The Mysterious Sketch
by Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian
translation by Michael Wooff
Opposite the Saint Sebaldus Chapel in Nuremberg rises up a little inn, tall and narrow, with a jagged gable, dusty windows and a plaster cast of Our Lady on top of its roof. It was here that I spent the unhappiest days of my life. I had gone to Nuremberg to study the old German masters, but, due to a lack of liquidity, I had to paint portraits. And what portraits they were! Fat purveyors of tittle-tattle with a cat on their knees, aldermen in wigs, burgomasters wearing a three-cornered hat, and the whole thing set off by luminous ochre and cinnabar by the bucketful.
From portraits I descended to sketches and from sketches to outlines.
Nothing can be worse, believe me, than constantly to have on your back a head steward, tight-lipped, shrill, impudent-looking, who comes to you every day with: “So then! How soon will you be paying, sir? Have you any idea how much your bill is now? No. It doesn’t bother you, does it? Sir eats, drinks and sleeps as he pleases. Does not our heavenly Father feed even the birds of the air? Sir’s bill comes to four hundred schillings and ten kreuzer. It’s hardly worth mentioning, I know.”
Those who have not heard this scale being sung can have no concept of it: love of art, imagination, a sacred passion for the beautiful all dry up under the withering breath of such a browbeater... You grow gauche and timid, all your energy dissipated along with any feeling of personal dignity.
One night, penniless as usual, and threatened with debtor’s prison by that worthy steward Rap, I decided I would thwart his hopes of payment by slitting my throat. With this pleasant thought in mind, sitting on my truckle bed opposite the window, I gave myself up to a thousand philosophical reflexions of varying degrees of cheerfulness. I did not dare to open my razor for fear that the irresistible force of my reasoning might well instil in me sufficient courage to do away with myself once and for all. Having argued with myself in this way, I blew out my candle, deferring the conclusion to this line of thought to the morrow.
This abominable Rap had driven me completely round the bend. All I could do now artistically was draw silhouettes and my only desire was to have the money to rid myself of this awful man’s odious presence. But that night, my mind performed a singular about-turn. I woke up going on one o’clock, relit my light and, wrapping around me my grey smock, dashed down on paper a quick sketch reminiscent of an old Dutch master: something strange, bizarre and bearing no resemblance to my usual style.
Picture a dark courtyard hemmed in by high dilapidated walls. These walls are furnished with hooks seven or eight feet from the ground. Even at a cursory glance we may guess that this is a shambles of some sort.
On the left, there is a latticework made up of narrow strips. Through it, you can see a side of beef suspended from an enormous ceiling by enormous pulleys. Broad pools of blood run down over paving stones and meet up in a drain full of undefined debris.
The light comes down from on high, from between chimneys, against which weathervanes are silhouetted by a piece of sky only as big as your hand, and the roofs of neighbouring houses drop their shadows dramatically from one floor to another.
At the end of this recess is a space. In this space is a woodshed, on this woodshed ladders, a few bales of straw, rope, a hen-coop and an old rabbit hutch that has seen better days.
How did these heterogeneous details come to present themselves to my imagination? I do not know. I had no memories of things like this and yet each stroke of my charcoal pencil was a fantastic feat of observation by dint of being true to nature. Nothing was missing!
But on the right of the picture one corner of the sketch remained blank. I knew not what to put there. Something was stirring and moving about. Suddenly I saw a foot, a foot in the air, a foot off the ground. Despite its improbable position, I followed my inspiration without understanding where all this was leading. This foot bordered on a leg. Over the tensely stretched-out leg there soon floated part of a dress. To cut a long story short, an old woman appeared, rumpled, dishevelled, haggard, successively leaning backward over the edge of a well and fighting against a fist that was strangling her.
I was drawing a murder scene. The charcoal pencil fell from my hand.
This woman, posed in the most brazen of attitudes, the small of her back pushed up against the coping of the well, her face twisted in terror, her two hands tightly attached to the arm of the murderer, frightened me. I did not dare to look at her. But the man himself, the owner of this arm, I could not see. It was impossible for me to finish what I was doing.
“I’m tired,” I told myself, my brow bathed in sweat. “I only have this one figure still to do. I’ll finish it tomorrow. It shouldn’t be hard.”
And I went back to bed, scared half to death by my vision. Five minutes later I was fast asleep.
