15. The Rendezvous
Precisely at noon on the day after he had entrusted La Goualeuse to the care of Madame Georges, Rodolphe, still dressed as a worker, found himself before the door of the Panier-Fleuri cabaret, not far from the toll gate at Bercy that led into the city of Paris. The evening before, at ten o’clock, Chourineur had appeared as planned for his rendezvous with Rodolphe. The consequences of their meeting will be given below.
It was midday and the rain fell in torrents. The Seine, swollen by the continuous downpour, had risen to a dangerous height and flooded part of the wharf. From time to time, Rodolphe glanced impatiently at the toll gate. Finally, in the distance, he saw a man and woman advance behind the shelter of an umbrella. He recognized the Schoolmaster and the Owl.
Their metamorphosis had been complete. The brigand had abandoned his cheap clothing and air of fierce brutality. He now wore a long redingote of green beaver and a round hat; his shirt and neckcloth were of an extreme whiteness. Had it not been for the hideous cast of his features and the wild gleam in his eyes, as deep and restless as ever, one would have taken the man, as he strode calmly forward, for an honest citizen. The Owl, dressed in her Sunday finest, wore a white bonnet and a large shawl of cheap silk that resembled cashmere. A large basket swung from her hand.
The rain had stopped. Rodolphe overcame his momentary disgust and walked straight toward the unseemly couple. The Schoolmaster no longer adopted the slang of the barroom but affected a refinement of language that was all the more terrifying as it revealed a cultivated intellect that contrasted sharply with his intimidating braggadocio. As Rodolphe approached, the Schoolmaster bowed deeply and the Owl curtsied.
“Sir, your humble servant,” said the Schoolmaster. “Come to offer my services. Delighted to make—or rather, remake—your acquaintance. Day before yesterday, you struck me so hard you could have knocked out a rhinoceros. But let’s not discuss it any further. It was a mere pleasantry on your part, a mere pleasantry. Let’s put it behind us. We’ve more serious matters to address. Last night, at around 11 pm, I saw Chourineur at the bar. I told him to meet me this morning if he wanted to come in with us, but it looks like he wants no part of it.”
“So you accept?”
“If you wish, Sir. And your name?”
“Monsieur Rodolphe, we were planning to have lunch at the Panier-Fleuri. Neither Madame nor I have eaten. We can discuss this little matter over our meal.”
“We can talk on the way, can’t we? You and Chourineur owe us something, my wife and I. On account of you—no offense, of course—we lost more than two-thousand francs. The Owl had a meeting, near Saint-Ouen, with a gentleman in mourning dress who inquired about you at the bar the other night. He offered two-thousand francs if we agreed to take care of you. That’s what Chourineur led me to believe, more or less. But now that I think of it Finette, why don’t you go on ahead and order lunch. Choose a private table. Cutlets, a piece of veal, a salad, and two bottles of first-class Beaune. We’ll join you there.”
The Owl hadn’t taken her eye off Rodolphe for a second. She winked at the Schoolmaster and left. He continued, “As I was saying, Monsieur Rodolphe, Chourineur enlightened me about this two-thousand-franc proposition.”
“What do you mean, ‘enlightened?’”
“I see this manner of speaking is a bit advanced for you. I was saying that Chourineur told me, more or less, what the tall man in black wanted from you, in exchange for his two-thousand francs.”
“It’s not all that good, young man. For yesterday morning, Chourineur ran into the Owl near Saint-Ouen and stuck to her heels until he saw the tall man in black, who dared not approach. That makes two-thousand francs that you owe, not counting the five hundred for a portfolio we were supposed to return, but wouldn’t have once we looked inside, since the papers it contained were worth far more.”
“They were of some value then?”
“It contained papers I found rather curious, although the majority were written in English. I have them right here,” he said, “slapping his coat pocket.”
Rodolphe was very gratified to learn that the Schoolmaster still had the papers he had taken the night before from Tom, for they were of great importance to him. His instructions to Chourineur were intended solely to prevent Tom from speaking to the Owl. In that way, she would keep the portfolio, which Rodolphe hoped would soon be in his possession.
