The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 8
THE WAX MASK
At this point I let Theophrastus once more take up the narrative.
"I had the strongest desire," he writes, "to see and touch that wax which had been moulded on my own skin; and this desire grew, if possible, stronger when Adolphe told me that the Château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye had contained the wax portrait of the famous Cartouche since the 25th of April, 1849. It had been presented to it by an Abbé Niallier, who had inherited it under the will of a Monsieur Richot, an Officer of the Household of Louis XVI, who had had it for many years. It was all the more valuable for having belonged to the Royal Family.
"This bust was moulded by a Florentine artist a few days before my execution. On it is a cap of wool or rough leather; and it is dressed in a coarse linen shirt covered with soot, and a waistcoat and a jacket of black camlet. But the most extraordinary thing about it is, that my hair and moustache were cut off after I was executed, and glued on to my mask! The portrait is enclosed in a large, deep, gilded frame, a very pretty piece of work. A sheet of Venetian glass protects the portrait; and one can still see on the frame faint traces of the arms of France.
"I asked Adolphe how he had obtained these exact details. He answered that they were the result of two days' work in the National Library.
"My hair! my moustache! my clothes! All as they were two hundred years ago! In spite of the horror with which the relics of a man who had committed so many crimes should have inspired me, I could hardly contain myself in my impatience to see and touch them. O mystery of Nature! Profound abyss of the soul! Giddy precipice of the heart! I, Theophrastus Longuet, whose name is the synonym of honour, I who was always afraid of bloodshed, I already cherished in my heart the relics of the greatest brigand in the world!
"When I recovered my senses after the sight of the portrait in Guénégaud Street, I was at first amazed not to find myself in a state of despair bitter enough to disgust me with life, and plunge me once more into the tomb. No: I did not dream of suppressing this envelope, with the face of an honest man, which in the twentieth century was labelled 'Theophrastus Longuet,' which enclosed and bore about the world the soul of Cartouche. Undoubtedly at the first moment of such a revelation the least I could do was to faint; and I did so. But instead of finding despair in my heart I found a great compassion, which not only drew tears from me for the misfortune of myself, Theophrastus, but also for Cartouche. I asked myself in fact which was having the best time of it, the honest Theophrastus dragging the brigand Cartouche about inside him or the brigand Cartouche shut up in the honest Theophrastus.
"'We must try and understand one another,' I said out loud.
"The words had scarcely passed my lips when a dazzling light broke on me, as I recalled the theory of Reincarnation which M. Lecamus had revealed to me.
"The whole object of evolution is the evolution of the reincarnate soul towards the Better. It is the Progressive Ascent of Being of which Commissary Mifroid had spoken to us with such delightful earnestness. It was quite plain that the powers who regulate the process of reincarnation had found nothing more honest on earth than the body of Theophrastus Longuet to enable the criminal soul of Cartouche to evolve towards the Better.
"I must admit that when this idea took hold of me, instead of the childish despair which had caused me to faint, I felt myself filled with a sentiment more akin to pride. I was charged by the Planetary Logos, I, the humble, honest Theophrastus, to regenerate in ideal splendour that soul of darkness and of blood, the soul of Louis-Dominique Cartouche, known as the Child. I accepted willingly, since I could not do otherwise, this unexpected mission and at once I was on my guard. I did not repeat the phrase, 'We must understand one another'; but I at once commanded Cartouche to obey Theophrastus; and I promised myself that I would give him such a time of it that I could not prevent myself from saying with a smile: 'Poor old Cartouche!'
"I confided these reflections to Adolphe, who received them with approval, but at the same time warned me against my tendency to separate Theophrastus from Cartouche.
"'You must not forget,' he said, 'that they are one. You have the instincts of Theophrastus, that is to say, of the cabbage-planters (gardeners, market-gardeners) of Ferté-sous-Jouarre. These instincts are good. But you have also the soul of Cartouche, which is detestable. Take care: war is declared. The question is, which will conquer, the soul of long ago or the instincts of to-day.'
"I asked him if the soul of Cartouche was truly altogether detestable, which would have grieved me. I was pleased to learn that it had its good points.
"'Cartouche,' said he, 'expressly forbade his men to kill, or even wound, wayfarers without some reason. When he was at work in Paris with any of his bands, and his men brought him prisoners, he spoke to them with the utmost politeness and gentleness and made them restore a part of their spoil. Sometimes the affair was confined to a mere exchange of clothes. When he found in the pockets of the coat thus exchanged letters of importance, he ran after its late owner to give them back to him, wished him a pleasant evening, and gave him the password. It was a maxim of this extraordinary man that no one ought to be robbed twice on the same night, or treated too harshly, in order that the Parisians might not take a dislike to going out in the evening.'
"Since, then, he was opposed to murder, it is clear that this man was not utterly wicked. I regret, however, that, as far as he himself was concerned, he should have had in the course of his life a hundred and fifty reasons for assassinating his contemporaries.
"But to come back to the wax mask, my friend Adolphe and myself had just descended from the train at Saint-Germain station when I fancied that I saw among a group of passengers a figure which I knew. Moved by a sentiment which was not altogether under my control, I dashed towards the group, but the figure had disappeared.
"'That form is essentially repugnant to me. Where have I seen it?' said I to myself; and Adolphe asked me the reason of my excitement. All at once I remembered.
