CHAPTER V: THE SIEGE OF THE FOREST
On the day after that night of terror, at early dawn, the troops sent from Clermont-Ferrand began the famous siege of the Black Woods. It took no less, from the start, than a regiment of infantry and a squadron of cavalry, with M. le Vicomte de la Terrenoire at their head, to ring the space in which it was thought that the Three Brothers might have taken refuge. The police-officials of the chief town of the department, including M. le Prefet Mathieu Delafosse, were taken over the scene of the crime, heard the story of the tragic night from the mayor's own lips and made their preliminary arrangements in concert with the military. On the other hand, the sub-prefect and the deputy for the arrondissement of Tournadon-la-Riviere, who were too deeply compromised with the Three Brothers, were requested, by the government to keep in the background.
M. Mathieu Delafosse was upset, to begin with, by the undoubted fact of the kidnapping of Dr. Honorat and showered reproaches on the mayor of Saint-Martin for not interfering when the ruffians were passing under his nose with their unfortunate victim, to which M. Jules replied, with no little common sense, that, if he had given the least sign of life, the result would have been a great massacre of his fellow-citizens and that, taking one thing with another, they could congratulate themselves on being let off, after such a night, with the disappearance of Dr. Honorat, who, at any rate, was an unmarried man.
These sage words did not, for the moment, have the effect of cheering monsieur le prefet, who felt a secret fear that the Three Brothers had seized upon the doctor's person only with the object of holding him as a hostage, thus complicating a task which was difficult enough in itself. However, upon reflection, the fact that the three ruffians had already killed M. Herment de Meyrentin gave monsieur le prefet some little hope. Those scoundrels were thirsting for blood; and Dr. Honorat also was probably dead by this time. If that were so, there was no need for the authorities to hold their hands lest they should thereby be giving the doctor his quietus!
"They are impulsive brutes," thought M. le Prefet Mathieu Delafosse, recovering his serenity. "They've killed him without thinking that they had the price of their ransom in their hands."
Once this idea, that Dr. Honorat's sufferings were at an end, had taken definite root in the brains of the first magistrate of the department, it was resolved to "go strenuously to work."
There would be no shrinking from extreme measures.
The government was very much annoyed by this fresh bother, because of the rumour which began to be current that the Three Brothers, who were known for political agents, had held their tongues throughout the trial on the part which they played in the elections, only because they had been promised an absolute chance of escape.
And that escape had been neatly carried out indeed! It could not be explained except on the assumption that a helper had come from the outside, working at his leisure, undisturbed by the warders. The warders themselves declared that they could make nothing of it. The commission of enquiry came to no conclusion and declared itself powerless to explain the escape by ordinary human means. The Three Brothers, confined, in one cell and guarded by five armed policemen, had flown as though on wings. When it happened, the warders were playing cards in the cell, as usual, all seated round a table, while Siméon, Élie and Hubert stood behind, advising them. When the game was finished and the players raised their heads, they looked in vain for the prisoners, who had disappeared. Two of the bars at the window had been twisted out of shape with an effort which no man's arm was capable of making. It was through this aperture that they had flown away. And there was really no other word for it: they must have skimmed across the roofs like birds. In short, the whole thing resembled a dream; and the ministry, who would certainly have to answer questions, could hardly come down to the Chamber with such a fairy-tale! And so the prefect and his staff were given clearly to understand that, since it was impossible to explain the escape, they must absolutely find the fugitives, alive or dead, so that any idea of complicity might be removed.
