By Order of the Police
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BY ORDER OF THE POLICE
An episode of 1894
[From the French of Octave Mirbeau]
I was sleeping peacefully when I was awakened with a start by the sound of loud knocking at the door of my flat. Puzzled by so unusual a circumstance, I lighted a candle and ascertained that my revolver was fully loaded. The clock struck five. Whilst I hurriedly threw on some clothes the knocking redoubled at 'the door; one might have thought it was some battering-ram trying to break in the gate of an ancient and besieged city. I walked firmly to the door, which shook as if on the point of bursting open, and in as firm a tone (being, I trust, no poltroon) I demanded: “Who is there?”
An odd voice, which struck me instantly as being disguised or hoarse from much drinking, replied: “Monsieur’s chiropodist.”
“What!” I said, “at this hour! But you must be a fool—and why all this noise?”
“If monsieur will only pardon me! But tonight there is the Spuller banquet, and the day will not be long enough for me to attend to the feet of everyone.” The words should have aroused my suspicions. I never employed a chiropodist; yet, strange to say, I felt suddenly impelled to accept the services of one! From what inconceivable impulse I became oblivious to all my usual habits, and why I was reassured by the stranger's explanation which was no explanation, I cannot tell. I could have been but half awake. I opened the door.
At once there rushed in, like some perambulating waterspout or cyclone, a gentleman with a big moustache, followed by six others With as large moustaches, bearing commissionaires' bags across their shoulders.
“Tipsy idiots!” I cried, vexed to have fallen a victim to so silly a ruse.
The gentleman with the big moustache saluted me ironically, then throwing a heavy club against a curtain which draped a wall In the ante-room and which in its fall knocked over and broke a statuette, he said: “No, not tipsy idiots! The Superintendent of Police, dear sir, who is here to make a search.”
“A search—here? Surely you are mad. By what right will you dare to make it?”
The gentleman with the big moustache laughed heartily, his merriment being re-echoed by his six aides. “By what right?... Ah! the right!... Well, I like that! I assure you, Raynal, Lépine and I don't worry ourselves much about that side of the question.” His hands clenched, his moustache bristling, he suddenly confronted me and continued: “By the right that we assume, Raynal, Lépine and myself, to visit the citizens at our own hour and convenience, and without explanations! Such at least will not assist you. Show me your library.”
I saw no use in resisting; to tell the truth, an official search on my premises struck me as something extremely droll. Having nothing compromising in my rooms the facetious aspect of the incident rallied my spirits, and I promised myself much amusement from the discomfiture of my matutinal and disagreeable visitors. “All right,” I said, “let us go to the library.”
Directly he was in the room the superintendent began to rub his hands as if tilled with content, and eyeing the books (my dear books!) reposing peacefully on their shelves, he grumbled :
“Ah, ah, here we are again in one of these revolutionary centres—one of these hotbeds of Anarchism! Ah, ah, we shall have some fun here! the bungler! we shall find convicting evidence—plenty of literature too—we cannot carry it all away at once.”
Addressing his men he gave the command “Open all these glass fronts.”
As, owing to their thick fingers and ignorance of the delicate locks they could not do this fast enough, the superintendent calmly seized his club and shivered the glass in my book cases until the floor was strewn with fragments. “Make haste, make haste!” he urged his men, “you don’t seem to know how to set about it—you are as limp as rags. Come now, give me the names of some of these musty works.”
While five of the ruffians unbuckled their straps and opened out their bags, a sixth called aloud with the lungs of a herald: “The Dictionary of Larousse!”
“A dictionary of la rousse (French term of opprobrium for the police force)? We begin well! An outrage on the police. Take it away!”
“The dictionary of Littré.”
“Take it, take it! take all the dictionaries! There is a mass of words in them full of danger to the social order, seditious and subversive words which can no longer be tolerated by Senates or Governments. Take them, take them!”
R The police officer resumed his task: “Universal Geography, by Elisée Reclus.”
The superintendent almost bounded into the air—his nostrils dilated like those of a hound who has just struck the scent. “By heavens! I believe you! Hold it carefully—it might go off! and keep it apart by way of precaution—we will carry it to the Municipal Laboratory—is there a fuse attached? No? that is well—we have arrived in time.” Turning to me with an air of triumph, he added: “There! you can deny nothing! we have you—your business is quite clear.”
Things no longer looked quite so funny to me. I felt my limbs and head, to be certain I was not sleeping. I was so astounded that I could not even protest. The officer continued reading aloud the book titles: “The Imitation of Jesus Christ.”
“Seize it! he was an Anarchist—a rabid Anarchist—a notorious member of a body of criminals; to imitate him is an offence recognisable by law. Come, things are going well! Go on, go on!”
“Introduction to Social Science.”
“Science—and social...a double offence! Take it! To lighten the job, take every book you find labelled with the words science, social, socialistic, sociology, liberty, equality, fraternity, philosophy, psychology, evolution, revolution—~away with them all! Let me see—as these words are to be found in every book, take all the books in a lump; it will be quicker!”
But the man called out once more: “Principles of Biology.”
“Biology also,” roared the superintendent. “Mineralogy, ornithology, anthropology—are you deaf? I told you all the books, all, all! Excepting works by Spuller and Reinach “
My wits were returning, but I could not even yet openly express my indignation in face of this senseless vandalism, its ludicrous side was too strong. I addressed the superintendent mildly: “Sir,” said I, “will you permit me to name a place where you will find far more dangerous books than mine and in greater number?”
“Name that place.”
“The National Library.”
“I will go there—yes, I will go,” he instantly cried, “and also to the Mazarine Library and Sainte Geneviève—I will go everywhere! We have had enough of books and their makers!” He grew excited, and began to pace the room with long, angry strides. Suddenly he paused before a. plaster bust. “And what—what is that? “ he asked.
“Is it hollow?”
“Yes, it is hollow.”
“It is hollow! Take away that bust also—take all the busts—take everything that is hollow!” He reflected for a moment, stamped a foot impatiently on the floor, and added: “And everything that is solid, too.”
The search continued for two hours. At the end of that time I was forced to the conclusion that my flat was empty. I had to take refuge in an hotel.
That evening I read in the columns of our many admirable and well-informed journals, the following paragraph:
“A search was instituted this morning at the domicile of the well-known Anarchist, X----. Infernal machines of an undoubtedly dangerous but, as yet unknown nature were seized; the better to baffle police investigation they had been made in the form of busts. The papers found are of the greatest importance. We are able to state that the authorities are on the track of a formidable plot. X has not as yet been arrested. Why the police do not assure themselves of the safe keeping of this dangerous individual is a mystery.”
Octave Mirbeau, “By Order of the Police,” Freedom 16 no, 161 (January, 1902): 3-4.