They crossed the Neuer Markt together, and went into that house where the linden grows so close as to obscure the windows. And the lodging offered to Louis was the room in which Charles Darragon had slept in his wet clothes six months earlier. So small is the world in which we live, and so narrow are the circles drawn by Fate around human existence and endeavour.
The cobbler having shown his visitor the room, and pointed out its advantages, was turning to go when D'Arragon, who was laying aside his fur coat, seemed to catch his attention, and he paused on the threshold.
"There is French blood in your veins," he said abruptly.
"So. I thought there must be. You reminded me—it was odd, the way you laid aside your coat—reminded me of a Frenchman who lodged here for one night. He was like you, too, in build and face. He was a spy, if you please—one of the French Emperor's secret police. I was new at the work then, but still I suspected there was something wrong about him. I took his boots—a pretext of mending them. I locked him in. He got out of that window, if you please, without his boots. He followed me, and learnt much that he was not meant to know. I have since heard it from others. He did the Emperor a great service—that man. He saved his life, I think, from assassination in Dantzig. And he did me an ill turn—but it was my own carelessness. I thought to make a thaler by lodging him, and he was tricking me all the while."
"What was his name?" asked D'Arragon.
"Oh—I forgot the name he gave. It was a false one. He was disguised as a common soldier—and he was in reality an officer of the staff. But I know the name of the officer to whom he wrote his report of his night's lodging here—his colleague in the secret police, it would seem."
"Ah!" said D'Arragon, busying himself with his haversack.
"It was De Casimir—a Polish name. And in the last two days I have heard of him. He has accepted the Emperor's amnesty. He has married a beautiful woman, and is living like a prince at Cracow. All this since the siege of Dantzig began. In time of war there is no moment to lose, eh?"
"And the other? He who slept in this room. Has he passed through Konigsberg again?"
"No, that he has not. If he had, I should have seen him. You can believe me, I wanted to see him. I was at my place on the bridge all the time—while the French occupied Konigsberg—when the last of them hurried away a month ago with the Cossacks close behind. No. I should have seen him, and known him. He is not on this side of the Niemen, that fine young gentleman. Now, what can I do to help you to-morrow?"
"You can help me on the way to Vilna," answered D'Arragon.
"You will never get there."
"I will try," said the sailor.
CHAPTER XXVII. A FLASH OF MEMORY.
Nothing can cover his high fame but Heaven, No pyramids set off his memories, But the eternal substance of his greatness To which I leave him.
"Why I will not let you go out into the streets?" said Barlasch one February morning, stamping the snow from his boots. "Why I will not let you go out into the streets?"
He turned and followed Desiree towards the kitchen, after having carefully bolted the heavy oaken door which had been strengthened as if to resist a siege. Desiree's face had that clear pallor which marks an indoor life; but Barlasch, weather-beaten, scorched and wrinkled, showed no sign of having endured a month's siege in an overcrowded city.
"I will tell you why I will not let you go into the streets. Because they are not fit for any woman to go into—because if you walked from here to the Rathhaus you would see sights that would come back to you in your sleep, and wake you from it, when you are an old woman. Do you know what they do with their dead? They throw them outside their doors—with nothing to cover their starved nakedness—as Lisa put her ashes in the street every morning. And the cart goes round, as the dustman's cart used to go in times of peace, and, like the dustman's cart, it drops part of its load, and the dust that blows round it is the infection of typhus. That is why you cannot go into the streets."
He unbuttoned his fur coat and displayed a smart new uniform; for Rapp had put his miserable army into new clothes, with which many of the Dantzig warehouses had been filled by Napoleon's order at the beginning of the war.
"There," he said, laying a small parcel on the table, "there is my daily ration. Two ounces of horse, one ounce of salt beef, the same as yesterday. One does not know how long we shall be treated so generously. Let us keep the beef—we may come to want some day."
And giving a hoarse laugh, he lifted a board in the floor, beneath which he hoarded his stores.
"Will you cook your dejeuner yourself," asked Desiree. "I have something else for my father."
"And what have you?" asked Barlasch curtly; "you are not keeping anything hidden from me?"
"No," answered Desiree, with a laugh at the sternness of his face, "I will give him a piece of the ham which was left over from last night."
"Left over?" echoed Barlasch, going close to her and looking up into her face, for she was two inches taller than he. "Left over? Then you did not eat your supper last night?"
"Neither did you eat yours, for it is there under the floor."
Barlasch turned away with a gesture of despair. He sat down in the high armchair that stood on the hearth, and tapped on the floor with one foot in pessimistic thought.
"Ah! the women, the women," he muttered, looking into the smouldering fire. "Lies—all lies. You said that your supper was very nice," he shouted at her over his shoulder.
"So it was," answered she gaily, "so it is still."
Barlasch did not rise to her lighter humour. He sat in reflection for some minutes. Then his thoughts took their usual form of a muttered aside.
"It is a case of compromise. Always like that. The good God had to compromise with the first woman he created almost at once. And men have done it ever since—and have never had the best of it. See here," he said aloud, turning to Desiree, "I will make a bargain with you. I will eat my last night's supper here at this table, now, if you will eat yours."
"Are you hungry?" asked Barlasch, when the scanty meal was set out before him.
"So am I."
He laughed quite gaily now, and the meal was not without a certain air of festivity, though it consisted of nothing better than two ounces of horse and half an ounce of ham eaten in company of that rye-bread made with one-third part of straw which Rapp allowed the citizens to buy.
For Rapp had first tamed his army, and was now taming the Dantzigers. He had effected discipline in his own camp by getting his regiments into shape, by establishing hospitals (which were immediately filled), and by protecting the citizens from the depredations of the starving fugitives who had been poured pell-mell into the town.
Then he turned his attention to the Dantzigers, who were openly or secretly opposed to him. He seized their churches and turned them into stores; their schools he used for hospitals, their monasteries for barracks. He broke into their cellars, and took the wine for the sick. Their storehouses he placed under the strictest guard, and no man could claim possession of his own goods.