"Strenuous measures, major, strenuous measures!" said M. Mathieu Delafosse to the Vicomte de la Terrenoire, whom he found prancing on his sorrel outside Mme. Valentin's windows, with all the village round him. "You will please trot down the Tournadon-la-Riviere Road with your men, till you come to the Grange-aux- Belles, and there join the detachment which is marching from the Chevalet side. That is the only road still open. It must be barred to the ruffians. You will then arrange with Colonel du Briage and drive the quarry between Moabit and Pierrefeu. And be sure to tell the colonel to send his whole regiment into the woods and to make his men beat all the bushes and hunt about everywhere. And, if the scoundrels defend themselves, they're to be shot down like rabbits. Send me a message by one of your troopers, when you're nearing Moabit, and we'll enter the forest in our turn. Do you understand? Good-bye and good luck to you! . . . I shall go straight back to that old Vautrin hag, who may end by telling us something. When I think that they had the cheek to come home and fetch their belongings. What belongings? More politics, that's certain! There was nothing found when the place was searched. . . . And what's become of the Zoé girl? The old woman says that she went scouring the forest with them. It seems hardly likely: she would be rather in their way. . . ."
"Little Zoé knows the forest as well as they do," said monsieur le maire, who had now arrived, "and she climbs the trees like a monkey. I tell you, they're not caught yet! You would have done better to keep them in your prison, monsieur le prefet."
The prefect pretended not to hear and, followed by the whole village, turned towards the Vautrins' cabin, where paralyzed old Barbe lay moaning in her recess by the chimney. The mayor and his two deputies sadly closed the procession. The other actors in last night's tragedy did not think of putting in an appearance. One and all were laid up with a feverish chill, including even Mme. Godefroy, the postmistress, though there was plenty for her to do. All the heroes and heroines of that fatal night wished themselves miles away, down to Mme. Valentin, who carefully kept her little powdered and painted face hidden behind the lace curtains of her dainty bedroom, although her maid told her that M. de la Terrenoire had passed under her windows on horseback to say good-bye before setting out for the war.
The only people who could have told the truth about the events of the night were either invisible or silent. And the population had embroidered on the terrible adventure to its heart's content. Some went so far as to say that the Vautrins had loaded with chains at least half a score of prisoners, men and women together, and carried them off to the forest with Dr. Honorat and that the Three Brothers had started operations by slitting the tongues of everybody in the big room at the Black Sun.
Citizens who had had the courage to peep through their shutters on that accursed night had seen things fit to make you shudder. Mme. Toussaint, they said, who had tried to defend her Empress' gown, had been dragged three times round the Place de la Mairie by the hair of her head.
The news soon spread all over the department. People struck work for thirty miles around. Peasants came across the vineyards waving their arms and asking, as soon as they were within earshot, if "they" had been caught. Their curiosity outweighed their very fears.
No, no, the Three Brothers had not been caught.
And what beat everything was that old Barbe, on her truckle-bed, laughed in her sleeve at all the questions which the prefect put to her. She was prouder than ever of having brought into the world that fine progeny which was keeping the whole Republic busy and upsetting an entire department. And she sent a cold shiver down the back of all who had entered her cabin by the way in which she said:
"Ah, good! They've taken Dr. Honorat, have they? I wouldn't be in his skin for a trifle!"
And she went on, in the hearing of the thunder-struck authorities:
"Oh,the lads! When I think that I had all three of them 'in one litter!' There aren't many mothers like me in the world! I ought to have had a decoration. Ay, on the christening-day, I thought they were going to fork out the legion of honour! The mayor gave me a kiss. Yes, M. Jules, that's how the mayors used to carry on with Barbe, in those days. They christened the three of them together. They put three pillows in a basket, my word they did, with the three laddies on top of them, squealing like calves. And they carried the three kids in the basket to his reverence, who put salt on their tongues. There were three godfathers, who all gave their names. And, in the evening, the whole village was drunk and the mayor and the priest too! . . . That's how people carried on in those days, M. Jules! . . . So don't you go hurting my boys! Old Barbe couldn't get three more like them nowadays!"
And then she stopped and refused to answer any more questions.
Suddenly, there was a great commotion in the road outside the Vautrins' house. Everybody was pushing and jostling to see a white thing coming down the middle of the road, from the forest.
It suggested an apparition of the Virgin Mary. A white, ethereal shape came gliding and floating towards the astounded crowd. Nobody dared take a step in its direction. Everyone marvelled what it could be. The pious crossed themselves. It was like a miracle, that beautiful lady in white, erect and buoyant in the middle of the road! . . .
