What Happened To Auguste Clarot?

by Larry Eisenberg

(Who among us has not speculated on the whereabouts of Judge Crater? In Paris, the disappearance of Auguste Clarot caused an equally large splash.)

When I was summoned posthaste to the topsy turvy office of Emile Becque, savage editor of L'Expresse, I knew in my bones that an assignment of extraordinary dimensions awaited me. Becque glared at me as I entered, his green-tinted eyeshade slanted forward like an enormous bill.

We sat there, neither of us saying a word, for Becque is a strong believer in mental telepathy. After several moments I had gathered nothing but waves of hatred for a padded expense account and then, all at once, I knew. It was l'affaire Clarot. I leaped to my feet crying out, I will not let you down, Emile, and stumbled (almost blinded by tears) out of his office.

It was an intriguing assignment and I could hardly believe it had fallen to me. The disappearance of Auguste Clarot, Nobel-prize-winning chemist, some fifteen years earlier, had thrown all of Paris into a turmoil. Even my mother, a self-centered bourgeoise given to surreptitious squeezing of tomatoes to reduce their price, had remarked to me that the Earth could hardly have swallowed up so eminent a scientist.

On a hunch, I went to see his wife, Madame Ernestine Clarot, a formidable woman with a black mustache and pre-eminent bosom. She received me with dignity, camomile tea, and a crepe-fringed portrait of her husband. I tried to trick her into spilling the beans by alluding to rumors that Clarot had gone to Buenos Aires with a poulet from Montmartre. Although her eyes filled with tears at this egregious insult, Madame Ernestine quietly defended her husband's honor. I flushed to the roots, apologized a thousand times, and even offered to fight a duel with anyone she might choose, but she would not spare me the pain of my humiliation.

Later, at the Café Père-Mère, I discussed the matter with Marnay, charming, insouciant, but completely unreliable. He told me, on his honor, that he could find out for me (at a price) where Clarot was. I knew he was lying and he knew that I knew he was lying, but on sadistic impulse I accepted his offer. He blanched, drained his pernod at a gulp, and began to drum with furious fingers on the table top. It was evident that he now felt honor bound to find Clarot but did not know how to do it.

I bade Marnay a courteous adieu and left the Café Père-Mère. So distracted was Marnay that he did not notice that the check was unpaid until I was almost out of sight. I ignored his frenzied semaphoring and struck up a temporary acquaintance with a lovely young maiden who was patrolling the Boulevard Sans Honneur.

In the morning, when I awoke, she had fled with my wallet containing, among other things, five hundred new francs and a list of aphrodisiacs which I had purchased from a gypsy. I had the very devil of a time with the concierge, who did not entertain the truth of my story for a single moment. He broke into violent abuse as I delineated what had occurred and began to belabor me about the neck and arms with a chianti bottle from which, hélas, he had removed the straw covering.

I sat on the curb, black and blue, penniless and at my wit's end as to how I might proceed. I could not go back to Emile Becque and tell him how I had been duped. Honor forbade so humiliating a course. But Fate in the guise of an American tourist's lost credit card intervened. Within hours I had wined and dined sumptuously, having outfitted myself to the nines at Manchoulette's exclusive haber-dashery.

I inhaled the bracing winelike air of Paris at twilight and stood there, surveying the twinkling buttocks of energetic women hastening to affairs of the heart. All at once I saw an enormous Chinese staggering under a terrible burden of laundry. He winked at me and thrust the bundle into my unsuspecting hands, toppling me to the ground. When I had arisen, kicking and struggling to free myself of the cloying cloth, he had vanished into a nearby kiosk.

I stared at the bundle, terrified at the prospect of what it might contain, but at last I summoned up my nerve and loosened the double knots. There was nothing within but four undershorts and eleven dirty shirts with two collars that needed turning. A written note within, almost painful in its intensity, implored the avoidance of starch in the undershorts.

As I mulled over the secret meaning of this event, Marnay appeared before me like a wraith materializing out of smoke. He glared at me, his eyes laced with the most curious red lines, held up a white embossed card and then fell forward, a victim (as I later learned) of an exploded bladder, a medical event last recorded over a century earlier.

I picked up the card and waved its dull white edge under my nose. There was at once a heady and yet repellent fragrance wafted toward me. The card itself bore the name A. Systole, 23 Rue de Daie. Easing the corpse under a bush of eglantine where some venturesome dog would surely discover it before morning, I made my way to the residence of Monsieur Systole. It was, I found, a dark structure of brownstone, no more than forty feet in height but still kept spick and span by a thorough and constant owner.

