The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 19



Marceline had risen and gone to her bedroom as much to hide her emotion as to ascertain whether the nickel-plated revolver was still in its drawer. When she came back into the dining-room, Theophrastus asked her what was the matter with her. Marceline replied that the revolver was no longer in its drawer. Theophrastus begged her to compose herself, and declared, in a tone which admitted of no contradiction, that since the revolver was not in its drawer, it must be somewhere else, and it was a matter of no importance whatever.

"We are now going to accompany this newspaper man to the crime in Bac Street," he went on. "His comments on the story of Mme. de B…, who must of course be Mme. de Bithyinie, the lady of your Pneumatic Club who is such an intimate friend of M. de la Box, show him to be a well-informed man. I am pleased to see that he does not follow those idiots of historians who try to make scandal out of my supper with Mme. la Maréchale de Boufflers, forgetting that in 1721 she was more than sixty years of age. It's a mistake that I propose to set right. My reputation might suffer from it. She was a witty and delightful talker; but I should never have dreamed, for a moment, of making love to a woman of sixty!"

As he said this, Theophrastus raised the index finger of his right hand, and waved it in the air with an authoritative gesture; and it was not Marceline or Adolphe who would have dared to contradict him.

He took up the evening paper again.

"The story of the Bac Street crime is simpler and more rapid in movement," he read. "A few days after the adventure of Mme. de B… the Prefect of Police received the following note: 'If you have the pluck, come and find me. I am always at Bernard's, at the café in Bac Street.' It was signed: 'Cartouche.' The Prefect pricked up his ears and laid his plans. The same evening at a quarter to twelve, half a dozen police officers dashed into the café in Bac Street. They were at once hammered with a chair by a man of extraordinary strength, still young, but with quite white hair. Three men were stretched out on the floor, and the other three had barely time to drag the three bodies of their wounded companions into the street, to save them from being burnt alive, for the man with the white hair set fire to the first storey. Then he made his escape over the roofs, springing from one roof to another over a little court, narrow indeed, but forming a kind of well more than fifty feet deep, deep enough in fact to break his neck ten times over."

"I like that," said Theophrastus, breaking off and smiling pleasantly. "Three men on the floor! I was n't nearly so lucky in Bac Street the other century; for I left there nine of my lieutenants, who were arrested in spite of the massacre of the police. I thought all was lost; but one must never despair of Providence."

He took up the paper again, amid the terrified silence of M. Lecamus and Marceline, and read on:

"The new Cartouche" ("What idiots they are to keep calling him 'the new Cartouche'!") "has been also at his games in Guénégaud Street. There is in it a narrow passage crossed by a plank. Some days ago, there was found under this plank the body of a student at the Polytechnic School, M. de Bardinoldi, the mystery of whose death has so puzzled the press. What the police has confided to no one is the fact, that, pinned to the jacket of the student, was a little card on which was written in pencil: 'We shall meet again in the other world, M. de Traneuse.' There can be no doubt that this was a crime of the new Cartouche for the old one" ("One must be as stupid as a journalist," cried Theophrastus, "to suppose that there are two Cartouches!") "for the old one did in fact murder an engineer officer named M. de Traneuse on this very spot. Cartouche killed him with a blow on the back of the head with his cane; and the student had the back of his skull fractured by a blow from some blunt object."

Theophrastus stopped reading and delivered himself of some comments.

"They say to-day, 'blunt object.' Blunt object! It sounds well! Blunt object pleases me… You are pulling a mug," he said to Marceline and Adolphe. "And you're holding on to one another as if you expected some catastrophe. It's silly to lose your hair about a few practical jokes. I profit by the occasion, my dear Adolphe, to explain to you the pleasure I take in frequenting Guénégaud Street. This business of M. de Traneuse was the origin of one of the best tricks I ever played on M. d'Argenson's police officers. After the execution of M. de Traneuse, who had permitted himself to make some extremely disagreeable remarks about me, I was pursued by two patrols of the watch, who surrounded me and rendered resistance impossible. But they did not know that I was Cartouche, and contented themselves with conducting me to Fort-L'Eveque, the least severe prison in Paris, where they shut up debtors, disorderly actors, and people who had not paid fines. It was only on the 10th of January that they knew that they had captured Cartouche; but on the evening of the 9th Cartouche had escaped and resumed the direction of his Police. It was time, for everything was topsy-turvy in the streets of Paris. My dear Marceline, and you too, Adolphe, you look as if you were going to a funeral. And yet this article does n't lack a certain salt. I thought at first it was a scribbler's joke, but I see that it is quite serious. It is really: take it from me. And wait for the story of the calf! We have only got to the affair of Petits-Augustins Street… Listen."

