A Sheriff’s Sale in Paradise
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A SHERIFF'S SALE IN PARADISE.
By Hughes Le Roux. Translated By Benj. R. Tucker.
On the morning of which I speak, Sheriff Leloucheur, of Paris, assuming for the occasion the function of auctioneer, in company with his crier and several acolytes, climbed the path to Paradise.
On account of the lateness of the season, white clouds creaked beneath their feet like snow, and covered, to right and left, as far as the eye could see, the perspectives of the sky. And Sheriff Leloucheur, heated by the ascent, said as he wiped his brow:
"It's a pity that this sale comes in winter. When I came here the first time, in spring, there was an enchanting view from the gate of Paradise; the earth was as green as my table-cloth. Ah! the situation was well chosen for a summer resort. But in winter it must be a little dreary, and communication is not easy."
They were beginning to see the end of the path, and at the top the walls of Paradise crowned with embattlements, the gate in pure Romanesque, sacrilegiously restored in the Jesuit style of the end of the last century. Two green placards were fastened to the panels.
On them was the announcement:
Sale of Furniture by Order of the Law.
And the word PARADISE was conspicuous on the placards, in big, ironical, impious letters, calculated to catch the eye of passer-by and fill with melancholy the souls of those who have kept a tenderness for the past and grow sad over ruins.
Sheriff Leloucheur was past the influence of these emotions. He approached the gate with a deliberate step, and raised his hand to knock, solemnly, like an actor.
At first there was no stir; then he heard a murmur of voices, the jingling of a rosary striking against a bunch of keys; then a hesitating approach; then a slow unbolting of the gate.
Finally the gate half opened, and an old man's face, with lashes falling over his eyes and a beard hanging like his lashes, peered out timidly.
It was the first time that the crier had accompanied his employer; yet he recognised Saint Peter at once, having seen his portrait on stained-glass windows in his youth.
"What can I do for you?" asked the door keeper in an agitated voice.
Sheriff Leloucheur answered:
"I come to verify the inventory. It is an indispensable formality before the sale."
At these words Saint Peter's chin trembled. He lifted his thin hands with a movement that caused the large sleeves of his surplice to fall back to his elbows.
"What!" "said he. "We have got as far as that?"
The sheriff made a gesture of impatience:
"Come, Monsieur Saint Peter, we do not take you by surprise. The sale has been advertised, and you have been made keeper."
The saint shook his head.
"Excuse me," said he; "all this is so new to us."
Then, in a tone of gentle resignation, he added:
"Can you not save Our Lord this last humiliation? You know very well that we have removed nothing. We do not know yet where we shall go to seek refuge."
Sheriff Leloucheur's pantomime indicated that they were trying his patience too far.
"What! you expect me to fail in my duty! I suppose, however, that I must be contented with God's oath; upon what shall I swear him?"
"On himself," answered Saint Peter, with dignity; "I suppose you do not doubt his word?" The crier insinuated:
"The word of an insolvent debtor...."
But the saint's face expressed such indignation that, distrustful though he was, Sheriff Leloucheur yielded.
"All right," he grumbled, as he turned his back. "We will pass that part of it. This whole proceeding has been irregular to a degree...."
Then, coming back to Saint Peter, he added:
"Got mo a table, some chairs for my men, and some benches for the audience; the sale is advertised for half-past nine, and I see the people coming yonder."
In fact, dark and swarming groups were approaching the gate from the path. Already the murmur of voices could be distinguished. There were old-clothes dealers, women with baskets, hyena jaws, Jew noses, the whole army of unclean brokers, "fences," and corpse-devourers that follow the scent of suburban sales. In front and apart were some personages of importance, with new high hats and fur cloaks, talking familiarly.
The crier pointed them out to Sheriff Leloucheur. Immediately that functionary left his table.
"You here, gentlemen?... What good luck! Then I am to have the honor of selling to you?"
"To whom is he talking?" asked a dealer of his neighbor in the crowd.
"It seems that they are theatrical managers: M. Rochard, of the Ambigu; M. Duquesnel, of the Porte-Saint-Martin; MM. Cleves and Floury, of the Chatelet."
"And the little dark man yonder, who has such an amiable air and is biting the head of his cane?"
"That is M. Koning, of the Gymnase."
"Why do they come here?"
"They see the stage-setting, like everybody else, and buy properties."
"The bidding will be warm."
"Hush! they are about to begin."
Sheriff Leloucheur was standing on a chair behind his table. In his most emphatic voice and with a gesture on a level with the occasion, he pronounced the words:
"Gentlemen, the Bale is opened."
Immediately the crier, facing the public, announced in a shrill voice:
"The first lot that we sell consists of domestic and wild animals: the ox and the ass of the stable, the eagle and the lion of St. Mark. And first the ox."
"Two hundred francs is bid."
"Two hundred fifteen!"
"No one says a word? Sold to M. Rochard!" "What are you going to do with that quadruped?" asked M. Koning of his fellow-manager.
"I want him for an understudy to my cow in the play of 'La Fermiere,'" answered the sympathetic manager, "in case of an epizootic. You cannot imagine how difficult it is to find horned beasts that are not afraid of the footlights. This one must be used to noise and light."
Meanwhile the crier had disposed of the four evangelical animals. Amid silence he announced:
"A lot of white robes and halos, thrones and dominions, crowns, palms, gold, silver, white metal, zinc, angels' surplices, martyrs' tunics." . . .
