CHAPTER V: TWO SHADOWS AND A CONVERSATION
Patrice was sent for, that afternoon, to attend the magistrate's enquiry. He was re-examined by M. de Meyrentin in the bar-room of the inn and stood staring long and stupidly at the marks of footprints on the ceiling, at the curious pattern of those socks and at their curious whipseam.
Monsieur le juge seemed more and more puzzled, especially after a little incident, ludicrous enough in itself, which nevertheless kept his mind strangely busied. After lunch, while monsieur le juge was having forty winks in his bedroom at the Roubions' — just half an hour's siesta, no more I — somebody had stolen his watch. True, he declared that the watch was made of brass and that the thief had been sold; but the fact remained that he thought of nothing else, for, on the floor of the room in which he had gone to sleep, M. de Meyrentin had perceived the marks of the feet on the ceiling! . . . Who could that invisible person be, who hovered around them in the twofold guise of a criminal and a practical joker, making fools of one and all?
Patrice, on his side, returned to the manor-house, more terrified than ever at what he had seen and heard; and the evening-meal was very gloomy in consequence. He could not get rid of the sight of Blondel's corpse; and he was haunted, in his inner consciousness, by the constant refrain:
"It's you who ought to be in his place."
Gertrude waited on the party in silence. Suddenly, she resolved to address her master:
"Zoé's here, sir."
Coriolis deigned to wake from his dreams and to look at his old woman-of-allwork:
"Oh! . . . Well, have you spoken to her?"
"Yes. She says she would go to the ends of the earth with you, sir. Only she hasn't dared mention it to her brothers yet."
"You can leave her brothers to me. . . . I'll grease their palms; and, anyhow, they won't be sorry to see the child make a move. The great thing is that she likes the idea. . . . Did you tell her that she would be going to town? . . ."
"Yes, yes, she said she would go wherever you wished, sir. When I told her that we were leaving the country and that she would most likely never see us here again, she cried: she's not a bad sort of girl, in spite of the shocking example she's had set her. And she's not really lazy. She can work when she likes to and when she's not taking it into her head to go running about the woods. We should soon train her in town, especially if she saw no trees and as soon as she was away from the forest. . . .Well, you'll speak to her yourself, sir. I've kept her to dinner. . . . What do you think she asked me? She begs you to forgive Noël."
"Let Noël out," said Coriolis, giving Gertrude a key. "He's in the black hole. I think I hit him rather hard. But it's his own fault. He ought to have more sense, at his age."
"Oh, he takes it very much to heart, sir, when you're cross with him. Zoé will be so pleased. He always makes her laugh."
And she went off with the key. A few minutes later, Zoé was heard screaming with laughter in the kitchen. Coriolis looked at Patrice:
"Do you hear them? It's Noël amusing them," he said. "Oh, he never bears malice. He wouldn't hurt a fly! But he needs a beating from time to time."
"Aren't you afraid of his going and complaining to the village constable?" asked Patrice.
"He? He'd give his life for me! I saved his life, when he was a child, at Batavia. He'd have died of starvation, but for me."
"Does he never hanker after his country?"
"He does nothing but speak of it," said Gertrude, changing the plates.
"That's always the danger with those exotic servants," said Patrice, sententiously. "You can do what you like with them; they are regular slaves; but a time comes when there's no holding them. They must and will go home again."
"Where have you seen that?" asked Coriolis, with obvious annoyance.
"Well, at Clermont! Near us, there was a lady who had been to Russia and who brought a nana back with her for her children. It worked very well for a couple of years; and then, when the lady did not go back to Russia, the nana died."
"I dare say she was consumptive!" Coriolis burst out, with a loud, aggressive laugh. "But Noël's well and strong, you see."
"Oh, I didn't say it to annoy you, uncle, but just because I always see Noël looking so awfully sad!"
"That's a look he keeps for strangers, so now you know; and that's enough about it!"
"Very well, uncle."
At that moment, Zoé was heard yelling and screaming in the kitchen.
"What's up now? What's happening?" cried the uncle.
And they all rushed to the kitchen, where they found Zoé in tears, by herself.
"What's the matter? Where's Noël?" asked Gertrude.
"Oh, it's nothing!" said Zoé, between her sobs. "Noël pulled my hair!"
"What did he pull your hair for? Have you been teasing him again?"
"No, I told him that he was nice-looking and he thought I was poking fun at him. . . ."
"He was quite right. You're always chaffing him. You'll end by making the boy's life a misery," said Coriolis emphatically, forgetting the drubbing which he himself had just administered to Noël.
They finished their dinner. It was now dark. Uncle Coriolis thought that Patrice must be feeling tired and told him to go to bed. The young man obeyed, said good-night and held out his hand to Madeleine.
"You can kiss her!" said Coriolis.
