CHAPTER III: A SLAP IN THE STREET AND A KISS IN THE STORM
Yes, fully-outlined footprints showed on the white plaster of the ceiling. The feet went to and fro, returned to the point whence they started and went back to the metal stem supporting the billiard-lamps from which the unfortunate commercial traveller had been found hanging!
The noises and cries were almost immediately succeeded by a stupefied silence. And then a few comments arose from the crowd peering through the windows, while M. de Meyrentin stood without moving and contemplated that trail, which was surely the strangest trail in the world.
"D'you mean to say the murderers walked like flies?" said one.
"As they never left any marks on the ground, they must walk somewhere!" said Mother Toussaint, that old gossip who was always the first to arrive when there was anything on hand.
"The footsteps are quite plain. . . that's because it was raining yesterday," said old Fajot, who always wanted to be cleverer than anybody else.
But some one remarked:
"Faith, that's a fine joke to play on the police!"
And at once there were spiteful, hostile laughs. It was obvious that the business of the footprints on the ceiling was assuming the appearance of a gruesome jest, almost an insult to M. de Meyrentin. And prudent allusions were made to "the others":
"Ah 'they' know their way about! 'They' know their way about! . . ."
"Seems Blondel told them what he thought of them, yesterday."
"He won't tell them so to-day. . . . It's best to mind one's business. . . ."
And they called out to the magistrate, who was still looking in the air, as they might to a dog:
"Go find! Go find!"
"Silence, all of you!" ordered Daddy Drum, in his voice husky with liquor.
At a sign from the magistrate, Daddy Drum closed the windows.
Then they shifted Blondel's body a little to one side and M. de Meyrentin climbed up on the billiard-table and made a careful and prolonged examination of the footprints on the ceiling. It was a long foot with a large heel and a well-developed great toe. These details were visible although the feet had been placed there not quite bare, but clad in socks. The man who had walked on the ceiling had taken the precaution to take off his shoes, so as not to make a noise; and he had certainly removed them before entering the house, for the footprints on the ceiling were still quite wet with the black mould in which he must have walked outside. Here and there, the socks showed the cross-work of the coarse wool and the darns. M. de Meyrentin pointed these out to M. Jules. The mending, instead of being correctly done, displayed a rough and very peculiar "whipseam," a sort of round patch, the size and shape of a five-franc piece, joined on to the heel and "whipped" anyhow, all round.
"Joke or no joke," said M. de Meyrentin, "with a clue like that for us to go upon, the man who played the joke will pay for it with his head!"
And he jumped down to the floor and spun upon his own axis several times to express his satisfaction.
"Gentlemen," he announced, in the most serious tone, "we must look for the man who walks upside down!"
"How does he manage when he takes a drink?" asked Michel, the driver of the Black Woods diligence, in an undertone.
Michel had just arrived and was poking his cap cautiously through the pantrydoor.
Fortunately, the magistrate did not hear him. He was asking Roubion if he knew of any black mould anywhere around the inn. Roubion took him to the back of the building; and there they were able to trace distinctly, in the middle of the lane, the same marks of footsteps which they had seen on the ceiling. The marks stopped suddenly, between two high walls without doors or windows. It was impossible to understand how those marks were not to be found anywhere else.
"The joke continues!" chuckled M. de Meyrentin, with a knowing little air. "And now let's go to M. Saint-Aubin."
The others had already given M. de Meyrentin a detailed account of how they had found Patrice in a faint in the pantry, though it was understood that he was to sleep on the billiard-table. This sort of transposition of bodies seemed to interest the examining magistrate greatly.
Patrice's uncle, M. Coriolis Boussac Saint-Aubin, owned the largest and oldest estate in that part of the country. It was also the most sequestered, standing at the end of the village, almost on the edge of the woods.
Roubion and the mayor took leave of M. de Meyrentin when he raised Coriolis' knocker. Old Gertrude came and opened the door. She said that M. Patrice was "resting." The good woman seemed quite upset. The doctor said a word to reassure her.
Then Coriolis appeared upon the scene, in the devil's own temper, shaking his long white locks, hardly civil to the magistrate, complaining at being bothered with all this business and bitterly regretting that his nephew had come to disturb him at Saint-Martin without his permission.
