The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 24



"When one comes to oneself in the depth of the Catacombs," says Commissary Mifroid in the admirable report of the matter which he drew up, "the first thought which steals into one's mind is a fearful one: the fear of being old-fashioned. I mean by that a sudden anxiety lest one should find oneself reproducing all the ridiculous behaviour of which writers of romance and melodrama never fail to make their unfortunate heroes guilty when they find themselves immured in caves, grottoes, excavations, caverns, or tombs.

"At the moment of my fall, even while I was so rapidly covering the space which separated me from the soil of the Catacombs, my presence of mind did not forsake me. I was aware that I was falling into those thousand-year-old subways which interlace their innumerable and capricious windings under the soil of Paris. The next thing I was aware of was a slight and painful numbness which followed my recovery from the insensibility into which I had been plunged by the inevitable shock. I was, then, in the Catacombs. At once I said to myself, 'Above all things I must not be old-fashioned.'

"It would have been old-fashioned, for example, to utter cries of despair, to appeal to Providence, or to strike my brow against the wall of the passage. It would have been old-fashioned to find at the bottom of my pocket a bar of chocolate and at once divide it into eight pieces which would have represented assured sustenance for eight days. It would have been equally old-fashioned to find a candle-end in my pocket—a place in which no rational human being ever keeps candle-ends—and five or six matches, and so create the harrowing problem whether one ought to let the candle burn once it was lighted, or blow it out and rekindle it at the cost of another match, a problem which often interferes with the digestions of whole families who read romances.

"I had nothing in my pocket. I assured myself of the fact with extreme satisfaction; and in the darkness of the Catacombs I slapped my pockets, repeating: 'Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!'

"At the same moment it occurred to me that it would be quite up-to-date for a man in my situation to illuminate without further delay the opaque darkness which weighed so heavily on my eyes and tired them, with a sudden and radiant electric star. Had I not, before falling into this hole, bought half a dozen electric lamps of the latest pattern? The parcel must have accompanied me in my fall. Without stirring I groped about and laid my hand on it. By great good luck the lamps were unbroken; I took one of them and pressed the button. The excavation was lighted by a fairy glow; and I could not refrain from smiling at the unfortunate wretch who, shut up in some cavern, invariably crawls along, holding his breath, behind a miserable little flame which presently he hurriedly blows out.

"I rose to my feet, and examined the ceiling. I had known that the streets were up, and that the work was nearly finished. I was the less surprised therefore, on looking up through the hole through which I had fallen, to see no spark of daylight, and to realise that it had been quite bricked up. Now several yards of earth separated me from living creatures, without the slightest possibility of my boring through them, even if the ceiling had not been far too high for me to reach. I satisfied myself of this without any feeling of annoyance; then, having turned my electric ray on the floor, I perceived a body.

"It was the body of M. Theophrastus Longuet, the body of the new Cartouche. I examined it and perceived that it showed no signs of any serious injury. The man must be stunned, as I had been myself; and doubtless he would presently recover. I called to mind the fact that M. Lecamus had introduced me to his friend one day in the Champs-Elysées; and here I was face to face with him as one of the most abandoned of assassins.

"Even as this flashed into my mind, M. Longuet heaved a deep sigh, and stretched out his arms. He complained of pains about his body, bade me good-evening, and asked me where we were. I told him. He did not appear utterly dismayed by the information, but drawing a pocket-book from his pocket, he traced some lines which looked like a plan, showed them to me, and said:

"'My dear M. Mifroid, we are in the depths of the Catacombs. It's an extraordinary event; and how we are to get out I do not know. But the matter which fills my mind at this moment is really far more interesting, believe me, than falling into the Catacombs. I beg you to glance at this little plan.'

"He handed me the leaf from his pocket-book, on which I saw the following:

Plan, p 246--The man with the black feather.png

"He sneezed twice.

"'Oh, you have a cold,' said I, taking the paper.

"'Yes; I have had a bad cold since taking a somewhat long stroll one rainy night on the roofs of Gerando Street,' he said.

"I advised him not to neglect it. I must say that this quiet and natural conversation between two men in the depths of the Catacombs, a few minutes after their recovery from such an unexpected fall, gave me infinite pleasure. Having considered the lines on the paper, I asked the explanation of them; and M. Longuet told me the story of the disappearance of an express train and of the reappearance of a railway-carriage, which was by far the most fantastic I had ever heard. This man had desired to make an express disappear between A and B by sending it up a side-line H I, by shifting the points, and he had waited for it at K. But the train had neither appeared at A nor at K, that is to say, either to him or to anyone else. Next a railway-carriage had appeared to him at K; and presently that railway-carriage itself had disappeared. I could well have believed that this man, considering his past (the past of Cartouche!) and the story which he now told me, was mad, if he had not expressed himself so logically, and given me the most exact material details about the points, the switch, and all the facts of the case.

"Moreover, it is a matter of common experience that a madman always understands everything. But this man wanted to understand. I begged him to repeat the story. He said nothing. Twice I reiterated the request and still he said nothing. I was about to lose patience, when, grasping the fact that I had asked him something, he told me that now and then he was deaf for a few minutes.

"Since he had recovered his hearing, we returned to the problem of the express. He assured me that he would rather die ten times in the depths of the Catacombs than come out of them once without knowing what had become of this express. 'I do not wish,' he added, 'to lose the most precious thing in the world: my Reason.'

