Chapter no 56 – Museum‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel wakes early. He upholsters himself in his uniform, pockets his loupe and tweezers, rolls up his white gloves. By six A.M. he’s in the hotel lobby in full dress, polish on his shoes, pistol case snapped shut. The hotelkeeper brings him bread and cheese in a basket made from dark wicker, covered nicely with a cotton napkin: everything shipshape.

There is great pleasure in being out in the city before the sun is up, streetlights glowing, the hum of a Parisian day commencing. As he walks up the rue Cuvier and turns into the Jardin des Plantes, the trees look misty and significant: parasols held up just for him.

He likes being early.

At the entrance to the Grand Gallery, two night warders stiffen. They glance at the stripes on his collar patch and sleeves; the cords in their throats tighten. A small man in black flannel comes down the staircase apologizing in German; he says he is the assistant director. He did not expect the sergeant major for another hour.

“We can speak French,” says von Rumpel.

Behind him scurries a second man with eggshell skin and an evident terror of eye contact.

“We would be honored to show you the collections, Sergeant Major,” breathes the assistant director. “This is the mineralogist, Professor Hublin.” Hublin blinks twice, gives the impression of a penned animal. The pair of warders watch from the end of the corridor.

“May I take your basket?” “It’s no trouble.”

The Gallery of Mineralogy is so long, von Rumpel can hardly see the end of it. In sections, display case after display case sits vacant, little shapes on their felted shelves marking the silhouettes of whatever has been removed. Von Rumpel strolls with his basket on his arm, forgetting to do anything but look. What treasures they left behind! A gorgeous set of yellow topaz crystals on a gray matrix. A great pink hunk of beryl like a crystallized brain. A violet column of tourmaline from Madagascar that

looks so rich he cannot resist the urge to stroke it. Bournonite; apatite on muscovite; natural zircon in a spray of colors; dozens more minerals he cannot name. These men, he thinks, probably handle more gemstones in a week than he has seen in his lifetime.

Each piece is registered in huge organizational folios that have taken centuries to amass. The pallid Hublin shows him pages. “Louis XIII began the collection as a Cabinet of Medicines, jade for kidneys, clay for the stomach, and so on. There were already two hundred thousand entries in the catalog by 1850, a priceless mineral heritage . . .”

Every now and then von Rumpel pulls his notebook from his pocket and makes a notation. He takes his time. When they reach the end, the assistant director laces his fingers across his belt. “We hope you are impressed, Sergeant Major? You enjoyed your tour?”

“Very much.” The electric lights in the ceiling are far apart, and the silence in the huge space is oppressive. “But,” he says, enunciating very slowly, “what about the collections that are not on public display?”

The assistant director and the mineralogist exchange a glance. “You have seen everything we can show you, Sergeant Major.”

Von Rumpel keeps his voice polite. Civilized. Paris is not Poland, after all. Waves must be made carefully. Things cannot simply be seized. What did his father used to say? See obstacles as opportunities, Reinhold. See obstacles as inspirations. “Is there somewhere,” he says, “we can talk?”

The assistant director’s office occupies a dusty third-floor corner that overlooks the gardens: walnut-paneled, underheated, decorated with pinned butterflies and beetles in alternating frames. On the wall behind his half-ton desk hangs the only image: a charcoal portrait of the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

The assistant director sits behind the desk, and von Rumpel sits in front with his basket between his feet. The mineralogist stands. A long-necked secretary brings tea.

Hublin says, “We are always acquiring, yes? All across the world, industrialization endangers mineral deposits. We collect as many types of minerals as exist. To a curator, none is superior to any other.”

Von Rumpel laughs. He appreciates that they are trying to play the game. But don’t they understand that the winner has already been determined? He sets down his cup of tea and says, “I would like to see

your most protected specimens. I am most specifically interested in a specimen I believe you have only recently brought out from your vaults.” The assistant director sweeps his left hand through his hair and releases a blizzard of dandruff. “Sergeant Major, the minerals you’ve seen have aided discoveries in electrochemistry, in the fundamental laws of mathematical crystallography. The role of a national museum is to operate above the whims and fashions of collectors, to safeguard for

future generations the—”

Von Rumpel smiles. “I will wait.”

