The Bureau d`Exchange de Maux
I often think of the Bureau d'Exchange de Maux and thewondrously evil old man that sate therein. It stood in alittle street that there is in Paris, its doorway made ofthree brown beams of wood, the top one overlapping theothers like the Greek letter pi, all the rest painted green,a house far lower and narrower than its neighbours andinfinitely stranger, a thing to take one's fancy. And overthe doorway on the old brown beam in faded yellow lettersthis legend ran, Bureau Universel d'Exchanges de Maux.
I entered at once and accosted the listless man thatlolled on a stool by his counter. I demanded the whereforeof his wonderful house, what evil wares he exchanged, withmany other things that I wished to know, for curiosity ledme; and indeed had it not I had gone at once from that shop,for there was so evil a look in that fattened man, in thehang of his fallen cheeks and his sinful eye, that you wouldhave said he had had dealings with Hell and won theadvantage by sheer wickedness.
Such a man was mine host; but above all the evil of himlay in his eyes, which lay so still, so apathetic, that youwould have sworn that he was drugged or dead; like lizardsmotionless on a wall they lay, then suddenly they darted,and all his cunning flamed up and revealed itself in whatone moment before seemed no more than a sleepy and ordinarywicked old man. And this was the object and trade of thatpeculiar shop, the Bureau Universel d'Exchange de Maux: youpaid twenty francs, which the old man proceeded to take fromme, for admission to the bureau and then had the right toexchange any evil or misfortune with anyone on the premisesfor some evil or misfortune that he "could afford," as theold man put it.
There were four or five men in the dingy ends of thatlow-ceilinged room who gesticulated and muttered softly intwos as men who make a bargain, and now and then more camein, and the eyes of the flabby owner of the house leaped upat them as they entered, seemed to know their errands atonce and each one's particular need, and fell back againinto somnolence, receiving his twenty francs in an almostlifeless hand and biting the coin as though in pure absenceof mind.
"Some of my clients," he told me. So amazing to me wasthe trade of this extraordinary shop that I engaged the oldman in conversation, repulsive though he was, and from hisgarrulity I gathered these facts. He spoke in perfectEnglish though his utterance was somewhat thick and heavy;no language seemed to come amiss to him. He had been inbusiness a great many years, how many he would not say, andwas far older than he looked. All kinds of people didbusiness in his shop. What they exchanged with each otherhe did not care except that it had to be evils, he was notempowered to carry on any other kind of business.
There was no evil, he told me, that was not negotiablethere; no evil the old man knew had ever been taken away indespair from his shop. A man might have to wait and comeback again next day, and next day and the day after, payingtwenty francs each time, but the old man had the addressesof all his clients and shrewdly knew their needs, and soonthe right two met and eagerly exchanged their commodities. "Commodities" was the old man's terrible word, said with agruesome smack of his heavy lips, for he took a pride in hisbusiness and evils to him were goods.
I learned from him in ten minutes very much of humannature, more than I have ever learned from any other man; Ilearned from him that a man's own evil is to him the worstthing there is or ever could be, and that an evil sounbalances all men's minds that they always seek forextremes in that small grim shop. A woman that had nochildren had exchanged with an impoverished half-maddenedcreature with twelve. On one occasion a man had exchangedwisdom for folly.
"Why on earth did he do that?" I said.
"None of my business," the old man answered in his heavyindolent way. He merely took his twenty francs from eachand ratified the agreement in the little room at the backopening out of the shop where his clients do business. Apparently the man that had parted with wisdom had left theshop upon the tips of his toes with a happy though foolishexpression all over his face, but the other wentthoughtfully away wearing a troubled and very puzzled look. Almost always it seemed they did business in opposite evils.
But the thing that puzzled me most in all my talks withthat unwieldy man, the thing that puzzles me still, is thatnone that had once done business in that shop ever returnedagain; a man might come day after day for many weeks, butonce do business and he never returned; so much the old mantold me, but when I asked him why, he only muttered that hedid not know.