"I want to see your nephew, at once, please!" said M. de Meyrentin, incensed at this reception.
"Wake him up."
Thee uncle turned his back on him. But a young girl with a sweet, engaging face and eyes still red with weeping intervened:
"Come with me, monsieur le juge. . . ."
When they entered the bedroom, they found Patrice tossing in a feverish sleep, waving his arm as though to ward off some frightful vision and uttering incoherent words. They arrived just in time to hear him cry:
"Pity in the man's house! Pity in the man's house! Why did you call me: 'Patrice!'"
M. de Meyrentin could not help giving a start.
The doctor said:
It will be better to wake him and let his mind recover its balance. Dreams like that can only do him harm."
M. de Meyrentin made a sign to the doctor to hush and once more listened to the sleeping witness. But Patrice now uttered none but unintelligible sounds. The magistrate turned to Coriolis:
"You were not expecting your nephew?" he asked.
"He pretends that he sent me a telegram during the day. I did not receive it. That explains why nobody opened the door when he knocked last night."
"M. Bombarda," said M. de Meyrentin, to his clerk, "go and ask Mme. Godefroy, the postmistress, if she received a telegram for M. Boussac Saint-Aubin."
The clerk limped off in his long frock-coat.
And Patrice woke up.
M. de Meyrentin welcomed this awakening eagerly. At last, perhaps, they would know, know what the thing was that walked on the ceiling, with hands that strangled! The first thing that the young man saw, on opening his eyes, was the sweet face of Madeleine.
Like himself, she was fair, with blue eyes. They had loved each other for many years, ever since the time when, quite young, they used to meet, during the holidays, at the house of Patrice' father in the Rue de l'Écu at Clermont-Ferrand; for Coriolis' daughter had been brought up in France while her father was doing business at the other end of the world, at Batavia, where he was French consul. Patrice was sorry when Uncle Coriolis returned from the Far East and retired to his estate at Saint-Martin-des-Bois, where he led the life of a bear. The uncle did not care for his nephew's visits and had told him as much. He accepted the engagement in principle and had spoken a word or two about it to old Saint-Aubin of Clermont; but, meantime, he insisted that they were not to bother him."
Patrice was still looking at Madeleine, in fond admiration, when Dr. Honorat spoke, to introduce the magistrate to the young man. Then he recommended Patrice to be calm and, above all, to recover possession of his wits. In short, the time had come for him to act with courage and not to be afraid to tell the police all that he had seen and heard. The safety of the whole district depended on him.
The examining-magistrate was marking his approval of these last words by nodding his head, when the long, black, limping clerk returned from his errand. He was in a great state of fury. His raised fists threatened no one knew whom; and he spoke so fast that his hearers did not understand a word of what he was saying. They seemed to gather that he had received a slap!
"A slap?" asked M. de Meyrentin, astounded.
"Yes, a slap in the face!"
And the magistrate's clerk cut so queer a figure as he spoke that Mlle. Madeleine could not restrain a smile, while old Gertrude burst out laughing.
"There's nothing to laugh at!" declared the clerk, angrily. "A regular slap in the face! To me! But it won't end there, I can tell you!"
"Come, come, M. Bombarda, first tell us how it happened."
M. Bombarda rubbed his cheek, gave Gertrude a fierce look and said:
"I was coming back from the post-office and was just about to leave the Rue Neuve for the road. I was walking as fast as I could and, as I did so, brushed past a man in front of me who seemed to want the pavement for himself. I hardly touched him. I apologized and was going on my way when — whoosh! — I received a slap! . . . But such a slap! . . . Monsieur le juge d'instruction, it was a slap that hurled me against the wall and made me see stars!. . . I was just meaning to go for my assailant, when I saw that he had disappeared as if the earth had opened under his feet! . . . I could not make out where he had got to. . . . I hunted for him, I shouted, I threatened him! . . . It was well for him that he did not show himself, for he would have had something to remember me by. . . .But what a slap! . . . To me! . . . Look, my cheek is still quite red! . . . But I shall find my man all right; and, once again, I sha'n't let it end there!"