She advanced with no apparent movement of her feet. Monsieur le maire and monsieur le prefet, alarmed and curious like all the rest, had gone to the window. And, suddenly; a voice cried:
"Why, it's the Empress' dress!"
And every mouth repeated:
"It's the Empress' dress! It's the Empress' dress come back!"
But the Empress' dress was not returning alone; and soon they were able to see that the Empress' dress was returning on the shoulders of little Zoé! Yes, as I live, it was Zoé, in the Empress' gown, giving herself the airs of the Queen of Heaven as she came down the road! The stupor was so great that not a cry was heard, not a laugh. And yet it was enough to make a cat laugh to see that little black sloe of a Zoé, who was usually no bigger than a shrimp, now looking ever so tall in the white trailing gown of the Empress of All the Russias!
She wore that gown, which was not yet stitched, like a cope, with the back panel falling in an immense long train over her heels; and she had passed her bare, skinny, grubby arms through the holes that were waiting for the sleeves. Her towzled blue-black hair hung down her shoulders and flowed in inky waves over all that as yet unspotted whiteness.
Zoé wore a serious face, as though in church. And her eyes insulted all the bystanders.
She at once addressed the mayor:
"Monsieur le maire," she said, boldly, in her little shrill, vinegary voice, "I have come from my brothers, who have something to say to the President of the Republic. They want him to give them a pardon."
The ambassadress rattled out her message loud enough for everyone to hear. Then she took breath and gave a little cough, putting her hand before her mouth like a well-bred ambassadress, or like a schoolgirl trying to remember the exact words of her lesson.
This quiet self-assurance took everybody aback. She continued:
"If the President of the Republic does that, my brothers will never be heard of any more. They will do nobody any harm and they will leave the district."
Then an angry, threatening voice arose. It was M. Mathieu Delafosse, recovering his wits:
"And, if your brothers do not receive their pardon, what will they do then?" he asked, furious at seeing all his apprehensions justified, for he guessed that there was a hostage behind this move.
Zoé coughed, blushed slightly, gave a kick to the train of her lovely dress and said:
"If the President of the Republic does not give them their pardon, they will kill Dr. Honorat."
Loud rumours at once arose and the prefect again regretted that the worthy doctor had not already departed this life. He was heard growling in his moustache: "A nice business! We're in for blackmail now!" He left the Vautrins' house at last and walked up to Zoé. The others formed a circle round them on the road.
"Don't touch me, mind!" said the girl. "My brothers said that, if anyone touched me, they would kill Dr. Honorat first and set fire to Saint-Martin afterwards."
Fresh rumours, which the prefect silenced with a gesture:
"No one's going to touch you, child," he promised, with sudden gentleness, "but you must tell us where Dr. Honorat is."
"He's with my brothers."
"And where are your brothers?"
"With Dr. Honorat," replied the girl, wiping her nose on a corner of the Empress' gown.
The mayor now came forward:
"Zoé," he said, "I promise that you shall not be hurt. Go back quietly to the forest, where your brothers are waiting for you, and tell them that they have nothing to gain by behaving as they are doing. The President of the Republic has not yet taken any decision about their pardon; but they must remember that they can't hope to save their heads by setting fire to the village and murdering Dr. Honorat. Of course, we can't promise anything; but, supposing one of them was to have been pardoned a couple of days ago, he won't be now, unless, of course, they all three surrender of their own accord. Tell them to think of that. Do you understand?"
"I can't understand a word of what you're saying!" declared Zoé, whereat everybody laughed, in spite of the gravity of the position.
The mayor, flushing pink under the humiliation, retorted, roughly:
"Don't you understand that, if the President of the Republic was thinking of pardoning one of your brothers. . . ?"
"That's no good," said Zoé, interrupting him bluntly.
"What they told me was, 'All or none!' "
More rumours in the crowd.
"This obstinacy won't serve their turn!" exclaimed M. Mathieu Delafosse. "You go and tell them, child, that you've seen the prefect and the gendarmerie and the police and all the soldiers from Clermont . . . and that orders have been given to fire on them, if they don't surrender."
