The story of the clairvoyant corporal
“Read that,” said Studer, thrusting a telegram under
his friend Madelin’s nose. It was dark outside the Palais
de Justice, the Seine gurgled as it lapped against the
quai and the nearest street-lamp was a few yards away.
“greetings from young jakobli to old jakob hedy.”
The commissaire read out the words haltingly once he
was under the flickering gaslight. Although Madelin
had been attached to the Sûreté in Strasbourg some
years before, and therefore was not entirely ignorant
of German, he still had difficulty working out what the
“What’s this all about, Studère?” he asked.
“I’ve become a grandfather,” Studer replied morosely.
“My daughter’s had a little boy.”
“That calls for a celebration!” Madelin declared. “As
it happens it fits in rather well. A man came to see me
today. He’s leaving tonight for Switzerland, on the
half-past-ten train, and he’s asked me to recommend
him to a colleague there. I’m meeting him at nine in a
little bistro by Les Halles. Just now it’s –” keeping his
woollen gloves on, Madelin unbuttoned his overcoat,
its collar raised in a protective curve round his neck,
and took an old silver watch out of his waistcoat pocket
– “eight o’clock. We’ve plenty of time,” he added in a
self-satisfied voice. With the north wind whipping at
his unshielded lips, he became philosophical. “When
you get old, you always have plenty of time. Strange,
isn’t it? Don’t you find that too, Studère?”
Studer muttered something. But then he looked
round abruptly as a high-pitched, squeaky voice said,
“And I may offer my congratulations too? Yes? To our
revered inspector? My heartiest congratulations?”
Madelin, tall, lean, and Studer, equally tall only
thickset, with broader shoulders, turned round. Trotting
along behind them was a tiny figure. At first it was
impossible to say whether it was male or female: its
long coat came down to its ankles, its beret was pulled
down over its eyebrows and its nose was wrapped in a
woollen scarf, leaving only its eyes uncovered, and
even they were hidden behind the lenses of a huge
pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.
“You be careful you don’t catch cold, Godofrey,”
said Commissaire Madelin. “I’ll need you tomorrow.
The Koller business is unclear, but I only got the papers
this evening. You’ll need to examine them tomorrow.
There’s something not right about Koller’s papers . . .”
“Thanks, Godofrey,” said Studer, “but it’s me that’s
inviting you two. After all, you have to splash out a bit
when you’ve just become a grandfather.”
He sighed. Greetings from young Jakobli to old
Jakob, he thought. Now you’re a grandfather, that
means you’ve lost your daughter for good. Once
you’re a grandfather, you’re old – on the scrap heap.
But it had been a stroke of genius to escape from the
empty apartment in Bern and the dirty dishes in the
sink, even more from the green-tiled stove in the living
room that only his wife knew how to light; whenever
he tried, the monster just belched out smoke like a
badly rolled cigar, then went out. Here in Paris he
was safe from such disasters. He was staying with
Commissaire Madelin, he was treated with respect, was
not addressed as “Sergeant” but as “Inspector”. He
could spend all day with Godofrey, ensconced in the
laboratory at the top of the Palais de Justice, watching
the little man analyse dust and X-ray documents.
There was a soft hissing from the Bunsen burners, a
somewhat louder one from the steam in the radiators,
and there was a pleasant smell of chemicals and not of
floor polish, as there was in police headquarters in
Bern . . .
The marble tables in the bistro were square, with ribbed
paper napkins on them. In the middle of the room was
a black stove, the top glowing red hot. The large coffee
machine on the bar was humming and it was the owner
himself – he had arms as fat as a normal person’s
thighs – who was serving.
They began with oysters, and Commissaire Madelin’s
favourite pastime. Without asking Studer, he had
ordered a 1926 Vouvray, three bottles at once, and he
downed one glass after another. In between he quickly
slurped three oysters, chewed and swallowed them.
Godofrey took little sips, like a shy girl; his hands were
small, white, hairless.
