"We Shall Have to Eat Red Meat — Now"
THE Donjon Inn was of no imposing appearance; but I like these buildings with their rafters blackened with age and the smoke of their hearths—these inns of the coaching-days, crumbling erections that will soon exist in the memory only. They belong to the bygone days, they are linked with history. They make us think of the Road, of those days when highwaymen rode.
I saw at once that the Donjon Inn was at least two centuries old—perhaps older. Under its sign-board, over the threshold, a man with a crabbed-looking face was standing, seemingly plunged in unpleasant thought, if the wrinkles on his forehead and the knitting of his brows were any indication.
When we were close to him, he deigned to see us and asked us, in a tone anything but engaging, whether we wanted anything. He was, no doubt, the not very amiable landlord of this charming dwelling-place. As we expressed a hope that he would be good enough to furnish us with a breakfast, he assured us that he had no provisions, regarding us, as he said this, with a look that was unmistakably suspicious.
"You may take us in," Rouletabille said to him, "we are not policemen."
"I'm not afraid of the police—I'm not afraid of anyone!" replied the man.
I had made my friend understand by a sign that we should do better not to insist; but, being determined to enter the inn, he slipped by the man on the doorstep and was in the common room.
"Come on," he said, "it is very comfortable here."
A good fire was blazing in the chimney, and we held our hands to the warmth it sent out; it was a morning in which the approach of winter was unmistakable. The room was a tolerably large one, furnished with two heavy tables, some stools, a counter decorated with rows of bottles of syrup and alcohol. Three windows looked out on to the road. A coloured advertisement lauded the many merits of a new vermouth. On the mantelpiece was arrayed the innkeeper's collection of figured earthenware pots and stone jugs.
"That's a fine fire for roasting a chicken," said Rouletabille.
"We have no chicken—not even a wretched rabbit," said the landlord.
"I know," said my friend slowly; "I know—We shall have to eat red meat—now."
I confess I did not in the least understand what Rouletabille meant by what he had said; but the landlord, as soon as he heard the words, uttered an oath, which he at once stifled, and placed himself at our orders as obediently as Monsieur Robert Darzac had done, when he heard Rouletabille's prophetic sentence—"The presbytery has lost nothing of its charm, nor the garden its brightness." Certainly my friend knew how to make people understand him by the use of wholly incomprehensible phrases. I observed as much to him, but he merely smiled. I should have proposed that he give me some explanation; but he put a finger to his lips, which evidently signified that he had not only determined not to speak, but also enjoined silence on my part.
Meantime the man had pushed open a little side door and called to somebody to bring him half a dozen eggs and a piece of beefsteak. The commission was quickly executed by a strongly-built young woman with beautiful blonde hair and large, handsome eyes, who regarded us with curiosity.
The innkeeper said to her roughly:—
"Get out!—and if the Green Man comes, don't let me see him."
She disappeared. Rouletabille took the eggs, which had been brought to him in a bowl, and the meat which was on a dish, placed all carefully beside him in the chimney, unhooked a frying-pan and a gridiron, and began to beat up our omelette before proceeding to grill our beefsteak. He then ordered two bottles of cider, and seemed to take as little notice of our host as our host did of him. The landlord let us do our own cooking and set our table near one of the windows.
Suddenly I heard him mutter:
"Ah!—there he is."
His face had changed, expressing fierce hatred. He went and glued himself to one of the windows, watching the road. There was no need for me to draw Rouletabille's attention; he had already left our omelette and had joined the landlord at the window. I went with him.
A man dressed entirely in green velvet, his head covered with a huntsman's cap of the same colour, was advancing leisurely, lighting a pipe as he walked. He carried a fowling-piece slung at his back. His movements displayed an almost aristocratic ease. He wore eye-glasses and appeared to be about five and forty years of age. His hair as well as his moustache were salt grey. He was remarkably handsome. As he passed near the inn, he hesitated, as if asking himself whether or no he should enter it; gave a glance towards us, took a few whiffs at his pipe, and then resumed his walk at the same nonchalant pace.
Rouletabille and I looked at our host. His flashing eyes, his clenched hands, his trembling lips, told us of the tumultuous feelings by which he was being agitated.
"He has done well not to come in here to-day!" he hissed.
"Who is that man?" asked Rouletabille, returning to his omelette.
"The Green Man," growled the innkeeper. "Don't you know him? Then all the better for you. He is not an acquaintance to make.—Well, he is Monsieur Stangerson's forest-keeper."
"You don't appear to like him very much?" asked the reporter, pouring his omelette into the frying-pan.
"Nobody likes him, monsieur. He's an upstart who must once have had a fortune of his own; and he forgives nobody because, in order to live, he has been compelled to become a servant. A keeper is as much a servant as any other, isn't he? Upon my word, one would say that he is the master of the Glandier, and that all the land and woods belong to him. He'll not let a poor creature eat a morsel of bread on the grass—his grass!"
"Does he often come here?"
"Too often. But I've made him understand that his face does n't please me, and, for a month past, he has n't been here. The Donjon Inn has never existed for him!—he has n't had time!—been too much engaged in paying court to the landlady of the Three Lilies at Saint-Michel. A bad fellow!—There isn't an honest man who can bear him. Why, the concierges of the château would turn their eyes away from a picture of him!"
"The concierges of the château are honest people, then?"
"Yes, they are, as true as my name's Mathieu, monsieur. I believe them to be honest."
"Yet they've been arrested?"
"What does that prove?—But I don't want to mix myself up in other people's affairs."
"And what do you think of the murder?"
"Of the murder of poor Mademoiselle Stangerson?—A good girl much loved everywhere in the country. That's what I think of it—and many things besides; but that's nobody's business."