Zoé coughed, with her hand before her mouth, and asked:
"Is that your answer?"
"Our answer is that they must surrender and then the President of the Republic will see what he can do. If they listen to reason and don't hurt Dr. Honorat, the chances are that they won't repent it. . . . You tell them that."
"I don't mind," said Zoé, nodding her head, "but that's no answer. . . ."
"Tell them, all the same " said the mayor, "and you'll see, it will make them think, if they have any sense. . . . Be off, now. How is Dr. Honorat?"
"Oh, he's all right!"
"What does he say?"
"He doesn't say anything."
"Mind they don't put him to pain!"
"Oh, he's tied up, so that he can't run away! Apart from that, no one bothers about him!"
"But surely you give him something to eat?"
"Oh, we gave him his feed this morning, but most likely he's not hungry: he never touched his pan! . . . So that's all you have to say to me? . . . Well, then, good-bye, gentlemen all; see you later!"
And she turned back, in her Empress' gown, while no one ventured to utter a reflection upon the manner in which she had obtained possession of that sumptuous garment. Nobody cared to fall out with the Vautrins.
A few voices were even uplifted in praise of Zoé's appearance in that get-up.
Some one said:
"It suits her jolly well!"
She dissappeared as she had come, erect and proud as a lady, not deigning to turn her head, sweeping all the dust off the road. . . .
It goes without saying that none dared follow her. The edge of the forest was dangerous, notwithstanding the presence of a company of infantry which was flaunting its red trousers on the grass, waiting for orders to march ahead. Other soldiers, farther away, continued the chain of posts; but, as the officers said, "it would need two divisions and more to make sure of preventing the escape of those beggars who know every bit of timber in the forest."
Colonel du Briage had drawn up his men on the other side of the tall trees of Pierrefeu, but hesitated to push his way into the woods. As a matter of fact, he hated this police-work and only performed it grudgingly. He had told the Vicomte de la Terrenoire, who was riding at the head of his squadron from one end of the district to the other, linking the different units of that curious besieging army, that he would talk to the prefect first, for he had no intention of accepting the slightest responsibility in the matter.
The episode of Zoé's embassy delayed operations still longer. The prefect telegraphed to the minister of the interior and was waiting for the minister's reply, which had not yet arrived at three o'clock.
At three o'clock, on the other hand, Zoé once more appeared on the edge of the forest. She was still wearing her Empress' gown and was still bareheaded, in spite of the blazing sun. She passed through the soldiers, who could not refrain from cracking a few jests at her, which made her knit her young brows, for no one had ever had a word to say against Zoé's morals.
She walked into the Rue Neuve. The whole village was around her in a second. She said that she had brought the answer of the Three Brothers and that she wanted to speak to the mayor. They told her that the mayor, the prefect, the chief detective of Clermont, Colonel du Briage himself and two majors had just finished luncheon at the Black Sun.
She entered the Black Sun and, a minute after, was shown into the room where the civil and military authorities were sitting.
There were clouds of tobacco-smoke, a profusion of bottles and liqueur-glasses and, on the top of all, any number of stupid remarks, stupid because they were futile and could lead to nothing until the minister's reply came. However, in the absence of the minister's reply, they now had Zoé.
It was the prefect, of course, who put the questions: "Come here, child," he said, as though he were speaking to a little shy girl.
But there was no shyness about Zoé. She walked up to him, carrying in her hand a parcel wrapped in a newspaper.
"You've seen your brothers? And you're back already? Then they are not far away," said the prefect.
"You see for yourself that, if we had wanted to capture them, they would have been in our hands by now. But it's better that they should come back of their own accord. I hope they understood that?"
"Here's their answer," said Zoé.
And she held out her parcel to the prefect, who asked: "What's that?"
"Look inside and you'll know," she said, with her usual coolness.