Studer was thinking of his wife, who had gone to
Frauenfeld to be with their daughter. He was silent
and let Godofrey babble on. Madelin was silent as
well. Calm and unperturbed, two huge dogs – a skinny
Great Dane and a shaggy Newfoundland – ignored the
yapping of a tiny fox terrier . . .
The landlord put a brown terrine of tripe on the
table. There followed some bitter lettuce, and another
three full bottles appeared in front of them; they were
suddenly empty, at the same time as the plate with the
runny camembert – it stank, but it was good. Then
Commissaire Madelin opened his mouth to make a
speech. At least that’s what it looked like, but nothing
came of it, for the door opened and a man entered
who was so strangely dressed Studer wondered
whether the Parisians had their carnival before the
The man was wearing a snow-white monk’s habit and
a cap on his head that looked like a huge red flowerpot
made by an incompetent potter. On his feet – they
were bare, totally and completely bare – he wore open
sandals; his toes and instep were visible, his heel
Studer could hardly believe his eyes. Commissaire
Madelin, who ate priests for breakfast, stood up, went
to meet the man, brought him back to the table, introduced
him – “Father Matthias of the Order of the
White Fathers” – and told him Studer’s name, adding
that this was the inspector of the Swiss criminal
A Père Blanc? A White Father? The sergeant felt as if
he were having one of those strange dreams that sometimes
come to us after a serious illness. Light as air and
full of delight, they take us back to our childhood,
when we lived out fairy tales . . .
For Father Matthias looked exactly like the tailor
who killed “seven at one blow” in the fairy tale. His
chin was covered in a sparse grey goatee, so sparse you
could count each hair of his moustache. And such a
skinny face! Just the colour of his eyes, his big grey
eyes, reminded you of the sea with clouds passing over
it – and sometimes there is a brief flash of sunlight
on the surface, which spreads its innocuous veil over
unfathomable depths . . .
Three more bottles . . .
Father Matthias was hungry. He polished off one
plate of tripe in silence, then a second, did not stint
himself when it came to the wine, clinked glasses
with the others. He spoke French with a slight accent
that reminded Studer of home, and indeed, hardly
had the man in the white habit eaten his fill than he
said, patting the sergeant on the arm, “I’m a fellowcountryman,
“A bah!” said Studer. The wine was starting to go to
“But I’ve been abroad a long time,” the tailor went
on – tailor! What was he thinking? He was a monk. No,
not a monk, a . . . a priest. That was it! A White Father.
A father who had no children – or, rather, all people
were his children. But he was a grandfather himself.
Should he tell his fellow-countryman, this expatriate
Swiss? No need, Commissaire Madelin was doing it
“It’s a celebration for our inspector. He’s just had a
telegram from his wife telling him he’s a grandfather.”
The priest seemed pleased for him. He raised his
glass, toasted the sergeant, Studer clinked glasses with
him. About time the coffee came. Ah, there it was, and
a bottle of rum with it. And Studer, who was starting to
feel a bit funny – that Vouvray, not as harmless as it
seemed! – heard Madelin tell the landlord to leave the
bottle on the table.
Godofrey was sitting next to Studer. Like many short
people, he dressed with exaggerated elegance. But that
didn’t bother the sergeant. On the contrary, he found
the presence of the little manikin, who was a walking
encyclopedia of criminology, calming and comforting.
The White Father was sitting on the other side of the
table, beside Madelin.
Finally, Father Matthias had finished eating. He
clasped his hands over his plate, his lips moving
silently, his eyes closed. Then he opened them, pushed
his chair back from the table a little and crossed his
right leg over his left, revealing two sinewy, hairy calves
under his habit.
“I have to go to Switzerland, Inspector,” he said. “I
have two sisters-in-law there, one in Basel, the other in
Bern. And it’s quite possible I may get into difficulties
and have to turn to the police for assistance. If that
should happen, would you be willing to help me?”
Studer slurped his coffee, silently cursing Madelin,
who had fortified the hot drink all too generously
with rum. Then he looked up and replied to Father
Matthias, also in French.
