The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 6



The three friends stared at the three watches, the six handkerchiefs, the four pocket-books, and the eighteen purses in a blank and silent consternation.

There was indeed nothing to be said.

A dreadful despair rested on the face of Theophrastus; but he was the first to break the heavy silence.

"My pockets are quite empty," he said.

"Oh, Theophrastus—Theophrastus!" moaned Marceline reproachfully.

"My poor friend," said Adolphe; and he groaned.

Theophrastus wiped away the cold sweat from his brow with a handkerchief of which he did not know the owner.

"I see what it is," he said in a despairing tone. "I 've had my Black Feather."

Marceline and Adolphe said nothing; they were utterly overwhelmed.

Theophrastus looked from one to the other and wiped the glasses of his spectacles. His face cleared a little; and then he said with a faint smile:

"Perhaps after all, in those days, it was a parlour game."

He stuck the index finger of his right hand into his mouth, with him a sign of grave preoccupation of spirit.

Marceline heaved a deep sigh and said, "Take your finger out of your mouth, dear, and tell us how it came about that you had on you three watches, six handkerchiefs, four pocket-books, and eighteen purses, without counting the handkerchief and pocket-book of Commissary Mifroid. I turned your pockets out this morning to brush the linings; and as usual there was nothing in them but a few scraps of tobacco."

"There was a large gathering in the Place de la Concorde. I plunged into it; and I came out of it with all these things. It's quite simple," said Theophrastus.

"And what are we going to do with them?" said Adolphe in solemn tones.

"What do you want me to do with them?" said Theophrastus sharply, for he was recovering a little from the shock. "You don't suppose I'm going to keep them! Is it my habit to keep things which don't belong to me? I'm an honest man; and I have never wronged a soul. You 'll take these things to your friend the Commissary of Police. It will be easy enough for him to find the owners."

"And what am I to tell him?" said Adolphe with a harried air.

"Anything you like!" cried Theophrastus, beginning to lose his temper. "Does an honest cabman who finds a pocket-book and fifty thousand francs in his cab and takes them to the Police Station, bother about what he is going to tell the inspector? He says, 'I 've found this in my cab,' and that's enough. He even gets a reward. All you have to say is: 'My friend Longuet asked me to bring you these things which he found in his pocket, and he does n't ask for any reward.'"

He spoke in a tone of impatient contempt for the intelligence of Adolphe, a tone to which Adolphe was quite unused. Adolphe frowned with ruffled dignity and was about to retort sharply, when Marceline kicked him gently under the table, a little kick which said plainly: "Theophrastus is going off his head! Come, friend, to his rescue!"

Adolphe understood the message of that little shoe: the frown faded from his face, leaving on it only an expression of supernal gloom; he looked at the eighteen purses, scratched his nose, and coughed. Then he gazed at Theophrastus and said in very solemn tones:

"What has just happened, Theophrastus, is not natural. We must try to find the explanation of it; we must force ourselves to find the explanation. It's no use shutting our eyes; we must open them, as wide as we can, to the misfortune, if it is misfortune, in order to battle with it."

"What misfortune?" said Theophrastus, suddenly becoming his timid self again, and catching distressfully at Marceline's hand.

"It's always a misfortune to have other people's property in one's pocket," said Adolphe gloomily.

"And what else is there in the pockets of conjurors?" cried Theophrastus with fresh violence. "And conjurors are very honest men; and Theophrastus Longuet is a very honest man! By the throttle of Madame Phalaris, he is!"

He shouted this out; then fell back exhausted in his chair.

There was a gloomy silence. Presently he sat up again, and with tears in his eyes said plaintively:

"I feel that Adolphe is right. I am threatened by some great misfortune and I don't know what it is—I don't know what it is!"

He burst into tears; and Marceline and Adolphe strove in vain to comfort him. But after a while he dried his tears, grasped a hand of either, and said in a firmer voice:

"Swear—swear never to abandon me whatever happens."

They promised in all good faith; and the assurance seemed to cheer him a little. Then Adolphe asked him to let him see the document again; and he fetched it. Adolphe spread it out before him and studied it intently. Presently he nodded his head sagely and said:

"Do you ever dream, Theophrastus?"

