"At your service, madame," he said. "Is this officer dead?"
"Dying, general," said the Rittmeister, at salute.
"Then he will not require these men. Herr Rittmeister, I take your Uhlans for my escort. Madame, you have my sympathy; can I be of service?"
He spoke perfect French. The Countess looked up at him in a bewildered way. "You cannot mean to abandon this dying man here?" she asked.
There was a silence, broken brusquely by the Rittmeister. "That Frenchman did his duty!"
"Did he?" said the general, staring at the Countess.
"Very well; I want that carriage, but I won't take it. Give the driver a white flag, and have him drive into the French lines. Herr Rittmeister, give your orders! Madame, your most devoted!" And he wheeled his beautiful horse and trotted off down the road, while the Rittmeister hastily tied a handkerchief to a stick and tossed it up to the speechless peasant on the box.
"Morsbronn is the nearest French post!" he said, in French. Then he bent from his horse and looked down at me.
"You did your duty!" he snapped, and, barely saluting the Countess, touched spurs to his mount and disappeared, followed at a gallop by his mud-splashed Uhlans.
When I became conscious again I was lying on a table. Two men were leaning over me; a third came up, holding a basin. There was an odor of carbolic in the air.
The man with the basin made a horrid grimace when he caught my eye; his face was a curious golden yellow, his eyes jet black, and at first I took him for a fever phantom.
Then my bewildered eyes fastened on his scarlet fez, pulled down over his left ear, the sky-blue Zouave jacket, with its bright-yellow arabesques, the canvas breeches, leggings laced close over the thin shins and ankles of an Arab. And I knew him for a soldier of African riflemen, one of those brave children of the desert whom we called "Turcos," and whose faith in the greatness of France has never faltered since the first blue battalion of Africa was formed under the eagles of the First Empire.
"Hallo, Mustapha!" I said, faintly; "what are they doing to me now?"
The Turco's golden-bronze visage relaxed; he saluted me.
"Macache sabir," he said; "they picked a bullet from your spine, my inspector."
An officer in the uniform of a staff-surgeon came around the table where I was lying.
"Bon!" he exclaimed, eying me sharply through his gold-rimmed glasses. "Can you feel your hind-legs now, young man?"
I could feel them all too intensely, and I said so.
The surgeon began to turn down his shirt-sleeves and button his cuffs, saying, "You're lucky to have a pain in your legs." Turning to the Turco, he added, "Lift him!" And the giant rifleman picked me up and laid me in a long chair by the window.
"Your case is one of those amusing cases," continued the surgeon, buckling on his sword and revolver; "very amusing, I assure you. As for the bullet, I could have turned it out with a straw, only it rested there exactly where it stopped the use of those long legs of yours!—a fine example of temporary reflex paralysis, and no hemorrhage to speak of—nothing to swear about, young man. By-the-way, you ought to go to bed for a few days."
He clasped his short baldric over his smartly buttoned tunic. The room was shaking with the discharges of cannon.
"A millimetre farther and that bullet would have cracked your spine. Remember that and keep off your feet. Ouf! The cannon are tuning up!" as a terrible discharge shattered the glass in the window-panes beside me.
"Where am I, doctor?" I asked.
"Parbleu, in Morsbronn! Can't you hear the orchestra, zim-bam-zim! The Prussians are playing their Wagner music for us. Here, swallow this. How do you feel now?"
"Sleepy. Did you say a day or two, doctor?"
"I said a week or two—perhaps longer. I'll look in this evening if I'm not up to my chin in amputations. Take these every hour if in pain. Go to sleep, my son."
With a paternal tap on my head, he drew on his scarlet, gold-banded cap, tightened the check strap, and walked out of the room. Down-stairs I heard him cursing because his horse had been shot. I never saw him again.
Dozing feverishly, hearing the cannon through troubled slumber, I awoke toward noon quite free from any considerable pain, but thirsty and restless, and numbed to the hips. Alarmed, I strove to move my feet, and succeeded. Then, freed from the haunting terror of paralysis, I fell to pinching my legs with satisfaction, my eyes roving about in search of water.
The room where I lay was in disorder; it appeared to be completely furnished with well-made old pieces, long out of date, but not old enough to be desirable. Chairs, sofas, tables were all fashioned in that poor design which marked the early period of the Consulate; the mirror was a fine sheet of glass imbedded in Pompeian and Egyptian designs; the clock, which had stopped, was a meaningless lump of gilt and marble, supported on gilt sphinxes. Over the bed hung a tarnished canopy broidered with a coronet, which, from the strawberry leaves and the pearls raised above them, I took to be the coronet of a count of English origin.
The room appeared to be very old, and I knew the house must have stood for centuries somewhere along the single street of Morsbronn, though I could not remember seeing any building in the village which, judging from the exterior, seemed likely to contain such a room as this.
The nearer and heavier cannon-shots had ceased, but the window-sashes hummed with the steady thunder of a battle going on somewhere among the mountains. Knowing the Alsatian frontier fairly well, I understood that a battle among the mountains must mean that our First Corps had been attacked, and that we were on the defensive on French soil.
The booming of the guns was unbroken, as steady and sustained as the eternal roar of a cataract. At moments I believed that I could distinguish the staccato crashes of platoon firing, but could not be certain in the swelling din.
As I lay there on my long, cushioned chair, burning with that insatiable thirst which, to thoroughly appreciate, one must be wounded, the door opened and a Turco soldier came into the room and advanced toward me on tip-toe.
He wore full uniform, was fully equipped, crimson chechia, snowy gaiters, and terrible sabre-bayonet.
I beckoned him, and the tall, bronzed fellow came up, smiling, showing his snowy, pointed teeth under a crisp beard.
"Water, Mustapha," I motioned with stiffened lips, and the good fellow unslung his blue water-bottle and set it to my burning mouth.
"Merci, mon brave!" I said. "May you dwell in Paradise with Ali, the fourth Caliph, the Lion of God!"
The Turco stared, muttered the Tekbir in a low voice, bent and kissed my hands.
"Were you once an officer of our African battalions?" he asked, in the Arab tongue.
"Sous-officier of spahi cavalry," I said, smiling. "And you are a Kabyle mountaineer from Constantine, I see."
"It is true as I recite the fatha," cried the great fellow, beaming on me. "We Kabyles love our officers and bear witness to the unity of God, too. I am a marabout, my inspector, Third Turcos, and I am anxious to have a Prussian ask me who were my seven ancestors."
The music of his long-forgotten tongue refreshed me; old scenes and memories of the camp at Oran, the never-to-be-forgotten cavalry with the scarlet cloaks, rushed on me thick and fast; incidents, trivial matters of the bazaars, faces of comrades dead, came to me in flashes. My eyes grew moist, my throat swelled, I whimpered:
"It is all very well, mon enfant, but I'm here with a hole in me stuffed full of lint, and you have your two good arms and as many legs with which to explain to the Prussians who your seven ancestors may be. Give me a drink, in God's name!"
Again he held up the blue water-bottle, saying, gravely: "We both worship the same God, my inspector, call Him what we will."
After a moment I said: "Is it a battle or a bousculade? But I need not ask; the cannon tell me enough. Are they storming the heights, Mustapha?"
"Macache comprendir," said the soldier, dropping into patois. "There is much noise, but we Turcos are here in Morsbronn, and we have seen nothing but sparrows."
I listened for a moment; the sound of the cannonade appeared to be steadily receding westward.
"It seems to me like retreat!" I said, sharply.
"Ritrite? Quis qui ci, ritrite?"
I looked at the simple fellow with tears in my eyes.
"You would not understand if I told you," said I. "Are you detailed to look after me?"
He said he was, and I informed him that I needed nobody; that it was much more important for everybody that he should rejoin his battalion in the street below, where even now I could hear the Algerian bugles blowing a silvery sonnerie—"Garde a vous!"
"I am Salah Ben-Ahmed, a marabout of the Third Turcos," he said, proudly, "and I have yet to explain to these Prussians who my seven ancestors were. Have I my inspector's permission to go?"
He was fairly trembling as the imperative clangor of the bugles rang through the street; his fine nostrils quivered, his eyes glittered like a cobra's.
"Go, Salah Ben-Ahmed, the marabout," said I, laughing.
The soldier stiffened to attention; his bronzed hand flew to his scarlet fez, and, "Salute! O my inspector!" he cried, sonorously, and was gone at a bound.
That breathless unrest which always seizes me when men are at one another's throats set me wriggling and twitching, and peering from the window, through which I could not see because of the blinds. Command after command was ringing out in the street below. "Forward!" shouted a resonant voice, and "Forward! forward! forward!" echoed the voices of the captains, distant and more distant, then drowned in the rolling of kettle-drums and the silvery clang of Moorish cymbals.
The band music of the Algerian infantry died away in the distant tumult of the guns; faintly, at moments, I could still hear the shrill whistle of their flutes, the tinkle of the silver chimes on their toug; then a blank, filled with the hollow roar of battle, then a clear note from their reeds, a tinkle, an echoing chime—and nothing, save the immense monotone of the cannonade.
I had been lying there motionless for an hour, my head on my hand, snivelling, when there came a knock at the door, and I hastily buttoned my blood-stained shirt to the throat, threw a tunic over my shoulders, and cried, "Come in!"
A trick of memory and perhaps of physical weakness had driven from my mind all recollection of the Countess de Vassart since I had come to my senses under the surgeon's probe. But at the touch of her fingers on the door outside, I knew her—I was certain that it could be nobody but my Countess, who had turned aside in her gentle pilgrimage to lift this Lazarus from the waysides of a hostile world.
She entered noiselessly, bearing a bowl of broth and some bread; but when she saw me sitting there with eyes and nose all red and swollen from snivelling she set the bowl on a table and hurried to my side.
"What is it? Is the pain so dreadful?" she whispered.
"No—oh no. I'm only a fool, and quite hungry, madame."
