CHAPTER VI: THE WHIPSEAM
Patrice, hearing Zoé's voice in the kitchen, pushed open the door.
Gertrude was busy with her pots and pans. Zoé, sitting at the big round table, was darning stockings and socks, a pile of which lay in the basket beside her. Patrice looked into the basket without seeing. Suddenly, he saw!
It contained the sock of "the man who walked upside down!" He saw the piece of stuff, the size of a five franc piece, stitched to the sock with a whipseam.
And he flung out his hand to take it, thought he had taken it.
But he found Zoé in front of him, pale in the face; and, with a quick movement, she pushed the precious basket behind her.
Patrice was dumbfoundered by Zoé's attitude, but, above all, he regretted his own imprudence. Of course he was wrong to put the Vautrins' sister on the alert; but how could he imagine that she would know the value of the object that had suddenly attracted his attention? No, she could not possibly even suspect it; else would she have been foolish enough to darn those telltale socks, so to speak, in public? But then why had she leapt up in such a hurry, why had she moved the little work-basket out of Patrice' reach? Why was she so pale? And one more formidable question forced itself upon him: what were the socks of "the man who walked upside down" doing in Coriolis' house? . . .
All these questions, which remained unanswered, only heightened the importance of obtaining possession of the whipseam; and, pushing Zoé away, Patrice once more put out his hand to the basket. But the girl, nimble as a monkey, was by this time at the other side of the table, with the little basket in her hands.
"What's the matter with you, Zoé? Why won't you let me look at your work?" asked Patrice, in a panting voice, endeavouring to overcome, his agitation.
"My work's my own," said the girl, compressing her angry lips. "I don't like having my work touched. It makes me lose my stitches and then mademoiselle scolds me. . . ."
"Whatever's the matter?" asked Gertrude, leaving off scouring her sauce-pans to interpose in a quarrel which she did not understand.
"The matter's this," said Patrice, in so threatening a tone that the cook, who at first thought that he was joking, began to shake on her old legs, "the matter's this, that I want to see what's in that basket!"
And he pointed with his excited finger to the work-basket in Zoé's hand.
Gertrude, who was standing behind Zoé, had only stretch out her arm to take the basket. The girl, who was not prepared for this move, screamed and let go the basket, but first, with her deft hand, snatched away the sock which Patrice wanted; and, as she still had the second sock of "the man who walked upside down" on her other hand, Patrice no longer coveted the basket itself. He chased Zoé, who ran round the table. Neither of them laughed; both rather glared at each other like enemies longing for each other's blood.
"Give that here!" he stormed.
"No!" yelled the girl. "It's mine! It's my work! It belongs to me! . . . Take what's left in the basket, if you want to! . . . I'll tell Mlle. Madeleine you took it!"
"Why won't you give me those? . . . The pair of socks you have in your hand: I'm not asking for the others. . . ."
"Because I tell you this is my own work! . . . I won't have you go showing it to Mlle. Madeleine; so there! . . . She pays me to do the mending of the house and she'd give me the sack if she knew that I spent my time here darning my brothers' socks and stockings. . . ."
"Ah, you see, the little baggage!" yelped Gertrude, unable to contain herself at this confession.
"Are those your brothers' socks?" asked Patrice, trying to steal up to Zoé.
But the other retreated:
"Of course, they're my brothers' socks! . . ."
"Well, give them to me and I sha'n't say a word to Madeleine."
But he received no reply. Zoé was in front of the kitchen-door to the yard. She darted out.
He flew after her. Zoé knew the way in the dark better than he did. He heard the quick patter of her wooden soles on the dry earth. . . . She was still inside the grounds. . . . He must prevent her from getting out. She was no doubt making for the little door, near the orchard, that opened on the woods.
Patrice ran across everything, without bothering about the path, trampling the plants under his winged feet, and he reached the little door just in time to see Zoé slam it in his face. . . . But he pulled it open again; the child could not be far. . . . And he saw her, twenty yards ahead of him; but to catch her was another matter. . . .
She had taken off her clogs and was running barefoot. Now Zoé, barefooted, was a little bird. Patrice puffed and panted to no purpose; but he was determined to catch her: it was his one thought, his one object. . . . He did not reflect that she would soon gain her lair, take refuge in her burrow, nor that this burrow was also that of the Vautrins, before which people generally passed — and then only when absolutely necessary — without making a sound or turning their heads.
Zoé was now near the dread hovel that squatted below the level of the road, with the eye of its window gleaming into the night. And Patrice did not notice that he was at the Vautrin's, until Zoé had opened the door of the cabin and flung herself inside, leaving him standing breathless on the bank, which she had leapt at a bound like a goat.
