The following is a Gaslight etext....

A message to you about copyright and permissions

The Disappearance of Honoré Subrac (1910)

a story by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)

translated from the French
by Robert Champ ©


   Despite a sweeping investigation, the police had failed to solve the mystery of Honoré Subrac's disappearance.

   If they had contacted me, their thoroughness would not, perhaps, have seemed so ineffectual to the public. Subrac, you see, was a friend of mine. I knew exactly what had had happened to him — knew singularly, I might say — and would gladly have shared my knowledge, had anyone asked for it.

   One must, however, take into account official stupidity in these matters. Thus it was that I resolved finally to take matters into my own hands: in a word, I decided to go to the authorities myself.

   It was for this reason that, one morning not long after the story of Subrac broke in the press, I found myself standing in the office of the district prefect pouring out the whole of my relations with the missing man. The prefect listened to my testimony closely and busied himself copying it all down — just as if he had been listening to the story of a stolen watch-chain or of some poor simpleton whom a lover had deserted without leaving an address. It was only afterwards, as he began to summarize what I had told him, that I started to realize that the man had considered me a lunatic from the beginning. He spoke in the distant, overly-polite tones that people use when speaking to the mad — tones that communicate not an air of authority and control, though that is the speaker's intention, but of inner fear. When I acquainted him with the fact that, as far as I was concerned, his attempt to disguise his discomfort was an absolute failure, he became more distant and overly polite still.

   At the end of the interview, he got to his feet and motioned to his clerk to show me the door. The clerk, I noticed, kept clenching and unclenching his fists, afraid in his own right but, unlike his superior, quite ready to pounce on me if I threatened to become violent.

   I let it pass. I understood perfectly. The case of Honoré Subrac is, after all, so fantastic that the truth will always, unless science finally uncovers the secret, seem like the delusion of a madman.


   From the newspaper accounts you will learn that the missing man usually passed himself off as an eccentric, especially in the matter of his dress. Winter and summer he wore two garments: a huge overcoat and a pair of slippers — and nothing more. Of course, I had heard of this nice peculiarity long before it appeared in the press. I knew Subrac, knew that he was rich and could have afforded much more, so that his behavior naturally puzzled me a good deal. One day I took a chance and asked him about it.

   He answered with caution. "In case I need to undress in a hurry," he said haltingly, "in case it is necessary to..." But here, as if uncertain how to proceed in the matter, he changed the subject. "Actually," he continued, slipping into the old, comfortable role of the eccentric," you adjust quickly to wearing very little, even in the worst weather. Underwear, socks, hats — you can do without things like that easily. I've done it since I was twenty-five and I haven't been sick a day in my life."

   As you might expect, this evasion, rather than enlightening me, only stirred my curiosity further.

   Why, I thought, should a man like Honoré Subrac need to undress in such a hurry?

   Needless to say, I made a great many suppositions.

   Then one night as I was coming home — it might have been one o'clock or a quarter after — I thought I heard my name being pronounced in a low, trembling voice. The sound, it seemed to me, emanated from a wall that I had just then lightly brushed against.

   I stopped in a state of disagreeable surprise.

   The voice spoke again. "Is anyone else in the street? It's me, Honoré Subrac."

   "Where are you then!" I called out, at the same time looking all around me without the slightest idea where my friend could have been hiding himself.

   I did discover (lying before me on the sidewalk) the well-known overcoat and the no-less-famous slippers.

   Now here is a case, I said to myself with a smile, where necessity has forced Honoré Subrac, as he said himself, to undress in a hurry. Well, I thought, at last I'm going to unravel this fine mystery.

   "The street's empty, my friend," I yelled encouragingly. "Come on out."

   In a moment, Honoré Subrac had detached himself, in some fashion or other, from the section of wall I had just passed and against which, for reasons inexplicable to me, I had been unable to detect him. He was completely naked. Before making another move, he snatched up his overcoat, put it on and quickly buttoned it up. Then he put on the slippers and — all the while speaking to me in an exaggerated, deliberate manner — proceeded to walk with me as far as my front-door.

   "You are amazed, I see," he said, "but at least you begin to understand the reason that I must dress in this odd fashion. What you don't understand, I imagine, is how I managed just now to avoid your notice so completely. At the least, I owe you an explanation.

   "Consider it, if you like, a phenomenon of mimeticism. Nature is a compassionate mother. To some of her children, those who are threatened by predators but who are too weak to protect themselves, she gives the ability to blend into their natural surroundings. This, of course, is no more than common knowledge. Some butterflies, as you know, will take on the characteristic hues and shapes of flowers. Certain insects will manage to sit only on particular leaves which in color they resemble exactly. A chameleon will adopt the particular color that best hides him. A polar hare — and they're as skittish in the frozen north as any hare in our own bushes — will become white as the snow itself and dash along against a snowy background without being spotted.

   "It's in this way, you see — through this natural ingenuity that changes their appearance — that the weaker animals escape their tormentors.

   "I first discovered that I had the mimetic power myself some years ago.

