CHAPTER VI: HUBERT, SIMÉON AND ÉLIE While the civil and military authorities were studying M. Mathieu Delafosse' plan of attack at Saint-Martin, the slanting rays of the autumn sun were gilding the tops of the trees round the Moabit clearing, where the Three Brothers lay sleeping, with their loaded guns by their side, under the tall ferns and in the heart of the inextricable tangle of shrubs which made an inviolable sanctuary of this forest corner. Remnants of victuals, with bottles lying on the grass or thrusting their necks from the game-bags, showed that folk lacked nothing at Moabit. They were gathered like animals that had eaten their fill. The strongest of the three was Hubert, square-built, as it were chopped and carved out of the wood of the forest. A magnificent, unkempt beard, a bush of tawny hair, swept from his mouth to his stomach and half hid his shaggy chest. He was snoring; and yet it would have been hardly safe to say that his pupils were not keeping guard under his slightly raised eyelids. It must have been with those lads' eyes as with their ears; it was likely that, trained by the very animals which they hunted, their senses were never entirely at rest. It was known that all three could see better in the dark than in broad daylight and that they brought the instincts of tiger-cats to help them follow the trail. They were fellows who were never happy among men, with their eternal game-laws; and in reality they enjoyed themselves in decent society only at election-times, which are heavenly times on earth. They slept; but Dr. Honorat did not sleep. Seated at the foot of the oak to which he was firmly tethered by one ankle, he was still, though he suffered great pain from the loss of his little finger, thinking of the skill with which the amputation had been performed. This secret admiration had not, as will be believed, come to him at once. It was preceded by a feeling of the deepest horror; and it is useless to attempt to describe the frenzy of alarm with which the excellent man had seen the operator, armed with his knife, come up to him. His anguish can be easily imagined; and, in spite of the abject cowardice displayed by the worthy doctor on the previous night, when the Vautrins were besieging the Black Sun, it would be unfair to despise him altogether. The poor man knew that, from the instant that the Three Brothers escaped their gaolers, he himself was doomed to suffer martyrdom. His evidence was designed to send the Vautrins to the scaffold. He had a pretty shrewd notion of what they would say to him, now that they were free. And that was more than enough to make a man lose his nerve! And yet, though it threw him into a blue funk, Dr. Honorat kept his wits sufficiently about him to admire the neatness of an operation that had deprived him of a finger. And the doctor set great store by his finger! Élie had cut off the finger; Hubert, who knew the virtue of herbs, had dressed it properly and bound up the bleeding stump; Siméon had explained: "You understand that, if we meant to hurt you, we should not cut off your finger. Follow my argument: you represent to us the most precious thing in the world, our lives. We shall restore you to your friends on the day when the President of the Republic announces in his official gazette that our death-sentence has been commuted into anything he pleases. The hulks! We're not there yet! But one can't take too many precautions against the guillotine. Well, old codger, there you are; we're taking a finger off you just to stir the President up and make him leave our three heads on our shoulders. When he gets that by post, he'll see that we're in earnest and that it doesn't do to trifle with the Three Brothers!" "And, if he won't give in?" asked the prisoner. "Oho! Why, if he won't give in . . . next day, we'll send him a bit more! . . ." "Oh, indeed? . . . A bit more?" stammered the poor doctor. "A bit more? . . . And, if he won't give in then, what will you send him on the third day?" "Oh, on the third day, blow me tight, I think you might begin to say your prayers! . . . But there are chances that neither you nor we will be reduced to such sad extremities. Let us hope for the best, doctor. A little finger, delivered by post, makes a big impression." And, upon my word, the doctor ended by saying as much to himself! What a glorious thing it would be if he got out of that tight place with the loss of a little finger! And he could not conceive that the public authorities, when confronted with his little finger, would hesitate for a moment to make the necessary sacrifices to recover possession of a worthy country practitioner, whose premature disappearance would have been a disgrace