I had entered, in an idle mood, the shop of one of those
curiosity-venders, who are called marchands de bric-a-brac in that Parisian
ar got which is so perfectly unintelligible elsewhere in France.
You have doubtless glanced occasionally through the windows
of some of these shops, which have become so numerous now that it is fashionable
to buy antiquated furniture, and that every petty stock-broker thinks he
must have his chambre au moyen age.
There is one thing there which clings alike to the shop
of the dealer in old iron, the wareroom of the tapestry-maker, the laboratory
of the chemist, and the studio of the painter:--in all those gloomy dens
where a furtive daylight filters in through the window-shutters, the most
manifestly ancient thing is dust;--the cobwebs are more authentic than
the guimp laces; and the old pear-tree furniture on exhibition is actually
younger than the mahogany which arrived but yesterday from America.
The warehouse of my bric-a-brac dealer was a veritable
Capharnaum; all ages and all nations seemed to have made their rendezvous
there; an Etruscan lamp of red clay stood upon a Boule cabinet, with ebony
panels, brightly striped by lines of inlaid brass; a duchess of the court
of Louis XV nonchalantly extended her fawn-like feet under a massive table
of the time of Louis XIII with heavy spiral supports of oak, and carven
designs of chimeras and foliage intermingled.
Upon the denticulated shelves of several sideboards glittered
immense Japanese dishes with red and blue designs relieved by gilded hatching;
side by side with enameled works by Bernard Palissy, representing serpents,
frogs, and lizards in relief.
From disemboweled cabinets escaped cascades of silver-lustrous
Chinese silks and waves of tinsel, which an oblique sunbeam shot through
with luminous beads; while portraits of every era, in frames more or less
tarnished, smiled through their yellow varnish.
The striped breastplate of a damascened suit of Milanese
armor glittered in one corner; Loves and Nymphs of porcelain; Chinese Grotesques,
vases of celadon and crackle-ware; Saxon and old Souvres cups encumbered
the shelves and nooks of the apartment.
The dealer followed me closely through the tortuous way
contrived between the piles of furniture; warding off with his hands the
hazardous sweep of my coat-skirts; watching my elbows with the uneasy attention
of an antiquarian and a usurer.
It was a singular face that of the merchant:--an immense
skull, polished like a knee, and surrounded by a thin aureole of white
hair, which brought out the clear salmon tint of his complexion all the
more strikingly, lent him a false aspect of patriarchal bonhomie, counteracted,
however, by the scintillation of two little yellow eyes which trembled
in their orbits like two louis-d' or upon quicksilver. The curve of his
nose presented an aquiline silhouette, which suggested the Oriental or
Jewish type. His hands--thin, slender, full of nerves which projected like
strings upon the finger-board of a violin, and armed with claws like those
on the terminations of bats' wings--shook with senile trembling; but those
convulsively agitated hands became firmer than steel pincers or lobsters'
claws when they lifted any precious article--an onyx cup, a Venetian glass,
or a dish of Bohemian crystal. This strange old man had an aspect so thoroughly
rabbinical and cabalistic that he would have been burnt on the mere testimony
of his face three centuries ago.
"Will you not buy something from me to-day, sir? Here
is a Malay kreese with a blade undulating like flame: look at those grooves
contrived for the blood to run along, those teeth set backwards so as to
tear out the entrails in withdrawing the weapon--it is a fine character
of ferocious arm, and will look well in your collection: this two-handed
sword is very beautiful--it is the work of Josepe de la Hera; and this
colichemarde, with its fenestrated guard--what a superb specimen of handicraft!"
"No; I have quite enough weapons and instruments of carnage;--I
want a small figure, something which will suit me as a paper-weight; for
I cannot endure those trumpery bronzes which the stationers sell, and which
may be found on everybody's desk."
The old gnome foraged among his ancient wares, and finally
arranged before me some antique bronzes--so-called, at least; fragments
of malachite; little Hindoo or Chinese idols--a kind of poussah toys in
jadestone, representing the incarnations of Brahma or Vishnoo, and wonderfully
appropriate to the very undivine office of holding papers and letters in
I was hesitating between a porcelain dragon, all constellated
with warts--its mouth formidable with bristling tusks and ranges of teeth--and
an abominable little Mexican fetish, representing the god Zitziliputzili
au naturel, when I caught sight of a charming foot, which I at first took
for a fragment of some antique Venus.