"We are," he said in effect, with that grim Alsatian humour which the Prussians were slow to understand; "we are one united family in a narrow house, and it is I who keep the storeroom key."
Barlasch had proved to be no false prophet. His secret store escaped the vigilance of the picket, whom he himself conducted to the cellars in the Frauengasse. Although he was sparing enough, he could always provide Desiree with anything for which she expressed a wish, and even forestalled those which she left unspoken. In return he looked for absolute obedience, and after their frugal breakfast he took her to task for depriving herself of such food as they could afford.
"See you," he said, "a siege is a question of the stomach. It is not the Russians we have to fight; for they will not fight. They sit outside and wait for us to die of cold, of starvation, of typhus. And we are obliging them at the rate of two hundred a day. Yes, each day Rapp is relieved of the responsibility of two hundred mouths that drop open and require nothing more. Be greedy—eat all you have, and hope for release to-morrow, and you die. Be sparing—starve yourself from parsimony or for the love of some one who will eat your share and forget to thank you, and you will die of typhus. Be careful, and patient, and selfish—eat a little, take what exercise you can, cook your food carefully with salt, and you will live. I was in a siege thirty years before you were born, and I am alive yet, after many others. Obey me and we will get through the siege of Dantzig, which is only just beginning."
Then suddenly he gave way to anger, and banged his hand down on the table.
"But, sacred name of thunder, do not make me believe you have eaten when you have not," he shouted. "Never do that."
Carried away by the importance of this question, he said many things which cannot be set before the eyes of a generation sensitive to plainness of speech, and only tolerant of it in suggestions of impropriety.
"And the patron," he ended abruptly, "how is he?"
"He is not very well," answered Desiree. Which answer did not satisfy Barlasch, who insisted on taking off his boots, and going upstairs to see Sebastian.
It was a mere nothing, the invalid said. Such food did not suit him.
"You have been accustomed to live well all your life," answered Barlasch, looking at him with the puzzled light of a baffled memory in his eye which always came when he looked at Desiree's father. "One must see what can be done."
And he went out forthwith to return after an hour and more with a chicken freshly killed. Desiree did not ask him where he had procured it. She had given up such inquiries, for Barlasch always confessed quite bluntly to theft, and she did not know whether to believe him or not.
But the change of diet had no beneficial effect, and the next day Desiree sent Barlasch to the house of the doctor whose practice lay in the Frauengasse. He came and shook his head bluntly. For even an old doctor may be hardened at the end of his life by an orgy, as it were, of death.
"I could cure him," he said, "if there were no Russians outside the walls; if I could give him fresh milk and good brandy and strong soup."
But even Barlasch could not find milk in Dantzig. The brandy was forthcoming, and the fresh meat; the soup Desiree made with her own hands. Sebastian had not been the same man since the closing of the roads and the gradual death of his hopes that the Dantzigers would rise against the soldiers that thronged their streets. At one time it would have been easy to carry out such a movement, and to throw themselves and their city upon the mercy of the Russians. But Dantzig awoke to this possibility too late, when Rapp's iron hand had closed in upon it. He knew his own strength so well that he treated with a contemptuous leniency such citizens as were convicted of communicating with the enemy.
Sebastian's friends seemed to have deserted him. Perhaps it was not discreet to be seen in the company of one who had come under Napoleon's displeasure. Some had quitted the city after hurriedly concealing their valuables in their gardens, behind the chimneys, beneath the floors, where it is to be supposed they still lie hidden. Others were among the weekly thousand or twelve hundred who were carted out by the Oliva Gate to be thrown into huge trenches, while the waiting Russians watched from their lines on the heights of Langfuhr.
It was true that news continued to filter in, and never quite ceased, all through the terrible twelve months that were to follow. More especially did news that was unfavourable to the French find its way into the beleaguered city. But it was not authentic news, and Sebastian gathered little comfort from the fact—not unknown to the whispering citizens—that Rapp himself had heard nothing from the outer world since the Elbing mail-cart had been turned back by the first of the Cossacks on the night of the seventh of January.
Perhaps Sebastian had that most fatal of maladies—to which nearly all men come at last—weariness of life.
"Why don't you fortify yourself, and laugh at fortune?" asked Barlasch, twenty years his senior, as he stood sturdily on his stocking-feet at the sick man's bedside.
"I take what my daughter gives me," protested Sebastian, half peevishly.
"But that does not suffice," answered the materialist. "It does not suffice to swallow evil fortune—one must digest it."
Sebastian made no answer. He was a quiet patient, and lay all day with wide-open, dreaming eyes. He seemed to be waiting for something. This, indeed, was his mental attitude as presented to his neighbours, and perhaps to the few friends he possessed in Dantzig. He had waited through the years during which Desiree had grown to womanhood. He waited on doggedly through the first month of the siege, without enthusiasm, without comment—without hope, perhaps. He seemed to be waiting now to get better.
"He has made little or no progress," said the doctor, who could only give a passing glance at his patients, for he was working day and night. He had not time to beat about the bush, as his kind heart would have liked, for he had known Desiree all her life.
It was Shrove Tuesday, and the streets were full of revellers. The Neapolitans and other Southerners had made great preparations for the carnival, and the Governor had not denied them their annual licence. They had built a high car in one of the entrance yards to the Marienkirche; and finding that the ancient arch would not allow the erection to pass out into the street, they had pulled down the pious handiwork of a bygone generation.
The shouts of these merrymakers could be dimly heard through the double windows, but Sebastian made no inquiry as to the meaning of the cry. A sort of lassitude—the result of confinement within doors, of insufficient food, of waning hope—had come over Desiree. She listened heedlessly to the sounds in the streets through which the dead were passing to the Oliva Gate, while the living danced by in their hideous travesty of rejoicing.
It was dusk when Barlasch came in.
"The streets," he said, "are full of fools, dressed as such." Receiving no answer, he crossed the room to where Desiree sat, treading noiselessly, and stood in front of her, trying to see her averted face. He stooped down and peered at her until she could no longer hide her tear-stained eyes.
