The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 27

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CHAPTER XXVII

M. MIFROID PARTS FROM THEOPHRASTUS

"With a simultaneous cry of pleasure we quickened our steps, and presently we found ourselves between most interesting geometrical and ornamental figures composed entirely of bones.

"I took off my hat to those bones, with a sense of profound relief and gratitude. My stay in the Catacombs had been far from unpleasant, since I had passed the time in the company of such an agreeable and sympathetic companion; but I was glad that it had come to an end. I had had enough of it—possibly the monotony of the scenery had tired me of it. I had fallen into the way of instructing Theophrastus; and at once I taught him to distinguish between the tibia, the cubitus, and the femur. A knowledge of anatomy harms no one. But I was sorry to observe that he listened to me with an air of gloom. He did not seem to share my joy at reaching our journey's end.

"We had walked briskly for more than half an hour; and now and again I had paused to point out to Theophrastus some unusually artistic arrangement of the bones, when suddenly we came upon a lighted candle in the left eye of a skull. I concluded that we had at last reached the realm of the living. Then we came upon candles upon candles in the eyes of skulls, and then chandeliers full of twinkling candles. Then we heard voices: the babbling tinkling laughter of women. We were reaching the end of our journey.

"The first twentieth-century words we heard were:

"'Well, dear boy, this function is n't gay. I prefer the Bullier…'

"'Thank goodness, I'm only eighteen years old—a good long way from replacing these tibias!'

"We came into a big cavern to find ourselves in the middle of a fête. No one paid any attention to us; they took us for guests.

"All along those funereal walls were ranged rows of chairs. The light was bright, the candles and the chandeliers of skulls gleamed. At the end of the cavern was a platform covered with lines of music-stands. The musicians were just coming on to the platform. The audience was taking possession of the chairs; people were arguing and joking about the macabre decoration of the walls.

"All the cafés of the Abyss, all the artistico-mystico-macabre scenes in which life is laughed at and death jeered at, all those boxes of the Butte, in which skulls grin from the walls, and skeletons rattle on the floor, all the funereal carnival of Montmartre were surpassed.

"We had before us fifty musicians of the Opera, of Lamoureux, and of Colonne, who had come down into the Kingdom of Bones to serenade the Dead. And under the vaults of the Catacombs, among their avenues and crossways, where stretch the tragic walls covered with the bony wrecks of men, the funeral march of Chopin raised its lamentation before an audience of æsthetes, of artists, of Bulgarians, of Moldo-Wallachians, of frequenters of first-nights, of M. Mifroid, and M. Theophrastus Longuet, who sleeps peacefully on his chair as he always does at the theatre.

"'Perfect, that first violin! Perfect!' I said under my breath. (I am a connoisseur.)

"What gave me the greatest delight was the exquisite fashion in which the orchestra rendered the adagio of the third symphony of Beethoven. Finally we had 'The Dance Macabre' of Saint-Saëns. Then I tapped Theophrastus on the shoulder and said that it was time we went home. The concert after three weeks of the Catacombs had done me a world of good.

"We walked briskly, and ten minutes later we found ourselves on the surface of the earth. I breathed a deep sigh of satisfaction: with the exception of the ham, there had been nothing old-fashioned about our three weeks' journey through the Catacombs.

"'I told you that we should get out!' I said. 'My wife will indeed be pleased to see me!'

"'So much the better for you and for her,' said Theophrastus gloomily.

"'I should never have believed that the Catacombs were so pleasant,' said I.

"'Neither should I,' said Theophrastus gloomily.

"We walked on for a few minutes in silence. It was so pleasant to be walking under the open sky and the stars instead of under a roof in electric light, that I did not hurry to take a cab.

"Then Theophrastus said, 'What are you waiting for?'

"What am I waiting for? I'm not waiting for anything or anyone. I am being waited for. And I'm sure that Mme. Mifroid must be in a terrible state of anxiety.'

"'But why don't you arrest me? When I asked what were you waiting for, I meant what are you waiting for to arrest me?'

