I said nothing; he knew, of course, the exact state of the wound I had received, that the superficial injury was of no account, that the shock had left me sound as a silver franc though a trifle weak in the hips and knees.
"Is the Countess de Vassart to go with us?" I asked, trying to find a reason for these events which were succeeding one another too quickly to suit me.
He gave me an absent-minded nod; a moment later the Countess entered. She had mended her black crepe gown where I tore it when I hung in the shadow of death under the battlements of La Trappe. She wore black gloves, a trifle shabby, and carried a worn satchel in her hands.
Buckhurst aided me to rise, the Countess threw my hussar jacket over my shoulders and buttoned it; I felt the touch of her cool, little fingers on my hot, unshaved throat.
"I congratulate you on your convalescence," she said, in a low voice. "Lean on me, monsieur."
My head swam; hips and knees were without strength; she aided me down the stairway and out into the pale sunshine, where stood the same mud-splashed, rusty vehicle which had brought us hither from La Trappe.
The Countess had only a satchel and a valise; Buckhurst's luggage comprised a long, flat, steel-bound box, a satchel, and a parcel. I had nothing. My baggage, which I had left in Morsbronn, had without doubt been confiscated long since; my field-glasses, sabre, and revolver were gone; I had only what clothes I was wearing—a dirty, ragged, gray-blue flannel shirt, my muddy jacket, scarlet riding-breeches, and officer's boots. But in one of the hip-pockets of my breeches I carried a fortune in diamonds.
As I stood beside the carriage, wondering how I was going to get in, I felt an arm slip under my neck and another slide gently under my knees, and Buckhurst lifted me. Beneath the loose, gray coat-sleeves his bent arms were rigid as steel; his supple frame straightened; he moved a step forward and laid me on the shabby cushions.
The Countess looked at me, turned and glanced up at her smoke-blackened house, where a dozen Prussian soldiers leaned from the lower windows smoking their long porcelain pipes and the provost marshal stood in the doorway, helmeted, spurred, immaculate from golden cheek-guard to the glittering tip of his silver scabbard. An Uhlan, dismounted, stood on guard below the steps, his lance at a "present," the black-and-white swallow-tailed pennon drooping from the steel point.
The Countess bent her pretty head under its small black hat; the provost's white-gloved hand flew to his helmet peak.
"Fear nothing, madame," he said, pompously. "Your house and its contents are safe until you return. This village is now German soil."
The Countess looked at him steadily, gravely.
"I thank you, monsieur, but frontiers are not changed in a day."
But she was mistaken. Alsace henceforth must be written Elsass, and the devastated province called Lothringen was never again to be written Lorraine.
The Countess stepped into the carriage and took her place beside me; Buckhurst followed, seating himself opposite us, and the Alsatian driver mounted to the box.
"Your safe-conduct carries you to the French outposts at Saverne," said the provost, dryly. "If there are no longer French outposts at Saverne, you may demand a vise for your pass and continue south to Strasbourg."
Buckhurst half turned towards the driver. "Allez," he said, quietly, and the two gaunt horses moved on.
There was a chill in the white sunshine—the first touch of autumn. Not a trace of the summer's balm remained in the air; every tree on the mountain outlines stood out sharp-cut in the crystalline light; the swift little streams that followed the road ran clear above autumn-brown pebbles and golden sands.
Distant beachwoods were turning yellow; yellow gorse lay like patches of sunshine on the foot-hills; oceans of yellow grain belted the terraced vineyards. Here and there long, velvety, black strips cut the green and gold, the trail of fire which had scarred the grain belts; here and there pillars of smoke floated, dominating blue woodlands, where the flames of exploding shells had set the forest afire.
Already from the plateau I could see a streak of silver reflecting the intense blue sky—the Rhine, upon whose westward cliffs France had mounted guard but yesterday.
And now the Rhine was lost, and the vast granite bastions of the Vosges looked out upon a sea of German forests. Above the Col du Pigeonnier the semaphore still glistened, but its signals now travelled eastward, and strange flags fluttered on its invisible halliards. And every bridge was guarded by helmeted men who halted us, and every tunnel was barred by mounted Uhlans who crossed their lances to the ominous shout: "Wer da? On ne basse bas!" The Vosges were literally crawling with armed men!
Driving slowly along the base of the hills, I had glimpses of rocky defiles which pierced the mountain wall; and through every defile poured infantry and artillery in unbroken columns, and over every mountain pass streamed endless files of horsemen. Railroad tunnels were choked with slowly moving trains piled high with artillery; viaducts glistened with helmets all moving westward; every hillock, every crag, every height had its group of tiny dark dots or its solitary Uhlan.
