The young man walked along the crowded pathway as the carriages trundled alongside, making him pause every time one brushed by him. His clothes proclaimed him an apprentice priest, and he held a small satchel in his hand. He had travelled from Notre Dame and was now making his way to a seminary where he was expected to take up orders. He walked on, his head bent in contemplation even as a few stray dogs barked at him from a safe distance. As he passed a store front, he took a furtive glance at the glass. His beard had grown over the past fortnight, and he needed to trim it a little if he was not to look like a grizzly bear, albeit a handsome one!
The year was 1430. The rue des Marmousets was the area near Notre Dame, where people bustled around, enjoying their stroll across the city, stepping into the various shops that showed the most dazzling of fares. Women would gasp at the sight of the beautiful gowns that caught their eye, while their gallant men folk waited in the lanes patiently for their ladies, feasting their eyes on other attractive young women – a most pleasant occupation, indeed!
The main attraction was the many shops that sold pâtés and meat pies, the aroma of which could entice the most hardened of palates. The rue des Marmousets was renowned for these savoury meat pies, and no one left the city without having tasted them. The shop fronts were covered with creepers of wisteria, tiny purple flowers that drew the eye to their splendour.
The young man, whose name was Jacques, had reached the end of the avenue, his eyes searching for a particular shop. He had heard of it from an acquaintance who had given him a glowing account of the owner of the establishment, a barber who used only the sharpest of instruments to give his customers a clean shave. The young man rubbed his stubble-covered chin, even as he was jostled by men and women who were in a hurry to get to their destinations.
Suddenly, his face glowed as his eyes fell on No. 18, astore to his leftwhich proclaimed the existence of the barber he had been on the lookout for. The entrance stood invitingly open, the interiors well-lit and airy, with a little doorway that led to a smaller room. Jacques peeped in, almost jumping out of his skin when a loud, cheery voice accosted him from within.
“Come in, young monsieur! Walk into my parlour!”
The voice belonged to a burly, bearded man with sharp twinkling eyes, as he smiled, his long teeth glinting in the light as he watched his prospective customer in glee.
“You’re in luck. Today, I am offering a special discount to all those who come in for a shave and haircut.”
That quite delighted Jacques who was used to counting his pennies carefully since he did not have many of them in the first place. He moved in with alacrity, doffing his hat at the giant before him.
“Merci, monsieur! I am grateful for small mercies!”
“Let me take you to our special room inside which is for my favoured customers.” The barber smiled, pointing at the door beyond. “There we will not be disturbed by the bell ringing or other customers barging in.”
The room within was a deep, cavernous one with a few chairs in front of a mirror that ran round the room. The lights were dimmer, and the ambience more relaxing than the bright room outside. The young man looked around, awe-struck by the plush red chairs that seemed to gleam in the dimness.
“Sit down, good Sir!” the barber waved a hand towards the chair in the centre of the row of chairs. “Lie back now, and close your eyes. This will be the most luxurious and closest shave you will ever have.”
Meanwhile, the passers-by on the street outside suddenly sniffed the air. What was that delicious aroma? Meat pies, juicy and luscious, that had been freshly prepared, appeared on ceramic trays in the glass counters at No 20, the pastry shop next door. A long queue stood along the street, as buyers stood, jingling their coins, waiting to sink their teeth into the savoury fare. Some had trudged across the city so that they could buy the pies that smelt heavenly and tasted even better. Not for nothing were the French regarded as true gourmets, and they would go the whole hog to find the best delicacies, wherever possible.
The dress store next door was also a well frequented place. The lady in charge, Madame Delphine, was the very picture of slender elegance. She had exquisite taste and at one glance, she could look at a customer and ascertain the clothes that would enhance her figure. Young girls wanting to catch the eyes of their beaus flocked to her, and she was kind enough to charge them only as much as she felt they could pay.
Thus, the rue des Marmousets was a popular rendezvous spot for people with taste, and not surprisingly, it was one of the most crowded avenues in the city.
One evening, sirens blared out across the city, and uniformed gendarmes (policemen) were seen making their way to various establishments that lined the rue des Marmousets. They asked brusque questions of shop owners, often raising their voices in irritation. The passers-by raised puzzled eyebrows, but no answers were forthcoming. Finally, one curious journalist, who had his ear to the ground, broke the news.
“Citizens, what I have to tell you is of great import!” he intoned ponderously. “You will never believe what I heard!”
