The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 3
On leaving the prison, Marceline and Adolphe were, very naturally, full of curiosity to learn the reasons of Theophrastus' extraordinary behaviour; and he had the greatest difficulty in getting them away from the subject. He treated the matter lightly, declaring that the whim had taken him to visit the cellars of the Conciergerie; and he had visited them. They were even more impressed by his attitude to the guide than by his actual plunge into the cellars. That Theophrastus, the timid Theophrastus, should have browbeaten not a mere man, but an official, amazed them. Theophrastus admits that he was as much amazed as they, and felt rather proud of himself. All the evening they kept recurring to the matter until their amazement and their interest began to weaken by mere continuance of expression. But Theophrastus was glad indeed when sleep at last tied Marceline's tongue.
The next day he shut himself up in his study on the pretext of straightening out his accounts. Its window looks down on to the little grass-plot in the middle of Anvers Square; and he leaned out over the sill, contemplating the prosaic reality of the scene as if he could not have enough of it. He was above all pleased by the nurses wheeling along their babies in perambulators and by the shouting of the children romping about the Square.
His thought was of a great unity and a great simplicity. It was entirely contained in the phrase: "The World has not changed."
No: the world had not changed. There were the babies in the perambulators; and as the clock struck two the Signora Petito, wife of the Professor of Italian who occupied the flat above his, began to play The Carnival of Venice.
No: nothing in the world had changed; yet when he turned round, he could see on his desk, among the models of rubber stamps, a scrap of paper.
Did that scrap of paper really exist? He had passed a feverish night, almost a night of delirium; and at the end of it he had decided that his strange adventure must have been a bad dream. But in the morning he had found the scrap of paper in a drawer of his desk…
Even now he kept saying to himself, "I shall turn round presently; and the scrap of paper won't be there." He turned round; and the scrap of paper was there—in his own handwriting.
He passed his hand over his perspiring brow and heaved the sigh of a grieved child. Then he seemed to come to a definite resolve and carefully put the scrap of paper into his pocket-book. He had just remembered that Signor Petito had a great reputation as an expert in handwriting. His friend Adolphe was also an expert in handwriting, but from the Spiritualistic point of view. He told the character by it. Theophrastus had no intention of calling Adolphe into counsel. There was already too much mystery in the affair to entrust it to the overflowing imagination of a medium who boasted himself a pupil of a Papus.
He went slowly upstairs and was ushered into Signor Petito's study.
He found himself in the presence of a man of middle age, whose chief characteristics were a mass of crinkly black hair, a piercing glance, and enormous ears. After they had exchanged greetings, Theophrastus broached the subject of the scrap of paper. He drew it from his pocket-book and an unsigned letter which he had written a few days previously.
"Signor Petito," he said, "I understand that you are a first-class expert in handwriting. I should be much obliged if you would examine this letter and this document, and inform me of the result of your examination. I assert myself that there is no connection—"
He stopped short, as red as a peony, for he was not in the habit of lying. But Signor Petito had already scanned the letter and the scrap of paper with the eye of an expert; and with a smile which showed all his exceedingly white teeth, he said:
"I won't keep you waiting for my answer, M. Longuet. The document is in a very bad state; but the scraps of handwriting one can read are in every respect the same as the handwriting of the letter. Before the Courts, M. Longuet, before God and before men, these two handwritings were traced by the same hand!" He laid his hand on his heart with a great air.
He entered into particulars: a child, he declared, could not make a mistake about it. He became oracular.
"The handwriting in both is equally angular," he said in a very pompous tone. "By angular, M. Longuet, we describe a handwriting in which the thin strokes which join the strokes of the letters and the letters to one another are at an acute angle. You understand? Look at this hook, and this one, and this thin stroke, and all these letters which increase progressively in equal proportions. But what an acute handwriting, M. Longuet! I have never seen handwriting so acute: it's as sharp as the blade of a knife!"
At these last words Theophrastus turned so pale that Signor Petito thought that he was going to faint. None the less he took the letter and the document, thanked Signor Petito, and went out of the flat.
