The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 7



On the morrow of this terrible discovery Theophrastus and Marceline sought once more the calm joys of Azure Waves Villa. Theophrastus had not said a word of the shocking business; and Marceline had not dared question him about it so that she was still ignorant of their dreadful misfortune. A blank consternation reigned perpetually on his gentle face; and every now and then tears filled his kind eyes.

Adolphe, who had remained in Paris to make researches into the life of the famous King Of Thieves, was to join them in a couple of days; and the hours till his coming passed gloomily indeed: Marceline pottered about the house, busy with her household tasks; Theophrastus silently prepared his fishing-tackle, and on the afternoon of the second day fished with very little luck.

But the third day dawned bright and sunny; and Theophrastus, who had passed a good night, showed an easier face of less dismayed expression; about his lips hovered a shadow of a smile. Adolphe Lecamus came to Esbly station by the 11.46 train, and was welcomed with transports of joy. They went straight to déjeuner, and did not rise from the table till two o'clock. Marceline once more breathed peacefully in the presence of their faithful friend; and Theophrastus regaled him with a detailed account of his afternoon's impassioned, but unsuccessful, fishing. M. Lecamus said little; but after his coffee he helped himself to a third glass of a curaçoa which he appreciated far more highly than it deserved.

After lunch Theophrastus loaded himself with rods, lines, and bait; Adolphe took the landing-net; they bade Marceline good-bye; and walked down to the Marne with the quiet gait of men who have lunched well.

"I have got everything ready for your afternoon's sport," said Theophrastus, when they reached its banks. "While you fish I will listen to your news and amuse myself by trolling. It's all I'm fit for. I 've a can full of minnows under the willows. I am prepared for the worst."

Adolphe said nothing; and when he was baiting his hook, Theophrastus said, with a touch of impatience in his tone, "Well?"

"Well, my news is good and bad," said Adolphe. "But I must warn you that it's more bad than good: no doubt they have invented a good many stories about you; but the truth is bad enough for anything."

"Your information is correct?" said Theophrastus with a sigh.

"I went to the source, the original documents," said Adolphe. "I 'll tell you what I learned; and you can set me right if I go wrong."

"Go on," said Theophrastus in a tone of patient resignation. "I must make the best of it."

"In the first place you were born in the month of October, 1693, and you are named Louis-Dominique Cartouche—"

"There's no point in calling me Cartouche," interrupted Theophrastus, pulling a minnow out of the bait-can. "There's no reason anyone should know it. You know what these country people are: they'd laugh at the idea. Call me the Child: I prefer it."

"You agree that Cartouche is your real name and not a nickname?" persisted Adolphe.

"Cut it out! Cut it out! It's a vile name!" said Theophrastus impatiently.

"They relate that you were well educated at Clermont College and were a pupil there at the same time as Voltaire. But that's a mere legend: unless you learnt to read from the gipsies, you never learnt to read at all."

"I like that!" cried Theophrastus. "How could I have learnt to write unless I knew how to read? And if I did n't know how to write, how could I have written the document I hid in the cellars of the Conciergerie?"

"That's reasonable enough. But at your trial—"

"Did I have a trial?" interrupted Theophrastus eagerly.

"I should think you did—a very famous trial!" said Adolphe. "And at your trial you declared that you did not know how to write. You signed all your depositions with a cross, and you never wrote a line to a single soul."

"Because one never should put anything in writing," said Theophrastus firmly. "I was doubtless afraid to compromise myself. None the less the document exists."

"That's true. But let us go back to your eleventh year. One day you went with some of your school-fellows to Saint-Laurent fair—"

"Look here, Adolphe: could n't you put it differently? You keep saying, 'You went with your school-fellows to Saint-Laurent fair' … 'You were born in 1693' … 'You were a school-fellow of Voltaire.' After all, though I admit I was Car—" he stopped short—"the Child, I am also Theophrastus Longuet; and I can assure you that Theophrastus Longuet is not at all flattered at having been Car—the Child. Give everyone his due. I should be much obliged if you'd put it that 'The Child went with his school-fellows.'"

"Certainly—certainly. At Saint-Laurent fair little Cartouche—"

"The Child!"

"But you weren't yet called the Child—you weren't called the Child till you were a man—"

"Well, say, 'Little Louis-Dominique.'"

"Louis-Dominique fell among a troop of gipsies—"

"That shows you that parents ought never to let their children go to fairs alone," said Theophrastus solemnly.

"The gipsies carried him off; they stole him—"

"Poor little Louis-Dominique: he deserves our pity," said Theophrastus in a tone of warm compassion. "Do they express pity for him in the books?"

"They say that he made no difficulties about being stolen."

"And what do they know about it!" cried Theophrastus indignantly.

"Well, the gipsies taught him cudgel-play, fencing, pistol-shooting, the art of springing from roof to roof, juggling, tumbling—"

"All very useful things," said Theophrastus in a tone of approval.

