The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 5
THEOPHRASTUS SHOWS THE BLACK FEATHER
From that day the conversations of Theophrastus, Marceline, and Adolphe were of fascinating interest to them. They pored and pored over the document; they discussed over and over again the "Cock," the "Gall," "Chopinettes," and the "Betrayal of April 1st" of the mysterious document. They soon left Azure Waves Villa and returned to Paris to ransack the libraries.
Adolphe, the great reader, was much better adapted to historical research than either Marceline or Theophrastus; and their patience was exhausted long before his.
One Sunday they were strolling along the Champs-Elysées; and both Theophrastus and Marceline had been complaining bitterly of their failure at the libraries, when Adolphe said thoughtfully:
"What use would it be to us to find approximately the spot in which the treasures are buried unless Theophrastus had his Black Feather?"
"What Black Feather? What do you mean?" said Marceline and Theophrastus with one voice.
"Let's stroll back towards the Rond-Pont; and I 'll tell you what I mean," said Adolphe.
When they were under the trees, among the throng of careless strollers, Adolphe said:
"You've heard of the water-finders?"
"Of course," they said promptly.
"Well, owing to some phenomenon, of which the explanation has not yet been discovered, these water-finders, equipped with forked hazel-twigs which they hold over the ground they are crossing, are able to see, through the different strata of the soil, the position of the spring sought, and the spot where the well must be sunk. I don't despair of getting Theophrastus to do for his treasures what the water-finders do for their springs. I shall take him to the place, and he will say, 'Here's where you dig for the treasures.'"
"But all this does not explain what you mean by my Black Feather," interrupted Theophrastus.
"I'm coming to it. I shall bring to this spot you, the treasure-seeker, as one brings the water-finder to the spot where one suspects the presence of water. I shall bring you there when you have your Black Feather."
He paused, and then went on in his professorial tone:
"I shall have to talk to you about Darwin; but you need n't be uneasy: I shan't have to talk about him for long. You 'll understand at once. You know that Darwin devoted a great part of his life to some famous experiments of which the most famous were his experiments with pigeons. Desirous of accounting for the phenomena of heredity, he studied closely the breeding of pigeons. He chose pigeons because the generations of pigeons follow one another so closely that one can draw conclusions from them in a comparatively short space of time. At the end of a certain number, call it X, of generations he found once more the same pigeon. You understand, the same pigeon, with the same defects and the same qualities, the same shape, the same structure, and the same black feather in the very place where the first pigeon had a black feather. Well, I, Adolphe Lecamus, maintain, and I will prove it to you, that to eyes opened by Darwin it is the same with souls as with bodies. At the end of a number X of generations, one finds the same soul, exactly as it was originally, with the same defects and the same qualities, with the same black feather. Do you understand?"
"Not quite," said Theophrastus apologetically.
"Yet I'm lowering myself to the level of your intelligence," said Adolphe, impatient but frank. "But it is necessary to distinguish between the soul which appears hereditarily and that which returns by reincarnation."
"What do you mean?" said Theophrastus rather faintly.
"An hereditary soul which revives the ancestor has always its black feather, owing to the fact that it is the result of a unique combination, since it exists in the sheath, the body, which is hereditary to the same extent. Is that clear?"
"I notice that whenever you say, 'Is that clear?' my dear Adolphe, everything seems to go as dark as pitch," said Marceline humbly.
Adolphe ground his teeth, and raised his voice:
"Whereas a soul which returns in the course of reincarnation finds itself in a body in which nothing has been prepared to receive it. The aggregate of the materials of this body have their origin in—I take Theophrastus as example—several generations of cabbage-planters—"
"Gardeners—market-gardeners!" interjected Theophrastus gently.
"—at Ferté-sous-Jouarre. The aggregate of the materials of this body may for a while impose silence on this soul, originally perhaps—I am still taking Theophrastus as an example—belonging to one of the first families in France. But there comes a time when the soul gets the upper hand; then it speaks, and shows itself in its entirety, exactly as it was originally, with its black feather."
"I understand! I understand the whole business!" cried Theophrastus joyfully.
"Then when this soul speaks in you," cried Adolphe, warming to eloquence, "you 're no longer yourself! Theophrastus Longuet has disappeared! It's the Other who is there! The Other who has the gestures, the air, the action, and the Black Feather of the Other! It's the Other who will recall exactly the mystery of the treasures! It's the Other who remembers the Other!"
"Oh, this is wonderful!" cried Theophrastus, almost in tears of joy. "I grasp now what you mean by my Black Feather. I shall have my Black Feather when I'm the Other!"
"And we will help you in the matter, dear friend," said Adolphe with unabated warmth. "But till we have disentangled the Unknown who is hidden in Theophrastus Longuet, until he is alive before our very eyes with the right amount of force, daring, and energy, until, in a word, he appears with his Black Feather, let us calmly devote ourselves to the study of this interesting document which you brought back from the Conciergerie. Let us make it our pastime to penetrate its mystery, let us fix the limits of the space in which these treasures were buried. But let us wait before ransacking the bowels of the earth till the Other, who is asleep in you, awakes and cries, 'It is here!'"
"You speak like a book, Adolphe!" cried Marceline, overwhelmed with admiration. "But can we really expect the soil in which the treasures were buried to have remained undisturbed all these years—over two hundred?"