He walked straight out of the house and wandered about the streets for a long while. At last he found himself in Saint-Andrew-des-Arts Place; then he took his way to Suger Street, and opened the latch of an old-fashioned door. He found himself in a dark and dirty passage. A man came down it to meet him, and recognising him, greeted him.
"How are you, Theophrastus? What good wind blows you here?" he said in affectionate tones.
"How are you, Ambrose?" said Theophrastus gloomily.
Since they had not met for two years, they had a hundred inquiries to make of one another. Ambrose was an engraver of visiting-cards by profession. He had been a printer in the Provinces; but having put all his capital into a new invention in printing, it had not been long before he found himself a bankrupt. He was a cousin of Marceline; and Theophrastus, who was a good soul, had come to his aid in the hour of his gravest trouble.
Theophrastus sat down on a straw-seated chair in a little room which served as workshop, and was lighted by a large, dusty skylight in the ceiling.
"You 're a scientific man, Ambrose," he said, still gloomily.
"Nothing of the kind!" said Ambrose quickly.
"Yes; you are. No one could teach you anything in the matter of paper."
"Oh, yes: that's true enough. I do know paper."
"You know all papers," said Theophrastus.
"All," said Ambrose with modest pride.
"If one showed you a piece of paper you could tell the age of it?"
"Yes; I have published a monograph on the water-marks of the papers used in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Academy crowned it."
"I know it. And I have the fullest in your knowledge of papers," said Theophrastus with unrelieved gloom.
"It's well-founded; but really it's a very simple matter. The oldest papers presented at first, when they were new, a smooth, glossy surface. But soon wire-marks appeared in them, crossed at regular intervals by perpendicular lines, both reproducing the impression of the metal trellis on which the paste was spread. In the fourteenth century they had the idea of utilising this reproduction by making it a mark of the source or mill which the paper came from. With this object in view, they embroidered in brass wire on the trellis mould, initials, words, and all kinds of emblems: these are the water-marks. Every water-marked sheet of paper carries in itself its birth-certificate; but the difficulty is to decipher it. It requires a little practice: the pot, the eagle, the bell…"
Theophrastus opened his pocket-book and held out his scrap of paper with trembling fingers.
"Could you tell me the exact age of this document?" he said.
Ambrose put on his spectacles and held the paper up to the light.
"There's a date," he said. "172… The last figure is missing. It would be a paper of the eighteenth century then. Given the date within ten years, our task becomes very simple."
"Oh, I saw the date," said Theophrastus quickly. "But is this really an eighteenth-century paper? Is n't the date false? That's what I want to know."
Ambrose pointed to the middle of the scrap.
"Look," he said.
Theophrastus looked; but he saw nothing. Then Ambrose lighted a little lamp and threw its light on the document. In holding the scrap of paper between one's eyes and the lamp one distinguished in the middle of it a kind of crown.
"This paper's extremely rare, Theophrastus!" cried Ambrose in considerable excitement. "This water-mark is almost unknown, for very little of it was manufactured. The water-mark is called 'The Crown of Thorns.' This paper, my dear Theophrastus, is exactly of the year 1721."
"You are sure of it?"
"Absolutely. But how comes it that this document, which is dated 1721, is, in every part of it which is visible, in your handwriting?" cried Ambrose in a tone of amazement.
Theophrastus rose, put the document back into his pocket-book, and went out on stumbling feet, without answering.
I reproduce from the medley of documents of which his memoirs are composed the following passage:
"So now," writes Theophrastus, "I had the proof; I could no longer doubt; I had no longer the right to doubt. This scrap of paper which dated from the beginning of the eighteenth century, from the times of the Regent, this sheet which I had found, or rather had gone to seek in a prison, was truly in my own handwriting. I had written on this sheet, I, Theophrastus Longuet, late manufacturer of rubber stamps, who had only retired the week before, at the age of forty-one years, I had written on this sheet the still incomprehensible words which I read on it, in 1721! Besides, I had not really any need of Signor Petito, or of Ambrose, to assure me of it. All my being cried, 'It's your paper! It's your paper!'"
"So before being Theophrastus Longuet, the son of Jean Longuet, market-gardener at Ferté-sous-Jouarre, I had been in the past someone whom I did not know, but who was re-born in me. Yes: every now and then I 'foamed at the mouth' at remembering that I lived two hundred years ago!
