The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 9
STRANGE POSITION OF A LITTLE VIOLET CAT
It would seem that the Destiny which rules mankind takes a detestable pleasure in making the most serene joys come before the worst catastrophes. Never had the three friends enjoyed a dinner more than the dinner which they had that night at the café Des Trois Etoiles. They dined well, the coffee was excellent, and the cigars which Adolphe had brought with him, and the Russian cigarettes which Marceline smoked, were excellent too. They lingered talking together for a long while after dinner; and their talk, which, under the guidance of Adolphe, never wandered far from the sphere of the occult which now so practically concerned them, was interesting and fascinating, in spite of the fact that that inveterate Parisian Theophrastus would now and again jest about his dangerous plight. At half-past ten they left the restaurant and walked back to the flat in Gerando Street. Adolphe bade them good-night at the bottom of the stairs.
That flat consisted of a narrow hall, nearly filled, and certainly cramped, by a chest of polished oak. Into this hall four doors opened, those of the kitchen and dining-room on the left, those of the drawing-room and bedroom, which looked out on to the street, on the right. There was a third window looking out on to the street, that of the tiny room which Theophrastus had made his study. This study had two doors; one of them opened into the bedroom, the other into the dining-room. In this study was a bureau against the wall; and in it were drawers above and below its writing-table. This writing-table let down and shut up, and was fastened by a somewhat elaborate lock at the edge of the bureau's top. When it was locked, all the drawers were locked too. As a rule, Theophrastus used to set a little violet cat on the keyhole of the lock, as much to hide it as for ornament.
This little violet cat, which had glass eyes, was nothing but an ingenious silk ball which acted as a pen-wiper and pin-cushion. About four feet away from the desk was a very small tea-table.
On entering their flat, Theophrastus and Marceline, as was their custom, made a careful search in every room for a hidden burglar. Having, as usual, failed to find one, (Heaven alone knows what they would have done with him if they had!) they went to bed with their minds at ease. As the more timid of the two, Theophrastus slept next the wall. They were soon asleep, Theophrastus snoring gently.
Night. Not a carriage in the street. Silence.
The snoring of Theophrastus ceased. Was it that he had sunk into a deeper sleep? No: he sleeps no more. His throat is dry; he stares into the darkness with affrighted eyes; he grips with a cold hand, a hand which fear is freezing, the shoulder of Marceline and awakens her.
He says in a low voice, so low that she does not even hear him, "Do you hear?"
Marceline holds her breath; she clutches her husband's icy hand. They strain their ears; and they undoubtedly do hear something—in the flat.
In very truth it is nothing to laugh at. The man who can laugh at an inexplicable noise, at night, in a flat, has not yet been born! There are brave men, splendidly brave, who will stick at nothing, who will go anywhere at night, into the emptiest streets of the most disreputable quarters, who would not hesitate to venture, just for the pleasure of it, into lampless blind alleys. But I tell you, because it is the truth, and you know it is the truth, that the man who can laugh at an inexplicable noise, at night, in a flat, has not yet been born.
We have already seen Theophrastus sleepless on the night of the revelation of the dreadful secret which sprang from the stones of the Conciergerie. The anxiety which weighed on his heart that night, terrible as it had been, was as nothing compared with that which was now strangling him, because there was at night, in the flat, an inexplicable noise.
It was truly an odd noise, but beyond all doubting real; it was a long-drawn pur-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r. It came from behind the wall of the next room.
They sat up in bed noiselessly, with bristling hair, and beads of cold sweat standing out on their brows. From the other side of the wall came the strange pur-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r. It was the purring of a cat; they recognised that purring: it was the purring of the little violet cat. Marceline slipped down under the clothes and whispered:
"It's the purring of the violet cat. Go and see what's the matter with it, Theophrastus."
Theophrastus did not budge; he would have given a hundred thousand rubber stamps to be walking along the boulevard at mid-day.
"It's not natural that it should be purring like that," she added. "Go and see what's the matter with it. You must, Theophrastus! Get your revolver out of the drawer."
Theophrastus found the strength to say faintly, "You know quite well that it's not loaded."
They listened again; the purring had ceased; Marceline began to hope they had been mistaken. Then Theophrastus groaned, got out of bed, took the revolver, and quietly opened the door leading into his study. It was bright in a sheet of moonlight; and what Theophrastus saw made him recoil with a dull cry, shut the door, and set his back against it as if to bar what he saw from entering the bedroom.
"What is it?" said Marceline hoarsely.
The teeth of Theophrastus chattered as he said, "It has stopped purring; but it has moved!"
"Where is it?"
"On the tea-table."
"The violet cat is on the tea-table?"
"Are you quite sure it was in its place last night?"
"Quite sure. I stuck my scarf-pin in its head. It was on the bureau, as it always is."
"You must have imagined it. Suppose I lit the light?" said Marceline.
"No, no, we might escape in the darkness … Suppose I went and opened the door on to the landing, and called the porter?"
"Don't get so terrified," said Marceline, who was little by little recovering her wits, since she no longer heard the violet cat. "The whole thing was an illusion. You changed its place last night; and it did n't purr."
"After all, it's quite possible," said Theophrastus, whose one desire was to get back into bed.
"Go and put it back in its place," said Marceline.
Theophrastus braced himself to the effort, went into the study, and with a swift and trembling hand took the cat from the tea-table, set it back on the bureau, and hurried back into bed.
The violet cat was no sooner back on the bureau than he began again his pur-r-r-r-r-r-r-r. That purring only made them smile: they knew what had set it going. A quarter of an hour had passed; they were almost asleep, when a second fright made them spring up in bed. A third purring struck on their ears. If the first purring had smitten them with terror, and the second made them smile, the third purring frightened them out of their lives.
"It's impossible!" said Marceline in a chattering whisper. "We 're victims of an hallucination! B-B-B-Besides, it's n-n-not really surprising after what happened to you at the Conciergerie!"
The purring once more ceased. This time it was Marceline who rose. She opened the door of the study, turned sharply towards Theophrastus, and said, but in what a faint and dying voice:
"You did n't put the violet cat back on the bureau!"
"But I did!" groaned Theophrastus.
"But it's gone back to the tea-table!"
"Good God!" cried poor Theophrastus; and he buried his head under the bed-clothes.
The violet cat no longer purred. Marceline became persuaded that in his perturbation her husband had left it on the tea-table. She took it up, holding her breath, and set it back on the bureau. The violet cat made its purring heard for the fourth time. Marceline and Theophrastus heard it with the same equanimity with which they had heard the second purring. The fourth purring stopped.
Another quarter of an hour passed: they were not asleep or even sleepy; and then there came a fifth purring.
Then, incredible to relate, Theophrastus leapt from the bed like a tiger, and cried:
"By the throttle of Madame Phalaris! This is too much of a good thing! What the deuce is that infernal violet cat up to?"