"They taught him to empty the pockets of tradesmen and gentlemen without their perceiving it. Oh, he was a nice boy! No one could touch him at collaring handkerchiefs, snuff-boxes, watches, sword-knots—"

"That was not at all nice!" cried Theophrastus in scandalised tones.

"Oh! If that were all!" said Adolphe gloomily. "The troop of gipsies was at Rouen, when Louis-Dominique fell ill."

"Poor little boy! He was never meant for such a life," cried Theophrastus compassionately.

"He was sent to the Rouen hospital; and there a brother of his father found him. He recognised him, embraced him with tears of joy, and swore to restore him to his parents."

"A fine fellow that uncle! Louis-Dominique was saved!" cried Theophrastus joyfully.

M. Lecamus lost patience, turned sharply on Theophrastus and begged him to cease his continual interruptions, declaring that it would take him a good ten years to tell the story of Cartouche, if he could not bring himself to listen without these comments.

"It's all very well for you to say that!" said Theophrastus with some heat. "But I should like to see you in my place! However, I 'll do as you want; but just tell me first if Cartouche was as redoubtable as they say: was he a brigand chief?"

"He was indeed."

"Of many brigands?"

"At Paris alone he commanded about three thousand men."

"Three thousand? Goodness! That's a lot!"

"You had more than fifty lieutenants; and there were always about a city twenty men dressed exactly like you—in a reddish brown coat, lined with amaranthine silk, and wearing a patch of black cloth over the left eye—to put the police off your track."

"Oh, ho! it was a household of some size!" said Theophrastus, in a tone of irrepressible pride.

"They attribute to you more than a hundred and fifty murders by your own hand."

All this while Theophrastus had been trolling with a minnow without having had the slightest reason to suspect the existence of any fish in the waters of the Marne with the slightest appetite for his living bait. Of a sudden, the float which the minnow was drawing gently along among the green hearts of the water-lilies seemed smitten with frenzy. It leapt out of the water and plunged into it again, with such an unexpected swiftness and in such a resolute haste that it disappeared in the depths, carrying with it all the line which united it to the rod which united it to the hand of Theophrastus. The unfortunate thing was that after having taken after it all the line, it also took with it all the rod—with the result that nothing whatever united it any longer to the empty hand of Theophrastus.

"The blackguard!" cried Theophrastus, with a gesture of despair, in such a manner that it is impossible to say whether he used that strong expression, so rare in his mouth, about the murderer of the past or the fish of the present.

He added however: "It must have weighed a good four pounds!"

Taking everything into account, Theophrastus appeared to regret the loss of his fish more bitterly than his hundred and fifty murders. Adolphe condoled with him and went on with his story.

"This good uncle," he said, "rescued little Cartouche from his wretched condition, took him from the Rouen hospital, and restored him to his parents. There was joy in Cabbage-Bridge Street—it was at number nine Cabbage-Bridge Street that little Cartouche was born and his father followed the trade of cooper. Louis-Dominique, warned by his early misfortunes, swore that for the future there should not be a more obedient son or steadier apprentice than he in all Paris. He helped his good father make casks; and it was a pleasure to see him ply the hammer and adze from early dawn to dewy eve. He seemed to be making it his first business to forget his disastrous truancy. The few months he had passed in the company of the gipsies had however been of some service to him in that they had taught him some of the arts of pleasing; and in the dinner hour he would amuse his fellow workmen by conjuring tricks, and on holidays there was a rush to invite his family to dinner in order that the company might be amused by his dexterity and humour. He was a great success in the neighbourhood; and his growing renown filled him with pride.

"In these occupations he reached that happy age at which the least sensible of human beings feels his beating heart awake the tenderest sentiments in him; and Louis-Dominique fell in love. The object of his affections was charming. She was a little milliner of Portefoin Street, with blue eyes, golden hair, a slender figure, and coquettish in the extreme—"

"But I see nothing wrong in all this," Theophrastus interrupted. "It's all very natural, and shows no signs of depravity whatever. How he turned out so badly passes my comprehension."

Adolphe looked at him gloomily and said, "I've just told you that the little milliner was a coquette. She was fond of dress and finery and trinkets, and burned to outshine her friends. Very soon the modest earnings of Louis-Dominique did not suffice to pay for her fancies—"

"Oh, these women!" cried Theophrastus, clenching his fists.

"You seem to forget that you have a wife who is your chief joy and pride," said Adolphe with some severity.

"That's true," said Theophrastus. "But you forget that I am as deeply interested in the adventures of the Child as if they were my own; and I am naturally irritated to see him so seriously compromise his future for the sake of a little milliner of Portefoin Street."

