"They are the best in the world," I had remarked bravely.
"Yes," he had replied, "but dear, monsieur. The fine is a franc apiece in France."
We had reached the artichokes.
"Mon Dieu!" exclaimed Pierre, glancing at the riot of weeds as he stripped off his coat and, unbuckling his belt with the bayonet, the six-shooter and the field-glass, hung them in the shade upon a convenient limb of a pear tree. He measured the area of the unruly patch with a military stride, stood thinking for a moment, and then, as if a happy thought had struck him, returned to me with a gesture of enthusiasm.
"If monsieur will permit me to offer a suggestion—that is, if monsieur approves—I should like to make a fresh planting. Ah! I will explain what I mean to monsieur, so monsieur may see clearly my ideas. Voila!" he exclaimed. "It is to have the new artichokes planted in three circles—in three circles, monsieur," he went on excitedly, "crossed with the star of the compass," he continued, as the idea rapidly developed in his peasant brain. "Then in the centre of the star to plant monsieur's initials in blue and red flowers. Voila! It will be something for monsieur's friends to admire, eh?"
He stood waiting tensely for my reply, for I shivered inwardly at the thought of the prospective chromo.
"Excellent, my good Pierre," I returned, not wishing to hurt his feelings. "Excellent for the gardens of the Tuileries, but my garden is such a simple one."
"Pardon, monsieur," he said, with a touch of mingled disappointment and embarrassment, "they shall be replanted, of course, just as monsieur wishes." And Pierre went to digging weeds with a will while I went back to my own work.
At noon Pierre knocked gently at my study door.
"I must breakfast, monsieur," he apologized, "and get a little sleep. I have promised my brigadier to get back at three."
"And to-morrow?" I asked.
Again the shoulders shrugged under the uniform.
"Ah, monsieur!" he exclaimed helplessly. "Malheureusement, to-morrow I am not free; nor the day after. Parbleu! I cannot tell monsieur when I shall be free."
"I understand, Pierre," said I.
* * * * *
Before sundown the next afternoon I was after a hare through a maze of thicket running back of the dunes fronting the open sea. I kept on through a labyrinth of narrow trails—crossing and recrossing each other—the private by-ways of sleek old hares in time of trouble, for the dunes were honeycombed with their burrows. Now and then I came across a tent-shaped thatched hut lined with a bed of straw, serving as snug shelters for the coast patrol in tough weather.
I had just turned into a tangle of scrub-brush, and could hear the breakers pound and hiss as they swept up upon the hard smooth beach beyond the dunes, when a low whistle brought me to a leisurely halt, and I saw Pierre spring up from a thicket a rod ahead of me—a Government carbine nestled in the hollow of his arm.
I could scarcely believe it was the genial and ever-willing Pierre of my garden. He was the hard-disciplined soldier now, under orders. I was thankful he had not sent a bullet through me for not halting more promptly than I did.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, coming briskly toward me along a trail no wider than his feet.
Instantly my free hand went to my hunting-cap in salute.
"After—a—hare!" I stammered innocently.
"Not so loud," he whispered. "Mon Dieu! If the brigadier should hear you! Come with me," he commanded, laying his hand firmly upon my arm. "There are six of us hidden between here and the fortress. It is well that you stumbled upon me first. They must know who you are. It is not safe for you to be hunting to-day."
I had not followed him more than a dozen rods before one of his companions was at my side. "The American," said Pierre in explanation, and we passed on down through a riot of stunted growth that choked the sides of a hollow.
Beyond this rose the top of a low circular fort overgrown with wire-grass—the riot of tangle ceasing as we reached the bottom of the hollow and stood in an open patch before an ancient iron gate piercing the rear of the fort.
Pierre lifted the latch and we passed through a wall some sixteen feet thick and into a stone-paved courtyard with a broad flight of steps at its farther end sweeping to the top of the circular defence. Flanking the sunken courtyard itself were a dozen low vaultlike compartments, some of them sealed by heavy doors. At one of these, containing a narrow window, Pierre knocked. The door opened and I stood in the presence of the Brigadier Bompard.
"The American gentleman," announced Pierre, relieving me of my gun.
The brigadier bowed, looked me over sharply, and bade me enter.
"At your service, monsieur," he said coldly, waving his big freckled hand toward a chair drawn up to a fat little stove blushing under a forced draft.
"At yours, monsieur," I returned, bowed, and took my seat.
Then there ensued a dead silence, Pierre standing rigid behind my chair, the brigadier reseated back of a desk littered with official papers.
For some moments he sat writing, his savage gray eyes scanning the page, the ends of his ferocious moustache twitching nervously as his pen scratched on. Back of his heavy shoulders ran a shelf supporting a row of musty ledgers, and above a stout chest in one corner was a rack of gleaming carbines.
The silence became embarrassing. Still the pen scratched on. Was he writing my death-warrant, I wondered nervously, or only a milder order for my arrest? It was a relief when he finally sifted a spoonful of fine blue sand over the document, poured the remaining grains back into their receptacle, puffed out his coarse red jowls, emitted a grunt of approval, and raised his keen eyes to mine.
"A thousand pardons, monsieur," I began, "for being where I assure you I would not have been had I known exactly where I was."
"So monsieur is fond of the chase of the hare?" he asked, with a grim smile.
"So fond, Monsieur le Brigadier," I replied, "that my enthusiasm has, as you see, led me thoughtlessly into your private territory. I beg of you to accept my sincere apologies."
He reached back of him, took down one of the musty ledgers, and began to turn the leaves methodically. From where I sat I saw his coarse forefinger stop under a head-line.
"Smeeth, Berkelek," he muttered, and read on down the page. "Citizen of Amerique du Nord.
"Chin and frontal—square.
"Would your excellency like to see my hunting permit and description?" I ventured.
"Unnecessary—it is in duplicate here," he returned curtly, and his eyes again reverted to the ledger. Then he closed the book, rose, and drawing his chair to the stove planted his big fists on his knees.
I began to breathe normally.
"So you are a painter?" said he.
"Yes," I confessed, "but I do not make a specialty of fortresses, your excellency, even in the most distant landscapes."
I was grateful he understood, for I saw a gleam of merriment flash in his eyes.
"Bon!" he exclaimed briskly—evidently the title of "excellency" helped. "It is not the best day, however, for you to be hunting hares. Are you a good shot, monsieur?"
"That is an embarrassing question," I returned. "If I do not miss I generally kill."
Pierre, who, during the interview, had been standing mute in attention, now stepped up to him and bending with a hurried "Pardon," whispered something in his coarse red ear.
The brigadier raised his shaggy eyebrows and nodded in assent.
"Ah! So you are a friend of Monsieur le Cure!" he exclaimed. "You would not be Monsieur le Cure's friend if you were not a good shot. Sapristi!" He paused, ran his hand over his rough jowls, and resumed bluntly: "It is something to kill the wild duck; another to kill a man."
"Has war been suddenly declared?" I asked in astonishment.
A gutteral laugh escaped his throat, he shook his grizzled head in the negative.
"A little war of my own," said he, "a serious business, parbleu!"
"Contraband?" I ventured.
The coarse mouth under the bristling moustache, four times the size of Pierre's, closed with a snap, then opened with a growl.
"Sacre mille tonnerres!" he thundered, slamming his fist down on the desk within reach of him. "They are the devil, those Belgians! It is for them my good fellows lose their sleep." Then he stopped, and eyeing me shrewdly added: "Monsieur, you are an outsider and a gentleman. I can trust you. Three nights ago a strange sloop, evidently Belgian, from the cut of her, tried to sneak in here, but our semaphore on the point held her up and she had to run back to the open sea. Bah! Those sacre Belgians have the patience of a fox!"
"She was painted like one of our fishing-smacks," interposed Pierre, now too excited to hold his tongue, "but she did not know the channel."
"Aye, and she'll try it again," growled the brigadier, "if the night be dark. She'll find it clear sailing in, but a hot road out."
"Tobacco?" I asked, now fully alive to the situation.
The brigadier spat.
"Of course, as full as she'll float," he answered. He leaned forward and touched me good-humouredly on the shoulder. "I'm short of men," he said hurriedly.
"Command me," I replied. "I'll do my best. I shall return to-night." And I rose to take my leave, but he instantly raised his hand in protest. "You are under arrest, monsieur," he declared quietly, with a shrug of his shoulders.
I looked at him wide-eyed in astonishment.
"Arrest!" I gasped.
"Do not be alarmed," he replied. "It will only be temporary, I assure you, but since you have so awkwardly stumbled among us there is no alternative but for me to detain you until this sacre affair is well over. I cannot, at all events, let you return to the village to-night."
"But I give you my word of honour, monsieur," I declared, "I shall not open my lips to a soul. Besides, I must dine at eight to-night with Madame de Breville. Your excellency can well understand."
