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Just short of the Lehman Wing, in a part of the Metropolitan Museum usually passed through with even more carelessness than usual, is where they keep what are arguably the strangest objects in the museum’s permanent collection. Permanent they certainly are, and—unlike almost everything else in the place—always on view; though most of the museum’s visitors never see them, or take notice of them if they do. Part of this is their situation in the midst of the “European Decorative Arts” galleries, a formidable gauntlet of spoons, mirrors and other such recruitments from the upper-class bric-a-brac of more exquisite times; at sight of which, the resolve of all but the stoutest aesthete quavers. And fair enough: given the treasury of recognized masterpieces in other parts of the building, and only an afternoon to snap blurry photographs of them all, it’s no wonder most of the museum’s patrons only walk through these galleries on their way to some other—or, more often, to the cafeteria nearby. But for the few who do care to look, even the bric-a-brac is reliably spellbinding; a thing one can’t always say for the objects I mean, whose peculiarity often goes unappreciated even by those who pause to puzzle over them.

I refer to the group of period rooms—whole interior spaces, many of which were brought over piece-by-piece from their original locations in Europe and reassembled here in their entirety. They are mostly 18th– and 19th-century, and of French, English and Italian origin; including among them dining-rooms, bedrooms, balconies, even a storefront, complete with signboard. Short of the Cloisters—essentially a larger version of themselves—they are surely the museum’s most audacious acquisition. Moving the objects in a room is really no mean feat by comparison; barring a few logistical issues, it’s a matter of one thing after another. But imagine transporting the room itself—where would you start? The ceiling, I suppose. But then, how to pack it? And what to do with it until the walls are in place? I wouldn’t know how to label such a thing, much less transport and reassemble it; but here they are, a dozen of them or more altogether, sitting around innocuously with the forgotten spoons and mirrors standing guard outside.

Along with the guards themselves, that is—such as there are. Most of the period rooms have ropes or glass barriers across their doorways, which, along with the rooms’ lack of display-cases and other conspicuous effects, lend them the appearance of something unfinished. Accordingly their visitors, when they have any, usually pass by them with (at most) a comment to the effect of, “I wonder what it is they’re planning on putting in there?” Even with the ones that can be freely walked through, that’s about all people do with them. So as far as guarding them goes, they’re a cakewalk, as any museum guard will tell you. On a typical shift there, you’ll have to direct a few people to the bathroom or the cafeteria, and you’ll have to keep an eye on the teenagers who wander through from time to time (who’ll take advantage of any dimly-lit and sparsely-populated area, in one way or another), but that’s about it. The museum keeps far fewer guards around in these galleries than in most others, so it does get a bit lonesome; but for those of us guards who aren’t particularly “people” people to begin with, that’s no real objection. All in all, it’s a good Sunday beat, if you can get it, which, at the Met, happens in two ways: you’re either assigned to it, or you’re the first one there when I am—because when I’m assigned to it, I trade it away as soon as I can. In this I act on the suggestion of a friend of mine, a former guard whom I will call Mr. Woodwright. He was a cantankerous fellow to work with, and not one whom many, including myself, took over-seriously when he left. But I have my own reasons for believing his story now, which I will get to by and by.

*                *                *

Mr. Woodwright had been a guard with the museum a long time, and it was by sheer coincidence that he had never been assigned to the part of it I mention, until a few years into his tenure there. This was rather an injustice on the part of the fates, since, to such a man as he was—equally endowed with the sense of beauty and the reluctance to indulge it in company—the period rooms represented exactly the ideal situation: namely, beautiful habitations without any inhabitants in them. Many of the more misanthropic museum guards derive their keenest aesthetic pleasures from interfering in those of others; but even without patrons to harangue, Mr. Woodwright remembered having plenty to occupy his mind that first day.