It was to discover the wherefore of this strange thingand for no other reason at all that I determined myself todo business sooner or later in the little room at the backof that mysterious shop. I determined to exchange some verytrivial evil for some evil equally slight, to seek formyself an advantage so very small as scarcely to give Fateas it were a grip, for I deeply distrusted these bargains,knowing well that man has never yet benefited by themarvellous and that the more miraculous his advantageappears to be the more securely and tightly do the gods orthe witches catch him. In a few days more I was going backto England and I was beginning to fear that I should besea-sick: this fear of sea-sickness, not the actual maladybut only the mere fear of it, I decided to exchange for asuitably little evil. I did not know with whom I should bedealing, who in reality was the head of the firm (one neverdoes when shopping) but I decided that neither Jew nor Devilcould make very much on so small a bargain as that.
I told the old man my project, and he scoffed at thesmallness of my commodity trying to urge me to some darkerbargain, but could not move me from my purpose. And then hetold me tales with a somewhat boastful air of the bigbusiness, the great bargains that had passed through hishands. A man had once run in there to try and exchangedeath, he had swallowed poison by accident and had onlytwelve hours to live. That sinister old man had been ableto oblige him. A client was willing to exchange thecommodity.
"But what did he give in exchange for death?" I said.
"Life," said that grim old man with a furtive chuckle.
"It must have been a horrible life," I said.
"That was not my affair," the proprietor said, lazilyrattling together as he spoke a little pocketful oftwenty-franc pieces.
Strange business I watched in that shop for the next fewdays, the exchange of odd commodities, and heard strangemutterings in corners amongst couples who presently rose andwent to the back room, the old man following to ratify.
Twice a day for a week I paid my twenty francs, watchinglife with its great needs and its little needs morning andafternoon spread out before me in all its wonderful variety.
And one day I met a comfortable man with only a littleneed, he seemed to have the very evil I wanted. He alwaysfeared the lift was going to break. I knew too much ofhydraulics to fear things as silly as that, but it was notmy business to cure his ridiculous fear. Very few wordswere needed to convince him that mine was the evil for him,he never crossed the sea, and I on the other hand couldalways walk upstairs, and I also felt at the time, as manymust feel in that shop, that so absurd a fear could nevertrouble me. And yet at times it is almost the curse of mylife. When we both had signed the parchment in the spideryback room and the old man had signed and ratified (for whichwe had to pay him fifty francs each) I went back to myhotel, and there I saw the deadly thing in the basement. They asked me if I would go upstairs in the lift, from forceof habit I risked it, and I held my breath all the way andclenched my hands. Nothing will induce me to try such ajourney again. I would sooner go up to my room in aballoon. And why? Because if a balloon goes wrong you havea chance, it may spread out into a parachute after it hasburst, it may catch in a tree, a hundred and one things mayhappen, but if the lift falls down its shaft you are done. As for sea-sickness I shall never be sick again, I cannottell you why except that I know that it is so.
And the shop in which I made this remarkable bargain, theshop to which none return when their business is done: I setout for it next day. Blindfold I could have found my way tothe unfashionable quarter out of which a mean street runs,where you take the alley at the end, whence runs the cul desac where the queer shop stood. A shop with pillars, flutedand painted red, stands on its near side, its otherneighbour is a low-class jeweller's with little silverbrooches in the window. In such incongruous company stoodthe shop with beams with its walls painted green.
In half an hour I found the cul de sac to which I hadgone twice a day for the last week, I found the shop withthe ugly painted pillars and the jeweller that soldbrooches, but the green house with the three beams was gone.
Pulled down, you will say, although in a single night. That can never be the answer to the mystery, for the houseof the fluted pillars painted on plaster and the low-classjeweller's shop with its silver brooches (all of which Icould identify one by one) were standing side by side.