"I know you have friends, monsieur; they might be inquisitive; and those friends have servants, and those servants have friends," was his reply. "No, it is better that you stay. Pierre, give monsieur a carbine and a place ten metres from your own at sundown; then report to me he is there. Now you may go, monsieur."
Pierre touched me on the shoulder; then suddenly realizing I was under orders and a prisoner, I straightened, saluted the brigadier, and followed Pierre out of the fort with the best grace I could muster.
"Pierre!" I exclaimed hotly, as we stood again in the thicket. "How long since you've held up anything here—contraband, I mean?"
For a moment he hesitated, then his voice sank to a whisper.
"They say it is all of twenty years, perhaps longer," he confessed. "But to-night monsieur shall see. Monsieur is, of course, not exactly a prisoner or he would now be in the third vault from the right."
"A prisoner! The devil I'm not? Didn't he tell me I was?" I exclaimed.
"Mon Dieu! What will you have, monsieur?" returned Pierre excitedly, under his breath. "It is the brigadier's orders. I was afraid monsieur might reply to him in anger. Ah, par exemple! Then monsieur would have seen a wild bull. Oh, la! la! When the brigadier is furious——Ah, ca!" And he led the way to my appointed ambush without another word.
Despite my indignation at being thus forced into the service and made a prisoner to boot—however temporary it might be—I gradually began to see the humour of the situation. It was very like a comic opera, I thought, as I lay flat on the edge of the thicket and pried away a small opening in the tangle through which I could look down upon the sweep of beach below me and far out to sea. Thus I lay in wait for the smuggling crew to arrive—to be blazed at and perhaps captured.
What if they outnumber us? We might all perish then, with no hope of quarter from these men whom we were lying in wait for like snakes in the grass. One thing, however, I was firmly resolved upon, and that was to shoot safely over anything that lay in range except in case of self-defence. I was never of a murderous disposition, and the thought of another's blood on my hands sent a fresh shiver along my prostrate spine. Then again the comic-opera side of it struck me. I began to feel more like an extra super in a one-night stand than a real soldier. What, after all, if the smugglers failed us?
I was pondering upon the dangerous effect upon the brigadier of so serious a stage wait, when Pierre crawled over to me from his ambush ten metres from my own, to leave me my ration of bread and wine. He was so excited by this time that his voice trembled in my ear.
"Gaston, my comrade, the fifth down the line," he whispered, "has just seen two men prowling on the marsh; they are, without doubt, accomplices. Gaston has gone to tell the brigadier." He ran his hand carefully along the barrel of my carbine. "Monsieur must hold high," he explained in another whisper, "since monsieur is unaccustomed to the gun of war. It is this little machine here that does the trick." He bent his eyes close to the hind sight and screwed it up to its notch at one hundred and fifty metres.
I nodded my thanks, and he left me to my bread and wine and crept cautiously back to his ambush.
* * * * *
A black night was rapidly settling. Above me in the great unfathomable vault of sky not a star glimmered. Under the gloom of the approaching darkness the vast expanse of marsh to my left lay silent, desolate, and indistinct, save for its low edge of undulating sand dunes. Only the beach directly before me showed plainly, seemingly illumined by the breakers, that gleamed white like the bared teeth of a fighting line of wolves.
It was a sullen, cheerless sea, from which the air blew over me damp and raw; the only light visible being the intermittent flash from the distant lighthouse on Les Trois Loups, beyond the marsh.
One hour passed—two hours—during which I saw nothing alive and moving save a hare foraging timidly on the beach for his own rations. After a while he hopped back to his burrow in the thicket, a thicket of silence from which I knew at any moment might break forth a murderous fire. It grew colder and colder, I had to breathe lustily into the collar of my jersey to keep out the chill. I began to envy the hare snug in his burrow. Thus I held my vigil, and the night wore on.
Ah! my friend the cure! I mused. Was there ever such an indefatigable sportsman? Lucky cure! He was not a prisoner, neither had he been pressed into the customs patrol like a hired assassin. At that moment I knew Monsieur le Cure was snug in his duck-blind for the night, a long two miles from where I lay; warm, and comfortable, with every chance on such a night to kill a dozen fat mallards before his daylight mass. What would my friend Madame Alice de Breville, and that whole-souled fellow Tanrade, think when I did not appear as I had promised, at madame's chateau, to dine at eight? Cold as I was, I could not help chuckling over the fact that it was no fault of mine.
I was a prisoner. Alice and Tanrade would dine together. It would be then a dinner for two. I have never known a woman as discreet as Alice. She had insisted that I dine with them. In Paris Alice might not have insisted, but in the lost village, with so many old women with nothing to talk about save other peoples' affairs! Lucky Tanrade!
I could see from where I lay the distant mass of trees screening her chateau, and picture to myself my two dear friends alone. Their chairs—now that my vacant one was the only witness—drawn close together; he holding her soft, responsive little hand between the soup and the fish, between the duck and the salad; then continuously over their dessert and Burgundy—she whom he had held close to his big heart that night after dinner in that once abandoned house of mine, when they had gone out together into my courtyard and disappeared in the shadows of the moonlight.
Dining alone! The very thing I had tried to bring about. But for the stern brigadier we should have been that wretched number—three—to-night at the chateau. Ah, you dear human children, are you conscious and grateful that I am lying out like a vagabond, a prisoner, that you may be alone?
I began to wonder, too, what the Essence of Selfishness, that spoiled and adorable cat of mine, would think when it came her bedtime hour. Would Suzette, in her anxiety over my absence, remember to give her the saucer of warm milk? Yet I knew the Essence of Selfishness would take care of herself; she would sleep with Suzette. Catch her lying out on the bare ground like her master when she could curl herself up at the foot of two fuzzy blankets in a tiny room next to the warm kitchen.
* * * * *
It was after midnight when Pierre crawled over to me again, and pointed to a black patch of mussel rocks below.
"There are the two men Gaston saw," he whispered. "They are waiting to signal the channel to their comrades."
I strained my eyes in the direction he indicated.
"I cannot see," I confessed.
"Here, take the glass," said he. "Those two humps behind the big one are the backs of men. They have a lantern well hidden—you can see its glow when the glass is steady."
I could see it all quite clearly now, and occasionally one of the humps lift a head cautiously above the rock.
"She must be lying off close by," muttered Pierre, hoarse with excitement. Again he hurriedly ran his hand over the breech of my carbine. "The trigger pulls light," he breathed. "Courage, monsieur! We have not long to wait now." And again he was gone.
I felt like a hired assassin weakening on the verge of a crime. The next instant I saw the lantern hidden on the mussel rocks raised and lowered thrice.
It was the signal!
Again all was darkness save the gleaming line of surf. My heart thumped in my ears. Ten minutes passed; then again the lantern was raised, the figures of the two men standing in silhouette against its steady rays.
I saw now a small sloop rear itself from the breakers, a short, squat little craft with a ghostly sail and a flapping jib. On she came, leaping and dropping broadside among the combers. The lantern now shone as clearly as a beacon. A sea broke over the sloop, but she staggered up bravely, and with a plunge was swept nearer and nearer the jagged point of rocks awash with spume. Braced against the tiller was a man in drenched tarpaulins; two other men were holding on to the shrouds like grim death. On the narrow deck between them I made out a bale-like bundle wrapped in tarpaulin and heavily roped, ready to be cast ashore.
A moment more, and the sloop would be on the rocks; yet not a sound came from the thicket. The suspense was sickening. I had once experienced buck-fever, but it was nothing compared to this. The short carbine began to jump viciously under my grip.
The sloop was nearly on the rocks! At that critical moment overboard went the bundle, the two men with the lantern rushing out and dragging it clear of the swash.
Simultaneously, with a crackling roar, six tongues of flame spat from the thicket and we charged out of our ambush and over the crest of the dunes toward the smugglers' craft and its crew, firing as we ran. The fellow next to me stumbled and fell sprawling in the sand.
In the panic that ensued I saw the sloop making a desperate effort to put to sea. Meanwhile the two accomplices were running like rabbits for the marsh. Close to the mysterious bundle their lantern lay smashed and burning luridly in its oil. The brigadier sprang past me swearing like a pirate, while his now thoroughly demoralized henchmen and myself stumbled on, firing at random with still a good hundred yards between us and the abandoned contraband.
At that instant I saw the sloop's sail fill and then, as if by a miracle, she slowly turned back to the open sea. Above the general din the brigadier's voice rang out, bellowing his orders. By the time the sloop had cleared the breakers his language had become unprintable. He had reached the mussel rocks and stood shaking his clenched fists at the departing craft, while the rest of us crowded about the bundle and the blazing lantern. Every one was talking and gesticulating at once as they watched the sloop plunge away in the darkness.
"Sacre mille tonnerres!" roared the brigadier, sinking down on the bundle. Then he turned and glared at me savagely. "Idiot!" he cried, labouring for his breath. "Espece d'imbecile. Ah! Nom d'un petit bonhomme. You were on the end. Why did you not head off those devils with the lantern?"