It had those beautiful ruddy and tawny tints that lend
to Florentine bronze that warm living look so much preferable to the gray-green
aspect of common bronzes, which might easily be mistaken for statues in
a state of putrefaction: satiny gleams played over its rounded forms, doubtless
polished by the amorous kisses of twenty centuries; for it seemed a Corinthian
bronze, a work of the best era of art--perhaps molded by Lysippus himself.
"That foot will be my choice," I said to the merchant,
who regarded me with an ironical and saturnine air, and held out the object
desired that I might examine it more fully.
I was surprised at its lightness; it was not a foot of
metal, but in sooth a foot of flesh--an embalmed foot--a mummy's foot:
on examining it still more closely the very grain of the skin, and the
almost imperceptible lines impressed upon it by the texture of the bandages,
became perceptible. The toes were slender and delicate, and terminated
by perfectly formed nails, pure and transparent as agates; the great toe,
slightly separated from the rest, afforded a happy contrast, in the antique
style, to the position of the other toes, and lent it an aerial lightness--the
grace of a bird's foot;--the sole, scarcely streaked by a few almost imperceptible
cross lines, afforded evidence that it had never touched the bare ground,
and had only come in contact with the finest matting of Nile rushes, and
the softest carpets of panther skin.
"Ha, ha!--you want the foot of the Princess Hermonthis,"--exclaimed
the merchant, with a strange giggle, fixing his owlish eyes upon me--"ha,
ha, ha!--for a paper-weight!--an original idea!--artistic idea! Old Pharaoh
would certainly have been surprised had some one told him that the foot
of his adored daughter would be used for a paper-weight after he had had
a mountain of granite hollowed out as a receptacle for the triple coffin,
painted and gilded--covered with hieroglyphics and beautiful paintings
of the Judgment of Souls,"--continued the queer little merchant, half audibly,
as though talking to himself!
"How much will you charge me for this mummy fragment?"
"Ah, the highest price I can get; for it is a superb piece:
if I had the match of it you could not have it for less than five hundred
francs;--the daughter of a Pharaoh! nothing is more rare."
"Assuredly that is not a common article; but, still, how
much do you want? In the first place let me warn you that all my wealth
consists of just five louis: I can buy anything that costs five louis,
but nothing dearer;--you might search my vest pockets and most secret drawers
without even finding one poor--five-franc piece more."
"Five louis for the foot of the Princess Hermonthis! that
is very little, very little indeed; 'tis an authentic foot," muttered the
merchant, shaking his head, and imparting a peculiar rotary motion to his
"Well, take it, and I will give you the bandages into
the bargain," he added, wrapping the foot in an ancient damask rag--"very
fine! real damask--Indian damask which has never been redyed; it is strong,
and yet it is soft," he mumbled, stroking the frayed tissue with his fingers,
through the trade-acquired habit which moved him to praise even an object
of so little value that he himself deemed it only worth the giving away.
He poured the gold coins into a sort of medi¾val
alms-purse hanging at his belt, repeating:
"The foot of the Princess Hermonthis, to be used for a
Then turning his phosphorescent eyes upon me, he exclaimed
in a voice strident as the crying of a cat which has swallowed a fish-bone:
"Old Pharaoh will not be well pleased; he loved his daughter--the
"You speak as if you were a contemporary of his: you are
old enough, goodness knows! but you do not date back to the Pyramids of
I answered, laughingly, from the threshold. I went home, delighted with
With the idea of putting it to profitable use as soon
as possible, I placed the foot of the divine Princess Hermonthis upon a
heap of papers scribbled over with verses, in themselves an undecipherable
mosaic work of erasures; articles freshly begun; letters forgotten, and
posted in the table drawer instead of the letter-box--an error to which
absent-minded people are peculiarly liable. The effect was charming, bizarre,
Well satisfied with this embellishment, I went out with
the gravity and price becoming one who feels that he has the ineffable
advantage over all the passers-by whom he elbows, of possessing a piece
of the Princess Hermonthis, daughter of Pharaoh.
I looked upon all who did not possess, like myself, a
paper-weight so authentically Egyptian, as very ridiculous people; and
it seemed to me that the proper occupation of every sensible man should
consist in the mere fact of having a mummy's foot upon his desk.
Happily I met some friends, whose presence distracted
me in my infatuation with this new acquisition: I went to dinner with them;
for I could not very well have dined with myself.
