The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 1




M. Theophrastus Longuet was not alone when he rang the bell of that old-time palace prison, the Conciergerie: he was accompanied by his wife Marceline, a very pretty woman, uncommonly fair for a Frenchwoman, of an admirable figure, and by M. Adolphe Lecamus, his best friend.

The door, pierced by a small barred peephole, turned heavily on its hinges, as a prison door should; the warder, who acts as guide to the prison, dangling a bunch of great old-fashioned keys in his hand, surveyed the party with official gloom, and asked Theophrastus for his permit. Theophrastus had procured it that very morning at the Prefecture of Police; he held it out with the air of a citizen assured of his rights, and regarded his friend Adolphe with a look of triumph.

He admired his friend almost as much as he admired his wife. Not that Adolphe was exactly a handsome man; but he wore an air of force and vigour; and there was nothing in the world which Theophrastus, the timidest man in Paris, rated more highly than force and vigour. That broad and bulging brow (whereas his own was narrow and high), those level and thick eyebrows, for the most part raised a trifle to express contempt of others and self-confidence, that piercing glance (whereas his own pale-blue eyes blinked behind the spectacles of the short-sighted), that big nose, haughtily arched, those lips surmounted by a brown, curving moustache, that strong, square chin; in a word, all that virile antithesis to his own grotesque, flabby-cheeked face, was the perpetual object of his silent admiration. Besides, Adolphe had been Post-Office Inspector in Tunis: he had "crossed the sea."

Theophrastus had only crossed the river Seine. No one can pretend that that is a real crossing.

The guide set the party in motion; then he said:

"You are French?"

Theophrastus stopped short in the middle of the court.

"Do we look like Germans?" he said with a confident smile, for he was quite sure that he was French.

"It's the first time I ever remember French people coming to visit the Conciergerie. As a rule French people don't visit anything," said the guide with his air of official gloom; and he went on.

"It is wrong of them. The monuments of the Past are the Book of History," said Theophrastus sententiously; and he stopped short to look proudly at his wife and Adolphe, for he found the saying fine.

They were not listening to him; and as he followed the guide, he went on in a confidential tone, "I am an old Parisian myself; and if I have waited till to-day to visit the monuments of the Past, it was because my business—I was a manufacturer of rubber stamps right up to last week—did not give me the leisure to do it till the hour I retired from it. That hour has struck; and I am going to improve my mind." And with an air of decision he struck the time-old pavement with the ferule of his green umbrella.

They went through a little door and a large wicket, down some steps, and found themselves in the Guard-room.

They were silent, abandoning themselves entirely to their reflections. They were doing all they could to induce these old walls, which recalled so prodigious a history, to leave a lasting impression on their minds. They were not insensible brutes. While the guide conducted them over Cæsar's tower, or Silver tower, or Bon Bec tower, they told themselves vaguely that for more than a thousand years there had been in them illustrious prisoners whose very names they had forgotten. Marceline thought of Marie Antoinette, the Princess Elizabeth, and the little Dauphin, and also of the waxwork guards who watch over the Royal Family in museums. In spirit therefore she was in the Temple while she was in body visiting the Conciergerie. But she did not suspect this; so she was quite happy.

As they descended the Silver tower, where the only relict of the Middle Ages they had found was an old gentleman on a stool in front of a roll-top desk, classifying the documents relating to political prisoners under the Third Republic, they came once more into the Guard-room on their way to Bon Bec tower.

Theophrastus, who took a pride in showing himself well-informed, said to the guide: "Was n't it here that the Girondins had their last meal? You might show us exactly where the table was and where Camille Desmoulins sat. I always look upon Camille Desmoulins as a personal friend of mine."

"So do I," said Marceline with a somewhat superior air.

Adolphe jeered at them. He asserted that Camille Desmoulins was not a Girondin. Theophrastus was annoyed, and so was Marceline. When Adolphe went on to assert that Camille Desmoulins was a Cordelier, a friend of Danton, and one of the instigators of the September massacres, she denied it.

"He was nothing of the kind," she said firmly. "If he had been, Lucie would never have married him."

Adolphe did not press the point, but when they came into the Torture-chamber in Bon Bec tower, he pretended to be immensely interested by the labels on the drawers round the walls, on which were printed "Hops," "Cinnamon," "Senna."

"This was the Torture-chamber; they have turned it into a dispensary," said the guide in gruff explanation.

"They have done right. It is more humane," said Theophrastus sententiously.

"No doubt; but it's very much less impressive," said Adolphe coldly.

At once Marceline agreed with him …

One was not impressed at all … They had been expecting something very different… This was not at all what they had looked for.

But when they came on to the Clock platform, their feelings underwent a change. The formidable aspect of those feudal towers, the last relics of the old Frankish monarchy, troubles for awhile the spirit of even the most ignorant. This thousand-year-old prison has witnessed so many magnificent death-agonies and hidden such distant and such legendary despairs that it seems that one only has to penetrate its depths to find sitting in some obscure corner, damp and fatal, the tragic history of Paris, as immortal as those walls. That is why, with a little plaster, flooring, and paint, they have made there the office of the Director of the Conciergerie and that of the Recorder; they have put the ink-spiller in the place once occupied by the executioner. It is, as Theophrastus says, more humane.

