Valdemar's Daughter: A Romance of Mesmerism
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by Brian Stableford
Description: Following the sad demise of Ernest Valdemar, as related in the story by Edgar Allan Poe, his mortal remains are dispatched to his daughter in Paris--but they do not arrive on schedule, and the Chevalier Auguste Dupin is forced to play detective yet again in tracking them down.
The mesmerists of the Philosophical Harmonic Society of Paris seem to be implicated in the mystery, most especially the society's enigmatic President, the Comte de Saint-Germain. In the meantime, Honoré de Balzac lies at death's door, convinced that only the magic of Valdemar's remains can save him. Dupin must race to solve the puzzle, if the great writer's life is to be saved. Will he thwart his adversary in the nick of time?
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press/Borgo Press, 2010 USA
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [146 KB]
Reading time: 86-121 min.
A Nocturnal Visitor
One of the strangest affairs in which my long-distance relationship with my American correspondent ever involved me--and with which my great friend Auguste Dupin was able to render invaluable assistance--was that of the mortal remains of the late Ernest Valdemar. Naturally, I sent a detailed report of the whole affair to my correspondent, but he was unable make any use of it in his work, because public pressure had already compelled him to adopt a defensive stance, asserting vigorously--but falsely, of course--that the carefully-abridged account of Valdemar's last days he had published in December 1845 was purely a hoax. Whether it would have been dangerous for him to assert otherwise, and from what quarter the danger might have come, I cannot say. Nor, for that matter, can I say with any absolute certainty that his silence protected him, for the exact circumstances of his death in 1849 remain stubbornly mysterious--as, I suppose, do the exact circumstances of Honore de Balzac's death in the following year.
I had no advance warning of the fact that my correspondent had recommended anyone to send me a consignment, or by what means, so I was taken entirely by surprise by the events that unfolded with such uncanny rapidity in the month of February 1846, not long after the Cracow rising had plunged Poland into chaos. Paris seemed still to be deep in the hibernation of a cruel winter, not yet able to stir itself properly, even though the ice and snow had largely disappeared, leaving only a slight dusting of night frost to turn the city silver by night.
Dupin arrived at my door shortly after nine, as was his frequent habit in those days, even when the weather was fierce, and we settled down in my sitting-room to discuss matters literary and philosophical. Although I had a decanter of brandy warming on the mantelpiece I had also prepared a jug of mulled wine, as I routinely did when the weather was exceptionally cold--I had done so every time I had anticipated his visit since the end of December--and my invariable suggestion that we start the evening with the libation in question was gratefully accepted.
"This is not your usual recipe," he observed, having taken a few sips. "You have been experimenting again." There was no hint of accusation in his tone; apparently, he approved of the taste and the texture of the combination of spices that I had mixed with the red wine. I did not tell him that I could claim no credit for the experiment in question, because the combination had been made up for me by the local herbalist-cum-apothecary.
Dupin settled into his armchair with his glass and took off his boots in order to warm his stockinged feet on the edge of the fireplace; evidently, he was glad of an opportunity to relax, and for once, our conversation was a trifle lacking in energy. Although we had left the most intense period of winter darkness behind, spring still seemed a distant prospect, and we both seemed to be suffering from the kind of affective disorder that makes so many residents of Paris seem sluggish once Mardi Gras has passed and Lent has established its dour empery over the public mood. I think we were both half-asleep by midnight, although that was an hour when, night-owls as we were, our wits usually came more fully to life. It was with a certain annoyance that I was snatched out of my reverie half an hour later when I heard my doorbell ring.
I cannot say that I was unduly surprised by the fact itself, in spite of the unsociable hour and chilly weather, for the sad truth is that the peaceful initial period of our initial acquaintance, when Dupin had consented to share my rented accommodation for a while, was decisively past. Dupin's reluctant celebrity had spread considerably further than the Prefecture by that date. Although he had moved back to his own apartment some time before, only visiting the house that we had once shared when the mood took him, anyone who came looking for him by night knew well enough where to enquire for him if he was not at home. I was surprised, however, when I answered the door--personally, for I kept no concierge or valet--to find that the caller was a woman, and doubly surprised when she asked for me rather than my friend.
When I had confirmed my identity, I thought for a moment that she might throw herself upon me, although she controlled herself, and contented herself with saying, in a rather plaintive tone: "Oh, do tell me that Dr. Collyer has arrived! Do tell me that they have not contrived to intercept him, and that you have the package safe?"
"Madame," I replied--for her age and general appearance, as well as the fact that she was out alone at such an hour, clearly suggested to a man who had so long been party to Dupin's skill in ratiocination that she must be married, or a widow--"I have not the slightest idea what you are talking about, nor, for that matter, who you are."
Her response was to look behind her anxiously, as if she feared that she might have been followed to my doorstep--although the night was as black as ink, and could have hidden a dozen pursuers of any sort without offering the slightest clue as to their presence--and then to step forward, with a most unfeminine boldness, and force me to stand aside as she surged into my hallway uninvited.
"Please close the door," she said. "I shall be glad to explain who I am, and what mission brought me here, but I need to be safe from prying eyes. A man's life might be at stake--and more lives than one, if we have read the meaning of Chapelain's story rightly."