“I’m holding on to the papers just in case. I found out where the gentleman in black lives and, one way or another, I’ll see him again.”
“Perhaps we could come to some sort of arrangement. If our plan works out, I’ll buy those papers from you given that I know the man. They’re better off with me than with you.”
“We’ll see. But first, let’s get back to business.”
“Very well! I made Chourineur an excellent proposition. At first he accepted, but then he changed his mind.”
“He’s always had strange ideas.”
“But when he changed his mind, he pointed to me.”
“He pointed out to you.”
“Why, you certainly know your grammar.”
“I’m the Schoolmaster, aren’t I?”
“He pointed out to me that while he himself had no interest, that was no reason to dissuade the others, and thought you might want to lend a hand.”
“And might I ask, without being indiscrete, why you asked Chourineur to meet you yesterday at Saint-Ouen, since this gave him the opportunity to run into the Owl? He was at a loss to come up with a reply.”
Rodolphe imperceptibly bit his lip and answered, with a shrug of his shoulders:
“Well, I didn’t tell him the whole story. You understand. I didn’t know if he had made up his mind yet.”
“How prudent of you.”
“Especially as I had two strings on my bow.”
“You’re a cautious man. So, you asked Chourineur to meet you in Saint-Ouen because?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Rodolphe chanced upon a likely story that would explain Chourineur’s error. He continued: “Here’s what I have in mind. The plan is foolproof; the owner of the house is in the country. My only fear is that he’ll return. To avoid that problem, I said to myself, ‘there’s only one thing to do.’”
“You wanted to make sure the man in question was actually in the countryside.”
“Precisely. I’m leaving for Pierrefitte, where he has his country house. My cousin is his maid. You get the picture.”
“Perfectly, my friend. And?”
“My cousin informed me he wouldn’t be returning to Paris until the day after tomorrow.”
“The day after tomorrow?”
“Very well. But to get back to my question. Why did you ask Chourineur to meet you in Saint-Ouen?”
“You’re not very perceptive. How far is it from Pierrefitte to Saint-Ouen?”
“About a league.”
“And from Saint-Ouen to Paris?”
“Don’t you see? If there was no one at Pierrefitte, if the house was empty, it would be easy pickings, not as good as Paris, but not bad either. I returned to Saint-Ouen to find Chourineur, who was waiting for me. We returned to Pierrefitte by a road I knew, and …”
“I understand. And if the job was in Paris?”
“We enter Paris by the Étoile toll gate from the road leading to La Révolte, and then, if you take the Allée des Veuves.”
“You’re right there. It’s quite simple. At Saint-Ouen, you were on horseback for both operations. Very clever. Now, I know why Chourineur was in Saint-Ouen. We can assume that the house in the Allée des Veuves will be empty until the day after tomorrow.”
“Except for the porter.”
“Of course. Does it look profitable?”
“My cousin said there was 60,000 francs in gold in her employer’s office.”
“And you’re familiar with the layout?”
“Like the back of my hand. My cousin has been there for a year. I got the idea after listening to her talk about the money her employer withdrew from the bank for further investment. The porter is a sturdy fellow; I spoke to Chourineur about him. After much hemming and hawing, he agreed, but then he changed his mind. Besides, he won’t betray a friend.”
“No, he’s right. But here we are. I don’t know if you’re like me, but the fresh morning air has given me an appetite.”
The Owl was standing by the entrance to the cabaret.
“This way,” she said, “this way. I’ve ordered lunch.”
Rodolphe gestured for the Schoolmaster to proceed. He had his reasons. But the man was so insistent on refusing this gesture of respect, that Rodolphe was forced to enter first. Before sitting down, the Schoolmaster tapped lightly on the wall panels in order to confirm that they were solid and would ensure their privacy.
“You needn’t keep your voice down. The panels are solid. Lunch will be served shortly and we won’t be bothered after that.”