“The Swiss police does not usually concern itself
with family matters. If I’m to help you, I have to know
what it’s about.”
“It’s a long story,” said the priest, “and one I hardly
dare tell. You’ll all,” he made a circular gesture with his
hand, “laugh at me.”
Godofrey protested politely in his parrot’s voice. He
called the priest mon père, which for some unknown
reason struck Studer as extremely funny. His laugh was
concealed by his moustache, and he was still spluttering
with laughter as he raised his cup, which had been
refilled, to his lips. In order not to give offence he
pretended he was blowing on his hot coffee to cool it.
“Have you ever had anything to do with clairvoyance?”
Father Matthias asked.
“Cartomancy? Crystal balls? Telepathy? Cryptomnesia?”
Godofrey reeled off his litany of questions.
“I see you’re well informed. Have you had much to
do with that kind of thing?”
Godofrey nodded, Madelin shook his head and
Studer muttered a curt, “Con tricks.”
Father Matthias ignored him. He was gazing into the
distance, though in the little bistro the distance was
the bar with its shining coffee percolator. The landlord
was sitting behind it, hands clasped over his belly and
snoring. The four at the table were his only customers.
The bistro didn’t start to liven up until around two
in the morning, when the first carts with hothouse
“I would like to tell you,” the White Father said, “the
story of a little prophet, a clairvoyant, if you prefer. It’s
because of that clairvoyant that I’m here, instead of
visiting the little forts in the south of Morocco, reading
mass for the lost sheep of the Foreign Legion.
“Do you know where Géryville is? Four hours beyond
the back of beyond! In Algeria, to be precise, on a
plateau 5,000 feet above sea level, as the inscription on
a stone in the middle of the barracks square tells
you. Ninety miles from the nearest railway station. The
air is dry, which is why the Prior sent me there last
September, since I’ve got a weak chest. Géryville’s a
small town with only a few French living there; most of
the population is made up of Arabs and Jews. You
don’t get anywhere with the Arabs, they don’t want to
be converted. They do send their children to me – that
is, they allow their little ones to come to me . . . There’s
a battalion of the Foreign Legion up there as well. The
legionnaires came to see me sometimes. My predecessor
had set up a library, so along they came – corporals,
sergeants, now and then a private – and went off with
books, or smoked my tobacco. Occasionally, one of my
visitors felt the need to confess. Strange things go on
in the souls of those men; there are moving conversions
of which people who think of the Foreign Legion
as the dregs of humanity have no conception.
“Well . . . One evening a corporal came to see me.
He was shorter than me, with a face like a crippled
child, he looked sad and old. He was called Collani, he
said, paused and then started to speak in a feverish
rush. It wasn’t a regular confession in the sense the
Church understands it. More of a monologue, almost
as if he were talking to himself. He spoke for quite a
long time. There were lots of things he had to get off
his chest which have nothing to do with my story. It was
evening and the room was filled with a greenish halflight;
it comes from the skies they get there in autumn,
they often have strange colours . . .”
Studer was resting his cheek on his hand and was so
engrossed in Father Matthias’s story he didn’t notice
he had pushed up the skin round his left eye so that it
was a slanting slit, like a Chinaman’s.
The high plateau! . . . The wide-open spaces! . . . The
green twilight! . . . The soldier making his confession!
It was so completely different from what you saw
around you every day! The French Foreign Legion!
The sergeant remembered he had once been going to
enlist, when he was twenty, after an argument with his
father. But he hadn’t wanted to cause his mother distress,
so he’d stayed in Switzerland and made a career
for himself, even rising to the rank of chief inspector
in the Bern city police, before that business with the
bank had cost him his job. Then, too, he’d felt like
dropping everything and . . . But he had a wife, a
daughter, so he’d given up the idea, swallowed his
pride and started at the bottom again, patiently working
his way up. But deep inside there still slumbered a
yearning for the wide-open spaces, the desert, the battles.
And then along came a White Father and
awakened it all again.