“You misunderstand us, monsieur. You have seen everything we can show you.”

“I will wait to see what you cannot show me.”

The assistant director peers into his tea. The mineralogist shifts from foot to foot; he appears to be wrestling with an interior fury. “I am quite gifted at waiting,” von Rumpel says in French. “It is my one great skill. I was never much good at athletics or mathematics, but even as a boy, I possessed unnatural patience. I would wait with my mother while she got her hair styled. I would sit in the chair and wait for hours, no magazine, no toys, not even swinging my legs back and forth. All the mothers were very impressed.”

Both Frenchmen fidget. Beyond the door of the office, what ears listen? “Please sit if you’d like,” von Rumpel says to Hublin, and pats the chair next to him. But Hublin does not sit. Time passes. Von Rumpel swallows the last of his tea and sets the cup very carefully on the edge of the assistant director’s desk. Somewhere an electric fan whirs to life, runs awhile, and shuts down.

Hublin says, “It’s not clear what we’re waiting for, Sergeant Major.” “I’m waiting for you to be truthful.”

“If I might—”

“Stay,” says von Rumpel. “Sit. I’m sure if one of you were to call out instructions, the mademoiselle who looks like a giraffe will hear, will she not?”

The assistant director crosses and recrosses his legs. By now it is past noon. “Perhaps you would like to see the skeletons?” tries the assistant director. “The Hall of Man is quite spectacular. And our zoological collection is beyond—”

“I would like to see the minerals you do not reveal to the public. One in particular.”

Hublin’s throat splotches pink and white. He does not take a seat. The assistant director seems resigned to an impasse and pulls a thick perfect-bound stack of paper from a drawer and begins to read. Hublin shifts as if to leave, but von Rumpel merely says, “Please, stay until we have resolved this.”

Waiting, thinks von Rumpel, is a kind of war. You simply tell yourself that you must not lose. The assistant director’s telephone rings, and he reaches to pick it up, but von Rumpel holds up a hand, and the phone rings ten or eleven times and then falls quiet. What might be a full half hour passes, Hublin staring at his shoelaces, the assistant director making occasional notes in his manuscript with a silver pen, von Rumpel remaining completely motionless, and then there is a distant tapping on the door.

“Gentlemen?” comes the voice.

Von Rumpel calls, “We are fine, thank you.”

The assistant director says, “I have other matters to attend to, Sergeant Major.”

Von Rumpel does not raise his voice. “You will wait here. Both of you. You will wait here with me until I see what I have come to see. And then we will all go back to our important jobs.”

The mineralogist’s chin trembles. The fan starts again, then dies. A five-minute timer, guesses von Rumpel. He waits for it to start and die one more time. Then he lifts his basket into his lap. He points to the chair. His voice is gentle. “Sit, Professor. You will be more comfortable.” Hublin does not sit. Two o’clock out in the city, and bells toll in a hundred churches. Walkers down on the paths. The last of autumn’s

leaves spiraling to earth.

Von Rumpel unrolls the napkin across his lap, lifts out the cheese. He breaks the bread slowly, sending a rich cascade of crust onto his napkin. As he chews, he can almost hear their guts rumbling. He offers them nothing. When he finishes, he wipes the corners of his mouth. “You read me wrong, messieurs. I am not an animal. I am not here to raze your collections. They belong to all of Europe, to all of humanity, do they not? I am here only for something small. Something smaller than the bone of your kneecaps.” He looks at the mineralogist as he says it. Who looks away, crimson.

The assistant director says, “This is absurd, Sergeant Major.”

Von Rumpel folds his napkin and places it back in the basket and sets the basket on the ground. He licks the tip of his finger and picks the crumbs off his tunic one by one. Then he looks directly at the assistant director. “The Lycée Charlemagne, is that right? On the rue Charlemagne?”

The skin around the assistant director’s eyes stretches.

“Where your daughter goes to school?” Von Rumpel turns in his chair. “And the College Stanislas, isn’t it, Dr. Hublin? Where your twin sons attend? On the rue Notre-Dame des Champs? Wouldn’t those handsome boys be preparing to walk home right now?”