A servant appeared with their food. Before the door was closed, Rodolphe noticed Murph, in the guise of a coal porter, sitting solemnly at a neighboring booth. The room in which this scene takes place was long and narrow, and illuminated by a window that faced directly onto the street, opposite the door. The Owl had her back to the window, the Schoolmaster was seated on one side of the table, Rodolphe on the other. When the servant left, the Schoolmaster picked up his table setting and sat beside Rodolphe, blocking the door behind him.
“We can talk better this way and there’s no need to raise our voices.”
“I see you’ve placed yourself before the door to make sure I don’t leave,” Rodolphe replied disdainfully. The Schoolmaster nodded his head and pulled from the side pocket of his coat a long, thin blade, as round and thick as a heavy goose quill, and sheathed in a wooden handle that disappeared within his hirsute fingers.
“You see this?”
“Just a warning to amateurs.”
And crinkling his eyebrows in a gesture that made his large, flat forehead resemble that of a tiger, he gestured with the blade.
“Trust me,” said the Owl, “I’m the one sharpened the blade.”
Rodolphe, with surprising aplomb, slid his hand beneath his smock and withdrew a two-shot pistol. He showed it to the Schoolmaster, and returned it to his pocket.
“We’re made for one another,” remarked the brigand. “But you misunderstand me. I’m going to assume the worst. If I’m stopped by the police—and I don’t care who set the trap—I’ll make dog’s meat out of you.”
He gave Rodolphe a cold, hard look.
The Owl chimed in, “And I’ll lend a hand, my love.”
Rodolphe said nothing, shrugged, and poured himself a glass of wine and drank it. The man’s coolness impressed the Schoolmaster.
“I simply wanted to let you know.”
Rodolphe remarked, “Of course. Of course. Put your blade back in your pocket; there’s no chicken here to pluck. I’m an old cock with sharp talons. So let’s get down to business, shall we.”
“Yes, let’s, but don’t speak unkindly of my little blade. It’s silent, and no one’s the wiser.”
“And it’s so efficient, isn’t it my pet,” added the Owl.
“Is it true,” Rodolphe said, addressing her, “you know La Goualeuse’s parents?”
“My man here put two letters into the portfolio belonging to the tall gentleman in black. The letters speak to that. But your pretty little bird will never see them. I’d rather pluck out her eyes with my own hands. If I run into her again at the bar, she’s finished.”
“Finette, let’s stop all this blabbering and get down to business.”
“Can we speak freely in front of her?” asked Rodolphe.
“Certainly. She’s demonstrated her worth and will be of great service to us in the future. She can keep watch, gather information, and fence whatever we bring in. She’s an excellent housekeeper as well. My good Finette!” he added, extending a hand to the terrifying old crone. “You have no idea how helpful she’s been. But take off your shawl, dear, or you’re liable to catch cold when you leave. Put it on the chair with your basket.”
The Owl removed her shawl. Despite his presence of mind and self-control, Rodolphe was unable to hide his surprise at seeing, suspended from a silver ring attached to a thick chain of imitation gold around the woman’s neck, a small lapis-lazuli pendant that fully matched the description of the one worn by Madame Georges’s son at the time of his disappearance. Rodolphe had a sudden flash of insight. According to Chourineur, the Schoolmaster, who had broken out of prison six months ago, had successfully avoided the police by disfiguring himself. Six months ago, Madame Georges’s husband had also escaped from prison, and hadn’t been seen since. Given this strange coincidence, Rodolphe concluded that the Schoolmaster might very well be the unfortunate woman’s husband. The man had once belonged to society’s leisured class, and when the Schoolmaster spoke, he did so with a certain refinement.
One thought led to another and Rodolphe recalled that when Madame Georges, in a trembling voice, began discussing her husband’s arrest, she had spoken of his desperate struggle and how, his great strength had nearly led to his escape. If the man was her husband, he would certainly know what had happened to his son. The Schoolmaster also held certain papers concerning the birth of La Goualeuse in the portfolio he had stolen from the tall stranger known only as Tom. Rodolphe now had new reasons, equally grave, to move forward with his plans. Fortunately, his preoccupation escaped the attention of the criminal, who was busy attending to the Owl.
