This gothic fantasy short story is about the adventures of a man who buys the 3,000 year old mummy’s foot of an Egyptian princess Hermonthis in a Parisian curiosity shop. He intends to use the foot as a paperweight. In the night, he sees a vision of the princess and strange things starts happening.
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 argot 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 place.
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 eyes.
“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.