One room had especially caught his attention. This was a circumstance the more remarkable for the fact that it was one of the few rooms he didn’t find particularly interesting in itself. The room is easier than most of the others to find, being one of the first that you encounter in a short hallway out of the Medieval Art galleries. The placard next to it gives it out as one of the suite-rooms in the Hôtel de Crécy, a 19th-century hotel in Bordeaux; little else of importance to our story is said about it there. For those who have not seen it, the room’s description can be achieved very briefly. It is a small, circular space, with high walls and very pale greenish wallpaper. To the left of the doorway where you stand to look in over a waist-high glass barrier, you can see the back of a half-open door; straight ahead and to the right, there are a few high shuttered windows with curtains, and a pair of statuary-niches. Small cabinets and end tables are placed around the walls, and in the center of the room are some sitting-furniture and a parlor-table.

Now its location, dangerously close to so heavily trafficked a part of the museum as the Medieval Art galleries—where the bathrooms are—was the first disagreeable aspect of the room for the standoffish Mr. Woodwright, but it was hardly the last. More particularly distasteful to him was the extent to which the curator had gone to enhance its verisimilitude. Most of the museum’s reassembled rooms have only such furnishings in them as make for relevant art objects themselves; which has the effect of maintaining the spare, untouched quality of the room, and so keeping real life somewhat at arm’s length. The props here, however, were distractingly lifelike, and included objects of a decidedly non-aesthetic character. It was obvious that whoever had arranged them had given free rein to his dramatic tendencies, in a rather overwrought attempt at suggesting human occupants. Articles of nondescript clothing were cast seemingly at haphazard over the backs of chairs. Cards and gambling-tokens littered the parlor-table beside a dish of egregiously artificial oranges, one of which (as Mr. Woodwright noticed with particular disgust) was modeled to look half-peeled. There were even a blank sheet of paper and some writing materials spread out in a clearing among the cards, as though one of the players had been interrupted by a sudden inspiration. A muddled story indeed, for a curator to attempt telling!—and, to a classical sensibility like Mr. Woodwright’s, hopelessly vulgar. But it was not one to arrest my friend’s contemptuous eye for long. He was a man used to following his taste, as I have hoped to suggest; and managed, for the remainder of his shift, to restrict his beat to some of the more rewarding galleries, where the presence of other persons, factual or imaginary, was kept to a pleasant minimum. Indeed he had a very agreeable day of it altogether, and more than once found himself wondering why he hadn’t spent more time in this part of the museum before.

On his way out later that evening, Mr. Woodwright chanced to follow the short hallway again, and for whatever reason—perhaps to indulge his sense of moral superiority—he found himself looking for the second time into the little hotel room. And perhaps the long day had overtired him, for he now found his attitude to have somewhat warmed toward it. The room itself was not so bad, if not for all those silly props; and gratuitous as those were, even they were not unimpressive, in a tasteless sort of way. It was really a wonder some of them hadn’t struck him so when he’d looked at them before. The half-peeled artificial orange, for instance, looked so much more real than it had that morning, that it almost seemed to have dried somewhat in the interim. Surely it wasn’t a real orange they’d used—?

But that was absurd. More likely it was a change of light; which, at any rate, might account for the appearance of the windows. I should mention that all of the museum’s period rooms have soft lights behind their windows, to suggest an exterior of some vague, past-bound sort—the light in a Degas painting, perhaps. But the light behind the slatted shutters of these windows, if much dimmer than usual, was somehow more suggestive, too. Really, if it had been another time of day, one could easily have imagined it to come from outside the museum. To enhance this effect still further, one of the windows’ shutters—Mr. Woodwright did not remember taking notice of it before—had been left slightly ajar, and the curator had somehow contrived to direct a cool draft through it, sufficient to rustle the curtains on either side. Ah, but in this he seemed to have gone a bit overboard, as Mr. Woodwright noticed with some satisfaction; for the blank paper and a few of the cards from the little parlor-table had been blown to the floor. How careless! Mr. Woodwright had half a mind to leave a note bringing it to his supervisor’s attention, to spite the arrangement; but then, it would hardly look right for one of the rooms to have been disturbed on his watch. He had left it unguarded for most of the day, after all. Better to have someone else discover it in the morning, than for him to admit not having noticed it today, he decided at length; and he left without further incident.