I shrugged my shoulders helplessly in reply. He was in no condition to argue with.
"And the rest of you——" He choked in his rage, unable to frame his words. They stood helplessly about, gesticulating their apologies.
He sprang to his feet, gave the bundle a sound kick, and snarled out an order. Pierre and another jumped forward, and together they shouldered it between them. Then the remainder of the valiant guard fell into single file and started back to the fort, the brigadier and myself bringing up the rear. As we trudged on through the sand together he kept muttering to himself. It only occurred to me then that nobody had been hit. By this time even the accomplices were safe.
"Monsieur," I ventured, as we regained the trail leading to the fort, "it is with the sincerest regret of my heart that I offer you my apologies. True, I might have done better, but I did my best in my inexperience. We have the contraband—at least that is something, eh?"
He grew calmer as the thought struck him.
"Yes," he grumbled, "there are in that bundle at least ten thousand cigars. It is, after all, not so bad."
"Might I ask," I returned, "when your excellency intends to honour me with my liberty?"
He stopped, and to my delight held out his hand to me.
"You are free, monsieur," he said roughly, with a touch of his good nature. "The affair is over—but not a word of the manoeuvre you have witnessed in the village. Our work here is for the ears of the Government alone."
As we reached the gate of the fort I saluted him, handed my carbine to Pierre in exchange for my shotgun, and struck home in the mist of early dawn.
* * * * *
The morning after, I was leaning over the lichen-stained wall of my garden caressing the white throat of the Essence of Selfishness, the events of my night of service still in my mind, when I saw the coast patrol coming across the marsh in double file. As they drew nearer I recognized Pierre and his companion, who had shouldered the contraband. The roped bundle was swung on a stout pole between them.
Presently they left the marsh and gained the road. As the double file of uniformed men came past my wall they returned my salute. Pierre shifted his end of the pole to the man behind him and stood at attention until the rest had passed. Then the procession went on to inform Monsieur the Mayor, who lived near the little square where nothing ever happened.
Pierre turned when they had left and entered my garden. What was he going to tell me now? I wondered, with sudden apprehension. Was I to serve another night?
"I'll be hanged if I will," I muttered.
He approached solemnly and slowly, his bayonet gleaming at his side, the warm sunlight glinting on the buttons of his uniform. When he got near enough for me to look into his eyes he stopped, raised his hand to his cap in salute, and said with a smile:
"Now, monsieur, the artichokes."
* * * * *
Monsieur le Cure slid the long chair up to my fire, bent his straight, black body forward, and rubbing his chilled hands briskly before the blazing logs, announced with a smile of content:
"Marianne is out of jail."
"Sacristi!" I exclaimed, "and in mid-winter! It must be cold enough in that hut of hers by the marsh—poor old girl."
"And not a sou to be earned fishing," added the cure.
"Tell me about this last crime of hers," I asked.
Monsieur le Cure's face grew serious, then again the smile of content spread to the corners of his firm mouth.
"Oh! Nothing very gruesome," he confessed, then after a moment's silence he continued slowly: "Her children needed shoes and warm things for the winter. Marianne stole sixty metres of nets from the fishing crew at 'The Three Wolves'—she is hopeless, my friend." With a vibrant gesture he straightened up in his chair and flashed his keen eyes to mine. "For ten years I have tried to reform her," he declared. "Bah!"—and he tossed the stump of his cigarette into the blaze.
"You nursed her once through the smallpox," said I, "when no one dared go near her. The mayor told me so. I should think that would have long ago persuaded her to do something for you in return."
"We go where we are needed," he replied simply. "She will promise me nothing. One might as well try to make a faithful parishioner of a gipsy as to change Marianne for the better." He brought his fist down sharply on the broad arm of his chair. "I tell you," he went on tensely, "Marianne is a woman of no morals and no religion—a woman who allows no one to dictate to her save a gendarme with a warrant of arrest. Hardly a winter passes but she goes to jail. She is a confirmed thief, a bad subject," he went on vibrantly. "She can drink as no three sailors can drink—and yet you know as well as I do," he added, lowering his voice, "that there is not a mother in Pont du Sable who is as good to her children as Marianne."
"They are a brave little brood," I replied. "I have heard that the eldest boy and girl Marianne adopted, yet they resemble their mother, with their fair curly hair and blue eyes, as much as do the youngest boys and the little girl."
"Marianne has had many lovers," returned the cure gravely. "There is not one of that brood of hers that has yet been baptized." An expression of pain crossed his face. "I have tried hard; Marianne is impossible."
"Yet you admit she has her qualities."
"Yes, good qualities," he confessed, filling a fresh cigarette paper full of tobacco. "Good qualities," he reiterated. "She has brought up her children to be honest and she keeps them clean. She has never stolen from her own village—it is a point of honour with her. Ah! you do not know Marianne as I know her."
"It seems to me you are growing enthusiastic over our worst vagabond," I laughed.
"I am," replied the cure frankly. "I believe in her; she is afraid of nothing. You see her as a vagabond—an outcast, and the next instant, Parbleu! she forces out of you your camaraderie—even your respect. You shake her by the hand, that straight old hag with her clear blue eyes, her square jaw and her hard face! She who walks with the stride of a man, who is as supple and strong as a sailor, and who looks you squarely in the eye and studies you calmly, at times disdainfully—even when drunk."
* * * * *
It was late when Monsieur le Cure left me alone by my fire. I cannot say "alone," for the Essence of Selfishness, was purring on my chest.
In this old normand house of mine by the marsh, there comes a silence at this hour which is exhilarating. Out of these winter midnights come strange sounds, whirring flights of sea-fowl whistle over my roof, in late for a lodging on the marsh. A heavy peasant's cart goes by, groaning in agony under the brake. When the wind is from the sea, it is like a bevy of witches shrilling my doom down the chimney. "Aye, aye, 'tis he," they seem to scream, "the stranger—the s-t-r-a-n-g-e-r." One's mind is alert at this hour—one must be brave in a foreign land.
And so I sat up late, smoking a black pipe that gurgled in unison with the purring on my chest while I thought seriously of Marianne.
I had seen her go laughing to jail two months ago, handcuffed to a gendarme on the back seat of the last car of the toy train. It was an occasion when every one in the lost village came charitably out to have a look. I remembered, too, she sat there as garrulous as if she were starting on a holiday—a few of her old cronies crowded about her. One by one, her children gave their mother a parting hug—there were no tears—and the gendarme sat beside her with a stolid dignity befitting his duty to the Republique. Then the whistle tooted twice—a coughing puff of steam in the crisp sunlight, a wheeze of wheels, and the toy train rumbled slowly out of the village with its prisoner. Marianne nodded and laughed back at the waving group.
"Bon voyage!" croaked a little old woman, lifting her claw. She had borrowed five francs from the prisoner.
"Au revoir!" laughed back Marianne, but the words were faint, for the last car was snaking around the bend.
Thus Marianne went to jail. Now that she is back, she takes her return as carelessly and unblushingly as a demi-mondaine does her annual return from Dinard.
When Marianne was eighteen, they tell me, she was the prettiest girl in Pont du Sable, that is to say, she was prettier than Emilienne Daget at Bar la Rose, or than Berthe Pavoisier, the daughter of the miller at Tocqueville, who is now in Paris. At eighteen, Marianne was slim and blonde; moreover, she was as bold as a hawk, and smiled as easily as she lied. At twenty, she was rated as a valuable member of any fishing crew that put out from the coast, for they found her capable during a catch, and steady in danger, always doing her share and a little more for those who could not help themselves. She is still doing it, for in her stone hut on the edge of the marsh that serves as shelter for her children and her rough old self, she has been charitable and given a winter's lodging to three old wrecks of the sea. There are no beds, but there are bunks filled with marsh-hay; there is no furniture, but there are a few pots and pans, and in one corner of the dirt floor, a crackling fire of drift wood, and nearly always enough applejack for all, and now and then hot soup. Marianne wrenches these luxuries, so to speak, out of the sea, often alone and single-handed, working as hard as a gull to feed her young.
The cure was right; Marianne had her good qualities—I was almost beginning to wonder to myself as I pulled drowsily at the black pipe if her good qualities did not outweigh her bad ones, when the Essence of Selfishness awakened and yawned. And so it was high time to send this spoiled child of mine to bed.
* * * * *
Marianne called her "ma belle petite," though her real name was Yvonne—Yvonne Louise Tourneveau.
Yvonne kept her black eyes from early dawn until dark upon a dozen of the Pere Bourron's cows in her charge, who grazed on a long point of the marsh, lush with salt grass, that lay sheltered back of the dunes fronting the open sea.