"Who was I? What was then my name? I had a strange certainty that these questions would not remain unanswered for long. Was it not a fact that already things of which in my present existence I was ignorant, were rising from my past? What did certain phrases I had uttered at the Conciergerie mean? Who was Simon the Auvergnat, whose name had risen twice to my burning lips?
"Yes, yes: the name of long ago, my name, would also rise to my awakening brain; and knowing who I was, I should recall the whole of my reviving life in the past, and read the document at a glance."
Theophrastus Longuet might well be troubled in mind. He was a simple, rather dense, self-satisfied soul who had never believed in anything but rubber stamps. A good-natured, strictly honest, narrow-minded and obstinate tradesman, like the bulk of his class in France he had considered religion only fit for women; and without declaring himself an unbeliever, he had been wont to say that when one died one was dead for a long time.
He had just learned in the most convincing, palpable fashion that one was never dead.
It was indeed a blow. But he took it very well. From the moment that he remembered having been alive at the beginning of the eighteenth century, he began to regret that it was not two thousand years earlier.
That is the nature of the French tradesman; he is full of common sense; but when he does exaggerate, he passes all bounds.
In his uncertainty about his previous existence he had two definite facts to start from: the date 1721, and the Conciergerie prison. These enabled him to affirm that in 1721 he had been confined in the Conciergerie as a Prisoner of State: he could not admit for an instant that even in the wicked times of Louis XV he, Theophrastus Longuet, could possibly have been in prison for an offence against the Common Law.
Again the scrap of paper gave grounds for certain inferences. At some desperate conjuncture, possibly on the eve of his execution, he had written it and hidden it in the wall, to find it on a passing visit, two centuries later. There was nothing supernatural about that; it was merely the logical explanation of the facts of the case.
He betook himself once more to the consideration of the document. Two words in it seemed to him, naturally, of paramount importance. They were the words "Betrayal" and "Treasures."
He hoped from these two words to reconstitute his earlier personality. In the first place, it was plain that he had been rich and powerful. Only rich men bury treasures; only powerful men are betrayed. It seemed to him that it must have been a memorable, perhaps historic betrayal, of the betrayal of the First of April.
Whatever else was mysterious about the document, it was quite clear that he had been a great personage and had buried treasures.
"By Jove!" he said to himself. "Provided that no one has touched them, those treasures belong to me! If need were, with this document in my own handwriting I could establish my claim to them."
Theophrastus was not a rich man. He had retired from business with a moderate competence: a cottage in the country, with its little garden, its fountain, and its lawn. It was not much, with Marceline's occasional fits of extravagance. Decidedly the treasures would come in very useful.
At the same time we must give him the credit of being far more interested in the mystery of his personality than in the mystery of the treasures. He decided to postpone his search for them till he could definitely give a name to the personage who had been Theophrastus in 1721. To his mind this discovery, which was of chief interest to him, would be the key to all the rest.
He was somewhat astonished by the sudden disappearance of what he called his "historical instinct." It had been lacking during the earlier part of his life; but it had revealed itself to him in the cellars of the Conciergerie with the suddenness and emphasis of a clap of thunder. For a while the Other (in his mind he called the great personage he had been in the eighteenth century the "Other") had taken possession of him. The Other had been so completely master of him that he had acted with the Other's hands and spoken with his voice. It was the Other who had found the document. It was the Other who had cried, "Zounds! It's Straw Alley!" It was the Other who had called Simon the Auvergnat and then had vanished. Theophrastus did not know what had become of him. He sought in vain. He sounded himself, plumbing the depths of his being. Nothing!
Theophrastus would not stand it. He had not been troubled all his life long by any unhealthy curiosity about the beginning or end of things; he had wasted no time on the mysteries of philosophy. He had shrugged his shoulders at their futility. But since the revelation of the extraordinary fact that a man sold rubber stamps in 1911 after burying treasures in 1721, he swore to go to the end of the business. He would know. He would know everything.
His "historical instinct" seemed to have left him for the time being, he would hunt for it in books. He would assuredly end by finding out who was the mysterious personage who had been shut up in the Conciergerie in 1721 after having been betrayed on the First of April. Which First of April? That remained to discover.