“So he spoke for quite some time, did Corporal
Collani. In his pale green greatcoat he looked like a
chameleon in need of a rest-cure. Then he was silent
for a while and I was just about to get up and send him
back to barracks with a few words of comfort when he
suddenly started to speak in a completely different
voice, deep and hoarse, as if there were someone else
speaking from inside him. And the voice sounded
strangely familiar to me:
“ ‘Why’s Mamadou taking the sheet off the bed and
hiding it under his coat? Aha, he’s going to sell it in the
town, the swine. And it’s me who’s responsible for the
linen. Now he’s going downstairs, across the barracks
square to the railings. Of course, he’s too scared to go
past the guards. And Bielle’s waiting for him at the
railings, takes the sheet from him. Where’s Bielle off
to? Aha! He’s going to the Jew in the alley, sells the
sheet for a duro —’ ”
“A duro,” Madelin explained, “is a silver five-franc
“Thank you,” said Father Matthias. He was silent for
a while as he rummaged in his habit under the table. It
must have had a deep pocket somewhere, for he
brought out a magnifying glass, a rosary, a wallet
woven out of strips of red leather and, finally, a snuffbox,
from which he took a generous pinch. Then he
blew his nose with a loud blast. The landlord behind
the bar woke with a start, but the priest went on with
“I said to him, ‘Collani! Wake up, Corporal, you’re
dreaming!’ But he went prattling on: ‘I’ll teach the
pair of you to swipe Legion property. I’ll show you
tomorrow!’ Then I grabbed him by the shoulder and
gave him a good shaking, I was finding the whole thing
pretty eerie. He woke up and gave me an astonished
look. ‘Do you know what you were telling me?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ Collani replied and repeated what he had
said in his trance – that’s what it’s called, isn’t it?”
“Certainly,” Godofrey hastened to assure him.
“– in his trance. After that, he left. When I came out
of the house at eight the next morning – it was a very
clear September morning, you could see the chotts, the
great salt lakes, sparkling in the distance – I ran
straight into Collani with the quartermaster and the
captain. Captain Pouette told me Collani had reported
that sheets had been going missing and claimed he
knew both the thieves and the receiver. The thieves
were already locked up, now it was the turn of the
receiver. Collani looked like a water-diviner without his
divining rod. Though he was completely conscious,
there was a fixed look in his eyes and he was pressing
“I won’t bore you any more. At the bottom of an
orange box in a tiny shop run by a Jew who sold
onions, figs and dates, we found four sheets. Mamadou
was a negro in the fourth company, he admitted the
theft. At first Bielle, a red-haired Belgian, denied it,
but then he too confessed.
“From then on Collani was always called the clairvoyant
corporal and the battalion doctor, Anatole
Cantacuzène, organized seances with him: tableturning,
automatic writing, in short they tried all the
accursed nonsense on him that the spiritualists practise
here without the least idea of the danger they’re
putting themselves in.
“You will be asking yourselves, gentlemen, why I
have told you this long story. It was just to explain why I
could not ignore Collani when, one week later, he told
me things that affected me personally.
“It was 28 September, a Tuesday.”
Father Matthias paused for a moment, put his hand
over his eyes and continued:
“Collani came to me. I spoke to him, as is my duty
as a priest, imploring him to give up these satanic
experiments. He remained defiant. And suddenly his
eyes glazed over again, his upper lids came halfway
down over his eyeballs and his lips were twisted in a
disagreeable, mocking smile, revealing his broad, yellow
teeth. Then he said, in a voice I knew so well,
‘Hello, Matthias, how’s things?’ It was the voice of my
brother – my brother who died fifteen years ago!”
The three men round the table in the little bistro by
Les Halles listened in silence. Commissaire Madelin
gave a faint smile, as you might after a weak joke.
Studer’s moustache quivered, though it wasn’t obvious
why. Only Godofrey attempted to relieve the feeling of
embarrassment at the improbable story.
“Funny how life keeps forcing you to deal with
ghosts . . .” It could be a profound statement.
