CHAPTER IV: THE ALBINO
I don't know what you mean, Patrice," she said. "It's a heat-storm," she added, "for there are no clouds in sight. Perhaps we had better go indoors."
"You remember the last time I came," he said. "I was saying good-bye in the porch. Your father said, 'Come, give her a kiss.' I stooped to kiss you, when bang! — there came a clap of thunder as though the house had been struck by lightning. And I never gave you that kiss. Your father literally flung me out, shouting, 'Quick! Quick!... There's a storm coming . . . Run to the station!' And he slammed the front door in my face. . . . Outside, there was no storm at all!. . ."
"Oh," said Madeleine, toying with a flower which she had picked, "we never mind that here! It often thunders, just like that, in the Black Woods. It's the forest that causes it. Papa says that it's 'forest electricity'"
"Forest electricity? I never heard of that sort of electricity."
"Papa tried to explain it to me, but I couldn't understand. It seems that, in Java, the forests thunder like that all the time. . . . Listen, the storm is passing away. Can you hear it, Patrice?"
A very distant rolling was now coming from the forest, whereas, a little while ago, they could have almost thought that a thunderbolt had fallen close to where they stood. And they turned their heads towards the gate, through the railings of which they could see the edge of the Black Woods.
At that moment, they saw an unusually fair-haired face pressed against the railings, a face covered with patches of light-red hair, a motionless face with two pink eyes that stared at them with indecent persistency. The young man made an angry movement towards the gate, when the albino's voice rooted him to the spot:
"Don't move any nearer, M. Patrice!"
These words and the way in which his name was pronounced sounded fearsomely in the, young man's ears. He stopped, with a beating heart and the blood throbbing at his temples. Madeleine had taken his hand and did not move either, but stood watching the albino.
The man quietly inserted the barrel of his gun through the railings of the gate and fired in their direction. The two young people uttered a cry of terror. A thrush fell dead at their feet.
"Well, what's the matter?" asked the sportsman, coolly. "You're not hurt, are you?"
"No, but whoever heard of shooting like that under people's noses?" said Madeleine, angrily.
"Eh, I never missed my shot yet, Mlle. Madeleine. So what are you afraid of?"
Patrice, still trembling all over his body, had stooped to pick up the bird.
"Poor thing!" he muttered.
"I'll give it to you two sweethearts for your lunch. . . .Good-bye, Mlle. Madeleine; good-bye, M. Patrice."
And, when Patrice made as though to fling the bird through the railings, the girl prudently stopped his violent impulse.
"Good-bye, M. Élie, and thank you!" she said, in a husky voice.
The albino had already disappeared behind the gate. Patrice was on the point of speaking, but Madeleine put her little hand on his mouth, a little hand that shook most terribly. She did not remove it until she no longer heard the other's footsteps on the pebbles of the path. The she said:
"Oh, how he frightened me with his gun!"
"And with the words he said!" whispered Patrice.
"I can still see his gun passing through the railings," said Madeleine. "You know, darling, if he had shot at us, he would have hit me first: I put myself in front of you. . . ."
It was quite true. Patrice had not noticed this movement of heroism at the time. He took Madeleine in his arms. Some one gave a cough, behind them. It was Noël, whom Coriolis had sent for them.
"The master wants you," he said, in his rather hoarse voice.
And he turned back, with his hands in his pockets and bent mopishly. They followed him to the orchard.
"What a life for you!" said Patrice. "Between your monomaniac of a father, that stupid old Gertrude and that lad whom I have never seen laugh." And he pointed to Noël's stooping figure. "The natives of Haï-Nan are a melancholy lot; and cultivating the bread-plant does not seem to raise this one's spirits."
"You don't know Noël," said Madeleine. "When he likes, he can be the best of company: ask Gertrude. There are days when he makes us laugh like mad."
"That's all right. But I've always seen him fit to die of weeping."
"He's like that when we have people here. He is shy."
"He is very fond of you. . . ."
"Yes. He's particularly frightened of papa. . . ."
"Does your father treat him harshly?"
"Very; he has to. It seems you have to act like that with those' boys' from the Far East; otherwise you get nothing out of them. . . ."
"I have never been able to judge of his character," said Patrice. "We say, 'good-morning' and 'good evening'; but I come here so seldom. . . ."
"Oh, he's becoming quite civilized now! He eats with Gertrude in the kitchen. . . . But formerly papa had his meals sent in to him in his room, at the end of the orchard. . . because of the bread-plant, which couldn't be left, at that time. . . ."
