Balaoo/2/4

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CHAPTER IV: BALAOO DARES NOT COME HOME

Balaoo, after rolling the Empress' gown very tidily under his arm, sat down on the edge of the forest. The darkness was absolute; the last lights were extinguished in the windows of Saint-Martin-des-Bois. He sat and thought. He sincerely regretted his mishap with the distinguished visitor who had called to see him. Not that he suffered pangs at so unceremoniously and without previous warning killing one of the Human Race who had insulted him; but he feared that he had caused great pain to his dear little Madeleine. What a queer face she put on, when he was proudly dragging by the hind-legs that M. Herment de Meyrentin who would never make fun of him again! And what terrible eyes his kind master Coriolis had made at him! What desperate grimaces! What a business! . . .

No, on thinking it well over, he positively preferred not to go home that evening. And yet it was not that he did not want to be good. He knew quite well that, when he spent the night in the forest, Madeleine was sad all the following day, because it grieved her to think that he would never be anything more than a horrid wild beast. Ah, what would she say now that she knew that he had killed one of the Race? Balaoo scratched the short bristly hairs on the top of his head. O perplexity! . . .

It was to purchase his forgiveness and to secure a welcome at Madeleine's hands that Balaoo had purloined the Empress' gown just now. After hanging M. Herment de Meyrentin's corpse, from the first tree in the forest on the Riom Road, in the dead man's own necktie as was right and proper, Balaoo had been three times round the Coriolis estate, listening for a sound, a call. Ah, if he had suddenly heard Madeleine's voice in the dark, calling him by the name which he bore in the Forest of Bandong — "Balaoo! . . . Balaoo! . . . Balaoo!" — how he would have flown to her! How gladly he would have returned at once to his human dwelling! . . . But no, he heard nothing. No one was calling him. Everything seemed dead in Coriolis' house since he had killed that visitor, that M. Herment de Meyrentin, without a word of warning.

With bent back and hanging head, dragging his feet and carrying his hands in his pockets, Balaoo had entered the deserted village, wondering what he could do to atone for his offence, when he met the little frightened troop of needlewomen, with their galoshes and foot-warmers, going to the Black Sun under Roubion's escort. He smiled, without exactly knowing why: perhaps because he recognized Mme. Mûre and Mme. Boche, on whom he had played many a practical joke in his time. He heard them talking about a wonderful dress, a dress of the kind that was only worn among the emperors of men, the dress of the Empress of Russia. Balaoo's curiosity was roused. He wanted to see that "masterpiece of French industry." He removed his shoes and tied them round his neck by the laces. He was quite comfortable now; and it only took an acrobatic leap or two over a couple of walls and a roof to bring him to the fan-light of that summer dining-room where Mme. Toussaint was spreading out the marvel. Balaoo made up his mind the moment he set eyes on it. The dress would suit Madeleine "to perfection." And, at the first opportunity supplied by the absence of the needlewomen, he pushed open the fanlight, held on to the window by his hind-hands, took a swing; seized the coveted object with his fore-hands flying, leapt back through the fan-light and vanished over the roofs with the Empress' gown.

He ran straight to the little door at the end of Coriolis' garden, his own private door, and was on the point of ringing. But, suddenly, his hand, which was already on the bell-pull, rose and scratched the bristly hairs on the top of his head. He remembered the law, the lessons in the law which Madeleine had given him:

"One must always pay for things before taking them!"

And Balaoo had just taken something without paying for it; for, to Balaoo, stealing and taking meant the same thing; and the question of payment before taking possession was only a matter of politeness invented by the members of the Human Race, who refused to do anything like other races. And Madeleine would not be pleased. She would send him packing, with his Empress' gown. And that would make two bothers instead of one. Sorrowfully, he moved away from the little door at the end of the garden and made for the open country.