*                *                *

It was a few weeks before Mr. Woodwright was again assigned to a patrol anywhere near the European Decorative Arts galleries, and when he was, it was not to these galleries themselves, but to a special exhibition in the Lehman Wing, just beyond them. The museum had hosted a private cocktail party there at the end of the evening for a group of its trustees, and being short a doorman for one reason or another, had coerced Mr. Woodwright into staying—how, for so profane a purpose, I cannot say. Consequently, it was well after midnight when he was able to get away; at which time, naturally enough, he took the shortest way out that he knew. This brought him by the hateful 19th-century hotel room for the third time in our account; and as threes so often figure significantly in stories like this one, it will perhaps surprise no one as it did Mr. Woodwright, that there should now be something new there to arrest his attention.

Yet to him it was a surprise indeed to find the writing paper and cards again scattered to the floor, if perhaps more violently than they had been before. Of course, this time the reason was all too apparent. The open window’s shutters were ever so slightly wider than before, and the curtains on either side of it were waving violently in what had become a very cold breeze. Far from being addressed, the problem of the curator’s artificial draft had somehow been made worse.

This placed Mr. Woodwright in an embarrassing position. Obviously it wouldn’t do to have the wind blowing so strongly into the room all night; who knew what other disturbances it might cause? But the museum’s directors, its curators and their assistants had all long since gone home. Only the night-shift guards, the cleaners and a few other functionaries were left on the premises; and for the same reasons aforementioned with regard to the museum’s visitors, it was likely enough that they would fail to venture by here. Evidently, if the room was to be battened down and rearranged for the night, it was Mr. Woodwright who would have to do it. To be sure this, though forbidden to him under normal circumstances, was no great sin; after all, he thought, it was only a few foolish props he was undertaking to move around, and not anything more incalculably valuable. Still, he would have to find a way to bring it up with someone the next day to ensure it was not some delicate art-historical allegory he was muddling up.

He stepped cautiously over the waist-high glass barrier at the doorway. Immediately he had the feeling there was something amiss, as one sometimes feels with someone waiting around a corner to surprise one. It felt, as Mr. Woodwright would later put it, “as though it had suddenly changed from being a room that no one was in, to being a room that no one was in any longer.” Hurriedly he picked up the cards and writing paper, and replaced them on the parlor-table in as fitting an order as he could. There—that was all right. Now, what was to be done about the draft from the window? For draft it must be, and a pretty strong one at that. God only knew what sort of apparatus or vent the fool curator had installed back there; but for the moment, Mr. Woodwright realized, he would at least have to block it off, to keep the tabletop in the order he’d put it in. Accordingly he went to close the shutter, and in so doing, he caught sight through it of something completely unexpected. Indeed, he had stared at it for some moments before he could be quite certain of what he was seeing.

This, as it turned out, was the dim view of an exterior, as seen from about the third floor of a mid-sized building. An exterior, I say, as though it were something difficult to describe; yet this it was not, comprising little more than a copse of naked trees to the right, bordered by a rough path leading somewhere under the window, and an abundance of brush, blowing in the breeze. I admit, I resort here to the indefinite article in a rather clumsy attempt to express Mr. Woodwright’s state of mind; for even after a few long minutes of puzzling, he found himself quite unable to determine exactly what exterior this might be a view of. Yet he was certain, at least, that it was not the exterior of the museum. For one thing, it was the wrong time of day. By his watch, it was nearly one in the morning—long after dark—but here it appeared to be just barely growing light; and a clear dawn sky it looked to be, too, in strong contrast to the fog and rain New York had been having. Nor were the trees in Central Park anywhere near bare of leaves, as they all were in the scene he looked out on.

But here this indirect sort of describing must leave off, as it was here that the utter unreality of what he was seeing came home to Mr. Woodwright, and he turned in a daze from the window. That he managed to quietly close the shutter and get out of the room without knocking anything over—and then to walk out of the museum without speaking to anyone of what he had seen—says more for his self-possession than I can say for my own; but so he did, and it was not until he was out of the building and on the train home that his brain calmed enough to consider what he had just experienced.