Rodolphe said to her, “Why, that’s a fine chain you have there!”
“And cheap,” she said with a laugh. “The gold is artificial, but it will do until he gives me a real one.”
“That depends on the gentleman, Finette. If our plan succeeds, you’ll get your chain.”
“It’s an excellent imitation,” Rodolphe continued. “What’s that little blue thing on the end?”
“A gift from my man, although he promised me a watch. Isn’t that right, my pet?”
Rodolphe’s suspicions were nearly confirmed. He waited anxiously for the Schoolmaster’s response. The latter remarked as he ate, “You must keep it even when you have your watch, Finette. The stone is a talisman. It brings good luck.”
“A talisman,” Rodolphe remarked negligently. “You believe in charms? And where the devil did you find it? Let me have the shopkeeper’s address, will you.”
“They are no longer made, Sir, the shop is gone. The stone you see is very old. A family heirloom that goes back three generations. Naturally, I’m very attached to it,” he added, with a crooked smile. “That’s why I gave it to Finette: so it might bring her luck when she assists me in my endeavors. Her talents are remarkable. Should we transact some business together, you’ll have an opportunity to see her at work. But let’s get back to our little plan. You were saying something about The Allée des Veuves.”
“Number 17. The occupant of the house is rich, very rich. He’s called Monsieur …”
“I won’t be so indiscreet as to ask his name. You said there were sixty-thousand francs in gold in his office?”
“Sixty-thousand francs in gold!” cried the Owl.
Rodolphe nodded affirmatively.
“And you’re familiar with the layout of the house?” asked the Schoolmaster.
“Is it difficult to gain entry?”
“There’s a seven-foot wall on the side of the Allée des Veuves and a garden. The windows are at ground level. The house has only one floor.”
“And only one porter to guard this treasure?”
“And what about that country house?” the Schoolmaster asked casually.
“It’s quite simple. We climb over the wall and pick the lock on the door or force the outside shutters.”
“And if the porter wakes up?” asked the Schoolmaster, staring at Rodolphe.
“He will have only himself to blame,” Rodolphe answered, and with his hand he made an unmistakable gesture. “Satisfied?”
“You understand that I cannot answer until I’ve had an opportunity to examine the situation for myself, with the help of my wife, of course. But if everything you’ve told me is true, we must strike while the iron is hot—tonight, in fact.”
The man stared hard at Rodolphe.
“Tonight? Impossible,” he replied.
“Why, since the owner won’t be back till tomorrow.”
“Yes, but I can’t do it tonight.”
“Really? Well, I can’t do it tomorrow.”
“For the same reason you can’t do it tonight,” the Schoolmaster replied, laughing sarcastically.
After a moment’s reflection, Rodolphe continued, “Very well, tonight it is. Where shall we meet?”
“Meet? We’re sticking together until then.”
“What’s the point of separating. If the weather clears, we can take a little stroll to the Allée des Veuves and have a look around. You’ll get to see the Owl at work. Once we’re done, we’ll come back here to play a few rounds of piquet and get something to eat in a basement bar I know on the Champs-Élysées, near the river. The Allée des Veuves is deserted by early evening; we can make our way there around ten.”
“I’ll meet you at nine.”
“Are we doing this together or not?”
“Very well then, we won’t leave one another’s sight before evening. Otherwise …”
“I get the feeling you’re trying to set me up and don’t want to be around for the occasion.”
“If I wanted to set you up, what would stop me from doing it this evening?”
“Everything. You weren’t expecting I would agree so soon. By sticking together, you won’t have the opportunity to warn anyone.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“Not in the least. However, as there may be some truth to what you say, and half of sixty-thousand francs is worth the effort, I’m willing to take a chance. But it’s tonight or never. If it’s never, I’ll know what sort of stuff you’re made of and, one day or another, I’ll give you a taste of my own medicine.”