After turning his eyes over all those present, to express his astonishment, M. Mathieu Delafosse took the parcel from Zoé's hands and began to undo it. Everybody's curiosity was excited to the utmost when, after the first wrapper had been removed, another appeared all covered with blood-stains. The prefect opened it quickly and at once put the parcel on the table, uttering an exclamation of horror as he did so. The others, who stood bending over him, all gave a cry of horror with him. The parcel contained a finger.
When the excitement had more or less subsided, M. Mathieu Delafosse, pale in the face and gnawing his moustache, began to question Zoé:
"What's this you've brought us, you unhappy girl?"
"It's one of Dr. Honorat's little fingers," replied Zoé, placidly, wiping her nose again on the Empress' dress.
"Have your brothers cut off the doctor's finger?"
"Well, it's not yours, monsieur le prefet, and it's not mine!"
"Oh, so it's Dr. Honorat's little finger, is it?"
"I know it is," said the mayor. "I can tell it by the ring."
And he pointed to the gold ring which had been left on the finger as though to prove its genuineness.
"But this is abominable!" exclaimed the prefect, turning paler and paler.
"Why shouldn't they cut a finger off people who want to cut off their heads?" asked Zoé, logically.
"And can you tell me, you little wretch, why they have committed this horrible cruelty?"
"It's like this, they say it's to show you that they're prepared to go to all lengths with Dr. Honorat, if the President of the Republic won't give them their pardon. They told me to tell you that they'll give the resident of the Republic until the stroke of twelve tomorrow. If, at the stroke of twelve to-morrow, the President of the Republic has not pardoned them, they'll cut off the doctor's other little finger and make you think again. I'm only telling you what they said. Lastly, on the day after to-morrow, they'll kill him outright and send you the pieces; and they'll resume their full liberty; and you'll be responsible for whatever happens. . . . That's all I have to say. Can I go back?"
At that moment, the prefect was handed an official telegram. It was the long-expected answer. M. Mathieu Delafosse opened it eagerly and read it at a glance. Then he indignantly gave vent to his dissatisfaction:
"Well, this beats everything!"
And he passed the telegram to the colonel and the mayor, who read:
"Impossible for government to treat with people who have placed themselves outside the law. The law cannot give way; but act cautiously, for sake of Dr. Honorat."
"That doesn't help us much!" said the mayor. "It amounts to this, monsieur le prefet," explained the colonel, "that the government leaves the entire responsibility for the operations with you. I will do what you tell me, but there must be no misunderstanding: I want precise orders; and, for the rest, I wash my hands of it."
"But what am I to do? What am I to do? You see for yourselves they mean to kill him!" exclaimed M. Mathieu Delafosse.
"That's certain!" declared Zoé, whose presence had been overlooked by all of them.
The prefect was ashamed of betraying his weakness and embarrassment before an agent of the enemy. He got out of his difficulty, for the moment, by a display of anger:
"What's still more certain," he cried, "is that your three brothers, if they act like savages, will obtain neither pardon nor pity and that they will be massacred by the troops before dark. Those are the orders."
"No," said Zoé, shaking her head. "If those were the orders, you wouldn't be so puzzled. However, what am I to tell them?"
"Tell them to set Dr. Honorat free."
"That's no answer. You won't be satisfied till they've cut off his other little finger. So I'm to go?"
The mayor said:
"We might telegraph the story of the little finger to the minister. Perhaps that will make him come to a decision."
The prefect acquiesced:
"I'll do so at once."
And he called for a pen and ink.
"Listen, Zoé," he said. "I'll keep you here until I receive an answer from the minister. You go into that room next door. We must get the matter settled one way or the other."
"You'd better get it settled as fast as you can," said Zoé, "for they're beginning to lose their patience in the forest."
Zoé went into the next room and the prefect wrote out his telegram. When thetelegram was dispatched, they resumed the discussion.
Suddenly, the noise of a great altercation came from the next room. They heard a voice yelping:
"Give me back my dress! Give me back my dress, will you, you thief, you sister of murderers!"
