The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 2



What did happen? The matter is very obscure. I cannot do better than give Theophrastus Longuet's account of it in the actual words of his memoirs in the sandalwood box.

"I am a man with a healthy mind in a healthy body," he writes, "and a good citizen: that is, I have never transgressed the law. Laws are necessary; and I have always kept them. At least I believe I have.

"I have always hated the imagination; and by that I mean that in all circumstances, whether, for instance, it has been a case of conferring my friendship on anyone, or of having to decide on a line of conduct, I have always been careful to stick to common sense. The most simple always seemed to me the best.

"I suffered deeply, for instance, when I discovered that my old College friend Adolphe Lecamus was addicted to the study of Spiritualism.

"The man who says Spiritualism says rubbish. To try to question spirits by turning tables is utterly absurd. I know what I am talking about, for, wishing to prove the absurdities of his theories, I have taken part in séances with Adolphe and my wife. We sat for hours round a little table which absolutely refused to turn. I laughed at him heartily; and that annoyed my wife, because women are always ready to put faith in the impossible and believe in the mysterious.

"He used to bring her books which she read greedily; and sometimes he would amuse himself by trying to send her to sleep by making passes before her face. I have never seen anything sillier. I should not indeed have stood it from anyone else; but I have a strong liking for Adolphe. He has a powerful face; and he has been a great traveller.

"He and Marceline called me a sceptic. I answered that I was not a sceptic in the sense of a man who believes in nothing or doubts everything. I believe in everything worthy of belief; for example, I believe in Progress. I am not a sceptic; I am a philosopher.

"During his travels Adolphe read a great deal; I manufactured rubber stamps. I am what people call 'an earthy spirit.' I do not make a boast of it; I merely state it.

"I thought it well to give this sketch of my character to make it clear that what happened yesterday is no fault of mine. I went to see the prison as I might have gone to buy a neck-tie at the Louvre. I wished to improve my mind. I have plenty of spare time nowadays, since we have sold the business. I said, 'Let us do as the English do and see the sights of Paris.' It was a mere chance that we began with the Conciergerie.

"I am very sorry indeed that we did.

"Am I really very sorry? I am not sure. I am not sure of anything. At present I am quite calm. And I am going to write down what happened exactly as if it had happened to someone else. All the same, what a story it is!

"While we were going through the towers nothing happened worth setting down here. I remember saying to myself in Bon Bec tower:

"'What, was it here in this little chamber, which looks just like a grocery, that there were so many agonies and so many illustrious victims martyred?'

"I tried honestly to picture to myself the horror of that chamber when the executioner and his assistants with their horrible instruments came to the prisoners with the intention of forcing them to confess crimes affecting the state. But owing to the little labels on the drawers, on which one reads 'Senna,' 'Hops,' I did not succeed.

"That Bon Bec tower! They used also to call it The Prattler on account of the horrible cries which burst from it and made the quiet passer-by shudder and quicken his steps along the quay at the sound of the King's justice.

"Now Bon Bec tower is peaceful and very still. I am not complaining of it: it is Progress.

"But when we penetrated to that part of the Conciergerie which has hardly changed for centuries and were walking quietly along between those bare stone walls which no fresh facing, no profane plaster has ever covered, an inexplicable fever began to fill my veins; and when we were in the gloom at the end of Straw Alley, I cried, 'Zounds! It's Straw Alley!'

"At once I turned to see who had spoken those words. They were all staring at me; and I perceived plainly that I had spoken them myself. Indeed, my throat was still quivering from their utterance.

"The idiot of a guide asserted that we had passed Straw Alley. I contradicted him; and he shut up. I was sure of my facts, you understand, quite sure that it was Straw Alley. I told him that I had slept on the straw in it. But it is absurd. How do you suppose I could have slept on straw in Straw Alley when it was the first time I had ever been in the Conciergerie? Besides, was I sure? That is what worries me. I had an atrocious headache.

"My brow was burning even while I felt it swept by a strong current of cold air. Outside I was cool; inside I was a furnace.