The following day I was up at the crack of dawn. I had just got dressed and was preparing myself to take up where I had left off when two short knocks resounded at the door:
The door opened. A man already in the twilight of his life, tall, thin, dressed in black, appeared on the threshold. The face of this man, his eyes set close together, his great hook nose over which loomed a broad, bony brow had something stern about it. He greeted me solemnly. “Mr. Christian Venius, the painter?” he said.
“I am he, sir.”
He bowed once more, giving his own name: “Baron Frederick Van Spreckdal.”
The appearance in my poor hovel of the rich art collector Van Spreckdal, a judge in the criminal court, made a strong impression on me. I could not stop myself from casting a surreptitious glance at my old worm-eaten furniture, my damp tapestries and my dusty floor. I felt humiliated by such a squalid state of affairs.
But Van Spreckdal did not seem to pay any attention to these things and promptly sat down at my little table: “Mister Venius,” he went on, “I’ve come to—” But just then, his eyes came to rest on the incomplete sketch. He failed to finish his sentence.
I had seated myself on the edge of the truckle bed and the sudden attention given by this person to one of my works made my heart beat faster with a feeling of apprehension that was difficult to define.
After a minute Van Spreckdal raised his head: “Are you the author of this sketch?” he asked, now giving me his undivided attention.
“What are you asking for it?”
“I don’t sell my sketches. It’s the rough draft for a picture.”
“I see,” he said, lifting up the paper with the tips of his long yellow fingers. He took a magnifying glass from his waistcoat pocket and started to study the drawing in silence.
The sun’s rays were, at this time of day, falling obliquely into my garret. Van Spreckdal did not breathe a word; his big nose curved into a claw, his thick eyebrows contracted, and his protruding chin created a thousand wrinkles in his long sunken cheeks. The silence was so impenetrable that I could hear quite distinctly the plaintive buzzing of a fly caught in a spider’s web.
“And how big is this picture going to be, Mister Venius?” he said without even looking at me.
“Three feet by four feet.”
“What will you charge for the picture?”
Van Spreckdal placed the drawing on the table and took out of his pocket a drooping green silk purse, elongated into the shape of a pear. He slid the rings in order to open it. “Fifty ducats then,” he said. “There you have them.”
I went dizzy.
The baron got up, said goodbye to me and I heard his great ivory-handled cane knock against each step till he finally came to the bottom of the stairs. Then, waking up from my temporary stupor, I suddenly remembered that I had not thanked him, and I ran down those four flights of stairs as quick as a flash. But, when I got to the door, it was in vain that I looked both right and left; the street was deserted.
“Well! Fancy that!” I said to myself. “Here’s a how-d’you-do!” And I went back up the stairs quite out of breath.
* * *
The surprising way in which Van Spreckdal had just appeared to me threw me into a deep trance: “Yesterday,” I said to myself as I contemplated the pile of ducats sparkling in the sunshine, “yesterday I formed the culpable intention of cutting my throat for the lack of a few miserable schillings and, today, good fortune smiles on me unbidden. A good job then I didn’t open my razor and, if ever the temptation to do away with myself overtakes me again, I’ll take care to put the thing off to the following day.”
After these judicious reflexions, I sat down to finish the sketch. Four strokes of the charcoal pencil and that would be that. But here an unfathomable disappointment awaited me. I found it impossible to make these four strokes. I had lost the thread of my inspiration and the mysterious personage would not emerge from the limbo of my brain. It was in vain that I evoked it, mapped it out, went back to it -- it was no more in keeping with the whole than a figure by Raphael would be in a David Teniers smoke-filled snug. I was sweating cobs.
To cap it all, Rap, in accordance with his habitual good manners, opened the door without knocking, his eyes becoming glued to my pile of ducats. Then he cried out in a voice like a yelp: “Aha! I’ve caught you. Will you persist in telling me now, Mr Painter, that you’re short of money?”
And his claw-like fingers advanced with that nervous trembling that the sight of gold always arouses in misers.
For a few seconds I stood there, stupefied.
The memory of all the open snubs that this individual had inflicted on me, his covetous gaze, his insolent smile, everything about him exasperated me. In a single bound I seized him and, pushing him out of my bedroom with both hands, I flattened his nose with the door.
This was all done with the crack and the rapidity of a jack-in-the-box.
But outside the old usurer was shrieking like an eagle: “I want my money! Thief! I want my money!”
The other tenants were coming out of their rooms and asking questions: “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
I opened the door again abruptly and dispatched a kick to the spine of Mister Rap that promptly sent him reeling down more than a score of stairs: “That’s what’s happening!” I cried, beside myself. Then I locked the door and bolted it while the laughs of my neighbours greeted Mister Rap as he fell.
