The circumstances attending the sudden death of M. Delessert, inspector of the Police de Sûreté, seem to have made such an impression upon the Parisian authorities that they were recorded in unusual detail. Omitting all particulars except what are necessary to explain matters, we produce here the undoubtedly strange history.
In the fall of 1861 there came to Paris a man who called himself Vic de Lassa, and was so inscribed upon his passports. He came from Vienna, and said he was a Hungarian, who owned estates on the borders of the Banat, not far from Zenta. He was a small man, aged thirty-five, with pale and mysterious face, long blonde hair, a vague, wandering blue eye, and a mouth of singular firmness. He dressed carelessly and unaffectedly, and spoke and talked without much empressement. His companion, presumably his wife, on the other hand, ten years younger than himself, was a strikingly beautiful woman, of that dark, rich, velvety, luscious, pure Hungarian type which is so nigh akin to the gipsy blood. At the theatres, on the Bois, at the cafés, on the boulevards, and everywhere that idle Paris disports itself, Madame Aimée de Lassa attracted great attention and made a sensation.
They lodged in luxurious apartments on the Rue Richelieu, frequented the best places, received good company, entertained handsomely, and acted in every way as if possessed of considerable wealth. Lassa had always a good balance chez Schneider, Ruter et Cie, the Austrian bankers in Rue Rivoli, and wore diamonds of conspicuous lustre.
How did it happen then, that the Prefect of Police saw fit to suspect Monsieur and Madame de Lassa, and detailed Paul Delessert, one of the most rusé inspectors of the force, to "pipe" him? The fact is, the insignificant man with the splendid wife was a very mysterious personage, and it is the habit of the police to imagine that mystery always hides either the conspirator, the adventurer, or the charlatan. The conclusion to which the Prefect had come in regard to M. de Lassa was that he was an adventurer and charlatan too. Certainly a successful one, then, for he was singularly unobtrusive and had in no way trumpeted the wonders which it was his mission to perform, yet in a few weeks after he had established himself in Paris the salon of M. de Lassa was the rage, and the number of persons who paid the fee of 100 francs for a single peep into his magic crystal, and a single message by his spiritual telegraph, was really astonishing. The secret of this was that M. de Lassa was a conjurer and deceiver, whose pretensions were omniscient and whose predictions always came true.
Delessert did not find it very difficult to get an introduction and admission to De Lassa’s salon. The receptions occurred every other day—two hours in the forenoon, three hours in the evening. It was evening when Inspector Delessert called in his assumed character of M. Flabry, virtuoso in jewels and a convert to Spiritualism. He found the handsome parlours brilliantly lighted, and a charming assemblage gathered of well-pleased guests, who did not at all seem to have come to learn their fortunes or fates, while contributing to the income of their host, but rather to be there out of complaisance to his virtues and gifts.
Mme. de Lassa performed upon the piano or conversed from group to group in a way that seemed to be delightful, while M. de Lassa walked about or sat in his insignificant, unconcerned way, saying a word now and then, but seeming to shun everything that was conspicuous. Servants handed about refreshments, ices, cordials, wines, etc., and Delessert could have fancied himself to have dropped in upon a quite modest evening entertainment, altogether en règle, but for one or two noticeable circumstances which his observant eyes quickly took in.
Except when their host or hostess was within hearing the guests conversed together in low tones, rather mysteriously, and with not quite so much laughter as is usual on such occasions. At intervals a very tall and dignified footman would come to a guest, and, with a profound bow, present him a card on a silver salver. The guest would then go out, preceded by the solemn servant, but when he or she returned to the salon—some did not return at all—they invariably wore a dazed or puzzled look, were confused, astonished, frightened, or amused. All this was so unmistakably genuine, and De Lassa and his wife seemed so unconcerned amidst it all, not to say distinct from it all, that Delessert could not avoid being forcibly struck and considerably puzzled.
