The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 12
THE HOUSE OF STRANGE WORDS
Among all the papers I found in the sandalwood box, by Theophrastus himself, by M. Lecamus, or by Commissary Mifroid, those which relate to the death of Cartouche are beyond doubt the most curious and the most interesting. They are indeed of great historical interest since they contradict history. Moreover they contradict it with such force and with such irrefutable reasoning that one asks how men of such weight as Barbier, who was in the best position of all not to be duped, since he lived at the time, could have been the victims of a very poor comedy, and how succeeding generations have failed to suspect the truth.
History then, serious history, teaches us that Cartouche, after having undergone the Question in its cruellest form without revealing one single name or fact,—how Cartouche, who had only to die and nothing to hope, was brought to the Place de Grève to be executed, and that there he decided to confess; that they took him to the Hôtel-de-Ville, and that he delivered to justice his chief accomplices; after which he was broken on the wheel.
The papers of Theophrastus Longuet explain the fraud. Cartouche was not only an object of terror, but also an object of admiration. His courage knew no limits; and he proved it under torture. From the moment that the pain of the Boot failed to make him speak, it was morally impossible that he should speak. Why should he have spoken? All that was left for him was to die game. The greatest ladies of the Court and the city had hired boxes and windows to witness his execution. Among the three hundred and sixty people who were arrested were men whom he loved as brothers, and his tenderest and most constant flames. Some of them came to Paris from the Provinces, contemptuous of all danger, in the hope that, at the trial, the Child would have the consolation of seeing them for the last time. The account of the trial which describes these women as throwing themselves, after he had denounced them, into his arms at the Hôtel-de-Ville itself, is manifestly nonsense.
I will not reproduce here all the protests of M. Longuet against the dishonourable death ascribed to Cartouche, but the few lines which precede this chapter seem, to me at any rate, to prove, a priori, that he is right.
But at this moment all that M. Longuet knew was that he died at the Gallows of Montfaucon, but that he was not hanged there.
In the course of discussing this serious question Theophrastus and his friend had reached Petit-Pont Street without having crossed the Petit-Pont. Theophrastus did not so much as look in the direction of the Petit-Pont. Half-way down the street Theophrastus, who was in a state half of memory, half of possession, said to his friend: "Look at that house next to the hotel there, 'The Market-Gardeners' Hotel.' Do you notice anything remarkable about it?"
Adolphe looked across the street at the hotel, a little old house, low, narrow, and dirty, with "The Market-Gardeners' Hotel" newly painted on it. It seemed to be propping itself up against a large eighteenth-century building to which Theophrastus was pointing with his green umbrella. This building had a bulging balcony of wrought iron, of solid but delicate design.
"I see a very fine balcony," said Adolphe.
"The quiver of Cupid carved above the door."
"Don't you perceive the thick bars across the windows?"
"Of course I do."
"At that time, my dear Adolphe, people took the greatest care to have their windows barred; never did one see as many barred windows in Paris as in the year 1720. And I could swear that these bars here were fixed the day after the affairs of Petits-Augustins Street. First the Parisians garnished all their ground-floors with bars. But this precaution gave us no trouble at all since we had Simon the Auvergnat."
Adolphe thought the moment opportune to find out who Simon the Auvergnat, who was always appearing in their talk without any appreciable reason, exactly was.
"He was a very useful object, he was the base of my column," said Theophrastus.
"And what's that—the base of your column?"
"You don't understand? I'll just show you. Suppose you're Simon the Auvergnat," said Theophrastus with almost boyish eagerness.
Adolphe was quite willing, but not for long. Theophrastus drew him across the road, set him against the wall of the Market-Gardeners' Hotel, showed him the position he was to take: to set his legs apart, and lean, lowering his head and raising his crossed arms, against the wall.
"I place you here," he said, "because of the little ledge on the left, I remember that it is very convenient."
"And next?" said Adolphe, leaning against the wall in the required position.
"Next, since you are the base of my column, I mount on that base…"
Before M. Lecamus had the time so much as to imagine a movement even, Theophrastus had climbed up on to his shoulders, sprung on to the ledge, leapt from it with one bound to the balcony of the house next door, and vanished through an open window into the room which opened on to it. M. Lecamus in a dazed consternation was gazing into the air, and asked himself where his friend Theophrastus could have vanished, when the street rang with piercing cries. A despairing voice howled, "Help! thieves! murderers!"
"I might have expected it!" cried M. Lecamus; and he dashed into the house from which the screams issued, while the passers-by stood still, or hurried to the spot. He bounded up the great staircase with the swiftness of a young man, and reached the first floor at the very moment when a door opened, and Theophrastus appeared, hat in hand.
He was bowing low to an old lady with chattering teeth, and crowned with curl papers, and said:
"My dear madame, if I had thought for an instant that I should give you such a shock by entering your drawing-room by the window, I should have stayed quietly in the street. I am not, my dear madame, either a thief or a murderer, but an honest manufacturer of rubber stamps."
Adolphe seized his arm and tried to drag him down the stairs.
But Theophrastus went on: "It is entirely Adolphe's fault, my dear madame. He would have me show him how Simon the Auvergnat acted as the base of my column."