to any civilized nation. He had not, therefore, felt unduly perturbed when he saw Zoé go off with her brother's last instructions and with his little finger wrapped in a paper parcel. And he also thought, in the secret recesses of his being, that the government, which was born tricky, could always promise those scoundrels their lives. . . and change its mind at leisure. . . . So he sat down, patiently, at the foot of his tree, to which he was tied by the ankle with so cunning a knot that it would have been vain for him to try to discover its mystery. Moreover; he knew that the Three Brothers would be down upon him at the least suspicious movement. . . . Élie was the first to straighten himself. A glance at the prisoner, who had not stirred, sitting on the grass, against the trunk of his tree; and Élie stretched himself with a yawn, displaying an enormous pair of jaws and a splendid set of teeth. The yawn woke the others, both of whom sat up, wide mouthed, tiger-jawed. "Oho!" growled Hubert. "It's late; and the child's not back." Unhooking his clasp-knife from his belt with a fierce gesture, he said no more. A sigh came from the foot of the tree, a shudder, every sign of cowering fear. "Yes, old codger," snarled Hubert. "If she's not back in an hour. . . your time's up!" Inarticulate syllables at the foot of the tree, a stammering, a terror-struck mouthing and jabbering. "What are you saying? I can't hear, doctor. Why don't you speak up?" "Ah," grinned Siméon, ominously, "he spoke better than that at the trial!" "The swine!" "No one can tell what he was trying to say," remarked Élie, contemptuously. "He's dribbled it into his beard. Call that a man!" "No, he's not that!" Hubert assented. "Now Balaoo: there's a man for you. But this one's worse than nothing: he doesn't count! . . . The others won't even have him as a swap for us!" "Ay, it would be better if we, had the President of the Republic!" thought Siméon, who had greater powers of imagination than either of the others. "Oh, they won't dare touch us, now that we have got clear with the State papers!" retorted Hubert. "Bah, a deputy's, not the State!" said Élie, with a contemptuous smirk. "Because he owes his situation to us, that's no reason why the Republic should divorce us from the widow!"1 "The swine!" said Hubert. "He'd never have got in but for us." ': And all three, yielding once more to the fascination of the elections, began to talk votingpapers and registers and committees, just like so many town-clerks. The doctor, s'itting with his cord round his leg at the foot of his tree, could not bÉlieve his ears! Here, in the depths of the forest, were these three wild beasts antici pating the chances of a candidate for the next par liament and calmly casting up the lik:ely number of votes before sharpening their knives to cut him, the doctor, in o pieces and sending him by post to the President of the Republic! What a sight! What a prospect! Was it not enough to make anyone mouth and jabber? Suddenly, Hubert was on his short, thick legs with an alarming bound: "That's all neither here nor there. The kid's not back!" The doctor at once found his voice; and what he had to say came straight from his throat, proclaiming the anguish that stifled him: "Perhaps she's stopped to play on the road!" "If that's so," said Siméon, facetiously, "you shall give her her smacking." "It's getting dark," said Élie, deliberately, "but there's no danger at our place. If there was any danger, Balaoo would be here by now." "Ah, there's a man for you, there's a man!" Hubert repeated, enthusiastically. "You'd better give him our sister for a wife," grinned Siméon, drawing himself up on his enormous feet and swaying from one to the other, like an opossum. "Why not? " asked Élie. "Soon as he likes," said Hubert. "When shall we have the bans?" "I believe there's nothing the kid would like better," said Siméon, whistling down the barrel of his gun. "He's not hunch-backed, the citizen; and he's not bandy-legged; and he's no slouch on his feet!" declared Élie, squinting at his brothers. "He needn't show his feet to monsieur le maire!" declared Hubert, peremptorily, tossing down a dram. "And it's not with his feet that a man swears to make a woman happy." "Well, if you like, we'll mention it to him, next time we have the honour of receiving him at our table," suggested Siméon. "Talk of the devil, there he is!" said Hubert, with his nose pointing up to the treetops. And all three, with their loud, jolly voices, shouted: "Halloa, Balaoo! . . . Halloa, Balaoo! . . . Halloa, Balaoo! . . ." "Whom are they halloaing to ? " Dr. Honorat wondered, seized with a fresh sense of anxiety. 