He made a wry face and a little clicking noise with his tongue, such as the women of his race make when they drop and break some household utensil. Then he went back towards the bed. Hitherto he had always observed a certain ceremoniousness of manner in the sick chamber. He laid this aside this evening, and sat down on a chair that stood near.
Thus they remained in a silence which seemed to increase with the darkness. At length the stillness became so marked that Barlasch slowly turned his head towards the bed. The same instinct had come to Desiree at the same moment.
They both rose and groped their way towards Sebastian. Desiree found the flint and struck it. The sulphur burnt blue for interminable moments, and then flared to meet the wick of the candle. Barlasch watched Desiree as she held the light down to her father's face. Sebastian's waiting was over. Barlasch had not needed a candle to recognize death.
From Desiree his bright and restless eyes turned slowly towards the dead man's face—and he stepped back.
"Ah!" he said, with a hoarse cry of surprise, "now I remember. I was always sure that I had seen his face before. And when I saw it it was like that—like the face of a dead man. It was on the Place de la Nation, on a tumbrel—going to the guillotine. He must have escaped, as many did, by some accident or mistake."
He went slowly to the window, holding his shaggy head between his two clenched hands as if to spur his memory to an effort. Then he turned and pointed to the silent form on the bed.
"That is a noble of France," he said; "one of the greatest. And all France thinks him dead this twenty years. And I cannot remember his name—goodness of God—I cannot remember his name!"
CHAPTER XXVIII. VILNA.
It is our trust That there is yet another world to mend All error and mischance.
Louis d'Arragon knew the road well enough from Konigsberg to the Niemen. It runs across a plain, flat as a table, through which many small streams seek their rivers in winding beds. This country was not thinly inhabited, though the villages had been stripped, as foliage is stripped by a cloud of locusts. Each cottage had its ring of silver birch-trees to protect it from the winds which sweep from the Baltic and the steppe. These had been torn and broken down by the retreating army, in a vain hope of making fire with green wood.
It was quite easy to keep in the steps of the retreating army, for the road was marked by recumbent forms huddled on either side. Few vehicles had come so far, for the broken country near to Vilna and around Kowno had presented slopes up which the starving horses were unable to drag their load.
D'Arragon reached Kowno without mishap, and there found a Russian colonel of Cossacks who proved friendly enough, and not only appreciated the value of his passport and such letters of recommendation as he had been able to procure at Konigsberg, but gave him others, and forwarded him on his journey.
He still nourished a lingering belief in De Casimir's word. Charles must have been left behind at Vilna to recover from his exhaustion. He would, undoubtedly, make his way westward as soon as possible. He might have got away to the South. Any one of these huddled human landmarks might be Charles Darragon.
Louis was essentially a thorough man. The sea is a mistress demanding a whole and concentrated attention—and concentration soon becomes a habit. Louis did not travel at night, for fear of passing Charles on the road, alive or dead. He knew his cousin better than any in the Frauengasse had learnt to know this gay and inconsequent Frenchman. A certain cunning lay behind the happy laugh—a great capacity was hidden by the careless manner. If ready wit could bring man through the dangers of the retreat, Charles had as good a chance of surviving as any.
Nevertheless, Louis rarely passed a dead man on the road, but drew up, and quitting his sleigh, turned over the body, which was almost invariably huddled with its back offered to the deadly, prevailing North wind. Against each this wind had piled a sloping bank of that fine snow which, even in the lightest breeze, drifts over the surface of the land like an ivory mist, waist high, and cakes the clothes. In a high wind it will rise twenty feet in the air, and blind any who try to face it.
As often as not a mere glance sufficed to show that this was not Charles, for few of the bodies were clad. Many had been stripped, while still living, by their half-frozen comrades. But sometimes Louis had to dust the snow from strange bearded faces before he could pass on with a quick sigh of relief.
Beyond Kowno, the country is thinly populated, and spreading pine-forests bound the horizon. The Cossacks—the wild men of Toula, who reaped the laurels of the rearguard fighting—were all along the road. D'Arragon frequently came upon a picket—as often as not the men were placidly sitting on a frozen corpse, as on a seat—and stopped to say a few words and gather news.
"You will find your friend at Vilna," said one young officer, who had been attached to General Wilson's staff, and had many stories to tell of the energetic and indefatigable English commissioner. "At Vilna we took twenty thousand prisoners—poor devils who came and asked us for food—and I don't know how many officers. And if you see Wilson there, remember me to him. If Napoleon has need to hate one man more than another for this business, it is that firebrand, Wilson. Yes, you will assuredly find your cousin at Vilna among the prisoners. But you must not linger by the road, for they are being sent back to Moscow to rebuild that which they have caused to be destroyed."
He laughed and waved his gloved hand as D'Arragon drove on.
After the broken land and low abrupt hills of Kowno, the country was flat again until the valley of the Vilia opened out. And here, almost within sight of Vilna, D'Arragon drove down a short hill which must ever be historic. He drove slowly, for on either side were gun-carriages deep sunken in the snow where the French had left them. This hill marked the final degeneration of the Emperor's army into a shapeless rabble hopelessly flying before an exhausted enemy.
Half on the road and half in the ditch were hundreds of carriages which had been hurriedly smashed up to provide firewood. Carts, still laden with the booty of Moscow, stood among the trees. Some of them contained small square boxes of silver coin, brought by Napoleon to pay his army and here abandoned. Silver coin was too heavy to carry. The rate of exchange had long been sixty francs in silver for a gold napoleon or a louis. The cloth coverings of the cushions had been torn off to shape into rough garments; the straw stuffing had been eaten by the horses.
Inside the carriages were—crouching on the floor—the frozen bodies of fugitives too badly wounded or too ill to attempt to walk. They had sat there till death came to them. Many were women. In one carriage four women, in silks and fine linen, were huddled together. Their furs had been dragged from them either before or after death.
Louis stopped at the bottom and looked back. De Casimir at all events had succeeded in surmounting this obstacle which had proved fatal to so many—the grave of so many hopes—God's rubbish-heap, where gold and precious stones, silks and priceless furs, all that greedy men had schemed and striven and fought to get, fell from their hands at last.