Little as the selling of rubber stamps fits man for historical research, he betook himself to libraries and hunted for that personage. He studied the lives of the chief men of the period. Since he was at it, nothing was too grand for him: Princes, Peers, Statesmen, and Generals, he studied the lives of all. He paused for a while at the great financier Law, but found him too dissipated; the same objection applied to the Comte du Barry; and he was positively horrified by the thought that he might have been the Comte de Charolais, renowned for his debaucheries, whose hobby was to shoot thatchers at work on the house-roofs. For forty-eight hours he was the Cardinal de Polignac before he was disgusted to learn that that great Churchman had not been a man of stainless virtue. Whenever he did find a person whom the historians painted in the most engaging colours and adorned with the most solid virtues, that personage invariably disobliged him by not having been shut up in the Conciergerie or betrayed on the First of April.
However he had just discovered, in the Journal de Barbier, a favourite of the Regent who, strangely enough, was exactly the man he was looking for, when there came a development of his case which plunged him into a profound consternation.
He had sent Marceline down to his country cottage on the banks of the Marne, to which it was their habit to betake themselves at the beginning of July; and Adolphe had gone down to the village inn, to help her get it in order for their stay. Their absence left him freer to prosecute his researches. Then on the morning of the anniversary of his wedding-day he went down to join them at the cottage. He had called it "Azure Waves Villa," in spite of the remonstrances of Adolphe, who had urged that such a name was only suitable to a cottage by the sea. Theophrastus had been firm in the matter because, he declared, he had often been to Treport, and the sea was always green; whereas, fishing for gudgeon in the Marne, he had frequently observed that its waves were blue.
He found his wife and friend awaiting him eagerly on its threshold; and as with the air of a favourite of the Regent, he complimented Marceline on her charming appearance, he gracefully waved his green umbrella, from which he seldom allowed himself to be parted, in the fashion in which he believed the dandies waved their canes at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
He found the household in the stress of the preparations for the anniversary dinner, to which several of his friends in the neighbourhood brought their wives to do honour to Theophrastus and Marceline.
Still the favourite of the Regent, to the astonishment of Marceline and Adolphe, he found a few gracious words of compliment for each guest. Neither of them had ever seen him so shine as host before.
They dined in a tent in the garden; and the talk at once turned on fishing, a sport to which they were all devoted; and they did their best to be accurate about their exploits. M. Lopard had caught a three-pound pike; old Mlle. Taburet complained bitterly that someone had been fishing in her favourite pool; a third declared that the fish were being overfed; and there was a long discussion on ground-bait.
Theophrastus said nothing: he suddenly found these good people too middle-class for him. He would have liked to raise the level of the conversation; and he would have preferred it to deal with the matters which filled his fevered imagination.
Towards the end of dinner he found a way to set Adolphe talking of ghosts. Then Madame Lopard told them of the extraordinary doings of a somnambulist who lived near; and at once Adolphe explained the phenomena of somnambulism according to the Spiritualistic theory, and quoted Allan Kardec. Adolphe was never at a loss to explain "phenomena." Then, at last, they came to the matter to which Theophrastus was burning to bring them, the Transmigration of Souls.
Marceline observed that our reason rejected the hypothesis; and Adolphe protested vigorously: "Nothing is lost in nature," he said authoritatively. "Everything is transformed, souls and bodies alike. The transmigration of souls with a view to their purification is a belief which goes back to the remotest antiquity; and the philosophers of all ages have been careful not to deny it."
"But if one came back into a body, one would know it," said Marceline.
"Not always, only sometimes," said Adolphe confidently.
"Sometimes? Is that so?" said Theophrastus quickly; and his heart began to beat tumultuously.
"Oh, yes: there are instances—authentic instances," said Adolphe emphatically. "Ptolemy Cæsarion, Cleopatra's son and King of Egypt thirty years before Christ, recollected perfectly that he had been the philosopher Pythagoras who lived six hundred years before him."
"Impossible!" cried the ladies; and the men smiled with an air of superior wisdom.
