CHAPTER II: THE TSARINA'S DRESS
There was to be a gathering that evening at Mme. Roubion's, at the Black Sun; for, since the Three Brothers had been arrested and the streets become safe, or nearly so, at night, people in the village had once more taken to sitting up. At nine o'clock, Mme. Mûre, a little old woman in a cap who lived at the third house in the road leading to the station, slipped her embroidery-case into her hand-basket, together with some poppyheads, of which she proposed to crush and eat the seeds in the course of the evening, and lastly a few walnuts, of which she knew Mlle. Franchet to be inordinately fond. Now Mme. Mûre and Mlle. Franchet had not been on speaking terms for five years past; and it would be a treat for Mme. Mûre to see Mlle. Franchet watch the others feast on Mme. Mûre's walnuts. Having filled her basket, Mme. Mûre cautiously opened her door. The churchclock struck the hour. More doors opened in the direction of the Cours National. Other little old women poked out their caps in the moonlight, hesitating to cross the threshold, having lost the habit of leaving the house after supper. True, people were nearly easy now that those horrid brothers Vautrin were comfortably stowed away in prison and about to pay their debt to society; but, all the same, it was impossible to throw prudence to the winds from one day to the next. Ohoo! Ohoo! Shadows on the road, swinging lanterns as they went: it was M. Roubion and his inn-servants to summon the embroiderers to sit up with the Empress of Russia's gown. The little doors opened wider: the little white caps ventured forth, hand-basket on one arm, foot-warmer hanging from the other. Oh, they knew better, in this harsh weather, than to go out without their warming-stools, the coals in which, for years and years, had scorched the skin of their legs to such good purpose that many of them, no doubt, had nothing but a pair of burnt sticks to show under their skirts. Ohoo! Ohoo! They pattered and clattered along, after carefully locking their doors. It was the last evening which they were to spend on the Tsarina's gown; and they would not have missed it for the empire of All the Russias. Two hours' work and it would be done; the contractor was coming to Saint-Martin next morning to fetch the dress. At least, so Mother Toussaint, the forewoman who had arranged with the contractor, said — the old gossip! — perhaps to stimulate their zeal. The procession went flapping and clapping down the Rue Neuve. Shutters were flung back against the walls as it passed. More than one would have loved to be invited to go and see the Empress'gown and not all who had been long in bed were yet asleep. Big Roubion increased his pace. No one wanted to loiter. They trotted and trotted. It was cold; and the women had lowered their hoods over their caps; and their shoulders shivered, in spite of all, less with cold than with fear, at the thought of the Three Brothers, who loomed large in the shadows of the night. There was a full gathering at Mme. Roubion's for the last evening with the Empress'gown. The embroiderers worked in the large summer dining-room, which was used for the commercial travellers in the fine season, but closed in winter. The wonderful gown lay spread at full length on the leaves of the dining-table; and each of the needlewomen took her seat. Two of them made the eyelets, another the raised spots, another finished a rosette, another worked at the scalloped edges and two assistant hands, working side by side, sewed on some old lace. Mme. Toussaint, that old gossip, supervised everything and worried everybody. Mme. Roubion, with her enormous head resting on her capacious bosom, had eyes for none but her guests. After the bar-room was closed, monsieur le maire arrived, accompanied by Mme. Jules, his spouse; M. Sagnier, the notary, and madame, who possessed such beautiful false pearls; and M. Valentin, the chemist, and madame, who was the only lady in the neighbourhood that used make-up — and such a lot of it! — and who was also the only lady that could boast of having had an adventure, last autumn, at the manœuvres, with a cavalry-officer. All these fine folk had come to admire "the masterpiece of French industry" before its departure for the Russian court. Now this dress, which, at any other time, would have kept twenty talkative women wagging their tongues for an hour, left the ladies very indifferent in ten minutes or even less. To begin with, they thought it too simple in its immaculate splendour. It was an all-white dress, of embroidered cloth, and