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THE MUMMY’S FOOT

BY

THEOPHILE GAUTIER

I had sauntered idly into the shop of one of those dealers in old curiosities bric-a-brac” as they say in that Parisian argot, so absolutely unintelligible elsewhere in France.

You have no doubt often glanced through the windows of some of these shops, which have become numerous since it is so fashionable to buy antique furniture, that the humblest stockbroker feels obliged to have a room furnished in medieval style.

Something is there which belongs alike to the shop of the dealer in old iron, the warehouse of the merchant, the laboratory of the chemist, and the studio of the painter: in all these mysterious recesses, where but a discreet half-light filters through the shutters, the most obviously antique thing is the dust: the cobwebs are more genuine than the laces, and the old pear-tree furniture is more modern than the mahogany which arrived but yesterday from America.

The warehouse of my dealer in bric-a-brac was a veritable Capharnauem; all ages and all countries seemed to have arranged a rendezvous there; an Etruscan terra cotta lamp stood upon a Boule cabinet, with ebony panels decorated with simple filaments of inlaid copper: a duchess of the reign of Louis XV stretched nonchalantly her graceful feet under a massive Louis XIII table with heavy, spiral oaken legs, and carvings of intermingled flowers and grotesque figures.

In a corner glittered the ornamented breastplate of a suit of damaskeened armor of Milan. The shelves and floor were littered with porcelain cupids and nymphs, Chinese monkeys, vases of pale green enamel, cups of Dresden and old Sèvres.

Upon the denticulated shelves of sideboards, gleamed huge Japanese plaques, with red and blue designs outlined in gold, side by side with the enamels of Bernard Palissy, with serpents, frogs, and lizards in relief.

From ransacked cabinets tumbled cascades of silvery-gleaming China silk, the shimmering brocade pricked into luminous beads by a slanting sunbeam; while portraits of every epoch smiled through their yellowed varnish from frames more or less tarnished.

The dealer followed me watchfully through the tortuous passages winding between the piles of furniture, warding off with his hands the perilous swing of my coat tail, observing my elbows with the disquieting concern of an antiquarian and a usurer.

He was an odd figure this dealer; an enormous skull, smooth as a knee, was surrounded by a scant aureole of white hair, which, by contrast, emphasized the salmon-colored tint of his complexion, and gave a wrong impression of patriarchal benevolence, corrected, however, by the glittering of two small, yellow eyes which shifted in their orbits like two louis d’or floating on quicksilver. The curve of his nose gave him an aquiline silhouette, which suggested the Oriental or Jewish type. His hands, long, slender, with prominent veins and sinews protruding like the strings on a violin, with nails like the claws on the membraneous wings of the bat moved with a senile trembling painful to behold, but those nervously quivering hands became firmer than pincers of steel, or the claws of a lobster, when they picked up any precious object, an onyx cup, a Venetian glass, or a platter of Bohemian crystal. This curious old fellow had an air so thoroughly rabbinical and cabalistic, that, from mere appearance, he would have been burned at the stake three centuries ago.

“Will you not buy something from me to-day, sir? Here is a kris from Malay, with a blade which undulates like a flame; look at these grooves for the blood to drip from, these teeth reversed so as to tear out the entrails in withdrawing the weapon; it is a fine specimen of a ferocious weapon, and will be an interesting addition to your trophies; this two-handed sword is very beautiful it is the work of Joseph de la Herz; and this cauchelimarde with its carved guard what superb workmanship!”

“No, I have enough weapons and instruments of carnage; I should like to have a small figure, any sort of object which can be used for a paper weight; for I cannot endure those commonplace bronzes for sale at the stationers which one sees invariably on everybody’s desk.”

The old gnome, rummaging among his ancient wares, displayed before me some antique bronzes pseudo-antique, at least, fragments of malachite, little Hindu and Chinese idols, jade monkeys, incarnations of Brahma and Vishnu, marvelously suitable for the purpose scarcely divine of holding papers and letters in place.

I was hesitating between a porcelain dragon covered with constellations of warts, its jaws embellished with teeth and tusks, and a hideous little Mexican fetish, representing realistically the god Vitziliputzili, when I noticed a charming foot, which at first I supposed was a fragment of some antique Venus.