"'I could swear that it was Signor Petito, the Professor of Italian who lives in the flat above us!' I cried. 'What is Signor Petito up to at Saint-Germain? He had better not get in my way!'
"'What is it he's done?' said Adolphe, in some surprise at the emphasis with which I uttered the last sentence.
"'Oh, nothing—nothing. Only if he gets in my way I swear to you I 'll clip his ears for him!'
"And I would have done as I said, you know.
"We went on then, without bothering any more about Signor Petito, to the Château, that wonderful Château. We went into the museum; and I was extremely annoyed to find that those chambers which knew the whole history of France, and would have served as the frame of our past, even had they been empty, should be serving to-day as a bazaar for Roman plaster casts, prehistoric arms, elephants' tusks, and bas-reliefs from the Arch of Constantine. But my annoyance turned to fury when I learnt that the mask of Cartouche was not there. I had just stealthily thrust the ferule of my green umbrella into the eye of a plaster legionary and smashed it, when an old custodian came to us and said that he was sure there was a mask of Cartouche at Saint-Germain and he thought it was in the library; but that had, for a week, been closed for repairs.
"We decided that we would return at a more favourable opportunity; for the further the mask withdrew itself, the fiercer I burned to touch it.
"We went out on to the terrace, for it was a glorious day, and plunged into the forest, down a magnificent aisle of it, which brought us to the lodges built in front of the Château by the desire of Queen Anne of Austria.
"As we reached the left corner of the wall, I thought I once more recognised, slinking into a thicket, the abominable silhouette and repulsive face of Signor Petito. Adolphe maintained that I was mistaken.
"Was it because I was treading this old soil which I knew, because I found myself in that friendly forest among those familiar trees, or was it the result of a long, suggestive conversation about old times and the people of long ago? Of a sudden memory sprang to birth in me, a very pleasant memory, as sometimes a moving remembrance of one's youthful days comes back to one, days which one believed for ever lost, buried in the memory. And then I saw quite clearly that I was the same soul, for I recalled Cartouche as if we had not been separated by two hundred years of death.
"Yes, I had the same soul, a long same soul indeed: at one end was Cartouche, at the other Theophrastus.
"I remembered the old days; and above all I remembered them when we had passed the northern wall, plunging always deeper into the forest. I threw myself down on the turf at the foot of an immemorial tree, my eyes sparkling with an amazing youthful fire, and looking round the spot I knew so well, I said:
"'Ah, Adolphe! the last time I was here my fortune was at its height. I was feared and loved by all. I was even loved, Adolphe, by my victims, I plundered them so gracefully that afterwards they went about Paris singing my praises. I was not yet a prey to that dreadful thirst for blood which was some months later to drive me to commit the most atrocious crimes. Everything went well with me, feared and loved by all, I was happy, light-hearted, of a splendid daring, magnificent in love, of the finest nature in the world, and master of Paris.
"'Do you remember that glorious September night when we broke into the house of the Ambassador of Spain, made our way into his wife's bedroom, took all her embroidered robes of silk and velvet, a buckle set with twenty-seven large diamonds (one might almost fancy that it happened yesterday), a necklace of fine pearls, six gold plates, six gold knives and forks, and ten silver-gilt goblets (what a thing what a wonderful thing, my dear Adolphe, the phenomenon of memory is!)? Do you remember how we wrapped up the jewels and plate in napkins, and went off to supper (oh, what an evening it was!) at La Belle Hélène's, who, you remember, kept the Heart tavern?
"Now why, I wonder, did I say 'You remember'? It must be that I regard you as a friend I had in those days, as trusty as yourself, of whom I was just as fond—Old Easy-Going—my favourite friend. By the throttle of Madame Phalaris! he was a fine fellow—sergeant of the City Guard and one of my lieutenants. What a lot of those City Guards I did have among my men! Why, when I was arrested, a hundred and fifty of them, officers and men, fled to the colonies for fear I should split. They had no need to: torture never drew a word from me!
"'Do you remember the night you were on duty at the Palais-Royal and stole the Regent's silver-gilt candlesticks?'"
The voice of Theophrastus died dreamily away down the vistas of the past; but M. Adolphe Lecamus said nothing: his face was flushed; and he was breathing heavily.
Presently Theophrastus woke from his dream to tell his friend of yet another outrageous exploit, the theft of Mississippi Bonds to the value of a million and three hundred thousand francs from the great financier Law. He ended the story by saying, "How two hundred years do change a man!"
Then he began to laugh at the phrase. He was joking, positively joking. That is the way with the Parisian tradesman of to-day: he begins by being scared to death by a mere nothing, and ends by laughing at everything. Theophrastus Longuet had reached the point of laughing at himself. The preternatural and terrifying antithesis between Cartouche and Longuet, which had at first plunged him into the gloomiest terror, a few days later became a joke! The wretched man was insulting Destiny! He was mocking the thunder! His excuse is that he did not realise the gravity of his case.
Adolphe showed but little appreciation of his humour. At dusk they returned to Paris; and as they came out of Saint-Lazare station, he said to Theophrastus:
"Tell me, Theophrastus, when you're Cartouche and are walking about Paris and observing its life, what astonishes you most? Is it the telephone, or the railway, or the motorcars, or the Eiffel Tower?"
"No, no!" said Theophrastus quickly. "It's the policemen!"