For a moment, I was heartily glad that Dupin was waiting in my sitting-room. Little as I cared about the good opinion of my neighbors, I would not have wanted to be identified by anyone in the vicinity as the kind of man who routinely entertained dubious women in his house at the dead of night. To be sure, my unexpected visitor's costume encouraged the belief that she was respectable, but even whores can seem chaste when they need to mount a masquerade.
I showed my guest into the sitting-room, where Dupin was waiting, still sprawled in his armchair. His stockings were slightly singed, even though the fire was not blazing quite as brightly as we might have desired. He sprang to his feet, however, as soon as he caught our visitor--a convulsive return to nervous tension that might have saved the empty crystal glass in his hand from dropping from his nerveless fingers and shattering on the hearth. I reflected that it was most unlike him to be taken by surprise in that fashion. His ears were keen, and I would have expected him to make every effort to overhear what was said on the doorstep, given that he must have suspected, as I had, that the ringing doorbell signaled an appeal for help addressed to him. Evidently, he was uncommonly somnolent.
Whether it saved his wine-glass or not, Dupin's alacrity to demonstrate his politeness to our unexpected guest misfired. The suddenness of his action threw my visitor into a virtual panic. She clearly did not recognize Dupin, and evidently feared that any stranger might be an enemy. She spun around, and on finding my slightly corpulent frame blocking the doorway, appeared to think that she might have walked into a trap. She opened her mouth as if to scream, but controlled herself once again, and no sound came out.
"Calm yourself, Madame," I said, perhaps a little less compassionately than the situation warranted. "No one here means you any harm. This is the Chevalier Auguste Dupin, of whom you might have heard--the cleverest and most virtuous man in Paris, some would say. I regret, my friend, that I cannot complete the introduction, for the lady has not yet confided her name."
"Monsieur Dupin!" she exclaimed, as if suddenly overcome by an enormous wave of relief. "I have heard your name, spoken in a highly complimentary context! Honore has mentioned you, although he only knows you by reputation--by courtesy of Monsieur Vidocq, I believe. Honore would like to meet you, I think...if that is any longer possible."
Dupin bowed. "I should be delighted to meet Monsieur Balzac, should a convenient opportunity present itself," he replied, with the utmost courtesy. I did not believe him at first, for he normally manifested an extreme reluctance to meet anyone, and took care to ensure that "convenient opportunities" of the kind he had cited never arose--but when the significance of the name sank in, I realized that this might be one instance in which he would gladly make an exception. Although his admiration for Monsieur Vidocq was carefully qualified and a trifle perverse, he had always been a sincere admirer of the supposed detective's most significant literary avatar, Jacques Collin, alias Vautrin--a character featured in several of the episodes of Monsieur Balzac's Comedie humaine--and he was a wholehearted devotee of the reclusive author's work.
"Do you know who I am, then?" my visitor asked, staring at Dupin with frank curiosity. "Have we met?"
"I have seen you in Pere France's shop, Madame Hanska, and watched you inspecting the stock of the bouquinistes along the left bank of the Seine," Dupin admitted. "You were, inevitably, pointed out to me as a person of interest, but no one would have performed a reciprocal service for you, and you probably did not notice my drab presence. At any rate, we have not been formally introduced."
"Perhaps you could complete the introductions, Dupin," I suggested, "since you clearly have the advantage of me."
"Madame Ewelina Hanska," Dupin said, obligingly completing the name he had already mentioned--but he added no further information that might have enlightened me as to the lady's status, or the possible reason for her visit. He obviously assumed that I would recognize the name as that of Honore de Balzac's mistress--although I might not have made the connection had the author's name not been mentioned already, as I am not a man to pay overmuch attention to gossip. Instead, Dupin addressed himself to the lady and said: "Are you looking for me, by any chance?"
"Why, no," she said. "It is your host that I came to see. I believe--or, at least, I hope--that he has a package recently arrived from New York, delivered privately, in order that he might take responsibility for its safe delivery into the hands of one of my fellow countrywomen."
Both my guests turned to look at me, expectantly, but all I could do was to strive as hard as I could not to look excessively foolish. "I am, alas, none the wiser," I said. "I have not received any package--and no dispatch at all from the American continent for three weeks, when I last heard word from my correspondent in New York."
"Oh dear God!" was Madame Hanska's response, as she put her hand to her brow as if in preparation to faint. "They have intercepted him! The Harmonic Society has anticipated us! Poor Collyer--they will have no compunction...." She stopped suddenly, as if realizing that she might have said too much.
Then she did faint--but Dupin, showing the dexterity and athleticism of which few men knew him to be capable, caught her in his arms and laid her gently down in the armchair he had vacated. Having made sure that she was secure, he stood up again, scratching his neatly-bearded chin pensively.
"Shall I look for some smelling-salts?" I asked, still feeling less compassionate than I ought to have been, because I still felt that I had been treated in a distinctly summary fashion.