   "I was twenty-five years old. At the time, women generally found me handsome and charming, and inevitably I fell in love with one of them.

   "She was, unfortunately, married. But she showed me so much kindness and affection that in the end neither of us could resist the impulse.

   "It turned out to be an ill-starred affair for both of us.

   "One night I was at my mistress's. Her husband — so he had told her — had left for a few days.

   "It was a lie. We were in bed together, naked as a pair of gods, when suddenly the door burst open and the husband appeared in the doorway. In his hand he held a revolver. My terror was extreme. Coward that I was...that I still am...I had only one wish at that moment: to disappear. My back was literally against the wall, and I prayed to blend into it. To my great astonishment, you can be sure — this anguished prayer was immediately and unexpectedly answered. I swear this is true. I became the color of the wallpaper; my limbs seemed to flatten themselves out with a voluntary and fantastic elasticity. My body had become one with the wall! I was invisible!

   "The husband looked everywhere for me, intent on killing me. He had seen me and it was impossible that I should escape him. When it became apparent that somehow I had, he changed into a madman. Unfortunately, he directed all his fury against me toward his wife. He killed her brutally, emptying the entire cartridge chamber into her brain.

   Afterwards he left, bawling in despair at what had happened.

   "After he had gone, the fear dissipated in me somewhat and my body instinctively retook its normal shape and natural color. I dressed myself and hurried to get out before anyone came.

   "This fortunate ability, this protective gift of mimesis, I've retained ever since, and I have had need of it. The husband, having failed to kill me once, has devoted the rest of his days to accomplishing this task. All these years, over the face of the whole earth, he has hunted me down. I thought I had escaped him by coming to live here in Paris. But then, just a few moments ago, as I was standing before your doorway, I saw the man nearby, as if he were waiting for me. You can imagine how the discovery effected me — a natural coward, as I say. My teeth chattered. I only had a few moments to act, to undress and disappear into the wall. He passed directly in front of me then and even took a look at the overcoat and slippers that, in my haste, I had dropped on the sidewalk.

   "You see now how much reason I have to walk around in such a state of undress. If I wore clothes like everyone else, my mimetic power would be useless; I could not strip off fast enough to elude my pursuer. It's especially important that I should be naked, you understand; otherwise, my clothes would be flattened against the wall and the illusion of disappearance would be shattered."


   Well, I congratulated Subrac on possessing a gift of which I had seen unmistakeable proofs and which I frankly envied him.

   In the following days I found myself thinking a great deal about this gift. Frequently I would even catch myself straining my own will, trying to change my form and color. It was a foolish game, I admit. I tried to transform myself into a car, into the Eiffel Tower, into a professor, into a big lottery winner. All in vain. My will was not strong enough. And anyway, I lacked the awesome terror, the powerful sense of danger, that had first revealed the instinct to Honoré Subrac.


   I had not seen Subrac in some time when one day he arrived at my house in a pathetic state of anxiety.

   "This enemy," he said wildly, "lies in wait for me everywhere. I've escaped him three times already by using my mimetic power. But I'm afraid everything is over for me. I'm terribly afraid, my friend, terribly." I saw that he had become quite thin since we last met, but I took considerable care in what I said to him and tried to calm him down in this, his present crisis.

   "There's only one thing you can sensibly do," I told him. "If the man is as pitiless as all this, get away from him. Leave. Go hide in a village somewhere. Let me take care of your business first, and I'll drive you to the nearest train station myself." This seemed to have the desired effect, but Subrac was still far from assured about things.

   Instinctively, he clutched at my hand.

   "Come with me, I beg you," he cried, "I'm afraid!"

   And I agreed to go with him.

   Once in the street we walked together in silence.

   With the worried air of a hunted animal, Honoré Subrac kept turning his head this way and that.

   Then, suddenly, he gave out a great cry. Frantically, he began pulling off his large overcoat and slippers.

   Someone had come running up behind us. I tried to stop the man but failed; with a deft movement, he escaped me. In his hand, I could see, he held a revolver, and this he aimed in the direction of Subrac. Subrac himself had by this time reached a lengthy barracks wall.

   As if by magic, he disappeared into it.

   The man with the revolver stopped, dumbfounded. He gave out then a wild cry of rage, and as if to revenge himself on the wall, which seemed to have swallowed up his victim, he discharged his revolver at the point where Subrac had vanished.

   After a few moments of steady firing, there were no more bullets left. The man took off running.

   Afterwards, curious about all the gun- fire and commotion, a few people gathered around the area of the wall. The police arrived, looked around for awhile, found nothing, and dispersed them.

   When the street was empty again, I called out to my friend.


   No answer was forthcoming.

   Sick at heart, I approached the wall. Softly I touched it at the point where Subrac. had melted into it. It was still lukewarm. Of the six revolver bullets, three I noticed had struck at about the height of a man's heart. The others had grazed the plaster at a spot higher up.

   At that spot, I seemed to be able to distinguish, vaguely to be sure, the contours of a human face.


Translated by Robert Champ