Now and then, when a cow strayed over the dunes on to the hard beach beyond to gaze stupidly at the breakers, the little girl's voice would become as authoritative as a boy's. "Eh ben, tu sais!" she would shout as she ran to head the straggler off, adding some sound whacks with a stick until the cow decided to lumber back to the rest. "Ah mais!" Yvonne would sigh as she seated herself again in the wire-grass, tucking her firm bronzed legs under a patched skirt that had once served as a winter petticoat for the Mere Bourron.
Occasionally a trudging coast guard or a lone hunter in passing would call "Bonjour!" to her, and since she was pretty, this child of fifteen, they would sometimes hail her with "Ca va, ma petite!" and Yvonne would flush and reply bravely, "Mais oui, M'sieur, merci."
Since she was only a little girl with hair as black as a gipsy's, a ruddy olive skin, fresh young lips and a well-knit, compact body, hardened by constant exposure to the sea air and sun, no one bothered their heads much about her name. She was only a child who smiled when the passerby would give her a chance, which was seldom, and when she did, she disclosed teeth as white as the tiny shells on the beach. There were whole days on the marsh when she saw no one.
At noon, when the cracked bell in the distant belfry of the gray church of Pont du Sable sent its discordant note quavering across the marsh, Yvonne drew forth a sailor's knife from where it lay tucked safe within the breast of her coarse chemise, and untying a square of blue cotton cloth, cut in two her portion of peasant bread, saving half the bread and half a bottle of Pere Bourron's thinnest cider for the late afternoon.
There were days, too, when Marianne coming up from the sea with her nets, stopped to rest beside the child and talk. Yvonne having no mother which she could remember, Marianne had become a sort of transient mother to her, whom the incoming tide sometimes brought her and whom she would wait for with uncertain expectancy, often for days.
One afternoon, early in the spring, when the cows were feeding in the scant slanting shade of the dunes, Yvonne fell asleep. She lay out straight upon her back, her brown legs crossed, one wrist over her eyes. She slept so soundly that neither the breeze that had sprung up from the northeast, stirring with every fresh puff the stray locks about her small ears, or the sharp barking of a dog hunting rabbits for himself over the dunes, awakened her. Suddenly she became conscious of being grasped in a pair of strong arms, and, awakening with a little scream, looked up into the grinning face of Marianne, who straightway gave her a big, motherly hug until she was quite awake and then kissed her soundly on both cheeks, until Yvonne laughed over her fright.
"Oh, mon Dieu! but I was frightened," sighed the child, and sat up straight, smoothing back her tumbled hair. "Oh! la! la!" she gasped.
"They are beauties, hein!" exclaimed Marianne, nodding to an oozing basketful of mackerel; then, kneeling by the basket, she plunged her red hands under the slimy, glittering mass of fish, lifting and dropping them that the child might see the average size in the catch.
"Eh ben!" declared Marianne, "some day when thou art bigger, ma petite, I'll take thee where thou canst make some silver. There's half a louis' worth there if there's a sou!" There was a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes, as she bent over her basket again, dressed as she was in a pair of fisherman's trousers cut off at the knees.
"One can play the lady on half a louis," she continued, covering her fish from the sun with her bundle of nets. "My man shall have a full bottle of the best to-night," she added, wiping her wet hands across her strong bare knees.
"How much 'cake' does that old crab of a Bourron pay thee?" she inquired, turning again to the child.
"Six sous a day, and then my food and lodging," confessed Yvonne.
"He won't ruin himself," muttered Marianne.
"They say the girl at the Three Wolves gets ten," added the child with awe, "but thou knowest how—she must do the washing besides."
Marianne's square jaw shut hard. She glanced at Yvonne's patched skirt, the one that had been the Mere Bourron's winter petticoat, feeling its quality as critically as a fashionable dressmaker.
"Sacristi!" she exclaimed, examining a rent, "there's one door that the little north wind won't knock twice at before he enters. Keep still, ma petite, I've got thread and a needle."
She drew from her trousers' pocket a leather wallet in which lay four two-sous pieces, an iron key and a sail needle driven through a ball of linen thread. "It is easily seen thou art not in love," laughed Marianne, as she cross-stitched the tear. "Thou wilt pay ten sous for a ribbon gladly some day when thou art in love."
The child was silent while she sewed. Presently she asked timidly, "One eats well there?"
"But thou knowest—there."
"In the prison?"
"Mais oui," whispered Yvonne.
"Of course," growled Marianne, "one eats well; it is perfect. Tiens! we have the good soup, that is well understood; and now and then meat and rice."
"Oh!" exclaimed the child in awe.
"Mais oui," assured Marianne with a nod, "and prunes."
"Where is that, the prison?" ventured the child.
"It is very far," returned Marianne, biting off the thread, "and it is not for every one either," she added with a touch of pride—"only I happen to be an old friend and know the judge."
"And how much does it cost a day, the prison?" asked Yvonne.
"Not that," replied Marianne, snipping her single front tooth knowingly with the tip of her nail.
"Mon Dieu! and they give you all that for nothing?" exclaimed the child in astonishment. "It is chic, that, hein!" and she nodded her pretty head with decision, "Ah mais oui, alors!" she laughed.
"I must be going," said Marianne, abruptly. "My young ones will be wanting their soup." She flattened her back against her heavy basket, slipped the straps under her armpits and rose to her feet, the child passing the bundle of nets to her and helping her shoulder them to the proper balance.
"Au revoir, ma belle petite," she said, bending to kiss the girl's cheek; then with her free hand she dove into her trousers' pocket and drew out a two-sous piece. "Tiens," she exclaimed, pressing the copper into the child's hand.
Yvonne gave a little sigh of delight. It was not often she had two sous all to herself to do what she pleased with, which doubles the delight of possession. Besides, the Mere Bourron kept her wages—or rather, count of them, which was cheaper—on the back page of a greasy book wherein were registered the births of calves.
"Au revoir," reiterated Marianne, and turned on her way to the village down the trail that wound through the salt grass out to the road skirting the bay. Yvonne watched her until she finally disappeared through a cut in the dunes that led to the main road.
The marsh lay in the twilight, the curlews were passing overhead bound for a distant mud flat for the night. "Courli! Courli!" they called, the old birds with a rasp, the young ones cheerfully; as one says "bonsoir." The cows, conscious of the fast-approaching dark, were moving toward the child. She stood still until they had passed her, then drove them slowly back to the Pere Bourron's, her two-sous piece clutched safe in her hand.
It was dark when she let down the bars of the orchard, leading into the farm-yard. Here the air was moist and heavy with the pungent odour of manure; a turkey gobbler and four timid hens roosting in a low apple tree, stirred uneasily as the cows passed beneath them to their stable next to the kitchen—a stable with a long stone manger and walls two feet thick. Above the stable was a loft covered by a thatched roof; it was in a corner of this loft, in a large box filled with straw and provided with a patchwork-quilt, that Yvonne slept.
A light from the kitchen window streamed across the muddy court. The Pere and Mere Bourron were already at supper. The child bolted the stable door upon her herd and slipped into her place at table with a timid "Bonsoir, m'sieur, madame," to her masters, which was acknowledged by a grunt from the Pere Bourron and a spasm of coughing from his spouse.
The Mere Bourron, who had the dullish round eye of a pig that gleamed suspiciously when she became inquisitive, had supped well. Now and then she squinted over her fat jowls veined with purple, plying her mate with short, savage questions, for he had sold cattle that day at the market at Bonville. Such evenings as these were always quarrelsome between the two, and as the little girl did not count any more than the chair she sat in, they argued openly over the day's sale. The best steer had brought less than the Mere Bourron had believed, a shrewd possibility, even after a month's bargaining. When both had wiped their plates clean with bread—for nothing went to waste there—the child got up and brought the black coffee and the decanter of applejack. They at last ceased to argue, since the Mere Bourron had had the final word. Pere Bourron sat with closed fists, opening one now and then to strengthen his coffee with applejack. Being a short, thickset man, he generally sat in his blouse after he had eaten, with his elbows on the table and his rough bullet-like head, with its crop of unkempt hair, buried in his hands.
When Yvonne had finished her soup, and eaten all her bread, she rose and with another timid "Bonsoir" slipped away to bed.
"Leave the brindle heifer tied!" shrilled madame as the child reached the courtyard.
"Mais, oui madame, it is done," answered Yvonne, and crept into her box beneath the thatch.
* * * * *
At sixteen Yvonne was still guarding the cows for the Bourrons. At seventeen she fell in love.
He was a slick, slim youth named Jean, with a soapy blond lock plastered under the visor of his leather cap pulled down to his red ears. On fete days, he wore in addition a scarlet neck-tie girdling his scrawny throat. He had watched Yvonne for a long time, very much as the snake in the fable saved the young dove until it was grown.