It had that beautiful tawny reddish tint, which gives the Florentine bronzes their warm, life-like appearance, so preferable to the verdigris tones of ordinary bronzes, which might be taken readily for statues in a state of putrefaction; a satiny luster gleamed over its curves, polished by the amorous kisses of twenty centuries; for it must have been a Corinthian bronze, a work of the finest period, molded perhaps by Lysippus himself.

“That foot will do,” I said to the dealer, who looked at me with an ironical, crafty expression, as he handed me the object I asked for, so that I might examine it more carefully.

I was surprised at its lightness. It was not a metal foot but in reality a foot of flesh, an embalmed foot, a mummy’s foot; on examining it more closely, one could distinguish the grain of the skin, and the almost imperceptible imprint of the weave of the wrappings. The toes were slender, delicate, with perfect nails, pure and transparent as agate; the great toe, slightly separated from the others, in the antique manner was in pleasing contrast to the position of the other toes, and gave a suggestion of the freedom and lightness of a bird’s foot. The sole, faintly streaked with almost invisible lines, showed that it had never touched the ground, or come in contact with anything but the finest mats woven from the rushes of the Nile, and the softest rugs of panther skin.

“Ha, ha! You want the foot of the Princess Hermonthis,” said the dealer with a strange, mocking laugh, staring at me with his owlish eyes. “Ha, ha, ha, for a paper weight! An original idea! an artist’s idea! If anyone had told old Pharaoh that the foot of his adored daughter would be used for a paper weight, particularly whilst he was having a mountain of granite hollowed out in which to place her triple coffin, painted and gilded, covered with hieroglyphics, and beautiful pictures of the judgment of souls, it would truly have surprised him,” continued the queer little dealer, in low tones, as though talking to himself.

“How much will you charge me for this fragment of a mummy?”

“Ah, as much as I can get; for it is a superb piece; if I had the mate to it, you could not have it for less than five hundred francs the daughter of a Pharaoh! there could be nothing more choice.”

“Assuredly it is not common; but, still, how much do you want for it? First, however, I want to acquaint you with one fact, which is, that my fortune consists of only five louis. I will buy anything that costs five louis, but nothing more expensive. You may search my vest pockets, and my most secret bureau drawers, but you will not find one miserable five franc piece besides.”

“Five louis for the foot of the Princess Hermonthis! It is very little, too little, in fact, for an authentic foot,” said the dealer, shaking his head and rolling his eyes with a peculiar rotary motion. “Very well, take it, and I will throw in the outer covering,” he said, rolling it in a shred of old damask “very beautiful, genuine damask, which has never been redyed; it is strong, yet it is soft,” he muttered, caressing the frayed tissue, in accordance with his dealer’s habit of praising an article of so little value, that he himself thought it good for nothing but to give away.

He dropped the gold pieces into a kind of medieval pouch which was fastened at his belt, while he repeated:

“The foot of the Princess Hermonthis to be used for a paper weight!”

Then, fastening upon me his phosphorescent pupils he said, in a voice strident as the wails of a cat which has just swallowed a fish bone:

“Old Pharaoh will not be pleased; he loved his daughter that dear man.”

“You speak of him as though you were his contemporary; no matter how old you may be, you do not date back to the pyramids of Egypt,” I answered laughingly from the threshold of the shop.

I returned home, delighted with my purchase.

To make use of it at once, I placed the foot of the exalted Princess Hermonthis on a stack of papers sketches of verses, undecipherable mosaics of crossed out words, unfinished articles, forgotten letters, posted in the desk drawer, a mistake often made by absent-minded people; the effect was pleasing, bizarre, and romantic.

Highly delighted with this decoration, I went down into the street, and took a walk with all the importance and pride proper to a man who has the inexpressible advantage over the passersby he elbows, of possessing a fragment of the Princess Hermonthis, daughter of Pharaoh.

I thought people who did not possess, like myself, a paper weight so genuinely Egyptian, were objects of ridicule, and it seemed to me the proper business of the sensible man to have a mummy’s foot upon his desk.

Happily, an encounter with several friends distracted me from my raptures over my recent acquisition, I went to dinner with them, for it would have been hard for me to dine alone.