"Yes, yes, yes," said M. de Meyrentin. "A slap! I see! Well, we'll talk of it later! . . . For the moment, M. Bombarda, sit down and take out your note-book! . . . But, first, what did the postmistress say?"
"She said that she received a telegram for M. Coriolis yesterday and that she gave it to M. Coriolis' man-servant, who had just come into the office to stamp and post his master's letters."
"Then why didn't Noël give me the telegram?" exclaimed Coriolis. "I can't understand it. Go and ask him, Gertrude."
The old woman went out and returned almost at once, striking her forehead with one hand and waving the blue paper of a telegram in the other:
"Oh, my memory! . . . My poor head!" she said. "I'm becoming good for nothing! You had better get rid of me, my dear master! . . . Noël gave me the telegram for you. I put it in my pocket and forgot all about it until this moment. . . . Oh, it doesn't do to grow old! . . ."
"That'll do," said Coriolis, snatching the telegram from her. "Go away."
Gertrude made herself scarce. Coriolis read the telegram and the examining magistrate asked to see it.
"My nephew's telegram seems to worry you?" asked Coriolis.
"Very much so, monsieur, and I will tell you why. The question of knowing whether your nephew was expected at Saint-Martin or not is particularly important because we have to solve the problem which of the two they meant to murder last night: the commercial traveller or M. Patrice!"
Madeleine gave a cry of horror and turned as pale as Patrice himself, who received the magistrate's supposition as he would a stunning blow. The blood buzzed in his ears and he thought that he was about to relapse into the state of coma from which he had just emerged. As for Coriolis, he scorned the idea that anyone could be sufficiently interested in his fool of a nephew to want to murder him. He shrugged his shoulders and uttered this scathing sentence:
"He has nothing to do with our local differences and never leaves his mother's apron-strings."
The doctor muttered his regret that M. de Meyrentin should behave so tactlessly towards an invalid and translated his thoughts by saying, aloud:
"Be gentle with him!"
This was not at all the intention of the magistrate, who had had to be gentle with everybody up to now and who thought this a good opportunity to make a powerful impression on the young man and to get something out of him at last. He politely ordered everybody out of the room, except the clerk, and remained face to face with Patrice, who stammered:
"Kill me! . . . But I know nobody here. . . and I have no enemies, monsieur le juge!"
"We always think we have no enemies," retorted M. de Meyrentin, sententiously, "and it is at the moment when we think ourselves safest that we are hit in the dark. Tell me all that you know, all that you have seen, heard and. . . and suspected. Fear no reprisals of any kind: I shall act with the greatest prudence. Not a soul shall hear what must remain our secret until the moment when the criminal is punished and, therefore, made harmless. So trust me, M. Saint-Aubin, and speak out!"
Patrice described the incidents of the night as we know them, as circumstantially and accurately as possible. He felt a need to explain things to himself. Gradually, as he spoke, the magistrate's supposition appeared more and more plausible to him; and he shivered at the bare thought.
When he had finished, he looked at M. de Meyrentin with anxious eyes. The magistrate tugged nervously at his pepper-and-salt whiskers; and his little eyes glittered with anger through his gold-rimmed glasses.
"Is that all?" he asked, harshly.
"I have told you all that I saw and heard," sighed Patrice.
"So you saw nothing more? So you did not have, I will not say the courage, but the curiosity to drag yourself to the door of the hatch and look to see what was happening on the ceiling?"
"Monsieur, I was paralyzed; and, when all my pluck was gone, I had even less curiosity!"
M. de Meyrentin had the greatest difficulty in restraining the expression of his disappointment.
"And so you let the poor man die. . . ."
"But, monsieur le juge. . . ."
"In your stead!" continued the magistrate, fiercely. "Yes, in your stead! For the other thought that he had hanged you, monsieur, and that is all about it! . . . Wait now! Don't go and faint! . . . All hope is not lost. . . . Answer my questions. It had been publicly understood that you were to sleep on the billiard-table?"
"You entered the inn with your head bandaged; and Blondel, before going to bed, put a handkerchief round his head!"
"Are you quite sure that you heard your name uttered from the ceiling?"
