The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 15
THE OPERATION ENDS
Firm in his intention of bringing his subject to his death by slow degrees, M. Eliphas de la Nox took Theophrastus slowly through the imprisonment, trial, and condemnation of Cartouche. But I omit that part of the narrative of M. Lecamus, since the historians have described that imprisonment and trial at length. I take it up at the point at which Cartouche was on his way to the Torture-chamber that they might force from him the names of his accomplices.
"And now," says M. Lecamus in his narrative, "we were approaching the crucial point of the operation: to kill Cartouche without killing Theophrastus. Simple enough words, but the most difficult operation in Psychic Surgery. Truly M. de la Nox had been right when he said that he was about to tempt Providence. Truly, he had assumed the most appalling responsibility, the risk of killing Theophrastus without killing Cartouche, and consequently of letting that fiend in human form again become reincarnate in some unfortunate contemporary.
"But then it was M. Eliphas de Saint-Elme de Taillebourg de la Nox who had assumed the responsibility, the greatest living expert in Psychical Surgery, the delicacy of whose Astral Scalpel is known to the initiates throughout the world, even to far Thibet. He knew how to move the spirit, quietly and calmly, round its own death, so preparing it for the last moment. He made his dead man live till the very moment at which he made his dead man die!
"He had brought Theophrastus-Cartouche to the hour when his jailors took him from his cell to lead him to the Torture-chamber. His next question was:
"'And where are you now, Cartouche?'
"'I am going down a little staircase at the end of Straw Alley… They are opening a grating… I am in the darkness of the cellars… These cellars frighten me… I know them well… Ah, yes: I was shut up in these cellars in the days of Philippe-le-Bel!'
"M. de la Nox raised his voice in a tone of awful command, and said:
"'Cartouche! You are Cartouche! You are in those cellars by order of the Regent!'
"Then he muttered, 'Philippe-le-Bel! Where in Heaven's name are we going now? We must not stray. We must not! Where are you now, Cartouche?'
"'I am going deeper into the night of the cellars, I am surrounded by guards—many guards. It is too dark to see how many… Ah! I see at the end there, right at the end, a ray which I know well. It is a square ray which the sun has forgotten there since the beginning of the history of France!… My guards are not French Guards, they distrust all the French Guards. My guards are commanded by the military lieutenant of the Châtelet.'
"There was a pause as M. de la Nox let Cartouche continue on his painful way; then he said: 'And where are you now, Cartouche?'
"'I am in the Torture-chamber… About me are men dressed in long robes… Their faces are masked… They are binding me to the stool of Question… They are thick ropes… Well, they need them thick for me… But if they think they're going to get anything out of me, they're wrong—altogether wrong!'
"The face of Theophrastus was set in an expression of stubborn pride, almost ferocious. Slowly it weakened in intensity as we stood waiting and watching him; then suddenly it changed to an expression of pain, and he uttered an ear-splitting yell.
"M. de la Nox and I started back; Marceline uttered a cry.
"Plainly M. de la Nox did not expect that yell, for he said in a tone of surprise, 'Why did you yell like that, Cartouche?'
"'I yell because it's so awful not to be able to denounce my accomplices! Their names are on the tip of my tongue; but they won't come off it! Can't they see that if I don't denounce them, it's because I can't move the tip of my tongue? Why didn't Cartouche move the tip of his tongue? I can't; and it's most unfair!'
"M. de la Nox was silent for a while. There was no reason why he should harrow our sensibilities with the pangs of that old-world ruffian. It was bad enough to see the anguished face of Theophrastus. After a while it grew serene again; and M. de la Nox said:
"'And what are you doing now, Cartouche?'
"'They are leaving me alone,' said Theophrastus. 'Only the doctor and the surgeon are feeling my pulse… They are congratulating themselves on having chosen the torture of the Boot, because it is least dangerous to life, and the least liable to accidents.'
"I observed that he spoke in his ordinary voice, that it was not weakened by the pain he had suffered. It seemed as if he only felt it at the moment of its actual infliction, that he did not feel the after pain.
"There came another long pause; then suddenly Theophrastus uttered another ear-splitting yell.
"'What's the matter now, Cartouche?' said M. de la Nox anxiously.