Two or three little incidents, which came under Delessert’s own immediate observation, will suffice to make plain the character of the impressions made upon those present. A couple of gentlemen, both young, both of good social condition, and evidently very intimate friends, were conversing together and tutoying one another at a great rate, when the dignified footman summoned Alphonse. He laughed gaily, "Tarry a moment, cher Auguste," said he, "and thou shalt know all the particulars of this wonderful fortune!" "Eh bien!" A minute had scarcely elapsed when Alphonse returned to the salon. His face was white and bore an appearance of concentrated rage that was frightful to witness. He came straight to Auguste, his eyes flashing, and bending his face toward his friend, who changed colour and recoiled, he hissed out: "Monsieur Lefebure, vous êtes un lâche!" "Very well, Monsieur Meunier," responded Auguste, in the same low tone, "tomorrow morning at six o’clock!" "It is settled, false friend, execrable traitor! A la mort!" rejoined Alphonse, walking off. "Cela va sans dire!" muttered Auguste, going towards the hat-room.
A diplomatist of distinction, representative at Paris of a neighbouring state, an elderly gentleman of superb aplomb and most commanding appearance, was summoned to the oracle by the bowing footman. After being absent about five minutes he returned, and immediately made his way through the press to M. de Lassa, who was standing not far from the fireplace, with his hands in his pockets and a look of utmost indifference upon his face. Delessert standing near, watched the interview with eager interest.
"I am exceedingly sorry," said General Von—— , "to have to absent myself so soon from your interesting salon, M. de Lassa, but the result of my séance convinces me that my dispatches have been tampered with." "I am sorry," responded M. de Lassa, with an air of languid but courteous interest; "I hope you may be able to discover which of your servants has been unfaithful." "I am going to do that now," said the General, adding, in significant tones, "I shall see that both he and his accomplices do not escape severe punishment." "That is the only course to pursue, Monsieur le Comte." The ambassador stared, bowed, and took his leave with a bewilderment in his face that was beyond the power of his tact to control.
In the course of the evening M. de Lassa went carelessly to the piano, and, after some indifferent vague precluding, played a remarkably effective piece of music, in which the turbulent life and buoyancy of bacchanalian strains melted gently, almost imperceptibly away, into a sobbing wail of regret, and languor, and weariness, and despair. It was beautifully rendered, and made a great impression upon the guests, one of whom, a lady, cried, "How lovely, how sad! Did you compose that yourself, M. de Lassa?" He looked towards her absently for an instant, then replied: "I? Oh, no! That is merely a reminiscence, madame." "Do you know who did compose it, M. de Lassa?" enquired a virtuoso present. "I believe it was originally written by Ptolemy Auletes, the father of Cleopatra," said M. de Lassa, in his indifferent musing way; "but not in its present form. It has been twice re-written to my knowledge; still, the air is substantially the same." "From whom did you get it, M. de Lassa, if I may ask?" persisted the gentleman. "Certainly, certainly! The last time I heard it played was by Sebastian Bach; but that was Palestrina’s—the present—version. I think I prefer that of Guido of Arezzo—it is ruder, but has more force. I got the air from Guido himself." "You—from—Guido!" cried the astonished gentleman. "Yes, monsieur," answered De Lassa, rising from the piano with his usual indifferent air. "Mon Dieu!" cried the virtuoso, putting his hand to his head after the manner of Mr. Twemlow, "Mon Dieu! that was in Anno Domini 1022." "A little later than that—July, 1031, if I remember rightly," courteously corrected M. de Lassa.