Vilna lies all down a slope—a city built upon several hills—and the Vilia runs at the bottom. That Way of Sorrow, the Smolensk Road, runs eastward by the river bank, and here the rearguard held the Cossacks in check while Murat hastily decamped, after dark, westwards to Kowno. The King of Naples, to whom Napoleon gave the command of his broken army quite gaily—"a vous, Roi de Naples," he is reported to have said, as he hurried to his carriage—Murat abandoned his sick and wounded; did not even warn the stragglers.
D'Arragon entered the city by the narrow gate known as the Town Gate, through which, as through that greater portal of Moscow, every man must pass bareheaded.
"The Emperor is here," were the first words spoken to him by the officer on guard.
But the streets were quiet enough, and the winner in this great game of chance maintained the same unostentatious silence in victory as that which, in the hour of humiliation, had baffled Napoleon.
It was almost night, and D'Arragon had been travelling since daylight. He found a lodging, and, having secured the comfort of the horse provided by the lame shoemaker of Konigsberg, he went out into the streets in search of information.
Few cities are, to this day, so behind the times as Vilna. The streets are still narrow, winding, ill-paved, ill-lighted. When D'Arragon quitted his lodging, he found no lights at all, for the starving soldiers had climbed to the lamps for the sake of the oil, which they had greedily drunk. It was a full moon, however, and the patrols at the street corners were willing to give such information as they could. They were strangers to Vilna like Louis himself, and not without suspicion; for this was a city which had bidden the French welcome. There had been dancing and revelry on the outward march. The citizens themselves were afraid of the strange, wild-eyed men who returned to them from Moscow.
At last, in the Episcopal Palace, where head-quarters had been hurriedly established, Louis found the man he sought, the officer in charge of the arrangements for despatching prisoners into Russia and to Siberia. He was a grizzled warrior of the old school, speaking only French and Russian. He was tired out and hungry, but he listened to Louis' story.
"There is the list," he said, "it is more or less complete. Many have called themselves officers who never held a commission from the Emperor Napoleon. But we have done what we can to sort them out."
So Louis sat down in the dimly lighted room and deciphered the names of those officers who had been left behind, detained by illness or wounds or the lack of spirit to persevere.
"You understand," said the Russian, returning to his work, "I cannot afford the time to help you. We have twenty-five thousand prisoners to feed and keep alive."
"Yes—I understand," answered Louis, who had the seaman's way of making himself a part of his surroundings.
The old colonel glanced at him across the table with a grim smile.
"The Emperor," he said, "was sitting in that chair an hour ago. He may come back at any moment."
"Ah!" said Louis, following the written lines with a pencil.
But no interruption came, and at last the list was finished. Charles was not among the officers taken prisoner at Vilna.
"Well?" inquired the Russian, without looking up.
The old officer took a sheet of paper and hurriedly wrote a few words on it.
"Try the Basile Hospital to-morrow morning," he said. "That will gain you admittance. It is to be cleared out by the Emperor's orders. We have about twenty thousand dead to dispose of as well—but they are in no hurry."
He laughed grimly, and bade Louis good night.
"Come to me again," he called out after him, drawn by a sudden chord of sympathy to this stranger, who had the rare capacity of confining himself to the business in hand.
By daybreak the next morning Louis was at the hospital of St. Basile. It had been prepared by the Duc de Bassano under Napoleon's orders when Vilna was selected as the base of the great army. When the Russians entered Vilna after the retreating remnant of Murat's rabble, they found the dead and the dying in the streets and the market-place. Some had made fires and had lain themselves down around them—to die. Others were without food or firing, almost without clothes. Many were barefoot. All, officers and men alike, were in rags. It was a piteous sight; for half of these men were no longer human. Some were gnawing at their own limbs. Many were blind, others had lost their speech or hearing. Nearly all were marred by some disfigurement—some terrible sore, the result of a frozen wound, of frostbite, of scurvy, of gangrene.
The Cossacks, half civilized as they were, wild with the excitement of killing and the chase of a human quarry, stood aghast in the streets of Vilna.
When the Emperor arrived, he set to work to clear the streets first, to get these piteous men indoors. There was no question yet of succouring them. It was not even possible to feed them all. The only thought was to find them some protection against the ruthless cold.
The first thought was, of course, directed to the hospitals. They looked in and saw a storehouse of the dead. The dead could wait; but the living must be housed.
So the dead waited, and it was their turn now at the St. Basile Hospital, where Louis presented himself at dawn.
"Looking for some one?" asked a man in uniform, who must have been inside the hospital, for he hurried down the steps with a set mouth and quailing eyes.
"Then don't go in—wait here."
Louis looked in and took the doctor's advice. The dead were stored in the passages, one on the top of the other, like bales of goods in a warehouse.
Some attempt seemed to have been made to clear the wards, but those whose task it had been had not had time to do more than drag the dead out into the passage.
The soldiers were now at work in the lower passage. Carts began to arrive. An officer told off to this dread duty came up hurriedly smoking a cigarette, his high fur collar about his ears. He glanced at Louis, and bowed to him.
"Looking for some one?" he asked.
"Then stand here beside me. It is I who have to keep count. They say there are eight thousand in here. They will be carried past here to the carts. Have a cigarette."
It is hard to talk when the thermometer registers more than twenty degrees of frost, for the lips stiffen and contract into wrinkles like the lips of a very old woman. Perhaps neither of the watchers was in the humour to begin an acquaintance.
They stood side by side, stamping their feet to keep the blood going, without speaking. Once or twice Louis stepped forward, and at a signal from the officer the bearers stopped. But Louis shook his head, and they passed on. At midday the officer was relieved, his place being taken by another, who bowed stiffly to Louis and took no more notice of him. For war either hardens or softens. It never leaves a man as it found him.
All day the work was carried on. Through the hours this procession of the bearded dead went silently by. At the invitation of a sergeant, Louis took some soup and bread from the soldiers' table. The men laughingly apologized for the quality of both.
Towards evening the officer who had first come on duty returned to his work.
"Not yet?" he asked, offering the inevitable cigarette.