"Do I ever dream? Well, I suppose I do sometimes. But my digestion is so good that I hardly ever remember my dreams."

"Never?" persisted Adolphe.

"Oh, I could n't go so far as to say never," said Theophrastus. "In fact, I remember having dreamt four or five times in my life. I remember it because I always woke up at the same point in the dream; and it was always the same dream. But how on earth does it affect this business which is worrying us?"

"Dreams have never been explained by Science," said Adolphe solemnly. "It fancies that it has said everything when it has ascribed them to the effect of the imagination. But it gives us no explanation of the quite clear and distinct visions we sometimes have which have nothing whatever to do with the events or preoccupations of the previous day. In particular how are we to account for those visions of actually existing things which one has never seen in the waking state, things of which one has never even thought? Who will dare to say that they are not retrospective visions of events which have taken place before our present existence?"

"As a matter of fact, Adolphe, I can assure you that the things of which I dream—and I remember now that I have dreamt of them three times—are perhaps real in the past or future, but that I have never seen them in the present."

"You understand my point," said Adolphe in a gratified tone. "But what are these things you have dreamt of but never seen?"

"That won't take long to tell and thank goodness for it, for they 're not particularly pleasant. I dreamt that I was married to a wife whom I called Marie-Antoinette and who annoyed me extremely."

"And then?" said Adolphe, whose eyes never quitted the document.

"And then I cut her up into little bits," said Theophrastus, blushing faintly.

"What a horrible thing to do!" cried Marceline.

"As a matter of fact it was rather horrible," said Theophrastus. "And then I put the pieces into a basket and was going to throw them into the Seine near the little bridge of the Hôtel-de-Ville. At that point I awoke; and I was jolly glad to awake, for it wasn't a pleasant dream."

"It's awful!" cried Adolphe; and he banged his fist down on the table.

"Is n't it?" said Marceline.

"Not the dream! But I've just succeeded in reading the whole of the first line of the document! That's what's awful!" groaned Adolphe.

"What is it? What have you found out?" cried Theophrastus in a panic-stricken tone as he sprang up to pore over the document.

"It reads I rt uried my treasures. And you don't know what that rt stands for? Well, I'm not going to tell you till I have made absolutely sure. I shall be absolutely sure by to-morrow. To-morrow, Theophrastus, at two o'clock, meet me at the corner of Guénégaud and Mazarine Streets." He rose. "In the meantime I 'll take these things along to my friend Mifroid, who will restore them to their owners. Good-night, and courage, Theophrastus—above everything—courage!"

He shook Theophrastus' hand, with the lingering pressure with which one shakes the hand of a relation of the corpse at a funeral, and departed.

That night Theophrastus did not sleep. While Marceline breathed peacefully by his side, he lay awake staring into the darkness. His own breathing was irregular and broken by deep sighs. A heavy oppression weighed on his heart.

The day dawned on Paris gloomily faint and dirty, throwing over its buildings a sinister veil. In vain did the summer sun strive to penetrate that thick and smoky air. Noon, the hour of its triumph, showed only a dull ball, rolling ingloriously in a sulphurous mist.

At six o'clock Theophrastus suddenly jumped out of bed, and awoke Marceline by a burst of insensate laughter. She asked the reason of his strange mirth; and he answered that Nature had not given him a mouth large enough to laugh at the face Commissary Mifroid, who did not believe in pickpockets, would pull at the sight of Adolphe emptying his pockets of the collection with which he had stuffed them.

Then he went on to say in the tone of an official instructor:

"It's the work of a child to take a purse out of a pocket. If you can't get your hand in, insert a straw covered with bird-lime. That device is excellent in crowd-work."

Marceline sat up in bed and stared at him. Theophrastus had never worn a more natural air. He was pulling on his pants.

"There's a button off the waist-band," he grumbled.

"You terrify me, Theophrastus!" said Marceline in a shaky voice.

"And a good job too!" said her husband, going down on his hands and knees to recover his braces which had fallen under the bed. "One only does good work with a good woman. And I can't do anything with you. You will never be a good bustler."

"A good—what?"

"A good bustler. Next time you go to the Maison-Dorée, buy me a pair of braces. These are rotten. You don't even know what a bustler is. You ought to be ashamed of yourself at your age. A bustler is a person of your sex who is clever at hiding anything one gets hold of in her frock. I never had a better bustler than Jenny Venus."