And so, Yvonne grew to dreaming while the cows strayed. Once the Pere Bourron struck at her with a spade for her negligence, but missed. Another night he beat her soundly for letting a cow get stalled in the mud. The days on the marsh now became interminable, for he worked for Gavelle, the carpenter, a good three kilometres back of Pont du Sable and the two could see each other only on fete days when he met her secretly among the dunes or in the evenings near the farm. He would wait for her then at the edge of the woods skirting the misty sea of pasture that spread out below the farm like some vast and silent dry lake, dotted here and there with groups of sleeping cattle.
She saw Marianne but seldom now, for the latter fished mostly at the Three Wolves, sharing her catch with a crew of eight fishermen. Often they would seine the edge of the coast, their boat dancing off beyond the breakers while they netted the shallow water, swishing up the hard beach—these gamblers of the sea. They worked with skill and precision, each one having his share to do, while one—the quickest—was appointed to carry their bundle of dry clothes rolled in a tarpaulin.
Marianne seemed of casual importance to her now. We seldom think of our best friends in time of love. Yvonne cried for his kisses which at first she did not wholly understand, but which she grew to hunger for, just as when she was little she craved for all she wanted to eat for once—and candy.
She began to think of herself, too—of Jean's scarlet cravat—of his new shoes too tight for him, which he wore with the pride of a village dandy on fete days and Sundays—and of her own patched and pitifully scanty wardrobe.
"She has nothing, that little one," she had heard the gossips remark openly before her, time and time again, when she was a child. Now that she was budding into womanhood and was physically twice as strong as Jean, now that she was conscious of herself, she began to know the pangs of vanity.
It was about this time that she bought the ribbon, just as Marianne had foretold, a red ribbon to match Jean's tie, and which she fashioned into a bow and kept in a paper box, well hidden in the straw of her bed. The patched skirt had long ago grown too short, and was now stuffed into a broken window beyond the cow manger to temper the draught from the neck of a sick bull.
She wore now, when it stormed, thick woollen stockings and sabots; and another skirt of the Mere Bourron's fastened around a chemise of coarse homespun linen, its colour faded to a delicious pale mazarine blue, showing the strength and fullness of her body.
* * * * *
She had stolen down from the loft this night to meet him at the edge of the woods.
"Where is he?" were his first words as he sought her lips in the dark.
"He has gone," she whispered, when her lips were free.
"Eh ben, he went away with the Pere Detour to the village—madame is asleep."
"Ah, good!" said he.
"Mon Dieu! but you are warm," she whispered, pressing her cheek against his own.
"I ran," he drawled, "the patron kept me late. There is plenty of work there now."
He put his arm around her and the two walked deeper into the wood, he holding her heavy moist hand idly in his own. Presently the moon came out, sailing high among the scudding clouds, flashing bright in the clear intervals. A white mist had settled low over the pasture below them, and the cattle were beginning to move restlessly under the chill blanket, changing again and again their places for the night. A bull bellowed with all his might from beyond the mysterious distance. He had evidently scented them, for presently he emerged from the mist and moved along the edge of the woods, protected by a deep ditch. He stopped when he was abreast of them to bellow again, then kept slowly on past them. They had seated themselves in the moonlight among the stumps of some freshly cut poplars.
"Dis donc, what is the matter?" he asked at length, noticing her unusual silence, for she generally prattled on, telling him of the uneventful hours of her days.
"Nothing," she returned evasively.
"Mais si; bon Dieu! there is something."
She placed her hands on her trembling knees.
"No, I swear there is nothing, Jean," she said faintly.
But he insisted.
"One earns so little," she confessed at length. "Ten sous a day, it is not much, and the days are so long on the marsh. If I knew how to cook I'd try and get a place like Emilienne."
"Bah!" said he, "you are crazy—one must study to cook; besides, you are not yet eighteen, the Pere Bourron has yet the right to you for a year."
"That is true," confessed the girl simply; "one has not much chance when one is an orphan. Listen, Jean."
"Listen—is it true that thou dost love me?"
"Surely," he replied with an easy laugh.
"Listen," she repeated timidly; "if thou shouldst get steady work—I should be content ... to be..." But her voice became inaudible.
"Allons!... what?" he demanded irritably.
"To ... to be married," she whispered.
He started. "Eh ben! en voila an idea!" he exclaimed.
"Forgive me, Jean, I have always had that idea——" She dried her eyes on the back of her hand and tried hard to smile. "It is foolish, eh? The marriage costs so dear ... but if thou shouldst get steady work..."
"Eh ben!" he answered slowly with his Normand shrewdness, "I don't say no."
"I'll help thee, Jean; I can work hard when I am free. One wins forty sous a day by washing, and then there is the harvest."
There was a certain stubborn conviction in her words which worried him.
"Eh ben!" he said at length, "we might get married—that's so."
She caught her breath.
"Swear it, Jean, that thou wilt marry me, swear it upon Sainte Marie."
"Eh voila, it's done. Oui, by Sainte Marie!"
She threw her arms about him, crushing him against her breast.
"Dieu! but thou art strong," he whispered.
"Did I hurt thee?"
"No—thou art content now?"
"Yes—I am content," she sobbed, "I am content, I am content."
He had slipped to the ground beside her. She drew his head back in her lap, her hand pressed hard against his forehead.
"Dieu! but I am content," she breathed in his ear.
He felt her warm tears dropping fast upon his cheek.
* * * * *
All night she lay in the straw wide awake, flushed, in a sort of fever. At daylight she drove her cows back to the marsh without having barely touched her soup.
Far across the bay glistened the roof of a barn under construction. An object the size of a beetle was crawling over the new boards.
It was Jean.
"I'm a fool," he thought, as he drove in a nail. Then he fell to thinking of a girl in his own village whose father was as rich as the Pere Bourron.
"Sacre Diable!" he laughed at length, "if every one got married who had sworn by Sainte Marie, Monsieur le Cure would do a good business."
* * * * *
A month later Pere Bourron sold out a cartful of calves at the market at Bonville. It was late at night when he closed his last bargain over a final glass, climbed up on his big two-wheeled cart, and with a face of dull crimson and a glazed eye, gathered up the reins and started swaying in his seat for home. A boy carrying milk found him at daylight the next morning lying face down in the track of his cart, dead, with a fractured skull. Before another month had passed, the Mere Bourron had sold the farm and gone to live with her sister—a lean woman who took in sewing.
Yvonne was free.
Free to work and to be married, and she did work with silent ferocity from dawn until dark, washing the heavy coarse linen for a farm, and scrubbing the milk-pans bright until often long after midnight—and saved. Jean worked too, but mostly when he pleased, and had his hair cut on fete days, most of which he spent in the cafe and saw Yvonne during the odd moments when she was free.
Life over the blacksmith's shop, where she had taken a room, went merrily for a while. Six months later—it is such an old story that it is hardly worth the telling—but it was long after dark when she got back from work and she found it lying on the table in her rough clean little room—a scrap of paper beside some tiny worsted things she had been knitting for weeks.
"I am not coming back," she read in an illiterate hand.
She would have screamed, but she could not breathe. She turned again, staring at the paper and gripping the edge of the table with both hands—then the ugly little room that smelt of singed hoofs rocked and swam before her.
When she awoke she lay on the floor. The flame of the candle was sputtering in its socket. After a while she crawled to her knees in the dark; then, somehow, she got to her feet and groped her way to the door, and down the narrow stairs out to the road. She felt the need of a mother and turned toward Pont du Sable, keeping to the path at the side of the wood like a homeless dog, not wishing to be observed. Every little while, she was seized with violent trembling so that she was obliged to stop—her whole body ached as if she had been beaten.
A sharp wind was whistling in from the sea and the night was so black that the road bed was barely visible.
It was some time before she reached the beginning of Pont du Sable, and turned down a forgotten path that ran back of the village by the marsh. A light gleamed ahead—the lantern of a fishing-boat moored far out on the slimy mud. She pushed on toward it, mistaking its position, in her agony, for the hut of Marianne. Before she knew it, she was well out on the treacherous mud, slipping and sinking. She had no longer the strength now to pull her tired feet out. Twice she sank in the slime above her knees. She tried to go back but the mud had become ooze—she was sinking—she screamed—she was gone and she knew it. Then she slipped and fell on her face in a glaze of water from the incoming tide. At this instant some one shouted back, but she did not hear.
It was Marianne.
It was she who had moored the boat with the lantern and was on her way back to her hut when she heard a woman scream twice. She stopped as suddenly as if she had been shot at, straining her eyes in the direction the sound came from—she knew that there was no worse spot in the bay, a semi-floating solution of mud veined with quicksand. She knew, too, how far the incoming tide had reached, for she had just left it at her bare heels by way of a winding narrow causeway with a hard shell bottom that led to the marsh. She did not call for help, for she knew what lay before her and there was not a second to lose. The next instant, she had sprung out on the treacherous slime, running for a life in the fast-deepening glaze of water.
"Lie down!" she shouted. Then her feet touched a solid spot caked with shell and grass. Here she halted for an instant to listen—a choking groan caught her ear.
