I began now to gather my wits and think of myself, although so far not one of the intruders had taken the slightest notice of my presence.
One of the men was occupied in breaking open the door at the end of the corridor, while another stood guard over the now sobbing, hysterical woman. The fourth had remained at the open doorway.
As for the prisoner, who had now regained his feet, he had sunk into the chair he had used in defence and sat there staring at the floor, breathing in short gasps.
The man who had been ordered by his chief to break open the door at the end of the corridor, now returned and laid upon the dinner table two engraved metal plates, and a handful of new one-hundred-franc notes; some I noticed from where I sat were blank on one side. With the plates came the acrid stench of a broken bottle of acid.
"My God! Counterfeiting!" I exclaimed half aloud.
The Baron rose from his seat and stretched out his linked hands.
"She is innocent," he pleaded huskily, lifting his eyes to the woman. I could not repress a feeling of profound pity for him.
The man in gray made no reply; instead he turned to me.
"I shall escort you, too, monsieur," he remarked coolly.
"Escort me? Me? What have I got to do with it, I'd like to know?" I cried, springing to my feet. "I wish to explain—to make clear to you—clear. I want you to understand that I stumbled here by the merest chance; that I never spoke to this man in my life until to-night, that I accepted his hospitality purely because I did not wish to offend him, although I had shot late and was in a hurry to get home."
He smiled quietly.
"Please do not worry," he returned, "we know all about you. You are the American. Your house is the old one by the marsh in Pont du Sable. I called on you this afternoon, but you were absent. I am really indebted to you if you do but know it. By following your tracks, monsieur, we stumbled on the nest we have so long been looking for. Permit me to hand you my card. My name is Guinard—Sous Chief of the Paris Police."
I breathed easier—things were clearing up.
"And may I ask, monsieur, how you knew I had gone in the direction of La Poche?" I inquired. That was still a mystery.
"You have a little maid," he replied; "and little maids can sometimes be made to talk."
He paused and then said slowly, weighing each word.
"Yes, that no doubt surprises you, but we follow every clue. You were both sportsmen; that, as you know, monsieur, is always a bond, and we had not long to wait, although it was too dark for us to be quite sure when you both passed me. It was the bolting of the door that clinched the matter for me. But for the absence of two of my men on another scent we should have disturbed you earlier. I must compliment you, monsieur, on your knowledge of chartreuse as well as your taste for good cigars; permit me to offer you another." Here he slipped his hand into his pocket and handed me a duplicate of the one I had been smoking.
"Twelve boxes, Maceioe, were there not? Not expensive, eh, when purchased with these?" and he spread out the identical bank-notes with which his prisoner had paid for them in the Government store on the boulevard.
"As for you, monsieur, it is only necessary that one of my men take your statement at your house; after that you are free.
"Come, Maceioe," and he shook the prisoner by the shoulder, "you take the midnight train with me back to Paris—you too, madame."
* * * * *
And so I say again, and this time you must agree with me, that strange happenings, often with a note of terror in them, occur now and then in my lost village by the sea.
* * * * *
THE HORRORS OF WAR
At the very beginning of the straggling fishing-village of Pont du Sable and close by the tawny marsh stands the little stone house of the mayor. The house, like Monsieur le Maire himself, is short and sturdy. Its modest facade is half hidden under a coverlet of yellow roses that have spread at random over the tiled roof as high as the chimney. In front, edging the road, is a tidy strip of garden with more roses, a wood-pile, and an ancient well whose stone roof shelters a worn windlass that groans in protest whenever its chain and bucket are disturbed.
I heard the windlass complaining this sunny morning as I passed on my way through the village and caught sight of the ruddy mayor in his blue blouse lowering the bucket. The chain snapped taut, the bucket gulped its fill, and Monsieur le Maire caught sight of me.
"Ah bigre!" he exclaimed as he left the bucket where it hung and came forward with both hands outstretched in welcome, a smile wrinkling his genial face, clean-shaven to the edges of his short, cropped gray side-whiskers, reaching well beneath his chin. "Come in, come in," he insisted, laying a persuasive hand on my shoulder, as he unlatched his gate.
It is almost impossible for a friend to pass the mayor's without being stopped by just such a welcome. The twinkle in his eyes and the hearty genuineness of his greeting are irresistible. The next moment you have crossed his threshold and entered a square, low-ceiled room that for over forty years has served Monsieur le Maire as living room, kitchen, and executive chamber.
He had left me for a moment, as he always does when he welcomes a friend. I could hear from the pantry cupboard beyond the shivery tinkle of glasses as they settled on a tray. He had again insisted, as he always does, upon my occupying the armchair in the small parlour adjoining, with its wax flowers and its steel engraving of Napoleon at Waterloo; but I had protested as I always do, for I prefer the kitchen.
I like its cavernous fireplace with its crane and spit, and the low ceiling upheld by great beams of rough-hewn oak, and the tall clock in the corner, and the hanging copper saucepans, kettles and ladles, kept as bright as polished gold. Here, too, is a generous Norman armoire with carved oaken doors swung on bar-hinges of shining steel, and a centre-table provided with a small bottle of violet ink, a scratchy pen and an iron seal worked by a lever—a seal that has grown dull from long service in the stamping of certain documents relative to plain justice, marriage, the official recognition of the recently departed and the newly born. Above the fireplace hangs a faded photograph of a prize bull, for you must know that Monsieur le Maire has been for half a generation a dealer in Norman cattle.
Presently he returned with the tray, placing it upon the table within reach of our chairs while I stood admiring the bull.
He stopped as he half drew the cork from a fat brown jug, and looked at me curiously, his voice sinking almost to a whisper.
"You never were a dealer in beef?" he ventured timidly.
I shook my head sadly.
"Helas! Helas! Never mind," said he. "One cannot be everything. There's my brother-in-law, Pequin; he does not know a yearling from a three-year-old. It is he who keeps the little store at Saint Philippe."
The cork squeaked out. He filled the thimble glasses with rare old applejack so skilfully that another drop would have flushed over their worn gilt rims. What a gracious old gentleman he is! If it be a question of clipping a rose from his tidy garden and presenting it to a lady, he does it with such a gentle courtliness that the rose smells the sweeter for it—almost a lost art nowadays.
"I saw the cure this morning," he remarked, as we settled ourselves for a chat. "He could not stop, but he waved me an au revoir, for he was in a hurry to catch his train. He had been all night in his duck-blind—I doubt if he had much luck, for the wind is from the south. There is a fellow for you who loves to shoot," chuckled the mayor.
"Some news for him of game?" I inquired.
The small eyes of the mayor twinkled knowingly. "Entre nous," he confided, "he has gone to Bonvilette to spray the sick roses of a friend with sulphate of iron—he borrowed my squirt-gun yesterday."
"And how far is it to Bonvilette?"
"Eh ben! One must go by the little train to Nivelle," explained Monsieur le Maire, "and from Nivelle to Bonvilette there lies a good twenty kilometres for a horse. Let us say he will be back in three days."
"And the mass meanwhile?" I ventured.
"Mon Dieu! What will you have? The roses of his old friend are sick. It is the duty of a cure to tend the sick. Besides——"
Here Monsieur le Maire leaned forward within reach of my ear, and I caught in whispers something relative to a chateau and one of the best cellars of Bordeaux in France.
"Naturally," I replied, with a wink, and again my eyes reverted to the prize bull. It is not wise to raise one's voice in so small a village as Pont du Sable, even indoors.
"A pretty beast!" affirmed the mayor, noticing my continued interest in live stock. "And let me tell you that I took him to England in 'eighty-two. Ah, mais oui! Helas! Helas! What a trip!" he sighed. "Monsieur Toupinet—he that has the big farm at Saint Philippe—and I sailed together the third of October, in 1882, with forty steers. Our ship was called The Souvenir, and I want to tell you, my friend, it wasn't gay, that voyage. Ah, mais non! Toupinet was sea-sick—I was sea-sick—the steers were sea-sick—all except that sacre brute up there, and he roared all the way from Calais to London. Eh ben! And would you believe it?" At the approaching statement Monsieur le Maire's countenance assumed a look of righteous indignation. He raised his fist and brought it down savagely on the table as he declared: "Would you believe it? We were thirty-four hours without eating and twenty-nine hours, mon Dieu! without drinking!"
I looked up in pained astonishment.
"And that wasn't all," continued the mayor. "A hurricane struck us three hours out, and we rolled all night in a dog's sea. The steers were up to their bellies in water. Aye, but she did blow, and The Souvenir had all she could do to keep afloat. The captain was lashed to the bridge all night and most of the next day. Neither Toupinet nor myself ever expected to see land again, and there we were like calves in a pen on the floor of the cabin full of tobacco-smoke and English, and not a word of English could we speak except 'yes' and 'good morning.'" Here Monsieur le Maire stopped and choked. Finally he dried his eyes on the sleeve of his blouse, for he was wheezing with laughter, took a sip from his glass, and resumed:
"Well, the saints did not desert us. Ah, mais non! For about four o'clock in the afternoon the captain sighted Su-Tum-Tum."
"Sighted what?" I exclaimed.
"Eh ben! Su-Tum-Tum," he replied.
"Where had you drifted? To the Corean coast?"
"Mais non," he retorted, annoyed at my dullness to comprehend. "We were saved—comprenez-vous?—for there, to starboard, lay Su-Tum-Tum as plain as a sheep's nose."
"England? Impossible!" I returned.
"Mais parfaitement!" he declared, with a hopeless gesture. "Su-Tum-Tum," he reiterated slowly for my benefit.
"Never heard of it," I replied.
The next instant he was out of his chair, and fumbling in a drawer of the table extracted a warped atlas, reseated himself, and began to turn the pages.
"Eh, voila!" he cried as his forefinger stopped under a word along the English coast. "That's Su-Tum-Tum plain enough, isn't it?"
"Ah! Southampton!" I exclaimed. "Of course—plain as day."
"Ah!" ejaculated the mayor, leaning back in his chair with a broad smile of satisfaction. "You see, I was right, Su-Tum-Tum. Eh ben! Do you know," he said gently as I left him, "when you first came to Pont du Sable there were times then, my poor friend, when I could not understand a word you said in French."