He now realized his imprudence. He had not even a weapon on him. And he had hunted the sister of the Three Brothers to her very lair. The child would, of course at once tell them of the incident of the whipseam. That amounted to informing them that Patrice no longer doubted the part which they had played in the murders at Saint-Martin-des Bois, that he was following up the evidence by every means in his power, that, in any case, he had declared war against them. . . . He felt that they would soon come out to look for him; and, if they found him. . .!
These swift reflections affected him all the more inasmuch as fitful sounds of voices now came from the cabin. Patrice turned from side to side, not knowing what to do nor where to conceal himself. He was standing against the house, at that moment; and the door had opened, casting a square patch of light upon the road. He had no time to reach the screen of poplars which surrounded the Vautrins' plot of ground at a few yards' distance. There was nothing but the house to hide him. If one of the brothers went round it on one side and another on the other, he was caught. Luckily there was the roof. It was a thatched roof, which, at the back, at the side opposite the road, sloped down almost to the ground. He hoisted himself upon it, lay flat and crawled up to the chimney. Soon, he heard Élie's the voice of one of the brothers replying to it. As he had feared, the two Vautrins were going round the house. He saw them, one coming along the road, the other taking a few steps within the allotment. Fortunately, the night was very dark. Zoé cried:
"He's gone back, let him be! . . . It's not worth while: leave it to me. I'll tell him a tale to-morrow."
And, suddenly, below him, a loud, rasping voice, obviously the mother's, grated:
"Come in! Come in! You can find him when you want him!"
The two men took a last glance around them and went in; the door was shut and the patch of light on the road disappeared.
Patrice was preparing to slide down from his roof, when he again plainly heard the rasping voice, saying: "But; Zoé, what made him run after you like that?"
And Zoé answered:
"He must have seen something, or he wouldn't have asked me for the sock!"
"Show it to me," said the gruff voice.
Surprised at hearing so distinctly what was said inside the cabin though the door was shut, Patrice examined the roof around him. A ray of light filtered through the thatch, almost under his elbow. It must be through this that the voices reached him. There was an opening where the thatch had worn away. He softly separated the old, rotten straw and was able not only to hear, but to see.
The ramshackle dwelling had no upper floor and no-ceiling. It was just a large cabin, divided into two rooms by a partition. Behind the partition, no doubt, was the room of the Three Brothers. What Patrice saw was the common living-room, with the chimneyplace, a sort of recess, in which lay Mother Vautrin — old Barbe — impotent and helpless. A straw mattress on an iron frame, in a corner, must be Zoé's bed. He saw a rough table, some stools, a large, plain deal sideboard against the wall, a row of painted earthenware bowls on the mantelshelf. Guns and game-bags hung on the walls. There were no boards, or tiles: the floor was just beaten earth. On the table stood a big loaf of bread, some heavy, deep plates, pewter spoons and forks, a bottle and glasses. A stewpan simmered noisily on the hearth.
Patrice recognized the two albinos, who had resumed their seats at the table, with a knife in one hand and a slice of bread and meat in the other. They had begun their supper; but the plates and spoons had not been used. They had obviously not touched the soup. And yet it was late; but Hubert had not come in and they must be waiting for Hubert.
The was a candle on the table. Its light did not reach as far as the recess, but the flame in the hearth at times lit up old Barbe's horrible face, which rose out of the darkness in ghastly relief. The fiendish brilliancy of that witch-like glance was not to be withstood; and everybody knew that it made even Hubert lower his head. Oh, that ugly mug of Barbe's! The face of an antique mask, with hollows and protuberances that were always on the move, dead flesh astir around the one tooth that lingered in the yawning cavity of the mouth. No one had ever seen Barbe with any other covering to her head than the tangled locks of her white, hempen hair, which with an unconscious action, she kept on pushing back behind her ears, where they refused to stay because she was constantly shaking her head and tossing herself about on the bed which she never left. Such movements as she made were livelier even than Zoé's. Only, her legs were no longer able to bear her. She always had a stick near her, which she flung at her offspring whenever the fit seized her, at random. And the boys tamely brought the stick back to her. Zoé did not love her mother, for she got the stick oftener than fell to her rightful share; but Hubert and the albinos respected her, because she told them stories of the penal settlement where the father had done time, stories of which they never wearied.
