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A Description of the Paris Morgue.



Brutal, gashed, and swollen faces; wide gaping mouths, which opened for the last time to utter the death-shriek, and are now fixed forever in rigid agony; jagged, discolored teeth, sunken cheeks, knitted brows, dead, sodden eyes, awful contortions, ghastly smiles, hideous leers, faces of men and faces of women, faces of the young and faces of the old, faces which reek with the slime of years of vice and misery and despair; faces which Dante, groping among the damned, might have dragged from hideous, steaming depths of Lethean mud, and flung forth to front the unwilling eye of day; faces mutilated into every shape into which the human countenance can be bruised or flattened or slashed or puffed or putrified,-such is the sight which greets the visitor upon his entrance to the Paris Morgue: for immediately in front of the entrance hang two large frames in which are displayed the photographs of the unclaimed dead, photographs taken from the drenched corpses, as they lay upon the rude beds which the Morgue assignees to its guests. And such another collection of portraits the world does not contain. Death and Vice have become joint-editors in issuing this edition de lux. Each picture is numbered and has a description attached. Some of the corpses had been in the water a day, some a week, some-nobody knew how long. Some were clothed, some were naked; some lacked an arm or leg or head, some lacked everything except a single leg or arm, which came up in the net of some fisherman, with a few rags of cloth clinging to it. We sicken at the fearful list. Let us press on into the interior of the building.

An eager throng is surging to and for in front of a long, low window; men are crowding and elbowing each other; old hags are pointing toward the glass, and croaking to one another; pretty women are gazing with white faces of pity, but with none the less thirsty greediness, upon some fascinating spectacle; little children are being held aloft in strong arms, that they too may see the dreadful thing, and they do see, and they toss their tiny, wavering arms aloft and crow right gleefully. The objects of Interest are four corpses, which are lying upon iron frameworks behind the glass, their heads propped high, their jaws agape, and their eyes staring in all the grim majesty of Death, as they gaze unflinchingly upon the guests who are thronging to this grisly reception. One is an old woman, whose skull has been split by some tremendous blow, and yawns in ghastly redness. Another is a young girl, who is dressed in silk and whose dark hair is still coiled neatly, just as those slender, livid fingers last arranged it. She bears no wound, but upon the small, coquettish face is stamped such a look of horror as it might well break a mother's heart to gaze upon. A middle aged man, short, thick-set and resolute looking, has dropped dead in the street, and the gendarmes have brought the nameless body here. He wears a blue blouse, and his cap is still upon his head; his sleeves, rolled up, disclose two arms of unusual muscularity. This man died hard. Yes, and yet his death was infinitely easier than his life had been; for the soles of his shoes are worn quite through, and the bottoms of the feet, turned toward the window, are raw and bloody and caked with the dust of a long and fearful tramp. What was his name? Whence came he, and whither was he going? What strong, strong impulse drove him to such a journey? Whom was he seeking, or from whom did he flee? No scrap of paper tells. We can only guess that the sturdy frame bore a great weight, and that those bleeding feet were dragged over many a terrible league, and that before he reached the great city, only to drop dead in the street, that resolute soul was convulsed with some awful agony. Unnamed and unknown, he will lie in the public pits of Pere Lachaise, and his picture will be added to those in the entrance hall. The fourth body is that of a young man, which was found naked in the river. Perhaps he was drowned while swimming; perhaps some sombre crime is involved in his fate. All is wrapped in mystery.