"Lie down!" she shouted again and sprang forward. She knew the knack of running on that treacherous slime.
She leapt to a patch of shell and listened again. The woman was choking not ten yards ahead of her, almost within reach of a thin point of matted grass running back of the marsh, and there she found her, and she was still breathing. With her great strength she slid her to the point of grass. It held them both. Then she lifted her bodily in her arms, swung her on her back and ran splashing knee-deep in water to solid ground.
"Sacre bon Dieu!" she sobbed as she staggered with her burden. "C'est ma belle petite!"
* * * * *
For weeks Yvonne lay in the hut of the worst vagabond of Pont du Sable. So did a mite of humanity with black eyes who cried and laughed when he pleased. And Marianne fished for them both, alone and single-handed, wrenching time and time again comforts from the sea, for she would allow no one to go near them, not even such old friends as Monsieur le Cure and myself—that old hag, with her clear blue eyes, who walks with the stride of a man, and who looks at you squarely, at times disdainfully—even when drunk.
* * * * *
THE BARON'S PERFECTOS
Strange things happen in my "Village of Vagabonds." It is not all fisher girls, Bohemian neighbours, romance, and that good friend the cure who shoots one day and confesses sinners the next. Things from the outside world come to us—happenings with sometimes a note of terror in them to make one remember their details for days.
Only the other day I had run up from the sea to Paris to replenish the larder of my house abandoned by the marsh at Pont du Sable, and was sitting behind a glass of vermouth on the terrace of the Cafe de la Paix when the curtain rose.
One has a desire to promenade with no definite purpose these soft spring days, when all Paris glitters in the warm sun. The days slip by, one into another—days to be lazy in, idle and extravagant, to promenade alone, seeking adventure, and thus win a memory, if only the amiable glance of a woman's eyes.
I was drinking in the tender air, when from my seat on the terrace I recognized in the passing throng the familiar figure of the Brazilian banker, the Baron Santos da Granja. The caress of spring had enticed the Baron early this afternoon to the Boulevard. Although he had been pointed out to me but once, there was no mistaking his conspicuous figure as he strode on through the current of humanity, for he stood head and shoulders above the average mortal, and many turned to glance at this swarthy, alert, well-preserved man of the world with his keen black eyes, thin pointed beard and moustache of iron gray. From his patent-leather boots to his glistening silk hat the Baron Santos da Granja was immaculate.
Suddenly I saw him stop, run his eyes swiftly over the crowded tables and then, though there happened to be one just vacated within his reach, turn back with a look of decision and enter the Government's depot for tobacco under the Grand Hotel.
I, too, was in need of tobacco, for had not my good little maid-of-all-work, Suzette, announced to me only the day before:
"Monsieur, there are but three left of the big cigars in the thin box; and the ham of the English that monsieur purchased in Paris is no more."
"It is well, my child," I had returned resignedly, "that ham could not last forever; it was too good."
"And if Monsieur le Cure comes to dinner there is no more kuemmel," the little maid had confessed, and added with a shy lifting of her truthful eyes, "monsieur does not wish I should get more of the black cigars at the grocery?"
I had winced as I recalled the last box, purchased from the only store in Pont du Sable, where they had lain long enough to absorb the pungent odour of dried herring and kerosene.
Of course it was not right that our guests should suffer thus from an empty larder and so, as I have said, I had run up from the sea to replenish it. It was, I confess, an extravagant way of doing one's marketing; but then there was Paris in the spring beckoning me, and who can resist her seductive call at such a time?
But to my story: I finished my glass of vermouth, and, following the Baron's example, entered the Government's store, where I discovered him selecting with the air of a connoisseur a dozen thin boxes of rare perfectos. He chatted pleasantly with the clerk who served him and upon going to the desk, opened a Russian-leather portfolio and laid before the cashier six crisp, new one-hundred-franc notes in payment for the lot. I have said that the Baron was immaculate, and he was, even to his money. It was as spotless and unruffled as his linen, as neat, in fact, as were the noble perfectos of his choice, long, mild and pure, with tiny ends, and fat, comforting bodies that guaranteed a quality fit for an emperor; but then the least a bank can do, I imagine, is to provide clean money to its president.
As the Baron passed out and my own turn at the desk came to settle for my modest provision of Havanas, I recalled to my mind the current gossip of the Baron's extravagance, of the dinners he had lately given that surprised Paris—and Paris is not easily surprised. What if he had "sold more than half of his vast estate in Brazil last year"? And suppose he was no longer able or willing "to personally supervise his racing stable," that he "had grown tired of the track," etc. Nonsense! The press knows so little of the real truth. For me the Baron Santos da Granja a was simply a seasoned man of the world, with the good taste to have retired from its conspicuous notoriety; and good taste is always expensive. His bank account did not interest me.
* * * * *
I knew her well by sight, for she passed me often in the Bois de Boulogne when I ran up to Paris on just such errands as my present one. She had given me thus now and then glimpses of her feverish life—gleams from the facets, since her success in Paris was as brilliant as a diamond. Occasionally I would meet her in the shaded alleys, but always in sight of her brougham, which kept pace with her whims at a safe but discreet distance.
There was a rare perfection about her lithe, graceful person, an ease and subtlety of line, an allure which was satisfying—from her trim little feet gloved in suede, to the slender nape of her neck, from which sprang, back of the loveliest of little ears, the exquisite sheen of her blonde hair.
There were mornings when she wore a faultless tailor-made of plain dark blue and carried a scarlet parasol, with its jewelled handle held in a firm little hand secreted in spotless white kid.
I noticed, too, in passing that her eyes were deep violet and exceedingly alert, her features classic in their fineness. Once I saw her smile, not at me, but at her fox terrier. It was then that I caught a glimpse of her young white teeth—pearly white in contrast to the freshness of her pink and olive skin, so clear that it seemed to be translucent, and she blushed easily, having lived but a score of springs all told.
In the afternoon, when she drove in her brougham lined with dove-gray, the scarlet parasol was substituted by one of filmy, creamy lace, shading a gown of pale mauve or champagne colour.
I had heard that she was passionately extravagant, that she seldom, if ever, won at the races—owned a little hotel with a carved facade in the Avenue du Bois, a villa at Dinard, and three fluffy little dogs, who jingled their gold bells when they followed her.
She dined at Paillard's, sometimes at the Cafe de la Paix, rarely at Maxim's; skated at the Palais de Glace on the most respectable afternoons—drank plain water—rolled her own cigarettes—and possessed a small jewel box full of emeralds, which she seldom wore.
Voila! A spoiled child for you!
There were mornings, too, when, after her tub, as early as nine, she galloped away on her cob to the Bois for her coffee and hot brioche at the Pre Catelan, a romantic little farm with a cafe and a stableful of mild-eyed cows that provide fresh milk to the weary at daylight, who are trying hard to turn over a new leaf before the next midnight. Often she came there accompanied by her groom and the three little dogs with the jingling bells, who enjoyed the warm milk and the run back of the fleet hoofs of her saddle-horse.
On this very morning—upon which opens the second act of my drama, I found her sitting at the next table to mine, chiding one of the jingling little dogs for his disobedience.
"Eh ben! tu sais!" she exclaimed suddenly, with a savage gleam in her eyes.
I turned and gazed at her in astonishment. It was the first time I had heard her voice. It was her accent that made me stare.
"Eh ben! tu sais!" she repeated, in the patois of the Normand peasant, lifting her riding crop in warning to the ball of fluff who had refused to get on his chair and was now wriggling in apology.
"Who is that lady?" I asked the old waiter Emile, who was serving me.
"Madame is an Austrian," he confided to me, bending his fat back as he poured my coffee.
"Austrian, eh! Are you certain, Emile?"
"Parbleu, monsieur" replied Emile, "one is never certain of any one in Paris. I only tell monsieur what I have heard. Ah! it is very easy to be mistaken in Paris, monsieur. Take, for instance, the lady in deep mourning, with the two little girls, over there at the table under the lilac bush."
"She is young to be a widow," I interposed, glancing discreetly in the direction he nodded.
Emile smiled faintly. "She is not a widow, monsieur," he returned, "neither is she as Spanish as she looks; she is Polish and dances at the Folies Parisiennes under the name of La Belle Gueritta from Seville."
"But her children look French," I ventured.
"They are the two little girls of her concierge, monsieur." Emile's smile widened until it spread in merry wrinkles to the corners of his twinkling eyes.
"In all that lace and velvet?" I exclaimed.
"And why the deep mourning, Emile?"
"It is a pose, monsieur. One must invent novelties, eh? when one is as good-looking as that. Besides, madame's reputation has not been of the best for some time. Monsieur possibly remembers the little affair last year in the Rue des Mathurins? Very well, it was she who extracted the hundred thousand francs from the Marquis de Villiers. Madame now gives largely to charity and goes to mass."
"Of the worst kind, and so monsieur sees how easily one can be mistaken, is it not so? Sacristi! one never knows."