Patrice put his lips to Madeleine's forehead. And he could not help thinking to himself:
"It's sure to thunder!"
But Madeleine received Patrice' kiss and there was no thunder. The young man had tried, at the same time, to seize Madeleine's hand in the dark and to press it tenderly, in the manner of sweethearts, but the hand seemed to avoid his grasp. He felt much upset, thought Madeleine very unkind and went up to his room quite sadly.
"If you want anything," his uncle cried after him, "knock on the ceiling. Gertrude's room is above yours. Good-night! And mind you lock your door."
"That's all right, uncle. . . ."
The first thing he did in fact, when he reached his room, was to lock the door. Then he looked under the bed, in the wardrobe, in the cupboards, everywhere. Lastly after putting out his lamp, he cautiously opened his window, peered into the outer darkness and listened to the shadow of the forest.
His bedroom was on the first floor, in the left wing of the house. On his right, in an angle of the building, he saw the belvedere-turret, the top room of which was already lighted for Coriolis, who had settled down to work, as usual.
In front of Patrice was the yard, with the outhouses, the stables, buildings that now served no purpose save for the household washing and for storing apples. A little to the left, almost beneath him, was another little building, the wood-shed, with its dark archway. It was a dusky night; and he was only just able to distinguish, in the distance, the shadow of the house in which the bread-plant lived, to the right of the garden, contained within its high walls. But suddenly the house lit up, a window gleamed. It was obviously Noël going to bed. And then, almost immediately, the light went out.
A gentle breeze, coming from across the fields, carried the haunting fragrance of the earth to Patrice' nostrils. Had Patrice been a poet, he would have revelled in the peaceful silence of nature and breathed the soul of the night with joy. But not only was he no poet: he was a lad who had every reason, for the moment, to be obsessed with other things. To begin with, there was the terrible adventure of the night before; and then there were the brutal suppositions of the examining magistrate, which kept on returning to his mind, in spite of all that Coriolis and Madeleine could say. Lastly, there was something which he was unable to define exactly and which was due to his general dissatisfaction with the day which he had passed.
The fact was that he was displeased with everybody here: with his uncle, with Gertrude, with Madeleine. After what had happened to him at the Black Sun and the hideous dangers which he had been through, he could not understand that he was not the constant, one and only object of their thoughts.
Now all of them — Madeleine as well as the others — seemed to be thinking of something else the whole time, in the orchard, in the garden, at table, or when amusing themselves for a moment with their poor butt of a Noël, whom Coriolis treated so savagely. And Madeleine seemed to him more distracted than ever, with her thoughts far from him, even when he was walking alone with her, talking of their future.
It was not the first time that, after spending a few hours at the manor-house, he had had this curious feeling that its occupants were thinking of something of which he could not even suspect the nature; but the feeling had never been so acute nor so painful as to-day.
These reflections passed through his mind as he stood at the window; and then, suddenly, he caught his breath. He had seen a white form, a form so light that its movement made no sound, glide quickly along the wall in the shadow of the outhouses. He had a fluttering at the heart which made him think that he was going to faint again. He managed to keep his feet, however, and leant back in a corner of the window, invisible from the outside. The 'white figure had disappeared under the arch of the wood shed and he distinctly heard Madeleine's voice answer, in a whisper:
"Are you there, Zoé?"
Then there followed, in the shadow of the wood-shed, a curious dialogue which Patrice, where he stood, could distinguish plainly and which was not exactly calculated to set his mind at rest. Zoé and Madeleine thought themselves safe from any eavesdropping; but the open arch of the woodshed sent their voices up to Patrice like the horn of a gramophone.
"You've got to tell me the truth," insisted Madeleine. "It was Élie who did it, was it not?"
"I assure you, miss, I don't know. I would tell you, if I did. I always tell you everything, but those are things I never know. They don't trust me. They tell me about their pranks, true enough, me and mother. But things like this nobody ever knows, not mother, I nor anybody. . . ."
"I want to know, Zoé, I must know. I shall not be easy in my mind until I do. . . ."
"Why, miss? They say it's politics. . . ."
"Who says so?"
"And your people at home, do they say it's politics?"
"They haven't spoken about it before me. Only, mother, when she heard of it, said to me, 'They say that Blondel's been killed like Camus and Lombard. You know, Zoé, I'm afraid your brothers are doing something silly. . . .'"
"You see, Zoé? . . . Well, next?"
"Next. . . next. . . . Listen, miss, you won't tell anyone, will you? This is for yourself alone."
"Yes, yes, go on. . . ."
"Well, yesterday evening, yesterday evening, before the murder, Hubert came home in a rage. He was swearing, he threatened to set fire to the village to make people stop their tongues. He had been to the Black Sun and had words with Blondel. They had both insulted each other. It wasn't the first time either: they nearly fought at the elections. . . ."