"Yes, monsieur, very plainly, worse luck!"
"Wait! . . . Wait! . . . In the state in which you were, you may not have been able quite to realize things. . . . You speak of a huge breath, of a monstrous breathing in the midst of which you heard your name pronounced: 'Patrice!' . . . Are you quite sure that it was the breath that spoke? . . . For there was the breath on the ceiling and there was the hanged man. . . . It may have been the hanged man, it may have been Gustave Blondel who, knowing that you were in the next room, gave a last groan: 'Patrice!'"
"Monsieur, it was unlikely. He would have called out, 'Help!' and not 'Patrice!' I did not know M. Blondel well. He would not have called to me by my Christian name."
"That's true enough," assented M. de Meyrentin, growing more and more irritable, for the witness' evidence seemed to contradict a theory on the murders at Saint-Martindes-Bois which he had now entertained for some days.
"It's quite true!" he resumed, after a pause. "So it was the breath — I give that name to the thing on the ceiling which you did not see, but heard — it was the murderer who spoke! . . . And the murderer had a huge breath, which evidently came from his difficulty in breathing upside down. . . . And the murderer spoke: 'Patrice!' In what tone did he say, 'Patrice!'?"
"Oh, monsieur, I feel pretty certain that it was in a tone of hatred!"
"You see! And who is there that calls you by your name of Patrice?"
"No one, except my father, my mother, my Uncle Coriolis and my Cousin Madeleine!"
A momentous pause, during which the magistrate reflected and bit his lips. . . . "And you are sure that, behind the door, you heard, 'Pity! Pity in the man's house!'?"
"Yes, we heard those words plainly."
"And what do the words mean, in your opinion?"
"Why, monsieur, I don't know!"
"Nor I either, monsieur," said the magistrate. "And the murderer wore cuffs, you say? What sort of cuffs?"
"Oh, I can't tell you positively. I saw some white linen coming beyond the sleeves."
"What I want to know is what sort of idea you had when you saw what you did of the murderer coming down towards Blondel's throat."
"Oh, I did not have much of an idea at that moment, but, all the same, I realized that it was two arms that were coming to strangle Blondel."
"You saw those arms up to where?"
"Up to the elbows, at least."
"Would you know them again?"
"Upon my word, I can't say. . . the sleeves were dark. . . . As you know, it was not very light on the other side of the hatch. . . ."
"Which explains why he hanged the other in your stead: the fact is becoming more and more certain to my mind. . . . Think it well over. Concentrate your thoughts upon it. Help me with all your might, with all your intelligence. . . ."
"But, monsieur, I can't understand it, I can't understand it at all! . . ."
"Nor I either, monsieur! . . ."
"But, when all is said and done, monsieur le juge, how did the murderer get in? How did he get out?"
"That's what I was going to ask you," said M. de Meyrentin, rising from his chair.
"Well, as soon as you are able to get up — and I hope that will be at once — just stroll round to the inn and, in my name, ask Daddy Drum, who is keeping the door, to show you the footprints which the murderer left behind him."
"Oh, so he left footprints? . . . On the floor of the bar-room, I suppose?"
"No, monsieur! . . . On the ceiling!"
With these words, M. de Meyrentin took leave of the unfortunate Patrice, who began to cry like a child.
Luckily for the young man, old Coriolis and Madeleine soon succeeded in convincing him that M. de Meyrentin was the biggest fool living. The uncle, especially, was furious with the examining-magistrate. None of the Saint-Aubins, whether of Clermont or Saint-Martin-des-Bois, had ever been mixed up in the politics of which Blondel was, beyond a doubt, the latest victim. In the Rue de l'Écu, they went in for respectable law-practice and nothing more; and, on the other hand, Coriolis contended that, during all the years since his return from Batavia, he had no interest in anything beyond his absorbing study of the bread-plant, an uncommon, starchy vegetable which he had brought back from the Far East and of which he had the patriotic intention of giving his country the benefit. This way of living was not calculated to create mortal enmities; and Coriolis and his household passed almost tranquilly through that horrible period during which the Cerdogne country went in a state of constant terror. He was persuaded that "they" would never do him any harm.