"My poor child!" groaned Marceline.

An access of furious anger seized Theophrastus. He dashed at the bed brandishing the button-hook, and cried:

"You know—you know perfectly well that I've forbidden anyone to call me 'Child' ever since the death of Jenny Venus!"

Marceline promised that she would never do it again. But oh, how profoundly she regretted having become, along with her husband, the owner of a document which promised them treasures, but which brought into their home trouble, fear, violence, madness, and the inexplicable. After Marie-Antoinette came Jenny Venus. She was unacquainted with either lady; and she had no desire to make their acquaintance. But Theophrastus spoke of them with a disquieting familiarity. In truth the unexpected phrases which fell from his lips, while filling her with a dread of the Theophrastus of two hundred years ago, made her regret indeed the Theophrastus, so easy to understand, of a few days before. She thought of the theory of Reincarnation with the unkindest feelings.

Theophrastus had finished dressing. He complained bitterly that a tear in his flowered waistcoat had not been mended. Then he said that he would not lunch at home, since he had an appointment to meet his friend Old Easy-Going, at the corner of Guénégaud and Mazarine Streets, to play a trick on a Monsieur de Traneuse, an engineer officer for whom he had a strong dislike; but since the appointment was after lunch, he thought he would go and take the air at the Chopinettes mill first.

Marceline was trembling pitiably. She hardly had the strength to say: "It's very bad weather to go to Chopinettes mill."

"Bah! I'll leave my green umbrella at home and take my Black Feather with me," said Theophrastus.

With that he went out, putting the finishing touch to his cravat as he went.

On the staircase he met Signor Petito; and they went down it together. Signor Petito greeted M. Longuet with the most respectful politeness, complained of the state of the weather, and paid him a thousand compliments on his air of good health. Theophrastus grumpily to these polite advances; and since, when they came out of the house, Signor Petito showed no intention of quitting him, he asked unpleasantly whether the Signora Petito could not be persuaded to learn some other infernal tune besides the Carnival of Venice. Signor Petito affected not to notice his carping tone and replied with an amiable smile that she was just going to begin to practise The Star of Love, and she would be charmed in the future to devote her talent to any piece which took M. Longuet's fancy. Then even more amiably he said:

"And which way are you going, M. Longuet?"

Theophrastus looked at him with suspicious disfavour and answered:

"I was going to take a turn round Chopinettes mill; but the weather is certainly too bad for that: so I am going down to the Porkers."

"To the Porkers?" said Signor Petito quickly; and he was going to ask where the Porkers was, when he thought better of it, and said, "So am I."

"Indeed? Indeed?" said Theophrastus, eyeing him strangely. "So you 're going to the Porkers too?"

"There or elsewhere: it's all the same to me," said Signor Petito; and he laughed a most amiable laugh.

They walked along side by side in silence for a while, till Signor Petito mustered up his courage to ask a question:

"And how are you getting on with your treasures, M. Longuet?" he said.

Theophrastus turned on him with a savage air, and cried, "What the deuce has it got to do with you?"

"Don't you remember bringing, a little while ago, for my opinion on the handwriting—"

"I remember quite well! But you—you'd jolly well better forget!" interrupted Theophrastus in a tone of dry menace; and he opened his green umbrella.

Signor Petito, entirely unabashed, took shelter under it, saying amiably, "Oh, I did n't ask the question to annoy you, M. Longuet."

They had reached the corner of Martyrs' Street in the Trudaine Avenue; and they turned down it, Theophrastus glowering.

Then he said, "I 've an appointment at the Sucking-Pig tavern next to the Porkers' chapel, and here we are, Signor Petito."

"But that's Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and not Porkers' chapel at all!" cried Signor Petito.

"I don't like to be contradicted to my face!" snarled Theophrastus, looking at him with a very evil eye and baring his teeth.

Signor Petito protested that he had no intention in the world of doing anything of the kind.

"To my face—I'm well aware that mine is a valuable head," said Theophrastus, regarding Signor Petito with an air which grew stranger and stranger. "Do you know how much it is worth, Signor Petito, the Child's head? No? … Well, since an opportunity offers, I'm going to tell you. And while I'm about it, I 'll tell you a little story which may be useful to you. Come into the Sucking-Pig."