And the door opened and Zoé came and took refuge with the officers and claimed their assistance and protection against Mother Toussaint, who wanted to strip her as naked as a worm. Mother Toussaint had learnt from public rumour that her Empress' gown was on Zoé's back and that Zoé was walking about, doing the grand in her property. She forthwith forgot the terrors of the night and her wholesome dread of the Three Brothers, ran to the Black Sun like mad and went for Zoé, who was at a loss to understand the reason of this rating.
Zoé defended herself with indignation, opened wide innocent eyes before the mayor and the prefect and called heaven to witness that the gown was really and truly hers and that she had never stolen a thing in her life.
Losing his last shred of patience at an incident which he considered of no importance at such a moment, the prefect asked the girl where she had got that work of art. When the child replied that a passer-by, whom she did not know, had made her a present of it in the forest, there was a great burst of laughter, which carried the day. The mayor himself tried to make Madame Toussaint understand how very much out of place her claim was at a moment when they were engaged in saving a man's life. Lastly, the chief-detective reconciled everybody by dogmatically stating that the child had not been seen to steal the dress and that, in the matter of personal property, possession is nine points of the law, whereupon Mme. Toussaint was turned out of the room and advised to seek her remedy in the law-courts. And thus was settled the fate of the Empress' gown, which remained on the back of little Zoé, Queen of the Forest at Saint-Martin-des-Bois. While this was going on, the government's second reply arrived. It was as categorical as the first and ran:
"Abominable savagery. We repeat law cannot give way. Finish business to-day certain and telegraph report. Debate set down for to-morrow. Act cautiously, for sake of Dr. Honorat."
As we may imagine, these fresh instructions did not relieve M. Mathieu Delafosse' perplexity. More than ever, the whole burden of this extraordinary adventure was left upon his shoulders. It was for him to make the best he could of it.
He concealed his discomfiture beneath an air of haughty decision:
"Tell your brothers," he said tb Zoé, "that the government refuses to recognize them except to receive their submission. Once again, they must surrender and the President of the Republic will see what he can do. He will give them till ten o'clock tomorrow morning to think it over. And Dr. Honorat's death won't keep your brothers from being guillotined: on the contrary! And now be off!"
She went away, pouting.
As soon as she was gone, a council of war was held at Roubion's. The prefect had his plan. As his orders were to act quickly and cautiously, he would skilfully combine ruse and force. He had already begun to realize this Machiavellian scheme by sending word to the Vautrins that they would be left alone until ten o'clock next morning. Ostensibly, the troops guarding the skirt of the woods would be ordered to pile their arms. They would encamp where they were, cook their suppers and appear to settle down with the sole object of quietly spending the night there. Then, at two o'clock in the morning, they would all make a start. The Three Brothers could not be very far from Saint-Martin, as was proved by little Zoé's journeys. The circle hemming them in could be narrowed during the night by the soldiers slipping under wood, with the wariness of Red Indians.
This circle, according to the prefect's calculations, must have as its centre the Moabit clearing, so called because it had once served as a retreat to a Jew of the name of Moab, who was crossed in love and who lived there, far from the world, in some quarry-pits disused since thousands of years, covered with luxuriant vegetation and, at that time, known to him alone. An ordnance-survey map was brought and spread upon the table; and they worked out the plan of operations until dinner-time, after which everybody, knowing exactly what he had to do, returned to his post. The mayor had sent the crier round the village to announce that it would be dangerous to walk about the streets and in the country after eight o'clock at night; and he advised his fellow-citizens to go to bed early and not to trouble their heads about anything that might happen outside their doors. They could sleep with easy minds: their safety was being cared for.
That night, nobody went to bed at Saint-Martin-des-Bois. Every inhabitant was posted behind his shutters. Those in the Rue Neuve could see the light burning in monsieur le maire's office in the town-hall and tried to give a name to the fitful shadows that slipped across the square, doubtless coming for orders. At midnight, three cloaked forms were seen to leave the municipal buildings, avoiding the light of the street-lamp. It was M. le Prefet Mathieu Delafosse, Colonel du Briage and the chief-detective of Clermont. As for the mayor, he had declared that he would not leave the post of honour, but stay in his office, ready to grapple with events! . .