When I came back that evening, with my brain slightly
confused by a few glasses of wine, a vague whiff of Oriental perfume delicately
titillated my olfactory nerves: the heat of the room had warmed the natron,
bitumen, and myrrh in which the paraschistes, who cut open the bodies of
the dead, had bathed the corpse of the princess;--it was a perfume at once
sweet and penetrating--a perfume that four thousand years had not been
able to dissipate.
The Dream of Egypt was Eternity: her odors have the solidity
of granite, and endure as long.
I soon drank deeply from the black cup of sleep: for a
few hours all remained opaque to me; Oblivion and Nothingness inundated
me with their somber waves.
Yet light gradually dawned upon the darkness of my mind;
dreams commenced to touch me softly in their silent flight.
The eyes of my soul were opened; and I beheld my chamber
as it actually was; I might have believed myself awake, but for a vague
consciousness which assured me that I slept, and that something fantastic
was about to take place.
The odor of the myrrh had augmented in intensity; and
I felt a slight headache, which I very naturally attributed to several
glasses of champagne that we had drunk to the unknown gods and our future
I peered through my room with a feeling of expectation
which I saw nothing to justify: every article of furniture was in its proper
place; the lamp, softly shaded by its globe of ground crystal, burned upon
its bracket; the water-color sketches shone under their Bohemian glass;
the curtains hung down languidly; everything wore an aspect of tranquil
After a few moments, however, all this calm interior appeared
to become disturbed; the woodwork cracked stealthily; the ash-covered log
suddenly emitted a jet of blue flame; and the disks of the pateras seemed
like great metallic eyes, watching, like myself, for the things which were
about to happen.
My eyes accidentally fell upon the desk where I had placed
the foot of the Princess Hermonthis.
Instead of remaining quiet--as behooved a foot which had
been embalmed for four thousand years--it commenced to act in a nervous
manner; contracted itself, and leaped over the papers like a startled frog;--one
would have imagined that it had suddenly been brought into contact with
a galvanic battery: I could distinctly hear the dry sound made by its little
heel, hard as the hoof of a gazelle.
I became rather discontented with my acquisition, inasmuch
as I wished my paper-weights to be of a sedentary disposition, and thought
it very unnatural that feet should walk about without legs; and I commenced
to experience a feeling closely akin to fear.
Suddenly I saw the folds of my bed-curtain stir; and heard
a bumping sound, like that caused by some person hopping on one foot across
the floor. I must confess I became alternately hot and cold; that I felt
a strange wind chill my back; and that my suddenly rising hair caused my
nightcap to execute a leap of several yards.
The bed-curtains opened and I beheld the strangest figure
imaginable before me.
It was a young girl of a very deep coffee-brown complexion,
like the bayadere Amani, and possessing the purest Egyptian type of perfect
beauty: her eyes were almond-shaped and oblique, with eyebrows so black
that they seemed blue; her nose was exquisitely chiseled, almost Greek
in its delicacy of outline; and she might indeed have been taken for a
Corinthian statue of bronze, but for the prominence of her cheek-bones
and the slightly African fulness of her lips, which compelled one to recognize
her as belonging beyond all doubt to the hieroglyphic race which dwelt
upon the banks of the Nile.
Her arms, slender and spindle-shaped, like those of very
young girls, were encircled by a peculiar kind of metal bands and bracelets
of glass beads; her hair was all twisted into little cords; and she wore
upon her bosom a little idol-figure of green paste, bearing a whip with
seven lashes, which proved it to be an image of Isis: her brow was adorned
with a shining plate of gold; and a few traces of paint relieved the coppery
tint of her cheeks.
As for her costume, it was very odd indeed. Fancy a pagne
or skirt all formed of little strips of material bedizened with red and
black hieroglyphics, stiffened with bitumen, and apparrently belonging
to a freshly unbandaged mummy.
In one of those sudden flights of thought so common in
dreams I heard the hoarse falsetto of the bric-a-brac dealer, repeating
like a monotonous refrain the phrase he had uttered in his shop with so
enigmatical an intonation:
"Old Pharaoh will not be well pleased: he loved his daughter,
the dear man!"
One strange circumstance, which was not at all calculated
to restore my equanimity, was that the apparition had but one foot; the
other was broken off at the ankle!
She approached the table where the foot was starting and
fidgeting about more than ever, and there supported herself upon the edge
of the desk. I saw her eyes fill with pearly-gleaming tears.
Although she had not as yet spoken, I fully comprehended
the thoughts which agitated her: she looked at her foot--it was indeed
her own--with an exquisitely graceful expression of coquettish sadness;
but the foot leaped and ran hither and thither, as though impelled on steel
Twice or thrice she extended her hand to seize it, but
could not succeed.