"No," said Dupin. "You'd probably be better employed rooting out the latest issue of the Journal de Magnetisme, and the relevant copy of whichever American periodical it was that printed your friend's account of a strange mesmeric experiment a few weeks ago." When he had finished speaking, he leaned forward to touch the unconscious woman's forehead, in an oddly delicate and knowing manner, as if he were trying to establish some kind of psychic connection by physical means.
I did not move to take up his suggestions; I had not purchased a copy of the Journal de Magnetisme since the first issue had appeared the previous year. Curiosity is one thing, credulity another. I knew that Dupin had long been interested in the mysteries of animal magnetism, especially since its practice had become fashionable at the Saltpetriere as a potential means of rendering patients insensitive to pain during surgical operations, but I had not thought him to be a firm believer in the more exotic virtues of magnetic sleep. Indeed, I had once heard him refer to the late Marquis de Puysegur as a "charlatan", and so far as I knew, he did not have a high opinion of the would-be mages of the Philosophical Harmonic Society of Paris. As for my correspondent's account of the case of Ernest Valdemar, I considered it to be a horror story in his usual vein, which had cleverly distorted an actual incident in order to contrive a literary effect, after his customary method.
"Will she recover?" I asked Dupin, a trifle anxiously. One of the few things likely to be more prejudicial to a man's reputation in Paris than having a female visitor die in his house on the wrong side of midnight is to have the mistress of a famous writer die in his house on the wrong side of midnight, especially if her inamorata is busy penning anther masterpiece.
"Of course," Dupin replied, picking up Madame Hanska's wrist in order to measure her pulse. "The poor woman has apparently over-exerted herself in her hurry to get here, and she seems to have been direly disappointed by the news that the mysterious Mr. Collyer had not arrived with his equally-mysterious package. When her heart-rate has slowed down, it will cease to flutter, and normal blood-flow to the brain will be restored. Did she say anything to you at the door which might enable us to glean more information regarding her purpose in coming here?"
I had to rack my brain, which seemed a trifle fuddled, but I fished up the relevant nugget of information soon enough. "She mentioned the name Chapelain," I said.
"Ah!" he said, as if that explained everything.
"Who's Chapelain?" I asked.
"Pierre Chapelain, I presume," Dupin replied. "Doubtless one of the many physicians that Monsieur Balzac has consulted--his health is not good, I believe, and he worries about it intensely. I have watched Monsieur Chapelain at work more than once, in collaboration with the surgeon Jules Cloquet, and we have been introduced. I missed their more successful experiments, alas. The last operation I attended, a few months ago, was definitely not a success, and the patient died."
"Is Chapelain a member of the Harmonic Society?"
"I doubt it--but how would I know, since its membership list, and almost everything else about the society nowadays, is kept so rigorously secret? Its members did not react well to the criticisms leveled against it in the 1790s, and the new interest in mesmeric anesthesia generated by performances in the operating theater--especially Dupotet's recent endeavors--has not served to bring it out of its shell. If anything, it has had the opposite effect. Its inner circle insists on maintaining an esotericism that is as unwarranted as it is undesirable. If Bertrand had lived a decade longer, things might have worked our differently, but the poor fellow died at forty-two, whereas that clown Puysegur lived to be a hundred. There's no justice in longevity, alas."
I had no idea how old Dupin was, although I had some reason to think his appearance deceptive. When we first met I had taken him for a young man, but had soon learned to doubt that judgment. He did not look a day over forty, but sometimes spoke as if he had witnessed the '89 revolution and had been on nodding terms with Napoleon Bonaparte before he became Emperor. That might have been mere affectation, in the Byronic mode that was enjoying a resurgence of fashionability, but the fact that he evaded all direct questions on the subject seemed to me to be more than a mere attempt to cultivate an image.
"You're referring to Alexandre Bertrand, the spiritualist," I said, ever-eager not to be taken for a clod.""--""""--""
* * * *
[Footnote 1: . For the benefit of any American readers who might come across this memoir, if it should ever chance to be printed, I ought perhaps to explain that in 1846, the word spiritualism did not have the meaning it subsequently acquired when it was appropriated as the name of a religion. The sensation launched by the exploits of the Fox sisters did not materialize until 1848; in the years preceding that date, the term was principally used in the context of a fervent debate between rival schools of mesmeristsspiritualists and physiologistswho disagreed as to the kind of explanation that required to be sought for the phenomena of animal magnetism.]
"The very same," he confirmed.
"But wasn't Puysegur a spiritualist also?" I asked, hesitantly. "Weren't he and Bertrand birds of a feather, united against the materialism of the physiologists when it came to explaining the supposed phenomena of magnetism?"
"By virtue of its positivist policy of blunt denial," Dupin informed me, loftily, "there is only one kind of materialism, and hence only one brand of physiological mesmerism. There are, however, several distinct schools of spiritualist mesmerism, which differ sharply in their interpretations of somniloquism."
"Is that the same as somnambulism?" I asked.
"Only in the sense that the oral phenomenon that is correctly called somniloquism is often mistakenly called somnambulism, which obviously ought to refer to sleep-walking--but hush now; our enigmatic visitor is coming round."
Madame Hanska was indeed showing signs of life. I bent down to stir up the fire, thinking that warmth might have as much reviving effect as smelling-salts, and do her a great deal more good.