She brought the broth and bread and a glass of the most exquisite wine I ever tasted—a wine that seemed to brighten the whole room with its liquid sunshine.
"Do you know where you are?" she asked, gravely.
"Oh yes—in Morsbronn."
"And in whose house, monsieur?"
"I don't know—" I glanced instinctively at the tarnished coronet on the canopy above the bed. "Do you know, Madame la Comtesse?"
"I ought to," she said, faintly amused. "I was born in this room. It was to this house that I desired to come before—my exile."
Her eyes softened as they rested first on one familiar object, then on another.
"The house has always been in our family," she said. "It was once one of those fortified farms in the times when every hamlet was a petty kingdom—like the King of Yvetot's domain. Doubtless the ancient Trecourts also wore cotton night-caps for their coronets."
"I remember now," said I, "a stone turret wedged in between two houses. Is this it?"
"Yes, it is all that is left of the farm. My ancestors built this crazy old row of houses for their tenants."
After a silence I said, "I wish I could look out of the window."
She hesitated. "I don't suppose it could harm you?"
"It will harm me if I don't," said I.
She went to the window and folded up the varnished blinds.
"How dreadful the cannonade is growing," she said. "Wait! don't think of moving! I will push you close to the window, where you can see."
The tower in which my room was built projected from the rambling row of houses, so that my narrow window commanded a view of almost the entire length of the street. This street comprised all there was of Morsbronn; it lay between a double rank of houses constructed of plaster and beams, and surmounted by high-pointed gables and slated or tiled roofs, so fantastic that they resembled steeples.
Down the street I could see the house that I had left twenty-four hours before, never dreaming what my journey to La Trappe held in store for me. One or two dismounted soldiers of the Third Hussars sat in the doorway, listening to the cannon; but, except for these listless troopers, a few nervous sparrows, and here and there a skulking peasant, slinking off with a load of household furniture on his back, the street was deserted.
Everywhere shutters had been put up, blinds closed, curtains drawn. Not a shred of smoke curled from the chimneys of these deserted houses; the heavy gables cast sinister shadows over closed doors and gates barred and locked, and it made me think of an unseaworthy ship, prepared for a storm, so bare and battened down was this long, dreary commune, lying there in the August sun.
Beside the window, close to my face, was a small, square loop-hole, doubtless once used for arquebus fire. It tired me to lean on the window, so I contented myself with lying back and turning my head, and I could see quite as well through the loop-hole as from the window.
Lying there, watching the slow shadows crawling out over the sidewalk, I had been for some minutes thinking of my friend Mr. Buckhurst, when I heard the young Countess stirring in the room behind me.
"You are not going to be a cripple?" she said, as I turned my head.
"Oh no, indeed!" said I.
"Nor die?" she added, seriously.
"How could a man die with an angel straight from heaven to guard him! Pardon, I am only grateful, not impertinent." I looked at her humbly, and she looked at me without the slightest expression. Oh, it was all very well for the Countess de Vassart to tuck up her skirts and rake hay, and live with a lot of half-crazy apostles, and throw her fortune to the proletariat and her reputation to the dogs. She could do it; she was Eline Cyprienne de Trecourt, Countess de Vassart; and if her relatives didn't like her views, that was their affair; and if the Faubourg Saint-Germain emitted moans, that concerned the noble faubourg and not James Scarlett, a policeman attached to a division of paid mercenaries.
Oh yes, it was all very well for the Countess de Vassart to play at democracy with her unbalanced friends, but it was also well for Americans to remember that she was French, and that this was France, and that in France a countess was a countess until she was buried in the family vault, whether she had chosen to live as a countess or as Doll Dairymaid.
The young girl looked at me curiously, studying me with those exquisite gray eyes of hers. Pensive, distraite, she sat there, the delicate contour of her head outlined against the sunny window, which quivered with the slow boom! boom! of the cannonade.
"Are you English, Monsieur Scarlett?" she asked, quietly.
"And yet you take service under an emperor."
"I have taken harder service than that."
She was silent.
"Would it amuse you to hear what I have been?" I said, smiling.
"That is not the word," she said, quietly. "To hear of hardship helps one to understand the world."
The cannonade had been growing so loud again that it was with difficulty that we could make ourselves audible to each other. The jar of the discharges began to dislodge bits of glass and little triangular pieces of plaster, and the solid walls of the tower shook till even the mirror began to sway and the tarnished gilt sconces to quiver in their sockets.
"I wish you were not in Morsbronn," I said.
"I feel safer here in my own house than I should at La Trappe," she replied.
She was probably thinking of the dead Uhlan and of poor Bazard; perhaps of the wretched exposure of Buckhurst—the man she had trusted and who had proved to be a swindler, and a murderous one at that.
Suddenly a shell fell into the court-yard opposite, bursting immediately in a cloud of gravel which rained against our turret like hail.
Stunned for an instant, the Countess stood there motionless, her face turned towards the window. I struggled to sit upright.
She looked calmly at me; the color came back into her face, and in spite of my remonstrance she walked to the window, closed the heavy outside shutters and the blinds. As she was fastening them I heard the whizzing quaver of another shell, the racket of its explosion, the crash of plaster.
"Where is the safest place for us to stay?" she asked. Her voice was perfectly steady.
"In the cellar. I beg you to go at once."
Bang! a shell blew up in a shower of slates and knocked a chimney into a heap of bricks.
"Do you insist on staying by that loop-hole?" she asked, without a quiver in her voice.
"Yes, I do," said I. "Will you go to the cellar?"
"No," she said, shortly.
I saw her walk toward the rear of the room, hesitate, sink down by the edge of the bed and lay her face in the pillow.
Two shells burst with deafening reports in the street; the young Countess covered her face with both hands. Shell after shell came howling, whistling, whizzing into the village; the two hussars had disappeared, but a company of Turcos came up on a run and began to dig a trench across the street a hundred yards west of our turret.
How they made the picks and shovels fly! Shells tore through the air over them, bursting on impact with roof and chimney; the Turcos tucked up their blue sleeves, spat on their hands, and dug away like terriers, while their officers, smoking the eternal cigarette, coolly examined the distant landscape through their field-glasses.
Shells rained fast on Morsbronn; nearer and nearer bellowed the guns; the plaster ceiling above my head cracked and fell in thin flakes, filling the room with an acrid, smarting dust. Again and again metal fragments from shells rang out on the heavy walls of our turret; a roof opposite sank in; flames flickered up through clouds of dust; a heavy yellow smoke, swarming with sparks, rolled past my window.
Down the street a dull sound grew into a steady roar; the Turcos dropped pick and shovel and seized their rifles.
"Garde! Garde a vous!" rang their startled bugles; the tumult increased to a swelling uproar, shouting, cheering, the crash of shutters and of glass, and—
"The Prussians!" bellowed the captain. "Turcos—charge!"
His voice was lost; a yelling mass of soldiery burst into view; spiked helmets and bayonets glittering through the smoke, the Turcos were whirled about like brilliant butterflies in a tornado; the fusillade swelled to a stupefying din, exploding in one terrible crash; and, wrapped in lightning, the Prussian onset passed.
From the stairs below came the sound of a voiceless struggle, the trample and panting and clicking of steel, till of a sudden a voice burst out into a dreadful screaming. A shot followed—silence—another shot—then the stairs outside shook under the rush of mounting men.
As the door burst open I felt a touch on my arm; the Countess de Vassart stood erect and pale, one slender, protecting hand resting lightly on my shoulder; a lieutenant of Prussian infantry confronted us; straight, heavy sword drawn, rigid, uncompromising, in his faultless gray-and-black uniform, with its tight, silver waist-sash.
"I do not have you thrown into the street," he said to me, in excellent French, "because there has been no firing from the windows in this village. Otherwise—other measures. Be at ease, madame, I shall not harm your invalid."
He glanced at me out of his near-sighted eyes, dropped the point of his sword to the stone floor, and slowly caressed his small, blond mustache.
"How many troops passed through here yesterday morning?" he asked.
I was silent.
"There was artillery, was there not?"
I only looked at him.
"Do you hear?" he repeated, sharply. "You are a prisoner, and I am questioning you."
"You have that useless privilege," I observed.
"If you are insolent I will have you shot!" he retorted, staring haughtily at me.
I glanced out of the window.
There was a pause; the hand of the Countess de Vassart trembled on my shoulder.
Under the window strident Prussian bugles were blowing a harsh summons; the young officer stepped to the loop-hole and looked out, then hastily removed his helmet and thrust his blond head through the smoky aperture. "March those prisoners in below!" he shouted down.
Then he withdrew his head, put on his polished helmet of black leather, faced with the glittering Prussian eagle, and tightened the gold-scaled cheek-guard.
A moment later came a trample of feet on the landing outside, the door was flung open, and three prisoners were brutally pushed into the room.
I tried to turn and look at them; they stood in the dusk near the bed, but I could only make out that one was a Turco, his jacket in rags, his canvas breeches covered with mud.
Again the lieutenant came to the loop-hole and glanced out, then shook his head, motioning the soldiers back.
"It is too high and the arc of fire too limited," he said, shortly. "Detail four men to hold the stairs, ten men and a sergeant in the room below, and you'd better take your prisoners down there. Bayonet that Turco tiger if he shows his teeth again. March!"
As the prisoners filed out I turned once more and thought I recognized Salah Ben-Ahmed in the dishevelled Turco, but could not be certain, so disfigured and tattered the soldier appeared.
"Here, you hussar prisoner!" cried the lieutenant, pointing at me with his white-gloved finger, "turn your head and busy yourself with what concerns you. And you, madame," he added, pompously, "see that you give us no trouble and stay in this room until you have permission to leave."
"Are—are you speaking to me, monsieur?" asked the Countess, amazed. Then she rose, exasperated.
"Your insolence disgraces your uniform," she said. "Go to your French prisoners and learn the rudiments of courtesy!"
The officer reddened to his colorless eyebrows; his little, near-sighted eyes became stupid and fixed; he smoothed the blond down on his upper lip with hesitating fingers.