"They," to Coriolis as to everybody else, stood, of course, for the Three Brothers. But he overwhelmed them with kindnesses, had never troubled them for the rent of the hovel which they occupied on the edge of the wood. . . and, as the manor-house in which he and Madeleine lived was situated in a rather lonely spot, he did not hesitate to have it guarded by the three good-for-nothings. Now this was a stroke of genius. Old Coriolis still chuckled when he thought of it. To be protected by thieves: there was an idea for you!
"They're safer than the gendarmes," he would say to people who were surprised that he had given the Vautrins the right to walk about his property with their guns on their shoulders.
The old man himself did not shoot. It was as though he had presented all his game to the Three Brothers, who otherwise would certainly have taken it without his permission. And he paid them into the bargain! But, at any rate, he enjoyed peace and quiet and was able to sleep soundly. And here was this fool of an examining-magistrate, who knew nothing of the habits of the district, pretending that they had tried to kill his nephew! . . .
He made the said nephew get out of bed. . . and briskly, at that, to change his train of thought. He sent him into the garden, where Madeleine was waiting for him. Coriolis, who was in a hurry to go back to his bread-plant, left them to themselves. Madeleine at once said:
"I have been thinking over what that silly man said to you. It's one of two things: either the murderer knew you, or he did not. He knew you, because he called you by your name, telling you not to move from where you were. And, as he knew you, how could he make so great a blunder, at the moment of strangling and hanging you, as he thought? Was it light enough to see in the room?"
"Certainly, it was pretty light. . . . The proof is that I saw Blondel's face distinctly."
"Then he must have seen it too; so set your mind at ease, Patrice. And tell me how my aunt is. Don't think any more about this horrid business. It's all a matter of political revenge, which doesn't concern us."
"The Vautrins again, eh?"
They were passing by the railed gate that opened on the fields.
"Take care! Don't speak so loud. There's always one of the albinos prowling about near here. What a scourge for the district!"
They stood for a moment at the gate, looking at a little roof that rose out of the ground, on the other side of the road. It was where the Vautrins lived.
Hubert! Siméon! Élie! The triplets whom Mother Vautrin had brought into the world, at one birth, like a litter of wolves, the three who at first, as little chaps, had amused the country-side and who were now its terror. Everybody had long ago proclaimed himself their friend, so great was the fear which they inspired. And, even now, those who met them on the roads showed every eagerness to shake them by the hand. Only, people preferred not to run across them in the evening; and those who came to Saint-Martin-des-Bois avoided the way that led by the skirt of the forest, near the low-roofed roadside cabin where old Mother Vautrin lay paralyzed, dying by inches and telling horrible stories about the father, who had been to penal servitude.
This last detail had not prevented the Vautrins from cutting a figure in local politics. And it was no secret that, during the last three parliaments, by distributing prospectuses and professions of faith in all the villages in the division of Belle-Étable, creating disturbances at public meetings and making a stay in the district impossible to rival candidates, who considered their very lives in danger, the Three Brothers had contributed largely to securing the election of a deputy who was a credit to the constituency and the budding hope of the Chamber.
They themselves might have achieved respectable positions in the district. But they did not care about that. We must do them the justice to say that they had tried. They accepted posts under Government in reward for services rendered. They allowed themselves to be appointed telegraph-messengers. People still trembled at the recollection, at Saint-Martin and in the Cerdogne plains. The brothers used to put off until the middle of the night the delivery of a telegram received at six o'clock in the evening, waking people out of their beds, clamouring for supper and going away with a five-franc piece easily extorted from the pusillanimous ratepayers. Unfortunately, they took a dislike to the face of the inspector and they sent in their resignations after Hubert had promised that exalted functionary to get him sacked, a promise which was faithfully kept.
No, those fellows were born to work just as and when they pleased. They would take on a job when the fit seized them, at vintage-time, for instance, when they got blind drunk on the thin wine of the hill-side. The rest of the time they managed to occupy themselves in the "Black Woods," those great forests of firs, beeches and oaks, covering the whole bulk of the Montancel, where they reigned as uncontested masters.