"'It's the tip of my tongue!' cried Theophrastus furiously.' Can't these silly fools see that the names are on the tip of my tongue, and won't come off it? Why don't the idiots take them off it? Is it my fault that Cartouche did n't split?'
"'But Cartouche was silent: why are you yelling?' said M. de la Nox.
"'They 're torturing Cartouche; but it's Theophrastus Longuet who yells!'
"M. de la Nox seemed thunderstruck by this response. He turned and said to us in a trembling voice: 'Then—then it's he who suffers.'
"It was the truth; one could not doubt it to see the anguish on the contorted face of Theophrastus. It was Cartouche who was tortured and Theophrastus who suffered. That proved the identity of the soul; but it also proved that the pain had not ceased to be effective after two hundred years. That was what dismayed M. de la Nox. It was the first time that a case of this kind had come under his observation during his operations with the Astral Scalpel. The pain of Cartouche found voice through two centuries; this cry of anguish which had not issued from his stubborn lips, had waited two hundred years to burst from the lungs of Theophrastus Longuet!
"M. Eliphas de la Nox buried his head, his luminous head, in his hands and prayed ardently: 'In the beginning you were the Silence! Æon eternal! Source of Æons!…'
"At the end of the prayer he felt Theophrastus' pulse and listened carefully to the beating of his heart. Then he said:
"'M. Longuet is plainly a man of strong constitution, and thoroughly sound. In fact, from that point of view there's scarcely anything to fear. He will bury Cartouche. I think we ought to go through with the operation.'
"I said that I was of his opinion. Marceline hesitated a little, and then bade him continue.
"'And now what are they doing, Cartouche?' said M. de la Nox.
"'They keep asking me those useless questions; but I can't answer,' said Theophrastus impatiently. 'And I keep asking myself what that man in the right-hand corner of the cell is doing. He has his back turned to me; and I can hear a sound of clinking iron… The executioner is at the moment taking it easily. He's leaning against the wall and yawning… There's a lamp on the table which lights up two men who keep on writing and writing. What they're writing I can't conceive, for I haven't said anything—I can't. It's the man in the corner that puzzles me. There's a red light on the wall as if he were between me and a brazier. I wonder what those irons are he's messing about with.'
"'It must be the red-hot irons. They used them,' said M. de la Nox; and he shivered.
"We were silent; and presently there came a series of dreadful, ear-splitting yells from Theophrastus. M. de la Nox turned a very pale and troubled face to us, and declared that he had never come across, or even suspected that one could come across, pain so effective. He had no doubt that it must be owing to the fact that he had never before operated on souls reincarnate after an interval of less than five hundred years; that even those were very rare; and the bulk of his clientele was composed of souls at least two thousand years old. I fancied that he was somewhat out of his depth; and it surprised me beyond words.
"Again Theophrastus yelled; then suddenly Marceline cried:
"'Look! Look, his hair!'
"The most surprising sight met our eyes: the hair of Theophrastus was turning white!
"The whiteness spread over it as smoothly as the edge of the rising tide spreads over the sand, but more slowly. In five minutes all his hair had turned white except one lock on his brow.
"We were silent; and I wiped the perspiration from my face. M. de la Nox was panting; Marceline was sobbing. Somehow that slow whitening of the hair was more painful, more impressively dreadful than those piercing, ear-splitting yells.
"M. de la Nox seemed almost at his wits' end. Twice I saw him open his lips to question Theophrastus; twice he shut them without a word. Then suddenly he stooped down and listened to the beating of Theophrastus' heart. He stood upright again with an air of relief and said:
"'What are you doing now, Cartouche?'
"'Shamming dead. After the red-hot irons and the boiling water they poured into my ears I shammed dead. They have left me... I am slipping the paper I wrote in my cell this morning, with a splinter of wood, and my blood, into the crack in the wall above my head. It tells where I've hid my treasures.'
"He was silent again; and again I saw the face of M. de la Nox grow intent as once more he concentrated all his being on his astral work. How I wished I had attained a height of psychic development which would have enabled me to follow the wonderful, the miraculous movements of his Astral Scalpel.
"It must have been nearly three-quarters of an hour later that he heaved a deep sigh and said, 'Our work is nearly at an end. Where are you now, Cartouche?'