“And I’ll return the compliment. You can count on it.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” the Owl added. “I feel the same way, tonight or nothing.”
Rodolphe realized he was in a bind. If he let the opportunity to capture the Schoolmaster slip away, he might never find him again. The criminal, now on his guard, might be recognized, arrested, and sent to prison, carrying with him the secrets Rodolphe so ardently wished to discover. Trusting to his luck, his skill, and his courage, he said to the Schoolmaster: “I agree. We’ll stay together until this evening.”
“Then I’m your man. But soon it will be two o’clock. From here to the Allée des Veuves is a long walk and it’s raining hard. Let’s pay our bill and find a carriage.”
“If we’re going to find a carriage, I have time to smoke a cigar.”
“Certainly. Finette doesn’t mind cigar smoke.”
“Then, I’ll go get some cigars,” said Rodolphe, rising from the table.
“Don’t bother,” said the Schoolmaster, stopping him, “Finette will go.”
Rodolphe sat down as the Owl left. The Schoolmaster had clearly guessed his intentions.
“What an excellent housekeeper I’ve got there. And so accommodating, she’d throw herself into the flames for me.”
“Speaking of fire, it’s not very warm in here,” said Rodolphe, burying his hands beneath his smock. While continuing his conversation with the Schoolmaster and with his hands still concealed, he took a pencil and a piece of paper from his vest and hastily wrote something down, being careful to allow a generous amount of space between the letters since he was unable to see what he was writing. The Schoolmaster observed none of this. Now Rodolphe had to deliver the letter to its recipient. He rose and nonchalantly walked to the window, where he began to hum. As he did so, he tapped on the panes.
The Schoolmaster glanced over toward the window and casually asked Rodolphe, “What are you humming?”
“It’s called My Rose Is Not for You.”
“A pretty tune. I was wondering if it would have enough effect on the passersby to draw their attention?”
“That was never my intent.”
“You’re wrong there, young man. You’re tapping on that glass to beat the band. But I’ve been wondering. The watchman for the house in the Allée des Veuves may have a mind of his own. If he resists, you have only your pistol, which is noisy. But this—and he pulled the handle of his knife from his coat—doesn’t make any noise, doesn’t disturb a soul.”
“Are you planning to kill him?” Rodolphe cried. “Because, if that’s your plan, you can forget it. Count me out.”
“What if he wakes up?”
“Glad I asked. I must have misunderstood. It’s better we agree on everything beforehand. So, we’re sticking to simple breaking and entry?”
“Consider it done.”
“And,” Rodolphe thought, “since I’m not leaving your side for a second, I’ll make certain nothing more happens.”
The Owl returned with the tobacco. Lighting his cigar, Rodolphe remarked, “It appears to have stopped raining; should we try to find a carriage? That way we can stretch our legs a bit.”
“What do you mean not raining?” the Schoolmaster replied. “Are you blind? Do you think I would risk exposing Finette to such weather? Risk her precious life and damage her lovely, new shawl?”
“You’re right, the weather is terrible.”
“The servant will be here soon. Once we’ve paid, we can ask her to find us a carriage,” Rodolphe remarked.
“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all day, young man. We can take a walk around the Allée des Veuves.”
The servant entered. Rodolphe gave her 100 sous.
“Dear Sir, I won’t have it. This won’t do,” cried the Schoolmaster.
“Come, come. It’s my turn to pay.”
“Very well, but on condition that you let me buy you something in a little cabaret I know on the Champs-Élysées. An excellent place.”
“Very well. I accept.”
When the servant had been paid, they went outside. Rodolphe wanted to exit last, out of politeness apparently, but the Schoolmaster wouldn’t hear of it and followed close behind, observing his every gesture. The restaurant where they had eaten also housed a small bar. Among the customers was a coal porter, his face blackened, his broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. He was paying his bill as our three protagonists left. Although the Schoolmaster and the Owl observed Rodolphe closely, he nevertheless managed to exchange a quick and imperceptible glance with Murph.
