CHAPTER I: THE MURDER AT THE" BLACK SUN" INN
It was ten o'clock at night and it was hours since a living soul had appeared in the streets of Saint-Martin-des-Bois. Not a light showed in the windows, for the shutters were hermetically closed. The village lay as though deserted. The inhabitants had locked themselves in long before twilight; and nothing would induce them to unbolt their doors before dawn.
One and all seemed to be asleep, when suddenly a great noise of galoshes and hob-nailed shoes sounded along the echoing pavements of the Rue Neuve. It was like the clatter of a hurrying crowd; and soon voices were heard, cries and shouts and discussions between people coming none knew whence. Not a door, not a shutter opened at the loud passing of this unexpected band; but more than one ear must have been slyly listening to the tumult out of doors, for the news of a fresh calamity soon spread from neighbour to neighbour.
And yet not one went to his doorstep to know exactly what was happening. It would be time enough to learn next morning. Everybody was still suffering under the shock produced by the murders of Lombard, the barber in the Cours National, and Camus, the tailor in the Rue Verte, which had followed upon a whole series of events at one time tragic, at another grimly comic and often impossible to explain.
People no longer dared linger an the roads, where well-to-do peasants returning from the big markets of Châteldon and Thiers had been attacked by masked highwaymen and obliged to part with all their money in order to save their lives. A number of burglaries marked by extraordinary boldness and perpetrated under the very noses of the victims, who did not dare protest, had formed the basis of police enquiries which were slackly conducted and led to no serious result. The public prosecutor's staff received very little information, was confronted on every side by affrighted silence and did not think it necessary to display more zeal in hunting down the malefactors than was shown by the sufferers themselves in assisting the authorities to perform a duty intended to restore the sense of public security.
Nevertheless, when nocturnal attacks, cases of arson and thefts of greater and lesser importance were followed by those two extraordinary murders of Camus and Lombard, the police were obliged to go to work more thoroughly. They threatened the more timid natures, with a view to forcing them to speak. But these would rather have had their tongues torn out by the roots! No doubt, the police knew by this time upon whom the suspicions of the whole district rested; but they had to give up all hope of receiving evidence tending to inculpate any one whomsoever. And this added strangely to the mystery of the later crimes. The worst of it was that, side by side with dreadful acts of violence, came jests, extravagant practical jokes, each as terrifying as an attempted murder. Respectable tradesmen, walking dawn the Rue Neuve at nightfall, had received a great slap in the face without being able to say where the blow came from. Mme. Toussaint, the old gossip who contracted for embroidery, was found lying in her backyard, yelling at the top of her voice, with her clothes in over her head and her body showing the marks of a ruthless thrashing. No one knew who had entered the yard nor how. And there were minor incidents that smacked of witchcraft. Despite doors and locks, certain objects — some light and unimportant and possessing no apparent value, others of considerable weight — disappeared as though by magic. Good old Dr. Honorat opened his eyes, one morning, to find his chest of drawers and his pedestal cupboard gone from his bedroom. True, he slept with his window open. He did not inform the police, kept his fright to himself and merely mentioned the strange phenomenon to his friend M. Jules, the mayor, who advised him to shut his window in future when he went to bed.
Lastly, no one dared go through the forest, where more things happened than were ever told. Those who came back, after seeing these things, did not boast of it, but they never ventured in that direction again. It was what was called the Mystery of the Black Woods.
Really, these hardships ought to have been sufficient. What new terror was now making the poor people of the Cerdogne country run down the usually deserted thoroughfare of the Rue Neuve? The cause of all the fuss was an apparently commonplace thing, a railway accident. More correctly speaking, however, it was an attempt upon the lives of the passengers on the little local railway that connects the Belletable and Moulins lines, on the borders of the Bourbonnais.
Criminal hands had torn up the rails at the mouth of the tunnel which opens on the Cerdogne; and, if the train, which had to cross the river by a bridge that was under repair, had not, for that reason, reached the spot at a greatly reduced speed, the catastrophe could not have been avoided. As it was, the train had a narrow escape. The luggage-van alone was destroyed. As for the passengers, some twenty in number, they suffered more from excitement than anything else. And they fled across the fields to Saint-Martin-des-Bois, spreading consternation through the village, which had already locked and bolted its doors for the night.
