The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 10
THE EXPLANATION OF THE STRANGE ATTITUDE OF A LITTLE VIOLET CAT
It is necessary to mount to the floor above, to the flat occupied by Signor and Signora Petito, to the room in which Theophrastus, with never a thought of the imprudence he was committing, had asked for the needful information about the handwriting of the document. What imprudence indeed could there be in showing to an expert in handwriting a document so torn, stained, and obliterated that it was impossible, at a first glance, to discover any sense or meaning at all in it?
Yet by a truly strange chance it was that very document that Signor Petito and his wife were that night discussing.
The Signora Petito was saying: "I don't understand it at all; and the behaviour of M. Longuet at Saint-Germain throws no fresh light on it. The fact is, you do not remember the instructions—all the instructions. Go and take the air at the Chopinettes, look at the Cock, look at the Gall: it's all so vague. What can it mean?"
"The first thing it means is that the treasure is to be found on the outskirts of Paris, of the Paris of that epoch. Go and take the air… My opinion is that we ought to search in the neighbourhood of Montrouge, or Montmartre, because of the Cock. There was a Château du Coq at Porkers village. Look at this plan of old Paris," said her husband.
They pored over the plan on the table.
"It's still very vague," said Signor Petito gloomily. "For my part, I think we ought to pay particular attention to the words 'The Gall.'"
"That's just the vaguest thing in the whole thing," said his wife.
"Still, I'm sure it's important," said her husband. "As I remember the document (and you know what a magnificent memory I have), there was a short space between the word 'the' and the word 'Gall,' and after 'Gall' a longer space. Reach me the dictionary."
The Signora Petito rose with the greatest precaution, she walked noiselessly and stealthily across the room (she was the conspirator to her finger-tips), and brought a small dictionary. They began to run down a column, writing down all the words which began with the syllable gall: Gallantly, Gallery, Galley, and so forth. Then the clock on the mantelpiece began to strike twelve.
The Signora Petito paled and rose to her feet; Signor Petito rose to his feet paler still.
"The hour has come!" said the Signora Petito. "You will find the information you want below." She pointed a rigid finger at the floor. "They cannot hear you in your list slippers. Besides, there's no danger of it: they are at Esbly."
Two minutes later a dark figure glided down to M. Longuet's flat, slipped a key into the lock of his door, and entered his hall. The flat of Theophrastus was of exactly the same construction as that of Signor Petito, and he found his way into the dining-room without a pause. He acted with the greater coolness because he believed that the flat was empty. He opened the door of the study, and saw the violet cat on the bureau. Since it was evidently on the lock of the bureau in which he was interested, he took it up, and set it on the tea-table. Then he hurried noiselessly back through the dining-room into the hall, for he fancied he heard voices on the staircase.
He listened for a while at the door of the flat and heard nothing; doubtless his ears had deceived him. Then he came back to the study. He found the violet cat on the bureau, purring.
In spite of their crinkliness, the hairs of Signor Petito stood stiffly upright on his head, the horror which filled him can only be compared to that other horror on the other side of the wall.
He stood motionless, panting, in the moonlight, even after the little violet cat had stopped purring. Then he braced himself, and with a timid hand picked up the violet cat. As soon as he had moved it, it began to purr; and he became acquainted with the fact that in its cardboard interior there was a small marble which, as it rolled to and fro, produced an ingenious imitation of a natural purr. Since he had been frightened to death, he called himself a perfect fool. It was all quite clear; had he not before slipping out of the study moved the cat? Instead of having set it on the tea-table, as he thought, he had put it back on the bureau. Of course, it was quite simple. He set it back, still purring, on the tea-table.
It must not be forgotten that this purring, which did not terrify Signor Petito, terrified Theophrastus and his wife afresh, while the second purring, which had taken the curl out of Signor Petito's hair with terror, had not terrified them at all.
The cat was still purring, when there was another noise outside the flat. It was Signora Petito sneezing in the draught. Signor Petito hurried back into the hall and once more glued his ear to the door of the flat. When, reassured, he returned to the study, the purring violet cat had gone back to the bureau.
He thought he was going to die of fright; he thought that a miraculous intervention was holding him back on the verge of a crime. He uttered a swift prayer in which he assured Heaven that he would not go on with it. However a quarter of an hour passed in the recovery of his scattered wits; and since he heard nothing more, he attributed these surprising happenings to the perturbation of spirit induced by his exceptional occupation. He took up the violet cat, which began to purr again.
But this time the door of the study was flung violently open; and Signor Petito fell swooning into the arms of M. Longuet, who expressed no surprise whatever.
M. Longuet contemptuously flung Signor Petito on the floor, dashed at the violet cat, caught it up, opened the window, tore his scarf-pin out of its head, and threw it into the street.
"You beastly cat!" he cried with inexpressible fury. "You'll never stop our sleeping again!"