"Hubert is only too glad to fight with anybody. It means nothing. . . ."
"Do you think so, miss? That's all right, then. He frightens me, though. . . . When I heard him shouting like that, I went to bed. . . ."
"Is that true? Did you go to bed?"
"I swear I did, miss. I told the magistrate so this afternoon. . . ."
"Still, it was your voice that made them open the door. . . . You must know who it is that imitates your voice. . . ."
"How can I tell?"
"You must have a notion. It can't be difficult for your brothers to imitate your voice. . . ."
"I don't know anything about it. I don't indeed."
"You went to bed, you say. . . . And did Hubert go to bed too?"
"You must never tell. . . . No, he spent the night out of doors, with his gun; he went poaching in the forest. . . . Don't tell, or he'll kill me. . . ."
"Are you sure that he went poaching?"
"I think so. He came home in the morning with a couple of hares and a roebuck. He certainly didn't buy them in the town."
The voices were silent for an instant and then Madeleine resumed:
"Did Hubert go poaching all by himself?"
"No, he met Siméon and they came back together."
"I see. . . Now, listen to me, Zoé . . . and don't tell me any lies. . . ."
"Oh, Mlle. Madeleine!"
"What was Élie doing all that time?"
"I don't know! . . ."
"So you won't tell me the truth'! . . . Very well, we're going away and we'll leave you behind. . . . I don't want to have anything more to do with you! . . ."
"Oh, please, miss! . . ."
"You're not such a dainty bit of goods as to make us want to take you. It's no use giving you clothes: you wear them once and then there's nothing left of them but rags. . . . You're only a little forest gadabout. . . . You're never happy exce pt when you're climbing up the trees. . . . I've no use for you. . . . You'd better go back for good to your birds and your squirrels and don't let's talk about it any more. . . . Good-bye , Zoé! . . ."
But Zoé's voice was raised in entreaty:
"Oh, miss, you wouldn't do that! . . . It would kill me! . . . I don't care a rap for the birds and the squirrels and, if it gives you any pleasure, I promise I'll never speak to them again or tear my dress either. . . if only you'll take me along with Noël!"
"Are you very fond of Noël?"
"Oh, yes! . . ."
"Well," said Madeleine's voice, slowly, "we will take you with us and Noël, if you tell me what Élie was doing last night while Blondel was being murdered at the Black Sun. . . . Do you understand me, now? Do you quite understand?"
"Oh, yes, miss. . . but I swear to you. . . . I don't know! . . ."
"Very well! . . . That'll do! . . . Good-bye, Zoé!"
"No, no, listen! . . . I don't know, because Élie did not come home last night! . . ."
"Ah, you see! . . . That's something, at any rate! . . . He did not come home last night! . . . And you don't know what he did during the night?"
"No, I swear I don't!"
"Well, you've got to know, that's all!"
"Then you think it was he who killed Blondel? . . . What does it matter to you, miss, seeing that it was politics?"
"I'll tell you one thing, Zoé: I don't believe it was politics."
"Tell me what you think, then, and perhaps I shall understand."
"I think that Élie made a mistake when he murdered Blondel and that he intended to murder M. Patrice!"
"Oh, oh, oh! . . . I understand, miss, I understand you now! . . . Oh, what a terrible thing! . . . Oh! Oh!"
"Have you quite understood?"
"Then what will you do?"
"There! I promise to find out what Élie was doing on the night of the murder and to tell you everything! . . ."
"Mind, you've got to know by to-morrow! You saw Élie to-day: what did he say to you?"
"He said I was to bring some more ribbons. . . ."
"I knew it! My hair-ribbon has gone. . . . I noticed it, Zoé! . . . Give me back my ribbon, you little thief!"
"He thrashes me, when I don't bring him what he asks for. . . ."
"Give me back my ribbon!"
"Here! . . . But Noël and I have no luck, either of us: we're always being beaten!"
"You can't care much about your brothers then."
"That depends on the day. Sometimes I don't."
Patrice, pale as death, listened, but heard no more. Soon he saw the two shadows gliding out of the wood-shed, taking a thousand precautions not to be seen. High up, on the right, the lamp burnt in the belvedere, lighting the waking hours of the man who was to introduce the bread-plant into France. . . .
Patrice closed his window and sank into a chair. He could no longer doubt the hideous fact: they had wanted, they still wanted to murder him! . . . And the reason was simple enough: he had a rival! . . .
It was a rude shock for a young man who had always dreamt of leading a calm, prosaic life. He found himself crushed under the weight of this romantic and dangerous position; and, though his love for Madeleine was greater than anything, greater even than his fright, he resolved to leave the district the very next day, the examining magistrate notwithstanding.
Fortified with this decision, he rose from his seat. He felt that he must speak to Madeleine at once. He went downstairs.