The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 28

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CHAPTER XXVIII

THEOPHRASTUS GOES INTO ETERNAL EXILE

At his point I leave the report of the Commissary of Police, M. Mifroid. The conclusion of it indeed is filled with the most profound and philosophic reflections on the effect of companionship in misfortune on the human heart; but they are not relevant to the story of Theophrastus.

When the noise of the flying feet of M. Mifroid no longer came echoing down the empty street, the heart of that unfortunate man filled with the deepest melancholy. Here was that accursed Black Feather again! Behold him in the flickering light of a street lamp. He shakes his head. Ah! with what a lamentable air does he shake his miserable and dolorous head! Of what is he dreaming, unhappy wretch, that again and again he shakes his luckless head? Doubtless the idea he had had of going back to disturb the peace of his dear Marceline no longer appears to him reasonable. Plainly he rejects it, for his heavy, lagging feet do not carry him towards the heights of Gerando Street.

Some minutes later, he finds himself in Saint-Andrew-des-Arts Place, and plunges into the dark passage of Suger Street. He rings at a door. The door opens. In the passage a man in a blouse, with a paper cap on his head and a lantern in his hand, asks him what he wants.

"Good-evening, Ambrose. You are still awake, are you—as late as this?" said Theophrastus. "It's me. Oh, a lot of things have happened since I last saw you!"

It was true. A lot of things had happened to M. Longuet since he had last seen Ambrose, for he had not seen him since the day on which he had learned from him the date of the water-mark on the document found in the cellars of the Conciergerie.

"Come in, and make yourself at home," said Ambrose.

"I will tell you all about it to-morrow," said Theophrastus. "But to-night I want to sleep."

Ambrose took him up to bed, and he slept the dreamless sleep of a little child.

During the next few days Ambrose tried to induce Theophrastus to speak; but, oddly enough, he preserved a complete silence. He spent his time writing and writing. Once or twice he went out at night. Once Ambrose asked him where he was going.

"A Commissary of Police, M. Mifroid, is writing an account of a journey we took together," said Theophrastus. "And I am going to ask him for a copy of it."

I am inclined to believe that one of these nights he must also have returned to the flat in Gerando Street, by his favourite chimney, and taken away from it the report, which M. Lecamus had written for the Pneumatic Club, of the operation of M. Eliphas de Saint-Elme de Taillebourg de la Nox. Also on one of those nights he must have acquired the sandalwood box inlaid with steel; and since Ambrose believes that he had but little money, it is not improbable that when he acquired it he had his Black Feather.

One evening he came downstairs carrying a box, the sandalwood box, under his arm; and with an air of gloomy satisfaction, he said to Ambrose, "I have finished my literary labours; and I think I will go and see my wife."

"I did not like to speak to you about her," said Ambrose quickly. "Your gloom and your inexplicable behaviour made me afraid that you had some domestic difficulties."

"She is as fond of me as ever!" cried Theophrastus with some heat.

As he left the house, Ambrose said to him, "Be sure you remember me very kindly to Marceline."

Theophrastus said that he would; but to himself he said:

"Marceline will never see me; she must never see me. Not even the Catacombs have torn out my fatal Black Feather. I must not trouble her peace. She shall never see me. But I—I wish to see her once again, from afar, to see if she is happy."

He sobbed in the street.

It is nine o'clock at night, a dark winter's night. Theophrastus mounts the slope at the top of which rise the walls of Azure Waves Villa. With a trembling hand he draws back the bolt of the little door of the garden behind the house. He crosses the garden gently, noiselessly, one hand pressed against his heart, which is beating even more furiously than on the night of the purring of the little violet cat—his good heart, his great heart, still overflowing with love for the wife he wishes to see happy.

There is a light in the drawing-room; and the window is a few inches open, for the night is muggy. You advance slowly, noiselessly to a screening shrub, set down the sandalwood box, and peer through the leafless branches into the cosy drawing-room.

Ah! what have you seen in the drawing-room?… Why that deep groan? Why do you tear the white locks from your brow?… What have you seen?… After all, does it matter what you have seen, since you are dead? Did you not wish to see your wife happy? Well, you see her happy!

She and M. Lecamus are sitting on the sofa. They are holding one another's hand; they are gazing at one another with the eyes of lovers. He kisses her, with respect but with devotion. He is consoling her for the loss of you. You wished it. How can he better console her than by replacing you?

Theophrastus, the gentle, kind-hearted manufacturer of rubber stamps, perceives this. He drops on his knees on the cold, wet grass, weeping tears of bitter resignation. He is reconciling himself to the necessity of the cruel fact that they are sitting in his comfortable drawing-room, and he is kneeling on his cold, wet grass. He is almost reconciled to it; but not quite. What is that that is thrusting, thrusting forth? The upward thrust of the Past—the Black Feather!

The tears are drying in the eyes of Theophrastus. His eyes are gleaming through the dim winter night with an evil gleam. He springs to his feet; he grinds his teeth; he cries hoarsely:

"By the throttle of Madame Phalaris!"

The Past has him in its grip; he is racked by the pangs of the old-time jealousy, and the pangs of the new. In three seconds he is through the window and in the drawing-room. Wild screams of terror greet his entrance; but in ten seconds more M. Lecamus lies senseless in the big easy-chair, bound hand and foot with the bell-rope. When he recovers his senses, the hand of the clock has moved on ten minutes. Torn by fears and suspense, he listens with all his ears. He hears faint movements on the floor above. The minutes pass; twenty minutes pass. Then there is a sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs. Theophrastus enters, once more a changed Theophrastus: his eyes no longer gleam with an evil light; they are full of unshed tears. His face is working with intense emotion; and on his shoulder is a portmanteau.

What does that portmanteau contain?

Theophrastus, his face working with intense emotion, crosses the room to his old friend. He wrings his hand, wrings it for the last time; and in a broken voice, a voice full of tears, he says:

"Good-bye, Adolphe! Good-bye, dear friend, for ever! I am going to the Seine near the Town Hall Bridge. I have to leave this portmanteau. And then I go into eternal exile!"

He loosed his grip of his friend's hand and, his face still working with intense emotion, he went through the window, bearing the portmanteau with astonishing ease.

M. Lecamus has never seen him again; he has never seen Marceline again; he has never seen the portmanteau again. Does the unhappy Theophrastus, luckless exile from the Paris he loves, wander through the far East or the far West? Does he in the old eighteenth-century fashion police Bagdad, or does he build up a rubber stamp business in Chicago?