Suddenly he turned and marched out, slamming the door violently behind him.
At this impudence the eyes of the Countess began to sparkle, and an angry flush mounted to her cheeks.
"Madame," said I, "he is only a German boy, unbalanced by his own importance and his first battle. But he will never forget this lesson; let him digest it in his own manner."
And he did, for presently there came a polite knock at the door, and the lieutenant reappeared, bowing rigidly, one hand on his sword-hilt, the other holding his helmet by the gilt spike.
"Lieutenant von Eberbach present to apologize," he said, jerkily, red as a beet. "Begs permission to take a half-dozen of wine; men very thirsty."
"Lieutenant von Eberbach may take the wine," said the Countess, calmly.
"Rudeness without excuse!" muttered the boy; "beg the graciously well-born lady not to judge my regiment or my country by it. Can Lieutenant von Eberbach make amends?"
"The Lieutenant has made them," said the Countess. "The merciful treatment of French prisoners will prove his sincerity."
The lad made another rigid bow and got himself out of the door with more or less dignity, and the Countess drew a chair beside my sofa-chair and sat down, eyes still bright with the cinders of a wrath I had never suspected in her.
Together we looked down into the street.
Under the window the flat, high-pitched drums began to rattle; deep voices shouted; the whole street undulated with masses of gray-and-black uniforms, moving forward through the smoke. A superb regimental band began to play; the troops broke out into heavy cheering.
"Vorwaerts! Vorwaerts!" came the steady commands. The band passed with a dull flash of instruments; a thousand brass helmet-spikes pricked the smoke; the tread of the Prussian infantry shook the earth.
"The invasion has begun," I said.
Her face was expressionless, save for the brightness of her eyes.
And now another band sounded, playing "I Had a Comrade!" and the whole street began to ring with the noble marching-song of the coming regiment.
"Bavarian infantry," I whispered, as the light-blue columns wheeled around the curve and came swinging up the street; for I could see the yellow crown on the collars of their tunics, and the heavy leather helmets, surmounted by chenille rolls.
Behind them trotted a squadron of Uhlans on their dainty horses, under a canopy of little black-and-white flags fluttering from the points of their lances.
"Uhlans," I murmured. I heard the faint click of her teeth closing tightly.
Hussars in crimson tunics, armed with curious weapons, half carbine, half pistol, followed the Uhlans, filling the smoky street with a flood of gorgeous color.
Suddenly a company of Saxon pioneers arrived on the double-quick, halted, fell out, and began to break down the locked doors of the houses on either side of the street. At the same time Prussian infantry came hurrying past, dragging behind them dozens of vehicles, long hay-wagons, gardeners' carts, heavy wheelbarrows, even a dingy private carriage, with tarnished lamps, rocking crazily on rusty springs.
The soldiers wheeled these wagons into a double line, forming a complete chain across the street, where the Turcos had commenced to dig their ditch and breastworks—a barricade high enough to check a charge, and cunningly arranged, too, for the wooden abatis could not be seen from the eastern end of the street, where a charge of French infantry or cavalry must enter Morsbronn if it entered at all.
We watched the building of the barricade, fascinated. Soldiers entered the houses on either side of the street, only to reappear at the windows and thrust out helmeted heads. More soldiers came, running heavily—the road swarmed with them; some threw themselves flat under the wagons, some knelt, thrusting their needle-guns through the wheel-spokes; others remained standing, rifles resting over the rails of the long, skeleton hay-wagons.
"Something is going to happen," I said, as a group of smartly uniformed officers appeared on the roof of the opposite house and hastily scrambled to the ridge-pole.
Something was surely going to happen; the officers were using their field-glasses and pointing excitedly across the roof-tops; the windows of every house as far as I could see were black with helmets; a regiment in column came up on the double, halted, disintegrated, melting away behind walls, into yards, doorways, gardens.
A colonel of infantry, splendidly mounted, drew bridle under our loop-hole and looked up at the officers on the roof across the way.
"Attention, you up there!" he shouted. "Is it infantry?"
"No!" bawled an officer, hollowed hand to his cheek. "It's their brigade of heavy cavalry coming like an earthquake!"
"The cuirassiers!" I cried, electrified. "It's Michel's cuirassiers, madame! And—oh, the barricade!" I groaned, twisting my fingers in helpless rage. "They'll be caught in a trap; they'll die like flies in that street."
"This is horrible!" muttered the girl. "Don't they know the street is blocked? Can't they find out before they ride into this ravine below us? Will they all be killed here under our windows?"
She sprang to her feet, stood a moment, then stepped swiftly forward into the angle of the tower.
"Look there!" she cried, in terror.
"Push my chair—quick!" I said. She dragged it forward.
An old house across the street, which had been on fire, had collapsed into a mere mound of slate, charred beams, and plaster. Through the brown heat which quivered above the ruins I could see out into the country. And what I saw was a line of hills, crowned with smoke, a rolling stretch of meadow below, set here and there with shot-torn trees and hop-poles; and over this uneven ground two regiments of French cuirassiers and two squadrons of lancers moving slowly forward as though on parade.
Above them, around them, clouds of smoke puffed up suddenly and floated away—the shells from Prussian batteries on the heights. Long, rippling crashes broke out, belting the fields with smoky breastworks, where a Prussian infantry regiment, knee-deep in smoke, was firing on the advancing cavalry.
The cuirassiers moved on slowly, the sun a blinding sheet of fire on their armor; now and then a horse tossed his beautiful head, now and then a steel helmet turned, flashing.
Grief-stricken, I groaned aloud: "Madame, there rides the finest cavalry in the world!—to annihilation."
How could I know that they were coming deliberately to sacrifice themselves?—that they rode with death heavy on their souls, knowing well there was no hope, understanding that they were to die to save the fragments of a beaten army?
Yet something of this I suspected, for already I saw the long, dark Prussian lines overlapping the French flank; I heard the French mitrailleuses rattling through the cannon's thunder, and I saw an entire French division, which I did not then know to be Lartigue's, falling back across the hills.
And straight into the entire Prussian army rode the "grosse cavallerie" and the lancers.
"They are doomed, like their fathers," I muttered—"sons of the cuirassiers of Waterloo. See what men can do for France!"
The young Countess started and stood up very straight.
"Look, madame!" I said, harshly—"look on the men of France! You say you do not understand the narrow love of country! Look!"
"It is too pitiful, too horrible," she said, hoarsely. "How the horses fall in that meadow!"
"They will fall thicker than that in this street!"
"See!" she cried; "they have begun to gallop! They are coming! Oh, I cannot look!—I—I cannot!"
Far away, a thin cry sounded above the cannon din; the doomed cuirassiers were cheering. It was the first charge they had ever made; nobody had ever seen cavalry of their arm on any battle-field of Europe since Waterloo.
Suddenly their long, straight blades shot into the air, the cuirassiers broke into a furious gallop, and that mass of steel-clad men burst straight down the first slope of the plateau, through the Prussian infantry, then wheeled and descended like a torrent on Morsbronn.
In the first ranks galloped the giants of the Eighth Cuirassiers, Colonel Guiot de la Rochere at their head; the Ninth Cuirassiers thundered behind them; then came the lancers under a torrent of red-and-white pennons. Nothing stopped them, neither hedges nor ditches nor fallen trees.
Their huge horses bounded forward, manes in the wind, tails streaming, iron hoofs battering the shaking earth; the steel-clad riders, sabres pointed to the front, leaned forward in their saddles.
Now among the thicket of hop-vines long lines of black arose; there was a flash, a belt of smoke, another flash—then the metallic rattle of bullets on steel breastplates. Entire ranks of cuirassiers went down in the smoke of the Prussian rifles, the sinister clash and crash of falling armor filled the air. Sheets of lead poured into them; the rattle of empty scabbards on stirrups, the metallic ringing of bullets on helmet and cuirass, the rifle-shots, the roar of the shells exploding swelled into a very hell of sound. And, above the infernal fracas rose the heavy cheering of the doomed riders.
Into the deep, narrow street wheeled the horsemen, choking road and sidewalk with their galloping squadrons, a solid cataract of impetuous horses, a flashing torrent of armored men—and then! Crash! the first squadron dashed headlong against the barricade of wagons and went down.
Into them tore the squadron behind, unable to stop their maddened horses, and into these thundered squadron after squadron, unconscious of the dead wall ahead.
In the terrible tumult and confusion, screaming horses and shrieking men were piled in heaps, a human whirlpool formed at the barricade, hurling bodily from its centre horses and riders. Men galloped headlong into each other, riders struggled knee to knee, pushing, shouting, colliding.
Posted behind the upper and lower windows of the houses, the Prussians shot into them, so close that the flames from the rifles set the jackets of the cuirassiers on fire: a German captain opened the shutters of a window and fired his pistol at a cuirassier, who replied with a sabre thrust through the window, transfixing the German's throat.
Then a horrible butchery of men and horses began; the fusillade became so violent and the scene so sickening that a Prussian lieutenant went crazy in the house opposite, and flung himself from the window into the mass of writhing horsemen. Tall cuirassiers, in impotent fury, began slashing at the walls of the houses, breaking their heavy sabres to splinters against the stones; their powerful horses, white with foam, reared, fell back, crushing their riders beneath them.
In front of the barricade a huge fellow reined in his horse and turned, white-gloved hand raised, red epaulets tossing.
"Halt! Halt!" he shouted. "Stop the lancers!" And a trumpeter, disengaging himself from the frantic chaos, set his long, silver trumpet to his lips and blew the "Halt!"
A bullet rolled the trumpeter under his horse's feet; a volley riddled the other's horse, and the agonized animal reared and cleared the bristling abatis with a single bound, his rider dropping dead among the hay-wagons.
Then into this awful struggle galloped the two squadrons of the lancers. For a moment the street swam under their fluttering red-and-white lance-pennons, then a volley swept them—another—another—and down they went.