"Not yet," answered Louis, and even as he spoke he stepped forward and stopped the bearers. He brushed aside the matted hair and beard.
"Is that your friend?" asked the officer.
It was Charles at last.
"The doctor says these have been dead two months," volunteered the first bearer, over his shoulder.
"I am glad you have found him," said the officer, signing to the men to go on with their burden. "It is better to know—is it not?"
"Yes," answered Louis slowly. "It is better to know."
And something in his voice made the Russian officer turn and watch him as he went away.
CHAPTER XXIX. THE BARGAIN.
Like plants in mines which never saw the sun, But dream of him and guess where he may be, And do their best to climb and get to him.
"Oh yes," Barlasch was saying, "it is easier to die—it is that that you are thinking—it is easier to die."
Desiree did not answer. She was sitting in the little kitchen at the back of the house in the Frauengasse. For they had no firing now, and were burning the furniture. Her father had been buried a week. The siege was drawn closer than ever. There was nothing to eat, nothing to do, no one to talk to. For Sebastian's political friends did not dare to come near his house. Desiree was alone in this hopeless world with Barlasch, who was on duty now in one of the trenches near the river. He went out in the morning, and only returned at night. He had just come in, and she could see by the light of the single candle that his face was grey and haggard, with deep lines drawn downwards from eyes to chin. Desiree's own face had lost all its roundness and the bloom of her northern girlhood.
Barlasch glanced at her, and bit his lip. He had brought nothing with him. At one time he had always managed to bring something to the house every day—a chicken, or a turnip, or a few carrots. But to-night there was nothing. And he was tired out. He did not sit down, however, but stood breathing on his fingers and rubbing them together to restore circulation. He pushed the candle farther forward on the table, so that it cast a better light upon her face.
"Yes," he said, "it is often so. I, who speak to you, have seen it so a dozen times in my life. When it is easier to sit down and die. Bah! That is a fine thing to do—a brave thing—to sit down and die."
"I am not going to do it, so do not make that mistake," said Desiree, with a laugh that had no mirth in it.
"But you would like to. Listen. It is not what you feel that matters; it is what you do. Remember that."
There was an unusual vigour in his voice. Of late, since the death of Sebastian, Barlasch seemed to have fallen victim to the settled apathy which lives within a prison wall and broods over a besieged city. It is a sort of silent mourning worn by the soul for a lost liberty. Dantzig had soon succumbed to it, for the citizens had not even the satisfaction of being quite sure that they were deserving of the world's sympathy. It soon spread to the soldiers who were defending a Prussian city for a French Emperor who seemed to have forgotten them.
But to-night Barlasch seemed to be more energetic. Desiree looked round over her shoulder. He had not laid on the table any contribution to a bare larder; and yet his manner was that of one who has prepared a surprise and is waiting to enjoy its effect. He was restless, moving from one foot to another, rubbing together his crooked fingers and darting sidelong glances at her face.
"What is it?" she asked suddenly, and Barlasch gave a start as if he had been detected in some deceit. He bustled forward to the smouldering fire and held his hands over it.
"It is that it is very cold to-night," he answered, with that exaggerated ease of manner with which the young and the simple seek to conceal embarrassment. "Tell me, mademoiselle, what have we for supper to-night? It is I who will cook it. To-night we will keep a fete. There is that piece of beef for you. I know a way to make it appetizing. For me there is my portion of horse. It is the friend of man—the horse."
He laughed and made an effort to be gay, which had a poignant pathos in it that made Desiree bite her lip.
"What fete is it that we are to keep?" she asked, with a wan smile. Her kind blue eyes had that glitter in them which is caused by a constant and continuous hunger. Six months ago they had only been gay and kind, now they saw the world as it is, as it always must be so long as the human heart is capable of happiness and the human reason recognizes the rarity of its attainment.
"The fete of St. Matthias—my fete, mademoiselle."
"But I thought your name was Jean."
"So it is. But I keep my fete at St. Matthias, because on that day we won a battle in Egypt. We will have wine—a bottle of wine—eh?"
So Barlasch prepared a great feast which was to be celebrated by Desiree in the dining-room, where he lighted a fire, and by himself in the kitchen. For he held strongly to a code of social laws which the great Revolution had not succeeded in breaking. And one of these laws was that it would be in some way degrading to Desiree to see him eat.
He was a skilled and delicate cook, only hampered by that insatiable passion for economy which is the dominant characteristic of the peasant of Northern France. To-night, however, he was reckless, and Desiree could hear him searching in his secret hiding-place beneath the floor for concealed condiments and herbs.
"There," he said, when he set the dish before her, "eat it with an easy mind. There is nothing unclean in it. It is not rat or cat or the liver of a starved horse, such as we others eat and ask no better. It is all clean meat."
He poured out wine, and stood in the darkened doorway watching her drink it. Then he went away to his own meal in the kitchen, leaving Desiree vaguely uneasy—for he was not himself to-night. She could hear him muttering as he ate and moved hither and thither in the kitchen. At short intervals he came and looked in at the door to make sure that she was doing full honour to St. Matthias. When she had finished, he came into the room.
"Ah!" he said, glancing at her suspiciously and rubbing his hands together. "That strengthens, eh?—that strengthens. We others who lead a rough life—we know that a little food and a glass of wine fit one out for any enterprise, for—well, any catastrophe."
And Desiree knew in a flash of comprehension that the food and the wine and the forced gaiety were nothing but preliminaries to bad news.
"What is it?" she asked a second time. "Is it... bombardment?"
"Bombardment," he laughed, "they cannot shoot, those Cossacks. It is only the French who understand artillery."
"Then what is it?—for you have something to tell me, I know."
He ruffled his shock-head of white hair, with a grimace of despair.
"Yes," he admitted, "it is news."
"From outside?" cried Desiree, with a sudden break in her voice.
"From Vilna," answered Barlasch. He came into the room, and went past her towards the fire, where he put the logs together carefully.
"It is that he is alive," said Desiree, "my husband."