"Woman of little faith," said Adolphe sternly, "they have been disturbing the sacred soil of the Roman Forum for over two thousand years as the soil of Paris has never been disturbed; and it was only a few years ago that they brought to light the famous rostrum from which Caius and Tiberius poured forth their eloquence … Ah, here's M. Mifroid, my friend the Commissary of Police, whom I 've so long wanted you to know. Well, this is lucky!"
A man of forty, dressed in the height of fashion and as neat as a new pin, with one white lock drawn carefully down on his unwrinkled brow, came up to them smiling, raised his hat, and shook Adolphe warmly by the hand.
"How are you?" said Adolphe cordially. "Let me introduce you to my friends. M. Mifroid—Madame Longuet—M. Longuet."
From the glance of respectful admiration which he bestowed on her charming face Marceline gathered that the Commissary of Police was also a squire of dames.
"We have often heard our friend M. Lecamus speak of you," she said with a gracious smile.
"I feel that I have known you for a long time. Every time I meet him, he talks about his friends of Gerando Street, and in such terms that the good fortune which this moment befalls me, this introduction, has been my most fervent desire," said M. Mifroid gallantly.
"I hear that you are an accomplished violinist," said Marceline, delighted with his politeness.
"Accomplished? I don't know about accomplished: I play the violin; and I am something of a sculptor and a student of philosophy—a taste which I owe to our friend M. Lecamus here. And when I passed you just now, I heard you discussing the immortality of the soul," said M. Mifroid, who wished to shine before the eyes of the pretty Marceline.
"Adolphe and I love to discuss these serious questions; and just now we were discussing the body and soul and the relations between them," said Theophrastus with a very fair imitation of the professorial air of Adolphe.
"Have n't you got beyond that?" said M. Mifroid, burning to shine. "In the eyes of Science matter and spirit are one and the same thing, that is to say, they constitute the same unity in the same Force, at once result and phenomenon, cause and effect, moving towards the same end: the Progressive Ascent of Being. You two gentlemen are the only people left to make this distinction between matter and spirit."
Theophrastus was a trifle huffed: "We do the best we can," he said stiffly.
The little party had come into the Place de la Concorde. At the top of the Rue Royale there was a large crowd of people, shouting and gesticulating.
At once Theophrastus, like a true Parisian, was on fire to learn what was going on, and plunged into the heart of the crowd.
"Mind you don't get your pockets picked!" cried Marceline after him.
"Oh, you need n't be afraid of getting your pocket picked when you 're in the company of Commissary Mifroid," said that gentleman proudly.
"That's true," said Marceline with an amiable smile. "You are here; and we run no risk at all."
"I don't know about that," said Adolphe slyly. "My friend Mifroid appears to me more dangerous than all the pickpockets on the face of the earth—to the heart."
"Ah, he will have his joke!" said M. Mifroid laughing; but he assumed his most conquering air.
Theophrastus kept them standing there for fully ten minutes before he emerged from the crowd with his eyes shining very brightly.
"It's a cab-driver who has locked his wheel with that of a motor car," he said.
"And what has happened?" said Marceline.
"Why, he can't unlock it," said Theophrastus.
"And all this crowd about a trifle like that! How silly people are!" said Marceline.
Thereupon she invited M. Mifroid to come home and dine with them. He needed but a little pressing to accept the invitation; and they strolled slowly back to Gerando Street.
The dinner was very lively, for M. Mifroid was still bent on shining; and his example spurred Adolphe to splendid emulation. It was when they were taking their coffee at the end of dinner that M. Mifroid suddenly seemed uneasy. He felt in all his pockets, trying to find his handkerchief. His search was vain; it was not there. After a final search in the pockets in the tails of his frock-coat, he ground his teeth, gave his moustache a despairing tug, and took a deep breath.
Two minutes later Theophrastus blew his nose. Marceline asked him where he had got that pretty handkerchief. M. Mifroid looked at it and saw that it was his. He laughed somewhat awkwardly, declared that it was an excellent joke, took it from Theophrastus, and put it in his pocket. Theophrastus could not understand it at all.
Suddenly M. Mifroid turned pale, and felt in his left-hand breast pocket.
"Goodness! What has become of my pocket-book?" he cried.
The explanation of its absence was entirely simple: someone had picked the pocket of the Commissary of Police of his pocket-book with five hundred francs in it. M. Mifroid did not so much regret the loss of the five hundred francs as he was furious to find himself ridiculous. Marceline made fun of him gently as she condoled with him on its loss; she could not help it. He was furious indeed.
"Let me lend you any money you want for to-night, M. Mifroid," said Theophrastus amiably.
He pulled out a pocket-book. M. Mifroid uttered a sharp cry: it was his own pocket-book!
Theophrastus turned a rich scarlet. M. Mifroid stared at him, took the pocket-book from his trembling fingers, recovered his five hundred francs, and put them in his pocket.
Then he forthwith began to make a hundred pressing occupations his excuse for taking a hurried leave of them, and said good-bye.
As he was clattering down the staircase, he called back up it, with some heat, to his friend Adolphe, who had hurried out of the flat after him:
"Whoever are these people you have introduced me to?"
Adolphe said nothing; he wiped his perspiring brow.
The clattering footsteps of M. Mifroid died away down the stairs; and he went slowly back into the dining-room. Theophrastus had just finished turning out his pockets. On the table lay three watches, six handkerchiefs, four pocket-books, containing considerable sums of money, and eighteen purses!