Herds of riderless horses tore through the street; the road undulated with crushed, quivering creatures crawling about. Against the doorway of a house opposite a noble horse in agony leaned with shaking knees, head raised, lips shrinking back over his teeth.
Bewildered, stupefied, exhausted, the cuirassiers sat in their saddles, staring up at the windows where the Prussians stood and fired. Now and then one would start as from a nightmare, turn his jaded horse, and go limping away down the street. The road was filled with horsemen, wandering helplessly about under the rain of bullets. One, a mere boy, rode up to a door, leaned from his horse and began to knock for admittance; another dismounted and sat down on a doorstep, head buried in his hands, regardless of the bullets which tore the woodwork around him.
The street was still crowded with entrapped cuirassiers, huddled in groups or riding up and down the walls mechanically seeking shelter. A few of these, dismounted, were wearily attempting to drag a heavy cart away from the barricade; the Prussians shot them, one at a time, but others came to help, and a few lancers aided them, and at length they managed to drag a hay-wagon aside, giving a narrow passage to the open country beyond. Instantly the Prussian infantry swarmed out of the houses and into the street, shouting, "Prisoners!" pushing, striking, and dragging the exhausted cuirassiers from their saddles. But contact with the enemy, hand to hand, seemed to revive the fury of the armored riders. The debris of the regiments closed up, long, straight sabres glittered, trembling horses plunged forward, broke into a stiff gallop, and passed through the infantry, through the rent in the barricade, and staggered away across the fields, buried in the smoke of a thousand rifles.
So rode the "Cuirassiers of Morsbronn," the flower of an empire's chivalry, the elect of France. So rode the gentlemen of the Sixth Lancers to shiver their slender spears against stone walls—for the honor of France.
Death led them. Death rode with them knee to knee. Death alone halted them. But their shining souls galloped on into that vast Valhalla where their ancestors of Waterloo stood waiting, and the celestial trumpets pealed a last "Dismount!"
THE GAME BEGINS
The room in the turret was now swimming in smoke and lime dust; I could scarcely see the gray figure of the Countess through the powder-mist which drifted in through shutters and loop-hole, dimming the fading daylight.
In the street a dense pall of pungent vapor hung over roof and pavement, motionless in the calm August air; two houses were burning slowly, smothered in smoke; through a ruddy fog I saw the dead lying in mounds, the wounded moving feebly, the Prussian soldiery tossing straw into the hay-carts that had served their deadly purpose.
But oh, the dreadful murmur that filled the heavy air, the tremulous, ceaseless plaint which comes from strong, muscular creatures, tenacious of life, who are dying and who die hard.
Helmeted figures swarmed through the smoke; wagon after wagon, loaded deep with dead cavalrymen, was drawn away by heavy teams of horses now arriving from the regimental transport train, which had come up and halted just at the entrance to the village.
And now wagon-loads of French wounded began to pass, jolting over crushed helmets, rifles, cuirasses, and the carcasses of dead horses.
A covey of Uhlans entered the shambles, picking their way across the wreckage of the battle, a slim, wiry, fastidious company, dainty as spurred gamecocks, with their helmet-cords swinging like wattles and their schapskas tilted rakishly.
Then the sad cortege of prisoners formed in the smoke, the wounded leaning on their silent comrades, bandaged heads hanging, the others erect, defiant, supporting the crippled or standing with arms folded and helmeted heads held high.
And at last they started, between two files of mounted Uhlans—Turcos, line infantrymen, gendarmes, lancers, and, towering head and shoulders above the others, the superb cuirassiers.
A German general and his smartly uniformed staff came clattering up the slippery street and halted to watch the prisoners defile. And, as the first of the captive cuirassiers came abreast of the staff, the general stiffened in his saddle and raised his hand to his helmet, saying to his officers, loud enough for me to hear:
"Salute the brave, gentlemen!"
And the silent, calm-eyed cuirassiers passed on, heads erect, uniforms in shreds, their battered armor foul with smoke and mud, spurs broken, scabbards empty.
Troops of captured horses, conducted by Uhlans, followed the prisoners, then wagons piled high with rifles, sabres, and saddles, then a company of Uhlans cantering away with the shot-torn guidons of the cuirassiers.
Last of all came the wounded in their straw-wadded wagons, escorted by infantry; I heard them coming before I saw them, and, sickened, I closed my ears with my hands; yet even then the deep, monotonous groaning seemed to fill the room and vibrate through the falling shadows long after the last cart had creaked out of sight and hearing into the gathering haze of evening.
The deadened booming of cannon still came steadily from the west, and it needed no messenger to tell me that the First Corps had been hurled back into Alsace, and that MacMahon's army was in full retreat; that now the Rhine was open and the passage of the Vosges was clear, and Strasbourg must stand siege and Belfort and Toul must man their battlements for a struggle that meant victory, or an Alsace doomed and a Lorraine lost to France forever.
The room had grown very dark, the loop-hole admitting but little of the smoky evening sunset. Some soldiers in the hallway outside finally lighted torches; red reflections danced over the torn ceiling and plaster-covered floor, illuminating a corner where the Countess was sitting by the bedside, her head lying on the covers. How long she had been there I did not know, but when I spoke she raised her head and answered quietly.
In the torch-light her face was ghastly, her eyes red and dim as she came over to me and looked out into the darkness.
The woman was shaken terribly, shaken to the very soul. She had not seen all that I had seen; she had flinched before the spectacle of a butchery too awful to look upon, but she had seen enough, and she had heard enough to support or to confound theories formed through a young girl's brief, passionless, eventless life.
Under the window soldiers began shooting the crippled horses; the heavy flash and bang of rifles set her trembling again.
Until the firing ceased she stood as though stupefied, scarcely breathing, her splendid hair glistening like molten copper in the red torches' glare.
A soldier came into the room and dragged the bedclothes from the bed, trailing them across the floor behind him as he departed. An officer holding a lantern peered through the door, his eye-glasses shining, his boots in his hand.
He evidently had intended to get into the bed, but when his gaze fell upon us he withdrew in his stockinged feet.
On the stairs soldiers were eating hunches of stale bread and knocking the necks from wine bottles with their bayonets. One lumpish fellow came to the door and offered me part of a sausage which he was devouring, a kindly act that touched me, and I wondered whether the other prisoners might find among their Uhlan guards the same humanity that moved this half-famished yokel to offer me the food he was gnawing.
Soldiers began to come and go in the room; some carried off chairs for officers below some took the pillows from the bed, one bore away a desk on his broad shoulders.
The Countess never moved or spoke.
The evening had grown chilly; I was cold to my knees.
A soldier offered to build me a fire in the great stone fireplace behind me, and when I assented he calmly smashed a chair to kindling-wood, wrenched off the heavy posts of the bed, and started a fire which lit up the wrecked room with its crimson glare.
The Countess rose and looked around. The soldier pushed my long chair to the blaze, tore down the canopy over the bed and flung it over me, stolidly ignoring my protests. Then he clumped out with his muddy boots and shut the door behind him.
For a long while I lay there, full in the heat of the fire, half dozing, then sleeping, then suddenly alert, only to look about me to see the Countess with eyes closed, motionless in her arm-chair, only to hear the muffled thunder of the guns in the dark.
Once again, having slept, I roused, listening. The crackle of the flames was all I heard; the cannon were silent. A few moments later a clock in the hallway struck nine times. At the same instant a deadened cannon-shot echoed the clamor of the clock. It was the last shot of the battle. And when the dull reverberations had died away Alsace was a lost province, MacMahon's army was in full retreat, leaving on the three battle-fields of Woerth, Reichshoffen, and Froeschweiler sixteen thousand dead, wounded, and missing soldiers of France.
All night long I heard cavalry traversing Morsbronn in an unbroken column, the steady trample of their horses never ceasing for an instant. At moments, from the outskirts of the village, the sinister sound of cheering came from the vanguard of the German Sixth Corps, just arriving to learn of the awful disaster to France. Too late to take any part in the battle, these tired soldiers stood cheering by regiments as the cavalry rode past in pursuit of the shattered army, and their cheering swelled to a terrific roar toward morning, when the Prince Royal of Prussia appeared with his staff, and the soldiers in Morsbronn rushed out into the street bellowing, "Hoch soll er leben! Er soll leben—Hoch!"
About seven o'clock that morning a gaunt, leather-faced Prussian officer, immaculate in his sombre uniform, entered the room without knocking. The young Countess turned in the depths of her chair; he bowed to her slightly, unfolded a printed sheet of paper which bore the arms of Prussia, hesitated, then said, looking directly at me:
"Morsbronn is now German territory and will continue to be governed by military law, proclaimed under the state of siege, until the country is properly pacified.
"Honest inhabitants will not be disturbed. Citizens are invited to return to their homes and peacefully continue their legitimate avocations, subject to and under the guarantee of the Prussian military government.
"Monsieur, I have the honor to hand you a copy of regulations. I am the provost marshal; all complaints should be brought to me."
I took the printed sheet and looked at the Prussian coat of arms.
"A list of the inhabitants of Morsbronn will be made to-day. You will have the goodness to declare yourself—and you also, madame. There being other buildings better fitted, no soldiers will be quartered in this house."
The officer evidently mistook me for the owner of the house and not a prisoner. A blanket hid my hussar trousers and boots; he could only see my ragged shirt.
"And now, madame," he continued, "as monsieur appears to need the services of a physician, I shall send him a French doctor, brought in this morning from the Chateau de la Trappe. I wish him to get well; I wish the inhabitants of my district to return to their homes and resume the interrupted regimes which have made this province of Alsace so valuable to France. I wish Morsbronn to prosper; I wish it well. This is the German policy.
"But, monsieur, let me speak plainly. I tolerate no treachery. The law is iron and will be applied with rigor. An inhabitant of my district who deceives me, or who commits an offence against the troops under my command, or who in any manner holds, or attempts to hold, communication with the enemy, will be shot without court-martial."
