The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 20




That profound sadness was destined to affect seriously the future of Theophrastus. As he made his way over the roofs of Gerando Street, it increased to such a paralysing intensity that presently he sat down on the edge of a roof, with his legs dangling over the street, and plunged into the bitterest reflections. The result of this unwise action was that he caught a severe cold.

As he sat reflecting, he slowly came to himself, his modern self. During the reading of the article which narrated the crimes of the new Cartouche, he had displayed a carelessness airy to the point of callousness. Now the sense of his responsibility, especially in the matter of cutting up the butcher Houdry, weighed on him more and more heavily. The memory of many midnight outings, by way of the chimney he had just climbed, came into his mind; and several sanguinary crimes filled his blinking eyes with the too tardy tears of an ineffectual remorse.

So, in spite of all the suffering he had endured, in spite of all the passionate prayers of M. de la Nox to Æon, Source of Æons, Cartouche was not dead; the Black Feather ever sprouted afresh. This very night, as on so many other nights of crime, he was out on the roofs of Paris with his familiar spirit and his Black Feather. He wept. He cursed that mysterious and irresistible force which, from the depth of the centuries, bade him slay. He cursed the gesture which slays. He thought of his wife and his friend. He recalled with bitter regret the hours of happiness passed with those dear ones. He forgave them their terror and their flight. He resolved never again henceforth to trouble their peaceful hours with his red vagaries.

"Let us vanish!" said he. "Let us hide our shame and our original obliquity in the heart of the desert! They will forget me!… I shall forget myself! Let us profit by these moments of reason in which my brain, for the while free from the Past, discusses, weighs, deduces, and forms conclusions in the Present. It is no longer Cartouche who speaks. To-night it is Theophrastus who wills! Theophrastus who cries to Cartouche: 'Let us fly! let us fly! Since I love Marceline, let us fly! Since I love Adolphe, let us fly! One day they will be happy without thee; with thee there is no longer any happiness!… Farewell! Farewell, Marceline, beloved wife! Farewell, Adolphe, dear friend and comforter!… Farewell! Theophrastus bids you farewell!'"

He wept and wept. Then he said aloud:

"Come along, Cartouche."

He plunged into the night, springing from gutter to gutter, crawling from roof to roof, sliding from the tops of walls with the ease, the balance, and the sureness of a somnambulist.

And now, who is this man who, with bowed head and stooping back, his hands in his pockets, wanders like Fortune's step-son through the bitter wind and the rain that falls all the dreary way? He moves along the road which runs beside the railway, a road dismally straight, bordered by dismal little stunted trees, the dismal ornaments of the departmental road, the road which runs beside the railway. Whence does this man, or rather this shadow of a man, this sad shadow of a man, with his hands in his pockets, come? On his right and on his left stretches the plain, without an undulation, without the bulge of a hill, without the hollow of a river—stretches grey and gloomy under the grey and gloomy sky.

Now and again along the railway, so painfully straight, trains pass,—slow trains, express trains, freight trains. While they pass the railway snores; then it is silent, and one hears, borne on the wind, the ting-ting-ting-ting of the little electric bell in the little railway station in front. But what little railway station? There is one in front; there is one behind. They are three miles apart; and between them the double line of rails runs as straight as a die. Between the two railway stations there are no viaducts, no tunnel, no bridge, not even a level-crossing. I dwell on these details on account of the strange behaviour of the express train.

That sad shadow of a man is Theophrastus. He has resolved to fly, to fly no matter where, from his wife—poor dear, unfortunate, heroic fellow! After a night passed on the roofs of Paris, not knowing whither to direct his steps, yet not wishing to stay them, he went into a railway station—what railway station? Shall we ever know?—And without a ticket he got on a train, and without a ticket somewhere he got off it and came out of another railway station. It may be that in this evasion of the duties of the passenger his Black Feather stood him in good stead.

Behold him then on the road… At the entrance to a village… On the road which runs beside the railway.

Whom does he perceive on the threshold of a cottage at the entrance to the village?… The Signora Petito herself!

It was the first time the Signora Petito had seen M. Longuet since he clipped her husband's ears. She fell into a fury. She ran down to the garden gate; and her anger found vent not only in abuse, but in the most imprudent revelations. Had Signor Petito heard what his angry Regina said, he would have smacked her for her incredible folly. After abusing Theophrastus for his barbarity to Signor Petito, she told him with vindictive triumph that her husband had found the treasures of the Chopinettes, and that those treasures were the richest in the world, treasures worth far more than a couple of ears, were they as big as the ears of Signor Petito. "They are quits!"

In the course of this outburst, Theophrastus with considerable difficulty interjected a few words; but he was not at all disturbed by it. Indeed he was grateful to the fury of Signora Petito for having given him such important information. He said grimly:

"I shall find my treasures, for I shall find Signor Petito."

The Signora Petito burst into a satanic laugh, and cried:

"Signor Petito is in the train!"

"In what train?"

"In the train which is going to pass under your nose."

"What is the train which is going to pass under my nose?"

"The train which is carrying my husband beyond the frontier! Get into it, M. Longuet! Get into it if you want to speak to Signor Petito. But you'd better make haste, for it passes in less than an hour, and you can't buy a ticket for it at any of these little stations. It does n't stop at them!"

She laughed an even more satanic laugh, so satanic that Theophrastus longed for the moments when he was deaf. He raised his hat, and went quickly down the road which runs beside the railway. When he was alone, between the little trees and the telegraph posts, he said to himself:

"Come, come! I must ask news of my treasures of Signor Petito himself… But how the deuce am I to do it? He is in the train which is going to pass under my nose."

At this point it is necessary to give a map:

Station ADCStation B

It is unnecessary to give the names of the stations, for the demonstration is practically geometrical, and to geometry letters are more appropriate.

Let us go to station A. The signal-man of station A hears the ting! of the bell which announces that the express he is expecting has passed station B, and is on that section of the block-system which begins at station A and ends at station B. The express goes from B to A. It is on the line B A. That is clear. The signal at A announces the train by lowering its little red arm with a ting!

The signal-man at station A waits for the train, and waits for the train, and waits for the train! It ought to be there. It is a train which goes sixty miles an hour, and, if it is late, it goes seventy or eighty. The distance between station A and station B is at the most three miles and a furlong. Three minutes and a half is the longest an express takes to do the distance. The signal-man, frightened to death at not seeing the train appear, shouts to the station-master that the train ought to have gone through! The station-master dashes to the telegraph, and telegraphs station B: "Train signalled not arrived!" Station B answers: "Joker!" Station A: "It's serious. What are we to do? Horrible anxiety." Station B: "Notify Jericho!" Station A: "There must have been an accident! We are hurrying along the line! Come and meet us!" Station B: "What can have happened? We are coming."

Then the station-master, the porters, and the ticket-clerks of stations A and B hurry along the line, the staff of station A going towards station B, the staff of station B going towards station A. They hurry along, in the full light of day, in the middle of a perfectly flat plain, a plain without a river, without ridge, and without hollow. They hurry along the line, and meet one another between A and B… But they do not meet the train!

The station-master of station A (I say particularly of station A), who suffered from heart disease, fell down dead.