"B—B—But this is the Café B—B—Boussets," stammered Signor Petito, who was growing frightened.

"The mist has muddled you. You've missed your way among all these ploughed fields," said Theophrastus, sitting down on a bench before one of the tables. Then he laughed on a very sinister note, and went on: "So you wanted to annoy me, M. Petito. So much the worse for you. What will you have to drink? A glass of ratafia? The excellent Madame Taconet [1] who keeps this tavern has set aside a bottle for me which will warm your in'ards."

And as a waiter in his white apron came up to the table, without a change of tone Theophrastus added, "Two draught lagers; and we don't want them all froth."

Thus, without any transition, without even noticing it, did he join his present-day existence to his existence of two hundred years before. Signor Petito was already full of the liveliest regret at having insisted on accompanying a man who fancied he was in the Sucking-Pig tavern, when the waiter brought the beer and set it on the table.

Theophrastus said, "My head is worth twenty thousand francs; and well you know it!"

He accompanied the "And well you know it!" with a bang of his fist on the table which made the glasses ring and Signor Petito jump.

"Don't be frightened, Signor Petito: your beer isn't spilt," Theophrastus went on in a jeering tone. "You know then, my good sir, that my head is worth twenty thousand francs; but you'd better act as if you didn't, or some unpleasantness will befall you. I promised you a story. Well, here it is:

"Just about two hundred years ago I was walking along Vaugirard Street, with my hands in my pockets and without a weapon of any kind on me, not even a sword, when a man accosted me at the corner of the street, greeted me with all the politeness imaginable and declared that my face had taken his fancy—just as you said and did, Signor Petito!—that his name was Bidel, and all his friends called him Good Old Bidel, and he had a secret to confide to me. I encouraged him with a friendly tap on the shoulder." At this point Theophrastus fetched Signor Petito such a thump on the shoulder that it drew a short howl from him; and he pulled out his money under the constraining desire to go out and see if the mist had dispersed. "Put away your money, Signor Petito, I'm paying for the drinks!" said Theophrastus sharply; and he went on in his easy, conversational tone. "Well, Good Old Bidel, encouraged by my friendly tap," Signor Petito slipped along the bench, "told me his secret. He whispered in my ear that the Regent had offered twenty thousand francs to anyone who would arrest the Child; that he, Good Old Bidel, knew where the Child was hiding; that I looked to him to be a man of courage, and that with my help he ought to go pretty near getting that twenty thousand francs. We would share it." Theophrastus paused to laugh a laugh which froze Signor Petito's blood. "Good Old Bidel was not in luck's way, Signor Petito, for I too knew where the Child was hiding, since the Child was me!" Signor Petito did not believe a word of it. It was his firm opinion that M. Longuet had ceased to be a child months ago. But he dared not say so. "I answered Good Old Bidel that it was a regular windfall, and that I was thankful indeed that he had chanced on me; and I begged him to take me straight to the place where the Child was hiding. He said:

"'To-night the Child will sleep at the Capucins, at the inn of The Golden Cross.'

"It was true, Signor Petito. Good Old Bidel's information was O.K.; and I congratulated him on it. We were passing a cutler's shop; and I went in, and under the astonished eyes of Good Old Bidel bought a little penny knife." The eyes of Theophrastus blazed; and the eyes of Signor Petito blinked. "When we came out into the street, Good Old Bidel asked me what on earth I was going to do with a little penny knife. I replied, 'With a little penny knife'"—M. Longuet moved nearer to Signor Petito; Signor Petito moved further from M. Longuet—"'one can always kill a coppers' nark!' And I jammed it into his ribs! He waved his arms round like a windmill and fell down dead!"

He laughed his blood-freezing laugh again; but Signor Petito was not attending to it: he had slipped along the bench and under it. He crawled swiftly under bench after bench, to the astonishment of the staff of the café, gained the door, plunged through it, and bolted down the street.