Then, as if a sudden thought had struck him, he called me back as he closed the gate.
"Are those gipsies still camped outside your wall?" he inquired, suddenly assuming the dignity of his office. "Bon Dieu! They are a bad lot, those vagabonds! If I don't tell them to be off you won't have a duck or a chicken left."
"Let them stay," I pleaded, "they do no harm. Besides, I like to see the light of their camp-fire at night scurrying over my wall."
"How many are there?" inquired his excellency.
"Seven or eight, not counting the dogs chained under the wagons," I confessed reluctantly, fearing the hand of the law, for I have a fondness for gipsies. "But you need not worry about them. They won't steal from me. Their wagons are clean inside and out."
"Ah, mais!" sighed the mayor. "It's just like you. You spoil your cat, you spoil your dog, and now you're spoiling these rascals by giving them a snug berth. Have they their papers of identity?"
"Yes," I called back, "the chief showed them to me when he asked permission to camp."
"Of course," laughed the mayor. "You'll never catch them without them—signed by officials we never can trace."
He waved me a cheery au revoir and returned to the well of the groaning windlass while I continued on my way through the village.
Outside the squat stone houses, nets were drying in the sun. Save for the occasional rattle of a passing cart, the village was silent, for these fisher-folk go barefooted. Presently I reached the public square, where nothing ever happens, and, turning an iron handle, entered Pont du Sable's only store. A box of a place, smelling of dried herring, kerosene, and cheese; and stocked with the plain necessities—almost everything, from lard, tea, and big nails to soap, tarpaulins, and applejack. The night's catch of mackerel had been good, and the small room with its zinc bar was noisy with fisher-folk—wiry fishermen with legs and chests as hard as iron; slim brown fisher girls as hardy as the men, capricious, independent and saucy; a race of blonds for the most part, with the temperament of brunettes. Old women grown gray and leathery from fighting the sea, and old men too feeble to go—one of these hung himself last winter because of this.
It was here, too, I found Marianne, dripping wet, in her tarpaulins.
"What luck?" I asked her as I helped myself to a package of cigarettes from a pigeonhole and laid the payment thereof on the counter.
"Eh ben!" she laughed. "We can't complain. If the good God would send us such fishing every night we should eat well enough."
She strode through the group to the counter to thrust out an empty bottle.
"Eight sous of the best," she demanded briskly of the mild-eyed grocer. "My man's as wet as a rat—he needs some fire in him and he'll feel as fit as a marquis."
A good catch is a tonic to Pont du Sable. Instantly a spirit of good humour and camaraderie spreads through the village—even old scores are forgotten. A good haul of mackerel means a let-up in the daily struggle for existence, which in winter becomes terrible. The sea knows not charity. It massacres when it can and adds you to the line of dead things along its edge where you are only remembered by the ebb and flow of the tide. On blue calm mornings, being part of the jetsam, you may glisten in the sun beside a water-logged spar; at night you become a nonentity, of no more consequence along the wavering line of drift than a rotten gull. But if, like Marianne, you have fought skilfully, you may again enter Pont du Sable with a quicker eye, a harder body, and a deeper knowledge of the southwest gale.
* * * * *
Within the last week Pont du Sable has undergone a transformation. The dead village is alive with soldiers, for it is the time of the manoeuvres. Houses, barns and cow-sheds are filled by night with the red-trousered infantry of the French Republique. By day, the window panes shiver under the distant flash and roar of artillery. The air vibrates with the rip and rattle of musketry—savage volleys, filling the heavens with shrill, vicious waves of whistling bullets that kill at a miraculous distance. It is well that all this murderous fire occurs beyond the desert of dunes skirting the open sea, for they say the result upon the iron targets on the marsh is something frightful. The general in command is in a good humour over the record.
Despatch-bearers gallop at all hours of the day and night through Pont du Sable's single street. The band plays daily in the public square. Sunburned soldiers lug sacks of provisions and bundles of straw out to five hundred more men bivouacked on the dunes. Whole regiments return to the little fishing-village at twilight singing gay songs, followed by the fisher girls.
Ah! Mesdames—voila du bon fromage! Celui qui l'a fait il est de son village! Voila du bon fromage au lait! Il est du pays de celui qui l'a fait.
Three young officers are stopping at Monsieur le Cure's, who has returned from the sick roses of his friend; and Tanrade has a colonel and two lieutenants beneath his roof. As for myself and the house abandoned by the marsh, we are very much occupied with a blustering old general, his aide-de-camp, and two common soldiers; but I tremble lest the general should discover the latter two, for you see, they knocked at my door for a lodging before the general arrived, and I could not refuse them. Both of them put together would hardly make a full-sized warrior, and both play the slide-trombone in the band. Naturally their artistic temperament revolted at the idea of sleeping in the only available place left in the village—a cow-shed with cows. They explained this to me with so many polite gestures, mingled with an occasional salute at their assured gratefulness should I acquiesce, that I turned them over for safe keeping to Suzette, who has given them her room and sleeps in the garret. Suzette is overjoyed. Dream of dreams! For Suzette to have one real live soldier in the house—but to have two! Both of these red-eared, red-trousered dispensers of harmony are perfect in deportment, and as quiet as mice. They slip out of my back gate at daylight, bound for the seat of war and slip in again at sundown like obedient children, talk in kitchen whispers to Suzette over hot cakes and cider, and go punctually to bed at nine—the very hour when the roaring old general and his aide-de-camp are toasting their gold spurs before my fire.
* * * * *
The general is tall and broad-shouldered, and as agile as a boy. There is a certain hard, compact firmness about him as if he had been cast in bronze. His alert eyes are either flashing in authority or beaming in gentleness. The same play between dominant roughness and tenderness is true, too, of his voice and manner.
"Madame," he said, last night, after dinner, as he bent and graciously kissed Alice de Breville's hand, "forgive an old savage who pays you homage and the assurance of his profound respect." The next moment my courtyard without rocked with his reprimand to a bungling lieutenant.
To-night the general is in an uproar of good humour after a storm, for did not some vagabonds steal the danger-posts intended to warn the public of the location of the firing-line, so that new ones had to be sent for? When the news of the theft reached him his rage was something to behold. I could almost hear the little slide-trombonists shake as far back as Suzette's kitchen. Fortunately, the cyclone was of short duration—to-night he is pleased over the good work of his men during the days of mock warfare and at the riddled, twisted targets, all of which is child's play to this veteran who has weathered so many real battles.
To-night he has dined well, and his big hand is stroking the Essence of Selfishness who purrs against his medalled chest under a caress as gentle as a woman's. He sings his favourite airs from "Faust" and "Aida" with gusto, and roars over the gallant stories of his aide-de-camp, who, being from the south of La belle France, is never at a loss for a tale—tales that make the general's medals twinkle merrily in the firelight. It is my first joyful experience as host to the military, but I cannot help being nervous over Suzette and the trombonists.
"Bah! Those sacre musicians!" exclaimed the general to-night as he puffed at his cigarette. "If there's a laggard in my camp, you may be sure it is one of those little devils with a horn or a whistle. Mon Dieu! Once during the manoeuvres outside of Perigord I found three of them who refused to sleep on the ground—stole off and begged a lodging in a chateau, parbleu!"
"Ah—indeed?" I stammered meekly.
"Yes, they did," he bellowed, "but I cured them." I saw the muscles in his neck flush crimson, and tried to change the subject, but in vain.
"If they do that in time of peace, they'll do the same in war," he thundered.
"Naturally," I murmured, my heart in my throat. The aide-de-camp grunted his approval while the general ran his hand over the gray bristles on his scarred head.
"Favours!" roared the general. "Favours, eh? When my men sleep on the ground in rough weather, I sleep with them. What sort of discipline do you suppose I'd have if I did not share their hardships time and time again? Winter campaigns, forced marches—twenty-four hours of it sometimes in mountain snow. Bah! That is nothing! They need that training to go through worse, and yet those good fellows of mine, heavily loaded, never complain. I've seen it so hot, too, that it would melt a man's boots. It is always one of those imbeciles, then, with nothing heavier to carry than a clarinet, who slips off to a comfortable farm."
"Bien entendu, mon general!" agreed his aide-de-camp tersely as he leaned forward and kindled a fresh cigarette over the candle-shade.
Happily I noticed at that moment that the cigarette-box needed replenishing. It was an excuse at least to leave the room. A moment later I had tiptoed to the closed kitchen door and stood listening. Suzette was laughing. The trombonists were evidently very much at ease. They, too, were laughing. Little pleasantries filtered through the crack in the heavy door that made me hold my breath. Then I heard the gurgle of cider poured into a glass, followed swiftly by what I took to be unmistakably a kiss.
It was all as plain now as Su-Tum-Tum. I dared not break in upon them. Had I opened the door, the general might have recognized their voices. Meanwhile, silly nothings were demoralizing the heart of my good Suzette. She would fall desperately in love with either one or the other of those sacre virtuosos. Then another thought struck me! One of them might be Suzette's sweetheart, hailing from her own village, the manoeuvres at Pont du Sable a lucky meeting for them. A few sentences that I now hurriedly caught convinced me of my own denseness in not having my suspicions aroused when they singled out my domain and begged my hospitality.
The situation was becoming critical. By the light of the crack I scribbled the following:
"Get those two imbeciles of yours hidden in the hay-loft, quick. The general wants to see the kitchen," and slipped it under the door, coughing gently in warning.
There was an abrupt silence—the sound of Suzette's slippered feet—and the scrap of paper disappeared. Then heavy, excited breathing within.
I dashed upstairs and was down again with the cigarettes before the general had remarked my tardiness to his aide. At midnight I lighted their candles and saw them safely up to bed. Then I went to my room fronting the marsh and breathed easier.
"Her sweetheart from her own village," I said to myself as I blew out my candle. "The other"—I sighed drowsily—"was evidently his cousin. The mayor was right. I have a bad habit of spoiling people and pets."