Then commenced between the Princess Hermonthis and her
foot--which appeared to be endowed with a special life of its own--a very
fantastic dialogue in a most ancient Coptic tongue, such as might have
been spoken thirty centuries ago in the syrinxes of the land of Ser: luckily,
I understood Coptic perfectly well that night.
The Princess Hermonthis cried, in a voice sweet and vibrant
as the tones of a crystal bell:
"Well, my dear little foot, you always flee from me; yet
I always took good care of you. I bathed you with perfumed water in a bowl
of alabaster; I smoothed your heel with pumice-stone mixed with palm oil;
your nails were cut with golden scissors and polished with a hippopotamus
tooth; I was careful to select tatbebs for you, painted and embroidered
and turned up at the toes, which were the envy of all the young girls in
Egypt: you wore on your great toe rings bearing the device of the sacred
Scarab¾us; and you supported one of the lightest bodies that a lazy
foot could sustain."
The foot replied, in a pouting and chagrined tone:
"You know well that I do not belong to myself any longer;--I
have been bought and paid for; the old merchant knew what he was about;
he bore you a grudge for having refused to espouse him;--this is an ill
turn which he has done you. The Arab who violated your royal coffin in
the subterranean pit of the necropolis of Thebes was sent thither by him:
he desired to prevent you from being present at the reunion of the shadowy
nations in the cities below. Have you five pieces of gold for my ransom?"
"Alas, no!--my jewels, my rings, my purses of gold and
silver, they were all stolen from me," answered the Princess Hermonthis,
with a sob.
"Princess," I then exclaimed, "I never retained anybody's
foot unjustly;--even though you have not got the five louis which it cost
me, I present it to you gladly: I should feel unutterably wretched to think
that I were the cause of so amiable a person as the Princess Hermonthis
I delivered this discourse in a royally gallant, troubadour
tone, which must have astonished the beautiful Egyptian girl.
She turned a look of deepest gratitude upon me; and her
eyes shone with bluish gleams of light.
She took her foot--which surrendered itself willingly
this time--like a woman about to put on her little shoe, and adjusted it
to her leg with much skill.
This operation over, she took a few steps about the room,
as though to assure herself that she was really no longer lame.
"Ah, how pleased my father will be!--he who was so unhappy
because of my mutilation, and who from the moment of my birth set a whole
nation at work to hollow me out a tomb so deep that he might preserve me
intact until that last day, when souls must be weighed in the balance of
Amenthi! Come with me to my father;--he will receive you kindly; for you
have given me back my foot."
I thought this proposition natural enough. I arrayed myself
in a dressing-gown of large-flowered pattern, which lent me a very Pharaonic
aspect; hurriedly put on a pair of Turkish slippers, and informed the Princess
Hermonthis that I was ready to follow her.
Before starting, Hermonthis took from her neck the little
idol of green paste, and laid it on the scattered sheets of paper which
covered the table.
"It is only fair," she observed smilingly, "that I should
replace your paper-weight."
She gave me her hand, which felt soft and cold, like the
skin of a serpent; and we departed.
We passed for some time with the velocity of an arrow
through a fluid and grayish expanse, in which half-formed silhouettes flitted
swiftly by us, to right and left.
For an instant we saw only sky and sea.
A few moments later obelisks commenced to tower in the
distance: pylons and vast flights of steps guarded by sphinxes became clearly
outlined against the horizon.
We had reached our destination. The princess conducted
me to the mountain of rose-colored granite, in the face of which appeared
an opening so narrow and low that it would have been difficult to distinguish
it from the fissures in the rock, had not its location been marked by two
stel¾ wrought with sculptures.
Hermonthis kindled a torch, and led the way before me.
We traversed corridors hewn through the living rock: their
walls, covered with hieroglyphics and paintings of allegorical processions,
might well have occupied thousands of arms for thousands of years in their
formation;--these corridors, of interminable length, opened into square
chambers, in the midst of which pits had been contrived, through which
we descended by cramp-irons or spiral stairways;--these pits again conducted
us into other chambers, opening into other corridors, likewise decorated
with painted sparrow-hawks, serpents coiled in circles, the symbols of
the tau and pedum--prodigious works of art which no living eye can ever
examine--interminable legends of granite which only the dead have time
to read through all eternity.