He turned his grim, inflexible face to the Countess and bowed, then he bowed to me, swung squarely on his heel, and walked to the door.
"Admit the French doctor," he said to the soldier on guard, and marched out, his curved sabre banging behind his spurred heels.
"It must be Dr. Delmont!" I said, looking at the Countess as there came a low knock at the door.
"I am very thankful!" she said, her voice almost breaking. She rose unsteadily from her chair; somebody entered the room behind me and I turned, calling out, "Welcome, doctor!"
"Thank you," replied the calm voice of John Buckhurst at my elbow.
The Countess shrank aside as Buckhurst coolly passed before her, turned his slim back to the embers of the fire, and fixed his eyes on me—those pale, slow eyes, passionless as death.
Here was a type of criminal I had never until recently known. Small of hand and foot—too small even for such a slender man—clean shaven, colorless in hair, skin, lips, he challenged instant attention by the very monotony of his bloodless symmetry. There was nothing of positive evil in his face, nothing of impulse, good or bad, nothing even superficially human. His spotless linen, his neat sack-coat and trousers of gray seemed part of him—like a loose outer skin. There was in his ensemble nothing to disturb the negative harmony, save perhaps an abnormal flatness of the instep and hands.
"My friend," he observed, in English, "do you think you will know me again when you have finished your scrutiny?"
The Countess, face averted, passed behind my chair.
"Wait," said Buckhurst; and turning directly to me, he added: "You were mistaken for a hussar at La Trappe; you were mistaken here for a hussar as long as the squad holding this house remained in Morsbronn. A few moments ago the provost mistook you for a civilian." He looked across at the Countess, who already stood with her hand on the door-knob.
"If you disturb me," he said, "I have only to tell the provost the truth. Members of the Imperial Police caught without proper uniform inside German lines are shot, seance tenante."
The Countess stood perfectly still a moment, then came straight to me.
"Is that true?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
She still leaned forward, looking down into my face. Then she turned to Buckhurst.
"Do you want money?" she asked.
"I want a chair—and your attention for the present," he replied, and seated himself.
The printed copy of the rules handed me by the provost marshal lay on the floor. Buckhurst picked up the sheet, glanced at the Prussian eagle, and thoughtfully began rolling the paper into a grotesque shape.
"Sit down, madame," he said, without raising his eyes from the bit of paper which he had now fashioned into a cocked hat.
After a moment's silent hesitation the Countess drew a small gilt chair beside my sofa-chair and sat down, and again that brave, unconscious gesture of protection left her steady hand lying lightly on my arm.
Buckhurst noted the gesture. And all at once I divined that whatever plan he had come to execute had been suddenly changed. He looked down at the paper in his hands, gave it a thoughtful twist, and, drawing the ends out, produced a miniature paper boat.
"We are all in one like that," he observed, holding it up without apparent interest. He glanced at the young Countess; her face was expressionless.
"Madame," said Buckhurst, in his peculiarly soft and persuasive voice, "I am not here to betray this gentleman; I am not here even to justify myself. I came here to make reparation, to ask your forgiveness, madame, for the wrong I have done you, and to deliver myself, if necessary, into the hands of the proper French authorities in expiation of my misguided zeal."
The Countess was looking at him now; he fumbled with the paper boat, gave it an unconscious twist, and produced a tiny paper box.
"The cause," he said, gently, "to which I have devoted my life must not suffer through the mistake of a fanatic; for in the cause of universal brotherhood I am, perhaps, a fanatic, and to aid that cause I have gravely compromised myself. I came here to expiate that folly and to throw myself upon your mercy, madame."
"I do not exactly understand," said I, "how you can expiate a crime here."
"I can at least make restitution," he said, turning the paper box over and over between his flat fingers.
"Have you brought me the diamonds which belong to the state?" I inquired, amused.
"Yes," he said, and to my astonishment he drew a small leather pouch from his pocket and laid it on my blanket-covered knees. "How many diamonds were there?" he asked.
"One hundred and three," I replied, incredulously, and opened the leather pouch. Inside was a bag of chamois-skin. This I stretched wide and emptied.
Scores of little balls of tissue-paper rolled out on the blanket over my knees; I opened one; it contained a diamond; I opened another, another, and another; diamonds lay blazing on my blanket, a whole handful, glittering in undimmed splendor.
"Count them," murmured Buckhurst, fashioning the paper box into a fly-trap with a lid.
With a quick movement I swept them into my hands, then one by one dropped the stones while I counted aloud one hundred and two diamonds. The one hundred and third jewel was, of course, safely in Paris.
When I had a second time finished the enumeration I leaned back in my chair, utterly at a loss to account for this man or for what he had done. As far as I could see there was no logic in it, nothing demonstrated, nothing proven. To me—and I am not either suspicious or obstinate by nature—Buckhurst was still an unrepentant thief and a dangerous one.
I could see in him absolutely nothing of the fanatic, of the generous, feather-headed devotee, nothing of the hasty disciple or the impulsive martyr. In my eyes he continued to be the passionless master-criminal, the cold, slow-eyed source of hidden evil, the designer of an intricate and viewless intrigue against the state.
His head remained bent over the paper toy in his hands. Was his hair gray with age or excesses, or was it only colorless like the rest of his exterior?
"Restitution is not expiation," he said, sadly, without looking up. "I loved the cause; I love it still; I practised deception, and I am here to ask this gentle lady to forgive me for an unworthy yet unselfish use of her money and her hospitality. If she can pardon me I welcome whatever punishment may be meted out."
The Countess dropped her elbow on the arm of my chair and rested her face in her hand.
"Swept away by my passion for the cause of universal brotherhood," said Buckhurst, in his low, caressing voice, "I ventured to spend this generous lady's money to carry the propaganda into the more violent centres of socialism—into the clubs in Montmartre and Belleville. There I urged non-resistance; I pleaded moderation and patience. What I said helped a little, I think—"
He hesitated, twisting his fly-box into a paper creature with four legs.
"I was eager; people listened. I thought that if I had a little more money I might carry on this work.... I could not come to you, madame—"
"Why not?" said the Countess, looking at him quickly. "I have never refused you money!"
"No," he said, "you never refused me. But I knew that La Trappe was mortgaged, that even this house in Morsbronn was loaded with debt. I knew, madame, that in all the world you had left but one small roof to cover you—the house in Morbihan, on Point Paradise. I knew that if I asked for money you would sell Paradise,... and I could not ask so much,... I could not bring myself to ask that sacrifice."
"And so you stole the crucifix of Louis XI.," I suggested, pleasantly.
He did not look at me, but the Countess did.
"Bon," I thought, watching Buckhurst's deft fingers; "he means to be taken back into grace. I wonder exactly why? And ... is it worth this fortune in diamonds to him to be pardoned by a penniless girl whom he and his gang have already stripped?"
"Could you forgive me, madame?" murmured Buckhurst.
"Would you explain that stick of dynamite first?" I interposed.
The Countess turned and looked directly at Buckhurst. He sat with humble head bowed, nimbly constructing a paper bird.
"That was not dynamite; it was concentrated phosphorus," he said, without resentment. "Naturally it burned when you lighted it, but if you had not burned it I could easily have shown Madame la Comtesse what it really was."
"I also," said I, "if I had thrown it at your feet, Mr. Buckhurst."
"Do you not believe me?" he asked, meekly, looking up at the Countess.
"Mr. Buckhurst," said the young Countess, turning to me, "has aided me for a long time in experiments. We hoped to find some cheap method of restoring nitrogen and phosphorus to the worn-out soil which our poor peasants till. Why should you doubt that he speaks the truth? At least he is guiltless of any connection with the party which advocated violence."
I looked at Buckhurst. He was engaged in constructing a multi-pointed paper star. What else was he busy with? Perhaps I might learn if I ceased to manifest distrust.
"Does concentrated phosphorus burn like dynamite?" I asked, as if with newly aroused interest.
"Did you not know it?" he said, warily.
But was he deceived by my manner? Was that the way for me to learn anything?
There was perhaps another way. Clearly this extraordinary man depended upon his persuasive eloquence for his living, for the very shoes on his little, flat feet, as do all such chevaliers of industry. If he would only begin to argue, if I could only induce him to try his eloquence on me, and if I could convince him that I myself was but an ignorant, self-centred, bullet-headed gendarme, doing my duty only because of perspective advancement, ready perhaps to take bribes—perhaps even weakly, covetously, credulous—well, perhaps I might possibly learn why he desired to cling to this poor young lady, whose life had evidently gone dreadfully to smash, to land her among such a coterie of thieves and lunatics.
"Mr. Buckhurst," I said, pompously, "in bringing these diamonds to me you have certainly done all in your power to repair an injury which concerned all France.
"As I am situated, of course I cannot now ask you to accompany me to Paris, where doubtless the proper authorities would gladly admit extenuating circumstances, and credit you with a sincere repentance. But I put you on your honor to surrender at the first opportunity."
It was as stupidly trite a speech as I could think of.
Buckhurst glanced up at me. Was he taking my measure anew, judging me from my bray?
"I could easily aid you to leave Morsbronn," he said, stealthily.
"O-ho," thought I, "so you're a German agent, too, as I suspected." But I said, aloud, simulating astonishment: "Do you mean to say, Mr. Buckhurst, that you would deliberately risk death to aid a police officer to bring you before a military tribunal in Paris?"
"I do not desire to pose as a hero or a martyr," he said, quietly, "but I regret what I have done, and I will do what an honest man can do to make the fullest reparation—even if it means my death."
I gazed at him in admiration—real admiration—because the gross bathos he had just uttered betrayed a weakness—vanity. Now I began to understand him; vanity must also lead him to undervalue men. True, with the faintest approach to eloquence he could no doubt hold the "Clubs" of Belleville spellbound; with self-effacing adroitness to cover stealthy persuasion, he had probably found little difficulty in dominating this inexperienced girl, who, touched to the soul with pity for human woe, had flung herself and her fortune to the howling proletariat.