With the exception of two or three who had their homes at Saint-Martin, all of them went to the Roubions, who keep the inn known as the Black Sun at the corner of the Place de la Mairie and the Rue Neuve. Here, confusion was at its height. While some called for rooms, or at least a bed or a mattress, others exchanged frenzied notes on the danger which they had run.
Fat Mme. Roubion tried to please everybody, but found the greatest difficulty in doing so. One paillasse was nearly torn to pieces. And, when everybody was at last more or less comfortably housed, yet another traveller appeared, with his head wrapped in a bandage. He was the only one injured.
"Why, M. Patrice! Are you hurt?" asked Mme. Roubion, solicitously, holding out her plump hand to the new-comer.
He was a young man of twenty-four or twenty-five, with a pleasant, gentle face, a pair of fine blue eyes and a little fair moustache carefully twisted at the tips.
"Oh, it's only a scratch!" he said. "Nothing serious: it won't show to-morrow. . . . Have you a room for me?"
"A room, M. Patrice? . . . Yes, you can have the billiard-table!"
"I'll take the billiard-table," replied the young man, smiling.
Whereupon Mme. Roubion went to look after M. Gustave Blondel, a traveller for one of the big linen drapers of Clermont-Ferrand, who was making his bed on the table in the pantry and threatening to kill the landlady if she did not bring him a bolster then and there.
"I'm all right here, you see, my charmer, much better than on the billiard-table in the bar-room, where all those talkers would keep me from sleeping! What do they want to go on chattering like that for? What's the trouble with them? They know who did the business: why don't they say so?"
At the sound of these words, Mme. Roubion hastily vanished.
M. Sagnier, the chemist, had just entered the barroom. On hearing the news from the mayor, he had behaved like a hero, torn himself from the trembling arms of the beautiful Mme. Sagnier and come to offer his services. Finding no one in need of his aid, he immediately developed a very bad temper and mingled his aggressive remarks with those of the most irate of his hearers, declaring that, in the face of such outrages, it was no longer possible for a decent man to live at Saint-Martin-des-Bois or, for that matter, in any part of the Cerdogne country.
Meanwhile, M. Jules, the mayor, appeared, accompanied by good old Dr. Honorat. They came from the station, where they had received evidence from the lips of the railway-officials leaving no doubt whatever as to the nature of the outrage. They both looked as pale as if their own lives had been in danger.
"Another calamity, monsieur le maire!" said Roubion.
"Yes," replied M. Jules, in a shaking voice. "Fortunately, there have been no injuries for us to regret!"
The words were received in icy silence. And, suddenly, a voice exclaimed:
"And what about the murderers? When are they to be arrested?"
Then came an outburst. Words of applause and encouragement were flung at the speaker; but he — a peasant — had said what he had to say and remained silent. His face was crimson and his eyes avoided the mayor's.
"The police have been! If you know who the murderers are, Borel, why didn't you give up their names?" asked the mayor.
Old Borel was as clever as most people and had his answer ready:
"I've nothing to say to the police," he growled. "I'm no detective, nor no mayor neither. Everyone to his trade!"
That was what they all said: it was not their job. To the commissary of police, to the examining-magistrate, they invariably replied with the refrain:
"It's your business, not mine! . . . The government pays you to find out: see to it and earn your money!" with more gibes of the same sort.
They were still digesting old Borel's answer, when Gustave Blondel entered, pushing everybody aside. The commercial traveller sat down on the billiard-table, crossed his arms, looked the mayor straight in the face and said:
"What are you worrying about, monsieur le maire? What do you expect in a place where there are people whose name begins with the same syllable as vauriens?"
A murmur of assent and a few nasty chuckles followed, but the effect of Gustave Blondel's sally was interrupted by an unexpected incident. The chuckles suddenly ceased; and all now, nudging one another, stared at a new-comer who came forward while the others made way for him with astonishing unanimity.
The man was dressed in a drab corduroy suit. Long leggings came up to his knees. His shirt-collar was loose and revealed a neck like a bull's. A soft hat, which had lost all semblance of colour, was thrust back on his head, showing a tangled mass of thick red hair. The face was extraordinarily powerful and calm. The green eyes contemplated those present with a cool, bored look. The man's limbs were short and thickset, the shoulders square, the back a little bent. He carried his hands in his pockets; and his whole person gave a striking impression of brute force, quiescent, but wide awake.