When Patrice put his eye to his improvised peep-hole, he at once saw the old woman bending over the sock which Zoé held out to her. He recognized the whipseam. Barbe's head and Zoé's were brought still closer together; and then came a spell of silence, during which the albinos, who were attentively watching the scene in the recess, hushed the sound of their jaws. Then Zoé asked if she should bring the candle, to which the old woman replied that it was not worth while. Thereupon Zoé stood away from Barbe. The old woman chuckled in so gruesome a fashion that Patrice, on his thatch, shivered to the very marrow of his bones. And the albinos also began to chuckle. Zoé was the only one not to laugh. She pocketed the sock, while Barbe yelped:
" 'Tain't yellow, it's red!"
Patrice was wondering what meaning to attach to this strange sentence accompanying the disappearance of the whipped sock in Zoé's pocket, when the door opened and Hubert walked in. He had his hat pulled over his eyes, carried a big cudgel and seemed very tired. He wore a smock-frock that came down to his knees.
He slammed the door to, with the heel of his boot, and stood before them, without moving, with his hat over his eyes:
"Good evening, mother," he said. "Come on, you others! What's the matter with giving me a hand?"
The two albinos went up to him, slipped their huge hands under his smock and produced a number of packets of tobacco, which they found under the belt.
"That's the result of a glass on Mother Soupé's zinc counter," said Hubert, in explanation. "The shop had just got its stores in. I helped the old girl check them."
He spoke without stirring, his elbows glued to his body:
"Higher up," he instructed his brothers, who were still fumbling under the smock-frock for plunder.
Élie and Siméon pursued their quest up to the arm-pits and fished out two bottles of fine white wine, which they uncorked then and there in order to appreciate the aroma, giving their noses to the necks. They corked them up again and smacked their gluttonous tongues with the air of men who know a good thing when they see it. The old mother also asked for a smell:
"Where did you get that?" she asked, with sparkling eyes.
"It ought to be pretty good" replied Hubert. "I met the cellar-rat and he knows."
"Did you show him your swag?" she asked, in astonishment.
"He showed me his," Hubert answered. "I met him at the corner of the Rue Verte. He was going along the wall, without stopping to ask his way of anybody. You know how he walks when he's going home at night: he keeps his fore-paws as stiff as if they were made of wood; and I'd said to myself before now, 'There's more in this than meets the eye: what does he hold his arms like that for?' So I went straight up to him, said good-evening, very politely, and shook him warmly by the hand. But he thought I shook it a bit too warmly and said, 'Not so hard!' I at once put my hand under his arm-pit. By gum! He had his bottle there. . . and one on the other side as well! Then I said, 'That's a nice thing, Mr. Inspector! Is that the way you look after the interests of the Republic! I'll bet you've taken a bribe from a reactionary! There's none but a rank monarchist would dare to buy the conscience of a decent man like yourself with two bottles of white! I'll tell our deputy, I will!' He handed me over the bottles and promised me two more like them, every month, to hold my tongue. . . . And now let's have our soup, children."
He had flung his hat into a corner and Patrice obtained a close view of the terrible red head, with the green eyes, of which the cottagers dreamt at night. Hubert slid a stool between his legs and bent over the steaming plateful which Zoé handed him. Blowing upon it to cool it, he went on:
"Ay, that's all mug's talk! But I've a better yarn to tell you! To every dog his bone! Some coves spend their day in jawing: not me! I listen. . . and with both ears too! He learns most who lives longest! . . . How goes it, my birdlet? " he asked, catching Zoé a terrible clout, which set her whimpering. "Don't you like it? Why, I'm making kind enquiries after your health!"
"What are you knocking her about for?" asked Barbe. "She'll tell you. I saw her carrying on with Balaoo this afternoon, down Pierrefeu way."
"She's all right," said the mother, "and Balaoo wouldn't hurt a fly!"
"May be! But I've a sister and I want her to keep straight and do us credit! If not, we'll have a job of it getting her married!"
"That's true enough; but I tell you she's all right. Show Hubert your sock," yelped the old woman from the recess in which she lay.
The girl took out her sock and Patrice saw Hubert bend over it and examine even the other side of the wool. And Hubert gave the sock back to Zoé, who put it in her pocket, and Hubert said:
" 'Tain't yellow, it's red!"
And the others once more roared with laughter.
"Lucky that we're not reckoning on her for her dowry," said Hubert, after emptying his porringer, which he lifted up to his heavy animal jaws. "But never you mind, my birdlet: you look to your morals and your virtue; and we can take you to the notary for all that, before we go on to the priest. . . . Gentlemen!" he said, solemnly, placing his elbows on the table. "I told you there was a stroke of work to be done. Who's in it? Who speaks first?"
