumas had locked himself in his room, a rider on a mule came down the street; the mule was big and strong, beautifully built and with shining well-groomed coat, but on his left side one could see a great open bleeding wound, the sight of which made one shudder, and yet it did not appear to hinder the animal in its regular sturdy pace. The rider was a big strong man, well dressed; his pale face with its dark eyes had a proud and haughty look, and people would have taken him for a country nobleman who had come into the town on business, only there was something wonderful and mysterious about him, for on his broad white forehead one could see three bloody wounds which glowed like fiery coals and filled all the passers-by with horror, so that whoever met this remarkable rider turned his face away, and no one in the street stood at the window at the regular hour for his passing.
Everyone knew this rider and the time of his arrival, for he had appeared always at the same hour for the past thirty years. This rider stopped at the door of Maitre Dumas, dismounted, and led his mule into the yard, where it quietly stood without being tied; the rider himself went upstairs, opened without knocking the door of Maitre Dumas, which was bound with iron and doubly locked, and remained for an hour with the mysterious attorney. Then he went downstairs again, mounted his mule and rode away at a sharp trot. No one was ever able to find out where he rode to; several times curious people followed him but all said that they had lost trace of him in the neighborhood of the churchyard of the Innocents.
Maitre Dumas remained quietly in his room and only came out when the bell rang for supper, as it did daily.
As we have said this happened regularly for thirty years, and people had gradually accustomed themselves to the peculiarities of the house of Francis I. Maitre Dumas was now eighty years old and his son was fifty; year by year the attorney spoke of getting him married without this ever happening; the daughter was forty-five years old, very pious, and quite the opposite of her father; she often went to mass, and stood on good terms with all the religious people; and yet she passed among the neighbors for a malicious, intolerant, and slanderous woman.
In spite of his great age Maitre Dumas was uncommonly healthy, vigorous, and active; no weakness seemed to disturb him, and his step was as quick, sure, and springy as that of a young man.
That was how things stood on December 31st, 1700. This was a Wednesday, and to their astonishment the inhabitants of the Rue de l'Hirondelle saw the mysterious rider on his bloody mule appear in the street at ten o'clock in the morning and stop in front of the house of Francis I. Maitre Dumas was in his usual workroom, and his son and daughter also were not a little astonished to see the mysterious stranger appear at this unusual hour; they had never of late heard anything of the relations of the latter to their father.
As usual, the unknown left his mule standing in the yard, asked for no one, but went straight to the attorney's workroom. As he opened the door and stepped into the room, Dumas' son heard his father utter a cry of terror and the door was quickly shut. Loud and positive voices could be heard all over the house, apparently engaged in obstinate and bitter strife.
This altercation lasted a long time; neither the children nor the maid dared to enquire the cause of it since it was strictly forbidden for any of them to enter their father's room. At last the gloomy stranger appeared again, shut the door, mounted his mule and rode away so quickly on it that the neighbors said afterwards that they could not follow him with their sight.
After some time Maitre Dumas appeared among his children, but they were terribly frightened when they looked at him. He was no longer the strong positive bright man he usually showed himself, but his face was pale as a corpse, his eyes were dull, his voice sounded hollow; he was the picture of a decrepit old man, and death appeared to have set its seal on his brow. He said in a shaky, trembling voice that he would not have dinner with them, and wanted to go immediately to the room where he was accustomed to receive the visits of the stranger with the wounds on his forehead; meanwhile he was so weak that he could no longer mount the stairs. His son and his daughter supported him and took him to the door of his secret room; here he left them, telling them to come at four o'clock to take him down, for he could not descend the stairs again by himself. Then he bade his son doubly lock the door from outside and to take the key with him.
After a while there came several business friends of the old man who wanted to speak to him; the son, however, in accordance with his father's wish, kept them until four o'clock and then went with them upstairs in order to carry out exactly the old man's instructions to bring him downstairs at that hour.
He opened the door — they entered — but to the astonishment and terror of all they found the room which was on the level of the roof and had no other exit, quite empty; there was not a trace of Maitre Dumas to be seen, not a spot of blood on the ground which could suggest a crime; the windows were locked, and in any case it would have been impossible for the weak old man to have attempted to get out that way.
The affair made a terrible uproar. There were people who accused the children of the murder of their father; the authorities held a strict investigation; the children spent large sums in the endeavor to discover some trace of their father. Workmen searched the room from which the old man had so mysteriously disappeared, the floor was torn up, the walls were stripped; the beams and walls were minutely examined and pierced, but nothing was discovered, and all investigations, both private and official, were without result; and even if the general investigation gave ground for no suspicion of the children, yet the disappearance or death of the old attorney remained completely unexplained.
The mysterious rider on his mule appeared no more and no one ever saw him again in the street or in that part of the town. The son and daughter of old Dumas died after a number of years, the whole matter fell into oblivion and only remained in the tales which people tell at twilight by the fireside, until the general interest in the matter was aroused once more in a quite peculiar way and the story became the subject of the day, in all conversations.