When I returned at night, with my brain somewhat muddled by the effects of a few glasses of wine, a vague whiff of oriental perfume tickled delicately my olfactory nerves. The heat of the room had warmed the natron, the bitumen, and the myrrh in which the paraschites who embalmed the dead had bathed the body of the Princess; it was a delicate, yet penetrating perfume, which four thousand years had not been able to dissipate.

The Dream of Egypt was for the Eternal; its odors have the solidity of granite, and last as long.

In a short time I drank full draughts from the black cup of sleep; for an hour or two all remained in obscurity; Oblivion and Nothingness submerged me in their somber waves.

Nevertheless the haziness of my perceptions gradually cleared away, dreams began to brush me lightly in their silent flight.

The eyes of my soul opened, and I saw my room as it was in reality. I might have believed myself awake, if I had not had a vague consciousness that I was asleep, and that something very unusual was about to take place.

The odor of myrrh had increased in intensity, and I had a slight headache, which I very naturally attributed to several glasses of champagne that we had drunk to unknown gods, and to our future success.

I scrutinized my room with a feeling of expectation, which there was nothing to justify. Each piece of furniture was in its usual place; the lamp, softly shaded by the milky whiteness of its ground crystal globe, burned upon the console, the water colors glowed from under the Bohemian glass; the curtains hung in heavy drooping folds; everything suggested tranquility and slumber.

Nevertheless, after a few moments the quiet of the room was disturbed, the woodwork creaked furtively, the ash-covered log suddenly spurted out a blue flame, and the surfaces of the plaques seemed like metallic eyes, watching, like myself, for what was about to happen.

By chance my eyes fell on the table on which I had placed the foot of the Princess Hermonthis.

Instead of remaining in the state of immobility proper to a foot which has been embalmed for four thousand years, it moved about in an agitated manner, twitching, leaping about over the papers like a frightened frog; one might have thought it in contact with a galvanic battery; I could hear distinctly the quick tap of the little heel, hard as the hoof of a gazelle.

I became rather dissatisfied with my purchase, for I like paper weights of sedentary habits besides I found it very unnatural for feet to move about without legs, and I began to feel something closely resembling fear.

Suddenly I noticed a movement of one of the folds of my curtains, and I heard a stamping like that made by a person hopping about on one foot. I must admit that I grew hot and cold by turns, that I felt a mysterious breeze blowing down my back, and that my hair stood on end so suddenly that it forced my night-cap to a leap of several degrees.

The curtains partly opened, and I saw the strangest figure possible advancing.

It was a young girl, as coffee-coloured as Amani the dancer, and of a perfect beauty of the purest Egyptian type. She had slanting almond-shaped eyes, with eyebrows so black that they appeared blue; her nose was finely chiseled, almost Grecian in its delicacy; she might have been taken for a Corinthian statue of bronze, had not her prominent cheekbones and rather African fullness of lips indicated without a doubt the hieroglyphic race which dwelt on the banks of the Nile.

Her arms, thin, spindle shaped, like those of very young girls, were encircled with a kind of metal ornament, and bracelets of glass beads; her hair was twisted into little cords; on her breast hung a green paste idol, identified by her whip of seven lashes as Isis, guide of souls a golden ornament shone on her forehead, and slight traces of rouge were visible on the coppery tints of her cheeks.

As for her costume, it was very odd.

Imagine a pagne made of narrow strips bedizened with red and black hieroglyphics, weighted with bitumen, and apparently belonging to a mummy newly unswathed.

In one of those flights of fancy usual in dreams, I could hear the hoarse, rough voice of the dealer of bric-a-brac reciting in a monotonous refrain, the phrase he had kept repeating in his shop in so enigmatic a manner.

“Old Pharaoh will not be pleased he loved his daughter very much that dear man.”

One peculiar detail, which was hardly reassuring, was that the apparition had but one foot, the other was broken off at the ankle.

She approached the table, where the mummy’s foot was fidgeting and tossing about with redoubled energy. She leaned against the edge, and I saw her eyes fill with pearly tears.

Although she did not speak, I fully understood her feelings. She looked at the foot, for it was in truth her own, with an expression of coquettish sadness, which was extremely charming; but the foot kept jumping and running about as though it were moved by springs of steel.

Two or three times she stretched out her hand to grasp it, but did not succeed.

Then began between the Princess Hermonthis and her foot, which seemed to be endowed with an individuality of its own, a very bizarre dialogue, in an ancient Coptic tongue, such as might have been spoken thirty centuries before, among the sphinxes of the Land of Ser; fortunately, that night I understood Coptic perfectly.