Adolphe, behind Theophrastus, made signs to the lady of the curl papers that his friend was off his head. Thereupon the lady fell fainting into the arms of her maid, who came running up. Adolphe dragged Theophrastus down the staircase just as the hall filled with people from the street. The crowd took them for fellow-rescuers; and they escaped from the house without difficulty.
In the street Theophrastus said cheerfully, "The most surprising thing about the whole matter, my dear Adolphe, was that this Simon the Auvergnat served us as the base of our column for more than two years without ever suspecting anything. He thought that he lent his strong shoulders to a band of young gentlemen of quality, who were amusing themselves!"
But Adolphe was not listening to Theophrastus. With one hand he was dragging him towards Huchette Street, and with the other he was wiping the sweat from his brow.
"The time has come!" he muttered. "The time has come!"
"Where are you dragging me to?" said Theophrastus.
"To see one of my friends," said Adolphe shortly, continuing to drag him along.
In Huchette Street they passed through a red porch into a very old house. Adolphe seemed to know his whereabouts, for he dragged Theophrastus up a dozen worn stone steps and pushed open a heavy door. They found themselves in a large hall, lighted by a lamp hanging by iron chains from the stone ceiling.
"Wait for me here, I shan't be long," said Adolphe, closing the door.
Theophrastus sat down in a large armchair, and gazed round him. The sight of the walls filled him with the wildest amazement. In the first place, there was an incredible quantity of words painted in black letters. They seemed to crawl about the wall without any order, like flies.
He spelt some of them to himself: Thabethnah, Jakin, Bohaz, Theba, Pic de la Mirandole, Paracelsus, Jacque Molay, Nephesch-Ruach-Neschamah, Ezechiel, Aïsha, Puysegur, Cagliostro, Wronski, Fabre d'Olivet, Louis Lucas, Hiram, Elias, Plotinus, Origen, Gutman, Swedenborg, Giorgius, Apollonius of Tyana, Cassidorus, Eliphas Levi, Cardan, Allan Kardec, Olympicodorus, Spinoza, and scores besides; and, repeated a hundred times, the word IHOAH. Turning towards the other wall, he saw a sphinx and the Pyramids, a huge rose, in the centre of which Christ stretched out his arms in a circle of flame, and these words on the rose: Amphitheatrum sapientiæ æternæ solius veræ. It was the rose of the Rosicrucians.
Below it were these words:
"Of what use are brands, and torches, and spectacles
To him who shuts his eyes that he may not see?"
"I am not shutting my eyes," said Theophrastus to himself, "and I am wearing spectacles, yet I'll be hanged if I know where I am!"
His eyes fell on this inscription in letters of gold:
"From the moment that you have performed an action, a single action, apply to it all the intelligence you have, seek its salient points, examine it in the light, abandon yourself to hypotheses, fly in front of them, if need be."
He saw hawks, vultures, jackals, men with heads of birds, several scarabs, a god with an ass's head, then a sceptre, an ass, and an eye.
Finally he read these words in blue letters: "The more the soul shall be rooted in its instincts, the more it shall lie forgotten in the flesh, the less shall it have knowledge of its immortal life, and the longer it shall remain prisoner in living carcasses."
Growing impatient at the long absence of Adolphe, after a while he rose to draw apart the curtains through which his friend had disappeared. As he was about to pass through them, his head struck against two feet hanging in the air which rattled with the noise of dry bones. He looked up: it was a skeleton.
He gazed at it with a sincere and gentle compassion.
"You would be much more at your ease in Saint-Chaumont Cemetery," he said and went on with a sad smile.
The corridor down which he walked had no windows. It was lighted from one end to the other by a crimson glow. At first Theophrastus could not make out where it came from. Then he perceived that he was walking on it. It came from the cellars, through the thick sheets of glass with which the corridor was paved. What were those crimson flames below, in whose glow he walked, doing?
He did not know. He did not even ask. He did not even ask why he, Theophrastus, found himself walking in this glow. He had ceased to ask, "Why am I in this house in Huchette Street?" He had ceased to ask because nobody answered.
Emmanuel, Noun, Samech, Hain… Sabaoth… Adonai…
Still names on the stone walls.
The only ornament on these walls about which names crawled was, at the height of a man, an endless line of stars formed by the two triangles of Solomon's Seal. Between each star or seal, in green letters, was the word NIRVANA.
The corridor did not run in a straight line. It had curves and angles. Presently he came to a spot at which two other corridors ran into it at right angles, and prudently stopped. But soon he grew impatient again, and plunged down one of these side corridors. Three minutes later, without knowing how it came about, he found himself back at the spot where the corridors crossed. Then he went back down the first corridor, retracing his steps to the hall. But he did not find the hall.
He was on the point of howling with distress, when Adolphe appeared before him. His eyes were red as if he had been weeping.
"Where am I?" cried Theophrastus tempestuously.
"You are in the house of the Mage—in the house of M. Eliphas de Saint-Elme de Taillebourg de la Nox!"
- This is authentic. It was proved at the trial of Cartouche's accomplices; and Simon the Auvergnat was acquitted.