The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 17



The unlucky Theophrastus was more than six weeks recovering from his Astral operation. M. Lecamus describes his illness in a somewhat long-winded fashion. Little by little he began to recover the use of his legs; but it seemed unlikely that his hearing would ever quite recover from the boiling water which had deafened Cartouche two hundred years before; at intervals he was for a few moments stone deaf. During all this time he made no allusion to the Past; I do not speak of that wretched past, bounded in the minds of all of us by the few years which have elapsed since our last terrestrial birth; he made no allusion to his eighteenth-century past. This fact assured Marceline, M. Lecamus, and M. Eliphas de Saint-Elme de Taillebourg de la Nox, who was a frequent visitor at the sick-bed, that Cartouche was indeed dead; and M. de la Nox was often heard to thank Æon, Source of Æons, for this happy event.

Theophrastus, as his legs healed, had serious thoughts of returning to business. He had retired young, at the age of forty-one, owing to his invention of a superior rubber stamp which had ousted the rubber stamps of rival manufacturers from the market. His mind was full of yet another innovation which would revolutionise the whole Rubber-stamp Industry. There could be no stronger symptom of a complete cure, no stronger proof that the operation had not weakened his mind. And when he began to get about again, Mme. Longuet found that he had become so natural that she, and M. Lecamus along with her, believed that their misfortunes had at last tired out Destiny.

Theophrastus would never have his Black Feather again: it had been extirpated for the rest of time.

However, by the instructions of M. Eliphas de Saint-Elme de Taillebourg de la Nox, they kept a careful watch on him. It was his habit to rise at an early hour, and after having breakfasted on a cup of chocolate and buttered toast, go for a stroll on the outer Boulevard. He was trying his legs. He began to find in them their pristine elasticity.

He looked into the shops; he watched with a Parisian's interest the moving panorama of the streets. M. Lecamus, who followed him, observed nothing abnormal in his actions; and in his reports to M. de la Nox he only laid stress on a single fact, truly unimportant, a somewhat prolonged halt before a butcher's stall. If this halt had not been a daily habit, even Adolphe, on the look-out as he was, would have paid no attention to it. Theophrastus, his hands behind his back playing with his green umbrella, would gaze with satisfaction at the red meat. He often had a talk with the butcher, a big, square-shouldered, cheery soul, always ready with some simple joke. One day Adolphe found that Theophrastus was prolonging his halt unduly. He walked up to the stall and found him engaged, with the butcher, in adorning the fresh meat with paper frills. It was a harmless occupation; and so M. de la Nox thought, for there is a note of his on the margin of Adolphe's report: "He can look at the red meat on the butcher's stall. It is just as well to let him 'see red' at times. It is the end of the Psychic crisis, and hurts no one."

Now this butcher, M. Houdry, was famous in his district for the whiteness and delicacy of his veal. His customers often wondered where the calves of M. Houdry were fed. It was a mystery which was making his fortune. In the course of time, Theophrastus won his heart and was admitted to his confidence. The secret of his success lay, not in the fact that his calves were specially fed, but in the fact that he killed them himself and in his method of killing them: he used to slice off their heads with a single stroke of a great cutlass.

As their intimacy increased, Theophrastus was admitted to witness the operation; and he spent many a happy hour in the slaughter-house of the butcher, observing him kill and cut up the calves which were bringing him wealth and fame.

Theophrastus was exceedingly interested in the whole process. He learnt the names of the different instruments with enthusiasm, and was presently allowed to help with the simpler parts of the process. It was a privilege. He came to feel even more than M. Houdry's scorn for the methods of ordinary butchers.

But every day as he left the stall he made the same little joke. He said:

"You kill a calf every day. You must be careful, my dear M. Houdry; or you will find that it will end in the calves getting to know about it."

One day he said, "Look at the calf's eyes, M. Houdry! Look at his eyes!"

"Well, what about them?" said M. Houdry.

"Look how they're looking at you!"

"But they're dead," said M. Houdry, somewhat puzzled.

"And you're not afraid of the eyes of a dead calf which look at you?" said Theophrastus. "I congratulate you on your courage!"

M. Houdry went on with his work, thinking that his pupil had certainly some queer fancies.

When he began to deal with the calf's ears, Theophrastus cried, with angelic delight: "The ears? I understand all about ears! Leave them to me!" And he bought the calf's head.

M. Houdry wished to have it sent to his house, but Theophrastus would not let it out of his hands. He disposed it carefully in the bottom of his green umbrella.

As he went out of the slaughter-house he said: "Au revoir, M. Houdry, I am taking my calf's head away with me; but I have left you the eyes. I should not like the eyes of a calf to look at me as those eyes looked at you just now. The eyes of a dead calf—a nasty thing—very nasty. You laugh, M. Houdry? Well, well, it's your business… My congratulations on your courage. But all the same it will end in the calves getting to know about it!"

He returned home; and when he showed Marceline and Adolphe his calf's head in his green umbrella, they smiled at one another.

"He is beginning to take pleasure in things," said Marceline.

"An innocent amusement," said Adolphe indulgently.