The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 4



Theophrastus stood on the table and gazed sheepishly round the empty tent. His fine ardour was extinguished.

But I take up the narrative in the words of his memoirs:

"I found myself on the table," he writes, "in the middle of the broken crockery, and all the company fled. My guests' rough fashion of taking leave of me had confused me a little. I wished to get down, but by a singular phenomenon, I found as much difficulty in getting down from the table as I had displayed address in mounting it. I went down on my hands and knees; and by dint of the most careful precautions reached the ground safely. I called Marceline, who did not answer; and presently I found her trembling in our bedroom. I shut the door carefully and set about explaining matters. Her appealing eyes, full of tears, demanded an explanation; and I felt it my duty as a husband to hide from her no longer my great and amazing trouble of mind.

"'My dear Marceline,' I said, 'you must be entirely at a loss to understand what happened this evening; but never mind, I don't understand it myself. Still, by putting our heads together, reinforced by our love for one another, I do not despair of arriving at the correct explanation of it.'

"Then I coaxed her to go to bed; and when at last her head rested peacefully on the pillow, I told her my story. I gave her a complete account of my visit to the cellars of the Conciergerie, concealing nothing, and describing exactly the extraordinary feelings which troubled me and the unknown force which appeared to control me. At first she said nothing; in fact she seemed to shrink away from me as if she were frightened of me; but when I came to the document in the wall which revealed the existence of the treasures, at once she asked to see it.

"I took it from my pocket-book, and showed it to her by the light of the moon, which was at its full. Like myself, like all who had already seen it, she recognised my handwriting; and crossed herself for all the world as if she suspected something diabolical in it.

"However the sight of the document seemed to relieve her; and at once she said that it was most fortunate that we had at hand an expert in Spiritualism, that Adolphe would be of the greatest service to us in this difficult matter. We had the paper on the bed before us in the moonlight; and in the presence of this unshakable witness, she was presently compelled to admit that I was a reincarnated soul dating from two hundred years before.

"Then, as I was once more asking who I could have been, she annoyed me for the first time since our marriage.

"'Poor Theophrastus, you could n't have been up to much,' she said.

"'And why not?' I said sharply, for I was nettled.

"'Because, dear, this evening you sang a song in slang; and the ladies whose names you mentioned certainly could n't have belonged to the Aristocracy. When one associates with the Slapper, the Lock, and Manon of Versailles, one can't be up to much.'

"She said this in a tone of contempt which I put down to jealousy.

"'But I also spoke of La Maréchale de Boufflers,' I said again rather sharply. 'And you ought to know that in the time of the Regent all the ladies of the Court had some queer nickname. It's my belief, on the contrary, that I was a man of quality—what do you say to a favourite of the Regent?'

"I spoke rather huffily; and she gave me a kiss, and admitted that there was a good deal in what I said.

"The next morning she repeated her suggestion that we should take Adolphe into our confidence. She declared that his wide experience in these matters and his profound knowledge of metaphysics could not but be of the greatest help to a man who had buried treasures two hundred years ago and wished to recover them.

"'You 'll see, dear, that he's the man who 'll tell you what your name was,' she said.

"I yielded to her persuasion; and as we sat in the garden after lunch, I explained to him the inner meaning of the strange occurrence of the evening before. I took him back from the song to the document, from the document to the Conciergerie, watching the effect of the astonishing revelation on the expression of his face. It was clear that he was utterly astounded; and it appeared to me very odd that a professed Spiritualist should be so flabbergasted at finding himself face to face with a retired man of business, sound in mind and body, who claimed to have existed two hundred years before. He said that my behaviour at yesterday's dinner and the incomprehensible phrases to which I had given utterance at the Conciergerie were indeed calculated to prepare him for such a confidence, but as a matter of fact he had not been expecting anything of the kind, and was entirely nonplussed. He would like to have actually in his hand the proofs of such a phenomenon.

"I took out my document and handed it to him. He could not deny its authenticity; he recognised the handwriting. Indeed that recognition drew a sharp explanation from him; and I asked him the reason of it. He answered that my handwriting on a document two hundred years old explained a heap of things.

"'What things?' I said.

"He confessed loyally that till that moment he had never understood my handwriting and that it had always been impossible for him to see any connection between it and my character.

"'Is that so?' I said. 'And what is your conception of my character, Adolphe?'

"'Well, you won't be angry, if I'm frank with you?' he said, hesitating.

"'Of course not,' I said.

"On this assurance he described my character: it was that of a worthy business man, an honest merchant, an excellent husband, but of a man incapable of displaying any firmness, strength of mind, or energy. He went on to say that my timidity was excessive, and that my kindness of heart, to which he was fully alive, was always apt to degenerate into sheer feebleness.

"It was not a flattering portrait; and it made me blush for myself.

"'And now,' said I, hiding my mortification, 'you 've told me what you think of my character: what do you think of my handwriting?'

"'It's the exact opposite of your character,' he said quickly. 'It expresses every sentiment utterly opposed to your nature as I know it. In fact, I can't think of a more direct antithesis than your character and your handwriting. It must be, then, that you have n't the handwriting which goes with your actual character, but the handwriting of the Other.'

"I might have been angry, if Signor Petito had not told me much the same thing; as it was, I exclaimed, 'Oh, this is very interesting! The Other, then, was a man of energy?'

"I thought to myself that the Other must have been some great leader. Then Adolphe went on; and as long as I live I shall never forget his words, so painful did I find them:

"'Everything shows, these thin strokes, the way they are joined to one another, their manner of rising, mounting, topping one another, energy, strength of will, pigheadedness, harshness, ardour, activity, ambition… for evil.'

"I was dismayed; but in a flash of genius I cried:

"'What is evil? What is good? If Attila had known how to write, he might have had the handwriting of Napoleon!'

"'Attila was called "the flail of God,"' he said.

"'And Napoleon was the flail of men,' I retorted on the instant.

"I was hard put to it to restrain my anger; but I asserted that Theophrastus Longuet could only be an honest man before this life, during this life, and after this life.

"My dear wife agreed with me, warmly. Adolphe saw that he had gone too far, and apologised."