He walked across the room with his even step, amid death-like silence, until he was face to face with the commercial traveller, who watched him coming; and the man had certainly heard what Blondel had said to the mayor, for he barked at him, in his rough, dull voice, full of suppressed anger:
"Vautrins, vauriens! Is that what you mean, my beauty? You needn't mind me, you know: I'm not one to take offence!"
And he moved to the chimney-place, where the mayor was standing:
"Good-evening, monsieur le maire."
"Good-evening, Hubert. . . ."
And M. Jules had to press the hand held out to him.
The man sat down without ceremony beside the hearth, in which a fire of sticks had been lit, and called for "a glass of white," which Roubion hastened to bring him. He emptied the glass, wiped his mouth on his sleeve and, turning to Blondel, said:
"Monsieur le maire hasn't got over the last election yet! . . . Only, look you here, my beauty: it's all right to treat us like dirt at the meetings . . . but we ought to be left quiet now. . . . What say you, monsieur le maire?"
M. Jules, feeling greatly embarrassed, gave an inarticulate grunt.
The commercial traveller had not stirred. He continued to fix an obstinate stare of dislike upon the red-haired, green-eyed man. Hubert rose and, offering Blondel his hand:
"Come," he said, "let's have no ill-feeling! Each does his best for his master: you for the King, I for the President of the Republic! If ever you want a billet. . . ."
Blondel got down from the billiard-table leisurely, shrugged his shoulders, turned his back and went to the pantry.
"Monsieur le maire," said Hubert, in a hollow voice, "I call you to witness: that's how they treat good republicans in this place. But I'll pay him out for it at the next election, never fear! . . . I mark it all down on my little slips of paper, though I don't know how to write. . . . Hear that, you others, who seemed to be enjoying yourselves, just now."
As he spoke, he cast his cold, metallic glance over all his hearers. In the depth of their being, they felt as uncomfortable as if they were before a magistrate.
His coolness in enlisting the mayor on his side with a word, as though, after the forced intimacy of the election, the mayor had necessarily become his accomplice and his friend, brought the beads of perspiration to M. Jules' bald forehead.
The man flung four sous on the table and walked back to the door with his calm gait. On the threshold, he stopped and turned:
"I'm going back to my brothers," he said. "By the way, I've been to the tunnel and seen the damage. The man's a damned blackguard who did that job. I shall tell Élie and Siméon as much, presently. What I say is, we shall have to find the beggar who plays us these tricks, or life won't be worth living for decent men."
And he disappeared under the black cavity of the archway.
The room at once emptied, as though the man's departure had restored everybody's liberty of movement; and they all took advantage of it to escape from a place where the visit might be repeated at any time.
Roubion and his wife, assisted by the servants, carefully locked the doors of the bar-room: the door into the archway and the door opening straight on the street.
No one remained in the room except young Patrice, to whom the landlord and his wife had said good-night. Nevertheless, though he was alone with his billiard-table, he heard a noise close beside him. He perceived that some one was undressing in the pantry. The door between the two rooms was closed, but a communication remained in the form of the little open window of the serving-hatch. And he at once recognized the voice of the commercial traveller, who, stooping to the opening, said:
"Good-night, M. Patrice. If you want anything, you can call to me through here. . . . This is rather like a confessional-box, isn't it?"
These details were destined to be impressed on Patrice' mind for all time, though he did not suspect their importance at the moment. He answered Blondel politely and hoisted himself on to the mattress which had been laid over the billiard-table. When they were both lying down, they began to talk:
"Why didn't you go to your uncle's for a bed?" asked Blondel.
"I knocked at the door and called out. They were all asleep, I suppose, and I didn't like to wake them."
"Is Mlle. Madeleine well?"
"Thank you, I hope so."
"When is the wedding to be?"
"You had better ask my uncle."
Blondel saw that he had been indiscreet. He changed the subject; and they now started discussing the outrage and the recent murders, which the commercial traveller flatly put down to the score of the brothers Vautrin.
"Oh," said Patrice, "at Clermont-Ferrand, we think — just as they do here — that you can't explain everything with the Three Brothers."
"You can explain everything with the Three Brothers and the sister," said the commercial traveller.