1 La veuve, the slang term for the guillotine. — TRANSLATOR'S NOTE. No one had appeared in the little clearing. The others were looking up at the sky. Honorat could see nothing. He thought that they must be having a joke with him. Were they expecting a visitor in an aeroplane? "Well, what's he waiting for?" asked Hubert. "He's spotted that there's somebody here," said Élie. "Can't you see he's putting on his socks?" The doctor took his spectacles from their case and, more dismayed than ever, fixed them on his perspiring nose. And, in fact, right up on high, between two branches, he caught sight of a party sitting at his ease and pulling on a pair of socks. "Well, Balaoo," cried the Three Brothers, "shall we see you to-day or tomorrow?" "Coming, coming!" replied Balaoo, in his soft, gong-like voice. And Dr. Honorat, unable to believe either his eyes or his spectacles, saw a gentleman walk down from the top, from the very top of the tree, as comfortably as though he were walking down from the top floor of a house: a highly respectable gentleman, upon my word, except that he was walking on his socks and carried his boots slung over his shoulder. He walked down from up there with his hands in his pockets and his hat on one ear, from branch to branch, all the way down the trunk, just as an ordinary person walks down a staircase, without hurrying. Dr. Honorat had never seen anything like it, except in the circus at Clermont, with Japanese acrobats walking straight up and down a pole. Who was this acrobat? Eh? Why? What? The doctor was not mistaken! . . . It was he! . . . He recognized him beyond a doubt! . . . There was no mistake about it! . . . It was M. Noël! . . . "How are you, M. Noël? . . ." The prisoner in the heart of that deep forest, at the mercy of three ruffians who might rob him of his life from one minute to the other, looked upon Balaoo in the light of a saviour. The new-comer's kind, flat, placid face and his round, good-natured eyes gave the doctor confidence. Of course, he was not expecting M. Noël, especially by such a road, and he remained absolutely astonished, while attempting vaguely to explain the anomaly by the circus tradition of the facility of the yellow race for climbing slippery poles. In any case, his eyes did not deceive him: there was M. Noël; and the doctor, in his present plight, was determined to accept the most unhoped-for and even the most ridiculous assistance. Balaoo, on touching ground, gave him a little wave of the hand and said, "How do you do, doctor?" from a distance, in a casual and patronizing tone that did not reassure Dr. Honorat quite as much as he expected. M. Noël, Dr. Coriolis' gardener, whom he had sometimes seen passing through the village, lonely and saturnine, seemed on the best of terms with the Three Brothers. They shook hands all round and exchanged congratulations. Then, taking no notice whatever of the doctor, they moved away and sat down in a circle, as though for a palaver. Dr. Honorat, more and more puzzled, tried to hear what was said at this secret council in which, for aught he knew, his fate was being decided; but the voices did not reach his ears. The news which Balaoo brought his friends was this: "I have just come from the top branch of the Big Beech at Pierrefeu. No one has entered the forest yet. Tourôô! . . . Tourôô!1 Still, there are a lot of red trousers in the fields. They don't look as if they were 1 A monkey-word expressing satisfaction and equivalent to "All right!" — AUTHOR'S NOTE. preparing for battIe. They are all eating and smoking, lying on the grass, like cows. . . . I saw Zoé this morning: she told me she was going to Saint-Martin. She went back again in the afternoon. Aren't you afraid that the people of your Race will hurt her? I called out to her that it was rash, but she wouldn't listen. Has she come back? No? . . .Now here's what I heard in the forest: As told me that they are going to attack you from every side at the same time. As is giving the alarm to all the animals, like the funk that he is. All the inhabitants of the forest have gone to their homes and are lying low and barricading their doors and shivering. I'm keeping a look-out; and I can see that this is all cowardly animals' fuss, for the red trousers are sprawling on the grass like cows. Taurôô! Taurôô!" The Three Brothers in turns questioned Balaoo about the distribution and attitude of the troops and asked what the officers were doing and whether there was much movement at Saint-Martin. He replied to the best of his ability, saying that he would return to his post before nightfall and that they could go to sleep in all security: he was there as a sort of night-watchman, he added. Then he looked in the direction of the