"But are you certain you are not mistaken about your Austrian, Emile?" I ventured.
He shrugged his shoulders as if in apology for his opinion, and I turned again to study his Austrian. The noses of her little dogs with the jingling bells were now contentedly immersed in a bowl of milk.
A moment later I saw her lift her clear violet eyes and catch sight of one of the milkers, who was trying to lead a balky cow through the court by a rope badly knotted over her horns. She was smiling as she sat watching the cow, who now refused to budge. The boy was losing his temper when she broke into a rippling laugh, rose, and going over to the unruly beast, unknotted the rope from her horns and, replacing it by two half hitches with the ease and skill of a sailor, handed the rope back to the boy.
"There, you little stupid!" she exclaimed, "she will lead better now. Allez!" she cried, giving the cow a sharp rap on her rump. "Allez! Hup!"
A murmur of surprise escaped Emile. "It is not the first time madame has done that trick," he remarked under his hand, as she crossed the courtyard to regain her chair.
"She is Normande," I declared, "I am certain of it by the way she said 'Eh ben!' And did you not notice her walk back to her table? Erect, with the easy, quick step of a fisher girl? The same walk of the race of fisher girls who live in my village," I continued with enthusiastic decision. "There is no mistaking it; it is peculiar to Pont du Sable, and note, too, her patois!"
"It is quite possible, monsieur," replied Emile, "but it does not surprise me. One sees every one in Paris. There are few grandes dames left. When one has been a garcon de cafe, as I have, for over thirty years, one is surprised at nothing; not even——"
The tap of a gold coin on the rim of a cold saucer interrupted our talk. The summons was from my lady who had conquered the cow.
"Voila, madame!" cried Emile, as he left me to hasten to her table, where he made the change, slipped the pourboire she gave him into his alpaca pocket, and with a respectful, "Merci bien, madame," drew back her chair as she rose and summoned her groom, who a moment later stood ready to help her mount. The next instant I saw her hastily withdraw her small foot from the hollow of his coarse hand, and wave to a passing horse and rider. The rider, whose features were half hidden under the turned-down brim of a panama, wheeled his horse, reined up before her, dismounted, threw his rein to her groom and bending, kissed her on both cheeks. She laughed; murmured something in his ear; the panama nodded in reply, then, slipping his arm under her own, the two entered the courtyard. There they were greeted by Emile.
"Madame and I will breakfast here to-day, Emile," said the voice beneath the panama. "The little table in the corner and the same Pommard."
He threw his riding crop on a vacant chair and, lifting his hat, handed it to the veteran waiter.
It was the Baron Santos da Granja!
* * * * *
Hidden at the foot of a plateau skirting the desert marshes, two miles above my village of Pont du Sable, lies in ruins all that remains of the deserted village known as La Poche.
It is well named "The Pocket," since for years it served as a safe receptacle for itinerant beggars and fugitives from justice who found an ideal retreat among its limestone quarries, which, being long abandoned, provided holes in the steep hillside for certain vagabonds, who paid neither taxes to the government, nor heed to its law.
There is an old cattle trail that leads to La Poche, crossed now and then by overgrown paths, that wind up through a labyrinth of briers, rank ferns and matted growth to the plateau spreading back from the hillside. I use this path often as a short cut home.
One evening I had shot late on the marshes and started for home by way of La Poche. It was bright moonlight when I reached a trail new to me and approached the deserted village by way of a tangled, overgrown road.
The wind had gone down with the rising of the moon, and the intense stillness of the place was such that I could hear about me in the tangle the lifting of a trampled weed and the moving of the insects as my boots disturbed them. The silence was uncanny. Under the brilliancy of the moon all things gleamed clear in a mystic light, their shadows as black as the sunken pits of a cave.
I pushed on through the matted growth, with the collar of my leather coat buttoned up, my cap pulled down, and my hands thrust in my sleeves, hugging my gun under my arm, for the briars made tough going.
Presently, I got free of the tangle and out to a grassy stretch of road, once part of the river bed. Here and there emerged, from the matted tangle of the hillside flanking it, the ruins of La Poche. Often only a single wall or a tottering chimney remained silhouetted against the skeleton of a gabled roof; its rafters stripped of tiles, gleaming in the moonlight like the ribs and breastbone of a carcass.
If La Poche is a place to be shunned by day—at night it becomes terrible; it seems to breathe the hidden viciousness of its past, as if its ruins were the tombs of its bygone criminals.
I kept on the road, passed another carcass and drew abreast of a third, which I stepped out of the road to examine. Both its floors had long before I was born dropped into its cellar; its threshold beneath my feet was slippery with green slime; I looked up through its ribs, from which hung festoons of cobwebs and dead vines, like shreds of dried flesh hanging from a skeleton.
Still pursuing my way, I came across an old well; the bucket was drawn up and its chain wet; it was the first sign of habitation I had come across. As my hand touched the windlass, I instinctively gave it a turn; it creaked dismally and a dog barked savagely at the sound from somewhere up the hillside; then the sharp, snappy yelping of other dogs higher up followed.
I stopped, felt in my pockets and slipped two shells into my gun, heavily loaded for duck, with the feeling that if I were forced to shoot I would hold high over their heads. As I closed the breech of my gun and clicked back my hammers to be ready for any emergency, the tall figure of a man loomed up in the grassy road ahead of me, his legs in a ray of moonlight, the rest of him in shadow.
"Does this road lead out to the main road?" I called to him, not being any too sure that it did.
"Who is there?" he demanded sharply and in perfect French; then he advanced and I saw that the heavy stick he carried with a firm grip was mounted in silver.
"A hunter, monsieur," I returned pleasantly, noticing now his dress and bearing.
It was so dark where we stood, that I could not yet distinguish his features.
"May I ask you, monsieur, whom I have the pleasure of meeting," I ventured, my mind now more at rest.
He strode toward me.
"My name is de Brissac," said he, extending his hand. "Forgive me," he added with a good-natured laugh, "if I startled you; it is hardly the place to meet a gentleman in at this hour. Have you missed your way?"
"No," I replied, "I shot late and took a short cut to reach my home." I pointed in the direction of the marshes while I searched his face which was still shrouded in gloom, in my effort to see what manner of man I had run across.
"And have you had good luck?" he inquired with a certain meaning in his voice, as if he was still in doubt regarding my trespass.
"Not worth speaking of," I returned in as calm a voice as I could muster; "the birds are mostly gone. And do you shoot also, may I ask?"
"It is an incorrigible habit with me," he confessed in a more reassured tone. "I have, however, not done so badly of late with the birds; I killed seventeen plovers this morning—a fine lot."
Here his tone changed. All his former reserve had vanished. "Come with me," said he; "I insist; I'll show you what I killed; they make a pretty string, I assure you. You shall see, too, presently, my house; it is the one with the new roof. Do you happen to have seen it?"
This came with a certain note of seriousness in his voice.
"No, but I am certain it must be a luxury in the debris," I laughed; "but," I added, "I am afraid I must postpone the pleasure until another time." I was still undecided as to my course.
Again his tone changed to one of extreme courtesy, as if he had been quick to notice my hesitation.
"I know it is late," said he, "but I must insist on your accepting my hospitality. The main road lies at the end of the plateau, and I will see you safely out to it and on your way home."
I paused before answering. Under the circumstances, I knew, I could not very well refuse, and yet I had a certain dread of accepting too easily. In France such refusals are sometimes considered as insults. "Thank you," I said at last, resolved to see the adventure out; "I accept with pleasure," adding with a laugh and speaking to his shadowy bulk, for I could not yet see his face:
"What silent mystery, what an uncanny fascination this place has about it! Even our meeting seems part of it. Don't you think so?"
"Yes, there is a peculiar charm here," he replied, in a more cautious tone as he led me into a narrow trail, "a charm that has taken hold of me, so that I bury myself here occasionally; it is a rest from Paris."
From Paris, eh? I thought—then he does not belong to the coast.
I edged nearer, determined now to catch a glimpse of his features, the light of the moon having grown stronger. As he turned, its rays illumined his face and at the same instant a curious gleam flashed into his eyes.
Again the Baron da Granja stood before me.
Da Granja! the rich Brazilian! President of one of the biggest foreign banks in Paris. Man of the world, with a string of horses famous for years on a dozen race tracks. What the devil was he doing here? Had the cares of his bank driven him to such a lonely hermitage as La Poche? It seemed incredible, and yet there was not the slightest doubt as to his identity—I had seen him too often to be mistaken. His voice, too, now came back to me.
He strode on, and for some minutes kept silent, then he stopped suddenly and in a voice in which the old doubting tones were again audible said:
"You are English?"
Here he barred the path.
"No," I answered, a little ill at ease at his sudden change of manner. "American, from New York."
"And yet, I think I have seen you in Paris," he replied, after a moment's hesitation, his eyes boring into mine, which the light of the moon now made clear to him.