Hublin sets his hands on the back of the empty chair beside him, and his knuckles become very white.

“One with a violin and the other a viola, am I correct? Crossing all those busy streets. That is a long walk for ten-year-old boys.”

The assistant director is sitting very upright. Von Rumpel says, “I know it is not here, messieurs. Not even the lowest janitor would be so stupid as to leave the diamond here. But I would like to see where you have kept it. I would like to know what sort of place you believe is safe enough.”

Neither of the Frenchmen says anything. The assistant director resumes looking at his manuscript, though it is clear to von Rumpel that he is no longer reading. At four o’clock the secretary raps on the door and again von Rumpel sends her away. He practices concentrating only on blinking. Pulse in his neck. Tock tock tock tock. Others, he thinks, would do this with less finesse. Others would use scanners, explosives, pistol barrels, muscle. Von Rumpel uses the cheapest of materials, only minutes, only hours.

Five bells. The light leaches out of the gardens.

“Sergeant Major, please,” says the assistant director. His hands flat on his desk. Looking up now. “It is very late. I must relieve myself.”

“Feel free.” Von Rumpel gestures with one hand at a metal trash can beside the desk.

The mineralogist wrinkles his face. Again the phone rings. Hublin chews his cuticles. Pain shows in the assistant director’s face. The fan whirs. Out in the gardens, the daylight unwinds from the trees and still von Rumpel waits.

“Your colleague,” he says to the mineralogist, “he’s a logical man, isn’t he? He doubts the legends. But you, you seem more fiery. You don’t

want to believe, you tell yourself not to believe. But you do believe.” He shakes his head. “You’ve held the diamond. You’ve felt its power.”

“This is ridiculous,” says Hublin. His eyes roll like a frightened colt’s. “This is not civilized behavior. Are our children safe, Sergeant Major? I demand that you let us determine if our children are safe.”

“A man of science, and yet you believe the myths. You believe in the might of reason, but you also believe in fairy tales. Goddesses and curses.”

The assistant director inhales sharply. “Enough,” he says. “Enough.”

Von Rumpel’s pulse soars: has it already happened? So easily? He could wait two more days, three, while ranks of men broke against him like waves.

“Are our children safe, Sergeant Major?” “If you wish them to be.”

“May I use the telephone?”

Von Rumpel nods. The assistant director reaches for the handset, says “Sylvie” into it, listens awhile, then sets it down. The woman enters with a ring of keys. From a drawer inside the assistant director’s desk, she produces another key on a chain. Simple, elegant, long-shafted.

A small locked door at the back of the main-floor gallery. It takes two keys to open it, and the assistant director seems inexperienced with the lock. They lead von Rumpel down a corkscrewing stone staircase; at the bottom, the assistant director unlocks a second gate. They wind through warrens of hallways, past a warder who drops his newspaper and sits ramrod straight as they pass. In an unassuming storeroom filled with dropcloths and pallets and crates, behind a sheet of plywood, the mineralogist reveals a simple combination safe that the assistant director opens rather easily.

No alarms. Only the one guard.

Inside the safe is a second, far more interesting box. It is heavy enough that it requires both the assistant director and the mineralogist to lift it out.

Elegant, its joinery invisible. No brand name, no combination dial. It is presumably hollow but with no discernible hinges, no nails, no attachment points; it looks like a solid block of highly polished wood. Custom work.

The mineralogist fits a key into a tiny, almost invisible hole on the bottom; when it turns, two more tiny keyholes open on the opposite side.

The assistant director inserts matching keys into those holes; they unlock what looks like five different shafts.

Three overlapping cylinder locks, each dependent on the next. “Ingenious,” whispers von Rumpel.

The entire box falls gently open. Inside sits a small felt bag.

He says, “Open it.”

The mineralogist looks at the assistant director. The assistant director picks up the bag and unties its throat and upends a wrapped bundle into his palm. With a single finger, he nudges apart the folds. Inside lies a blue stone as big as a pigeon’s egg.

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