None the less, since, as Adolphe affirmed, it is less impressive, that visit of the 16th of last June threatened to leave on the minds of the three friends nothing but the passing memory of a complete disillusion when there happened an incident so unheard of and so curiously fantastic that I considered it absolutely necessary, after reading Theophrastus Longuet's account of it in his memoirs, to go to the Conciergerie and cross-examine the guide himself.

I found him a stolid fellow, officially gloomy, but with his memory of the events of Theophrastus' visit perfectly clear.

At my questions he lost his air of gloom, and said with some animation, "Everything was going quite as usual, sir; and I had just shown the two gentlemen and the lady the kitchens of St. Louis—where we keep the whitewash. We were on our way to the cell of Marie Antoinette, which is now a little chapel. The figure of Christ before which she must have prayed is now in the Director's office—"

"Yes, yes; let's get to the facts!" I interrupted.

"We're just coming to them. I was telling the gentleman with the green umbrella that we had been compelled to put the Queen's armchair in the Director's office because the English were carrying away all the stuffing of it in their purses—"

"Oh, cut out the English!" I said with some impatience.

He looked at me with an injured air and went on: "But I must tell you what I was saying to the gentleman with the green umbrella when he interrupted me in such a strange tone that the other gentleman and the lady cried out together, 'What's the matter, Theophrastus? I never heard you speak like that before! I should n't have recognised your voice!'"

"Ah! and what was he saying to you?"

"We had come just to the end of Paris Street—you know the passage we call Paris Street at the Conciergerie?"

"Yes, yes: get on!"

"We were at the top of that dreadful black passage where the grating is behind which they used to cut off the women's hair before guillotining them. It's the original grating, you know."

"Yes, yes: get on!"

"It's a passage into which a ray of sunlight never penetrates. You know that Marie Antoinette went to her death down that passage?"

"Yes, yes: cut out Marie Antoinette!"

"There you have the old Conciergerie in all its horror... Then the gentleman with the green umbrella said to me, 'Zounds! It's Straw Alley!'"

"He said that? Are you sure? Did he really say 'Zounds'?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, after all, there's nothing very remarkable in his saying, 'Zounds! It's Straw Alley!'"

"But wait a bit, sir," said the guide with yet more animation. "I answered that he was wrong, that Straw Alley was what we to-day call 'Paris Street.' He replied in that strange voice: 'Zounds! Are you going to teach me about Straw Alley? Why, I've slept on the straw there, like the others!' I said laughing, though I felt a bit uncomfortable, that no one had slept in Straw Alley for more than two hundred years."

"And what did he say to that?"

"He was going to answer when his wife interfered and said: 'What are you talking about, Theophrastus? Are you going to teach the guide his business when you've never been to the Conciergerie before in your life?' Then he said, but in his natural voice, the voice in which he had been speaking since they came in: 'That's true. I've never been to the Conciergerie in my life.'"

"What did he do then?"

"Nothing. I could not explain the incident, and I thought it all over, when something stranger still happened. We had visited the Queen's cell, and Robespierre's cell, and the chapel of the Girondins, and that little door through which the prisoners of September went to get massacred in the court; and we had come back into Paris Street. On the left-hand side of it there's a little staircase which no one ever goes down, because it leads to the cellars; and the only thing to see in the cellars is the eternal night which reigns there. The door at the bottom of this is made of iron bars, a grating—perhaps a thousand years old, or even more. The gentleman they called Adolphe was walking with the lady towards the door of the Guard-room, when without a word the gentleman with the green umbrella ran down the little staircase and called up from the bottom of it in that strange voice I was telling you about:

"'Hi! Where are you going to? It's this way!'

"The other gentleman, the lady, and myself stopped dead as if we had been turned to stone. I must tell you, sir, that his voice was perfectly awful; and there was nothing in his appearance to make one expect such a voice. I ran, in spite of myself as it were, to the top of the staircase. The man with the green umbrella gave me a withering glance. Truly I was thunderstruck, turned to stone and thunderstruck; and when he shouted to me, 'Open this grating!' I don't know how I found the strength to rush down the stairs and open it. Then, when the grating was opened, he plunged into the night of the cellars. Where did he go? How did he find his way? That basement of the Conciergerie is plunged in a terrible darkness which nothing has broken for ages and ages."

"Did n't you try to stop him?" I said sharply.

"He had gone too far; and I had n't the strength to stop him. The man with the green umbrella just gave me orders; and I had to obey him. And we stood there for a quarter of an hour, half out of our wits: it was so odd. And his wife talked, and his friend talked, and I talked; and we said nothing of any use; and we stared into the darkness till our eyes ached. Suddenly we heard his voice—not his first voice, but his second voice, the awful voice—and I was so overcome, I had to hang on to the bars of the door.

"'Is that you, Simon the Auvergnat?' he cried.

"I did n't answer anything; and as he went past me, I fancied he put a scrap of paper into his breast pocket. He sprang up the staircase three steps at a time; and we went up after him. He did not offer any explanation; and I simply ran to open the door of the prison for them. I wanted to see their backs. When the wicket was opened and the man with the green umbrella was crossing the threshold, he said, for no reason that I could see:

"'We must avoid the wheel.'

"There was no carriage passing."