"Thirty thousand francs I" shouted MM. Cleves and Floury as one man.
A syndicate of dealers in religious articles disputed valiantly for this lot. It was knocked off, however, at seventy thousand. And Kochard, bending over, whispered in in Koning's ear:
"I'll bet you the Chatelet is going to mount a mystic fairy spectacle."
"A bad scheme," said Koning. "I wouldn't risk a thousand louis on it."
But the sheriff had risen, and he repeated after his subordinate in an emphatic voice:
"Do you hear, gentlemen? We are going to sell the thunder."
A religious silence ensued, amid which a bantering voice suggested:
"Suppose you try it in our presence, to see if it is still in working order?"
Immediately—by the will of God—the thunder roared.
It roared tremendously, like a faithful old thunderbolt bursting for the last time in the service of a master long obeyed. The effect was such that it terrified the irreverent audience. A few persons fainted, and M. Koning thought to himself:
"I should like to have it for my storm in 'L'Abbe Constantin.' It is much better than the tempest of 'Le Roi S'Amuse,' in which Claretie imitates the thunder with a wheelbarrow."
So he acquired this old instrument for frightening men while the sheriff's falsetto proclaimed the next item:
"We will now sell a lot of musical instruments—harps, harmoniums, lutes, aeolian harps. I hear a bid of fifteen hundred francs."
"Sixteen hundred fifty!"
They turned around to look at the bidder. He was a handsome fellow with an engaging face, a light colored beard, and a seductive smile. The sheriff winked as he quickly let fall his hammer.
"Sold to M. Colonne!"
The managers turned around.
"You too? You here?"
"Yes, I came to get all this old trumpery, and then to engage some choruses of virgins. It is so difficult to find disciplined chorus-singers."
This transaction closed the sale. Sheriff Leloucheur was adjusting his collar, when the crier whispered in his ear.
Immediately he exclaimed:
"Pardon me, gentlemen! I had forgotten! The jewel of the collection! The pride of the amateurs!"
And swelling his voice till it was audible in the very last row, he shouted:
"Saint Peter's key!"
On the instant the groups pressed forward, moved not by the merchant's scent for a bargain, but for curiosity.
"We have an offer of ten thousand francs, signed Alphonse de Rothschild," declared the crier, placing his hand to his mouth in the form of a shell.
Before the hammer could fall again, some one responded:
The size of the bid was a severe shock to the expert dealers, used to haggling over five-franc pieces.
The man who had ventured it wore a large-checked overcoat and a soft brown felt hat. Previous to this he had not opened his mouth.
When the bidding reached twenty thousand francs, his voice showed not the slightest agitation. At fifty thousand he was as phlegmatic as ever. At one hundred and ten thousand his opponent's fire was extinguished.
"One hundred and ten thousand, gentlemen; let us hurry. One hundred and ten thousand, the bid is from the second row. There is no error. Come, it is worth more than that. A historic curiosity! One hundred and ten thousand! No new bid?"
He raised and lowered his hammer with jerky little movements—the nervous beats of an orchestra leader who wants to put life into his musicians.
A last pause suspended the ivory instrument; then, as if overcome by a sudden resolution, the sheriff concluded:
"Once, twice, three times! One hundred and ten thousand? Sold at one hundred and ten thousand!"
The man with an overcoat nodded his head, and the admiring crowd whispered as they moved away:
"He is an Englishman!"
. . . An hour later.
The gate of Paradise is swinging, the auctioneer's table abandoned. Along the again deserted path an august personage glides, borne on the clouds. Bays of light, obscured as if by ground glass, shine upon his face and the straight folds of his tunic. And at a respectful distance in the rear the mass of faithful seraphim, angels, saints, martyrs, virgins, follow the dethroned Lord in the road of exile.
Suddenly he whose sight is piercing sees in the road, ascending from earth, an aged man in a hurry. He is dressed in a green coat, with an opera-hat under his arm and a sword at his side. His smooth and chubby face, slightly inclined in an attitude of benevolent attention, betrays a sentiment of becoming condolence.
"Why, it is Ernest Renan," says the Lord to himself in surprise. "Why is he coming to meet me?"
The Academician is Boon within speaking distance. And controlling the fit of asthma that stifles his words and makes his speech spasmodic, ho says:
"Ah, my God! I arrive too late! . . . How sorry I am! . . . I should have so much liked to soften your painful moments! . . . I know these law people! . . they are in a hurry to go ahead. . . . they do not delay . . . hence a lamentable brutality. . . . And toward a person like you! ... so respectable! ... of such ancient consideration."
The Lord lifts his hands in a gesture of sovereign pardon and oblivion.
"They have not left me," he says, "where to lay my head."
Then the illustrious expounder bows and bends in deploring reverence, and asks indulgence for the ingratitude of men.
"These are deplorable excesses. . . . But we will repair them. A pious person has just built, in the heart of Paris, opposite the Exposition, a retreat for Gods in exile. You were not expected so soon. But I am on good terms with the keeper. I will see that he reserves for you an honorable place, the lodging to which you are entitled in the Museum of Religions."
Hughes Le Roux, and Benjamin R. Tucker (translator), “A Sheriff’s Sale in Paradise,” The Freethinker 10, no. 4 (February 2, 1890): 57-58.