"The incredible part of it is," Patrice insisted, "that no trace of the murderers was discovered in either Camus' or Lombard's case."
"Possibly," replied the other, "but one thing is certain, that, if Camus and Lombard had not opened the door on the night of their murder, when they heard the sound of moans in the street and the voice of that little savage of a Zoé. . . they would be alive now. It was the sister who lured them on. . . ."
At that moment, the two men ceased talking, as though by a sudden accord. And each of them sat up in bed, pricking up his ears. Moans came from the street.
"Do you hear?" asked Blondel, in a husky voice.
Patrice had not even the strength to reply. He heard the commercial traveller get up, jump to the tiled floor of the pantry and enter the bar-room with every precaution.
"One would think they were murdering somebody outside the door!" said Blondel.
Patrice, whose occupation was that of first clerk to his father, a solicitor in the Rue de l'Écu at Clermont-Ferrand, had always been more or less timid by nature. He shuddered as he slipped down from his billiard-table. With a choking throat and a moist forehead, he admired the courage of Blondel, who walked up to the door of the bar-room that opened on the street whence the moans had come.
The traveller had pulled on his trousers, but kept his handkerchief knotted round his head by way of a night-cap. The great, fat fellow, with his bare feet, his night-shirt hanging loose round his waist and the two corners of his handkerchief sticking out above his forehead like horns, looked the picture of absurdity; yet Patrice did not think of laughing.
The moans had ceased abruptly. Blondel and Patrice looked at each other in silence, by the dismal light of a lamp over the billiard-table, the wick of which had been turned down. All the mysterious tragedy of which Camus and Lombard had been the victims passed before their eyes. The thing had, begun like that, with moans, in the case of both the unfortunate men.
And suddenly they turned their heads. The door of the staircase leading to the upper floor opened; and Roubion appeared, carrying a revolver in his hand:
"Did you hear?" he asked, in a whisper.
Roubion was a fine, big chap, built, like his wife, on huge lines. He was trembling like a leaf. All three remained for moment behind the street-door, listening to the silence of the village night, which nothing more disturbed.
"Perhaps we were mistaken!" said Roubion, with a sigh, after a good deal of hesitation.
Blondel, who had recovered all his composure, shook his head, by way of denial:
"We shall see about that!" he said.
"What!" protested the innkeeper. "You're not going to open the door, surely?"
Blondel did not answer and went and stirred the fire, which gave a little glow. It was a cold night, although summer was not far off. Soon, all three were sitting round the chimney, where Roubion warmed them some wine in a sauce-pan.
"All the same," said the commercial traveller, "if we could manage to catch the scoundrels here and now, it's a stroke of business that would be worth doing!"
"Hold your tongue, Blondel!" said Roubion, peremptorily. "Don't meddle with that. . . it would bring you bad luck!"
"Certainly," said Patrice, "it's none of our business."
"Remember Camus and Lombard! . . . If they had not opened their doors! . . ."
Blondel, who was on the road at the time of the two murders, asked for details. Roubion went back to the door, listened and, hearing nothing, returned more or less tranquillized:
"This is exactly what happened," he explained. "Lombard and his old aunt had gone to bed after bolting all their doors and windows, as we now do every evening at Saint-Martin. Lombard's bedroom and his aunt's were both on the ground-floor. The barber was sound asleep, when he was awakened by the old lady standing at the foot of his bed and whispering to him to listen to what was going on. Lombard listened. Some one was wailing and lamenting in the street. It sounded like dying moans mixed with little plaintive cries. Lombard got up, lit his candle and took his revolver from the drawer of the table by his bedside. You know how careful we are at Saint-Martin; and we are right to be, unfortunately. The aunt whispered to Lombard, 'Whatever you do, for God's sake, don't open the door!' Lombard, without opening the door as yet, decided to speak: 'Who's there?' he asked. 'Who's that crying?' A voice answered, 'It's me, Zoé. Pity in the man's house!' "
"What does that mean: 'Pity in the man's house'?" asked Blondel, interrupting him.
"Oh, it's one of Zoé's expressions. The chit lives like an animal, either in her brothers' den or in the forest; and, as her brothers always talk slang among themselves, the result is that she speaks a language different from that of other people."
"So, you see, it was she," said Blondel. "There's no mistake about it."