Then again my mind reverted to the general. What if he discovered them? My only consolation now was that to-day had seen the end of the manoeuvres, and the soldiers would depart by a daylight train in the morning. I recalled, too, the awkward little speech of thanks for my hospitality the trombonists had made to me at an opportune moment before dinner. Finally I fell into a troubled sleep.
Suzette brought me my coffee at seven.
"Luckily the general did not discover them!" I exclaimed when Suzette had closed the double door of my bedroom.
"Mon Dieu! What danger we have run!" whispered the little maid. "I could not sleep, monsieur, thinking of it."
"You got them safely to the haymow?" I inquired anxiously.
"Oh! Mais oui, monsieur. But then they slept over the cider-press back of the big casks. Monsieur advised the hay-loft, but they said the roof leaked. And had it rained, monsieur—"
"See here," I interrupted, eyeing her trim self from head to foot savagely. "You've known that little devil with the red ears before."
I saw Suzette pale.
"Confess!" I exclaimed hoarsely, with a military gesture of impatience. "He comes from your village. Is it not so, my child?"
Suzette was silent, her plump hands twisting nervously at her apron pocket.
"I am right, am I not? I might have guessed as much when they came."
"Oh, monsieur!" Suzette faltered, the tears welling up from the depths of her clear trustful eyes.
"Is it not so?" I insisted.
"Oh! Oh! Mon Dieu, oui," she confessed half audibly. "He—he is the son of our neighbor, Monsieur Jacot."
"At Saint Philippe?"
"At Saint Philippe, monsieur. We were children together, Gaston and I. I—I—was glad to see him again, monsieur," sobbed the little maid. "He is very nice, Gaston."
"When are you to be married?" I ventured after a moment's pause.
"Ben—eh ben! In two years, monsieur—after Gaston finishes his military service. He—has a good trade, monsieur."
"Soloist?" I asked grimly.
"No, monsieur—tailor for ladies. We shall live in Paris," she added, and for an instant her eyes sparkled; then again their gaze reverted to the now sadly twisted apron pocket, for I was silent.
"No more Suzette then!" I said to myself. No more merry, willing little maid-of-all-work! No more hot mussels steaming in a savory sauce! Her puree of peas, her tomato farcies, the stuffed artichokes, and her coffee the like of which never before existed, would vanish with the rest. But true love cannot be argued. There was nothing to do but to hold out my hand in forgiveness. As I did so the general rang for his coffee.
"Mon Dieu!" gasped Suzette. "He rings." And flew down to her kitchen.
An hour later the general was sauntering leisurely up the road through the village over his morning cigar. The daylight train, followed rapidly by four extra sections, had cleared Pont du Sable of all but two of the red-trousered infantry—my trombonists! They had arrived an hour and twenty minutes late, winded and demoralized. They sat together outside the locked station unable to speak, pale and panic-stricken.
The first object that caught the general's eye as he slowly turned into the square by the little station was their four red-trousered legs—then he caught the glint of their two brass trombones. The next instant heads appeared at the windows. It was as if a bomb had suddenly exploded in the square.
The two trombonists were now on their feet, shaking from head to foot while they saluted their general, whose ever-approaching stride struck fresh agony to their hearts. He was roaring:
"Canailles! Imbeciles! A month of prison!" and "Sacre bon Dieu's!" were all jumbled together. "Overslept! Overslept, did you?" he bellowed. "In a chateau, I'll wager. Parbleu! Where then? Out with it!"
"Pardon, mon general!" chattered Gaston. "It was in the stone house of the American gentleman by the marsh."
* * * * *
We lunched together in my garden at noon. He had grown calm again under the spell of the Burgundy, but Suzette, I feared, would be ill.
"Come, be merciful," I pleaded.
"He is the fiance of my good Suzette; besides, you must not forget that you were all my guests."
The general shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "They were lucky to have gotten off with a month!" he snapped. "You saw that those little devils were handcuffed?" he asked of his aide.
"Yes, my general, the gendarme attended to them."
"You were my guests," I insisted. "Hold me responsible if you wish."
"Hold you responsible!" he exclaimed. "But you are a foreigner—it would be a little awkward."
"It is my good Suzette," I continued, "that I am thinking of."
He leaned back in his chair, and for a moment again ran his hands thoughtfully over the bristles of his scarred head. He had a daughter of his own.
"The coffee," I said gently to my unhappy Suzette as she passed.
"Oui! Oui, monsieur," she sighed, then suddenly mustering up her courage, she gasped:
"Oh, mon general! Is it true, then, that Gaston must go to jail? Ah! Mon Dieu!"
"Eh bien, my girl! It will not kill him, Sapristi! He will be a better soldier for it."
"Be merciful," I pleaded.
"Eh bien! Eh bien!" he retorted. "Eh bien!" And cleared his throat.
"Forgive them," I insisted. "They overslept. I don't want Suzette to marry a jail-bird."
Again he scratched his head and frowned. Suzette was in tears.
"Um! Difficult!" he grumbled. "Order for arrest once given—" Then he shot a glance at me. I caught a twinkle in his eye.
"Eh bien!" he roared. "There—I forgive them! Ah, those sacre musicians!"
Suzette stood there trembling, unable even to thank him, the colour coming and going in her peasant cheeks.
"Are they free, general?" I asked.
"Yes," he retorted, "both of them."
"Bravo!" I exclaimed.
"Understand that I have done it for the little girl—and you. Is that plain?"
"Perfectly," I replied. "As plain as Su-Tum-Tum!" I added under my breath as I filled his empty glass in gratefulness to the brim.
"Halt!" shouted the general as the happiest of Suzettes turned toward her kitchen.
"Eh—um!" he mumbled awkwardly in a voice that had suddenly grown thick. Then he sprang to his feet and raised his glass.
"A health to the bride!" he cried.
* * * * *
THE MILLION OF MONSIEUR DE SAVIGNAC
The bay of Pont du Sable, which the incoming tide had so swiftly filled at daylight, now lay a naked waste of oozing black mud. The birds had gone with the receding sea, and I was back from shooting, loafing over my pipe and coffee in a still corner among the roses of my wild garden, hidden behind the old wall, when that Customhouse soldier-gardener of mine, Pierre, appeared with the following message:
"Monsieur de Savignac presents his salutations the most distinguished and begs that monsieur will give him the pleasure of calling on him a propos of the little spaniel."
What an unexpected and welcome surprise! For weeks I had hunted in vain for a thoroughbred. I had never hoped to be given one from the kennels of Monsieur de Savignac's chateau.
"Enchanted, Pierre!" I cried—"Present my compliments to Monsieur de Savignac. Tell him how sincerely grateful I am, and say that he may expect me to-morrow before noon."
I could easily imagine what a beauty my spaniel would be, clean-limbed and alert like the ones in the coloured lithographs. "No wonder," I thought, as Pierre left me, "that every peasant for miles around spoke of this good Monsieur de Savignac's generosity. Here he was giving me a dog. To me, his American neighbour, whom he had never met!"
As I walked over to the chateau with Pierre the next morning, I recalled to my mind the career of this extraordinary man, whose only vice was his great generosity.
When Monsieur de Savignac was twenty-one he inherited a million francs, acquired a high hat with a straight brim, a standing collar, well open at the throat (in fashion then under Napoleon III.), a flowing cravat—a plush waistcoat with crystal buttons, a plum-coloured broadcloth coat and trousers of a pale lemon shade, striped with black, gathered tight at the ankles, their bottoms flouncing over a pair of patent-leather boots with high heels.
He was tall, strong and good-natured, this lucky Jacques de Savignac, with a weakness for the fair sex which was appalling, and a charm of manner as irresistible as his generosity. A clumsy fencer, but a good comrade—a fellow who could turn a pretty compliment, danced better than most of the young dandies at court, drove his satin-skinned pair of bays through the Bois with an easy smile, and hunted hares when the shooting opened with the dogged tenacity of a veteran poacher.
When he was twenty-one, the Paris that Grevin drew was in the splendour of an extravagant life that she was never to see again, and never has. One could amuse one's self then—ah! Dame, oui!
There is no emperor now to keep Paris gay.
What suppers at Vefour's! What a brilliant life there was in those days under the arcades of the dear old Palais Royal, the gay world going daily to this mondaine cloister to see and be seen—to dine and wine—to make conquests of the heart and dance daylight quadrilles.
Paris was ordered to be daily en fete and the host at the Tuileries saw to it that the gaiety did not flag. It was one way at least from keeping the populace from cutting one another's throats, which they did later with amazing ferocity.
There were in those good old days under Louis Napoleon plenty of places to gamble and spend the inherited gold. Ah! it was Rabelaisian enough! What an age to have been the recipient of a million at twenty-one! It was like being a king with no responsibilities. No wonder de Savignac left the university—he had no longer any need of it. He dined now at the Maison Doree and was seen nightly at the "Bal Mabille" or the "Closerie des Lilas," focussing his gold-rimmed monocle on the flying feet and lace frou-frous of "Diane la Sournoise," or roaring with laughter as he chucked gold louis into the satined lap of some "Francine" or "Cora" amid the blare of the band, and the flash of jewels strung upon fair arms and fairer necks of woman who went nightly to the "Bal Mabille" in smart turnouts and the costliest gowns money could buy—and after the last mad quadrille was ended, on he went to supper at Bignon's where more gaiety reigned until blue dawn, and where the women were still laughing and merry and danced as easily on the table as on the floor.
What a time, I say, to have inherited a million! And how many good friends he had! Painters and musicians, actors and wits (and there were some in those days)—no king ever gathered around him a jollier band.
It was from one of these henchmen of his that de Savignac purchased his chateau (long since emptied of its furniture)—from a young nobleman pressed hard for his debts, like most young noblemen are—and so the great chateau close to my Village of Vagabonds, and known for miles around, became de Savignac's.
What house parties he gave then!—men and women of talent flocked under his hospitable roof—indeed there was no lack of talent—some of it from the Opera—some of it from the Conservatoire, and they brought their voices and their fiddles with them and played and sang for him for days, in exchange for his feudal hospitality—more than that, the painter Paul Deschamps covered the ceiling of his music room with chubby cupids playing golden trumpets and violins—one adorable little fellow in the cove above the grand piano struggling with a 'cello twice as high as himself, and Carin painted the history of love in eight panels upon the walls of the old ballroom, whose frescoes were shabby enough, so I am told, when de Savignac purchased them.