"No, it is not that," Barlasch corrected. He stood with his back to her, vaguely warming his hands. He had no learning, nor manners, nor any polish: nothing but those instincts of the heart that teach the head. And his instinct bade him turn his back on Desiree, and wait in silence until she had understood his meaning.
"Dead?" she asked, in a whisper.
And, still warming his hands, he nodded his head vigorously. He waited a long time for her to speak, and at last broke the silence himself without looking round.
"Troubles," he said, "troubles for us all. There is no avoiding them. One can only push against them as against your cold wind of Dantzig that comes from the sea. One can only push on. You must push, mademoiselle."
"When did he die?" asked Desiree; "where?"
"At Vilna, three months ago. He has been dead three months. I knew he was dead when you came back to the inn at Thorn, and told me that you had seen De Casimir. De Casimir had left him dying—that liar. You remember, I met a comrade on the road—one of my own country—he told me that they had left ten thousand dead at Vilna, and twenty thousand prisoners little better than dead. And I knew then that De Casimir had left him there dying, or dead."
He glanced back at her over his shoulder, and at the sight of her face made that little click in his throat which, in peasant circles, denotes a catastrophe. Then he shook his head slowly from side to side.
"Listen," he said roughly, "the good God knows best. I knew when I saw you first, that day in June, in this kitchen, that you were beginning your troubles; for I knew the reputation of Monsieur, your husband. He was not what you thought him. A man is never what a woman thinks him. But he was worse than most. And this trouble that has come to you is chosen by the good God—and he has chosen the least in his sack for you. You will know it some day—as I know it now."
"You know a great deal," said Desiree, who was quick in speech, and he swung round on his heel to meet her spirit.
"You are right," he said, pointing his accusatory finger. "I know a great deal about you—and I am a very old man."
"How did you learn this news from Vilna?" she asked, and his hand went up to his mouth as if to hide his thoughts and control his lips.
"From one who comes straight from there—who buried your husband there."
Desiree rose and stood with her hands resting on the table, looking at the persistent back again turned towards her.
"Who?" she asked, in little more than a whisper.
"The Captain—Louis d'Arragon."
"And you have spoken to him to-day—here, in Dantzig?"
Barlasch nodded his head.
"Was he well?" asked Desiree, with a spontaneous anxiety that made Barlasch turn slowly and look at her from beneath his great brows.
"Oh, he was well enough," he answered, "he is made of steel, that gentleman. He was well enough, and he has the courage of the devil. There are some fishermen who come from Zoppot to sell their fish. They steal through the Russian lines—on the ice of the river at night and come to our outposts at daylight. One of them said my name this morning. I looked at him. He was wrapped up only to show the eyes. He drew his scarf aside. It was the Captain d'Arragon."
"And he was well?" asked Desiree again, as if nothing else in the world mattered.
"Oh, mon Dieu, yes," cried Barlasch, impatiently, "he was well, I tell you. Do you know why he came?"
Desiree had sat down at the table again, where she leant her arms and rested her chin in the palms of her two hands; for she was weakened by starvation, and confinement, and sorrow.
"No," she answered.
"He came because he had learnt that the patron was dead. It was known in Konigsberg a week ago. It is known all over Germany; that quiet old gentleman who scraped a fiddle here in the Frauengasse. And it is only I, in all the world, who know that he was a greater man in Paris than ever he was in Germany—with his Tugendbund—and I cannot remember his name."
Barlasch broke off and thumped his brow with his fists, as if to awaken that dead memory. And all the while he was searching Desiree's face, with eyes made brighter and sharper than ever by starvation.
"And do you know what he came for—the Captain—for he never does anything in idleness? He will run a great risk—but it is for a great purpose. Do you know what he came for?"
Barlasch jerked his head back and laughed.
He turned and looked at her; but she had raised her clasped hands to her forehead, as if to shield her eyes from the light of the candle, and he could not see her face.
"Do you remember," said Barlasch, "that night when the patron was so angry—on the mat—when Mademoiselle Mathilde had to make her choice. It is your turn to-night. You have to make your choice. Will you go?"
"Yes," answered Desiree, behind her fingers.
"'If Mademoiselle will come,' he said to me, 'bring her to this place!' 'Yes, mon capitaine,' answered I. 'At any cost, Barlasch?' 'At any cost, mon capitaine.' And we are not men to break our words. I will take you there—at any cost, mademoiselle. And he will meet you there—at any cost."
And Barlasch expectorated emphatically into the fire, after the manner of low-born men.
"What a pity," he added reflectively, "that he is only an Englishman."
"When are we to go?" asked Desiree, still behind her barrier of clasped fingers.
"To-morrow night, after midnight. We have arranged it all—the Captain and I—at the outpost nearest to the river. He has influence. He has rendered services to the Russians, and the Russian commander will make a night attack on the outpost. In the confusion we get through. We arranged it together. He pays me well. It is a bargain, and I am to have my money. We shook hands on it, and those who saw us must have thought that I was buying fish. I, who have no money—and he, who had no fish."
CHAPTER XXX. THE FULFILMENT.
And I have laboured somewhat in my time And not been paid profusely.
When Desiree came down the next morning, she found Barlasch talking to himself and laughing as he prepared his breakfast.
He met her with a gay salutation, and seemed unable to control his hilarity.
"It is," he explained, "because to-night we shall be under fire. We shall be in danger. It makes me afraid, and I laugh. I cannot help it. When I am afraid, I laugh."
He bustled about the room, and Desiree saw that he had already opened his secret store beneath the floor, to take from it such delicacies as remained.
"You slept?" he asked sharply. "Yes, I can see you did. That is good, for to-night we shall be awake. And now you must eat."
For Barlasch was a materialist. He had fought death in one form or another all his life, and he knew that those who eat and sleep are better equipped for the battle than those who cherish high ideals or think great thoughts.
"It is a good thing," he said, looking at her, "that you are so slim. In a military coat—if you put on that short dress in which you skate, and your high boots—you will look like a soldier. It is a good thing that it is winter, for you can wear the hood of your military coat over your head, as they all do out in the trenches to keep their ears from falling. So you need not cut off your hair—all that golden hair. Name of thunder, that would be a pity, would it not?"