The carriage stood ready, its door open. Rodolphe stopped and, this time, decided to enter last. The coal porter had succeeded in approaching the group without their noticing. The Owl climbed in first, but after considerable discussion, Rodolphe was forced to follow her after the Schoolmaster whispered in his ear, “Are you trying to arouse my suspicions?”
Rodolphe climbed into the carriage. The coal porter advanced to the doorway and whistled. He looked at Rodolphe with an air of surprise and anxiety.
“Where to, sir?” asked the driver.
In a loud voice, Rodolphe replied, “Allée des …”
“Des Acacias, in the Bois de Boulogne,” shouted the Schoolmaster, interrupting him. He then added, “And you’ll be well paid, driver.”
The door closed.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing, giving the address in front of those busybodies!” resumed the Schoolmaster. “Tomorrow, if our plot is discovered, a slip like that could finish us. Oh, young man, young man, you are most imprudent.”
The carriage began to roll and Rodolphe continued, “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. But with my cigar, I’m going to smoke you like a jar of herring. Can we open one of the windows?”
And joining his action to his words, Rodolphe, very adroitly allowed the tightly folded paper bearing his message to fall to the ground. The Schoolmaster was perceptive, however, and although Rodolphe’s features betrayed nothing, he stuck his head out the door and shouted to the driver, “Stop! Stop! There’s someone behind the carriage.”
Rodolphe shuddered, then joined his own cries to those of his companion. The carriage stopped. The driver climbed up onto his seat, looked around, and said, “No sir, there’s no one there.”
“Damn it! I’m going to see for myself,” replied the Schoolmaster, jumping down to the pavement. He saw no one. Perceived nothing. From the time Rodolphe had thrown his message out the door, the carriage had advanced a few paces. The Schoolmaster assumed he had been mistaken.
“You’re going to laugh,” he said, climbing back in, “I don’t know why I thought someone was following us.”
At that moment the carriage turned down a side street. When it had disappeared from sight, Murph, who had been observing it attentively and noted Rodolphe’s gesture, ran and picked up the small note that had fallen into the crevice between two paving stones. After fifteen minutes, the Schoolmaster addressed the driver, “In fact, driver, we’ve changed our plans. Place de la Madeleine!” Rodolphe looked at him with astonishment.
“From there, young man, we can get to a thousand different places in Paris. If someone were intending to interfere with our plans, the location of the carriage would be of no help.”
As their carriage approached the toll gate, a tall man with a dark complexion, clothed in a long, dirty-white redingote, his hat low over his eyes, passed rapidly along the road. He was bent over the neck of a magnificent hunter moving at a surprisingly fast trot.
“A fine horse for a fine horseman,” Rodolphe exclaimed, leaning out the door and following Murph with his eyes. “He’s moving quickly for a man his size. Did you see him?”
“He passed so quickly, I didn’t even notice,” the Schoolmaster replied.
Rodolphe concealed his satisfaction. Murph had managed to decipher the nearly hieroglyphic signs found in his note. The Schoolmaster, certain the carriage was not being followed, relaxed, and wishing to imitate the Owl, who was sleeping, or at least appeared to be asleep, said to Rodolphe, “Excuse me, young fellow, but the motion of the carriage always has a strange effect on me; it makes me sleep like a baby.”
The thief, sheltered by his false sleep, was planning to examine Rodolphe’s physiognomy for any sign of emotion. Catching wind of his ruse, Rodolphe replied, “I was up early; I’m feeling sleepy myself. I think I’ll follow your example.”
And he closed his eyes. Soon the regular breathing of the Schoolmaster and the Owl, who snored in unison, so completely deceived Rodolphe that, thinking his companions were sleeping profoundly, he opened his eyelids ever so slightly. Although they were snoring loudly, the Schoolmaster and the Owl had their eyes open and exchanged a series of mysterious signs with their fingers, which were peculiarly folded in the palm of their hands. The mysterious language suddenly ceased. The thief, no doubt realizing, through some nearly imperceptible sign, that Rodolphe wasn’t sleeping, shouted with a laugh, “Oh, ho, comrade! Are you testing your friends, now?”