Theophrastus raised the evening paper again, adjusted his gold-rimmed spectacles on his nose, and went on:

"The most incredible thing in this extraordinary story is that several times during the last week the police have been on the very point of catching the modern Cartouche, and that he has always escaped by the chimney, just like the other. History teaches us that that was the practice of the real Cartouche. On the 11th of June, 1721, he had formed the plan of robbing Desmarets House, Petits-Augustins Street. It was one of his men, the Ratlet, who had suggested the coup to him. But the Police had their eye on Cartouche and the Ratlet; and no sooner were they in Desmarets House than the archers rushed to the spot, and the house was surrounded. Cartouche had the doors of the rooms quietly locked and the lights put out. He undressed himself, climbed up the chimney, descended by another chimney into the kitchen, where he found a scullion. He killed the scullion, dressed himself in his clothes, and walked out of the house, shooting down with his pistols two archers, who asked him where Cartouche was. Well, what will you say when we tell you that yesterday our Cartouche, having been tracked to a confectioner's in the Augustins Quarter, escaped by the chimney, after having put on over his own clothes, which doubtless he desired to keep clean, the over-alls of the confectioner, which were found on the roof? As for the confectioner he was found, half cooked, in his own oven. But before putting him into it, Cartouche had taken the precaution of previously assassinating him."

Here Theophrastus once more broke off his reading.

"Previously!" he cried. "Previously! These journalists are marvellous!… I had previously assassinated him!… But why have you gone into the corner? Am I frightening you? Come, come, my dear Marceline; come, Adolphe: a little coolness. You 'll want it for the story of the calf!"

"Never," says Theophrastus in his memoirs, which from this epoch become deeply tinged with a vast melancholy, "never before had either my wife or M. Lecamus worn such expressions at the reading of a mere newspaper article. But if we let ourselves be frightened by everything the newspapers tell us, we should be for ever on the rack. The journalists describe the events of the day with a particularly surprising power of imagination in the matter of crime. They must have their daily blood. It is indeed laughable. A knife-thrust more or less costs them nothing; and they only make me shrug my shoulders. The knife-thrusts of these gentlemen do not trouble my digestion in the slightest; and, I repeat, I shrug my shoulders at them.

"When I came to the place in the article at which Cartouche put the baker's man in the oven, my wife groaned as heavily as if that baker's man had been her brother; and leaving her chair, she shrank back little by little into the left-hand corner of the dining-room, nearest the hall. M. Lecamus was in a position quite as ridiculous. He had retired to the right-hand corner of the dining-room, nearest the hall. They were staring at me as if they were staring at a phenomenon at a fair, an eater of live rabbits, or something of that kind. I was displeased; I did not conceal from them my opinion that such childish behaviour was unworthy of two reasonable beings; and with some severity I begged them to return to their places by my side. But they did not do so. Then I started on the story of 'The Calf's Revenge.'

"I read:

"'M. Houdry is a butcher on the outer Boulevard. His specialty is veal; and people come from all parts of the district to purchase it. His renown is explained by a fact so exceptional that we should have refused to believe it, except for the repeated declarations of the Commissary of Police, M. Mifroid, who held the first inquiry into the circumstances of the crime. It is well known that the Paris butchers receive their meat from public slaughter-houses, and are forbidden to have slaughter-houses of their own. But every day M. Houdry killed a calf at home!'

"'That's quite right,' I said. 'M. Houdry explained it to me several times; and I was rather surprised at the confidence he showed in me when he told me about his mysterious slaughter-house. Why should he have revealed to me a fact which was known only to his wife, his assistant, a foundling whom he reckoned as one of the family, and to his brother-in-law who every night brought the calf? Why? There is no telling. Perhaps it was stronger than he! You know well that one never escapes one's destiny. I used to say to him: "Take care! It will end by the calves getting to know about it."'