"'I don't know quite what has happened,' said Theophrastus. 'I hid the document; and I have not seen anyone since. When I open my eyes—it is rather an effort—I do not recognise the place to which they have brought me… I'm certainly not in the Torture-chamber, nor in my cell in Montgomery Tower… There's a faint blue light falling through the bars of a grating in front of me… The moon is coming to visit me… The moonlight has descended two or three of the steps which lead up from the grating… I try to move… I can't… I'm a log. My will no longer commands my muscles or limbs… It's as if all relations between my will and my body had ceased… My brain is only master of my sight and understanding. It is no longer master of my actions… My poor limbs! I feel them scattered round about me… I must have reached the point of suffering at which one suffers no more… But where am I?… The moonlight descends two more steps… And again two more steps… Ah! what is that it lights up?… An eye—a big eye… The moonlight moves… A skull… The moonlight moves… A bony hand!… I understand! I understand! They have thrown me into a common grave!… The moonlight moves… There are two legs of a dead man lying across my body!… I recognise those steps now!… And that grating!… I am in the charnel-house of Montfaucon!… I am frightened!
"'When I used to go up the street of the Dead to carouse at the Chopinettes, I often looked through that grating. I looked through it curiously because I saw that one day I should lie in the charnel-house. But never did it occur to me that when a body lay there, it could look out from the other side of the grating! And now my body looks out through it! They have thrown me into the charnel-house because they believed me dead! I am buried alive with the bodies of hanged men! My wretched fate surpasses anything that the imagination of men could invent!
"'The saddest reflections assail me. I ask myself by what trick of Fate I am reduced to such an extremity. I am forced to confess that Fate played no part in the matter. It was my pride, nothing but my accursed pride. I could have quietly remained King of all the robbers, if there had been any living with me. Pretty-Milkmaid was right when she said at the Queen Margot that there was no longer any living with me. I would no longer listen to a word from anyone; and when I called together my Grand Council, I took no notice whatever of the resolutions it passed. I took a delight in playing the despot; and I ended with that mania for cutting up everyone I suspected into little bits. My lieutenants ran greater risks in serving me than in disobeying me. They betrayed me; and it was quite logical. Oh, it's quite time for these reflections, now that I'm in the charnel-house!
"'I'm alive in this charnel-house, alive among the dead; and for the first time in my life I am frightened.'
"Theophrastus was silent for a minute; and we looked at one another with harried eyes. Then in the same mournful, plaintive tones he took up his tale again.
"'It's odd—very odd. Now that I'm on the very boundary of life and death my senses perceive things which they could not perceive when I was in health. My ears hear no more—that boiling water destroyed my hearing—yet they do hear. There is a footfall, a slinking footfall on the steps leading down to the grating… Suddenly the moon ceases to light the charnel-house… Then I see between me and the moon on the steps of the charnel-house, a man! a living man!… Maybe I am saved! I wanted to cry aloud with joy; and perhaps I should have cried aloud, if the horror of what I feel, of what I know, had not sealed my lips. I feel, I know that this man has come to rob me of my hand… I read it, clearly, in his brain. A lady of the Court has sent him for the charm—the charm to keep her husband's love—the hand of a murderer—the hand of Cartouche!
"'I read it in his brain as clearly as if I read it written… He is lighting a lantern… He has unlocked the grating and entered the charnel-house… He has found my body, and is stooping over it… He has taken my left hand in his left hand, and his knife gleams in the light of the lantern… He is cutting through my wrist… I do not feel the blade in my wrist; I see it… Ah! I begin to feel the knife!… Oh! My wrist! My wrist!… It is nearly severed… Ah! Ah! Ah!… It is severed!
"'What is this… The man howls… He is dancing about among the dead… I see! I see… My hand has come away in the left hand of the man who howls, but by a last miracle of the last life in my wrist, as it was severed, my hand gripped the hand of the man who howls!… Ha! Ha! he can't get rid of it!… It's gripped him!… How it grips him!… He is dragging at it with his right hand!… He can't stir it!… Ah, it isn't easy to rid oneself of a dead man's last grip!… He is out of the charnel-house, howling!… He bounds up the steps, howling!… As he goes, howling, he is waving, like a madman, in the moonlight, my gripping hand!'
"The voice of Theophrastus died faintly away; and I heard the teeth of M. de la Nox chatter. Then he whispered:
"'Where are you now, Cartouche?'
"'I am entering the radiant darkness of death!'