Not that there was much to consider, beyond the familiar limitations to one’s own view of things. Reality is very often unrealistic, when it’s strictly our own; and like many a philosophical curmudgeon, Mr. Woodwright felt no need to add to his perplexity by sharing it with anyone else as yet. But one question did recur persistently to him, to the credit of his speculative openness; and that was: what did the reality out the window imply for the reality of the room’s former denizens? It had not struck him at the time, that there should be people included in such a tableau vivant; but that was when he’d still thought of it as an exhibit in a museum. Now he was not so sure. He had seen trees, plants, a road; where were the people? Were they simply missing at the time he’d looked? Invisible, within the confines of this strange vision? Or were they gone, for some other reason? In any event, he felt his curiosity would not sustain another intermission like the one that had preceded his last visit, so he made up his mind to investigate the room more closely the following night, regardless what part of the museum he found himself assigned to.

The next day, as ill luck would have it, he was assigned to the very-difficult-to-trade-away Contemporary Wing—a place no great distance from where he wanted to be, but almost perfectly ill-suited to distract him from his impatience while he waited out the day. Hours of staring numbly past various glops of encaustic, tangles of string and rotting animals in glass boxes did little to blunt his anticipation; nor, I am sorry to say, was he quite as assiduous as he might have been, in alerting the contemporary-minded masses to “stand back, please; stand away from the art.” Granted, a hatchet-wielding maniac might not have caused much appreciable damage to the works there, even given a generous head start; but as a measure of Mr. Woodwright’s involvement in his job, the day’s performance was not laudable. At the end of his shift, it was all he could do to make his way down the stairs and through the Decorative Arts galleries, leisurely enough to avoid the inquiries of his colleagues. Somehow he managed it, however; and soon he stood once more in the hotel-room doorway. With bated breath, he surveyed the room’s contents, sure that this time there would be some new indication of its missing occupants.

But no! the room was entirely as normal. Every prop was in place; and the window-shutter—which remained shut—now disclosed nothing but the usual soft artificial light behind it. The curtains were motionless, the oranges gleamingly plastic. It was utterly, tastelessly perfect once more.

For some long minutes Mr. Woodwright stared at the room, as though by force of will he might bring about its transformation back into an object of interest to him. Yet evidently having relearned the trick of every empty room, it remained stubbornly itself; and coming to realize that there was nothing more to be done about it, Mr. Woodwright gradually took himself away from it, and left the museum in great disappointment.

*                *                *

Disappointment and confusion, I should say—which latter quality, helped along by perhaps one glass of wine too many at dinner, had increased to bewilderment by the time our friend boarded his train home that night. For speculative as he was, Mr. Woodwright was a man far too confident in his own faculties to go through anything like the usual course of reasoning in such situations, which somehow leads otherwise sensible people to attribute perfectly clear sensory data to such influences as indigestion, “strained nerves” (whatever those are), the wind, and so forth. No, he knew very well that he had seen what he had seen; it was simply no longer the way he had previously seen it. Considering that the first change had been inexplicable, it was hardly more of a stretch that it had changed back. Only, it would be so much nicer to know the mechanism of it! Perhaps, he thought, it was one of those things that comes only once in seven years, or thirteen years, or some such likely integer; in which case it was a pity he hadn’t stayed to see it out, either of the previous times—presuming that there was more to be seen. But then again, perhaps there wasn’t; there was certainly no rule, to his knowledge, that the inexplicable had to be persistently engaging.

It was with thoughts of this kind that Mr. Woodwright’s mind was occupied, a little while into his commute, when his eye happened to travel around the subway car and fall with interest on one of his fellow-passengers. This would have been unusual enough under ordinary circumstances, for a man as little taken with his fellow-man as Mr. Woodwright was; but then, what caught his eye about the young man seated across from him was not so much any particular human quality about him, fascinating as those doubtless were. It was, rather, the book the young man was holding—which, owing to its reader’s extreme nearsightedness, was held up flat, like a screen, not five inches from the young scholar’s nose. As a result, its title was just discernible to Mr. Woodwright, who, upon leaning a bit closer, was surprised to confirm that it was indeed—I can hardly believe it myself—Unsolved Mysteries of the Belle Époque.

Little inclined as he was to occasion the removal of this convenient barrier between himself and his neighbor, Mr. Woodwright immediately recognized the potential relevance of the book to his own presently unsolved mystery, and leaned still farther forward to address the young man.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, in a tone rather at variance with the usual drift of that phrase, “but do you mind if I have a look at that book you’re reading.” (His sentence, as he spoke it, very clearly ended with a period.)