There were times also when the chateau was full to overflowing with guests, so that the late comers were often quartered in a low two-story manor close by, that nestled under great trees—a cosey, dear old place covered with ivy and climbing yellow roses, with narrow alleys leading to it flanked by tall poplars, and a formal garden behind it in the niches of whose surrounding wall were statues of Psyche and Venus, their smooth marble shoulders stained by rain and the drip and ooze of growing things. One of them even now, still lifts its encrusted head to the weather.
During the shooting season there were weeks when he and his guests shot daily from the crack of dawn until dark, the game-keepers following with their carts that by night were loaded with hares, partridges, woodcock and quail—then such a good dinner, sparkling with repartee and good wine, and laughter and dancing after it, until the young hours in the morning. One was more solid in those days than now—tired as their dogs after the day's hunt, they dined and danced themselves young again for the morrow.
And what do you think they did after the Commune? They made him mayor. Yes, indeed, to honour him—Mayor of Hirondelette, the little village close to his estate, and de Savignac had to be formal and dignified for the first time in his life—this good Bohemian—at the village fetes, at the important meetings of the Municipal Council, composed of a dealer in cattle, the blacksmith and the notary. Again, in time of marriage, accident or death, and annually at the school exercises, when he presented prizes to the children spic and span for the occasion, with voices awed to whispers, and new shoes. And he loved them all—all those dirty little brats that had been scrubbed clean, and their ruddy cheeks polished like red apples, to meet "Monsieur le Maire."
He was nearing middle life now, but he was not conscious of it, being still a bachelor. There was not as yet, a streak of gray in his well-kept beard, and the good humour sparkled in his merry eyes as of old. The only change that had occurred concerned the million. It was no longer the brilliant solid million of his youth. It was sadly torn off in places—there were also several large holes in it—indeed, if the truth be told, it was little more than a remnant of its once splendid entirety. It had been eaten by moths—certain shrewd old wasps, too, had nested in it for years—not a sou of it had vanished in speculation or bad investment. Monsieur de Savignac (this part of it the cure told me) was as ignorant as a child concerning business affairs and stubbornly avoided them. He had placed his fortune intact in the Bank of France, and had drawn out what he needed for his friends. In the first year of his inheritance he glanced at the balance statement sent him by the bank, with a feeling of peaceful delight. As the years of his generosity rolled on, he avoided reading it at all—"like most optimists," remarked the cure, "he did not wish to know the truth." At forty-six he married the niece of an impoverished old wasp, a gentleman still in excellent health, owing to de Savignac's generosity. It was his good wife now, who read the balance statement.
For a while after his marriage, gaiety again reigned at the chateau, but upon a more economical basis; then gradually they grew to entertain less and less; indeed there were few left of the moths and old wasps to give to—they had flown to cluster around another million.
Most of this Pierre, who was leading me through the leafy lane that led to de Savignac's home, knew or could have known, for it was common talk in the country around, but his mind to-day was not on de Savignac's past, but on the dog which we both were so anxious to see.
* * * * *
"Monsieur has never met Monsieur de Savignac?" ventured Pierre as we turned our steps out of the brilliant sunlight, and into a wooded path skirting the extensive forest of the estate.
"Not yet, Pierre."
"He is a fine old gentleman," declared Pierre, discreetly lowering his voice. "Poor man!"
"Why poor, Pierre?" I laughed, "with an estate like this—nonsense!"
"Ah! Monsieur does not know?"—Pierre's voice sunk to a whisper—"the chateau is mortgaged, monsieur. There is not a tree or a field left Monsieur de Savignac can call his own. Do you know, monsieur, he has no longer even the right to shoot over the ground? Monsieur sees that low roof beyond with the single chimney smoking—just to the left of the chateau towers?"
"That is where Monsieur de Savignac now lives. It is called the garconniere."
"But the chateau, Pierre?"
"It is rented to a Peruvian gentleman, monsieur, who takes in boarders."
"Pierre!" I exclaimed, "we go no farther. I knew nothing of this. I am not going to accept a dog from a gentleman in Monsieur de Savignac's unfortunate circumstances. It is not right. No, no. Go and present my deep regrets to Monsieur de Savignac and tell him—tell him what you please. Say that my rich uncle has just sent me a pair of pointers—that I sincerely appreciate his generous offer, that—"
Pierre's small black eyes opened as wide as possible. He shrugged his shoulders twice and began twisting thoughtfully the waxed ends of his moustache to a finer point.
"Pardon, monsieur," he resumed after an awkward pause, "but—but monsieur, by not going, will grieve Monsieur de Savignac—He will be so happy to give monsieur the dog—so happy, monsieur. If Monsieur de Savignac could not give something to somebody he would die. Ah, he gives everything away, that good Monsieur de Savignac!" exclaimed Pierre. "I was once groom in his stables—oui, monsieur, and he married us when he was Mayor of Hirondelette, and he paid our rent—oui, monsieur, and the doctor and...."
"We'll proceed, Pierre," said I. "A man of de Savignac's kind in the world is so rare that one should do nothing to thwart him."
We walked on for some distance along the edge of a swamp carpeted with strong ferns. Presently we came to a cool, narrow alley flanked and roofed by giant poplars. At the end of this alley a wicket gate barred the entrance to the courtyard of the garconniere.
As we drew nearer I saw that its ancient two-story facade was completely covered by the climbing mass of ivy and yellow roses, the only openings being the Louis XIV. windows, and the front door, flush with the gravelled court, bordered by a thick hedge of box.
"Monsieur the American gentleman for the dog," announced Pierre to the boy servant in a blue apron who appeared to open the wicket gate.
A moment later the door of the garconniere opened, and a tall, heavily built man with silver white hair and beard came forth to greet me.
I noticed that the exertion of greeting me made him short of breath, and that he held his free hand for a second pressed against his heart as he ushered me across his threshold and into a cool, old-fashioned sitting room, the walls covered with steel engravings, the furniture upholstered in green rep.
"Have the goodness to be seated, monsieur," he insisted, waving me to an armchair, while he regained his own, back of an old-fashioned desk.
"Ah! The—little—dog," he began, slowly regaining his breath. "You are all the time shooting, and I heard you wanted one. It is so difficult to get a really—good—dog—in this country. Francois!" he exclaimed, "You may bring in the little dog—and, Francois!" he added, as the boy servant turned to go—"bring glasses and a bottle of Musigny—you will find it on the shelf back of the Medoc." Then he turned to me: "There are still two bottles left," and he laughed heartily.
"Bien, monsieur," answered the boy, and departed with a key big enough to have opened a jail.
The moment had arrived for me to draw forth a louis, which I laid on his desk in accordance with an old Norman custom, still in vogue when you accept as a gift a dog from an estate.
"Let your domestics have good cheer and wine to-night," said I.
"Thank you," he returned with sudden formality. "I shall put it aside for them," and he dropped the gold piece into a small drawer of his desk.
I did not know until Pierre, who was waiting outside in the court, told me afterwards, that his entire staff of servants was composed of the boy with the blue apron and the cook—an old woman—the last of his faithful servitors, who now appeared with a tray of trembling glasses, followed by the boy, the dusty cobwebbed bottle of rare Musigny and—my dog!
Not a whole dog. But a flub-dub little spaniel puppy—very blond—with ridiculously long ears, a double-barrelled nose, a roly-poly stomach and four heavy unsteady legs that got in his way as he tried to navigate in a straight line to make my acquaintance.
"Voila!" cried de Savignac. "Here he is. He'll make an indefatigable hunter, like his mother—wait until he is two years old—He'll stand to his day's work beside the best in France——"
"And what race is he? may I ask, Monsieur de Savignac."
"Gorgon—Gorgon of Poitou," he returned with enthusiasm. "They are getting as rare now as this," he declared, nodding to the cobwebbed bottle, as he rose, drew the cork, and filled my glass.
While we sipped and chatted, his talk grew merry with chuckles and laughter, for he spoke of the friends of his youth, who played for him and sang to him—the thing which he loved most of all, he told me. "Once," he confessed to me, "I slipped away and travelled to Hungary. Ah! how those good gipsies played for me there! I was drunk with their music for two weeks. It is stronger than wine, that music of the gipsies," he said knowingly.
Again our talk drifted to hunting, of the good old times when hares and partridges were plentiful, and so he ran on, warmed by the rare Musigny, reminiscing upon the old days and his old friends who were serious sportsmen, he declared, and knew the habits of the game they were after, for they seldom returned with an empty game-bag.
"And you are just as keen about shooting as ever?" I ventured.
"I shoot no more," he exclaimed with a shrug. "One must be a philosopher when one is past sixty—when one has no longer the solid legs to tramp with, nor the youth and the digestion to live. Ah! Besides, the life has changed—Paris was gay enough in my day. I lived then, but at sixty—I stopped—with my memories. No! no! beyond sixty it is quite impossible. One must be philosophic, eh?"
Before I could reply, Madame de Savignac entered the room. I felt the charm of her personality, as I looked into her eyes, and as she welcomed me I forgot that her faded silk gown was once in fashion before I was born, or that madame was short and no longer graceful. As the talk went on, I began to study her more at my ease, when some one rapped at the outer door of the vestibule. She started nervously, then, rising, whispered to Francois, who had come to open it, then a moment later rose again and, going out into the hall, closed the door behind her.
"Thursday then," I heard a man's gruff voice reply brusquely.
I saw de Savignac straighten in his chair, and lean to one side as if trying to catch a word of the muffled conversation in the vestibule. The next instant he had recovered his genial manner to me, but I saw that again he laboured for some moments painfully for his breath.
The door of the vestibule closed with a vicious snap. Then I heard the crunch of sabots on the gravelled court, and the next instant caught a glimpse of the stout, brutal figure of the peasant Le Gros, the big dealer in cattle, as he passed the narrow window of the vestibule.