Old Marshal de Villeroy, the tutor of Louis XV, in order to make himself agreeable, used to tell all the latest Parisian society news to the royal lad whose guardianship was entrusted to him. In this way he had told the little king, on whom mysterious and gruesome stories had a peculiar fascination, the story of the disappearance of old Dumas which was then agitating all Paris; perhaps he added a few decorations, and with the suggestion that was popular at that time that the devil in person had carried the old godless astrologer away with him through the air.
This story had made a deep impression on the lively fancy of the young king, and in later years when at court the conversation turned upon mysterious incidents, he was accustomed to bring this forward as a proof that even in the enlightened and skeptical age of Voltaire wonderfully mysterious things could happen, things which mocked the investigations of the most keen witted of men.
One day the famous Count de Saint-Germain was in the king's inner court circle. The Count de Saint-Germain, as is well known, maintained that he possessed the Elixir of life, and that he could always rejuvenate himself with it; and that he knew how to rule and search into nature by the power of his secret mysterious knowledge. The conversation turned on supernatural and inexplicable effects of mysterious powers in the world and among men, and the king told, as he usually did on such an occasion, the story of the wonderful and unexplained disappearance of Maitre Dumas.
"If your Majesty is interested in knowing what became of Maitre Dumas," said the Count de Saint-Germain, "it will be a pleasure to me to satisfy your curiosity."
The King shook his head smiling incredulously. The Marquise de Pompadour, however, immediately took the Count at his word and pressed the King to obtain from him the proffered explanation.
The Count de Saint-Germain withdrew for an instant into a corner of the room and appeared to sink into a deep reverie while he murmured unintelligible cabalistic formulae to himself.
After a little while he again came to the King, and said:
"The matter is simple, sire. The people who undertook to examine the room from which Maitre Dumas disappeared were either bribed or had not the ability to see anything that was not staring them in the face. The threshold of the door to the room was moveable; at the side of the door there is a spring, and if it is opened one can see the first step of a stairway which leads down through the walls of the house. If you go down these stairs you come into a cellar which has no other exit; Maitre Dumas went down into this cellar."
"But according to the statement of his children he was so weak," said the king, "that he could not go up the stairs again without aid."
"He had drunk a solution," replied the Count, "which gave him the strength to descend into the cellar. Once arrived there he drank an overdose of opium and sank into a sleep from which he awoke no more."
"And do you really suppose I shall believe this story?" said Louis XV shaking his head incredulously.
"Your Majesty," replied the Count, "will do whatever you like. Meanwhile what I have said is nothing more than the exact truth."
"We shall see," exclaimed the King, and immediately sent for his Minister of Police. He gave him the order to have the house of Francis I in the Rue de l'Hirondelle again searched most carefully on the next day, according to the declaration of Count Saint-Germain.
They awaited the next day in the greatest curiosity.
At last the Minister of Police came, and to the utmost astonishment of the King and the Marquise de Pompadour reported that they had actually found the moveable threshold and had discovered the stairway described by Count SaintGermain under it. They had descended the stairs and passing through the foundations of the house had come into a cellar. When they had lighted it they had found therein among a number of physical and astrological instruments the skeleton of a man, which was dressed in the almost completely preserved clothes of Maitre Dumas; beside the skeleton there was on the ground a cup of agate which had been broken to pieces and a bottle of crystal which was likewise smashed. In one of the fragments of this glass there was still preserved a film of dried opium.
The King was amazed. He immediately sent for the Count de Saint-Germain and in his presence had the report of the minister of police repeated.
"I knew Your Majesty would be convinced of the truth of my statement," said the Count.
"But, my dear sir, I am not at all satisfied with the explanation," said Louis XV. "You have only aroused my curiosity still more. If we know now that Maitre Dumas went down the secret staircase into his hidden cellar, it still remains just as inexplicable as ever what could have induced him first by means of a secret drug to gather strength to go down and then by means of another to put an end to his life in such an extraordinary fashion. In any case he must have known the distress his mysterious disappearance would have caused his children, and if he wanted to die would have been able to do this in some other manner. And then again what is the connexion with all this of the mysterious horseman, the man over whose appearance all the neighbors had so unanimously expressed themselves so positively?"
Count Saint-Germain shrugged his shoulders.
"If your Majesty were gracious enough to enter into the Order of Freemasons and proceed to the Rosicrucian degree, the last veil would fall from before your eyes, and the secret would be clear to you. I can now reveal no more than what I have already told you, for every word would expose me to the greatest danger."
In spite of all importunities, in spite of all entreaties on the part of the Marquise de Pompadour, the Count Saint-Germain was not to be prevailed upon to make any more revelations, and the mysterious story became, through what he had said, more mysterious and more inexplicable than before.
The Police investigations remain entirely fruitless, for almost all the witnesses of the time in which the disappearance of Maitre Dumas took place were already dead, and it was never really ascertained with legal certainty whether the skeleton found in the mysterious cellar was really that of the vanished attorney of Chatelet.
All Paris talked for some weeks of the mysterious story of the lost Maitre Dumas, then it sank again into oblivion.
We have related this story to our readers just as it is reported in the Archives of the secret police of Paris and must give up searching for the key to the riddle which has now for nearly two hundred years remained unsolved.