“Get on with it, mon homme (my man)!” retorted a cheeky young man who felt well protected within his circle of equally cheeky friends.
“You wouldn’t be so sanguine if I told you what I knew,” replied the journalist, a blush of annoyance on his face. He was not going to be robbed of his importance.
“What do you know, Monsieur?” asked a woman holding a chubby baby. “Does it concern us?”
“The gendarmes are investigating a case of men disappearing suddenly… apprentice priests, actually. Of late, many have vanished into thin air. No one knows where they are. They have been seen coming to our city and then, poof!”
The rumours flew, fast and furious, like locusts covering the face of the sun, even as the people began to lock themselves in at home, shuddering at the thought of walking along the almost deserted city lanes. The city held its breath, even as more young men appeared, and then disappeared.
Where could they be? How could full grown men disappear? It was a mystery waiting to be solved.
One day, the whole sordid tale came out in the most horrific manner. A handsome young German named Alaric had come into the city, accompanied by a dog that stayed close by his side. The large eyes of the dog were fixed with adoration on his master who stopped often to feed him morsels of food.
At one store, Alaric went in, tying his dog to a post outside. It was around noon, and the dog lay in the shade, a bowl of water by his side. The sun was at its dazzling best and soon the shadows began to creep in with the onset of dusk.
The dog had begun to get restless without his master. He whined,low and long, the sound sending chills down the spines of the folks rushing to get home. They did not want to disappear like the young men had.
By night, the dog had had enough. He strained at his leash, barking loudly enough to wake the dead. The cold breeze ruffled his fur, and he kept looking into the store, his howls getting more prolonged by the minute.
Soon the few passers-by stopped by the store, wondering what the matter was.
“Mon Dieu, why is that dog howling so?” muttered a middle-aged man all muffled up in an overcoat to combat the winter chill.
“Maybe it’s hungry. Where is its owner?”
Myriad eyes swung around to peer into the dim interiors of the store at which the dog’s nose was pointing.
“Maybe the owner is inside. Let’s check it out.”
The motley crowd made its way into the store where they were met by the owner, the above-mentioned barber.
“What can I do for you, gentlemen?” he asked courteous to the hilt. However, a hint of trepidation lurked within his wary eyes.
The mention of the dog made him even more nervous. There was something shifty about him and despite his protests, the police were called in.
To cut a long story short, the barber’s establishment was turned upside down and to everyone’s horror, a pile of human bones was found buried in his cellar. There were bloody tools like knives and razors, along with the remains of roughly chopped up corpses. The policemen held their noses, gagging at the stench that pervaded the whole place.
“What did you do to the bodies?” a fierce-looking policeman asked the man roughly at the police station. The interrogation had been prolonged andexhausting, and the man was ready to confess. He looked at the policeman in resignation.
“I shaved them all, and warned them that it would be their closest shave ever! They still sat there, their eyes shut, necks outstretched. It was tempting to say the least. I slit their throats in an instant.”
He made a ghoulish gesture as he slid his finger across his neck, a sudden expression of glee crossing his eyes. Even the hardened policeman missed a heartbeat, and then, he grabbed the barber by the scruff of his neck.
“Where are all the bodies?”
The interrogation continued. It was all that the policeman could do to control his nausea. The whole gruesome tale unfolded as the barber finally broke down and confessed. He had killed all the young men who had come in as apprentice priests from places far away by slitting their throats. Then he opened a trap door through which he pushed the bodies into his cellar, sliced the flesh off the hapless victims and ground the pieces into mince.
The story got murkier at this point, almost too disgusting to envisage. The barber supplied this human mince to his neighbour, the pastry maker, who, in turn, used it to add to the stuffing of his meat pies because meat was expensive at the time. These ghastly pies were savoured by the unsuspecting public for their delicate flavour, till the unsavoury story broke.
The French populace took to the streets, protesting against the barbaric pair. Thegendarmesarrested the two murderers. After a swift trial, they were sent to the public square or the Place deGrèvewhere they were locked inside iron cages and burnt to death. Later, their establishments were also burnt to the ground, and a small stone pyramid was erected just so that people would not forget the dreadful rue des Marmouset murders. A hundred years went by, and no buildings were allowed to come up there.
Even today, it is rumoured that if you go to the spot and stand there at dusk, you may hear the wailing of the dog in the distance, and maybe, just maybe, the aroma of meat pies wafting in the breeze.