At this moment the tall footman bowed before M. Delessert, and presented the salver containing the card. Delessert took it and read: "On vous accorde trente-cinq secondes M. Flabry, tout au plus!" Delessert followed; the footman opened the door of another room and bowed again, signifying that Delessert was to enter. "Ask no questions," he said briefly; "Sidi is mute." Delessert entered the room and the door closed behind him. It was a small room, with a strong smell of frankincense pervading it; the walls were covered completely with red hangings that concealed the windows, and the floor was felted with a thick carpet. Opposite the door, at the upper end of the room near the ceiling was the face of a large clock, under it, each lighted by tall wax candles, were two small tables, containing, the one an apparatus very like the common registering telegraph instrument, the other a crystal globe about twenty inches in diameter, set upon an exquisitely wrought tripod of gold and bronze intermingled. By the side of the door stood a man jet black in colour, wearing a white turban and burnous, and having a sort of wand of silver in one hand. With the other he took Delessert by the right arm above the elbow, and led him quickly up the room. He pointed to the clock, and it struck an alarum; he pointed to the crystal. Delessert bent over, looked into it, and saw—a facsimile of his own sleeping-room, everything photographed exactly. Sidi did not give him time to exclaim, but still holding him by the arm, took him to the other table. The telegraph-like instrument began to click-click. Sidi opened the drawer, drew out a slip of paper, crammed it into Delessert’s hand, and pointed to the clock, which struck again. The thirty-five seconds were expired. Sidi, still retaining hold of Delessert’s arm, pointed to the door and led him towards it. The door opened, Sidi pushed him out, the door closed, the tall footman stood there bowing—the interview with the oracle is over. Delessert glanced at the piece of paper in his hand. It was a printed scrap, capital letters, and read simply: "To M. Paul Delessert: The policeman is always welcome, the spy is always in danger!"
Delessert was dumbfounded a moment to find his disguise detected, but the words of the tall footman, "This way if you please, M. Flabry," brought him to his senses. Setting his lips, he returned to the salon, and without delay sought M. de Lassa. "Do you know the contents of this?" asked he, showing the message. "I know everything, M. Delessert," answered De Lassa, in his careless way. "Then perhaps you are aware that I mean to expose a charlatan, and unmask a hypocrite, or perish in the attempt?" said Delessert. "Cela m’est égal, monsieur." replied De Lassa. "You accept my challenge then?" "Oh! it is a defiance, then?" replied De Lassa, letting his eye rest a moment upon Delessert, "mais oui, je l’accepte!" And thereupon Delessert departed.
Delessert now set to work, aided by all the forces the Prefect of Police could bring to bear, to detect and expose this consummate sorcerer, whom the ruder processes of our ancestors would easily have disposed of—by combustion. Persistent enquiry satisfied Delessert that the man was neither a Hungarian nor was named De Lassa; that no matter how far back his power of "reminiscence" might extend, in his present and immediate form he had been born in this unregenerate world in the toy-making city of Nuremburg; that he was noted in boyhood for his great turn for ingenious manufactures, but was very wild, and a mauvais sujet. In his sixteenth year he escaped to Geneva and apprenticed himself to a maker of watches and instruments. Here he had been seen by the celebrated Robert Houdin, the prestidigitateur. Houdin recognizing the lad’s talents, and being himself a maker of ingenious automata, had taken him off to Paris and employed him in his own workshops, as well as for an assistant in the public performances of his amusing and curious diablerie. After staying with Houdin some years, Pflock Haslich (which was De Lassa’s right name) had gone East in the suite of a Turkish Pasha, and after many years’ roving, in lands where he could not be traced under a cloud of pseudonyms, had finally turned up in Venice, and come thence to Paris.
Delessert next turned his attention to Mme. de Lassa. It was more difficult to get a clue by means of which to know her past life; but it was necessary in order to understand enough about Haslich. At last, through an accident, it became probable that Mme. Aimée was identical with a certain Mme. Schlaff, who had been rather conspicuous among the demi-monde of Buda. Delessert posted off to that ancient city, and thence went into the wilds of Transylvania to Mengyco. On his return, as soon as he reached the telegraph and civilization, he telegraphed the Prefect from Kardszag: "Don’t lose sight of my man, nor let him leave Paris. I will run him in for you two days after I get back."
It happened that on the day of Delessert’s return to Paris the Prefect was absent, being with the Emperor at Cherbourg. He came back on the fourth day, just twenty-four hours after the announcement of Delessert’s death. That happened, as near as could be gathered, in this wise: The night after Delessert’s return he was present at De Lassa’s salon with a ticket of admittance to a séance. He was very completely disguised as a decrepit old man, and fancied that it was impossible for any one to detect him. Nevertheless, when he was taken into the room, and looked into the crystal, he was utterly horror-stricken to see there a picture of himself, lying face down and senseless upon the side-walk of a street; and the message he received read thus: "What you have seen will be, Delessert, in three days. Prepare!" The detective, unspeakably shocked, retired from the house at once and sought his own lodgings.