So there he stood, on the edge of the forest, with the Empress' gown under his arm. Hearing a noise in the distance, from the Rue Neuve, he said to himself that they must have discovered his theft and that Mme. Boche and Mme. Mûre were rousing the whole village in order to tell the story of that strange event. . . . Unless, indeed, it was some one in the neighbourhood who, coming home by the Riom Road, had bumped up against the distinguished corpse of the distinguished visitor whom he had strung up by his necktie on the first branch of the first tree on the left of the road. If so, M. Jules had been told by this time and the man who played the drum would be harnessing his cart to go and fetch the commissary of police, as they always did when there were dead people hanging at the end of a rope. . . . Unless, again, they had learnt that Élie, Siméon and Hubert — with his, Balaoo's, assistance; but no one would ever know that! — had escaped from Riom prison, a thing which would certainly annoy the members of the Race, for the Three Brothers were feared by everybody.

Ah, Balaoo had done some pretty work that day! It was a red letter day in his life. He ought to have been well pleased with himself. . . . But no, he was not: since Madeleine was unhappy, Balaoo was sad.

However, he could not remain all night on the edge of the forest, whining like a baby, and it was not healthy to sleep in the open air; so he got up to go to his home in the forest, his little set of chambers in the Big Beech in the Pierrefeu clearing.

It was a very dense forest, which had never been disfigured except by the necessary high-roads running from town to town. Apart from these gashes, which are inevitable in the forests of the Human Race, there were no carriage-roads, good, bad or indifferent: merely a few small foot-paths used by poachers and animals; and even then you had to know where to find them! And those woods went on for ever in the direction of the rising sun. Oh, there was plenty of room to walk about, even for a Balaoo who had known the Forest of Bandon beeches; all that collection of thousands of pine trees standing bolt upright; all that which went to make up the Black Woods was but a shift for Balaoo, "as who should say a park." And, when one of his friends in the underwood, such as As the fox, for instance, put on side about the thick yoke-elm where his hole was, Balaoo had great fun telling him stories of the giant creepers of the tropics, roaring with laughter as he did so.

Thus, last time that the other came to look him up at the Big Beech, Balaoo spoke out pretty freely:

"As, you're just a new-born baby. If you had seen, as I have, the flowers of the cocoanut-trees and the trees with three feet,[1] in which we build our huts above the thick water of the swamps; and if you had seen the wall of giant creepers, strung from tree to tree, which, for a hundred thousand years, have kept the members of the Human Race from penetrating to our village, you would never again dare mention your hole of a house protected by the yoke-elm of Saint-Martin-des-Bois. . . . That As," thought Balaoo to himself, "who puts on such a lot of side in Europe, would bring a smile to the lips of an elephant at home." And he added, aloud, "Besides, you see, just look at this: when anyone wants to enter my Forest of Bandong, he has to make a hole in it, like a tunnel. It's quite unlike the forests over here."

As did not insist, knowing that he would not get the better of Balaoo, remembering the proverb:

"A traveller may lie with authority."

As understood all that Balaoo said to him, because the pithecanthrope took care, when talking to animals, to drop the language of men which he had learnt from Coriolis and Madeleine. He never waited to be asked, but always, very amiably, put himself on an equality with them, as between beast and beast, and communication was at once restored between animal instincts. This, however, did not prevent him from preserving his human dignity and even thinking his human thoughts, while expressing himself to the others in the usual terms employed by the animal race. And he acted in this way even with General Captain, who spoke men's words without understanding them and understood only animals' words.

General Captain was the parrot he had stolen from Mlle. Franchet and carried as a slave to his hut in the forest, to serve as his hall-porter. Balaoo had the greatest contempt for General Captain, being of opinion that there was nothing sillier for an animal than to insist on talking men's words when he does not understand what they mean.

Thus thought Balaoo in the dense forest, as he walked, without a road and without compass or matches, through the dark, moonless night to his hut in the Big Beech, which might be described as his bachelor's chambers. Thus thought Balaoo, his heart heavy with his misdeeds, carrying the Empress' gown, done up in a neat parcel, under his arm.

A voice from high up in the air disturbed his meditations:

"Hullo, Polly!"

"The idiot!" said Balaoo, aloud, shrugging his shoulders.

The voice at once continued, in the dark trees:

"Well I never! Did you ever? What next? What next? What next?"

"Stop playing the fool, General Captain!" commanded the pithecanthrope, in a rough, animal voice, employing animal sounds that produced an immediate effect.