The young man, emerging thick-bespectacled and rabbit-like from behind his covert, directed an empty stare at Mr. Woodwright. Confirming that it was himself to whom the latter had spoken, he smiled blandly and held up the book a little in front of him, exhibiting its cover.

“I mean, may I look inside it,” Mr. Woodwright said, barely concealing his exasperation.

With a shocked expression, the young man considered for a moment, then relented. “Sure,” he said, passing the book across with a more committed reiteration of the bland smile. “It’s a bit boring, but interesting.”

Passing over this paradox, Mr. Woodwright quickly sought out the index. A scan of C brought him to Crécy, Hôtel de, and he flipped to the relevant page. At the top of a column, he read Disappearance at the Hôtel de Crécy, Bordeaux.

“Incredible,” he breathed, reading on:

The Hôtel de Crécy was an historic hotel, located on the left bank of the Garonne River in Bordeaux until 1986, when it was demolished. A number of its suites and furnishings were at that time acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and can still be viewed today. The hotel enjoyed a boom in popularity in the years immediately following the Franco-Prussian War, the first of three wartime occasions during which the French capital was temporarily relocated to Bordeaux. Among the hotel’s notable guests were Toulouse-Lautrec muse Marcelle Lender, and the famous tenor and theatre director Achille Félix-Montaubry.

“Who?” muttered Mr. Woodwright impatiently.

“What?” said the young man, wrinkling his nose; but Mr. Woodwright only continued to read to himself (fortunately drawn on to the relevant section by the book’s framing of sensational terms in quotation marks).

On December 21st, 1870, three of the hotel’s guests were said by authorities to have “disappeared” under “unusual circumstances,” very early in the morning. Witness reports filed with the police noted that the three men, registered with the hotel as merchants, had behaved “suspiciously” in the days prior to their disappearance, locking themselves in their suite and keeping “constant, fearful vigil” at the windows. This behavior was linked to a rumor that the men had escaped Paris—at that time under German siege—and betrayed the allies who had helped them. Yet this “rumor” (“Why this one in quotes, and not the one previous?” Mr. Woodwright wondered) was never substantiated, and no further sign of the men was ever found. Their predawn flight was “abrupt,” as the police were able to judge from the state of the suite they left behind, but—

Here our acquaintance with this interesting account comes sadly to an end. The train had reached Union Square, and closing the book with a snap, Mr. Woodwright handed it back to its startled owner with a perfunctory “Thank you” and walked briskly out, trembling with excitement and determined to catch the next train headed back uptown.

*                *                *

For the fortuitous intervention of the book’s account had started the following chain of ideas in Mr. Woodwright’s head. The disappearance of the men from their hotel suite in Bordeaux had occurred very early in the morning in December—predawn, according to the account. This was consistent with the view he’d seen out of the hotel suite’s window, and with the time he’d seen it—after midnight in New York, which, he imagined, wouldn’t have been long before dawn in Bordeaux at that time of year. It had only just reached dusk when he’d left the museum tonight; it was not quite eleven now; if he headed back, might he not catch the phenomenon as it was beginning? It couldn’t hurt to be sure (he thought, rather unaccountably)—and so he had decided to head back up to the museum as quickly as possible.

This, however, was not to be nearly as quickly as he hoped. In one of those minor transit disasters that only seem to befall one when one is in an extreme hurry, the uptown train ahead of Mr. Woodwright’s happened to be stopped in the next station, for some kind of lengthy criminal investigation; which not only caused Mr. Woodwright’s train to be stuck in the tunnel for more than half an hour, but also caused it to be diverted to the local line afterward, etc., etc. And so, to make a long story short (as even ghost-story writers may sometimes pretend to do), it was again well past midnight by the time Mr. Woodwright arrived, breathless and sweating, at the museum’s entrance, where he was dismayed to find two police cars outside. The policemen in the cars seemed to be on their way out, so to avoid any involvement in whatever they were there for, he swallowed his impatience and delayed himself a bit further in a walk around the block.

Finding the police mercifully gone when he returned, he swiped himself in and ran up to the main lobby. There he found three of the night-shift guards and a cleaner, conferring heatedly with one another. They all looked up at him as he came in.