"'No, M. Longuet, no. I shan't arrest you… It was my mission to arrest Cartouche. But Cartouche no longer exists! There is only M. Longuet; and M. Longuet is my friend!'

"The eyes of Theophrastus filled with tears.

"'I have a strong feeling that I'm cured… if only I could be sure of it.'

"'What would you do if you were?' said I.

"'I should go back to my wife, my dear Marceline,' he said wistfully.

"'Well, you must go back to your wife, M. Longuet; you certainly must.'

"'You advise me to?'

"'Of course I do.'

"'No, M. Mifroid, no. She no longer expects me. Before falling through that hole in d'Enfer Street, I was careful to leave my clothes on the bank of a river. She believes me dead—drowned. She must be plunged in profound despair. My only satisfaction is that my dear friend, M. Lecamus, whom you know, has done everything possible for her in her affliction.'

"'That makes it all the more necessary for you to go back to her,' I said.

"'I will,' said Theophrastus; and his face brightened.

"We were shaking hands with one another, with the reluctance to separate of bosom friends; and indeed our sojourn in the Catacombs had made us bosom friends, when suddenly Theophrastus smote his brow and said:

"'I must tell you a story of your youth!'

"Now, if anyone, at such a time, with Mme. Mifroid in such a state of anxiety, had said to me, 'I must tell you a story of my youth,' I should have made some excuse and fled. But he said, 'I must tell you a story of your youth.' It was extremely curious; I stopped and listened; and this was what he told me:

"'The incident took place in this spot, the Buci Cross-roads,' said Theophrastus.

"'Was I very young?' I asked, smiling.

"'Well, you must have been between fifty and fifty-five.'

"I gave a little jump. I am not quite forty. And you can understand my astonishment when M. Longuet spoke of an incident of my youth when I was between fifty and fifty-five. But he paid no heed to my movement, and went on:

"'At that time you had a greyish beard, cut into two long broad points which flowed gracefully down to your belt; and you were mounted—I can see it now—on a fine Spanish horse.'

"'Really? I was mounted on a Spanish horse?' (I have never been mounted on anything but a bicycle.)

"'A Spanish horse, which you gave to one of your archers to hold.'

"'Ah, I was in command of archers, was I?'

"'Yes, of twenty mounted archers, and a hundred archers on foot. All this troop had come from the Palais de Justice; and when it reached the Buci Cross-roads, you dismounted, because you were thirsty, and wished before the ceremony to get outside a pint at the tavern kept by the Smacker.'

"'And for what ceremony had I come from the Palais de Justice with my hundred and twenty archers?' said I, wishing to humour him, for I only wanted to get home.

"'It was the matter of summoning me by Public Proclamation for the murder of the workman Mondelot. Therefore on that day, March 28, 1721, the Clerks of Court, trumpeters, drummers, archers on horseback, and archers on foot, issued from the Palais de Justice in an imposing procession, and after having made the proclamation first in the Court de May, where everything passed quietly, and then again in Croix-Rouge Place, they came back here to the Buci Cross-roads. You had drunk your pint, M. Mifroid, and were mounting your Spanish horse, when this remarkable incident took place. The Clerk of Court read very solemnly: 'In the name of the King, through the Lords of Parliament, the said Louis-Dominique Cartouche…' when a voice, cried: 'Present! Here's Cartouche! Who wants Cartouche?'… On the instant the Clerks of Court, archers on foot, and archers on horseback, drummers and trumpeters, the whole procession broke up and fled in every direction…. Yes; there did not remain a single person at the Buci Cross-roads, not a single person except myself and the Spanish horse, after I cried:

"'Here's Cartouche!'

"Phenomenon more curious than all curious phenomena in the depths of the Catacombs!… M. Longuet had no sooner said, 'Here's Cartouche!' than I started to fly from the Buci Cross-roads as fast as my legs could carry me, as if the fear of Cartouche had dwelt in the calves of the police at the Buci Cross-roads for nearly two hundred years!"