It was he, then, with his insolent, bestial face purple with good living, who had slammed the door. I half started indignantly from my chair—then I remembered it was no affair of mine.
Presently madame returned—flushed, and, with a forced smile, in which there was more pain than pleasure, poured for me another glass of Musigny. I saw instantly that something unpleasant had passed—something unusually unpleasant—perhaps tragic, and I discreetly rose to take my leave.
Without a word of explanation as to what had happened, Madame de Savignac kissed my dog good-bye on the top of his silky head, while de Savignac stroked him tenderly. He was perfectly willing to come with me, and cocked his head on one side.
We were all in the courtyard now.
"Au revoir," they waved to me.
"Au revoir," I called back.
"Au revoir," came back to me faintly, as Pierre and the doggie and I entered the green lane and started for home.
"Monsieur sees that I was right, is it not true?" ventured Pierre, as we gained the open fields. "Monsieur de Savignac would have been grieved had not monsieur accepted the little dog."
"Yes," I replied absently, feeling more like a marauder for having accepted all they had out of their hearts thrust upon me.
Then I stopped—lifted the roly-poly little spaniel, and taking him in my arms whispered under his silky ear: "We shall go back often, you and I"—and I think he understood.
* * * * *
A few days later I dropped into Madame Vinet's snug little cafe in Pont du Sable. It was early in the morning and the small room of the cafe, with barely space enough for its four tables still smelt of fresh soap suds and hot water. At one of the tables sat the peasant in his black blouse, sipping his coffee and applejack.
Le Gros lifted his sullen face as I entered, shifted his elbows, gripped the clean marble slab of his table with both his red hands, and with a shrewd glint from his small, cruel eyes, looked up and grunted.
"Bonjour, Monsieur Le Gros," I replied. "We seem to be the only ones here. Where's the patronne?"
"Upstairs, making her bed—another dry day," he muttered, half to himself, half to me.
"She will stay dry for some days," I returned. "The wind is well set from the northeast."
"Sacristi! a dirty time," he growled. "My steers are as dry as an empty cask."
"I'd like a little rain myself," said I, reaching for a chair—"I have a young dog to train—a spaniel Monsieur de Savignac has been good enough to give me. He is too young to learn to follow a scent on dry ground."
Le Gros raised his bull-like head with a jerk.
"De Savignac gave you a dog, did he? and he has a dog to give away, has he?"
The words came out of his coarse throat with a snarl.
I dropped the chair and faced him.
(He is the only man in Pont du Sable that I positively dislike.)
"Yes," I declared, "he gave me a dog. May I ask you what business it is of yours?"
A flash of sullen rage illumined for a moment the face of the cattle dealer. Then he muttered something in his peasant accent and sat glowering into his empty coffee cup as I turned and left the room, my mind reverting to Madame de Savignac's door which his coarse hand had closed with a vicious snap.
* * * * *
We took the short cut across the fields often now—my yellow puppy and I. Indeed I grew to see these good friends of mine almost daily, and as frequently as I could persuade them, they came to my house abandoned by the marsh.
The Peruvian gentleman's boarding house had been a failure, and I learned from the cure that the de Savignacs were hard pressed to pay their creditors.
It was Le Gros who held the mortgage, I further gleaned.
And yet those two dear people kept a brave heart. They were still giving what they had, and she kept him in ignorance as best she could, softening the helplessness of it all, with her gentleness and her courage.
In his vague realization that the end was near, there were days when he forced himself into a gay mood and would come chuckling down the lane to open the gate for me, followed by Mirza, the tawny old mother of my puppy, who kept her faithful brown eyes on his every movement. Often it was she who sprang nimbly ahead and unlatched the gate for me with her paw and muzzle, an old trick he had taught her, and he would laugh when she did it, and tell me there were no dogs nowadays like her.
Thus now and then he forced himself to forget the swarm of little miseries closing down upon him—forgot even his aches and pains, due largely to the dampness of the vine-smothered garconniere whose old-fashioned interior smelt of cellar damp, for there was hardly a room in it whose wall paper had escaped the mould.
It was not until March that the long-gathering storm broke—as quick as a crackling lizard of lightning strikes. Le Gros had foreclosed the mortgage.
The Chateau of Hirondelette was up for sale.
When de Savignac came out to open the gate for me late that evening his face was as white as the palings in the moonlight.
"Come in," said he, forcing a faint laugh—-he stopped for a moment as he closed and locked the gate—labouring painfully for his breath. Then he slipped his arm under my own. "Come along," he whispered, struggling for his voice. "I have found another bottle of Musigny."
A funeral, like a wedding or an accident, is quickly over. The sale of de Savignac's chateau consumed three days of agony.
As I passed the "garconniere" by the lane beyond the courtyard on my way to the last day's sale, I looked over the hedge and saw that the shutters were closed—farther on, a doctor's gig was standing by the gate. From a bent old peasant woman in sabots and a white cap, who passed, I learned which of the two was ill. It was as I had feared—his wife. And so I continued on my way to the sale.
As I passed through the gates of the chateau, the rasping voice of the lean-jawed auctioneer reached my ears as he harangued in the drizzling rain before the steps of the chateau the group of peasants gathered before him—widows in rusty crepe veils, shrewd old Norman farmers in blue blouses looking for bargains, their carts wheeled up on the mud-smeared lawn. And a few second-hand dealers from afar, in black derbys, lifting a dirty finger to close a bid for mahogany.
Close to this sordid crowd on the mud-smeared lawn sat Le Gros, his heavy body sunk in a carved and gilded arm-chair that had once graced the boudoir of Madame de Savignac. As I passed him, I saw that his face was purple with drink. He sat there the picture of insolent ignorance, this pig of a peasant.
At times the auctioneer rallied the undecided with coarse jokes, and the crowd roared, for they are not burdened with delicacy, these Norman farmers.
"Allons! Allons! my good ladies!" croaked the auctioneer. "Forty sous for the lot. A bed quilt for a princess and a magnificent water filter de luxe that will keep your children well out of the doctor's hands. Allons! forty sous, forty-one—two?"
A merchant in hogs raised his red, puffy hand, then turned away with a leer as the shrill voice of a fisher woman cried, "Forty-five."
"Sold!" yelped the auctioneer—"sold to madame the widow Dupuis of Hirondelette," who was now elbowing her broad way through the crowd to her bargain which she struggled out with, red and perspiring, to the mud-smeared lawn, where her eldest daughter shrewdly examined the bedquilt for holes.
I turned away when it was all over and followed the crowd out through the gates. Le Gros was climbing into his cart. He was drunk and swearing over the poor result of the sale. De Savignac was still in his debt—and I continued on my way home, feeling as if I had attended an execution.
Half an hour later the sharp bark of my yellow puppy greeted me from beyond my wall. As I entered my courtyard, he came to me wriggling with joy. Suddenly I stopped, for my ear caught the sound of a tail gently patting the straw in the cavernous old stable beyond my spaniel's kennel. I looked in and saw a pair of eyes gleaming like opals in the gloom. Then the tawny body of Mirza, the mother, rose from the straw and came slowly and apologetically toward me with her head lowered.
"Suzette!" I called, "how did she get here?"
"The boy of Monsieur de Savignac brought her an hour ago, monsieur," answered the little maid. "There is a note for monsieur. I have left it on the table."
I went in, lighted the fire, and read the following:
"THE GARCONNIERE, Saturday.
"Take her, my friend. I can no longer keep her with me. You have the son, it is only right you should have the mother. We leave for Paris to-morrow. We shall meet there soon, I trust. If you come here, do not bring her with you. I said good-bye to her this morning.
"Jacques de Savignac."
It was all clear to me now—pitifully clear—the garconniere had gone with the rest.
* * * * *
On one of my flying trips to Paris I looked them up in their refuge, in a slit of a street. Here they had managed to live by the strictest economy, in a plain little nest under the roof, composed of two rooms and a closet for a kitchen.
One night, early in June, after some persuasion, I forced him to go with me to one of those sparkling risquee little comedies at the Palais Royal which he loved, and so on to supper at the Cafe de la Paix, where that great gipsy, Boldi, warms the heart with his fiddle.
The opera was just out, when we reached our table, close to the band. Beauty and the Beast were arriving, and wraps of sheen and lace were being slipped from fair shoulders into the fat waiting hands of the garcons, while the busy maitre d'hotel beamed with his nightly smile and jotted down the orders.
The snug supper room glittered with light, clean linen and shining glass. Now that the theatres were out, it had become awake with the chatter with which these little midnight suppers begin—suppers that so often end in confidences, jealousy and even tears, that need only the merriest tone of a gipsy's fiddle to turn to laughter.
Boldi is an expert at this. He watches those to whom he plays, singling out the one who needs his fiddle most, and to-night he was watching de Savignac.
We had finished our steaming dish of lobster, smothered in a spiced sauce that makes a cold dry wine only half quench one's thirst, and were proceeding with a crisp salad when Boldi, with a rushing crescendo slipped into a delicious waltz. De Savignac now sat with his chin sunk heavily in his hands, drinking in the melody with its spirited accompaniment as the cymballist's flexible hammers flew over the resonant strings, the violins following the master in the red coat, with that keen alertness with which all real gipsies play. I realized now, what the playing of a gipsy meant to him. By the end of the waltz De Savignac's eyes were shining.
Boldi turned to our table and bowed.
"Play," said I, to him in my poor Hungarian (that de Savignac might not understand, for I wished to surprise him) "a real czardas of your people—ah! I have it!" I exclaimed. "Play the legend and the mad dance that follows—the one that Racz Laczi loved—the legend of the young man who went up the mountain and met the girl who jilted him."
Boldi nodded his head and grinned with savage enthusiasm. He drew his bow across the sobbing strings and the legend began. Under the spell of his violin, the chatter of the supper room ceased—the air now heavy with the mingled scent of perfume and cigars, seemed to pulsate under the throb of the wild melody—as he played on, no one spoke—the men even forgetting to smoke; the women listening, breathing with parted lips. I turned to look at de Savignac—he was drunk and there was a strange glitter in his eyes, his cheeks flushed to a dull crimson, but not from wine.