The Princess Hermonthis said in a tone of voice sweet and tremulous as the tones of a crystal bell:

“Well, my dear little foot, you always flee from me, yet I took the best of care of you; I bathed you with perfumed water, in a basin of alabaster; I rubbed your heel with pumice stone, mixed with oil of palm; your nails were cut with golden scissors, and polished with a hippopotamus’ tooth; I was careful to select for you painted and embroidered tatbebs, with turned up toes, which were the envy of all the young girls of Egypt; on your great toe, you wore rings representing the sacred Scarab, and you supported one of the lightest bodies that could be desired by a lazy foot.”

The foot answered in a pouting, regretful voice:

“You know well that I no longer belong to myself. I have been bought and paid for; the old dealer knew what he was about. He bears you a grudge for having refused to marry him. This is a trick he has played on you. The Arab who forced open your royal tomb, in the subterranean pits of the Necropolis of Thebes, was sent there by him. He wanted to prevent you from attending the reunion of the shades, in the cities of the lower world. Have you five pieces of gold with which to ransom me?”

“Alas, no! My jewels, my rings, my purses of gold and of silver have all been stolen from me,” answered the Princess Hermonthis with a sigh.

“Princess,” I then cried out, “I have never kept possession of anyone’s foot unjustly; even though you have not the five louis which it cost me, I will return it to you gladly; I should be wretched, were I the cause of the lameness of so charming a person as the Princess Hermonthis.”

I delivered this discourse in a courtly, troubadour-like manner, which must have astonished the beautiful Egyptian.

She looked at me with an expression of deepest gratitude, and her eyes brightened with bluish lights.

She took her foot, which this time submitted, and, like a woman about to put on her brodekin, she adjusted it to her leg with great dexterity.

This operation finished, she took a few steps about the room, as though to assure herself that she was in reality no longer lame.

“Ah, how happy my father will be, he who was so wretched because of my mutilation he who, from the day of my birth, set a whole nation to work to hollow out a tomb so deep that he might preserve me intact until that supreme last day, when souls must be weighed in the scales of Amenti! Come with me to my father; he will be happy to receive you, for you have given me back my foot.”

I found this proposition quite natural. I decked myself out in a dressing-gown of huge sprawling design, which gave me an extremely Pharaohesque appearance; I hurriedly put on a pair of Turkish slippers, and told the Princess Hermonthis that I was ready to follow her.

Before setting out, Hermonthis detached from her necklace the little green paste image and placed it on the scattered papers which strewed the table.

“It is no more than right,” she said smilingly, “that I should replace your paper weight.”

She gave me her hand, which was soft and cool as the skin of a serpent, and we departed.

For a time we sped with the rapidity of an arrow, through a misty expanse of space, in which almost indistinguishable silhouettes flashed by us, on the right and left.

For an instant we saw nothing but sea and sky.

A few minutes later, towering obelisks, pillars, the sloping outlines of the sphinx, were designed against the horizon.

We had arrived.

The princess conducted me to the side of a mountain of red granite in which there was an aperture so low and narrow that, had it not been marked by two monoliths covered with bizarre carvings, it would have been difficult to distinguish from the fissures in the rock.

Hermonthis lighted a torch and led the way.

The corridors were hewn through the living rock. The walls, with panels covered with hieroglyphics, and representations of allegorical processions, must have been the work of thousands of hands for thousands of years; the corridors, of an interminable length, ended in square rooms, in the middle of which pits had been constructed, to which we descended by means of crampons or spiral staircases. These pits led us into other rooms, from which opened out other corridors embellished in the same bizarre manner with sparrow-hawks, serpents coiled in circles, the symbolic tau, pedum, and baris, prodigious works which no living eye should ever see, interminable legends in granite which only the dead throughout eternity have time to read.

At last we reached a hall so vast, so boundless, so immeasurable, that its limits could not be discerned. As far as the eye could see, extended files of gigantic columns, between which sparkled livid stars of yellow light. These glittering points of light revealed incalculable depths beyond.

The Princess Hermonthis, still holding my hand, greeted graciously the mummies of her acquaintance.

My eyes gradually became accustomed to the shadowy twilight, and I began to distinguish the objects around me.