“Woodwright,” one of the guards said—or perhaps he used his first name; I’m not sure. “What are you doing here?”

“Forgot something I needed,” Mr. Woodwright said, hastily adding, “I’m out all the rest of this week. What were the police doing here?”

“Oh, you didn’t miss much,” said another guard. “False alarm.”

“False alarm,” repeated the cleaner.

“Dave’s hearing things,” said the first guard, gesturing at the one of them who hadn’t yet spoken. The latter bristled with indignation.

“I did hear it,” he protested, then added in explanation to Mr. Woodwright, “I heard a gunshot and a yell, clear as day.”

“From inside the museum?” Mr. Woodwright asked, heart in his throat.

“Yeah, from back there by the Lehman,” the other said, pointing. “Just the one shot and the one yell, but I know I heard it.”

“Nobody found anyone,” one of the other two guards said.

“Or saw ’em run through here,” observed the other.

“Nope,” said the cleaner conclusively.

“I heard what I heard,” sniffed Dave. “And I coulda sworn I heard the other thing, too, when I went up there”—again turning to Mr. Woodwright—“a kinda bumping, like someone running down a flight of stairs.”

“We all hear things, once in a while,” said the second guard. “Just the other day I heard someone calling my name, in a real low voice. Do you think someone was? Of course they weren’t. Personally, I think it was indigestion.”

“Or the wind,” said the first.

“Well, I’m going to head back, if it’s all right,” said Mr. Woodwright, starting away.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” said the second guard.

“Hey, keep an eye out for anything weird,” called Dave after him.

Mr. Woodwright circled through the first floor, making as though to head down to the coatroom before doubling back toward the European Decorative Arts galleries. He encountered no one on his way there, and before long he was alone again in the short hallway. Alert with expectation, he approached the familiar glass barrier.

His speculations had been very well founded. The room had again changed; and now the change was far from subtle. In fact, it looked as though the place had been ransacked. He wondered that none of the guards or police had taken note of it. Two of the chairs were overturned, one of the cabinets was thrown open, and a smallish box lay open on the floor amid a chaos of cards and oranges. The door to the left was now wide open. The window-shutters were no more so than they had been before, but a light breeze again played among the curtains.

His hands trembling, Mr. Woodwright stepped over the barrier. Again, he was at once assailed by the feeling of recent desertion, made stronger now by certain new details. Behind the open door on his left—which should have disclosed, at most, a bare wall or crawlspace between this exhibit and the one immediately adjacent to it—Mr. Woodwright now saw a long corridor, carpeted in garish red, lit by a few oil lamps in sconces, and having, at its far end, the head of a set of stairs. There were tracks of some blackish stuff on the carpet, as though someone had tramped through in very muddy boots; though to the consternation of all reason, no distinct boot-marks were visible, there or in the room. The overturned box on the floor, Mr. Woodwright now saw with considerable misgiving, was an empty pistol-case, with a few old-fashioned cartridges scattered beside it. The sheet of writing paper lay on the table still, weighed down by its accompanying pen; but there now appeared to be some hasty scribbles written across it. Mr. Woodwright picked it up to have a closer look at it. The room was too dim to make for easy reading, but a weak light appeared at the edges of the window; so he crossed to the shutter and, allowing himself no time for prevarication, threw it open.

The scene outside was much as he had seen it before, with only a few minor alterations: the breeze was much colder, and the dawn a good deal farther along. But no—there was one other, rather odd change, too: there was now a muddy trail outside, evidently a continuation of the one in the hallway, which extended from the ground below him to the edge of the copse of trees. On the way from one to the other this crossed the path, by the side of which, whoever had produced it appeared to have dropped a large, dark bundle of something—rags or dirty laundry, perhaps. Or was there something moving inside it? Mr. Woodwright stared at this for some moments, but could make nothing of it; and turned his attention back to the paper in hand.