"Not even mine?" insisted Rouletabille.
The innkeeper looked at him sideways and said gruffly:
"Not even yours."
The omelette ready, we sat down at table and were silently eating, when the door was pushed open and an old woman, dressed in rags, leaning on a stick, her head doddering, her white hair hanging loosely over her wrinkled forehead, appeared on the threshold.
"Ah!—there you are, Mother Angenoux!—It's long since we saw you last," said our host.
"I have been very ill, very nearly dying," said the old woman. "If ever you should have any scraps for the Bête du Bon Dieu—?"
And she entered, followed by a cat, larger than any I had ever believed could exist. The beast looked at us and gave so hopeless a miau that I shuddered. I had never heard so lugubrious a cry.
As if drawn by the cat's cry a man followed the old woman in. It was the Green Man. He saluted by raising his hand to his cap and seated himself at a table near to ours.
"A glass of cider, Daddy Mathieu," he said.
As the Green Man entered, Daddy Mathieu had started violently; but visibly mastering himself he said:—
"I've no more cider; I served the last bottles to these gentlemen."
"Then give me a glass of white wine," said the Green Man, without showing the least surprise.
"I've no more white wine—no more anything," said Daddy Mathieu, surlily.
"How is Madame Mathieu?"
"Quite well, thank you."
So the young woman with the large, tender eyes, whom we had just seen, was the wife of this repugnant and brutal rustic, whose jealousy seemed to emphasise his physical ugliness.
Slamming the door behind him, the innkeeper left the room. Mother Angenoux was still standing, leaning on her stick, the cat at her feet.
"You've been ill, Mother Angenoux?—Is that why we have not seen you for the last week?" asked the Green Man.
"Yes, Monsieur keeper. I have been able to get up but three times, to go to pray to Sainte-Genevieve, our good patroness, and the rest of the time I have been lying on my bed. There was no one to care for me but the Bête du bon Dieu!"
"Did she not leave you?"
"Neither by day nor by night."
"Are you sure of that?"
"As I am of Paradise."
"Then how was it, Madame Angenoux, that all through the night of the murder nothing but the cry of the Bête du bon Dieu was heard?"
Mother Angenoux planted herself in front of the forest-keeper and struck the floor with her stick.
"I don't know anything about it," she said. "But shall I tell you something? There are no two cats in the world that cry like that. Well, on the night of the murder I also heard the cry of the Bête du bon Dieu outside; and yet she was on my knees, and did not mew once, I swear. I crossed myself when I heard that, as if I had heard the devil."
I looked at the keeper when he put the last question, and I am much mistaken if I did not detect an evil smile on his lips. At that moment, the noise of loud quarrelling reached us. We even thought we heard a dull sound of blows, as if some one was being beaten. The Green Man quickly rose and hurried to the door by the side of the fireplace; but it was opened by the landlord who appeared, and said to the keeper:—
"Don't alarm yourself, Monsieur—it is my wife; she has the toothache." And he laughed. "Here, Mother Angenoux, here are some scraps for your cat."
He held out a packet to the old woman, who took it eagerly and went out by the door, closely followed by her cat.
"Then you won't serve me?" asked the Green Man.
Daddy Mathieu's face was placid and no longer retained its expression of hatred.
"I've nothing for you—nothing for you. Take yourself off."
The Green Man quietly refilled his pipe, lit it, bowed to us, and went out. No sooner was he over the threshold than Daddy Mathieu slammed the door after him and, turning towards us, with eyes bloodshot, and frothing at the mouth, he hissed to us, shaking his clenched fist at the door he had just shut on the man he evidently hated:
"I don't know who you are who tell me 'We shall have to eat red meat—now'; but if it will interest you to know it—that man is the murderer!"
With which words Daddy Mathieu immediately left us. Rouletabille returned towards the fireplace and said:
"Now we'll grill our steak. How do you like the cider?—It's a little tart, but I like it."
We saw no more of Daddy Mathieu that day, and absolute silence reigned in the inn when we left it, after placing five francs on the table in payment for our feast.
Rouletabille at once set off on a three mile walk round Professor Stangerson's estate. He halted for some ten minutes at the corner of a narrow road black with soot, near to some charcoal-burners' huts in the forest of Sainte-Geneviève, which touches on the road from Epinay to Corbeil, to tell me that the murderer had certainly passed that way, before entering the grounds and concealing himself in the little clump of trees.
"You don't think, then, that the keeper knows anything of it?" I asked.
"We shall see that, later," he replied. "For the present I'm not interested in what the landlord said about the man. The landlord hates him. I didn't take you to breakfast at the Donjon Inn for the sake of the Green Man."
Then Rouletabille, with great precaution glided, followed by me, towards the little building which, standing near the park gate, served for the home of the concierges, who had been arrested that morning. With the skill of an acrobat, he got into the lodge by an upper window which had been left open, and returned ten minutes later. He said only, "Ah!"—a word which, in his mouth, signified many things.
We were about to take the road leading to the château, when a considerable stir at the park gate attracted our attention. A carriage had arrived and some people had come from the château to meet it. Rouletabille pointed out to me a gentleman who descended from it.
"That's the Chief of the Sûreté" he said. "Now we shall see what Frédéric Larsan has up his sleeve, and whether he is so much cleverer than anybody else."
The carriage of the Chief of the Sûreté was followed by three other vehicles containing reporters, who were also desirous of entering the park. But two gendarmes stationed at the gate had evidently received orders to refuse admission to anybody. The Chief of the Sûreté calmed their impatience by undertaking to furnish to the press, that evening, all the information he could give that would not interfere with the judicial inquiry.