In the morning he came to the office in a state of extreme dejection. He was completely unnerved. In relating to a brother inspector what had occurred, he said: "That man can do what he promises, I am doomed!"
He said that he thought he could make a complete case out against Haslich alias De Lassa, but could not do so without seeing the Prefect and getting instructions. He would tell nothing in regard to his discoveries in Buda and in Transylvania—said he was not at liberty to do so—and repeatedly exclaimed: "Oh! if M. le Préfet were only here!" He was told to go to the Prefect at Cherbourg, but refused upon the ground that his presence was needed in Paris. He time and again averred his conviction that he was a doomed man, and showed himself both vacillating and irresolute in his conduct, and extremely nervous. He was told that he was perfectly safe, since De Lassa and all his household were under constant surveillance; to which he replied, "You do not know the man." An inspector was detailed to accompany Delessert, never to lose sight of him night and day, and guard him carefully; and proper precautions were taken in regard to his food and drink, while the guards watching De Lassa were doubled.
On the morning of the third day, Delessert, who had been staying chiefly indoors, avowed his determination to go at once and telegraph to M. le Préfet to return immediately. With this intention he and his brother officer started out. Just as they got to the corner of the Rue de Lanery and the Boulevard, Delessert stopped suddenly and put his hand to his forehead.
"My God!" he cried, "the crystal! the picture!" and fell prone upon his face, insensible. He was taken at once to a hospital, but only lingered a few hours, never regaining his consciousness. Under express instruction from the authorities, a most careful, minute, and thorough autopsy was made of Delessert’s body by several distinguished surgeons, whose unanimous opinion was, that the cause of his death was apoplexy, due to fatigue and nervous excitement.
As soon as Delessert was sent to the hospital, his brother inspector hurried to the Central Office, and De Lassa, together with his wife and everyone connected with the establishment, were at once arrested. De Lassa smiled contemptuously as they took him away. "I knew you were coming; I prepared for it; you will be glad to release me again."
It was quite true that De Lassa had prepared for them. When the house was searched it was found that every paper had been burned, the crystal globe was destroyed, and in the room of the séances was a great heap of delicate machinery broken into indistinguishable bits. "That cost me 200,000 francs," said De Lassa, pointing to the pile, "but it has been a good investment." The walls and floors were ripped out in several places, and the damage to the property was considerable. In prison neither De Lassa nor his associates made any revelations. The notion that they had something to do with Delessert’s death was quickly dispelled, in a legal point of view, and all the party but De Lassa were released. He was still detained in prison, upon one pretext or another, when one morning he was found hanging by a silk sash to the cornice of the room where he was confined—dead. The night before, it was afterwards discovered, Madame de Lassa had eloped with a tall footman, taking the Nubian Sidi with them. De Lassa’s secrets died with him.
Spiritual Scientist, November 1875
[In the next issue of the Spiritual Scientist, namely, December 2, 1875, p. 151, the following Editorial Note was published:]
"It is an interesting story, that article of yours in to-day’s Scientist. But is it a record of facts, or a tissue of the imagination? If true, why not state the source of it, in other words, specify your authority for it."
The above is not signed, but we would take the opportunity to say that the story, "An Unsolved Mystery," was published because we considered the main points of the narrative—the prophecies, and the singular death of the officer—to be psychic phenomena, that have been, and can be, again produced. Why quote "authorities"? The Scriptures tell us of the death of Ananias, under the stern rebuke from Peter; here we have a phenomenon of a similar nature. Ananias is supposed to have suffered instant death from fear. Few can realize this power governed by spiritual laws, but those who have trod the boundary line and know some few of the things that can be done, will see no great mystery in this, nor in the story published last week. We are not speaking in mystical tones. Ask the powerful mesmerist if there is danger that the subject may pass out of his control?—if he could will the spirit out, never to return? It is capable of demonstration that the mesmerist can act on a subject at a distance of many miles; and it is no less certain that the majority of mesmerists know little or nothing of the laws that govern their powers.
It may be a pleasant dream to attempt to conceive of the beauties of the spirit-world; but the time can be spent more profitably in a study of the spirit itself, and it is not necessary that the subject for study should be in the spirit-world.