The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 11



In his account, in his Memoirs, of that terrible night, M. Longuet appears to attach very little importance to clipping the ears of Signor Petito. He seems far more deeply concerned with the psychology of Mme. Longuet. "The soul of woman," he writes, "is a very delicate thing. I gathered this from the emotion of my dear Marceline. She would not admit that I was obliged to clip the ears of Signor Petito; and her process of reasoning was incredible and indeed incomprehensible. But I forgave her on account of her excessive sensitiveness. She said then that I was not obliged to clip Signor Petito's ears. I answered that manifestly one was never obliged to clip any man's ears any more than one was obliged to kill him; and yet, ninety-nine men out of a hundred, I affirmed (and no one will contradict me) would have killed Signor Petito when they found him in their flat at night. She herself, who was after all only a woman, would have done all she could to kill Signor Petito with the revolver in her hand, had it been loaded. She did not deny it. Well then, in clipping his ears, did I not demonstrate that there was no need to kill him?

"A man prefers to live earless rather than die with his ears on; and Signor Petito found himself as thoroughly disgusted with night excursions into other people's flats as if he had been killed.

"I acted for the best with great restraint and inconceivable humanity.

"The logic of this reasoning calmed her a little; and what was left of the night would have passed comfortably, if I had not taken it into my head to reveal to her the whole mystery of my personality. It was her own fault. She insisted on knowing the reason of my sudden courage: which was natural enough, since up to that day I had hardly been a man of courage. It is not in selling rubber stamps that one learns to see the blood flow. Thereupon I told her straight off that I was Cartouche; and in a boastful vein which surprised me, I bragged of my hundred and fifty murders. She sprang out of bed, with every sign of extreme terror, took refuge behind the sofa, and informed me that she would have nothing more to do with Cartouche and was going to divorce me. On hearing this, I was deeply moved and began to weep. At this she came a little nearer, and explained how difficult her position was, when she had believed herself married to an honest man, and all at once discovered that she was the wife of a horrible brigand; that henceforth there could be no peace for her. I dried my tears, and condoled with her on her misfortune. We resolved to consult Adolphe.

"Adolphe came early next morning and had a long interview with Marceline in the drawing-room. When they came out, Adolphe regarded me sadly, asked me to go with him, for he had some shopping to do; and we strolled down into Paris. On the way I asked him if the study of the document had revealed any new fact concerning our treasures; and he answered that all that could wait, that my health was the first consideration, and we would all three take the evening train to Azure Waves Villa.

"I turned the talk on to the subject of Cartouche; but he shrank from it, until I was on the point of losing my temper at his reticence. Then he began to talk about it, and presently warmed to the subject. He took up my story at the point of my enlistment, and informed me that at the end of the war the greater part of the troops were disbanded, and that I found myself in Paris without any resources save those of my natural ingenuity and my special accomplishments. I employed these with such fortune and address that my comrades lost no time in electing me chief; and since we were successful, our band very quickly increased in numbers.

"Now, at that time, the Police of Paris was in such a wretched state that I resolved to make it my business. It was my intention that everyone, gentleman, tradesman, or churchman, should be able to walk at any hour in all tranquillity about the good city of Paris. I divided up my troops very skilfully, appointed a district to each, and a leader who would remain my obedient lieutenant. When anyone went abroad after the Curfew or even before it, he was accosted politely by a squad of my men, and invited to pay up a certain sum, or if he had no money on him, to part with his coat. In return for this he was furnished with the password, and could afterwards walk about Paris, all night long if he wished, in perfect security, for I had become the chief of all the robbers.

"I should be unworthy of the name of man, if I shrank from admitting that, to my shame, I admired myself for having risen to such a prodigious height of criminal enterprise. Quite criminal, alas! for though my intention of policing Paris might have been an admirable idea in itself, its execution drew us on to excesses that the original good faith of the plan could not excuse. The tradesfolk did not understand, and often resisted; and their resistance produced disaster. The clergy, however, were not against us, since we respected the churches. Indeed an unfrocked priest, whom we called the Ratlet, rendered us some services which presently led him to pronounce the Benediction with his feet in the air, in communi patibulo.