I was pleased with myself and rubbed my hands together joyfully. This adventure had put new life into me. I went back to the task in hand and was going to finish the sketch when my ears were assailed by an out of the ordinary noise.
Rifle butts were being struck against the pavement... I looked out of my window and saw three gendarmes, their carbines grounded, their cocked hats crosswise, standing on guard at the main entrance.
“Has that scoundrel Rap broken something?” I said to myself in fear and trembling.
And see what a strange thing the human mind is: I, who had wanted to cut my own throat just the previous day, shuddered to the marrow of my bones when I reflected that I might well be hanged if Rap was dead.
The stairwell filled with a hubbub of noises. There was a rising tide of muffled footfalls, the metallic clink of weapons and brief verbal exchanges.
Suddenly they tried to open my door. It was closed!
Then there was a general commotion. “In the name of the law, open up!”
I got to my feet all of a-quiver, my legs virtually giving way under me.
“Open up!” the same voice repeated.
Seeing that flight was impossible, I stumbled towards the door and turned the key to unlock it.
Two fists instantly clamped themselves on my shoulders. A short thickset man, smelling of wine, said to me: “I’m arresting you!”
He was wearing a bottle-green frock coat buttoned up to the chin, a stovepipe hat. He had great brown sideburns and rings on all his fingers. He was called Passauf. He was the chief of police.
Five bulldog heads adorned with flat caps, with long, sharp noses and lower jaws protruding like hooks, were watching me from outside the door.
“What do you want?” I asked Passauf.
“Come downstairs with us,” he shouted out abruptly, motioning to one of his men to grab me.
The latter dragged me out, more dead than alive, while the others ransacked my room from top to bottom.
I went down, held up by my armpits, like a man in the third stage of consumption, my hair flapping about my face and tripping with each step I took.
They threw me into a hansom next to two strapping fellows who were kind enough to show me the ends of two clubs attached to their wrists by a leather strap. And then the carriage set off.
I could hear following on behind us the running footsteps of all the town’s youngsters.
“What have I done?” I asked one of my guards.
He looked at his companion with a strange smile and said, “Hans, he’s asking what he’s done!”
That smile made my blood run cold.
Soon the carriage was enveloped in deep shadow and the hooves of the horses echoed under a vault. We were entering the Raspelhaus or Penitentiary...I was escaping Rap’s tender mercies only to end up in a dungeon from which not many poor devils have had the opportunity to extricate themselves.
Big dark courtyards; lines of windows just like in a hospital decked with guttering; not so much as a tuft of grass or a festoon of ivy, not even a weathervane in prospect, such were my new lodgings. It was enough to make you tear your hair out by the fistful.
The policemen, accompanied by the jailer, showed me into a temporary cell.
The jailer, if memory serves me right, was called Kasper Schlüssel and, with his grey woollen bonnet, the stem of his pipe stuck between his teeth and the bunch of keys on his belt, he came over to me like the Owl god people worship in the Caribbean. He had his great round gilded eyes that can see in the dark, his curved nose and his bull neck.
Schlüssel locked me up with a minimum of fuss like a person putting socks into a wardrobe, his mind elsewhere. As for me, my hands behind my back, head bowed, I stood there for more than ten minutes without moving from the spot.
Then I looked at my cell. It had just been newly whitewashed and its walls were still empty of graffiti, apart from a gallows roughly drawn in one corner by the previous inmate. The light came through a bull’s-eye window situated nine or ten feet up from the floor; the furniture consisted of a bale of straw and a bathtub.
I sat down on the straw, my hands around my knees, in a state of dejection beggaring belief.
Almost simultaneously, I heard Schlüssel crossing the corridor. He reopened the door of my cell and told me to follow him. He still had as his attendants the two shillelagh men. Resolutely, I dogged his heels.
We passed through long galleries lit here and there by internal windows. I perceived behind a grille the notorious Jick-Jack who was due to be executed the following day. He was wearing a straitjacket and singing in a raucous voice, “I am the king of these mountains!”
When he saw me, he shouted: “Yo, comrade! I’ll keep a place for you at my right hand.”
The two policemen and the Owl god exchanged smiles with one another while I could feel goose bumps up and down my spine.
* * *
Story by Emile Erckmann (1822-1899)
and Alexandre Chatrian (1826-1890)
Translation copyright © 2021 by Michael Wooff