"'And when did this happen?' said I. 'For, as a matter of fact, I have heard nothing of the disappearance of an express; and it ought to be generally known.'

"'It must be known by now,' he, said in a very melancholy tone. 'It only happened a few hours before our fall into the Catacombs.'

"I examined the paper once more for quite five minutes. I reflected deeply, asked for certain complementary details, and then burst out laughing: though in truth it was not a laughable matter, for the catastrophe was truly appalling. What made me laugh was the seeming difficulty of the problem and the delight of having solved it in five minutes.

"'You believe yourself a rational human being,' I cried, 'because you have Reason! But you 're exactly like ninety-nine people out of a hundred, you don't know how to make use of it. You talk of Reason; but what use is Reason in a brain which does not know by which end to take hold of it? It's a wonderful instrument in the hands of a doll! Don't turn away your head in that sulky way, M. Longuet. I tell you: you don't know by which end to take hold of your Reason! Come, M. Longuet: let us reason with this paper in our hands.'

"He tried, the duffer! He said: 'There were five men at A, and five men at B. The five men at B saw the train pass; the five men at A did not see it. I—I was at K; and I am sure that it did not pass at K… consequently…'

"'Consequently?… Consequently, there's no longer any express? Consequently your express has vanished—melted—flown away? Hey, presto: vanish express! You think perhaps that the express is in the English Channel! You see clearly, M. Longuet, that if you have Reason, you don't know how to use it. Allow me to tell you that you took hold of your Reason by the wrong end! The wrong end is that which begins by saying, 'We did not see the express,' and which ends by saying, 'Then there is no longer any express!' But I am going to show you how to take hold of your Reason by the right end. It is this: the truth is that the express exists, and that it exists between the points B, where it was seen to pass, A, where it was not seen to pass, and I, where it could not pass. Since we are in a plain, your express is between A, B and I. That is certain…'


"'Hush! Be quiet! And since we are in a plain, and in that plain there is an immense mass of loose sand, the only place in which the train could have disappeared is in that mass of sand: that is the eternal truth!'…

"'I swear it didn't! I was at K waiting for the express; and I did not quit the line H I.'

"'By the immortal Masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance I command you not to let go of the right end of your Reason which I have put into your hand. We are discussing at this moment what is; we are not yet at the how. It is owing to the fact that you began with the how that you have not been able to reach what is. The express is in I, since it cannot be anywhere else. I am sure that the five men could not have seen it pass B, as they assert, unless it had passed. I am as certain that five men could not have been unable to see it at A if it had passed A; and since the line A B was examined and found not to contain the express, it must be that it turned off up the line H I. There we are, then, with the train on the line H I.'

"'But I was there too,' cried Theophrastus, 'and I swear to you that it wasn't!'

"'Dear! Dear! Do hold on to the right end of your Reason! You were at K; the express passed K; it must pass K; it must go and plunge into I, since it cannot be anywhere else. By a necessary chance, while the beginning of the train is engulfed in the mass of sand (I take it for granted that the line H I is too short for the engine-driver, having perceived the error of direction half-way up it, to have had the time to ward off the catastrophe), the couplings of the last carriage broke, and the carriage and the guard's-van began to descend the line which was on a slope since it went to this mass of sand. There, after having gone down the line to H and back up it to K, you saw the carriage and Signor Petito at the window. (Probably Signor Petito opened the window with the intention of jumping out, at the moment he grasped the imminent catastrophe, and as it happened the shock of it shut his head in the window.)'

"'That I understand; but what I don't understand…'

"'Let us first consider what we do understand: that is the right end of Reason. We will next consider what we do not understand. No one is found in the guard's-van. The shock undoubtedly hurled the guard into the sand. All that is certain. Now, after having stripped Signor Petito of his clothes, you sat down on the embankment and read his papers. When you raised your head, the railway-carriage was no longer there. Well, since there was a slope and since there was a wind, which waggled the head of M. Petito at the window, the carriage, after having glided down to H, found itself once more on the line A B a little higher up than H on the side of B, where the staff of the station have by now certainly found it. Do you understand now? Do you understand everything, except that you have n't seen the train pass K? Since everything is thus explained, it must be that that was how things happened. Now I only seek how you were not able to see the train pass K. That which it is impossible to explain in the case of five persons at A or at B may very well be explained in the case of one at K.'

"'I am waiting,' said M. Longuet.

"I chuckled—and truly there was reason to chuckle—and went on, 'There are moments when you are deaf, M. Longuet?'

"'There certainly are,' said M. Longuet.

"'Suppose you were deaf during the moment you were waiting for the train at K, then you would not have heard it.'

"'No, but I should have seen it.'

"We have already arrived at the fact that you did not hear it. That is a considerable advance! God bless you, M. Longuet! God bless you!' (M. Longuet was sneezing.)

"M. Longuet thanked me for my pious wish, and since he continued to sneeze, I took out my watch from his pocket (he had already stolen it from me), and I said to him: 'Do you know, M. Longuet, how long a single one of your sneezes lasts, that is to say, how long you remain with your head bent while you sneeze?… Three seconds!… That is to say a second and two-fifths longer than is required to fail to see an express with four carriages pass in front of you, which is going sixty miles an hour. M. Longuet, the express has disappeared, or rather seemed to disappear, because you were deaf and had a cold!'

"M. Longuet threw up his arms wildly towards the ceiling of the Catacombs.