M. Theophrastus Longuet drained his glass and rose. He went to the desk, where Mlle. Bertha was counting the brass disks, and said to her:

"Madame Taconet,"—Mlle. Bertha asked herself with some surprise why M. Longuet called her Madame Taconet; but the question met with no response,—"if that little Petito comes here again, tell him from me that the next time I come across him, I'll clip his ears for him."

So saying, Theophrastus stroked the handle of his green umbrella as one strokes the hilt of a dagger, and went out without paying.

There can be no reasonable doubt that Theophrastus had his Black Feather.

The fog was still thick. He forgot all about lunching. He walked through the sulphurous mist as in a dream. He crossed the old Quartier d'Antin and what was formerly called Bishop's Town. When he saw dimly the towers of the Trinité, he muttered, "Ah, the towers of Cock Castle!" He was at St. Lazare station when he fancied that he was in "Little Poland." But little by little, as the mist cleared, his dream vanished with it. He had a more accurate idea of things. When he crossed the Seine at Pont-Royal, he had once more become honest Theophrastus, and when he set foot on the left bank of the river he had but a vague memory of what had happened on the other side.

But he had that memory. In fact, when he examined himself closely, he found that he was beginning to experience three different mental states: first, that which arose from his actual existence as an honest manufacturer of rubber stamps; second, that which arose from the sudden and passing resurrection of the Other; third, that which arose from memory. While the resurrection of the Other was, while it lasted, a terrible business, the memory was a pleasant and melancholy frame of mind, calculated to induce in a sorrowful heart a feeling of gentle sadness and philosophic pity.

As he turned his steps towards Guénégaud Street, he asked himself idly why Adolphe had fixed the corner of Guénégaud and Mazarine Streets as their meeting-place.

He took a round-about way to that corner, for he could not bring himself to walk along the strip of Mazarine Street where it runs along the palace of the Institute, formerly the Four Nations. He did not know the reason of this reluctance. He went round by De la Monnaie house, and so came into Guénégaud Street. Adolphe was awaiting him, with a very gloomy face, at the corner, and slipped his arm into his.

"Have you ever heard anyone speak of someone called the Child, Adolphe?" said Theophrastus, after they had greeted one another.

"I have indeed," said Adolphe in a tone as gloomy as his face. "And I know his name, his family name."

"Ah, what is it?" said Theophrastus anxiously.

For all reply Adolphe pushed him along a little passage leading to an old house in Guénégaud Street, a few doors off De la Monnaie house. They went into the house, up a shaky staircase, and into a room in which the window curtains were drawn. It had been darkened purposely. But on a little table in a corner a flickering candle threw its light on a portrait.

It was the portrait of a man of thirty, of a powerful face, with "flashing" eyes. The brow was high, the nose big, the strong, square chin shaven; the large mouth was surmounted by a bristly moustache. On the bushy hair was a cap of wool or rough leather; and the dress appeared to be that of a convict. A coarse linen shirt was half open across the hairy chest.

"Goodness!" said Theophrastus without raising his voice. "How did my portrait get into this house?"

"Your portrait?" cried Adolphe. "Are you sure?"

"Who could be surer than I?" said Theophrastus calmly.

"Well—well—" said Adolphe Lecamus in a choking voice, his face contorted by an expression of the most painful emotion. "This portrait, which is your portrait, is the portrait of that great eighteenth-century king of thieves, Cartouche!"

Theophrastus stared at the portrait with eyes that opened and opened as a sickly pallor overspread his anguished face; a little grunt broke from his parted lips, and he dropped to the ground in a dead faint.

Adolphe dropped on his knees beside him, unfastened his collar, and slapped his hands vigorously. Then he blew out the candle, turned the portrait with its face to the wall, and opened the window.

Theophrastus was a long time recovering his senses. When he did, his first words were:

"On no account tell my wife, Adolphe!"

  1. Theophrastus was quite accurate in these historical details. I have discovered that a Madame Taconet did keep, two hundred years ago, the Sucking-Pig tavern, close to Porkers' chapel which was pulled down in 1800, and on its site the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette was erected. All this district, north west of the Boulevard des Italiens, was covered, two hundred years ago, with ploughed fields, market-gardens, country houses, and Porkers' village. The Sucking-Pig tavern had the worst of reputations, for Madame Taconet sheltered in it all the most abandoned ruffians in Paris.