But that he should so serenely undervalue me at my first bray was more than I hoped for. So I brayed again, the good, old, sentimental bray, for which all Gallic lungs are so marvellously fashioned:
"Monsieur, such sentiments honor you. I am only a rough soldier of the Imperial Police, but I am profoundly moved to find among the leaders of the proletariat such delicate and chivalrous emotions—" I hesitated. Was I buttering the sop too thickly?
Buckhurst, eyes bent on the floor, began picking to pieces his paper toy. Presently he looked up, not at me, but at the Countess, who sat with hands clasped earnestly watching him.
"If—if the state pardons me, can ... you?" he murmured.
She looked at him with intense earnestness. I saw he was sailing on the wrong tack.
"I have nothing to pardon," she said, gravely. "But I must tell you the truth, Mr. Buckhurst, I cannot forget what you have done. It was something—the one thing that I cannot understand—that I can never understand—something so absolutely alien to me that it—somehow—leaves me stunned. Don't ask me to forget it.... I cannot. I do not mean to be harsh and cruel, or to condemn you. Even if you had taken the jewels from me, and had asked my forgiveness, I would have given it freely. But I could not be as I was, a comrade to you."
There was a silence. The Countess, looking perfectly miserable, still gazed at Buckhurst. He dropped his gray, symmetrical head, yet I felt that he was listening to every minute sound in the room.
"You must not care what I say," she said. "I am only an unhappy woman, unused to the liberty I have given myself, not yet habituated to the charity of those blameless hearts which forgive everything! I am a novice, groping my way into a new and vast world, a limitless, generous, forgiving commune, where love alone dominates.... And if I had lived among my brothers long enough to be purged of those traditions which I have drawn from generations, I might now be noble enough and wise enough to say I do forgive and forget that you—"
"That you were once a thief," I ended, with the genial officiousness of the hopelessly fat-minded.
In the stillness I heard Buckhurst draw in his breath—once. Some day he would try to kill me for that; in the mean time my crass stupidity was no longer a question in his mind. I had hurt the Countess, too, with what she must have believed a fool's needless brutality. But it had to be so if I played at Jaques Bonhomme.
So I put the finishing whine to it—"Our Lord died between two thieves"—and relapsed into virtuous contemplation of my finger-tips.
"Madame," said Buckhurst, in a low voice, "your contempt of me is part of my penalty. I must endure it. I shall not complain. But I shall try to live a life that will at least show you my deep sincerity."
"I do not doubt it," said the Countess, earnestly. "Don't think that I mean to turn away from you or to push you away. There is nothing of the Pharisee in me. I would gladly trust you with what I have. I will consult you and advise with you, Mr. Buckhurst—"
"And ... despise me."
The unhappy Countess looked at me. It goes hard with a woman when her guide and mentor falls.
"If you return to Paradise, in Morbihan,... as we had planned, may I go," he asked, humbly, "only as an obscure worker in the cause? I beg, madame, that you will not cast me off."
So he wanted to go to Morbihan—to the village of Paradise? Why?
The Countess said: "I welcome all who care for the cause. You will never hear an unkind word from me if you desire to resume the work in Paradise. Dr. Delmont will be there; Monsieur Tavernier also, I hope; and they are older and wiser than I, and they have reached that lofty serenity which is far above my troubled mind. Ask them what you have asked of me; they are equipped to answer you."
It was time for another discord from me, so I said: "Madame, you have seen a thousand men lay down their lives for France. Has it not shaken your allegiance to that ghost of patriotism which you call the 'Internationale'?"
Here was food for thought, or rather fodder for asses—the Police Oracle turned missionary under the nose of the most cunning criminal in France and the vainest. Of course Buckhurst's contempt for me at once passed all bounds, and, secure in that contempt, he felt it scarcely worth while to use his favorite weapon—persuasion. Still, if the occasion should require it, he was quite ready, I knew, to loose his eloquence on the Countess, and on me too.
The Countess turned her troubled eyes to me.
"What I have seen, what I have thought since yesterday has distressed me dreadfully," she said. "I have tried to include all the world in a broader pity, a broader, higher, and less selfish love than the jealous, single-minded love for one country—"
"The mother-land," I said, and Buckhurst looked up, adding, "The world is the true mother-land."
Whereupon I appeared profoundly impressed at such a novel and epigrammatic view.
"There is much to be argued on both sides," said the young Countess, "but I am utterly unfitted to struggle with this new code of ethics. If it had been different—if I had been born among the poor, in misery!—But you see I come a pilgrim among the proletariat, clothed in conservatism, cloaked with tradition, and if at heart I burn with sorrow for the miserable, and if I gladly give what I have to help, I cannot with a single gesture throw off those inherited garments, though they tortured my body like the garment of Nessus."
I did not smile or respect her less for the stilted phrases, the pathetic poverty of metaphor. Profoundly troubled, struggling with a reserve the borders of which she strove so bravely to cross, her distress touched me the more because I knew it aroused the uneasy contempt of Buckhurst. Yet I could not spare her.
"You saw the cuirassiers die in the street below," I repeated, with the obstinacy of a limited intellect.
"Yes—and my heart went out to them," she replied, with an emphasis that pleased me and startled Buckhurst.
Buckhurst began to speak, but I cut him short.
"Then, madame, if your heart went out to the soldiers of France, it went out to France, too!"
"Yes—to France," she repeated, and I saw her lip begin to quiver.
"Wherein does love for France conflict with our creed, madame?" asked Buckhurst, gently. "It is only hate that we abjure."
She turned her gray eyes on him. "I will tell you: in that dreadful moment when the cavalry of France cheered Death in his own awful presence, I loved them and their country—my country!—as I had never loved in all my life.... And I hated, too! I hated the men who butchered them—more!—I hated the country where the men came from; I hated race and country and the blows they dealt, and the evil they wrought on France—my France! That is the truth; and I realize it!"
There was a silence; Buckhurst slowly unrolled the wrinkled paper he had been fingering.
"And now?" he asked, simply.
"Now?" she repeated. "I don't know—truly, I do not know." She turned to me sorrowfully. "I had long since thought that my heart was clean of hate, and now I don't know." And, to Buckhurst, again: "Our creed teaches us that war is vile—a savage betrayal of humanity by a few dominant minds; a dishonorable ingratitude to God and country. But from that window I saw men die for honor of France with God's name on their lips. I saw one superb cuirassier, trapped down there in the street, sit still on his horse, while they shot at him from every window, and I heard him call up to a Prussian officer who had just fired at him: 'My friend, you waste powder; the heart of France is cuirassed by a million more like me!'" A rich flush touched her face; her gray eyes grew brighter.
"Is there a Frenchwoman alive whose blood would not stir at such a scene?" she said. "They shot him through his armor, his breastplate was riddled, he clung to his horse, always looking up at the riflemen, and I heard the bullets drumming on his helmet and his cuirass like hailstones on a tin roof, and I could not look away. And all the while he was saying, quietly: 'It is quite useless, friends; France lives! You waste your powder!' and I could not look away or close my eyes—"
She bent her head, shivering, and her interlocked fingers whitened.
"I only know this," she said: "I will give all I have—I will give my poor self to help the advent of that world-wide brotherhood which must efface national frontiers and end all war in this sad world. But if you ask me, in the presence of war, to look on with impartiality, to watch my own country battling for breath, to stop my ears when a wounded mother-land is calling, to answer the supreme cry of France with a passionless cry, 'Repent!' I cannot do it—I will not! I was not born to!"
Deeply moved, she had risen, confronting Buckhurst, whose stone-cold eyes were fixed on her.
"You say I hold you unworthy," she said. "Others may hold me, too, unworthy because I have not reached that impartial equipoise whence, impassive, I can balance my native land against its sins and watch blind justice deal with it all unconcerned.
"In theory I have done it—oh, it is simple to teach one's soul in theory! But when my eyes saw my own land blacken and shrivel like a green leaf in the fire, and when with my own eyes I saw the best, the noblest, the crown of my country's chivalry fall rolling in the mud of Morsbronn under the feet of Prussia, every drop of blood in my body was French—hot and red and French! And it is now; and it will always be—as it has always been, though I did not understand."
After a silence Buckhurst said: "All that may be, madame, yet not impair your creed."
"What!" she said, "does not hatred of the stranger impair my creed?"
"It will die out and give place to reason."
"When? When I attain the lofty, dispassionate level I have never attained? That will not be while this war endures."
"Who knows?" said Buckhurst, gently.
"I know!" replied the Countess, the pale flames in her cheeks deepening again.
"And yet," observed Buckhurst, patiently, "you are going to Paradise to work for the Internationale."
"I shall try to do my work and love France," she said, steadily. "I cannot believe that one renders the other impossible."
"Yet," said I, "if you teach the nation non-resistance, what would become of the armies of France?"
"I shall not teach non-resistance until we are at peace," she said—"until there is not a German soldier left in France. After that I shall teach acquiescence and personal liberty."
I looked at her very seriously; logic had no dwelling-place within her tender and unhappy heart.
And what a hunting-ground was that heart for men like Buckhurst! I could begin to read that mouse-colored gentleman now, to follow, after a fashion, the intricate policy which his insolent mind was shaping—shaping in stealthy contempt for me and for this young girl. Thus far I could divine the thoughts of Mr. Buckhurst, but there were other matters to account for. Why did he choose to spare my life when a word would have sent me before the peloton of execution? Why had he brought to me the fortune in diamonds which he had stolen? Why did he eat humble-pie before a young girl from whom he and his companions had wrung the last penny? Why did he desire to go to Morbihan and be received among the elect in the Breton village of Paradise?
I said, abruptly: "So you are not going to denounce me to the Prussian provost?"
He lifted his well-shaped head and gazed at the Countess with an admirable pathos which seemed a mute appeal for protection from brutality.
"That question is a needless one," said the Countess, quietly. "It was a cruel one, also, Monsieur Scarlett."