I stepped up to the gargoyle knocker just as a small poodle passing along the sidewalk turned and snarled at me in the most unfriendly manner. I have always prided myself on an uncanny rapport with poodles and I was quite taken aback by the sheer nastiness of this neurotic creature. I rapped the knocker once, twice, ever so gently but nonetheless firmly because the poodle's leash was frayed and might give way under his insistent tugging.

A florid face appeared behind a sliding mahogany panel, a face too well fed and too well lived. One of the enormous eyes winked at me and then the door swung wide and I was assisted in by means of strong fingers tugging at my elbow. Later, over a flaming anisette, Clarot, for it was indeed he, told me everything.

You have seen my wife? he said, nodding encouragingly at me.

I certainly have, I said apologetically.

Then you can see why I skipped the roost, said Clarot. But how was I to live? To deliver myself to a chemist's shop would have meant certain exposure. I decided to turn my efforts toward a venture at once creative and lucrative, yet something not requiring an outlay of too many francs.

You succeeded, of course, I cried, unable to contain myself.

Handsomely, said Clarot. He rose to his feet and stretched his bloated frame like a monstrous cat. Come after me and you shall see, he said boastfully.

I followed his limping form through room after room of Chinese modern, averting my eyes from some of the more extreme examples. Below, in the basement, was the most ramshackle of all laboratories with broken retorts strewn about, an idle Bunsen burner lying on its side, and a mortar of solidified chemicals with a pestle imbedded in the mass.

It was within this hallowed dungeon that I discovered the aromatic which incenses all canines, said Clarot. One whiff and the mildest of lap dogs becomes a raging monster, determined to attack me and tear me to bits.

Of what earthly use could such an aromatic be? I cried.

Clarot placed his finger to one side of his nose, sagely.

It gets me bitten over and over again, he said, smiling crookedly.

Bitten? Merciful God!

You forget the law, my good fellow. I am judicious, of course, and permit my permeated trouser leg within range of only the tiniest of dogs. Nevertheless, some of the little beggars bite like the very devil.

He leaned over and massaged a shinbone thoughtfully.

But the owners, he resumed, settle generously at the threat of a lawsuit. At least most of them do. I live quite handsomely on the proceeds as you can see.

Then the odor on your card?

Was aromatique Clarot.

You won't mind if all this appears in L'Expresse? I said, for every good reporter worth his salt wishes to protect his sources.

Mind? said Clarot airily. Why on earth should I? As we chatted here, I liberally doused your trouser legs with my aromatic. When I press the chartreuse button on this wall, it will release my hypertensive bloodhounds, who will proceed to tear you into very tiny bits.

It was a gross blunder on Clarot's part. Soft living had put him terribly out of condition and it took me but a short moment of struggling and kicking to divest him of his trousers and place my own pair on his naked legs. I then pressed the chartreuse button and stepped out of the room, ignoring Clarot's cries for mercy.

As I left the brownstone house I was struck at the base of the skull by a nearsighted cocotte, betrayed by Clarot and mistaking me for him because I wore his fawn-colored trousers. Her blow sent me to the curb where I narrowly averted being run over by a blue Funke, a British sports car.

I lay in the charity ward at L'Hopital des Trois Balles, amnesiac for over three months. My memory restored, I tottered over to the office of L'Expresse and discovered that Emile Becque had been garroted by the huge Chinese, who had misread his telepathic silence in the face of demands that he pay his delinquent laundry bill.

The new editor, a sullen Breton, listened to my halting explanation with unflagging attention. When I had finished, he escorted me to the door and placed his iron-tipped toe to my rump, enabling me to leave at an extraordinary burst of speed.

I had no choice but to seek out Madame Clarot once more. After a short but impassioned courtship, she joined me at my apartment over the Tavern of the Four Griffins. She no longer sips camomile tea and it is with considerable nostalgia that I look back upon the day when she greeted me with cold sobriety. But then, I owe that much to Clarot.


Afterword:

It may be that, unknown to myself, Auguste Clarot is riddled with displaced symbolism. Perhaps I can't cope with escalated brotherhood in Vietnam, equal but separate mistreatment for men of color, and bulging clichés mouthed in high and low places. Auguste Clarot was a joyful catharsis for me and, I hope, for the reader.