He turned to the fire and stirred his coffee reflectively.
"In my own country," he said, "a long time ago, there was a girl who had hair like yours. That is why we are friends, perhaps."
He gave a queer, short laugh, and took up his sheepskin coat preparatory to going out.
"I have my preparations to make," he said, with an air of importance. "There is much to be thought of. We had not long together, for the others were watching us. But we understand each other. I go now to give him the signal that it is for to-night. I have borrowed one of Lisa's dusters—a blue one that will show against the snow—with which to give him the signal. And he is watching from Zoppot with his telescope. That fat Lisa—if I had held up my finger, she would have fallen in love with me. It has always been so. These women—"
And he went away muttering.
If he had preparations to make, Desiree had no less. She could take but little with her, and she was quitting the house which had always been her home so long as she could remember. Those trunks which Barlasch had so unhesitatingly recognized as coming from France were, it seemed, destined never to be used again. Mathilde had gone, taking with her her few simple possessions; for they had always been poor in the Frauengasse. Sebastian had departed on that journey which the traveller must face alone, taking naught with him. And it was characteristic of the man that he had left nothing behind him—no papers, no testament, no clue to that other life so different from his life in the Frauengasse that it must have lapsed into a fleeting, intangible memory, such as the brain is sometimes allowed to retain of a dream dreamt in this existence, or perhaps in another. Sebastian was gone—with his secret.
Desiree, alone with hers, was left in this quiet house for a few hours longer. Mechanically she set it in order. What would it matter to-morrow whether it were set in order or not? Who would come to note the last touches? She worked with that feverish haste which is responsible for much unnecessary woman's work in this world—the haste that owes its existence to the fear of having time to think. Many talk for the same reason. What a quiet world, if those who have nothing to say said nothing! But speech or work must fail at last, and lo! the thoughts are lying in wait.
Desiree's thoughts found their opportunity when she went into the drawing-room upstairs, where her wedding-breakfast had been set before the guests only eight months ago. The guests—De Casimir, the Grafin, Sebastian, Mathilde, Charles!
Desiree stood alone now in the silent room. She did not look at the table. The guests were all gone. The dead past had buried its dead. She went to the window and drew aside the curtain as she had drawn it aside on her wedding-day to look down into the Frauengasse and see Louis d'Arragon. And again her heart leapt in her breast with that throb of fear. She turned where she stood, and looked at the door as if she expected to see Charles come in at it, laughing and gay, explaining (he was so good at explaining) his encounter in the street, and stepping aside to allow Louis to come forward. Louis, who looked at no one but her, and came into the room and into her life.
She had been afraid of him. She was afraid of him still. And her heart had leapt at the thought that he had been restlessly, sleeplessly thinking of her, working for her—had been to Vilna and back for her, and was now waiting for her beyond the barrier of Russian camp-fires. The dangers which made Barlasch laugh—and she knew they were real enough, for it was only a real danger that stirred something in the old soldier's blood to make him gay—these dangers were of no account. She knew, she had known instantly and for all time when she looked down into the Frauengasse and saw Louis, that nothing in heaven or earth could keep them apart.
She stood now, looking at the empty doorway. What was the rest of her life to be?
Barlasch returned in the afternoon. He was leisurely and inclined to contemplativeness. It would seem that his preparations having all been completed, he was left with nothing to do. War is a purifier; it clears the social atmosphere and puts womanly men and manly women into their right places. It is also a simplifier; it teaches us to know how little we really require in daily life, and how many of the environments with which men and women hamper themselves are superfluous and the fruit of idleness.
"I have nothing to do," said Barlasch, "I will cook a careful dinner. All that I have saved in money I cannot carry away; all that was stored beneath the floor must be left there. It is often so in war."
He had told Desiree that they would have to walk twelve miles across the snow-clad marshes bordering the frozen Vistula, between midnight and dawn. It needed no telling that they could carry little with them.
"You will have to make a new beginning in life," he said curtly, "with the clothes upon your back. How many times have I done it—the Saints alone know! But take money, if you have it in gold or silver. Mine is all in copper groschen, and it is too heavy to carry. I have never yet been anywhere that money was not useful—and name of a dog! I have never had it."
So Desiree divided what money she possessed with Barlasch, who added it carefully up and repeated several times for accuracy the tale of what he had received. For, like many who do not hesitate to steal, he was very particular in money matters.
"As for me," he said, "I shall make a new beginning, too. The Captain will enable me to get back to France, when I shall go to the Emperor again. It is no place for one of the Old Guard, here with Rapp. I am getting old, but he will find something for me to do, that little Emperor."
At midnight they set out, quitting the house in the Frauengasse noiselessly. The street was quiet enough, for half the houses were empty now. Their footsteps were inaudible on the trodden snow. It was a dark night and not cold; for the great frosts of this terrible winter were nearly over.
Barlasch carried his musket and bayonet. He had instructed Desiree to walk in front of him, should they meet a patrol. But Rapp had no men to spare for patrolling the town. There was no spirit left in Dantzig; for typhus and starvation patrolled the narrow streets.
They quitted the town to the north-west, near the Oliva Gate. There was no guard-house here because Langfuhr was held by the French, and Rapp's outposts were three miles out on the road to Zoppot.
"I have played this game for fifty years," said Barlasch, with a low laugh, when they reached the earthworks, completed, at such enormous cost of life and strength, by Rapp; "follow me and do as I do. When I stoop, stoop; when I crawl, crawl; when I run, run."
For he was a soldier now and nothing else. He stood erect, and looked round him with the air of a young man—ready, keen, alert. Then he moved forward with confidence towards the high land which terminates in the Johannesberg, where the peaceful Dantzigers now repair on a Sunday afternoon to drink thin beer and admire the view.
Below them on the right hand lay the marshes, a white expanse of snow with a single dark line drawn across it—the Langfuhr road with its double border of trees.
Barlasch turned once or twice to make sure that Desiree was following him; but he added nothing to his brief instructions. When he gained the summit of the tableland which runs parallel with the coast and the Langfuhr road, he paused for breath.