"I did not mean it as an offensive question," said I. "I was merely reciting a fact, most creditable to Mr. Buckhurst. Mon Dieu, madame, I am an officer of Imperial Police, and I have lived to hear blunt questions and blunter answers. And if it be true that Monsieur Buckhurst desires to atone for—for what has happened, then it is perfectly proper for me, even as a prisoner myself, to speak plainly."
I meant this time to thoroughly convince Buckhurst of my ability to gabble platitude. My desire that he should view me as a typical gendarme was intense.
So I coughed solemnly behind my hand, knit my eyebrows, and laid one finger alongside of my nose.
"Is it not my duty, as a guardian of national interests, to point out to Mr. Buckhurst his honest errors? Certainly it is, madame, and this is the proper time."
Turning pompously to Buckhurst, I fancied I could almost detect a sneer on that inexpressive mask he wore—at least I hoped I could, and I said, heavily:
"Monsieur, for a number of years there has passed under our eyes here in France certain strange phenomena. Thousands of Frenchmen have, so to speak, separated themselves from the rest of the nation.
"All the sentiments that the nation honors itself by professing these other Frenchmen rebuke—the love of country, public spirit, accord between citizens, social repose, and respect for communal law and order—these other Frenchmen regard as the hallucinations of a nation of dupes.
"Separated by such unfortunate ideas from the nation within whose boundaries they live, they continue to abuse, even to threaten, the society and the country which gives them shelter.
"France is only a name to them; they were born there, they live there, they derive their nourishment from her without gratitude. But France is nothing to them; their mother-land is the Internationale!"
I was certain now that the shadow of a sneer had settled in the corners of Buckhurst's thin lips.
"I do not speak of anarchists or of terrorists," I continued, nodding as though profoundly impressed by my own sagacity. "I speak of socialists—that dangerous society to which the cry of Karl Marx was addressed with the warning, 'Socialists! Unite!'
"The government has reason to fear socialism, not anarchy, for it will never happen in France, where the passion for individual property is so general, that a doctrine of brutal destruction could have the slightest chance of success.
"But wait, here is the point, Monsieur Buckhurst. Formerly the name of 'terrorist' was a shock to the entire civilized world; it evoked the spectres of a year that the world can never forget. And so our modern reformers, modestly desiring to evade the inconveniences of such memories among the people, call themselves the 'Internationale.' Listen to them; they are adroit, they blame and rebuke violence, they condemn anarchy, they would not lay their hands on public or individual property—no, indeed!
"Ah, madame, but you should hear them in their own clubs, where the ladies and gentlemen of the gutters, the barriers, and the abattoirs discuss 'individual property,' 'the tyranny of capital,' and similar subjects which no doubt they are peculiarly fitted to discuss.
"Believe me, madame, the little coterie which you represent is already the dupe and victim of this terrible Internationale. Their leaders work their will through you; a vast conspiracy against all social peace is spread through your honest works of mercy. The time is coming when the whole world will rise to combat this Internationale; and when the mask is dragged from its benignant visage, there, grinning behind, will appear the same old 'Spectre Rouge,' torch in one hand, gun in the other, squatting behind a barricade of paving-blocks."
I wagged my head dolefully.
"I could not have rested had I not warned Mr. Buckhurst of this," I said, sentimentally.
Which was fairly well done, considering that I was figuratively lamenting over the innocence of the most accomplished scoundrel that ever sat in the supreme council of the Internationale.
Buckhurst looked thoughtfully at the floor.
"If I thought," he murmured—"if I believed for one instant—"
"Believe me, my dear sir," I said, "that you are playing into the hands of the wickedest villains on earth!"
"Your earnestness almost converts me," he said, lifting his stealthy eyes.
The Countess appeared weary and perplexed.
"At all events," she said, "we must do nothing to embarrass France now; we must do nothing until this frightful war is ended."
After a silence Buckhurst said, "But you will go to Paradise, madame?"
"Yes," replied the Countess, listlessly.
Now, what in Heaven's name attracted that rogue to Paradise?
A STRUGGLE FORESHADOWED
I took my breakfast by the window, watching the German soldiery cleaning up Morsbronn. For that wonderful Teutonic administrative mania was already manifesting itself while ruined houses still smoked; method replaced chaos, order marched on the heels of the Prussian rear-guard, which enveloped Morsbronn in a whirlwind of Uhlans, and left it a silent, blackened landmark in the August sunshine.
Soldiers in canvas fatigue-dress, wearing soft, round, visorless caps, were removing the debris of the fatal barricade; soldiers with shovel and hoe filled in the trenches and raked the long, winding street clean of all litter; soldiers with trowel and mortar were perched on shot-torn houses, mending chimneys and slated roofs so that their officers might enjoy immunity from rain and wind and defective flues.
In the court-yards and stables I could see cavalrymen in stable-jackets, whitewashing walls and out-buildings and ill-smelling stalls, while others dug shovelfuls of slaked lime from wheelbarrows and spread it through stable-yards and dirty alleys. Everywhere quiet, method, order, prompt precision reigned; I even noticed a big, red-fisted artilleryman tying up tall, blue larkspurs, dahlias, and phlox in a trampled garden, and he touched the ragged masses of bloom with a tenderness peculiar to a flower-loving and sentimental people, whose ultimate ambition is a quart of beer, a radish, and a green leaf overhead.
At the corners of the walls and blind alleys, placards in French and German were posted, embodying regulations governing the village under Prussian military rule. The few inhabitants of Morsbronn who had remained in cellars during the bombardment shuffled up to read these notices, or to loiter stupidly, gaping at the Prussian eagles surmounting the posters.
A soldier came in and started the fire in my fireplace. When he went out I drew my code-book from my breeches-pocket and tossed it into the fire. After it followed my commission, my memoranda, and every scrap of writing. The diamonds I placed in the bosom of my flannel shirt.
Toward one o'clock I heard the shrill piping of a goat-herd, and I saw him, a pallid boy, clumping along in his wooden shoes behind his two nanny-goats, while the German soldiers, peasants themselves, looked after him with curious sympathy.
A little later a small herd of cattle passed, driven to pasture by a stolid Alsatian, who replied to the soldiers' questions in German patois and shrugged his heavy shoulders like a Frenchman.
A cock crowed occasionally from some near dunghill; once I saw a cat serenely following the course of a stucco wall, calm, perfectly self-composed, ignoring the blandishments of the German soldiers, who called, "Komm mitz! mitz!" and held out bits of sausage and black bread.
A German ambulance surgeon arrived to see me in the afternoon. The Countess was busy somewhere with Buckhurst, who had come with news for her, and the German surgeon's sharp double rap at the door did not bring her, so I called out, "Entrez donc!" and he stalked in, removing his fatigue-cap, which action distinguished him from his brother officers.
He was a tall, well-built man, perfectly uniformed in his double-breasted frocked tunic, blue-eyed, blond-bearded, and immaculate of hand and face, a fine type of man and a credit to any army.
After a brief examination he sat down and resumed a very bad cigar, which had been smouldering between his carefully kept fingers.
"Do you know," he said, admiringly, "that I have never before seen just such a wound. The spinal column is not even grazed, and if, as I understand from you, you suffered temporarily from complete paralysis of the body below your waist, the case is not only interesting but even remarkable."
"Is the superficial lesion at all serious?" I asked.
"Not at all. As far as I can see the blow from the bullet temporarily paralyzed the spinal cord. There is no fracture, no depression. I do not see why you should not walk if you desire to."
"Try it," he said, briefly.
I tried. Apart from a certain muscular weakness and a great fatigue, I found it quite possible to stand, even to move a few steps. Then I sat down again, and was glad to do so.
The doctor was looking at my legs rather grimly, and it suddenly flashed on me that I had dropped my blanket and he had noticed my hussar's trousers.
"So," he said, "you are a military prisoner? I understood from the provost marshal that you were a civilian."
As he spoke Buckhurst appeared at the door, and then sauntered in, quietly greeting the surgeon, who looked around at the sound of his footsteps on the stone floor. There was no longer a vestige of doubt in my mind that Buckhurst was a German agent, or at least that the Germans believed him to be in their pay. And doubtless he was in their pay, but to whom he was faithful nobody could know with any certainty.
"How is our patient, doctor?" he asked.
"Convalescent," replied the doctor, shortly, as though not exactly relishing the easy familiarity of this pale-eyed gentleman in gray.
"Can he travel to-day?" inquired Buckhurst, without apparent interest.
"Before he travels," said the officer, "it might be well to find out why he wears part of a hussar uniform."
"I've explained that to the provost," observed Buckhurst, examining his well-kept finger-nails. "And I have a pass for him also—if he is in a fit condition to travel."
The officer gave him a glance full of frank dislike, adjusted his sabre, pulled on his white gloves, and, bowing very slightly to me, marched straight out of the room and down the stairs without taking any notice of Buckhurst. The latter looked after the officer, then his indifferent eyes returned to me. Presently he sat down and produced a small slip of paper, which he very carefully twisted into a cocked hat.
"I suppose you doubt my loyalty to France," he said, intent on his bit of paper.
Then, logically continuing my role of the morning, I began to upbraid him for a traitor and swear that I would not owe my salvation to him, and all the while he was calmly transforming his paper from one toy into another between deft, flat fingers.
"You are unjust and a trifle stupid," he said. "I am paid by Prussia for information which I never give. But I have the entre of their lines. I do it for the sake of the Internationale. The Internationale has a few people in its service ... And it pays them well."
He looked squarely at me as he said this. I almost trembled with delight: the man undervalued me, he had taken me at my own figure, and now, holding me in absolute contempt, he was going to begin on me.
"Scarlett," he said, "what does the government pay you?"
I began to protest in a torrent of patriotism and sentimentality. He watched me impassively while I called Heaven to witness and proclaimed my loyalty to France, ending through sheer breathlessness in a maundering, tearful apotheosis where mixed metaphors jostled each other—the government, the Emperor, and the French flag, consecrated in blood—and finally, calling his attention to the fact that twenty centuries had once looked down on this same banner, I collapsed in my chair and gave him his chance.