"It's nothing to laugh at, gentlemen. It's the most serious subject in the world," said Adolphe sternly. "The actual transformation of our bodies which is the last word in Science, is in entire accord with the theory of Reincarnation. What is this theory of transformation except that living beings transform themselves into one another? Nature for ever presents herself to us as a creative flame unceasingly perfecting types, on her way to the attainment of an ideal which will be the final crown of the Law of Progress. Since Nature has only one aim, what she does for bodies, she does also for souls. I can assure you that this is the case, for I have studied this question, which is the very foundation of all sound Science."
None of the party understood Adolphe's discourse, a fact which filled him with quiet pride; but they listened to him in an ecstasy; and he was pleased to see that Theophrastus, as a rule so restive under such discussions, was listening with the liveliest interest. It was an attitude hardly to be wondered at in a man who was hearing that what seemed a wild imagining of his delirium rested on a firm scientific basis.
"The transmigration of souls was taught in India, the cradle of the human race," Adolphe continued in his most professorial tone, delighted to have caught the ear of the party. "Then it was taught in Egypt, then in Greece by Pythagoras. Plato took the doctrine from him; and adduced irrefutable proofs in his Phædo that souls do not pass into eternal exile but return to animate new bodies."
"Oh, if we could only have proofs of a fact like that!" cried Madame Sampic, the wife of the schoolmaster of Pont-aux-Dames, with enthusiasm.
"If we had, I should n't mind dying one bit," said old Mlle. Taburet, who was in mortal fear of her approaching end.
"There are proofs—irrefutable proofs," said Adolphe solemnly. "There are two: one drawn from the general order of Nature, one from human consciousness. Firstly, Nature is governed by the law of contradictions, says Plato, meaning by that that when we see in her bosom death succeed life we are compelled to believe that life succeeds death. Is that clear to you?"
"Yes, yes," cried several of the guests, without understanding a word he was saying.
"Moreover, Plato continues, since nothing can be born from nothing, if the beings we see die were never to return to life, everything would end by becoming absorbed in death, and Nature would be moving towards an eternal sleep. Have I made this first proof clear?"
"Yes, yes: the second!" cried his fellow guests, quite untruthfully.
Secondly," said Adolphe, growing absolutely pontifical, "when, after having observed the general laws of the Universe, we descend into the depths of our own being, we find the same dogma confirmed by the fact of memory. 'To learn,' cries Plato to the Universe, 'To learn is nothing else but to remember.' Since our soul learns, it is that it remembers. And what does it remember if not that it has lived before, and that it has lived in another body? 'Why should we not believe that in quitting the body which it animates at the moment, it must animate several others in succession?' I am quoting Plato word for word," said Adolphe in a tone of ringing triumph.
"And Plato is a person to be reckoned with," said Theophrastus warmly.
"Charles Fourier says," said Adolphe, moving on to the modern, "Where is the old man who does not desire not to be certain of carrying into another life the experience he has acquired in this one? To assert that this desire can never be realised is to admit that the Deity would deceive us. We must then recognise that we have lived already, before being what we are to-day, and that many more lives await us. All these lives—Fourier adds with a precision for which we cannot be sufficiently thankful—to the number of a hundred and ten are distributed over five stages of unequal extent and cover a period of eighty-one thousand years."
"Eighty-one thousand years! That's pretty filling!" interrupted M. Lopard.
"We spend twenty-seven thousand of them on our planet and the other fifty-four thousand elsewhere," explained Adolphe.
"And how long is it before we come back into another body?" asked Madame Bache.
"At least two or three thousand years, if we are to believe Allan Kardec, always supposing that we have not died a violent death. Then, especially if one has been executed, one may be reincarnated at the end of two hundred years," said Adolphe.
"That's it! They must have hanged me," said Theophrastus to himself. "Or if they did n't hang a man of my quality, they beheaded me. All the same," he went on to think, with a natural pride, "if these people here knew that they were sitting with a favourite of the Regent, or perhaps a Prince of Royal blood, how astonished and respectful they'd be! But not a bit of it: they are merely saying to themselves, 'It's Theophrastus Longuet, manufacturer of rubber stamps'; and that's enough for them.