Saint-Martin-des-Bois could not picture the Empress of Russia other than adorned like a reliquary and swathed from head to foot in gold, precious stones and silver lace. Mme. Jules considered it hardly even a dress for the seaside. The embroiderers could have boxed her ears; and Mme. Toussaint, the old gossip, felt that she would like to scratch her eyes out. The ladies gradually left the summer dining-room to join their husbands in the bar-room, where they found the gentlemen sitting round the fire, cracking a bottle of old wine and discussing the Vautrin case. Oh, how that case had been discussed since the arrest! But it was apperently always new; and, now that "they" were going to be guillotined and that there was no longer any reason to fear them, people were almost proud of having been so afraid. Nevertheless, no one was willing to admit his terrors. On the contrary, each vied with the other in trying to show that it was he who had "handed over the Vautrins to the public vengeance." Through the half-open door, the embroiders, who also thought of nothing but the Three Brothers, heard the chemist and the notary each boasting of his courage at the trial, where they had smashed the ruffians with their evidence. True, by that time, the verdict against them was certain, because they had been captured red-handed: the gendarmes had appeared in the road at the moment when Élie, Siméon and Hubert were taking Bazin the process-server's money-bags from him, after stunning him with that little pat on the head of which he died. However, it must be admitted that, in order that this verdict might be far-reaching and allow none of the three prisoners to escape, M. Sagnier and M. Valentin had taken advantage of the Bazin murder to saddle the Vautrins with all the suspicious matters that had distressed the district for the past ten years. The chemist and the notary each enlarged upon the merits of the civic heroism displayed by himself at a time when no one else seemed to retain a proper sense of his duty; monsieur le maire knew what was meant! All this self-sufficiency and self-conceit ended by annoying the people present, down to the needlewomen in their work-room; and even Mme. Mûre coughed as she swallowed her poppy seeds. As for Mlle. Franchet, that worthy could not keep from chuckling and spluttering into the bowl of mulled wine which Mme. Roubion had brought her, with a word of warning not to stain the Empress of Russia's gown. They knew and everybody knew that those two who were now posing as dare-devils had been very meek and mild indeed while the Vautrins were about. Had the needlewomen been in monsieur le maire's place, they would soon have made them put a stopper on their loquacity. The same thought occurred to monsieur le maire himself. It was not a very happy thought, however; for, when he reproached the gentle men, not without a touch of irritation, with having waited so long to accuse men of whose crimes they were cognizant, he was told, in reply, that, "but for the fortunate incident of the murder of the process-server, where the Vautrins were caught red-handed, there would have been every reason to pity decent people who were so ill-advised as to inform against such powerful election-agents as the brothers Vautrin." The mayor bit his lips and Mme. Jules, his spouse, made a sign to him not to go on embittering the conversation. Nevertheless, he retorted that he was not the only one to be elected to the municipal council with the Vautrins' aid. His two subordinates protested loudly and called Heaven to witness that they had had no finger in that pie and that, at any rate, they had never been mixed up in the dirty jerrymandering of the general elections; and they didn't mind saying so; and, if anyone chose to take offence, that was his affair. M. Jules, the mayor, of course, could not take this insult lying down; he did his best to pass it off by saying that, if anyone had the right to boast that he had brought the truth to light, it was good old Dr. Honorat. Ah, there was one who had spoken out! And said useful things too! He had supplied the proof of the murders by speaking of the rope with which the men were hanged. "Agreed," retorted Mme. Valentin, the local lady who had had that adventure with the cavalry-officer, "agreed; but, as M. le Vicomte de la Terrenoire" — the officer in question — "said at the trial, considering that Dr. Honorat examined the bodies in the commissary's presence, why did he not then call the attention of the police to the kind of rope with which the men had been hanged and which