Boldi's violin talked—now and then it wept under the vibrant grip of the master, who dominated it until it dominated those to whom it played.
The young man in the legend was rushing up the mountain path in earnest now, for he had seen ahead of him the girl he loved—now the melody swept on through the wooing and the breaking of her promise, and now came the rush of the young man down to the nearest village to drown his chagrin and forget her in the mad dance, the "Czardas," which followed.
As the czardas quickened until its pace reached the speed of a whirlwind, de Savignac suddenly staggered to his feet—his breath coming in short gasps.
"Sit down!" I pleaded, not liking the sudden purplish hue of his cheeks.
"Let—me—alone," he stammered, half angrily. "It—is so good—to—be alive again."
"You shall not," I whispered, my eye catching sight of a gold louis between his fingers. "You don't know what you are doing—it is not right—this is my dinner, old friend—all of it, do you understand?"
"Let—me—alone," he breathed hoarsely, as I tried to get hold of the coin—"it is my last—my last—my last!"—and he tossed the gold piece to the band. It fell squarely on the cymballum and rolled under the strings.
"Bravo!" cried a little woman opposite, clapping her warm, jewelled hands. Then she screamed, for she saw Monsieur de Savignac sway heavily, and sink back in his seat, his chin on his chest, his eyes closed.
I ripped open his collar and shirt to give him breath. Twice his chest gave a great bound, and he murmured something I did not catch—then he sank back in my arms—dead.
During the horror and grim reality of it all—the screaming women, the physician working desperately, although he knew all hope was gone—while the calm police questioned me as to his identity and domicile, I shook from head to foot—and yet the worst was still to come—I had to tell Madame de Savignac.
* * * * *
THE MAN WITH THE GUN
It is at last decided! The kind and sympathetic Minister of Agriculture has signed the official document opening the shooting-season for hares and partridges in La belle France, to-morrow, Sunday, the thirtieth of September. Thrice happy hunters!—they who had begun to grumble in their cafes over the rumour that the opening of the shooting-season might be postponed until the second or even third Sunday in October.
My good friend the mayor of Pont du Sable has just handed me my hunting-permit for the coming year bearing the stamp of the Republique Francaise, the seal of the prefecture, the signature of the prefet, and including everything, from the colour of my hair and complexion to my height, age, birth and domicile. On the back of this important piece of paper I read as follows:
That the permit must be produced at the demand of all agents authorized by law. That it is prohibited to shoot without it, or upon lands without the consent of the proprietor having the right—or outside of the season fixed by the laws of the prefets.
The father—the mother—the tutor—the masters, and guardians are civilly responsible for the misdemeanours committed while shooting by their infants—wards—pupils, or domestics living with them.
That the hunter who has lost his permit cannot resume again the exercise of the hunt until he has obtained and paid for a new one, twenty-eight francs and sixty centimes.
To-morrow, then, the jolly season opens.
"Vive la Republique!"
It is a season, too, of crisp twilights after brilliant days, so short that my lost village is plunged in darkness as early as seven, and goes to bed to save the candle—the hour when the grocer's light gleaming ahead of me across the slovenly little public square becomes the only beacon in the village; and, guided by it, I pick my way in the dark along the narrow thoroughfare, stumbling over the laziest of the village dogs sprawled here and there in the road outside the doorways of the fishermen.
Across one of these thresholds I catch a glimpse to-night of a tired fisher girl stretched on her bed after her long day at sea. Beside the bed a very old woman in a white cotton cap bends over her bowl of soup by the wavering light of a tallow dip.
"Bonsoir, monsieur!" croaks a hoarse voice from the dark. It is Marianne. She has fished late.
At seven-thirty the toy train rumbles into Pont du Sable, stops for a barefooted passenger, and rumbles out again through the village—crawling lest it send one of the laziest dogs yelping to its home. The headlight on the squat locomotive floods the way ahead, suddenly illumining the figure of a blinking old man laden with nets and three barelegged children who scream, "Bonsoir, monsieur," to the engineer.
What glorious old days are these! The wealth of hedged fields—-the lush green grass, white with hoar frost at daybreak—the groups of mild-eyed cows and taciturn young bulls; in all this brilliant clearness of sea air, sunshine and Norman country spreading its richness down to the very edge of the sea, there comes to the man with the gun a sane exhilaration—he is alive.
On calm nights the air is pungent and warm with the perfume of tons of apples lying heaped in the orchards, ready for the cider-making, nights, when the owls hoot dismally under a silver moon.
When the wind veers to the north it grows cold. On such nights as these "the Essence of Selfishness" seeks my fireside.
She is better fed than many other children in the lost village beyond my wall. And spoiled!—mon Dieu! She is getting to be hopeless.
Ah, you queen of studied cruelty and indifference! You, with your nose of coral pink, your velvet ears that twitch in your dreams, and your blue-white breast! You, who since yesterday morning have gnawed to death two helpless little birds in my hedge which you still think I have not discovered! And yet I still continue to feed you by hand piecemeal since you disdain to dine from my best china, and Suzette takes care of you like a nurse.
Eh bien! Some day, do you hear, I shall sell you to the rabbit-skin man, who has a hook for a hand, and the rest of you will find its way to some cheap table d'hote, where you will pass as ragout of rabbit Henri IV. under a thick sauce. What would you do, I should like to know, if you were the vagabond cat who lives back in the orchard, and whose four children sleep in the hollow trunk of the tree and are content with what their mother brings them, whether it be plain mole or the best of grasshopper. Eh, mademoiselle? Open those topaz eyes of yours—Suzette is coming to put you to bed.
The trim little maid entered, crossed noiselessly in the firelight to my chair, and, laying a sealed note from my friend the Baron beneath the lamp, picked up the sleepy cat and carried her off to her room.
The note was a delightful surprise.
"Cher monsieur: Will you make me the pleasure and the honour to come and do the ouverture of the hunt at my chateau to-morrow, Sunday—my auto will call for you about six of the morning. We will be about ten guns, and I count on the amiability of my partridges and my hares to make you pass a beautiful and good day. Will you accept, dear sir, the assurance of my sentiments the most distinguished?"
It was nice of the Baron to think of me, for I had made his acquaintance but recently at one of Tanrade's dinners, during which, I recall, the Baron declared to me as he lifted his left eyebrow over his cognac, that the hunt—la chasse—"was always amusing, and a great blessing to men, since it created the appetite of the wolf and was an excuse to get rid of the ladies." He told me, too, as he adjusted his monocle safely in the corner of his aristocratic aquiline nose, that his favourite saint was St. Hubert. He would have liked to have known him—he must have been a bon garcon, this patron saint of hunting.
"Ah! Les femmes!" he sighed, as he straightened his erect torso, that had withstood so many Parisian years, against the back of his chair. "Ah! Les femmes! But in zee fields zey cannot follow us? Hein?" He laughed, lapsing into his broken English. "Zey cannot follow us through zee hedges, ovaire zee rough grounds, in zee rains, in zee muds. Nevaire take a woman hunting," he counselled me sotto voce beneath his vibrant hand, for Alice de Breville was present. "One can nevaire make love and kill zee agile little game at zee same time. Par exemple! You whispaire somezing in madame's leetle ear and brrrh! a partridge—que voulez-vous, mon cher?" he concluded, with a shrug. "It is quite impossible—quite impossible."
I told him leisurely, as we sipped our liqueur, of the hunting in my own country, of the lonely tramps in the wilderness following a line of traps in the deep snow, the blind trails, the pork sandwich melted against the doughnuts at noon, leaking lean-tos, smoky fires, and bad coffee.
"Parbleu!" he roared. "You have not zee rendezvous? You have not zee hunting breakfast? I should be quite ill—you hunt like zee Arabs—like zee gipsies—ah, yes, I forget—zee warm sandwich and zee native nuts."
He tapped the table gently with his rings, smiling the while reminiscently into his glass, then, turning again to me, added seriously:
"It is not all zee play—zee hunt. I have had zee legs broken by zee fatigue. Zee good breakfast is what you say 'indispensable' to break zee day. Zee good stories, zee camaraderie, zee good kind wine—enfin tout! But"—and again he leaned nearer—"but not zee ladies—nevaire—only zee memories."
I repeat, it was nice of the Baron to think of me. I could easily picture to myself as I reread his note his superb estate, that stronghold of his ancestors; the hearty welcome at its gates; the gamekeepers in their green fustians; the pairs of perfectly trained dogs; the abundance of partridges and hares; and the breakfast in the old chateau, a feast that would be replete with wit and old Burgundy. How splendid are these Norman autumns! What exhilarating old days during this season of dropping apples, blue skies, and falling leaves! Days when the fat little French partridges nestle in companies in the fields, shorn to stubble after the harvest, and sleek hares at sunrise lift their long ears cautiously above the dew-bejeweled cobwebs along the ditches to make sure that the green feeding-patch beyond is safe from the man and the gun.
Fat, garrulous Monsieur Toupin of the village becomes under the spell of Madame Vinet's best cognac so uproarious when he has killed one of these sleek, strong-limbed hares, that madame is obliged to draw the turkey-red curtain over the window of her small cafe that Monsieur Toupin may not be seen by his neighbours.
"Suzette," I called, "my candle! I must get a good night's sleep, for to-morrow I shoot with the Baron."
"Tiens!" exclaimed the little maid. "At the grand chateau?" And her frank eyes opened wide. "Ah, mais—but monsieur will not have to work hard for a partridge there."
"And so you know the chateau, my little one?"
"Ah, mais oui, monsieur! Is it not at La Sapiniere near Les Roses? My grandfather was gardener there when I was little. I passed the chateau once with my mother and heard the guns back of the great wall. Monsieur will be content—ah, mais oui!"
"My coffee at five-thirty promptly, ma petite!"
"Bien, monsieur." And Suzette passed me my lighted candle, the flame of which rose brilliantly from its wick.
"That means good luck, monsieur," said she, pointing to the candle-flame, as my foot touched the winding stairs.
"Nonsense!" I laughed, for I am always amused at her peasant belief in superstitions. Once, I remember, I was obliged to send for the doctor—Suzette had broken a mirror.