General Captain ceased pretending to be a man and, from his perch on a branch so high that none of us could have seen it from below, even had it been daylight and even had we had Balaoo's eyes, he humbly bade his master welcome, like the humble porter-parrot that he was and in the parrot tongue, which Balaoo understood quite well, for almost all animals understand one another's language.

Balaoo gave a grunt or two and asked how it was that the parrot was not asleep, at that time of night. General Captain replied that he was awoke by a great light shining over the village:

You can't see it from below," the bird-porter explained to the pithecanthrope, "but I can see it clearly. The sky is quite red, a glorious, bright red, as when the sun rises in my country."

Balaoo grinned, for he knew General Captain's high-flown pretensions. The bird, who lied like a lawyer or a dentist, used to declare that he had seen as many countries as Balaoo himself, though he was unable to name them. As a matter fact, he was only able to brag from hearing a Brazilian parakeet describe his equatorial feats of prowess at the Marseilles bird-fancier's where General Captain had been landed as a youngster. Balaoo always shut him up by saying:

"Oh, drop it! I have known parrots in the Forest of Bandong. They were not a yellowy-green like you, but had bright-red wings and bright-blue heads and gold round their necks. You don't even know; General Captain, how the parrot-mothers of the Forest of Bandong get the gold into their little one's necks. Why, old chap, it's by feeding them on the yolks of eggs! There's nothing like yolk of egg to make you gold in the neck. That's the way they produce canary-yellow in the Forest of Bandong, General Captain!"

Whereupon the general would make no reply, because everybody knew that he was not fed on the yolks of eggs at Mlle. Franchet's.

For the moment, Balaoo climbed the tree, feeling uneasy at what the parrot had told him about the fire. The Big Beech in the Pierrefeu clearing was at least three hundred years old. It was a world, a nature, a universe in itself. It was the finest tree in the forest, stood nearly a hundred and sixty feet high and was over six feet in diameter. Balaoo took the greatest pride in it, although he never omitted to tell any of his forest friends who congratulated him upon it that the tree was nothing compared with those in the Forest of Bandong and that his father and mother, before slinging their house in the mangroves in the swamps, had begun, when they were quite young, by living in a eucalyptus-tree which was over fifteen hundred feet high — so he said — and thirty feet in diameter. However, he consented to be satisfied with his tree, for he liked its smooth, clean bark, its silky branches, its polished leaves, which looked so shiny after the rain; and he ate its fruit. But he took care to throw away the rind, nature, whose voice was always whispering in his ear, having told him that it contained the worst of poisons, the one that gives epilepsy and makes you look like a tipsy man.

Balaoo, when he moved in, had driven all the animals from the tree, excepting the little birds, whose nests he respected with the greatest care. But he had sent a family of crows about their business, with such honours as were due to them; for their croaking deafened him and disturbed his midday slumbers. The crows thought themselves quite safe up there, on the top floor, where they sat and laughed at men; but they were nicely caught, one fine spring afternoon, when they saw a man come walking up the trunk as easily as up a staircase, who, after greeting them with a stately wave of his straw hat in his right hand, with his left sent the clumsy tangle of twigs and branches which that wretched family dignified with the sweet name of nest flying right across the tree-tops.

As I said, Balaoo kept the little birds with him, in his tree. This was not from any excess of sentiment, but because he loved a good omelette, a fact of which the little birds became aware, in course of time, and left him, for all his consideration in not driving them away.

Balaoo, after climbing ten flights of branches, arrived at his little set of pithecanthrope chambers. The hall-porter was standing at the door, with his beak wide open, gazing towards the distant blaze. Balaoo shaded his eyes with his hand and looked. The fire was flaring in the very middle of Saint-Martin, by the Place de la Mairie. He at once felt reassured. As long as Madeleine's home was not in danger, nothing else mattered. His thoughts turned instinctively to the Three Brothers, who loved to play tricks on the members of the Human Race, like real pithecanthropes, and he said to himself that this great glare was perhaps an invention of theirs.