"It is quite possible," I returned calmly; "I think I have seen you also, monsieur; I am often in Paris."
Again he looked at me searchingly.
"Where?" he asked.
"At the Government's store, buying cigars." I did not intend to go any further.
He smiled as if relieved. He had been either trying to place me, or his suspicions had been again aroused, I could not tell which. One thing was certain: he was convinced I had swallowed the name "de Brissac" easily.
All at once his genial manner returned. "This way, to the right," he exclaimed. "Pardon me if I lead the way; the path is winding. My ruin, as I sometimes call it, is only a little farther up, and you shall have a long whiskey and siphon when you get there. You know Pont du Sable, of course," he continued as I kept in his tracks; the talk having again turned on his love of sport.
"Somewhat. I live there."
This time the surprise was his.
"Is it possible?" he cried, laying his hand on my shoulder, his face alight.
"Yes, my house is the once-abandoned one with the wall down by the marsh."
"Ah!" he burst out, "so you are the American, the newcomer, the man I have heard so much about, the man who is always shooting; and how the devil, may I ask, did you come to settle in Pont du Sable?"
"Well, you see, every one said it was such a wretched hole that I felt there must be some good in it. I have found it charming, and with the shooting it has become an old friend. I am glad also to find that you like it well enough to (it was I who hesitated now) to visit it."
"Yes, to shoot is always a relief," he answered evasively, and then in a more determined voice added, "This way, to the right, over the rocks! Come, give me your gun! The stones are slippery."
"No, I will carry it," I replied. "I am used to carrying it," and though my voice did not betray me, I proposed to continue to carry it. It was at least a protection against a walking stick with a silver top. My mind being still occupied with his suspicions, his inquiries, and most of all his persistence that I should visit his house, with no other object in view than a whiskey and siphon and a string of plovers. And yet, despite the gruesomeness of the surroundings, while alert as to his slightest move, I was determined to see the adventure through.
He did not insist, but turned sharply to the left, and the next instant I stood before the threshold of a low stone house with a new tiled roof. A squat, snug house, the eaves of whose steep gabled roof came down well over its two stories, like the snuffer on a candle. He stepped to the threshold, felt about the door as if in search for a latch, and rapped three times with the flat of his hand. Then he called softly:
"C'est toi?" came in answer, and a small hand cautiously opened a heavy overhead shutter, back of which a shaded lamp was burning.
"Yes, it is all right, it is I," said he. "Come down! I have a surprise for you. I have captured an American."
There came the sound of tripping feet, the quick drawing of a heavy bolt, and the door opened.
My little lady of the Pre Catelan!
Not in a tea-gown from the Rue de la Paix—nothing of that kind whatever; not a ruffle, not a jewel—but clothed in the well-worn garment of a fisher girl of the coast—a coarse homespun chemise of linen, open at the throat, and a still coarser petticoat of blue, faded by the salt sea—a fisher girl's petticoat that stopped at her knees, showing her trim bare legs and the white insteps of her little feet, incased in a pair of heelless felt slippers.
For the second time I was treated to a surprise. Really, Pont du Sable was not so dead a village after all.
Emile was wrong. She was one of my village people.
My host did not notice my astonishment, but waved his hand courteously.
"Entrez, monsieur!" he cried with a laugh, and then, turning sharply, he closed the door and bolted it.
I looked about me.
We were in a rough little room, that would have won any hunter's heart; there were solid racks, heavy with guns, on the walls, a snapping wood fire, and a clean table, laid for dinner, and lastly, the chair quickly drawn to it for the waiting guest. This last they laughingly forced me into, for they both insisted I should dine with them—an invitation which I gladly accepted, for my fears were now completely allayed.
We talked of the neighbourhood, of hunting, of Paris, of the new play at the Nouveautes—I did not mention the Bois. One rarely mentions in France having seen a woman out of her own home, although I was sure she remembered me from a look which now and then came into her eyes that left but little doubt in my mind that she vaguely recalled the incident at the Pre Catelan with the cow.
It was a simple peasant dinner which followed. When it was over, he went to a corner cupboard and drew forth a flat box of long perfectos, which I recognized instantly as the same brand of rare Havanas he had so extravagantly purchased from the Government. If I had had my doubt as to the identity of my man it was at rest now.
"You will find them mild," said he with a smile, as he lifted the tinfoil cover.
"No good cigar is strong," I replied, breaking the untouched row and bending my head as my host struck a match, my mind more on the scene in the Government's shop than the quality of his tobacco. And yet with all the charm that the atmosphere of his place afforded, two things still seemed to me strange—the absence of a servant, until I realized instinctively the incident of the balky cow, and the prompt bolting of the outside door.
The first I explained to myself as being due to her peasant blood and her ability to help herself; the second to the loneliness of the place and the characters it sometimes harboured. As for my host, I had to admit, despite my mental queries, that his bearing and manner completely captivated me, for a more delightful conversationalist it would have been difficult to find.
Not only did he know the art of eliminating himself and amusing you with topics that pleased you, but his cleverness in avoiding the personal was amazingly skilful. His tact was especially accentuated when, with a significant look at his companion, who at once rose from her seat and, crossing the room, busied herself with choosing the liqueurs from a closet in the corner of the room, he drew me aside by the fire, and in a calm, sotto voce said with intense earnestness:
"You may think it strange, monsieur, that I invited you, that I was even insistent. You, like myself, are a man of the world and can understand. You will do me a great favour if you will not mention to any one having met either myself or my little housekeeper" (there was not a tremor in his voice), "who, as you see, is a peasant; in fact, she was born here. We are not bothered with either friends or acquaintances here, nor do we care for prowlers; you must excuse me for at first taking you for one. You, of course, know the reputation of La Poche."
"You could not have chosen a better place to be lost in," I answered, smiling as discreetly as one should over the confession of another's love affair. "Moreover, in life I have found it the best policy to keep one's mouth shut. You have my word, monsieur—it is as if we had never met—as if La Poche did not exist."
"Thank you," said he calmly, taking the tiny liqueur glasses from her hands; "what will you have—cognac or green chartreuse?"
"Chartreuse," I answered quietly. My eye had caught the labels which I knew to be genuine from the Grenoble printer.
"Ah! you knew it—Dieu! but it is good, that old chartreuse!" exclaimed my hostess with a rippling laugh as she filled my glass, "we are lucky to find it."
Then something happened which even now sends a cold chill down my spine. Hardly had I raised my glass to my lips when there came a sharp, determined rap at the bolted door, and my host sprang to his feet. For a moment no one spoke—I turned instinctively to look at my lady of the Pre Catelan. She was breathing with dilated eyes, her lips drawn and quivering, every muscle of her lithe body trembling. He was standing erect, his head thrown back, his whole body tense. One hand gripped the back of his chair, the other was outstretched authoritatively toward us as if to command our silence.
Again the rapping, this time violent, insistent.
"Who is there?" he demanded, after what seemed to me an interminable moment of suspense.
With this he slipped swiftly through a door leading into a narrow corridor, closed another door at the end of the passage, broke the key in the lock and returned on tiptoe as noiselessly as he left the room. Then picking up the lamp he placed it under the table, thus deadening its glow.
Now a voice rang out, "Open in the name of the Law."
No one moved.
He again gripped the back of the chair, his face deathly white, his jaw set, his eyes with a sullen gleam in them.
I turned to look at her. Her hands were outstretched on the table, her dilated eyes staring straight at the bolt as if her whole life depended on its strength.
Again came the command to open, this time in a voice that allowed no question as to the determination of the outsider:
"Open in the name of the Law."
No one moved or answered.
A crashing thud, from a heavy beam, snapped the bolt from its screws, another blow tore loose the door. Through the opening and over the debris sprang a short, broad-shouldered man in a gray suit, while three other heavily built men entered, barring the exit.
The woman screamed and fell forward on the table, her head buried in her clenched hands. The Baron faced the one in gray.
"What do you want?" he stammered in the voice of a ghost.
"You, Pedro Maceioe," said the man in the gray suit, in a low, even tone, "for the last trick you will pull off in some years; open up things, do you hear? All of it, and quick."
The Brazilian did not reply; he stood behind his chair, eyeing sullenly the man in gray, who now held a revolver at a level with his heart.
Then the man in gray called to one of his men, his eye still on the banker. "Break in the door at the end of the passage."
With the quickness of a cat, the Brazilian grabbed the chair and with a swinging blow tried to fell his assailant and dash past him. The man in gray dodged and pocketed his weapon. The next instant he had his prisoner by the throat and had slammed him against the wall; then came the sharp click of a pair of handcuffs. The banker tripped and fell to the floor.
It had all happened so quickly that I was dazed as I looked on. What it was all about I did not know. It seemed impossible that my host, a man whose bank was well known in Paris, was really a criminal. Were the intruders from the police? Or was it a clever ruse of four determined burglars?