Von Rumpel limps through the rooms with their faded white moldings and ancient kerosene lamps and embroidered curtains and belle époque mirrors and ships in glass bottles and push-button electrical switches, all dead. Faint twilight angles through smoke and shutter slats in hazy red stripes.
Temple to the Second Empire, this house. A bathtub three-quarters full of cold water on the third floor. Deeply cluttered rooms on the fourth. No dollhouses yet. He climbs to the fifth floor, sweating. Worrying he got everything wrong. The weight in his gut swings pendulously. Here’s a large ornate room crammed with trinkets and crates and books and mechanical parts. A desk, a bed, a divan, three windows on each side. No model.
To the sixth floor. On the left, a tidy bedroom with a single window and long curtains. A boy’s cap hangs on the wall; at the back looms a massive wardrobe, mothballed shirts hung inside.
Back to the landing. Here’s a little water closet, the toilet full of urine. Beyond it, a final bedroom. Seashells are lined along every available surface, shells on the sills and on the dresser and jars full of pebbles lined up on the floor, all arranged by some indiscernible system, and here, here! Here on the floor at the foot of the bed sits what he has been searching for, a wooden model of the city, nestled like a gift. As big as a dining table. Brimming with tiny houses. Except for flakes of plaster in its streets, the little city is entirely undamaged. The simulacrum now more whole than the original. A work of clear magnificence.
In the daughter’s room. For her. Of course.
Von Rumpel feels as if he has come triumphantly to the end of a long journey, and as he sits on the edge of the bed, twin flares of pain riding up from his groin, he has the curious sensation of having been here before, of having lived in a room like this, slept in a lumpy bed like this, collected polished stones and arrayed them like this. As though somehow this whole set has been waiting for his return.
He thinks of his own daughters, how much they would love to see a city on a table. His youngest would want him to kneel beside her. Let’s imagine all the people having their supper, she’d say. Let’s imagine us, Papa.
Outside the broken window, outside the latched shutters, Saint-Malo is so quiet that von Rumpel can hear the rustle of his own heartbeat shifting hairs in his inner ear. Smoke blowing over the roof. Ash falling lightly. Any moment the guns will start again. Gently now. It will be in here somewhere. It is just like the locksmith to repeat himself. The model—it will be inside the model.