The sound of the alarm-bell filled his ears with a noisy and unpleasant booming. General Captain thought aloud that they were ringing the bells for the midnight mass to which Mlle. Franchet went once a year. Balaoo called him a fool and told him to hold his tongue. All this fuss and bustle in the village worried him. He was still thinking of his hanged man, of Madeleine's grief, of Coriolis' anger. When the light fell and the alarm bell ceased, he went indoors and struck a match. He lit a candle, which had not cost him a large sum, any more than the candlestick. We may safely say that Balaoo had furnished his flat without going to great expense. The grocers', drapers' and other shops in the village had supplied him, in due course, with all he wanted; and he had provisions in his larder; for his hut, which he had built very neatly, solidly and comfortably, in the pithecanthrope style, with reeds, leaves, ferns and branches, was divided into two rooms, after the fashion of men. In the back room, he heaped up the fruit of his industry and the produce of his thefts; the front room, which was always very clean and nicely kept and almost decorative, contained the essential articles of furniture, that is to say, a mat; a chest of drawers filled with a few changes of clothes and linen, but especially plenty of well-starched collars and cuffs, for which Balaoo entertained a perfect passion: this chest of drawers had once belonged to Dr. Honorat; a pedestal cupboard, from the same source; a cabinet-photograph of Madeleine; and that was all. No bed. It was bad enough to have a bed, with sheets and blankets, in his rooms in the house at the village. Here, when you wanted to sleep, you lay down on the mat; and the same when you wanted to talk. Balaoo hated arm-chairs, of whatever style or period. This does not mean that he was averse to decorative art: for instance, he had hung his walls with picture-placards advertising the best chocolates and the daintiest biscuits. The owners of the Black Sun Inn had long misses a gorgeous cardboard poster, on which a young and lovely female, in short skirts, was pictured lifting her little finger as she sipped a glass of golden yellow bitters. This work of art, which had once adorned the Roubions' summer dining-room, now figured in Master Balaoo's picture-gallery, at his country-house in the Big Beech at Pierrefeu.

General Captain was attached to this palace, in the office of hall-porter, by one leg. His duties consisted not only in cleaning the whole establishment, with a deft beak, during his master's absences, but also in admitting visitors and giving them beech-mast while they waited. For Balaoo, when in the mood, was at home to his friends of the woods and the underwood. For those who were heavy in their haunches, he had contrived a system of little notches cut into the trunk so as to form a staircase. He had taken the idea from General Captain's perch at Mlle. Franchet's. Balaoo, who had never seen a lift, was very proud of this piece of work, which allowed even his friend Dhol, who had never left the level of the ground, to walk about Balaoo's tree as though he were at home and to give himself the airs of a jaguar, airs which, I am bound to say, looked absolutely ridiculous in a wolf.

Balaoo, as we have seen, struck a light. He next unfurled the splendours of the Empress' gown before General Captain's fascinated gaze. Then, after shaking it, as he had been taught to shake out stuffs, in order to remove the folds, he hung it on a nail. This done, he lay down dreamily on his mat, his brain afluster with the day's events.

He longed for quiet; but General Captain never ceased asking him questions, to which, for that matter, he did not reply.

The Empress' gown puzzled the hall-porter. He wanted to know if Balaoo had brought the garment for his own use and if he should soon see his master walking about in that fine white dress. He turned it with his beak and managed to tear a bit of lace from it, for which he got a box on the ear.

"You needn't be angry," he said, hurrying out of reach. "I am sure it would suit you beautifully. You ought to have a necklace of beads to go with it, like Mlle. Franchet."

Balaoo was filled with concentrated fury at the idea that anyone could conceive him decked out like that old faggot of a Mlle. Franchet. General Captain, who was too stupid to notice his master's bad temper, went on jabbering like a parrot:

"I hear that beads are much worn by the monkeys." At this word, Balaoo pushed two fingers into his nostrils and sat up on his hind-quarters, a bad sign.

"A parakeet in the Cours Belzunce at Marseilles told me that, on the Equator, the macaques" — O fool of a General Captain, to use that name before Balaoo! — "have hairs behind their ears and rings and bracelets of yellow gold on their feet and necklaces of rare pearls round their necks."

Balaoo withdrew the fingers from his nostrils, a sign that he had overcome his anger and recovered his spirits. One can't lose one's temper with a General Captain. And he said:

"General Captain, I suppose you don't know what a jacare is?"

"A jacare? No, Balaoo, I don't."