Ah, Paris has her seamy side! The grand boulevards, the stately buildings, the culture, fashion, wealth, gaiety, are what we usually see. But in the old quarters of the city are dark, crooked streets and dens of shamelessness and crime. There are quarters over which Ignorance and Vice brood like an eternal nightmare. Stunted and distorted human beings grovel in congenial ignominy; children are born in this pestilential atmosphere, are born and grow up, are asphyxiated, and die; and the filthy wheel of the city's life turns round and round. And whither does the human offal from these noisome streets on the water-front go? What becomes of the vilest of their vile and the most abandoned of their lost ones, when they throw off the burden of their loathsome lives? They go into the water, as a matter of course, and from the water find their way to the Morgue. The lower half of Paris is covered with sores, hideous sores, like those of the patriarch of Uz, and every day she sits down by the river side and scrapes herself with the rough potsherds of disease and violence. Hence the need of a Morgue. Here is brought the man who slipped while working on the quai, and fell in and was drowned. Hither comes the remnant of the drunken sot who reeled from the bridge at midnight and went down with a sullen plunge into the cold, dark waters which rush beneath the granite arches. This man was lured by his deadly enemy to a quiet place at a quiet hour and murdered. Can we not picture the sudden grapple and the terrible struggle, upon which the cold stars gazed down so unpityingly? No eye saw the savage blow, no ear heard the victim's shriek, as he was flung from the parapet. The night was deaf, and the darkness was blind, and nothing remained to tell the story but the clotted handful of the murderer's hair which the police took next morning from the rigid fingers of his victim. A bulky and heavy sack, stained crimson, is silently brought to the river side at dead of night, and its contents are dropped noiselessly into the stream. What these contents are, let us not too curiously inquire. If the fishes leave anything, we shall probably hear of it from the officers of the Morgue. A dark, heavily veiled figure is pacing the Pont Neuf slowly and irresolutely. A human soul has been delivered over to the worm that dieth not. A sweet face is wan and pinched with agony; two wild eyes gaze down into the cold, whirling, gurgling water; there is a cry of despair, a frantic leap,-and a lost soul has rushed unsummoned to meet a just God. Next day the body is found floating, and brought to the Morgue.

Thus it comes to pass that the Morgue is no longer a mere inanimate building. It becomes weirdly endowed with an awful personality. It is an explorer, it is an expounder, it is a preacher, it is a prophet, it is a stern moralist, it is a ghastly buffoon, it is a broken-hearted recording angel. Like some horrible ghoul, grinning and gibbering forever amid its dark mysteries, it stretches out awful hands to the wretched and the despairing throughout the vast, throbbing city, and whispers: "Come to me, come to me!" and they hear and shudder and turn cold at heart, and-come!

The fancy seizes us to follow one of its victims on his wandering journey from the time when he enters the river to that when he is lifted from its bosom and borne to face the jostling crowd before the glass. How gaily the body floats! The last spark of life is extinct, the jaw has fallen, the eyes are glazed the limbs dangle listlessly abroad. What need of haste? It has plenty of time. It ventures out timidly toward the middle current. No one notices the livid face, floating like a mask upon the yellow Seine. Now it sinks and now it rises. Now the wavelets of the surface ripple around the protruded chin, and now the mud of the river bottom is washing about in the open mouth. Curious fishes touch their cold noses to it and then dart away. It rushes madly by the upper end of the Island of Paris, where the divided waters foam about the stone break-water; then it loiters idly, hour after hour, in the still waters near the shore. It floates under the noonday sun, and sees the hooks and lines of innumerable lazy fishermen and the naked legs of bathers in the floating baths. It floats in the cold moonlight and bobs aimlessly against the bottoms of the anchored boats, thump, thump, thump, gently and aimlessly. It drifts against a pier, and the purpled fingers are actually washed against a rope which is dangling into the water; but they cannot grasp It-indeed, it is doubtful if they wish to; what can be pleasanter than this aimless, dreamy floating? It is baptised with the unspeakable filth of a dozen sewers which discharge into the river, its limbs are sadly swollen, and the slime of the river has veiled the staring eyes. Then, after many, many hours of quiet floating, it is espied from one of the lower quais. Now comes the rush of curious bystanders, the ropes which the officers of the Morgue let down to grapple it. Then it is put into the dead cart, while the frivolous crowd solemnly bare their heads; and at last it finds a resting place on a rugged couch behind the long, low window-and here we are on the other side of the window, gazing at it with a terrible feeling of sick fascination. Horrible! We turn away in unutterable disgust and with white lips seek the free air of Heaven once more.


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