On 2 June 1925, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, in Paris, at ten o’clock in the morning, the weather is warm. In the shade of a chestnut tree, a medical student aged twenty-four, Jean Romier, is sitting on a bench, studying. He has been there for a while, when an elderly man, dressed in a strange riding-coat, comes to sit down next to him. Almost immediately, he starts up a conversation with the student.
The two men, after having exchanged remarks about the weather, continue on to other subjects, and eventually arrive at music. The elder gentleman enquires about Jean’s knowledge of flute quartets. Jean doesn’t know anything about them. His companion is surprised that a music lover like Jean suffers from such a lack in his education. The student explains that he can’t afford concert tickets.
The stranger then tells Jean that he and some friends, along with a few members of his family, have formed a small chamber music orchestra, and that the following Friday, they are going to perform one of these quartets. He invites the student to come to hear it. Jean Romier accepts with joy and thanks the man, who gives him his name: Alphonse Berruyer, and his address: Rue de Vaugirard, third floor, on the left. Having shaken the young man’s hand, he gets up and leaves.
The following Friday, Jean Romier arrives at Rue de Vaugirard, climbs to the third floor, and rings the bell. The elderly man opens the door, himself. He greets the student, and presents him to the whole family: his wife, his brother, his sister-in-law, his grandson, Andre, who is preparing to enter the Naval College, his other grandson, Marcel, who is studying Law, and his nephew, who is entering the Church…
Everyone is smiling, and Jean receives a warm welcome. However, the student has a rather weird feeling about them. Is it because of the old-fashioned apartment? The gas lighting? The rococo ornaments? The strangely demoded way in which the Berruyer Family is dressed? He can’t quite put his finger on it. But these charming people seem to belong to another time.
While the musicians tune their instruments, Mr Berruyer installs the young man in an armchair with a lace-covered head-rest. Then the concert begins. All of these amateurs play admirably well, and Jean Romier absolutely loves listening to Mozart’s famous quartet. There are two other exquisite pieces on the programme: one by Geminiani; the other by Stradella.
Mme Berruyer then serves refreshments, while everyone else gives his smiling, competent opinion on the pieces just played. The medical student gets into a passionate conversation with the future man of religion, on music and spirituality. To get away from all the noise around them, they soon take refuge in a small salon-cum-library and there, they talk for a long time about Bach, Palestrina and Josquin des Pres, while smoking cigarettes.
After a while, Jean Romier notices that it is after midnight. He says goodbye to everyone, and leaves. In the street, he wants to light another cigarette, and realises that he has left his lighter at the Berruyer’s place. He immediately climbs back up to the third floor and rings the bell. No answer. He rings a second time, with the same result. The third time, he gives a very long ring, and the neighbour from the same floor surges from his apartment, in his pyjamas. He’s not at all happy about the noise.
Jean explains that he is trying to raise Mr Berruyer. The neighbour snarls that Mr Berruyer has been dead for at least twenty years, and that the apartment is empty. Jean tells him that that is impossible because he has just spent the evening there. The neighbour repeats that there is no-one living there. Jean insists that there was a whole family there.
He tells him that Mr Berruyer had organised a concert and that he, Jean, has come back because he forgot his lighter. The neighbour is not having any of that. He knows that if there had been a concert in the empty apartment, he would have heard it. He accuses Jean of being a thief and starts calling for help.
The concierge wakes up, and arrives, wanting to know what is happening. The neighbour has woken all of the people in the building by now, and explains to the assembled crowd that he has caught a thief, and everyone takes off to the police station.
At the police station, Jean Romier gives his identity, explains that he is a medical student, that his father is a doctor, and, giving his father’s telephone number, asks the police to call him. Dr Romier is called. He is astonished to hear that his son is in a police station. He tells the police that he knows that his son was supposed to be going to an amateur concert Rue de Vaugirard that evening, and that he, Dr Romier, did not understand all this stuff about empty apartments. He adds that he is on his way to the police station.
While they wait, Jean Romier tells the police commissioner about his evening:
“There were about ten people present. I can describe them to you. I can also describe the apartment.”
The concierge interrupts by saying that all the apartments in the building are built on the same plan, so describing the apartment would not be proof that he had been in it. He could have come to sell vacuum cleaners, or something else, one day, and the apartment he describes would not necessarily be that of Mr Berruyer, which has been empty since his death.
The commissioner wants to know who owns the apartment. The concierge replies that it belongs to Mr Berruyer’s great-great-grandson, Mr Mauger. Jean asks if this gentleman can be contacted, because he wants to go back to the apartment with him – and with the commissioner. He says that he will describe the decoration, and they can verify it.
To be continued.