"Ah, mais si," declared Suzette, with conviction, as she unlatched her kitchen door. "When the wick burns like that—ah, ca!" And with a cheery bonsoir she closed the door behind her.
I had just swallowed my coffee when the siren of the Baron's automobile emitted a high, devilish wail, and subsided into a low moan outside my wall. The next instant the gate of the court flew open, and I rushed out, to greet, to my surprise, Tanrade in his shooting-togs, and—could it be true? Monsieur le Cure.
"You, too?" I exclaimed in delight.
"Yes," he smiled and added, with a wink: "I could not refuse so gamy an invitation."
"And I would not let him," added Tanrade. "Quick! Where are your traps? We have a good forty kilometres ahead of us; we must not keep the Baron waiting." And the composer of ballets rushed into the house and shouldered my valise containing a dry change.
"You shall have enough partridges to fill your larder for a month," I heard him tell Suzette, and he did not forget to pat her rosy cheek in passing. Suzette laughed and struggled by him, her firm young arms hugging my gun and shell-case.
Before I could stop him, the cure, in his black soutane, had clambered nimbly to the roof of the big car and was lashing my traps next to Tanrade's and his own. At this instant I started to take a long breath of pure morning air—and hesitated, then I caught the alert eye of the chauffeur, who was grinning.
"What are you burning? Fish oil?" said I.
"Mon Dieu, monsieur——" began the chauffeur.
"Cheese," called down the cure, pointing to a round paper parcel on the roof of the limousine. "Tanrade got it at daylight; woke up the whole village getting it."
"Had to," explained Tanrade, as Suzette helped him into his great coat. "The Baron is out of cheese; he added a postscript to my invitation praying that I would be amiable enough to bring one. Eh voila! There it is, and real cheese at that. Come, get in, quick!" And he opened the door of the limousine, the interior of which was lined in gray suede and appointed with the daintiest of feminine luxuries.
"Look out for that row of gold bottles back of you, you brute of a farmer!" Tanrade counseled me, as the cure found his seat. "If you scratch those monograms the Baroness will never forgive you."
Then, with a wave to Suzette, we swept away from my house by the marsh, were hurled through Pont du Sable, and shot out of its narrowest end into the fresh green country beyond.
It was so thoroughly chic and Parisian, this limousine. Only a few days ago it had been shopping along the Rue de la Paix, and later rushing to the cool Bois de Boulogne carrying a gracious woman to dinner; now it held two vagabonds and a cure. We tore on while we talked enthusiastically of the day's shooting in store for us. The cure was in his best humour. How he does love to shoot and what a rattling good shot he is! Neither Tanrade nor myself, and we have shot with him day in and day out on the marsh and during rough nights in his gabion, has ever beaten him.
On we flew, past the hamlet of Fourche-la-Ville, past Javonne, past Les Roses. Sacristi! I thought, what if the gasoline gave out or the spark refused to sparkle, what if they had——Why worry? That cheese was strong enough to have gotten us anywhere.
Suddenly we slowed down, hastily consulted a blue iron sign at the crossroad, and swung briskly to the right.
A noble forest and the roofs and tourelles of the chateau now loomed ahead of us. We turned into a clean, straight road, flanked by superb oaks leading to an ancient stone gateway. A final wail from the siren, the gates swung open, and we came to a dead stop in front of the Baron, four setter dogs, and a group of gentlemen immaculately attired for the hunt. From their tan-leather leggings to their yellow dogskin gloves and gleaming guns, they were faultless.
While the Baron greeted us, his guests stood waiting to be presented; their formal bow would have done credit to a foreign embassy during an imperial audience. The next moment we were talking as naturally together and with as much camaraderie as if we had known each other for years.
"Make yourselves at home, my children!" cried the Baron. "Vous etes chez vous; the ladies have gone to Paris."
It was not such a very grand place, this estate of the Baron, after all. It had an air about it of having seen better days, but the host was a good fellow, and his welcome genuine, and we were all happy to be there. No keepers in green fustians, no array of thoroughbred dogs, but instead four plain setters with a touch of shepherd in them. The chateau itself was plain and comfortable within and scarred by age without. Some of the little towers had lost their tops, and the extensive wall enclosing the snug forest bulged dangerously in places.
"You will see," explained the Baron to me in his fluent French, as our little party sauntered out into the open fields to shoot, "I do not get along very well with my farmer. I must tell you this in case he gives us trouble to-day. He has the right, owing to a stupid lease my aged aunt was unwise enough to sign with him some years ago, to exclude us from hunting over many fields contiguous to my own; above all, we cannot put foot in his harvest."
"I see," I returned, with a touch of disappointment, for I knew the birds were where the harvest was still uncut.
"There are acres of grain going to seed beyond us which he would rather lose than have me hunt over," the Baron confessed. "Bah! We shall see what the canaille will do, for only this morning he sent me word threatening to break up the hunt. Nothing would please him better than have us all served with a proces-verbal for trespassing."
I confess I was not anxious to be hauled before the court of the country-seat time after time during a trial conducted at a snail's pace and be relieved of several hundred francs, for this is what a proces-verbal meant. It was easily seen that the Baron was in a no more tranquil state of mind himself.
"You are all my guests!" he exclaimed, with sudden heat. "That sacre individual will deal with me. It is I who am alone responsible," he generously added. "Ah! We shall see. If you meet him, don't let him bulldoze you. Don't show him your hunting permit if he demands it, for what he will want is your name. I have explained all this to the rest."
"Eh bien! my dear friends," he called back to the others as we reached a cross-road, "we shall begin shooting here. Half of you to the right—half to the left!"
"What is the name of your farmer?" I inquired, as we spread out into two slowly moving companies.
"Le Bour," returned the Baron grimly as the breech of his gun snapped shut.
The vast cultivated plain undulating below us looked like the patchwork-quilt of a giantess, stitched together with well-knit hedges. There were rectangles of apple-green clover, canary-yellow squares of mustard, green pastures of ochre stubble, rich green strips of beets, and rolling areas of brown-ribbed furrows freshly plowed.
Time after time we were obliged to pass around companies of partridges that had taken refuge under the idiotic lease of the aged aunt. It was exasperating, for, from the beginning of the shoot, every bird seemed to know where it was safe from the gleaming guns held so skilfully by the messieurs in the yellow dogskin gloves. By eleven o'clock there were barely a score of birds in the game-bags when there should have been a hundred.
At the second cross road, the right and left party convened. It was what Le Bour had been waiting for.
A sour old man in a blue blouse now rose up out of a hedge in which he had hidden himself, and came glowering toward us. As he drew nearer I saw that his gun swung loosely in his hand and was at full cock, its muzzle wavering unpleasantly over us as he strode on. His mean old eyes glittered with rage, his jaw trembled under a string of oaths. His manner was that of a sullen bull about to charge.
There was no mistaking his identity—it was Le Bour.
"Proces-verbal for all of you," he bellowed; "you, Monsieur le Baron, and you, Monsieur le Vicomte," he snapped, as the Baron advanced to defend his guests. "I saw you cross my buckwheat," he declared pointing an ugly finger at the Vicomte.
"You lie!" shouted the Baron, before the Vicomte could find his words. "I forbid you to open your head to my guests. Not one of these gentlemen has set foot in your harvest. What right have you to carry a gun? Where is your hunting permit?" thundered the Baron. "Where's your commission as guard, that you should have the insolence to threaten us with a proces-verbal."
"Ah!" exclaimed the Baron, as the permit was not forthcoming, "I thought as much. I appoint you witness, Monsieur le Cure, the fellow has no permit." And we swelled the merriment with a forced sputter of ridicule.
"Come, my friends, we shall leave this imbecile to himself," laughed the Baron.
Le Bour sprang past him and confronted us.
"Eh ben, my fine gentlemen," he snarled, "you'll not get away so easily. I demand, in the name of the law, your hunting permits. Come, allons! All of you!"
At the same instant he tore open his blouse and displayed, to our dismay, an oval brass plaque bearing his name and the number 1247.
"There!" cried the old man, white and trembling with rage. "There's my full commission as guard."
My companion with the gloves next to me fidgeted nervously and coughed. I saw the Vicomte turn a little pale. Tanrade shrugged his shoulders. Monsieur le Cure's face wore an expression of dignified gravity. Not once, however, had Le Bour's eyes met his own. It was evident that he reverently excluded the cure from the affair.
The Vicomte looked uncomfortable enough. The truth was, he was not known to be at the hunt. The Vicomtesse was shrewd when it came to the question of his whereabouts. A proces-verbal meant publicity; naturally the Vicomtesse would know. It might even reach the adorable ears of Mademoiselle Rosalie, of the corps de ballet, who imagined the Vicomte safe with his family. The Baron was fuming, but he did not speak.
"Your permits!" reiterated Le Bour, flourishing his license.
There was an awkward silence; not a few in the party had left their permits at home.
"Pouf!" exclaimed the Baron. "Enough of this! En route, my friends!"
"Eh, bien!" growled the farmer. "You refuse to produce your permits on demand of a guard. It shall be stated," he threatened, "in the proces-verbal." Then Le Bour turned on his muddy heel and launched a parting volley at the Baron denouncing his chateau and everything connected with him.
"Do not forget the time you stole the ducks of my uncle," cried the Baron, shaking a clenched fist at the old man, "or the morning—" But his words were lost on Le Bour, who had disappeared in the hedge.
By eleven-thirty we had killed some two dozen birds and three hares; and as we were now stricken with "the appetite of the wolf," we turned back to the chateau for breakfast.
Here a sponge and a rub-down sent us in gay spirits down to the billiard-room, where a bottle of port was in waiting—a rare bottle for particular occasions. It was "the last of a dozen," explained the Baron as we touched glasses, sent to the chateau by Napoleon in payment for a night's lodging during one of his campaigns. "The very time, in fact," he added, "when the little towers lost their tops."
Under the spell of the Emperor's port the Vicomte regained his nerves, and even the unpleasant incident of the morning was half forgotten while the piano in the historic salon rang merrily under Tanrade's touch until we filed in to luncheon.