Very quietly Father Matthias said, “This strange and
yet so familiar voice was coming to me from the lips of
the clairvoyant corporal . . .”
Studer’s moustache stopped quivering, he leant
over the table. The stress on that last sentence. It
sounded false, feigned, affected. He shot a glance at
Madelin. There was the hint of a grimace on the
Frenchman’s bony face. So the commissaire had
sensed the false note too. He raised his hand and
placed it gently on the table. “Let him speak. Don’t
interrupt.” And Studer nodded. He had understood.
“ ‘Hello, Matthias, d’you remember me? Did you
think I was dead? Alive and kicking, that’s me.’ That
was the point at which I suddenly realized Collani was
speaking German. ‘You’ll have to hurry, Matthias, if
you want to save the old ladies. Otherwise I’ll come for
them. In . . .’ At that point the voice, which was not
Collani’s voice, became a whisper, so that I couldn’t
understand what came next. But then it was loud and
clear again: ‘Can you hear the hissing? That hissing
noise means death. Fifteen years I’ve waited. First of
all the one in Basel, then the one in Bern. One was
clever, she saw through me, I’ll save her till last. The
other brought up my daughter badly, she must be punished
for it.’ There was a laugh, then the voice fell
silent. This time Collani was in such a deep sleep, I had
difficulty waking him.
“Finally his eyes opened fully and he looked at me,
astonished. So I asked him, ‘Do you know what you
have just told me, my son?’ At first he shook his head,
then he replied, ‘I saw a man I nursed in Fez fifteen
years ago. He died, he had a nasty fever . . . in 1917,
during the Great War. Then I saw two women. One had
a wart by her left nostril . . . The man in Fez, what was
his name now? What was his name?’ Collani rubbed
his forehead, he couldn’t remember the name and
I didn’t prompt him. ‘The man in Fez gave me a letter.
I was to post it – fifteen years later. I sent it. On the
anniversary of his death, on 20 July. The letter’s gone,
yes, the letter’s gone!’ he suddenly shouted. ‘I don’t
want anything more to do with it. It’s beyond bearing. I
did!’ he shouted even louder, as if he were responding
to an accusation from someone invisible, ‘I did keep a
copy. What am I to do with the copy?’ Collani wrung
his hands. I tried to calm him down by telling him to
bring me the copy. ‘That will ease your conscience,
my son. Go and bring it now, at once.’ ‘Yes, Father,’
the clairvoyant corporal said, got up and went out. I
can still hear the screech of his hobnails on the stone
outside my door . . .”
“And I never saw him again. He disappeared from
Géryville. They assumed he had deserted. The battalion
commander instituted an inquiry, which discovered
that a stranger had come by car to Géryville
that evening and left that same night. Perhaps he took
the clairvoyant corporal with him.”
Father Matthias fell silent. The only sound to be heard
in the little room was the snoring of the landlord interspersed
with the quiet tick-tock of the clock on the
wall . . .
The White Father took his hands away from his face.
His eyes were slightly reddened, but their colour still
recalled the sea – though now there was a bank of mist
over the water, hiding the sun. The old man who
looked like the tailor from the fairy tale scrutinized his
It was no easy task telling a ghost story to three seasoned
members of criminal investigation departments.
They let the silence drag on until finally one of them,
Madelin, rapped the table with the flat of his hand.
The landlord shot up.
“Four glasses,” the commissaire ordered. He filled
them to the brim with rum and said, in an expressionless
voice, “A little something will do you good,
Father.” Father Matthias emptied his glass obediently.
Studer took a long, slim leather cigar case out of his
pocket and found to his dismay that he had only one
Brissago left. He went through the ritual of lighting it,
then handed his matches to Madelin, who had filled
his pipe, with which he gave his Swiss colleague a sign,
clearly inviting him to start the interrogation.
Now Studer pushed his chair back too, propped his
elbows on his thighs, clasped his hands and, in slow,
measured tones, began his questioning.
“Two women? Your brother hadn’t committed bigamy
by any chance?