he thought that he had already noticed at the Vautrins' on the day when he was called in to attend Zoé?" And she concluded, "If Dr. Honorat was more useful than anybody afterwards, he was more prudent than all rest of us before!" To this, Mme. Jules, the mayoress, replied: "He had the right to be, or, at least, he had every excuse. Dr. Honorat drives along the roads, night and day, all alone in his gig; and an accident is easily met with. What could he have done against those three ruffians?" "He preferred to nurse them," hissed long, lean Mme. Sagnier, the lady with the false pearls, between her teeth. "It was he got them sentenced to death," resumed the mayor, in an authoritative tone, "and, I repeat, he showed courage in doing so, for, as long as I live, I shall never forget Siméon jumping up from his seat in the dock, shaking his fist at Dr. Honorat and shouting, 'You'd better mind yourself, for, if ever I get out of this, my first visit will be paid to you!' It was enough to give one the shivers. Well, Dr. Honorat did not turn a hair. He's a brave man, I tell you." The two others raised their voices in protest: "And what about us, weren't we threatened? Élie and Hubert said to us, 'You are liars; and, the next we meet you, we'll break your heads.' Those are the very words." "I had to keep my bed for a fortnight after," declared Mme. Valentin" "So had I," said Mme. Sagnier. There was an embarassed silence, which was interrupted by fat Mme. Roubion, who went round among the company with her bowls of mulled wine: "That's not thc point," she said. "What's the use of arguing, now that their business is settled? When are their heads to be cut off? They ought to have been cut off here; but, as the thing's arranged to take place at Riom, has monsieur le maire thought of engaging a window?" "Look here," said M. Jules, roughly, "I'd rather talk about something else. . . ." And, for the next five minutes, they talked about nothing at all. Everybody sat steeped in thought and one and all had the same thought: they would not be really easy in their minds until the Three Brothers were dead and buried. There was only one fear, that the President of the Republic might commute the sentence of one of them; and, after all, people had been known to escape from prison. You never could tell. . . . Mme. Roubion made a fresh effort to dispel the figures of the Vautrins: "You know Mlle. Madeleine Coriolis is to be married soon?" she said. "Oh, nonsense!" said Mme. Valentin. "To whom?" "Why, to M. Patrice Saint-Aubin, her cousin from Clermont." "There was a rumour of it," said Mme. Sagnier, "but they have lots of time before them. He is quite young still." "Quite young? He's twenty-four," said Mme. Roubion, "and he has just passed as a solicitor. His father is anxious to make over his practice to him. He wants to see his son fixed up and married and settled behind his papers in the Rue de l'Écu before his death, for the old gentleman does not think that he has long to live." "He's right there," declared the chemist. "You can't be too careful. One never knows who's going to live and who's going to die." "They say the Saint Aubin boy is rich enough for two," said Mme. Valentin. "Has little Madeleine any money?" All the company were of opinion that she had not. Dr. Coriolis, an old eccentric, who used to be consul at Batavia, might have made his fortune in the Malay Archipelago, but the general view was that he had returned from the Far East with nothing but a fatal passion for the bread-plant, which had made away with his last shilling. Did anyone ever hear of such madness? To try and make a single plant take the place of bread, milk, butter, cream, asparagus and even Brussels sprouts, which he pretended that he was able to make out of the waste! And for years he had been living with his hobby, at the bottom of his immense garden surrounded by tall walls behind which he lived in a state of almost complete isolation, seeing nobody and refusing to be assisted by any one except his gardener, a boy whom he had brought with him from the East and who seemed greatly devoted to him. He was a very nice young fellow, that Noël, that they must say: a little shy, never talking to anybody, but always bowing to everyone most politely. When he crossed the street; for his master sometimes sent him on an errand, he nearly always carried his hat in his hand, as though he lived in fear of "offending somebody." "He's not what you would call good-looking," said M. Roubion. "He's not ugly either" said Mme. Valentin. "Only, he's rather flat-faced." "He's