"What had we been doing? I had a moment before walked quietly through the chapel of the Girondins; and while the guide was telling us the history of it, I played with my green umbrella. I was not in the least annoyed at having just behaved so oddly. I was my natural self. But as for that, I have never ceased to be my natural self.

"That which befell me later was also quite natural, since it was not the result of any effort. The unnatural is exactly what did not befall me.

"I remember finding myself at the bottom of a staircase in front of a grating. I was endowed with superhuman vigour; I shook the grating and shouted, 'This way!' The others, who did not know, were slow coming. I do not know what I should have done to the grating, if the guide had not unlocked it for me. For that matter, I do not know what I should have done to the guide. I was mad. No: I have no right to say that. I was not mad; and that's a great pity. It is worse than if I had been mad.

"Undoubtedly I was in a state of great nervous excitement; but my mind was quite lucid. I do not believe that I have ever seen so clearly; and yet I was in the dark. I do not believe that I have ever had clearer recollections; and yet I was in a place I did not know. Heavens! I did not recognise it and I did recognise it! I did not hesitate about my way. My groping hands found the stones they reached out in the darkness to find; and my feet trod a soil which could not have been strange to them.

"Who will ever be able to tell the age of that soil; who will ever be able to tell you the age of those stones? I do not know it myself. They talk of the origin of the palace. What is the origin of the old Frankish palace? They may be able to say when those stones will end; they will never be able to say when they began. And they are forgotten, those stones, in the thousand-year night of the cellars. The odd thing is that I remembered them.

"I crept along the damp walls as if the way well known to me. I expected certain rough places in the wall; and they came to the tips of my fingers; I counted the edges of the stones and I knew that at the end of a certain number I had only to turn to see at the far end of a passage a ray which the sun had forgotten there since the beginning of the history of Paris. I turned and saw the ray; and I felt my heart beat loudly from the bottom of the centuries."

M. Longuet interrupts his narrative for a while to describe the whirl of his mind during this singular hour. He has the greatest difficulty in remaining master of his thought, the utmost difficulty in following it. It rushes on in front of him like a bolting horse whose reins he has let go. It leaves him behind and bounds ahead, leaving on the paper, as traces of its passage, words of such profundity that when he looks at them, he says, they make him giddy.

And he adds, in a paroxysm of dread:

"One must stop on the edge of these words as one stops on the edge of a precipice."

And he guides the pen with a feverish hand, as he goes on burying himself in the depths of these subterranean galleries:

"And that's the Prattler! These are the walls which have heard! It was not up above, in the sunlight, that the Prattler spoke; it was here, in this night of the underworld. Here are the rings in the walls. Is it the ring of Ravaillac? I no longer remember.

"But towards the ray, towards the unique ray, motionless and eternal, the faint, square ray, which from the beginning of ages took and preserved the form of the air-hole, I advance; I advance in a stumbling hurry, while the fever consumes me, blazes, and dizzies my brain. My feet stop, but with such a shock that one would believe them caught by invisible hands, risen from the soil; my fingers run over the wall, groping and fumbling that spot in the wall. What do my fingers want? What is the thought of my fingers? I had a pen-knife in my pocket; and all at once I let my green umbrella fall to the ground to take my pen-knife from my pocket. And I scraped, with certainty, between two stones. I cleared away the dust and mortar from between two stones. Then my knife pierced a thing between the two stones and brought it out.

"That is why I know I am not mad. That thing is under my eyes. In my quietest hours, I, Theophrastus Longuet, can look at it on my desk between my latest models of rubber stamps. It is not I who am mad; it is this thing that is mad. It is a scrap of paper, torn and stained—a document whose age there is no telling and which is in every way calculated to plunge a quiet manufacturer of rubber stamps into the wildest consternation. The paper, as you can guess, is rotted by the damp of the cellars. The damp has eaten away half the words, which seem from their red hue to have been written in blood.

"But in these words before me, in this document which was certainly written two centuries ago, which I passed under the square ray from the air-hole and gazed at with my hair rising on end in horror, I recognised my own handwriting."

Here copied clearly out is this precious and mysterious document:

my treasures after betrayal
of April 1st
Go and take the air
at the Chopinettes
look at the Gall
look at the Cock
Dig on the spot and you
will be rich."