"Yo know - the albinos aren't talkers," said the mother. "and they go where you go, like dogs. So fire away, cockie!"
Hubert turned to Zoé:
I'll thank you to go into the woods and count a hundred!"
The girl was frightened at Hubert's attitude and did not wait to be told twice. She opened the door of the cabin, went out and shut it behind her. Patrice thought of following her and was thanking his stars for giving him the opportunity of at last obtaining possession of the precious sock, when; thrusting his head forward, he caught sight of the child and saw that she did not move away from the house, but, on the contrary, remained by the door, with her ear to the latch. He stayed where he was and, puzzled by Hubert's last words, began once more to look and listen. Hubert had drawn himself up like an animal stretching itself, lifted his clenched fists to the rafters, and dropped back with his elbows on the table and his chin between his enormous hands:
"Two hundred thousand!" he said.
The albinos started; and old Barbe jumped with excitement on her truckle-bed.
"Yes," continued Hubert, without waiting to enjoy the effect produced. "Yes, but there may be claret!"
"Pity!" muttered Barbe. "I think there's been too much bleeding in these parts lately! . . . You'll see it'll lead to trouble! . . . As your late lamented father said to me on his death bed, 'Don't you go in for claret!"
"I know what you mean to say, mother," said Hubert, "but you express yourself badly. Camus, Lombard and Blondel were not bled, but nicely throttled and hanged, by one who knew his business. Struck me as quite uncalled for, all the same. Because you have a few words with a man on politics, that's no reason to wish him dead. Else, of course, one'd go cooking everybody's goose!"
"Well, Hubert," said Barbe, shaking her horrible pate, "no one's calling you to account, but remember that I couldn't live without the lot of you. . . . You could be masters of the whole country if you chose, but there are ways and ways; and slanging Blondel in a public-house, just before his death, is not the way to ease your old mother's mind."
Hubert looked at the old woman and then leered at the two albinos, who gave him a leery look in return.
"I never laid a finger on him," he said. "But may be there are folk who are after revenging family-quarrels. . . . In any case, it was pretty work. The beak can't make head or tail of it. And then the footmarks on the ceiling: that was funny, if you like!"
"Don't you be too funny, Hubert. Your late lamented father used to say that, if he'd always kept serious, he wouldn't have had to spend twenty years in quod before settling down respectably here!"
"That'll do, mother! You've no more sense than the hind-legs of the sergeant of gendarmes. You'd send me to the scaffold if anyone heard you! . . . I don't like unnecessary words. . . . Listen to the albinos: they're not jawing!"
Siméon and Élie had not uttered a word since the three murders at Saint-Martin were first mentioned. They were satisfied to look at their brother with stealthy curiosity or to look at each other, exchanging quick glances that would have given cause for reflection to anyone who noticed them. The Three Brothers seemed mutually to suspect one another of those crimes, or else each wanted to make the others believe that he suspected them of crimes which he had perhaps committed himself. No one ever knew the whole truth with the two albinos, who were always silent and reserved; and there were a good many matters on which Hubert had long given up trying to make them open their lips. Nor did Hubert tell all that he himself did. There was a natural and indissoluble partnership between them, there were common interests that bound them together in life and death; but this did not prevent each of them from having his own little private affairs which had nothing to do with "Three Brothers Ltd."
The strange murders of Camus, Lombard and Blondel had formed the subject of more than one conversation and more than one silence among the Vautrins; and it was not at all surprising that the allusion to those astonishing and still quite recent crimes should stop the conversation for a moment, even when it promised to be as interesting as that which Hubert had started.
Old Barbe was the first to revert to it, for the three others seemed steeped in thought, filling and emptying their glasses silently. Hubert now appeared to be hesitating.
He said, in answer to Barbe:
"It's a big risk, but nothing venture, nothing have."
"Tell us, anyway."
"Well listen. . . . I was at Mother Soupé's, checking her fresh lot of tobacco with her."
"She sent for you, of course!" grinned Barbe.
"I don't think! . . . But she's too polite to refuse the Vautrins' services, that's certain sure!"
"If you'd only hold your tongue, mother," said Siméon, "we might get to learn something."
"We were at the counter, in the corner of the shop, when Switch came in and asked for half a noggin and there was another came in with him, a skinny little bloke whom I didn't know by sight. He took white wine, that one did. I soon grasped, from their bragging, that the little 'un was a clerk in the works t'other side of the Montancel, where they're driving a tunnel. D'ye twig? There's no railway there. Well, they're building one, you know. If you don't know, you can take it from me; and there are five hundred workmen, that's something, five hundred workmen who've got to be paid. . . in ready money, mind you! Here, Élie, you're good at figures: just tell me how much that makes, at six or seven francs a day."