like all the Chinese," said Mme. Roubion, pedantically, having seen "Celestials," as she called the inhabitants of the Celestial Empire, at the Exhibition of 1878. "They are not handsome, but they look very intelligent and not the least bit ill-natured. My opinion is that he's a Celestial." And Mme. Jules summed up the general view on Noël by asserting that "he wouldn't hurt a fly." In the summer dining-room, the needlewomen, seated around the Empress' gown, ceased to listen to the ladies' and gentlemen's conversation as soon as they had finished talking about the Three Brothers. These alone had the gift of interesting Mme. Toussaint, Mlle. Franchet, Mme. Boche and Mme. Mûre, though on this subject the good women were inexhaustible, always finding new things to say and even repeating the old things over and over again, without ever wearying. They were fellows who were not satisfied with being highway robbers, said one, but who did wrong for its own sake, in other words, for their pleasure. Mme. Boche told how she had nearly died of fright, last year, one evening when she was closing the shutters of the little shop where she dealt in groceries, haberdashery, deal boards, laths and coals. She maintained that one of the Vautrins had hidden on the roof of her house — Mme. Boche's roof almost touched the ground — and snatched off her cap and wig. She was almost sure that she had recognized Élie, unless it was Siméon, unless it was Hubert, but it was certainly one of the Three Brothers, who, when they were not murdering people on the roads, spent their time frightening old women. Oh, the Vautrins had broad backs! Mme. Mûre shed tears over the decease of a poodle which met its death in a very curious way, one evening when it was barking too loudly at the heels of the Vautrins, who were preparing some trick. It suddenly ceased barking. Mme. Mûre went out into the yard and found her dog hanging from the rope of the well. This suicide, which was at least as difficult to explain as Camus' and Lombard's, had been as it were a signal for the suicide of all the dogs in the village at that time. It was a regular epidemic. The dogs were all found hanging from the well ropes, So much so that, since then, Saint-Martin-des-Bois had given up keeping dogs. Mme. Toussaint shook her fat chops and hcr flabby chin under her mob-cap: "And, then, if they had only been satisfied with the dogs!" she said. "Those wretches need not have thrown my little cat Mirette into the pond, with a stone round her neck, for us to know them for savages. Their reputation was made!" In short, "life had become a hell;" but, since "they" had been in prison, people had recovered their peace of mind to some extent and the old ladies of Saint-Martin were once more beginning to enjoy life. It was at that moment, just as the several visitors at the Black Sun were expressing their contentment with a state of quiet to which they had long been unaccustomed that a mad sound of galloping was heard on the rough cobbles of the Rue Neuve. This galloping was accompanied by the noise of a light vehicle, a noise which could only belong to Dr. Honorat's gig. Everybody recognized it; and the proof was that everybody cried: "There's Dr. Honorat!" But what had happened? Why that din? Why that hurry? Had his horse taken the bit between its teeth and run away? Had the doctor dropped the reins? Mlle. Franchet cried: "Perhaps he's been murdered!" But everyone was at once reassured, at least in so far as Dr. Honorat's existence was concerned, for he was heard shouting, in a hoarse voice: "Open the door! . . .Open the door quickly! . . ." M. Jules, the mayor, M. Roubion, M. Sagnier and M. Valentin drew their revolvers, without which they had not sallied forth for many a long day; and the ladies, seeing their husbands produce those lethal weapons, began to tremble and were unable to utter a word. "What's the matter?" asked Roubion, putting his ear to the door. "Open the door, can't you? It's I, Dr. Honorat! Let me in, Roubion, let me in!" "Are you alone?" asked Roubion, prudently. "Yes, yes, I'm alone, let me in!" "You can't keep the doctor standing at the door," Mme. Roubion declared. "Let him in." Everybody at once fell back, while the needlewomen, leaving their work, gathered anxiously in the doorway between the bar-room and the summer dining-room. Roubion opened the door. Dr. Honorat, who had fastened his panting horse to the ring in the wall, burst into the room like a whirl-wind. Roubion bolted the door behind him and all clustered round the doctor, who had promptly sunk into