"Wait! . . . It was only half-past ten. In spite of all that his aunt could say, Lombard opened the door. He looked out into the street. It was a bright night. He saw nothing and was very much astonished. The moans had stopped. Fearing a trap, he was careful to keep on the threshold, called Zoé, received no reply, closed his door again very cautiously and went back to bed, saying, 'It's another hoax. There's no sleeping in peace, these days, at Saint-Martin-des-Bois!' The aunt also went back to bed, but, after this disturbance, did not sleep. She lay awake all night."
"Oh," said Patrice, "she must have gone to sleep, or she would have heard!"
"She swears she never closed her eyes. And the door between their two rooms was left wide open. In the morning, she got up as usual and went to open Lombard's shutters. When she turned round, she was greatly surprised not to see him in the recess where the bed stands. The bed-clothes were flung back as if Lombard had just got up. Not knowing what to think, she opened the door leading to the hairdresser's shop and gave a terrible yell: the poor barber's body was swinging in the middle of the shop, hanging from the brass lyre that serves as a chandelier. They thought at first that it was suicide; but Dr. Honorat and the divisional surgeon agreed that the hanging had been preceded by a terrible strangling and all so suddenly that the unfortunate man had no time to say, 'Oh!' or the old woman would have heard. What seemed the great mystery from the very first was how the body could have been carried into the shop and hanged. . . . It was found that there was not a trace of footsteps in the shop, which had been freshly sanded on the evening before. Lastly, a fact which proved from the start that Lombard had not hanged himself was that there was no chair or stool lying on the floor beside him."
"Ah, well!" said Blondel, jerking his head. "Men are tired of life have more than one trick in their bag!. . . What about Camus?"
"The same story. He too heard moans in the middle of the night and recognized Zoé's voice. Camus was a friend of Lombard's: they were the only two lame men in the parish; and this had brought them together. He thought it a good opportunity to discover the barber's murderer and avenge his death. He took a weapon, opened the door and, like the other, saw nothing and heard nothing more. But, when he had shut his door, he did not go to bed. He wisely lit all the lamps in his shop and, with his revolver by his side, sat down by his till and started doing his accounts. He then told his little assistant, the young lad whom you know, to go upstairs to bed. Well, the next morning, the assistant, on returning to the shop, uttered a piercing cry. His master was hanging from the iron bar from the ceiling that holds the yard-measure with which he used to measure the cloth for his customers. The revolver was lying on the till. The till had not been touched. Camus' throat showed the same marks of strangling which were found on Lombard. And, in the tailor's shop, as in the barber's, it was impossible to discover any marks of steps, any footprint allowing a plausible explanation of the method of the crime. People said and people are still saying, 'The Vautrins! The Vautrins!' Well, the Vautrins themselves took little Zoé to the examining-magistrate; and she had no difficulty in proving that she was far from the spot of the murder at the time when it was committed and that somebody must have imitated her voice."
"And where was she?" asked Blondel.
"She was helping monsieur le maire's servant to wash up her plates and dishes. There was a big dinner at M. Jules' that night."
"There's a fine alibi for you!" sneered the commercial traveller.
"M. Blondel, you are blinded by politics!"
And Roubion poured them out some more hot wine.
"And the Vautrins? Were they examined?"
"The magistrate wanted to question them. Their answer was that little Zoé had spoken for all the family and that they were not going to have any dealings with the police at their time of life. Then they sent M. de Meyrentin, the examining-magistrate, an extract from their judicial record, which in fact is absolutely blank, and with it they enclosed a request that he would just kindly leave them alone!"
"What cheek!" exclaimed Blondel.
"Listen!" said Patrice.
The moans had begun again.
The three men all stood up. Patrice tottered on his legs and nearly dropped when he distinctly, most distinctly, heard the fatal phrase:
"It's me, it's Zoé. Pity in the man's house!"
Roubion, with his hand clutching his revolver; turned as white as a sheet. Blondel said, in a whisper:
"That's Zoé's voice, there's no mistake about it. I know it."
And he slipped behind the door.
The moans had come nearer still. It was as though the three men heard them in their ears, as though somebody quite close, quite close, had whispered the moans to them. They heard the sound of oppressed breathing and the strange phrase of despair:
"Pity! Pity in the man's house!"
Blondel sprang round and ran to the wall-rack. He seized a cue by the narrow end.