They had reached the door of the orchard. Noël, who seemed to be moping more and more, held it open for them, very humbly. They passed through.
"He hasn't improved in his looks!" said Patrice to Madeleine.
"Oh, do you think him ugly?" said Madeleine, quickly. "Have you looked at his eyes? I have seldom seen such intelligent eyes."
"That's true," Patrice acquiesced, not wishing to contradict her. Coriolis stood before them, at the door of the conservatory. He looked anything but pleased. He glanced at the two of them and then at Noël, whose attitude of utter dejection would certainly have provoked loud laughter in any whom it did not almost move to tears.
"I sent Noël to fetch you," said old Coriolis, knitting his brows-an habitual trick with him, which no longer frightened any one but Noël—"because I thought I heard a thunder-storm; but I may have been mistaken. A man can't trust his ears at my age. . . ."
Patrice listened in amazement at the tone in which he spoke of the storm; and his surprise knew no bounds when he heard Coriolis ask him, roughly:
"Well, the two of you! . . . I don't suppose you'd tell me a lie !'. . . Has it been thundering, or has it not?"
"I didn't hear it," replied Madeleine, with the greatest effrontery.
And she shot a glance at Patrice that he was not to contradict her. Unfortunately, the young man was already saying, without disguising his astonishment:
"Thunder! . . . I should just think it did! . . . I thought a thunderbolt had struck the house!"
Madeleine had flushed to the roots of her hair. Coriolis wagged his forefinger at her, sternly:
"That's very wrong of you, Madeleine! . . . You know I don't like it! . . . What would become of us, if I went by what you said?"
"But, papa, I assure you I didn't notice it. . . . It must have been because one of the albinos fired a gun and frightened me. . . ."
"Élie again I suppose," growled Coriolis.
"Yes, papa, Élie . . . He had the impudence to shoot a thrush in the garden, while we were there!"
"Here it is," said Patrice, showing the bird which he had brought with him.
"The villain!" mumbled the uncle. "I shall have to tell him to do his 'gamekeeping' a little farther off, if he doesn't mind. . . . We've seen too much of his face lately. . . ."
Madeleine, whose embarrassment continued, said:
"You are quite right, papa, but I have already sent him word by Zoé."
"What did you tell her to say?"
"That he must shoot a little farther away, that his gun frightened me. He answered, through his sister, that he was watching over us closer than usual because the district wasn't safe, since the murders."
"And what did you say in reply to that?"
"Nothing. I sent him a bottle of rum. He'd had nothing from us for a long time."
"You did quite right, Madeleine. We must have patience with those scamps for just a little longer. You haven't told Patrice? . . ."
"No, papa, I have told him nothing," said Madeleine, with the most delightful composure.
"How she can lie!" thought Patrice.
And he thought her all the more charming.
"Well, tell him that we are going to settle down in Paris. Yes, my dear Patrice, in Paris."
"Then you have finished your work on the bread-plant, uncle?"
"Yes, nephew, it has attained its majority! . . . Now go and take a turn, you two, before lunch. I have something to say to Noël."
The young people left the orchard. Patrice was astonished, on passing Noël, to see the poor fellow tremble like an aspen-leaf. Five minutes later, when Patrice and Madeleine went to Gertrude's kitchen to ask what there was for lunch, they heard terrible cries of distress in the distance.
"What's that?" asked Patrice, with a shudder.
"Nothing," said Madeleine, pinching her lips. "I expect Noël has done something silly again and papa is punishing him."
Patrice turned to old Gertrude, in his surprise, and saw that she was crying.
"Oh dear, he'll kill him! " she said, blowing her nose. "There's no sense in beating a grown-up lad like that."
"You know that papa is always angry when he hears the thunder!" said Madeleine, who seemed cross with Patrice and was almost as much upset as Gertrude.
"So that's why you made signs to me," said Patrice, "and why you told your father a fib about the thunder. . . ."
"Yes, that was why, Patrice. . . ."
Patrice was going to apologize, but he was interrupted by the arrival of a little girl of thirteen or fourteen, black as a mole, with a pair of glorious eyes. She was dressed in a wretched, short, patched skirt, which showed her skinny calves. Panting, she asked:
"Is that Noël screaming? Is the master beating him again?"
"Yes Zoé," said Gertrude. "It's a pity. . . ."
"Oh, I thought there would be trouble, when I heard the thunder!" said Zoé.
"Come and help me scour my brasses," said Gertrude.
The housekeepers of Saint-Martin employed that chit of a Zoé at such jobs, from time to time, in order to curry favour with the Three Brothers.