a chair. He was deathly pale. He was hardly able to speak. His eyes were wild and staring. He managed to groan: "The Vautrins! . . . The Vautrins! . . ." "What about them? . . . What about the Vautrins? . . ." "The Vautrins are here! . . ." Everybody shrieked. Fear sent its gust of madness over them, flinging up their arms in meaningless gestures, tossing the company this way and that way, making them writhe and twist as though they had all suddenly lost their mental balance: "Eh? . . . What? . . . Where? . . . The Vautrins? . . . What's he talking about? . . . The man must be mad! . . . Where did you see them? . . ." "At their own place!" gasped the doctor. "At their own place! . . . In their house! . . . " "He's been dreaming! . . . He must have been dreaming! . . ." The chemist and the notary were now as pale as the doctor. They did not believe him. They did not think that such a thing was possible; but, all the same, from the very moment of his stating the incredible horror, it left them as though stunned, with arms and legs paralyzed, throats dry and hearts beating like mad. The nameless terror depicted on their faces seemed rather to exhilarate monsieur le maire who, after a rapid examination of conscience, arrived at the conclusion that, throughout this business, he had preserved so prudent an attitude that he had nothing to fear from the vengeance of the Three Brothers. He showed the coolness which should never desert a chief magistrate in the presence of his fellow-citizens. He silenced the silly moans of the needlewomen and the incoherent questions of the ladies. "Come, doctor," he said, "don't lose your head like this. Are you quite sure that you saw them?" "As sure as I see you now." "In their house,by the roadside?" "In their house. They had not even drawn their window-curtains. I was coming down the road, on my way back from my rounds. My mare was going at a slow trot. I saw a cart outside the Vautrins' door and a light in the windows; and I seemed to hear voices. I had a sort of feeling that I should come upon something unexpected. And I was not mistaken. I was just passing the door, when the door opened and I saw, as plainly as I see you, Élie, Siméon and Hubert quietly carrying a chest out to the cart. I at once whipped up my mare; and she galloped off. But they had caught sight of me and recognized me , they shouted after me, 'See you soon, doctor!' I thought I should go mad! . . . Oh, I thought they were behind me; and I rushed on like the very devil. I felt that I was done for, if I did not reach Saint-Martin before they did. For they are coming! . . .They are coming! . . ." "Don't talk nonsense, doctor," monsieur le maire broke in, speaking in his most serious tone. "If it's really they, then they've escaped from prison and will never dare come here." "I tell you, they are coming. They told me so in court! I'm a dead man! . . ." As he spoke, good old Dr. Honorat, decent man, who, perhaps, before this fatal meeting, had taken a pint of old wine more than he need have on his rounds — for he did himself pretty well — Dr. Honorat, I was saying, noticed the white faces of M. Sagnier and M. Valentin and had the satisfaction of remembering that they too had been threatened at the trial; and he put his satisfaction into words: "And you too, M. Sagnier! . . . And you too, M. Valentin! . . . You are both dead men!" M. Sagnier shook his head and said, in an expiring voice: "It's not true, what you're saying; it's impossible!" M. Valentin shared this opinion. He whispered: "How can they have got out of Riom gaol? It's impossible!" This was clearly the key-note of the situation; and everybody repeated: "No, no, it's quite impossible!" Monsieur le maire smiled at seeing people so frightened: "Come, ladies," he said, "pull yourselves together. Our worthy doctor has been imagining things. Give him a glass of mulled wine, Mme. Roubion; that will do him good." "I don't want anything," said the doctor; and his eyes wandered more wildly than ever over the company. Monsieur le maire shrugged his shoulders and, seeing Mme. Toussaint, Mme. Mûre, Mme. Bache and Mlle. Franchet gathered round him like so many hens who had sought refuge under their rooster's wing, he packed them back to their work. Clucking with anxiety, they returned to the summer dining-room; but no sooner were they there than they uttered such screams that it was now the turn of those in the bar-room to go after them. They found Mme. Toussaint, the old gossip, indulging in an orthodox fit of hysterics. The Tsarina's dress had disappeared! . . .