doctor and asked what they meant to do with him. Were they going to eat him? The others began to laugh. Balaoo retorted, with a serious face, that he had only asked the question because he knew that they ate all the game which they caught and had heard As say that the Three Brothers had killed the process-server to eat him. Hubert answered that he was keeping the doctor as a hostage, whereupon Balaoo wanted to know what a hostage was. But the other had not time to explain: the branches of the hornbeam nearest to the group parted and Zoé's wide-awake face appeared, smiling all over. She cast her eyes around her, saw that all was well and dropped into the midst of the circle like a grasshopper. Her skin was almost bare, with just a few rags and tatters as its covering. Balaoo gave her an angry look: "What have you done with the Empress' dress?" he asked. Zoé blushed and tried not to answer. But Balaoo persisted and growled again: "What have you done with the Empress' dress?" "I've put it away," she ended by explaining. "I don't want to spoil it: it's not a forest dress." "Woop! Woop! Please, please!" said Balaoo, in the pithecanthrope monkeytongue, for he was very fond of showing the Three Brothers and their sister that he knew foreign languages. "Woop! Woop! I told you, I don't want to see you naked, like an animal. You disgust me, Zoé. Put on your dress, or I'll go away, sure as my name is Balaoo!" Zoé vanished behind the hornbeam and, five minutes later, appeared in the clearing with the gorgeous white dress on her back. The brothers, who did not know of this acquisition, uttered shouts of delight and were lavish in expressions of their admiration. Hubert laughed till he cried, at seeing his sister dressed as an empress in the middle of the Moabit clearing. Siméon and Élie, the two albinos, slapped their thighs. Zoé walked up and down, indifferent as a queen. "So help me, where did you get that?" asked Hubert, choking with laughter. "I gave it her," said Balaoo. "I felt sorry for her, when I saw her passing this morning in her rags. I won't have her going along the roads with nothing on her back: it's indecent. I happened to have a dress up at my place, so I dropped it over her shoulders from the top of the Big Beech at Pierrefeu. It fits her like a glove. Tourôô! Tourôô!" The others "could not get over it" and turned and twisted their sister about, to take the thing in. So she had gone to see the prefect like that, like a real lady, what! She had swaggered round Saint-Martin-des-Bois in that rig-out! What a sensation she must have made! They were proud of her; they could have kissed Balaoo, had Balaoo been willing. "Why didn't you let us see it sooner? " they asked. "You had it when you came back this morning!" "She's a secretive kid," said Élie. "Every time Balaoo gives her something, she keeps it to herself, as if we were likely to steal it." "It's a dress," said Siméon, speaking with a purpose — a purpose so clumsily emphasized that everybody understood what he meant" — it's a dress which she is quite right to be careful with. She couldn't hope for a grander to wear on her wedding-day." Zoé at once ceased parading her finery and turned as red as a peony. Balaoo gave a growl and, without ceremony, spat at Siméon's feet: an invariable sign of his displeasure. And, lest there should be any doubt about it, he grunted: "I don't like people to talk about marriage in my presence!" There was a chilly pause. Hubert thought it wise to say, in a soft voice: "There's nothing to upset you, Balaoo, in that remark. Zoé will have to marry some day." "That's her business!" jerked Balaoo, with swelling cheeks and temples. "And you too, Balaoo! You must, you know, someday! . . ." "I!" roared the pithecanthrope, springing up. "I! Marry! Marry a man-girl! Never! Never! Never! . . . Phoh! Phoh! Goek! Goek! Tch! Tch! Phoh! Phoh! Phoh! Phoh! . . . A man-girl, indeed! . . ." He struck great blows on his chest, which gave forth sounds like a drum, and moved away from his man friends. "Have you left your sweetheart in your own country, Balaoo?" "Yes. . . perhaps. . . in the Forest of Bandong," lied Balaoo, with a steaming breath and a voice thick with sobs. He moved still farther away, flung himself suddenly with his face to the ground and his head in his hands and lay long motionless. The others did not seek to interfere: "He is dreaming of the Forest of Bandong," they said. "Let's get to business." And they now first thought of asking Zoé the result of her negotiations, so sure were they beforehand that the enemy, whose obstinacy they had learnt to know at the time of the elections, would never accept their conditions on receipt of the first little finger!