"Oh no!... Don't open the door! Don't open the door!" stammered the innkeeper. "It's the Lombard and Camus trick! . . . That's how they were murdered! .. . Don't open the door, or we're done for!. . ."
He rattled out his words and trembled so violently in his fright that he disgusted Blondel, who growled:
Oh, are you all cowards in these parts? It's one of two things: either they're murdering the child, or else they're getting at us! . . . Or it may be," he added, feverishly wiping the streaming perspiration from his forehead with his shirt-sleeves, "it may be Hubert coming to take his revenge. . . . But there are three of us, what!. . . And you have your revolver, Roubion!"
"Don't open! Don't open!" said Roubion again.
It was now as though Zoé were sobbing outside the door, or as though she were on the point of death.
"But we must find out what it is!" protested Blondel, still wielding his billiardcue.
Then he asked, in a powerful voice:
"Who's there? Who's crying'?.. Is it you Zoé? . . . "
There was no reply but a hoarse groan.
Suddenly he drew back the bolt and turned the key of the door.
"Where are the ruffians?" he growled, putting his head outside.
At last, he took up his stand on the threshold, with his billiard-cue in his hand.
This corner of the Rue Neuve was well lit by the light of the street-lamp at the corner of the Place de la Mairie. Nevertheless, Blondel distinguished nothing; and the moans had ceased. He beckoned Patrice and Roubion, who joined him, mastering the unendurable anguish of which they were now ashamed.
As a matter of fact, they felt angry with themselves for being such cowards. As Blondel had said, there were three of them, not to mention that the inn was full of visitors who would hasten at the first call; at least, it was to be hoped they would!
"Do you see anything?" asked the commercial traveller. "I can see nothing."
"No, nothing! . . . There is nothing! . . . There's nothing to see!"
"Here, wait a second till I go to the corner of the lane. . . over there. . . ."
"M. Blondel, you mustn't! . . . You mustn't! . . ."
But, by this time, the other was in the street. He made no noise, walking barefoot on the cobbles, and thus slipped to the corner of the lane on the left, where he looked and listened, without venturing down it. . . .The he came back and went off to the right, as far as the Place de la Mairie.
The light of the gas-jet flung the huge shadow of Blondel, still armed with his billiard-cue, upon the opposite wall. A silence that was incomprehensible, after those recent moans, hung over the village; and this seemed to Patrice more terrifying than the moans themselves. The moans must have been heard in the neighbouring houses: opposite at the Bouteillers'; next door, at Mme. Godefroy the postmistress'; but nothing had stirred on either side. The fear that reigned supreme at Saint-Martin-des-Bois allowed no doors to be opened to the voices of the night. . . .And the moon might cast the dancing shadows of the three Brothers in the streets, or send sprawling the less formidable, but equally mysterious, shapes of lifeless things — such as the shapes of the chimney-pots, for instance, which are more terrifying than any, with their caps upon their heads — but people were not inquisitive enough to look at them at night! . . . No, no, there was nothing inquisitive about the people of Saint-Martin-des-Bois! . . .
The three men closed the inn-door just as Mme. Roubion, "feeling more dead than alive," joined them. She too had heard noises, but would never have thought that Roubion could have the imprudence to allow the door to be opened. And she dragged him away, pushed him up the staircase, beating him as she went and carrying with her the key of the street-door, to make sure that they did not open it again.
When Blondel no longer heard them, he turned to Patrice, who did not know what to say or do:
"You're too impressionable, my lad," he said, "you'll never get to sleep in here. I only laugh at this kind thing you see. One discovers all sorts of coincidences, once things are over; and the Vautrins are capable of anything: I saw the way they went to work at the last elections! The point is to know them. If they want to deal with me, let them come! I'll sleep behind the door, in your place, on the billiard-table. I'll wait for them."
Patrice, looking a little shamefaced, replied: "Perhaps we had better not go to sleep at all!"
But the other had already caught up Patrice' blankets and was carrying them to the pantry. And he returned with his own things and threw them on the billiard table.
Patrice let him have his way and was not at all sorry to move farther from the street and from that door against which he still, at moments, seemed to hear a rustling.
They drank one last bowl of steaming wine, shook hands and wished each other good-night. Patrice tried to make some excuse for himself, could not find his words, was afraid of appearing a coward. The other pushed him along:
"Go on, my lad, go on!"