He took it. With subtle flattery he recognized in me a powerful arm of a corrupt Empire, which Empire he likened to the old man who rode Sindbad the Sailor. He admitted my noble loyalty to France, pointing out, however, that devotion to the Empire was not devotion to France, but the contrary. Skilfully he pictured the unprepared armies of the Empire, huddled along the frontier, seized and rent to fragments, one by one; adroitly he painted the inevitable ending, the armies that remained cut off and beaten in detail.
And as I listened I freely admitted to myself that I had undervalued him; that he was no crude Belleville orator, no sentimental bathos-peddling reformer, no sansculotte with brains ablaze, squalling for indiscriminate slaughter and pillage; he was a cool student in crime, taking no chances that he was not forced to take, a calm, adroit, methodical observer, who had established a theory and was carefully engaged in proving it.
"Scarlett," he said, in English, "let us come to the point. I am a mercenary American; you are an American mercenary, paid by the French government. You care nothing for that government or for the country; you would drop both to-day if your pay ceased. You and I are outsiders; we are in the world to watch our chances. And our chance is here."
He unfolded the creased bit of paper and spread it out on his knees, smoothing it thoughtfully.
"What do I care for the Internationale?" he asked, blandly. "I am high in its councils; Karl Marx knows less about the Internationale than do I. As for Prussia and France—bah!—it's a dog-fight to me, and I lack even the interest to bet on the German bull-dog.
"You will know me better some day, and when you do you will know that I am a man who has determined to get rich if I have to set half of France against the other half and sack every bank in the Empire.
"And now the time is coming when the richest city in Europe will be put to the sack. You don't believe it? Yet you shall live to see Paris besieged, and you shall live to see Paris surrender, and you shall live to see the Internationale rise up from nowhere, seize the government by the throat, and choke it to death under the red flag of universal—ahem!... license"—the faintest sneer came into his pallid face—"and every city of France shall be a commune, and we shall pass from city to city, leisurely, under the law—our laws, which we will make—and I pity the man among us who cannot place his millions in the banks of England and America!"
He began to worry the creased bit of paper again, stealthy eyes on the floor.
"The revolt is as certain as death itself," he said. "The Society of the Internationale honeycombs Europe—your police archives show you that—and I tell you that, of the two hundred thousand soldiers of the national guard in Paris to-day, ninety per cent. are ours—ours, soul and body. You don't believe it? Wait!
"Yet, for a moment, suppose I am right? Where are the government forces? Who can stop us from working our will? Not the fragments of beaten and exhausted armies! Not the thousands of prisoners which you will see sent into captivity across the Rhine! What has the government to lean on—a government discredited, impotent, beaten! What in the world can prevent a change, an uprising, a revolution? Why, even if there were no such thing as the Internationale and its secret Central Committee—to which I have the honor to belong"—and here his sneer was frightful—"I tell you that before a conquering German army had recrossed the Rhine this land of chattering apes would be tearing one another for very want of a universal scape-goat.
"But that is exactly where we come into the affair. We find the popular scape-goat and point him out—the government, my friend. And all we have to do is to let the mob loose, stand back, and count profits."
He leaned forward in his chair, idly twisting his crumpled bit of paper in one hand.
"I am not fool enough to believe that our reign will last," he said. "It may last a month, two months, perhaps three. Then we leaders will be at one another's throats—and the game is up! It's always so—mob rule can't last—it never has lasted and never will. But the prudent man will make hay before the brief sunshine is ended; I expect to economize a little, and set aside enough—well, enough to make it pay, you see."
He looked up at me quietly.
"I am perfectly willing to tell you this, even if you used your approaching liberty to alarm the entire country, from the Emperor to the most obscure scullion in the Tuileries. Nothing can stop us now, nothing in the world can prevent our brief reign. Because these things are certain, the armies of France will be beaten—they are already beaten. Paris will hold out; Paris will fall; and with Paris down goes France! And as sure as the sun shall rise on a conquered people, so sure shall rise that red spectre we call the Internationale."
The man astonished me. He put into words a prophecy which had haunted me from the day that war was declared—a prophetic fear which had haunted men higher up in the service of the Empire—thinking men who knew what war meant to a country whose government was as rotten as its army was unprepared, whose political chiefs were as vain, incompetent, ignorant, and weak as were the chiefs of its brave army—an army riddled with politics, weakened by intrigue and neglect—an army used ignobly, perverted, cheated, lied to, betrayed, abandoned.
That, for once, Buckhurst spoke the truth as he foresaw it, I did not question. That he was right in his infernal calculations, I was fearsomely persuaded. And now the game had advanced, and I must display what cards I had, or pretended to have.
"Are you trying to bribe me?" I blurted out, weakly.
"Bribe you," he repeated, in contempt. "No. If the prospect does not please you, I have only to say a word to the provost marshal."
"Wouldn't that injure your prospects with the Countess?" I said, with fat-brained cunning. "You cannot betray me and hope for her friendship."
He glanced up at me, measured my mental capacity, then nodded.
"I can't force you that way," he admitted.
"He's bound to get to Paradise. Why?" I wondered, and said, aloud:
"What do you want of me?"
"I want immunity from the secret police, Mr. Scarlett."
"Wherever I may be."
I was silent for a moment, then, looking him in the eye, "What do I gain?"
Ah, the cat was out now. Buckhurst did not move, but I saw the muscles of his face relax, and he drew a deep, noiseless breath.
"Well," he said, coolly, "you may keep those diamonds, for one thing."
Presently I said, "And for the next thing?"
"You are high-priced, Mr. Scarlett," he observed.
"Oh, very," I said, with that offensive, swaggering menace in my voice which is peculiar to the weak criminal the world over.
So I asserted myself and scowled at him and told him I was no fool and taunted him with my importance to his schemes and said I was not born yesterday, and that if Paris was to be divided I knew what part I wanted and meant to stand no nonsense from him or anybody.
All of which justified the opinion he had already formed of me, and justified something else, too—his faith in his own eloquence, logic, and powers of persuasion. Not that I meant to make his mistake and undervalue him; he was an intelligent, capable, remarkable criminal—with the one failing—an overconfident contempt of all men.
"There is one thing I want to ask you," said I. "Why do you desire to go to Paradise?"
He did not answer me at once, and I studied his passionless profile as he gazed out of the window.
"Well," he said, slowly, "I shall not tell you."
"Why not?" I demanded.
"—But I'll say this," he continued. "I want you to come to Paradise with me and that fool of a woman. I want you to report to your government that you are watching the house in Paradise, and that you are hoping to catch me there."
"How can I do that?" I asked. "As soon as the government catches the Countess de Vassart she will be sent across the frontier."
"Not if you inform your government that you desire to use her and the others as a bait to draw me to Paradise."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" I asked, thoughtfully.
"Yes," said Buckhurst, "that's it."
"And you do not desire to inform me why you are going to stay in Paradise?"
"Don't you think you'll be clever enough to find out?" he asked, with a sneer.
I did think so; more than that, I let him see that I thought so, and he was contented with my conceit.
"One thing more," I said, blustering a little, "I want to know whether you mean any harm to that innocent girl?"
"Who? The Countess? What do you mean? Harm her? Do you think I waste my thoughts on that little fool? She is not a factor in anything—except that just now I'm using her and mean to use her house in Paradise."
"Haven't you stripped her of every cent she has?" I asked. "What do you want of her now?" And I added something about respect due to women.
"Oh yes, of course," he said, with a vague glance at the street below. "You need not worry; nobody's going to hurt her—" He suddenly shifted his eyes to me. "You haven't taken a fancy to her, have you?" he asked, in faint disgust.
I saw that he thought me weak enough for any sentiment, even a noble one.
"If you think it pays," he muttered, "marry her and beat her, for all I care; but don't play loose with me, my friend; as a plain matter of business it won't pay you."
"Is that a threat?" I asked, in the bullying tone of a born coward.
"No, not a threat, a plain matter of profit and loss, a simple business proposition. For, suppose you betray me—and, by a miracle, live to boast of it? What is your reward? A colonelcy in the Military Police with a few thousand francs salary, and, in your old age, a pension which might permit you to eat meat twice a week. Against that, balance what I offer—free play in a helpless city, and no one to hinder you from salting away as many millions as you can carry off!"
Presently I said, weakly, "And what, once more, is the service you ask of me?"
"I ask you to notify the government that you are watching Paradise, that you do not arrest the Countess and Dr. Delmont because you desire to use them as a bait to catch me."
"Is that all?"
"That is all. We will start for Paris together; I shall leave you before we get there. But I'll see you later in Paradise."
"You refuse to tell me why you wish to stay at the house in Paradise?"
"Yes,... I refuse. And, by-the-way, the Countess is to think that I have presented myself in Paris and that the government has pardoned me."
"You are willing to believe that I will not have you arrested?"
"I don't ask you to promise. If you are fool enough to try it—try it! But I'm not going to give you the chance in Paris—only in Paradise."
"You don't require my word of honor?"
"Word of—what? Well—no;... it's a form I can dispense with."
"But how can you protect yourself?"
"If all the protection I had was a 'word of honor,' I'd be in a different business, my friend."
"And you are willing to risk me, and you are perfectly capable of taking care of yourself?"
"I think so," he said, quietly.
"Trusting to my common-sense as a business man not to be fool enough to cut my own throat by cutting yours?" I persisted.
"Exactly, and trusting to a few other circumstances, the details of which I beg permission to keep to myself," he said, with a faint sneer.
He rose and walked to the window; at the same moment I heard the sound of wheels below.
"I believe that is our carriage," he said. "Are you ready to start, Mr. Scarlett?"
"Now?" I exclaimed.
"Why not? I'm not in the habit of dawdling over anything. Come, sir, there is nothing very serious the matter with you, is there?"