At last we found ourselves in a hall so vast, so enormous,
so immeasurable, that the eye could not reach its limits; files of monstrous
columns streatched far out of sight on every side, between which twinkled
livid stars of yellowish flame;--points of light which revealed further
depths incalculable in the darkness beyond.
The Princess Hermonthis still held my hand, and graciously
saluted the mummies of her acquaintance.
My eyes became accustomed to the dim twilight, and objects
I beheld the kings of the subterranean races seated upon
thrones--grand old men, though dry, withered, wrinkled like parchment,
and blackened with naphtha and bitumen--all wearing pshents of gold, and
breastplaces and gorgets glittering with precious stones; their eyes immovably
fixed like the eyes of sphinxes, and their long beards whitened by the
snow of centuries. Behind them stood their peoples, in the stiff and constrained
posture enjoined by Egyptian art, all eternally preserving the attitude
prescribed by the hieratic code. Behind these nations, the cats, ibises,
and crocodiles contemporary with them--rendered monstrous of aspect by
their swathing bands--mewed, flapped their wings, or extended their jaws
in a saurian giggle.
All the Pharaohs were there--Cheops, Chephrenes, Psammetichus,
Sesostris, Amenotaph--all the dark rulers of the pyramids and syrinxes--on
yet higher thrones sat Chronos and Xixouthros--who was contemporary with
the deluge; and Tubal Cain, who reigned before it.
The beard of King Xixouthros had grown seven times around
the granite table, upon which he leaned, lost in deep reverie--and buried
Further back, through a dusty cloud, I beheld dimly the
seventy-two pre-Adamite Kings, with their seventy-two peoples--forever
After permitting me to gaze upon this bewildering spectacle
a few moments, the Princess Hermonthis presented me to her father Pharaoh,
who favored me with a most gracious nod.
"I have found my foot again!--I have found my foot!" cried
the Princess, clapping her little hands together with every sign of frantic
joy: "it was this gentleman who restored it to me."
The races of Kemi, the races of Nahasi--all the black,
bronzed, and copper-colored nations repeated in chorus:
"The Princess Hermonthis has found her foot again!"
Even Xixouthros himself was visibly affected.
He raised his heavy eyelids, stroked his mustache with
his fingers, and turned upon me a glance weighty with centuries.
"By Oms, the dog of Hell, and Tmei, daughter of the Sun
and of Truth! this is a brave and worthy lad!" exclaimed Pharaoh, pointing
to me with his scepter, which was terminated with a lotus-flower.
"What recompense do you desire?"
Filled with that daring inspired by dreams in which nothing
seems impossible, I asked him for the hand of the Princess Hermonthis;--the
hand seemed to me a very proper antithetic recompense for the foot.
Pharaoh opened wide his great eyes of glass in astonishment
at my witty request.
"What country do you come from? and what is your age?"
"I am a Frenchman; and I am twenty-seven years old, venerable
"--Twenty-seven years old! and he wishes to espouse the
Princess Hermonthis, who is thirty centuries old!" cried out at once all
the Thrones and all the Circles of Nations.
Only Hermonthis herself did not seem to think my request
"If you were even only two thousand years old," replied
the ancient King, "I would willingly give you the Princess; but the disproportion
is too great; and, besides, we must give our daughters husbands who will
last well: you do not know how to preserve yourselves any longer; even
those who died only fifteen centuries ago are already no more than a handful
of dust;--behold! my flesh is solid as basalt; my bones are bars of steel!
"I shall be present on the last day of the world, with
the same body and the same features which I had during my lifetime: my
daughter Hermonthis will last longer than a statue of bronze.
"Then the last particles of your dust will have been scattered
abroad by the winds; and even Isis herself, who was able to find the atoms
of Osiris, would scarce be able to recompose your being.
"See how vigorous I yet remain, and how mighty is my grasp,"
he added, shaking my hand in the English fashion with a strength that buried
my rings in the flesh of my fingers.
He squeezed me so hard that I awoke, and found my friend
Alfred shaking me by the arm to make me get up.
"O you everlasting sleeper!--must I have you carried out
into the middle of the street, and fireworks exploded in your ears? It
is after noon; don't you recollect your promise to take me with you to
see M. Aguado's Spanish pictures?"
"God! I forgot all, all about it," I answered, dressing
myself hurriedly; "we will go there at once; I have the permit lying on
I started to find it;--but fancy my astonishment when
I beheld, instead of the mummy's foot I had purchased the evening before,
the little green paste idol left in its place by the Princess Hermonthis!