Then Blondel climbed on to the billiard-table, muttering:
"That's how boys are brought up nowadays; their parents make school-misses of them!"
When his head was on the pillow, he lit a cigarette and sent the smoke up to the ceiling.
Patrice could see him clearly through the little open door of the serving-hatch. The solicitor's clerk, on his mattress on the pantry-table, was lying with his head on the same level as the head of Blondel, on the billiard-table. And, suddenly, what Patrice saw through the little square of the hatch filled him with a horror so great that every hair on his head stood on end.
He continued merely to see Blondel's face; but what a face! Never was hideous terror printed on human countenance in features more atrociously distorted. With his eyes starting from their sockets, with his mouth open, but incapable of emitting a sound, with his whole face dreadfully convulsed, Blondel was staring fixedly at the ceiling.
Patrice could not see what Blondel saw; and, awed as he was, his terror was but the reflection of the other's terror.
Patrice tried to make a movement to rise. . . . Yes, he had the strength and also the pluck, for he needed pluck to move; and something abominable must be happening on the ceiling of the other room; and the sense of his own safety was ordering him not to stir a limb. . . .
Was the movement which he made perceived? . . . Were they trying to kill him with fright too? . . . For, from the ceiling of the other room, he heard a hoarse and formidable voice utter his name. . . yes. . . yes. . . his name. . . Patrice! . . . And that certainly was a frightful command, a threat that nailed him to his place!
This time, he stirred no more; and, with eyes full of horror he continued to gaze at the little square of the serving-hatch that framed the terror-stricken and apparently hypnotized face of Blondel. . . .
And, all at once, the young man saw, in that little square. . . saw coming down from the ceiling, which he could not see. . . saw two clutching hands under two shirtcuffs, which made two very clear white patches in the half light . . . saw two terrible arms which fell upon Blondel, which clutched him by the throat and which rose to the ceiling holding that throat captive.
And Blondel had not even said, "Oh!" Already his head was falling back, his head of which Patrice was never more to forget the eyes, starting, jutting, enormous, as though ready to slide from the sheath of their reversed lids.
Lifted by the murderous hands, the head and then the whole upper part of the body disappeared from the frame of the serving-hatch; and next came the legs, which left the billiard-table and rose, hanging side by side, towards the ceiling! . . .
Oh, horror! . . . Oh, horror! . . . Oh, to cry out! . . . To cry out! . . . Patrice can't. . . he can't. . . because he is too much afraid! . . . Yes. . . he's a coward. . . he's a coward! . . . Ah, to move. . . to run. . . to fly! . . . Patrice' legs are of lead, of lead! . . . Ah, he succeeds in stretching one of them out of bed. . . one alone, noiselessly. . . . But what can he do with only one leg out of bed? . . . And he feels that he will never have the strength to put the other out. . . . If he could only put the other out. . . and run away, run away on his legs of lead! . . . But, once more, in a hoarse whisper, over there, from the ceiling, comes a monstrous chuckle in which he distinctly hears his name:
The other leg has that moment come; and there he now stands, with his feet on the floor, on the tiled floor, but his back glued to his mattress. . . . Yes, his name uttered up there, from the ceiling, has glued him irremediably against the improvised bed. . . .
Why has his name been uttered? . . .
The man on the ceiling evidently knows, evidently, absolutely knows that he, Patrice, is there, since he calls him by his name and, very charitably, warns him not to move. . . .
Thereupon, he does not move. . . . He obeys. . . .
And suddenly the breath ceases. . . the enormous breathing from the ceiling! . . . And he hears it no longer. . . he hears it no longer! . . .
And he no longer sees anything above the billiard table, through the little window of the serving-hatch. . . .
Yes! Yes! . . . He does see something. He sees something coming back, coming a little lower: Blondel's two feet, which swing. . . and swing. . . and swing. . .and then, gradually, cease their swinging. . . and at last remain motionless, toes downwards. . . .
There is nothing now in the bar-room of the Black Sun but a profound silence, those two motionless feet above the billiard-table and, in the pantry, Patrice Saint-Aubin, who has fallen into a dead faint. . . .
And perhaps also the murderer.
For if he entered when the door was opened, he must needs now go out.