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Les Exploits de Nat Pinkerton de Jour en Jour : Un Texte de René Magritte Translated and Improved

by Guy Davenport

GIF - 51.4 ko

Nat Pinkerton, the private detective, has arrived by horsecar, foot, and elevator at his office in New York. As soon as he has handed his bowler, gloves, and cane to the buttons, his lieutenant introduces a client.

— My case, the client, who is a lady of the upper middle class, explains without preamble, is one the likes of which you have never heard. My husband plays the bassoon in the Nineteenth Precinct Fireman’s Marching Band. Our cook is Irish. I have a weakness for the finer things.

Nat Pinkerton lights a cheroot, listens attentively, makes a note with a pencil from time to time.

— I see it all, he says.

— The potato stew, she says, was strewn, you understand, from the living-room linoleum to the fire escape.

— You had no premonition ? You suspected nothing ?

— The tureen shattered in countless pieces right before my eyes.

She leaves. The detective gives orders to his lieutenant. The lieutenant, disguised as a Wall Street broker, leaves with a shotgun and bloodhound.

The detective writes a letter. He affixes a pink postage stamp depicting General George Washington, value three centimes. He uses a pseudonym in his return address.

He admires his office. A portrait of Mozart hangs above the steam radiator. On a table covered with a turkey carpet there is an Edison phonograph, an electric fan, a porcelain bust mapped phrenologically, a stereopticon viewer, a revolver, a lantern, an Argand astral lamp.

Towards noon, his morning’s work being over, he strolls down Broadway to a well-appointed restaurant. He has an andouillette, some salad, and a half bottle of sauterne. He takes his coffee on the terrace, where he makes notes in a small book.

After his meal, he takes his customary walk. From habit he makes a mental photograph of all the people he passes. Everybody, he knows, is a potential criminal. The avenues are an endless spectacle. Indians from the Plains, trappers from Canada, English tourists easily spotted by their monocles and rolled umbrellas, senators from the capital who have Negro servants carrying their law books and writs, actresses of unsurpassed beauty lolling in carriages, John Jacob Astor looking out the window of his mansion.

He notices that his client of the morning is sitting in Central Park.

He penetrates the disguise of a well-known anarchist who is trying to pass for a nursemaid wheeling a pram. He steps deftly across the street, blowing his police whistle while felling the anarchist with one stroke of his powerful arm.

— Desist, Sir, cries a policeman arriving on the scene. You cannot strike a respectable nursemaid on the avenues of New York !

— Fool ! says Nat Pinkerton. Do you not see that this is Osip Przwynsczki, the notorious anarchist from Paris, France ?

Lifting the baby from its pram, he strips it to show that in effect it is a bundle of dynamite sticks bound with a fuse.

Soon after he goes into a bookstore to select a volume for his afternoon’s reading. He chooses Captain Wilkes’s Voyages.

Twice on the way back to his office he is shot at by dastardly outlaws whose careers he has thwarted. As always, they miss. The detective frequently consults the mirror in his hat to see who is behind him. At his tobacconist he buys a box of John Ruskin cigars and the latest edition of the Herald Tribune.

At the corner of Forty-Second Street and the Avenue Christophe-Colombe one of his operatives dressed as a banjo player from the Louisiana Purchase breaks into a tap dance, singing Love Them Watermelons Mighty Fine while reporting sotto voce and out of the side of his mouth that a slayer of six with ax for whom the Metropolitan Police have looked in vain is across the street buying an eggplant and some endives.

The detective nips over, coshes the criminal, and blows his whistle.

— Do I have to do all your work for you ? he says tauntingly to the squadron of policemen who gallop up in a Black Maria.

Back in his office, he lights a cigar and reads his book. The lieutenant arrives and reads his report from scraps of paper secreted about his person. Nat Pinkerton files the information away in his unfailing memory, like wax to receive, like marble to retain.

The buttons bring him a telegram on a salver.

— Just as I thought ! he says, telegram in hand.

Two women are presented by the lieutenant, and as soon as they have outlined their case, they weep awhile before leaving.

— Why, Nat Pinkerton asks his lieutenant, are matters so transparent to me, so opaque to everybody else ?

The lieutenant does not answer, but smiles knowingly.

Nat Pinkerton reads about Captain Wilkes’s antarctic expedition with genuine appreciation. He would like to see a penguin walking about upright and gabbling. He would like to hear the piercing cry of the albatross.

The door flies open and there, suddenly, is Florent Carton Dalton, leader of the famous gang. Though he wears a bandana across his face just under the eyes, Nat Pinkerton recognizes him and laughs at him while snapping his finger under his nose.

— Your time has come, you rancid son of a bitch ! cries F. C. Dalton.

— Yours first ! replies Nat Pinkerton, drawing a revolver from a holster concealed inside his coat and shooting Dalton then and there.

At eventide the lieutenant makes an arrest. One of the lady clients of the afternoon, he ascertained, was living with an acrobat as his concubine. Together they received stolen goods. The lieutenant is now free to return to his boardinghouse, his day’s work well done. But not before he makes his report to Nat Pinkerton, whose thoughtful eyes register the interest he takes in the matter. The report is recorded in shorthand by a secretary and placed in the detective’s files.

Then Nat Pinkerton goes home for the day. He stops at a quiet brasserie for a game of cards with his friends and a drink before dinner. Even here he knows the weaver by his tooth and the compositor by his thumb, the carpenter by his saw and hammer and the prostitute by her leer and the spots on her face.

He is withal a kindly soul, Nat Pinkerton, and buys a pretzel for the dog of the brasserie. By nine-thirty he is home. His wife and mother-in-law have waited for him in the dining room and together they eat some meat and vegetables. The detective is silent about his day’s work. Instead, he gives his whole attention to his wife and mother-in-law. They are actresses and he has promised to write them a play fitted to their talents. His mother-in-law fancies aristocratic roles from the days before the Revolution. His wife favors a part in which she can cry and wring her hands, preferably in a scene with a cavalry officer of dashing appearance.

They all have a glass of Vichy water before bedtime. Nat Pinkerton, as always, goes down to check with the concierge that all the doors and windows are secured for the night.

He kisses his wife and mother-in-law, and goes off to his private bedroom. By a single candle he records some memoranda, to study some effective author’s style for felicities of phrasing and purity of diction with an eye to writing down some of his more curious exploits which not many, but a discerning few, must surely find worthy of intelligent attention. Secundo, to recommence Sandow’s exercises for toning the muscles and slimming the waist. Tertio, to purchase the new patented flyswatter as advertised in the evening paper, as a modern adjunct for his office.

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