Signor Petito had dragged himself to his feet, entirely at a loss to know what face to put upon the matter, inasmuch as Madame Longuet, in her nightgown, was assiduously pointing at him a large, shining, nickel-plated revolver. He only found the phrase:
"I beg your pardon: I thought you were in the country."
But it was M. Longuet who came to him, took between his thumb and first finger one of Signor Petito's long ears, and said:
"And now, my dear Signor Petito, we are going to have a little talk!"
Marceline lowered the barrel of the revolver; and at the sight of his calm courage, gazed at her husband in an ecstasy of admiration.
"You see, my dear Signor Petito, I am calm," said Theophrastus. "Just now, indeed, I was in a devil of a temper, but that was against that infernal cat which prevented us from sleeping. So I threw it out of the window. But cheer up, Signor Petito, I am not going to throw you out of the window. Mine is a just nature. It was n't you who prevented us from sleeping. You have taken the precaution of putting on list slippers. Many thanks for it. Why then, my dear Signor Petito, are you making that intolerable face? Of course, it must be your ear. I 've good news for you then, news which will set you quite at your ease about your ear: You are not going to suffer from your ears any longer, my dear Signor Petito!"
Then he bade his wife put on a dressing-gown, and begged Signor Petito come into the kitchen.
"Don't be surprised at my receiving you in my kitchen," he said. "I am very careful of my carpets, and you will bleed like a pig."
He dragged a table of white wood from against the wall to the middle of the kitchen, and bade Marceline spread a piece of oil-cloth on it, and fetch him the big bowl, and the carving-knife from the drawer of the dining-room sideboard.
Marceline tried to ask for an explanation; but her husband gave her such a look that she could only shiver and obey. Signor Petito shivered too, and as he shivered, he made for the door of the kitchen, in which, he told himself, there was nothing for him to do. M. Longuet, unfortunately, refused absolutely to let his neighbour go. He bade him sit down, and sat down himself.
"Signor Petito," he said in a tone of the most exquisite politeness, "I do not like your face. It is not your fault; but it is certainly not mine. There is no doubt that you are the most cowardly and contemptible of sneak-thieves. But what of that? It's no business of mine, but of some honest executioner of the King who will invite you next season to go harvesting at the ladder, where one fine day he will set you floating gently in the breeze to the end that, like a fine fellow, you may keep the sheep of the moon. Don't smile, Signor Petito." Signor Petito was not smiling. "You have absurd ears; and I am certain that with ears like those you never dare go near Guilleri Cross-roads."
Signor Petito clasped his hands and said with chattering teeth, "My wife's waiting for me."
"What are you doing, Marceline?" cried Theophrastus impatiently. "Can't you see that Signor Petito is in a hurry? His wife's waiting for him! Have you got the carving-knife?"
"I can't find the fork," replied the trembling voice of Marceline.
The fact is, Marceline did not know what she was saying. She thought that her husband had gone quite mad; and between Signor Petito burglar, and Theophrastus mad, she was not in the mood for joking. She had instinctively hidden herself behind a cupboard door; and such was her agitation that in turning a little clumsily, at the moment at which Theophrastus was bellowing a volley of abuse at her, she upset the dessert service, and the Sarreguemines vase which was its chief ornament. The result was a loud crash and the utmost confusion. Theophrastus appealed once more to the throttle of Madame Phalaris and called Marceline to him in such a furious roar that in spite of herself she ran into the kitchen. A dreadful sight awaited her.
The eyes of Signor Petito seemed to be starting from their sockets. Was it from fear? Fear had something to do with it, but also the suffocation produced by the handkerchief which Theophrastus had thrust into his mouth. Signor Petito himself lay at full length on the table. Theophrastus had had the time and strength to bind his wrists and ankles with string. The Signor's head projected a little beyond the table's edge; and under his head was a bowl which M. Longuet had placed there not to make a mess. Theophrastus himself with twitching nostrils (that was what Marceline chiefly noticed in the terrifying face of her husband) had hold of Signor Petito's right ear with the fingers of his left hand, and his right hand gripped a kitchen knife. He ground his teeth and said:
"Strike the flag!"
With these words he sliced neatly off Signor Petito's left ear.
He dropped the ear into a little basin which he had ready, caught hold of the right ear, sliced off that, then carried the little basin to the sink, and turned on the tap.
He returned to the kitchen; and while he waited for Signor Petito's ears to stop bleeding, hummed an old and forgotten French air, with the most cheerful face in the world. When the bleeding ceased, he fastened a dish-cloth round Signor Petito's head, withdrew the handkerchief from his mouth, cut the string which bound him, and bade him get out of his flat at once if he did not wish to be arrested for burglary.
As the groaning expert in handwriting was leaving the kitchen, Theophrastus bethought himself, rushed to the sink, took the ears out of the basin, and slipped them into their owner's waistcoat pocket.
"You go about forgetting everything!" he said indignantly. "What would the Signora Petito think, if you came home without your ears?"
- At Guilleri Cross-roads there stood a pillory. It was there that they used to cut off the ears of thieves.