"A jacare is a sort of crocodile who lives in the Forest of Bandong. When the Java panther begins to eat him by the tail, he does not move a step; when the Java panther has eaten half of him and satisfied his hunger for the day, the panther goes away, but the jacare remains. Yes, I give you my word, he remains waiting for the panther to come back, next day, and eat the other half. Isn't he a fool?"

"Why do you tell me that?" asked the hall-porter, aghast.

"So that you may know that, in the Forest of Bandong, everything is finer and grander than here. Thus, for instance, the jacare is an even bigger fool than you. But don't go building on it, General Captain! True, I sha'n't ever eat you by the tail; but my friend As, if I gave him leave, might be less squeamish."

At that moment, some one scratched at the door. Balaoo told his servant to open it, for he recognized a friendly scratch; and, as luck would have it, As the fox walked in, carrying a chicken between his jaws and waving a greeting with his arched brush.

Balaoo at once ordered him to go outside and leave his prey on the door-mat — Balaoo had recognized one of Mme. Boche's chickens — and reproached him with his carnivorous instincts. As put the chicken carefully in a corner, within easy reach. His snout was covered with blood and feathers and he stretched it out on his paws with the air of a philosopher who claims the right to live as he likes and who can listen to the observations of others with equanimity, having his belly full and his dinner provided for the morrow. He let the virtuous Balaoo talk and descant upon the peaceful charms of a vegetarian diet; and, at the moment when the other least expected it, let fly an argument which, in a manner of speaking, struck the pithecanthrope all of a heap:

"You boast of being a man," said As, "and you don't even eat chicken!"

Balaoo said nothing, for a series of moments that, to himself, seemed endless. Would no fit answer ever occur to his brain? It was really not worth while going through a course of study, learning to read men's words on wooden cubes and to write them first with a pencil and then with a pen and ink, only to allow one's self to be flummoxed like that by a simple As. At last, he sat up, with glittering eyes, gave a cough and declared:

"I wouldn't hurt a fly for the sake of food! True enough, I kill; but I kill because I'm annoyed and I never kill to eat: I call that disgusting; and you can take it straight from me."

"Then you don't like those who kill to eat," said As. "If so, why do you like the Three Brothers, who kill to eat?"


Balaoo retorted:

"I saw them kill the process server; and they did not eat the process-server."

"Yes, but they kill us, here, in the forest; and they do it to eat us."

"You flatter yourself," said Balaoo, shrugging his shoulders. "The Three Brothers never eat fox. Men don't eat fox. You are not even good to eat for those who eat everything, which is far from saying that the Three Brothers won't kill you, for they don't like chatterers and windbags."

"I know more than you think about them," said As, in a tone of vexation. "As I was going through the Rue Neuve, I saw them dragging one of the Race along; and they had put a piece of white stuff, like that which you use to wipe yourself with, in his mouth; and they were kicking him to make him go faster. I ran away, because they had guns on their shoulders. They can do what they like, for all I care: they are no friends of mine; but, as you are so thick with them, you might tell them to leave me alone. Last year, I came home to find that they had set fire to my hole. They thought that I was there."

"People who lead the life which you do must be prepared for everything," replied Balaoo, sententiously, without making any promise. And he thought it his duty to add, "There are good and bad sides to forest life. And now, As, old chap, let me get to sleep."

"It's easy to sleep," said As, who understood that he was being shown the door, "when one is the friend of men and has an easy conscience, like yourself. By the way, Balaoo, there's a man hanging from the first tree on the left on the Riom Road; you ought to go and cut him down."

Balaoo sprang at As' paw and nearly broke it:

"Who told you that?"

"No one told me: I saw it! " said As, releasing and licking his paw.

"What did you see?" growled Balaoo.

As gave a glance to make sure that the door was open:

"I saw you putting his tie straight!" he flung to Balaoo, jumping out of the little set of chambers in the Big Beech at Pierrefeu.

Balaoo ran to the door, but the other was far away.

His nasty, sniggering laugh was heard in the dark and leafy distance.

Balaoo, choking with anger, could find nothing better than a word in man-language to express his animal wrath:

"Filth!" he shouted, in his terrible voice of thunder, into the black night of the forest.

  1. The mangroves—Author's note