"When I crawl, crawl. When I run, run," he whispered again; and led the way. He went up the bed of a stream, turning his back to the coast, and at a certain point stopped and by a gesture of the hand bade Desiree crouch down and wait till he returned. He came back and signed to her to quit the bed of the stream and follow him. When she came up to the tableland, she found that they were quite close to a camp-fire. Through the low pines she could perceive the dark outline of a house.
"Now run," whispered Barlasch, leading the way across an open space which seemed to extend to the line of the horizon. Without looking back, Desiree ran—her only thought was a sudden surprise that Barlasch could move so quickly and silently.
When he gained the shelter of some trees, he threw himself down on the snow, and Desiree coming up to him found him breathlessly holding his sides and laughing aloud.
"We are through the lines," he gasped, "name of a dog, I was so frightened. There they go—pam! pam! Buz.. z.. z.."
And he imitated the singing buzz of the bullets humming through the trees over their heads. For half a dozen shots were fired, while he was yet speaking, from behind the camp-fires. There were no more, however, and presently, having recovered his breath, Barlasch rose.
"Come," he said, "we have a long walk. En route."
They made a great circuit in the pine-woods, through which Barlasch led the way with an unerring skill, and descending towards the plain far beyond Langfuhr they came out on to a lower tableland, below which the great marshes of the Vistula stretched in the darkness, slowly merging at last into the sea.
"Those," said Barlasch, pausing at the edge of the slope, "those are the lights of Oliva, where the Russians are. That line of lights straight in front is the Russian fleet lying off Zoppot, and with them are English ships. One of them is the little ship of Captain d'Arragon. And he will take you home with him; for the ship is ordered to England, to Plymouth—which is across the Channel from my own country. Ah—cristi! I sometimes want to see my own country again—and my own people—mademoiselle."
He went on a few paces and then stopped again, and in the darkness held up one hand, commanding silence. It was the churches of Dantzig striking the hour.
"Six o'clock," he whispered, "it will soon be dawn. Yes—we are half an hour too early."
He sat down, and, by a gesture, bade Desiree sit beside him.
"Yes," he said, "the Captain told me that he is bound for England to convoy larger ships, and you will sail in one of them. He has a home in the west of England, and he will take you there—a sister or a mother, I forget which—some woman. You cannot get on without women—you others. It is there that you will be happy, as the bon Dieu meant you to be. It is only in England that no one fears Napoleon. One may have a husband there and not fear that he will be killed. One may have children and not tremble for them—and it is that that makes you happy—you women."
Presently he rose and led the way down the slope. At the foot of it, he paused, and pointing out a long line of trees, said in a whisper—
"He is there—where there are three taller trees. Between us and those trees are the French outposts. At dawn the Russians attack the outposts, and during the attack we have simply to go through it to those trees. There is no other way—that is the rendezvous. Those three tall trees. When I give the word, you get up and run to those trees—run without pausing, without looking round. I will follow. It is you he has come for—not Barlasch. You think I know nothing. Bah! I know everything. I have always known it—your poor little secret."
They lay on the snow crouching in a ditch until a grey line appeared low down in the Eastern sky and the horizon slowly distinguished itself from the thin thread of cloud that nearly always awaits the rising of the sun in Northern latitudes.
A minute later the dark group of trees broke into intermittent flame and the sharp, short "Hurrah!" of the Cossacks, like an angry bark, came sweeping across the plain on the morning breeze.
"Not yet," whispered Barlasch, with a gay chuckle of enjoyment. "Not yet—not yet. Listen, the bullets are not coming here, but are going past to the right of us. When you go, keep to the left. Slowly at first—keep a little breath till the end. Now, up! Mademoiselle, run; name of thunder, let us run!"
Desiree did not understand which were the French lines and which the line of Russian attack. But there was a clear way to the three trees which stood above the rest, and she went towards them. She knew she could not run so far, so she walked. Then the bullets, instead of passing to the right, seemed to play round her—like bees in a garden on a summer day—and she ran until she was tired.
The trees were quite close now, and the sky was light behind them. Then she saw Louis coming towards her, and she ran into his arms. The sound of the humming bullets was still in her dazed brain, and she touched him all over with her gloved hand as she clung to him, as a mother touches her child when it has fallen, to see whether it be hurt.
"How was I to know?" she whispered breathlessly. "How was I to know that you were to come into my life?"
The bullets did not matter, it seemed, nor the roar of the firing to the right of them. Nothing mattered—except that Louis must know that she had never loved Charles.
He held her and said nothing. And she wanted him to say nothing. Then she remembered Barlasch, and looked back over her shoulder.
"Where is Barlasch?" she asked, with a sudden sinking at her heart.
"He is coming slowly," replied Louis. "He came slowly behind you all the time, so as to draw the fire away from you."
They turned and waited for Barlasch, who seemed to be going in the wrong direction with an odd vagueness in his movements. Louis ran towards him with Desiree at his heels.
"Ca-y-est," said Barlasch; which cannot be translated, and yet has many meanings. "Ca-y-est."
And he sat down slowly on the snow. He sat quite upright and rigid, and in the cold light of the Baltic dawn they saw the meaning of his words. One hand was within his fur coat. He drew it out, and concealed it from Desiree behind his back. He did not seem to see them, but presently he put out his hand and lightly touched Desiree. Then he turned to Louis with that confidential drop of the voice with which he always distinguished his friends from those who were not his friends.
"What is she doing?" he asked. "I cannot see in the dark. Is it not dark? I thought it was. What is she doing? Saying a prayer? What—because I have my affair? Hey, mademoiselle. You may leave it to me. I will get in, I tell you that."
He put his finger to his nose, and then shook it from side to side with an air of deep cunning.
"Leave it to me. I shall slip in. Who will stop an old man, who has many wounds? Not St. Peter, assuredly. Let him try. And if the good God hears a commotion at the gate, He will only shrug His shoulders. He will say to St. Peter, 'Let pass; it is only Papa Barlasch!'"
And then there was silence. For Barlasch had gone to his own people.