“No,” said Father Matthias. “He got a divorce from
his first wife and married her sister, Josepha.”
“Did he now? Got a divorce?” Studer repeated. “I
thought that didn’t exist in the Catholic religion?” He
looked up and saw that Father Matthias was blushing.
A wave of red swept down from his high forehead over
his sunburnt face. When it faded, it left peculiar grey
blotches on his skin.
“I converted to Catholicism when I was eighteen,”
said Father Matthias in a low voice. “As a result I was
disowned by my family.”
“What was your brother?” Studer asked.
“A geologist. He prospected for ore in the south of
Morocco: lead, silver, copper. For the French government.
Then he died in Fez.”
“You’ve seen his death certificate?”
“It was sent to his second wife in Basel. My niece has
“You know your niece?”
“Yes. She lives in Paris. She had a job here with my
late brother’s secretary.”
“Now,” said Studer, taking his notebook out of his
pocket – it was a new ring binder that gave off a strong
scent of Russia leather, a Christmas present from his
wife, who was fed up with the cheap jotters bound in
oilcloth he used. He opened it.
“Would you be so good as to give me the addresses of
your two sisters-in-law?”
“Josepha Cleman-Hornuss, 12 Spalenberg, Basel;
Sophie Hornuss, 44 Gerechtigkeitsgasse, Bern.” The
priest was slightly out of breath as he spoke.
“And you really believe the two old women are in
“Yes . . . really . . . as I hope to be saved, it is my belief
that that is the case.”
Again Studer felt like telling him to stop speaking in
such an affected manner, but he couldn’t do that, so
he just said, “I’m staying here in Paris for the New
Year’s Eve celebrations, then I’ll take the overnight
train and be in Basel on the morning of New Year’s
Day. When are you going to Switzerland?”
“Today . . . tonight.”
“Then,” came Godofrey’s parrot voice, “you’ve just
got time to get a taxi.”
“My God, you’re right. But where . . .?”
Commissaire Madelin dipped a sugar lump in his
rum and, sucking his canard, called out to the snoring
landlord, who leapt up, rushed to the door, stuck two
fingers in his mouth and whistled. It was so piercing
Father Matthias put his hands over his ears.
Then the storyteller was gone.
Commissaire Madelin growled, “There’s just one thing
I’d like to know. Does the man think we’re little children?
I’m sorry, Studère, I thought he would have
something more important to tell us. He came with a
recommendation. From above. He has friends in high
places – and he didn’t even pay for a single round! It’s
him who’s the child, really, a little child.”
“Excuse me, chef,” said Godofrey, “but that’s not
true. Children can talk to the angels, but our White
Father’s certainly not on speaking terms with the
“Eh?” Madelin stared, wide eyed, and Studer, too,
gave the over-elegant manikin a look of astonishment.
Godofrey remained unperturbed.
“You can only talk to the angels,” he said, “if you’re
pure in heart. Our White Father’s heart is full of
deviousness. You haven’t heard the last of him. But
now we’re going to drink the health of our inspector’s
grandson.” He waved the landlord over. “In champagne!”
And he repeated the German words of the
telegram, “greetings from young zhakoblee to old zhakobbe.”
Studer laughed until the tears ran down his
cheeks, then he raised his glass to his two companions.
And it was a good thing Commissaire Madelin had
his police identity card on him, otherwise the three
of them would have been arrested for disturbing the
peace at two in the morning. Studer had taken it into
his head to teach his two friends the song of “The
Farmer from Brienz” and a uniform policeman was of
the opinion that a Paris boulevard was not the place
for a singing lesson. He withdrew his objection, however,
after he had established their profession. Thus it
was that Sergeant Studer was able to continue to regale
his colleagues from the Paris Sûreté with jewels of
Bernese culture. He taught them “I Know a Vale So
Fair and Merry” in which the word “Emmental” gave
him the opportunity to expound on the difference
between Emmental and Gruyère cheese. For the
French subscribed to the heresy that all Swiss cheese
came from the Gruyère region.
The story of the clairvoyant corporal