"Here I stopped Adolphe, to ask the meaning of the Latin words. He said that if I had really been a fellow-pupil of Voltaire at Clermont College I ought to know Latin, and that in communi patibulo meant 'on the common gibbet.'

"'Ah! I know: we often passed it when we went to have a blow-out at Chopinettes mill,' said I.

"'Oh, there were plenty of gibbets,' answered Adolphe, giving me a look of which I did not catch the meaning. 'The good city was not lacking in gibbets, gallows, or pillories. And even here…'

"Again he gave me an odd look, and I saw that we had arrived at the Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville. 'Do you want to cross the Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville?' he went on.

"'Of course I'll cross it, if that's the way you want to go,' I said.

"'Have you often crossed it?' he said.

"'Thousands of times.'

"'And has nothing uncommon happened? Have you experienced no odd feelings? Have you remembered nothing?'

"'Nothing at all.'

"'Are there any spots in Paris that you have n't been able to cross?'

"His look was insistent. It seemed to speak to me, to bid me reflect. Then I recalled several inexplicable aversions to places I had felt. More than once, on my way to Odéon Street, on finding myself in front of the Institute, I had turned into Mazarine Street. I had no sooner set foot in it than I had turned right about face and gone round another way. I had been vaguely aware of these changes of route and had put them down to absent-mindedness. But the more I think of it the less I believe that it was anything of the kind. In fact, I have found myself at that point more than twenty times; and more than twenty times I have retraced my steps. Never—never have I walked along that part of Mazarine Street which begins at the Institute and continues to the corner of Guénégaud Street and to the foot of the Pont-Neuf. Never! At the same time when I have gone along Mazarine Street on my way to the quays, I have stopped at Guénégaud Street and gone down it with a sense of pleasure.

"I told Adolphe all this; and he said, 'Are there any other places from which you shrink?'

"Then I remembered on reflection that I had never crossed the Pont-Neuf or the Petit-Pont; and that there is, at the corner of Vielle-du-Temple Street, a house with barred windows from which I have always recoiled.

"'And why do you shrink from these places and from this house in Vielle-du-Temple Street?' he said.

"Then I remembered exactly why; and the reason is the most natural in the world. I had thought I had no reason; but evidently I had, for it was because of the paving-stones.

"'Because of the paving-stones?' he said in a tone of surprise.

"'Yes: because the paving-stones in those streets are red. I don't mind red roofs or red-brick walls, but red paving-stones I cannot stand!'

"'And the soil of this Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville? Is n't it red?' said Adolphe, leaning over me with the air of a doctor listening to the beating of a patient's heart.

"'Do you think I'm colour-blind?'

"'Don't you know that this was the Place de Grève?'

"'Zounds! It was here that the gibbet stood—and the pillory, and the platform on which the wheel was set up! On the days of execution! Facing the entrance of Vannerie Street! I never crossed this Place without saying to my comrades, to the Burgundian, Fancy Man, Gastelard, and Sheep's-head, "We must avoid the wheel." And a lot of use it was to them!'

"'Nor to you, either!' retorted Adolphe. 'It was here that you were executed! It was here that you were broken on the wheel!'

"I burst out laughing in his face.

"'Who told you that piece of idiocy?' I said indignantly.

"'All the historians are agreed…'

"'The silly idiots! I know perfectly well that I died at the Gallows of Montfaucon!' I said with absolute assurance.

"'You? You died at the Gallows of Montfaucon?' cried Adolphe beside himself. 'You died in 1721 at the Gallows of Montfaucon? But it was years since they had executed anyone there!'

"But I protested still louder than he, so that we became the centre of a little crowd.

"'I didn't say that I was hanged at Montfaucon! the Gallows of Montfaucon! I said that I died there!' I cried.

"As I shouted it, I must have seemed to call to witness the truth of my words the forty persons who seemed interested in our altercation, of which indeed they can have understood nothing, with the exception of one gentleman who seemed to have caught its meaning, for he said to Adolphe with the utmost calmness, and with extreme politeness:

"'Surely you're not going to teach this gentleman how he died!'

"Adolphe admitted himself worsted; and we walked along arm in arm towards the Pont-Neuf."