The words were in French, and seemed to comprise the opening fragment of a letter; which, it was clear, had been begun in a great hurry. It began:

Pére Brechard,

Tu as notre pénitence; c’est juste comme tu l’as dit. Nous étions sauvages—pire que les bêtes! Mais c’etait le désespoir qui—

At this point, a muffled sound outside startled Mr. Woodwright away from this artifact. He would have to have the note translated, he thought abstractedly as he looked out the window; for, sad truth to tell, he had not understood a word of it. In the meantime, though, here was something unnerving: someone had apparently come along, removed the pile of rags from the path, and vanished under his nose. Well, whoever this was, he was quick—Mr. Woodwright must just have missed him on his way down the path. Or was that the sound of his foot on the stair? A very light foot, perhaps, but yes, undoubtedly it was someone: and coming up in a hurry, too.

Before he quite knew what he was doing, Mr. Woodwright found himself striding guard-fashion down the red hallway toward the head of the stairs at their far end. He had evidently forgotten that those stairs, and this hallway, had no earthly business being where they were. Certainly he had forgotten about the missing pistols. It was a strange relapse into professionalism on his part; probably he thought to halt whoever was coming up with some form of admonishment, perhaps to “stand back, please; stand away from the art.” Old habits die hard, after all. But this one died on his lips; for even before he’d reached the top of the stairs, he could see there was something not quite right with the person tottering up to meet him. Perhaps (as Mr. Woodwright thought in a confused flash) it was only the weight of the great muddy bundle he was laboring under, as he rounded the landing. But then the bundle rose with a wrenching motion; and Mr. Woodwright saw with horror that it was the topmost part of a figure, wrapped all over in muddy sacking that had torn apart at the bottom, revealing two black and desiccated legs. The figure had been stooping, but now straightened stiffly in the narrow stairwell, and turned its shrouded face up toward Mr. Woodwright, all the while rocking slowly back and forth on its spindly legs as though to regain its balance. This motion held Mr. Woodwright in a sort of nightmarish interest for some moments, until he was shocked out of it by the realization that it was struggling thus to right itself because its arms were gone.

At just that instant the figure resumed its ascent at a frightening speed, and Mr. Woodwright believes he heard a muffled, high-pitched cry of fury echo in the stairwell as he himself turned to run. But he was over the barrier, past his blinking companions and out of the museum in far too great a hurry to be sure.

*                *                *

All this Mr. Woodwright told me—and a very few others—when he left the museum soon thereafter. It was no use telling him that the room was no longer in the condition he’d described; he’d already made up his mind never again to go anywhere near it, or indeed to the museum in general. For someone as appreciative as he was of the rest of the collection, this was too grave a sentence to take lightly; so rather than argue it out with him, we let it drop.

Yet he must have known that nobody would quite believe him, at least not without some form of evidence; and so, some weeks later, a little envelope arrived in my mailbox. It was addressed to his friends from the museum, care of myself, and contained two folded slips of paper: one a photocopy of two pages from a book, the other a sheet of rather finer paper, with some writing scribbled on it. The photocopied excerpt was obviously from a newer historical text, though I have not yet determined which, and dealt with the German siege of Paris in the winter of 1870—a much nastier business than I’d known, short-lived as it was. During that attack the city froze over entirely, and its residents began to starve; having first eaten their dray horses and the city’s zoo animals, the Parisians turned to rats and other vermin for sustenance. Some, the text noted, went to direr lengths: one particularly ghastly passage (strongly underlined in Mr. Woodwright’s copy) cited the “theft and partial consumption of an adult corpse, taken fresh from a churchyard burial.”

The second page, as I say, was hand-written, or scribbled—in whose hand I cannot say, but I am sure it was not Mr. Woodwright’s. Prior to sharing it with my colleagues (all of whom have since quit the museum for their own reasons), I took care to have this page translated separately by a few disinterested French-speaking friends; each of whom independently deplored its fragmentary nature.

Having already ventured once on the French, I will here skip straight to the translation.

Father Brechard (it began),

You have our penitence; it is just as you said. We were savages—worse than beasts! But it was desperation that made us so. Perhaps you see that, as surely He sees, in Whose salvation we must henceforth place our trust. Yet now is no time for such sentiments. It is time for action. We learned you were in Bordeaux, and came as soon as we could; yet it has followed us here, the devil knows how. Please come to us on receipt of this note. We are confident you are the only one who can return it to peace, but will do our best to—