I saw, seated upon their thrones, the kings of the subterranean races. They were dignified old personages, or dried up, shriveled, wrinkled-like parchment, and blackened with naphtha and bitumen. On their heads they wore pschents of gold, and their breastplates and gorgets scintillated with precious stones; their eyes had the fixedness of the sphinx, and their long beards were whitened by the snows of centuries. Behind them stood their embalmed subjects, in the rigid and constrained postures of Egyptian art, preserving eternally the attitudes prescribed by the hieratic code. Behind the subjects, the cats, ibixes, and crocodiles contemporary with them, rendered still more monstrous by their wrappings, mewed, beat their wings, and opened and closed their huge jaws in foolish grimaces.

All the Pharaohs were there Cheops, Chephrenes, Psammetichus, Sesostri, Amenoteph, all the dark-skinned rulers of the country of the pyramids, and the royal sepulchers; on a still higher platform sat enthroned the kings Chronos, and Xixouthros, who were contemporary with the deluge, and Tubal-Cain, who preceded it.

The beard of King Xixouthros had grown to such lengths that it had already wound itself seven times around the granite table against which he leaned, lost in reverie, as though in slumber.

Further in the distance, through a dim exhalation, across the mists of eternities, I beheld vaguely the seventy-two pre-Adamite kings, with their seventy-two peoples, vanished forever.

The Princess Hermonthis, after allowing me a few moments to enjoy this dizzying spectacle, presented me to Pharaoh, her father, who nodded to me in a most majestic manner.

“I have found my foot I have found my foot!” cried the Princess, clapping her little hands, with every indication of uncontrollable joy. “It was this gentleman who returned it to me.”

The races of Kheme, the races of Nahasi, all the races, black, bronze, and copper-colored, repeated in a chorus:

“The Princess Hermonthis has found her foot.”

Xixouthros himself was deeply affected.

He raised his heavy eyelids, stroked his moustache, and regarded me with his glance charged with the centuries.

“By Oms, the dog of Hell, and by Tmei, daughter of the Sun and of Truth, here is a brave and worthy young man,” said Pharaoh, extending toward me his scepter which terminated in a lotus flower. “What recompense do you desire?”

Eagerly, with that audacity which one has in dreams, where nothing seems impossible, I asked him for the hand of the Princess Hermonthis. Her hand in exchange for her foot, seemed to me an antithetical recompense, in sufficiently good taste.

Pharaoh opened wide his eyes of glass, surprised at my pleasantry, as well as my request.

“From what country are you, and what is your age?”

“I am a Frenchman, and I am twenty-seven years old, venerable Pharaoh.”

“Twenty-seven years old! And he wishes to espouse the Princess Hermonthis, who is thirty centuries old!” exclaimed in a chorus all the thrones, and all the circles of nations.

Hermonthis alone did not seem to think my request improper.

“If you were even two thousand years old,” continued the old king, “I would gladly bestow upon you the Princess; but the disproportion is too great; besides, our daughters must have husbands who will last, and you no longer know how to preserve yourselves. Of the last persons who were brought here, scarcely fifteen centuries ago, nothing now remains but a pinch of ashes. Look! my flesh is as hard as basalt, my bones are bars of steel. I shall be present on the last day, with the body and features I had in life. My daughter Hermonthis will last longer than a statue of bronze. But at that time the winds will have dissipated the last grains of your dust, and Isis herself, who knew how to recover the fragments of Osiris, would hardly be able to recompose your being. See how vigorous I still am, and how powerful is the strength of my arm,” said he, shaking my hand in the English fashion, in a way that cut my fingers with my rings.

His grasp was so strong that I awoke, and discovered my friend Alfred, who was pulling me by the arm, and shaking me, to make me get up.

“Oh, see here, you maddening sleeper! Must I have you dragged into the middle of the street, and have fireworks put off close to your ear, in order to waken you? It is afternoon. Don’t you remember that you promised to call for me and take me to see the Spanish pictures of M. Aguada?”

“Good heavens! I forgot all about it,” I answered, dressing hurriedly. “We can go there at once I have the permit here on my table.” I crossed over to get it; imagine my astonishment when I saw, not the mummy’s foot I had bought the evening before, but the little green paste image left in its place by the Princess Hermonthis!