The advent of the two waiters with the champagne cut short the dissertation of Adolphe; and though everyone had been deeply impressed by it, now they only wished to be amused.
It was then that Marceline turned to Theophrastus and begged him to sing the song with which he was wont to delight their ears at dessert on each anniversary of their wedding-day. He had sung it on their wedding-day itself; and thanks to its charm and freshness, it had been a great success. It was Beranger's Lisette.
But what was the amazement of Marceline and all the guests, when Theophrastus sprang to his feet, threw his napkin on the table, and bawled to the mistress of the house:
"As you will, Marie-Antoinette! I can refuse you nothing!"
"Gracious goodness! That voice of his has come back!" gasped Marceline.
The guests had not recovered from the shock when Theophrastus bawled to an old French air, in a voice which none of them recognised as his, his voice of the Conciergerie, bawled to the most select society from Crécy-en-Brie to Lagny-Thorigny-Pomponne:
"Bullies all! In our snug cribs
We live like fighting-cocks:
On dainties rich we splash the dibbs,
And booze we never docks.
Then guzzle, cullies, and booze away
Till Gabriel's trump on Judgment Day!"
In spite of the richness of the rhyme, no applause followed the stanza. The ladies did not clink their glasses with their knives; they stared at Theophrastus with their eyes starting out of their heads; and the eyes of Marceline projected furthest of all.
Theophrastus did not need any applause; like one possessed of a devil, he bawled on:
"Bullies all! In our snug cribs
Dan Cupid loves to dance.
He brings to help us splash the dibbs
The prettiest silk in France.
Then guzzle, cullies, and booze away
Till Gabriel's trump on Judgment Day!"
In a final triumphant roar he repeated the last couplet and prolonged the final note, his eyes on the sun, which was sinking over the edge of the horizon, laid one hand on his heart, embraced "Nature" with a sweeping gesture of the other, and bellowed:
"Then guzzle, cullies, and booze away
Till Gabriel's trump on Judgment Day!"
He sat down with an air of supreme content, and said proudly:
"What do you think of that, Marie-Antoinette?"
"Why do you call me Marie-Antoinette?" gasped the trembling Marceline.
"Because you're the prettiest of them all!" roared Theophrastus in that awful voice. "I appeal to Madame la Maréchale de Boufflers, who's a woman of taste! I appeal to all of you! And there's not one of you, by the Pope's gullet, who 'll dare to deny it! Neither the big Picard, nor the Bourbonnais, nor the Burgundian, nor Sheep's-head, nor the Cracksman, nor Parisian, nor the Provincial, nor the little Breton, nor the Feather, nor Patapon, nor Pint-pot, nor St. James's Gate, nor Gastelard, nor Iron-arm, nor Black-mug, nor even Fancy Man!"
Since Theophrastus had on his right old Mlle. Taburet, he prodded her in the ribs by way of emphasis, an action which nearly made her faint.
No one dared budge; his flaming eye chained them to their chairs; and leaning affectionately towards Mlle. Taburet, he pointed to the gasping Marceline, and said:
"Look, Mlle. Taburet, are n't I right? Who can compare with her? Pretty-Milkmaid, of Pussycat? Or even Blanche, the Bustler? Or Belle-Hélène who keeps the Harp tavern?" He turned towards Adolphe.
"Here—you—old Easy-Going!" he said with a terrifying energy. "Let's have your opinion. Look at Marie-Antoinette a moment! By the Sucking-pig! there's not one to compare with her: not Jenny Venus, the flower-seller of the Palais-Royal, nor Marie Leroy, nor mother Salomon, the pretty coffee-house-keeper of the Temple, nor Jenny Bonnefoy who's just married Veunier who keeps the Pont-Marie café. Not one of them, I tell you! Not one of them! The Slapper, Manon de Versailles, Fat-Poulteress, the Lock, Cow-with-the-Baskets, or the Bastille!"
With a bound Theophrastus was on the table; and the crockery round him smashed into a thousand pieces. He caught up a glass and bellowed:
"I drink to the queen of the nymphs! Marie-Antoinette Neron!"
He crushed the glass in his hands, cutting them in twenty places, and bowed to the company.
But the company had fled.