"If they got ten francs, that'd be a hundred and fifty thousand francs a month."
"Well, old chap, what the contractors want at the end of the month is two hundred thousand. . . ."
"Then there are more than five hundred. . . ."
"Well, it seems there's important works over there: the little bloke who came in with Switch complained that they were miles from anywhere, that it was no catch, no getting there. . . ."
"But," Siméon broke in, "those works were to have been done ten years ago. . . ."
"Can't help that: they were started two months since. And, every month — do you follow me, you two? Are you listening, mother? — every month, the workmen have to be paid. To pay them, you want money; and where do you find money? . . . You find it in the banks. . . ."
"Do you want to rob the bank at Clermont?" asked Barbe, whose face, fierce with greed, was now stretched towards the three men.
"What rot will you talk next, mother? There are times when you seem right off your chump," said Hubert. "Can't you let the bank be? The money's got to leave the bank, that's sure. The workmen aren't going to the bank for their money, are they? That'd cost too much in fares."
"Have you learnt the road the wages'll travel by?"
" Now you're asking questions."
"And how did you find out?"
"Well, I followed Switch and his pal without their knowing. They went to Mathieu's to take a glass. The little bloke had his back teeth well afloat. He did nothing but prate about the works and about everything. I listened to them, ay, in a corner where they couldn't see me. . . and I now know which way the wages go," Hubert concluded, lowering his voice in a sinister fashion.
The two others simply said:
Barbe could stand the tension no longer: she beckoned to Hubert, to come nearer her bed; and the brothers went with him. And all four of them, mouth to ear and ear to mouth, said things which did not take long to tell, but which, unfortunately, Patrice could not hear.
When the secret palaver was over, Siméon drew himself up and asked:
"And what did Switch say to that?"
"Oh, Switch didn't seem to like it!" replied Hubert. "I think he'd have liked to be rid of the job. The little 'un stayed on and slept at Mathieu's. Switch said to him, 'and now, old man, you go to bed. You're drunk. To-morrow morning, you'll be glad to think that you've only been speaking to an honest man.' "
"Switch doesn't half fancy himself!" Élie spat out.
The three men had gone back to the table. There was a long pause. The old woman's head had withdrawn into the shadow, at the back of the recess, and was no longer visible. Everybody was thinking.
"Well, who speaks first?" Hubert said, at last. "I'm waiting to hear you."
And his green eyes wandered round those in the room, from the recess to the table.
"There's sure to be claret," said Barbe's voice, from the depths of her cave.
"And what about it?" asked Hubert, peevishly.
"What about it! What about it! It's much better not to lose our position in the country for a job that mayn't come. . . . Our deputy would never forgive us. . . . And we have Zoé's future to think of. . . . We've all we want here," said Barbe. "And, if you lads got pinched, I should kick the bucket before the week was out!"
"You never think of anyone but yourself, mother," growled Hubert. "All right, we'll say no more about it!"
"I didn't say so!" Siméon declared, sententiously.
"Nor I," said Élie.
"And suppose there's claret?" the mother insisted.
"Well, there'll be claret, that's all!" concluded Hubert, lighting his pipe.
Zoé's voice was now heard at the door, asking leave to come in.
"Come in! " cried the mother.
"Where were you?" asked Hubert.
"Behind the door," said the girl, "listening to you. Better me than the gendarmes!"
And, when they all raised their hands to clout her, she rapped out, hurriedly:
"P'raps there wouldn't be any claret with Balaoo! Remember Barrois' trunk!"
"The kid's right!" said Hubert. "We ought to see Balaoo at once."
"That's easy enough," said Zoé. "He's at his own place."
"Let's go there now."
"Yes, let's go."
"You're never going to leave me all alone!" whined Barbe.
"Business is business!" said Hubert. "No one'll eat you! Come along, Zoé."
"Oh, it's no use taking me!" said Zoé. "The porter has orders not to let me in. I'm not on the best of terms with General Captain!"
"Come on, all the same!"
They took down their guns, went out and crossed the road, with the girl. Zoé led the way over the fields. Patrice saw their dark outlines entering the forest. He climbed down from his roof and returned to Coriolis'. That night, he was not disturbed by any sounds outside. He was so tired that he even dozed off from time to time.
- "The cellar-rat" is an inspector whose duty is to superintend the manufacture of alcohol in the distiller's districts. He examines private cellars and takes stock of the produce of the stills. — Author's Note
- Blood—Author's Note