Though their dwelling, on the edge of the road to the woods, was a wretched one, they were said to be well-off and to hoard the fruit of their robberies at the bottom of the mysterious quarries of Moabit, which explained the failure to find any traces of those robberies among the receivers of the neighbourhood. As for them, they let people talk. One would think that it amused them to be the terror of the country-side; and, in the taprooms, they sometimes went so far as to encourage the tattle:
"Well, what do you say of us? Have we been misbehaving again to-day? Done something fresh, eh?"
The people told them, joined in the joke, like cowards. The Three Brothers banged the counter with their great fists, declared that "that was a good 'un," swore that it would not prevent them from laying down their lives for the Republic and went out on the road, almost always shouldering a gun and grinning from ear to ear. At such times, they were so funny that they would have made a corpse laugh. But when, suddenly, they became serious, then they were terrible to behold. All three resembled one another, with the same gait and the same tricks of manner. Hubert, however, was the strongest and biggest. Siméon and Élie were of a much fairer red. These two were known as "the albinos."
Patrice drew Madeleine from this vision:
"How can you stay in such a part? Oh, how I long to take you away, my dear little Madeleine! Hasn't your father said anything to you yet? I never dare speak to him, he's always so cross."
"I'll tell you a secret: papa is tired of this part as well."
"I can understand that!" said Patrice, approvingly.
"And we are going away before long."
"Yes. We are going to settle in Paris. The wedding will be in Paris."
"I hope to goodness it will be soon. . . and I sha'n't bring you back to Saint-Martin in a hurry! . . . I don't know what your father means to do in Paris, but anything is better than staying here. . . . What are you waiting for, before leaving?"
"Papa has still a few experiments to make with the bread-plant. He says it is not quite ready yet," said Madeleine, blushing slightly and turning away her head.
'Oh, I hate the very name of that bread-plant! My opinion is that your father's a bit cracked, like everybody who has a fixed idea in his head. He thinks he'll make his old plant take the place of everything else. He'll soon find out his mistake, like all inventors. However, he's not a bad sort; and that's the main thing."
They were walking along, leaning towards each other prettily, exchanging their confidences and feeling happy and at ease in that paradise of a neglected garden in which things grew anyhow; for Coriolis refused to keep a single servant to help old Gertrude look after his big manor, except his native "boy," a tall, very quiet lad, as gentle as a lamb, who did not speak twenty words a day and who had been brought from the Far East together with the bread-plant. He was known Noël.
Now, Noël had no time to attend to the garden. He spent s days with his master, at the far end of the property, in a corner where stood a rather weather-beaten building, with a conservatory in front of it. This was where the curious plant was tended which Patrice had only once or twice set his eyes on, without understanding the least thing of what his uncle was doing.
The building was surrounded by a wild orchard closed with a door through which no stranger was ever admitted. All this part of the domain was reserved for the experiments of which Coriolis kept a record from day to day, writing it up in the evening in his study and afterwards locking it carefully in his safe. Coriolis' study was right at the top of the manor-house, in the belvedere-turret. Here the old man would sit and write throughout the night, after devoting the daylight hours to his work in the orchard.
All this at first seemed very mysterious to Patrice, especially during the earlier period, when his uncle used to display such ill-humour at his visits to the manor, two or three times a year, and when he was absolutely forbidden to enter the orchard. During the last three years, however, this prohibition had been less strictly enforced; and, now that Patrice was able to walk with Madeleine where he pleased, anywhere in the grounds, including even the building in the orchard when his uncle had finished work, he consoled himself with a reflection that settled the matter:
"Madeleine's father is an old lunatic, with that bread-plant of his!"
The two young people had not yet kissed. They remembered it suddenly and called each other's attention to this lovers' omission; and Patrice, very properly, as behoves a good little solicitor's clerk from the Rue de l'Écu, imprinted a chaste salute on Madeleine's brow.
Forthwith, there was a clap of thunder!
Madeleine started visibly, turned a little pale and looked at her sweetheart with anxious eyes, while Patrice raised his to the sky, which was without a cloud.
"This is too much," he said. "That's the second time it's happened."
"What?" asked Madeleine, ingenuously, blushing all over her face without apparent reason.
"Why, that it thunders when I kiss you!"