"I went on with my reading:

"'This calf was brought to him in silence every night by his brother-in-law; and since the little back-yard in which his slaughter-house is situated looks out on some waste land behind, no one ever saw a live calf at M. Houdry's house. M. Houdry attached so much importance to killing his calves himself because his veal owed its excellence to his manner of killing it.'

"'As a matter of fact,' I broke off to say, 'he used to cut off their heads at a single blow, with a big cutlass.'

"'Early yesterday morning M. Houdry shut himself up as usual in his slaughter-house, with his calf. His assistant helped him tie up the calf. As a rule, M. Houdry took from twenty-five to thirty minutes preparing his veal for the stall. Thirty-five minutes passed; and the double doors of the slaughter-house did not open. Sometimes M. Houdry called his assistant to help him finish the work. That morning he did not call him. Forty minutes passed. Then Mme. Houdry, the butcher's wife, came to the back door and said to the assistant: "What's your master doing this morning? He's a long time over his work."

"‘"Yes; much longer than usual," said the assistant.

"'Then she called, "Houdry! Houdry!" There was no answer; and she walked across the back-yard, and opened the doors of the slaughter-house. At once the calf ran out and began to dance gracefully round her. (Dear! dear! I begin to dread some great misfortune!) She looked at the calf with some surprise, for at that hour the calf should have been veal. Then she opened the door wider, and called to her husband. He did not answer; she turned towards his assistant and said:

"‘"Your master is n't here. Are you sure he has n't gone out?"

"‘"Quite sure, Mum. I 've been in the back-yard all the time. I expect he's hiding behind the door to jump out and give you a fright, Mum. You know what a joker the master is. But all the same, he'd much better be hiding the calf. If anybody sees it, he 'll get into trouble."

"'So saying, he sprang at the head of the calf and slipped a halter over it.

"‘"Houdry! Houdry!" cried his wife. "You 're hiding to give me a fright! Don't be silly!"

"'There was no answer; and she went into the slaughter-house. Then she screamed; she had found M. Houdry. He was not hiding at all.

"'He was laid out, in neat joints of veal, on the table.'

"'I told him so,' said I. 'I told him so more than once. My presentiments always come true. I expected some great misfortune! And here it is! Every day, again and again, I told M. Houdry to look out: that one does not kill so many calves without the calves getting to know about it. But he always laughed at me. Yet the Theory of Chances always confronts us. It confronted him. He took no notice of it. He took no notice of anything: neither of the way the calf looked at him, nor of the Theory of Chances. But I said to him: "My dear M. Houdry, if a butcher can kill more than a thousand calves in Paris, when it is forbidden by the law, there will certainly be found one calf to kill the butcher!" And here you are! The calf has cut up the butcher! Well, well, it's nobody's fault… Let us continue this interesting article.'

"'Mme. Houdry screamed and fainted. The butcher boy also screamed and fainted—he was a foundling. A few minutes later the drama was discovered. One can imagine the emotion of the neighbourhood…' (There was reason for it. Poor M. Houdry: he was a fine fellow. And now they will have to try the calf. The calf will be a great success in the dock. It's a strange, fantastic, inexorable, and courageous calf!)

"The journalist was not of the opinion that the calf had cut up the butcher. And once more he dragged in the name of Cartouche. (Poor old Cartouche!) Once more I shrugged my shoulders. Then, raising my eyes above the top of the paper, I looked into the two corners of the drawing-room for those two foolish creatures who had so childishly retired to them—my wife and M. Lecamus. I looked in vain. They had disappeared. I called to them loudly. They did not answer. I hunted through the flat without finding them. Then I tried to open the door on to the landing; but it would not open. They had locked me in.

"That did not trouble me at all. When I am locked in, I go out by the chimneys, if they are big enough; if they are too small, I leave by the window. But my drawing-room chimney is a monumental chimney; there is not another like it in Gerando Street; and I climbed up it with the same ease with which I had climbed down the chimney of M. Houdry on the very morning on which the calf cut up that excellent but unfortunate man! I soon came out on to the roof into a very cold and rainy night which filled me with a profound sadness."