It was as every French shooting-luncheon is intended to be—a pleasant little fete full of good cheer and understanding; the good soup, the decanters of Burgundy, the clean red-and-white checkered napkins and cloth, the heavy family silver, the noiseless old servants—and what an appetite we had! What a souffle of potatoes, and such chicken smothered in cream! And always the "good kind wine," until the famous cheese that Tanrade had waked up Pont du Sable in procuring was passed quickly and went out to the pantry, never to return. Ah, yes! And the warm champagne without which no French breakfast is complete.
Over the coffee and liqueurs, the talk ran naturally to gallantry.
"Ah, les femmes! The memories," as the Baron had said.
"You should have seen Babette Deslys five years ago," remarked one of our jolly company when the Baron had left the room in search of some milder cigars.
I saw the Vicomte raise his eyebrows in subtle warning to the speaker, who, like myself, knew the Baron but slightly. If he was treading upon delicate ground he was unconscious of it, this bon vivant of a Parisian; for he continued rapidly in his enthusiasm, despite a second hopeless attempt of the Vicomte to check him.
"You should have seen Babette in the burlesque as Phryne at the Varietes—une merveille, mon cher!" he exclaimed, addressing the sous-lieutenant on his right, and he blew a kiss to the ceiling. "The complexion of a rosebud and amusing! Ah—la! la!"
"I hear her debts ran close to a million," returned the lieutenant.
"She was feather-brained," continued the bon vivant, with a blase shrug. "She was a good little quail with more heart than head! Poor Babette!"
"Take care!" cautioned the Vicomte pointblank, as the Baron re-entered with the box of milder Havanas.
And thus the talk ran on among these men of the world who knew Paris as well as their pockets; and so many Babettes and Francines and other careless little celebrities whose beauty and extravagance had turned peace and tranquillity into ruin and chaos.
At last the jolly breakfast came to an end. We rose, recovered our guns from the billiard-table, and with fresh courage went forth again into the fields to shoot until sunset. During the afternoon we again saw Le Bour, but he kept at a safe distance watching our movements with muttered oaths and a vengeful eye, while we added some twenty-odd partridges to the morning's score.
* * * * *
Toward the end of the afternoon, a week later, at Pont du Sable, Tanrade and the cure sat smoking under my sketching-umbrella on the marsh. The cure is far from a bad painter. His unfinished sketch of the distant strip of sea and dunes lay at my feet as I worked on my own canvas while the sunset lasted.
Tanrade was busy between puffs of his pipe in transposing various passages in his latest score. Now and then he would hesitate, finger the carefully thought out bar on his knee, and again his stub of a pencil would fly on through a maze of hieroglyphics that were to the cure and myself wholly unintelligible.
Suddenly the cure looked up, his keen gaze rivetted upon two dots of figures on bicycles speeding rapidly toward us along the path skirting the marsh.
"Hello!" exclaimed the cure, and he gave a low whistle. "The gendarmes!"
There was no mistaking their identity; their gold stripes and white duck trousers appeared distinctly against the tawny marsh.
The next moment they dismounted, left their wheels on the path, and came slowly across the desert of wire-grass toward us.
"Diable!" muttered Tanrade, under his breath, and instantly our minds reverted to Le Bour.
The two officials of the law were before us.
"We regret to disturb you, messieurs," began the taller of the two pleasantly as he extracted a note-book from a leather case next to his revolver. "But"—and he shrugged his military shoulders—"it is for the little affair at Hirondelette."
"Which one of us is elected?" asked Tanrade grimly.
"Ah! Bon Dieu!" returned the tall one; half apologetically. "A proces-verbal unfortunately for you, Monsieur Tanrade. Read the charge," he said to the short one, who had now unfolded a paper, cleared his throat, and began to read in a monotonous tone.
"Monsieur Gaston Emile Le Bour, agriculturist at Hirondelette, charges Monsieur Charles Louis Ernest Tanrade, born in Paris, soldier of the Thirteenth Infantry, musician, composer, with flagrant trespass in his buckwheat on hectare number seven, armed with the gun of percussion on the thirtieth of September at ten-forty-five in the morning."
"I was not in his sacre buckwheat!" declared Tanrade, and he described the entire incident of the morning.
"Take monsieur's denial in detail," commanded the tall one.
His companion produced a small bottle of ink and began to write slowly with a scratchy pen, while we stood in silence.
"Kindly add your signature, monsieur," said the tall one, when the bottle was again recorked.
The gendarmes gravely saluted and were about to withdraw when Tanrade asked if he was "the only unfortunate on the list."
"Ah, non!" confessed the tall one. "There is a similar charge against Monsieur le Vicomte—we have just called upon him. Also against Monsieur le Baron."
"And what did they say?"
"Eh bien, monsieur, a general denial, just as monsieur has made."
"The affair is ridiculous," exclaimed Tanrade hotly.
"That must be seen," returned the tall one firmly.
Again we all saluted and they left us, recovered their bicycles, and went spinning off back to Pont du Sable.
"Nom d'un chien!" muttered Tanrade, while the cure and I stared thoughtfully at a clump of grass.
"Why didn't he get me?" I ventured, after a moment.
"Foreigner," explained Tanrade. "You're in luck, old boy—no record of identity, and how the devil do you suppose Le Bour could pronounce your name?"
Half an hour later I found the Vicomte, who lived close to our village. He was pacing up and down his salon in a rage.
"I was not in the buckwheat!" he declared frantically. "Do you suppose I have nothing better to do, my friend, than see this wretched business out at the county-seat? The Vicomtesse is furious. We were to leave, for a little voyage in Italy, next week. Ah, that young son of the Baron! He is the devil! He is responsible for this—naturally." And he fell again to pacing the room.
I looked blankly at the Vicomte.
"Son? What young son?" I asked.
The Vicomte stopped, with a gesture of surprise.
"Ah! Sapristi! You do not know?" he exclaimed. "You do not know that Babette Deslys is Le Bour's daughter? That the Baron's son ran away with her and a hundred thousand francs? That the hundred thousand francs belonged to Le Bour? Sapristi! You did not know that?"
* * * * *
THE BELLS OF PONT DU SABLE
The big yellow car came ripping down the road—a clean hard ribbon of a road skirting the tawny marsh that lay this sparkling August morning under a glaze of turquoise blue water at high tide.
With a devilish wail from its siren, the yellow car whizzed past my house abandoned by the marsh. I was just in time, as I raised my head above the rambling wall of my courtyard, to catch sight of my good friend the cure on the back seat, holding on tight to his saucer-like hat. In the same rapid glance I saw the fluttering ends of a bottle-green veil, in front of the cure's nose and knew Germaine was driving.
"Lucky cure!" I said to myself, as I returned to my half-finished sketch, "carried off again to luncheon by one of the dearest of little women."
No wonder during his lonely winters, when every villa or chateau of every friend of his for miles around is closed, and my vagabond village of Pont du Sable rarely sees a Parisian, the cure longs for midsummer. It is his gayest season, since hardly a day passes but some friend kidnaps him from his presbytery that lies snug and silent back of the crumbling wall which hides both his house and his wild garden from the gaze of the passer-by.
He is the kind of cure whom it is a joy to invite—this straight, strong cure, who is French to the backbone; with his devil-may-care geniality, his irresistible smile of a comedian, his quick wit of an Irishman, and his heart of gold.
To-day Germaine had captured him and was speeding him away to a jolly luncheon of friends at her villa, some twenty kilometres below Pont du Sable—Germaine with her trim, lithe figure and merry brown eyes, eyes that can become in a flash as calm and serious as the cure's, and in turn with her moods (for Germaine is a pretty collection of moods) gleam with the impulsive devilry of a gamine; Germaine, who teases an old vagabond painter like myself, by daubing a purple moon in the middle of my morning sketch, adds a dab on my nose when I protest, and the next instant embraces me, and begs my forgiveness.
I cannot conceive of anyone not forgiving Germaine, beneath whose firm and delicate beauty lies her warm heart, as golden in quality as the cure's.
Ah! It is gay enough in midsummer with Germaine and such other good Bohemians as Alice de Breville, Tanrade, and his reverence to cheer my house abandoned by the marsh.
I heard the yellow car tearing back to Pont du Sable late that night. It slowed down as it neared my walled domain, and with a wrenching grunt stopped in front of my gate. The next instant the door of my den opened and in rushed the cure.
"All of us to luncheon to-morrow at The Three Wolves!" he cried, flinging his hat on the floor; then bending, with a grin of satisfaction over the lamp chimney, he kindled the end of a fat cigarette he had rolled in the dark. His eyes were snapping, while the corners of his humorous mouth twitched in a satisfied smile. He strode up and down the room for some moments, his hands clasped behind him, his strong, sun-tanned face beaming in the glow of the shaded lamplight, while he listened to my delight over the pleasant news he had brought.
"Ah! They are good to me, these children of mine," he declared with enthusiasm. "Germaine tells me there is a surprise in store for me and that I am not to know until to-morrow, at luncheon. Beyond that, she would tell me nothing, the little minx, except that I managed to make her confess that Alice was in the secret."
He glanced at his watch, "Ah!" he ejaculated, "I must be getting to bed; you, too, my old one, for we must get an early start in the morning, if we are to reach The Three Wolves by noon." He recovered his hat from the floor, straightened up, brushed the cigarette ashes from the breast of his long black soutane, shiny from wear, and held out his strong hand.
"Sleep well," he counselled, "for to-morrow we shall be en fete."
Then he swung open my door and passed out into the night, whistling as he crossed my courtyard a cafe chantant air that Germaine had taught him.
A moment later, the siren of the yellow car sent forth its warning wail, and he was speeding back to his presbytery under the guidance of Germaine's chauffeur.
* * * * *
The cure was raking out the oysters; he stood on the sandy rim of a pool of clear sea-water that lay under the noonday sun like a liquid emerald. As Monsieur le Cure plunged in his long rake and drew it back heavy with those excellent bivalves for which the restaurant at The Three Wolves has long been famous, his tall black figure, silhouetted against the distant sea and sky, reminded me of some great sea-crow fishing for its breakfast.