“That shouldn’t surprise you; you’re snoring with your eyes open.”
“In my case, don’t believe what you see, young fellow. I’m a somnambulist.”
At Place de la Madeleine the carriage came to a stop. The rain had ceased momentarily but the clouds, driven by the violence of the wind, were so low and black that it was nearly dark. Rodolphe, the Owl, and the Schoolmaster headed toward Cours-la Reine.
“Young man, I have an idea,” said the thief.
“I want to make sure everything you told us about the house and the Allée des Veuves is accurate.”
“You want to go now? It’s going to look suspicious.”
“I’m not innocent enough for that, young man; why do you think Finette is here?”
The Owl lifted her head.
“You see, young man? Like a cavalry horse when it hears the bugle sound.”
“She’s to be our scout?”
“Just as you say.”
“Number 17, Allée des Veuves, isn’t that right, young man,” cried the Owl in her impatience. “Rest assured, I have only one eye, but it’s a good one.”
“You see. You see. She’s chomping at the bit.”
“If she’s cautious about getting inside, I see nothing wrong with your idea.”
“Keep the umbrella, my pet. I’ll be back in half an hour. I’ll show you what I can do,” she said.
“One moment, Finette. Let’s go down to the Coeur-Saignant; it’s not far. If little Tortillard is there, take him with you. He can stand outside the door and keep watch when you go in.”
“Yes, he’s sly as a fox for a ten-year old. Why just the other day …”
A sign from the Schoolmaster cut her off.
“What’s this Coeur-Saignant?” Rodolphe asked. “It’s a strange name for a cabaret.”
“You’ll have to complain to the owner.”
“What’s his name?”
“The owner of the Coeur-Saignant.”
“He doesn’t ask the names of his customers.”
“But even so …”
“Call him whatever you like—Pierre, Thomas, Christophe, Barnabé—he’ll answer to anything. But we’re there, and just in time. It’s starting to rain again. Look at the river. Listen to it roar! Sounds like a torrent. Just look at it! Two more days of rain and it will be above the arches on the bridge.”
“You said we were there. Where the devil is the cabaret? I don’t see any houses.”
“Of course not, if you look around you.”
“And where should I look?”
“At your feet.”
“Over there. Do you see the roof? Be careful not to walk on it.”
Rodolphe had not, in fact, noticed an underground cabaret nearby. Not long ago such establishments could be found along certain stretches of the Champs-Élysées, especially in the vicinity of Cours-la-Reine. A stairway dug into the damp, chalky soil led to a kind of wide ditch. Along one of its sides, cut vertically, there rested a low, grime-covered structure. The walls were cracked, and the roof, which was covered with mossy tiles, barely rose above ground level, where Rodolphe was standing. Two or three sheds of worm-eaten wood, serving as a wine cellar, a storage room, and a rabbit hutch, accompanied that miserable hovel. A narrow alleyway, running lengthwise along the ditch, led from the stairway to the entrance. The rest of the ground disappeared beneath an arched trellis that sheltered two rows of rough-hewn tables stuck into the ground. A worn piece of sheet metal creaked on its hinges in the wind. Through the rust with which it was covered, a red heart pierced with a line could still be made out—the Coeur-Saignant—The Bleeding Heart cabaret. The sign hung from a post that had been erected above this hole in the ground, a veritable human burrow. A thick, damp fog accompanied the rain. Night was approaching.
“What do you think, young man?” the Schoolmaster continued.
“As we’ve had two weeks of rain, there should be enough water in there to fill a pond. The fishing must be pretty good. Come, let’s go.”
“Wait. I have to find out if the owner is here.” And the thief, pressing his tongue hard against his palate, uttered a strange cry, a kind of guttural cooing, loud and prolonged, that sounded like a loud “Prrrrrrrr.”
A similar sound issued from the depths of the structure.
“He’s there,” said the Schoolmaster. “Pardon, young man. Ladies first; let the Owl pass. I’ll follow. Be careful not to fall; it’s slippery.