"Well, presently he robbed his father; and his father was not long finding it out. He obtained an Order of Committal by which he could make his son enter the Convent of the Lazarists of the Faubourg Saint-Denis, which was really a House of Correction."

"Just like parents!" said Theophrastus bitterly. "Instead of combating the evil instincts of their children by kindness, they drive them to despair by shutting them up in these villainous reformatories, where they only find bad examples, and where the spirit of revolt ferments, gathers force, boils over, and suffocates every other sentiment in their innocent young souls. I'd bet anything that if they had not shut up Louis-Dominique in a House of Correction, none of the rest would have followed!"

"You need n't worry about that," said Adolphe drily. "Louis-Dominique was not shut up in a House of Correction."

"How did that come about?" said Theophrastus in a less eloquent tone.

"His father did not inform him of his discovery of his thefts, but one Sunday morning he invited him to come for a stroll. Louis-Dominique went with him with pleasure, for he was in a very good temper and had put on his best clothes with the intention of taking his sweetheart to the Palais-Royal in the afternoon. But when his father took the way to the Faubourg Saint-Denis, Louis-Dominique began to prick up his ears. He knew that at the end of the Faubourg were the Lazarists; and he also knew that parents sometimes took their children to the Lazarists. However, he showed none of the distrust which sprang from his uneasy conscience; but when they came to the corner of Paradise Street, and the buildings of Saint-Lazare rose before them, it seemed to Louis-Dominique that his father wore a strained air; and he took an instant dislike to the neighbourhood. He lagged a little behind.

"When his father turned to look for him, Louis-Dominique had disappeared; and he was never to see him again."

"And quite right too!" cried Theophrastus hotly. "In his place I should have done exactly the same!"

"But you were in his place," said Adolphe.

"Ah, yes—yes—of course I was! I keep

P 100--The man with the black feather.jpg
Theophratus still gazed in wonder

See page 157

forgetting it," said Theophrastus with less heat.

"Well, you were next heard of in a disreputable house on the other side of the Seine. Your pretty manners were found pleasing by frequenters of the Three Tuns tavern at the corner of Rat Street. But since there was no credit on that side of the Seine, you were presently under the necessity of using the accomplishments you had learned from the gipsies and betook yourself to lightening the pockets of passers-by of everything that weighed them down: snuff-boxes, purses, handkerchiefs, bon-bon boxes, and patch-boxes.

"After a while you became the confederate of a rascal of the name Galichon, who had taken a great fancy to you. You married his wife's sister. Marriage became quite a habit of yours; for, when at the end of six months Galichon, his wife, and his wife's sister were condemned to the galleys, you married an uncommonly clever pickpocket of Bucherie Street, and with her pursued your trade in the Palais-Royal."

"Disgraceful!" cried Theophrastus, overwhelmed with shame.

"But presently you were blown upon, and compelled to put your cunning at the disposal of the recruiting sergeants. The method of recruiting in those days was quite simple: the recruiting sergeants, to whom one brought simple young fellows or ragged ne'er-do-wells without a home, made everybody drunk; and when they awoke next morning, sober, they found that they had enlisted; and off to the wars they had to go. You provided the recruiting sergeants with recruits at a fixed price. But you were caught in your own trap; for having brought two young fellows to a recruiting sergeant one evening, you made merry with them at a tavern called 'the Sweethearts of Montrueil,' and awoke next morning to find that you had signed on yourself, you were the recruiter recruited."

"Well, I don't complain of that," said Theophrastus. "I always had a taste for the army. Besides, if I signed on, it proves that I could write; and you can tell the historians so from me."

A clock at Esbly chimed half-past six, and warned them that it was time to go home to dinner.

Adolphe broke off his story and took his rod to pieces; and they started for home.

On the way Theophrastus said: "Tell me, Adolphe: what was I like? I'm curious to know. I was a fine man, was n't I? Big and well made?"

"You are like that on the stage in that piece of Ennery's. But, as a matter of fact, you were, according to the poet Granval, a man who knew you well and chanted your glory—"

"My what?" cried Theophrastus.

"Your sanguinary glory—you were:

'Brown, dried-up, thin, and small, by courage great,
Reckless and brisk, robust, alert, adroit.'"

Theophrastus frowned as if he would have preferred a more romantic picture; then he said, "You have n't told me how you got hold of that portrait in the house in Guénégaud Street."

"It's a copy of a photograph by Nadar."

"But how on earth did Nadar take my photograph?" cried Theophrastus in extreme surprise.

"He took it from a wax mask which must have been very like you, since it was moulded from your face by the order of the Regent. Nadar photographed this mask on the 17th of January, 1859."

"And where is it to be found?" said Theophrastus eagerly.

"At the Château de Saint-Germain."

"I must see that mask!" cried Theophrastus, "I must see it and touch it! We will go to Saint-Germain to-morrow."

At that moment the smiling Marceline opened the door of Azure Waves Villa for them.