Very far away I heard cannon—so far away that the hum of the cannonade was no louder than the panting of our horses on the white hill-road, and I could hear it only when the carriage stopped at intervals.
"Do we take the railroad at Saverne?" I asked at last. "Is there a railroad there?"
Buckhurst looked up at me. "It is rather strange that a French officer should not know the railroads in his own country," he said.
I was silent. I was not the only officer whose shame was his ignorance of the country he had sworn to defend. Long before the war broke out, every German regimental officer, commissioned and non-commissioned, carried a better map of France than could be found in France itself. And the French government had issued to us a few wretched charts of Germany, badly printed, full of gross errors, one or two maps to a regiment, and a few scattered about among the corps headquarters—among officers who did not even know the general topography of their own side of the Rhine.
"Is there a railroad at Saverne?" I repeated, sullenly.
"You will take a train at Strasbourg," replied Buckhurst.
"And then you go to Avricourt," he said. "I suppose at least you know where that is?"
"It is on the route to Paris," said I, keeping my temper. "Are we going direct to Paris?"
"Madame de Vassart desires to go there," he said, glancing at her with a sort of sneaking deference which he now assumed in her presence.
"It is true," said the Countess, turning to me. "I wish to rest for a little while before I go to Point Paradise. I am curiously tired of poverty, Monsieur Scarlett," she added, and held out her shabby gloves with a gesture of despair; "I am reduced to very little—I have scarcely anything left,... and I am weak enough to long for the scent of the winter violets on the boulevards."
With a faint smile she touched the bright hair above her brow, where the wind had flung a gleaming tendril over her black veil.
As I looked at her, I marvelled that she had found it possible to forsake all that was fair and lovely in life, to dare ignore caste, to deliberately face ridicule and insult and the scornful anger of her own kind, for the sake of the filthy scum festering in the sinkholes of the world.
There are brave priests who go among lepers, there are brave missionaries who dispute with the devil over the souls of half-apes in the Dark Continent. Under the Cross they do the duty they were bred to.
But she was bred to other things. Her lungs were never made to breathe the polluted atmosphere of the proletariat, yelping and slavering in their kennels; her strait young soul was never born for communion with the crooked souls of social pariahs, with the stunted and warped intelligence of fanatics, with the crippled but fierce minds which dominated the Internationale.
Not that such contact could ever taint her; but it might break her heart one day.
"You will think me very weak and cowardly to seek shelter and comfort at such a time," she said, raising her gray eyes to me. "But I feel as though all my strength had slipped away from me. I mean to go back to my work; I only need a few days of quiet among familiar scenes—pleasant scenes that I knew when I was young. I think that if I could only see a single care-free face—only one among all those who—who once seemed to love me—"
She turned her head quickly and stared out at the tall pines which fringed the dusty road.
Buckhurst blinked at her.
* * * * *
It was late in the afternoon when the last Prussian outpost hailed us. I had been asleep for hours, but was awakened by the clatter of horses, and I opened my eyes to see a dozen Uhlans come cantering up and surround our carriage.
After a long discussion with Buckhurst and a rigid scrutiny of our permit to pass the lines, the slim officer in command vised the order. One of the troopers tied a white handkerchief to his lance-tip, wheeled his wiry horse, and, followed by a trumpeter, trotted off ahead of us. Our carriage creaked after them, slowly moving to the summit of a hill over which the road rose.
Presently, very far away on the gray-green hill-side, I saw a bit of white move. The Uhlan flourished his lance from which the handkerchief fluttered; the trumpeter set his trumpet to his lips and blew the parley.
One minute, two, three, ten passed. Then, distant galloping sounded along the road, nearer, nearer; three horsemen suddenly wheeled into view ahead—French dragoons, advancing at a solid gallop. The Uhlan with the flag spurred forward to meet them, saluted, wheeled his horse, and came back.
Paid mercenary that I was, my heart began to beat very fast at sight of those French troopers with their steel helmets bound with leopard-hide and their horsehair plumes whipping the breeze, and their sun-bronzed, alert faces and pleasant eyes. I had had enough of the supercilious, near-sighted eyes of the Teuton.
As for the young Countess, she sat there smiling, while the clumsy dragoons came rattling up, beaming at my red riding-breeches, and all saluting the Countess with a cheerful yet respectful swagger that touched me deeply as I noted the lines of hunger in their lean jaws.
And now the brief ceremony was over and our rusty vehicle moved off down the hill, while the Uhlans turned bridle and clattered off, scattering showers of muddy gravel in the rising wind.
The remains of our luncheon lay in a basket under our seat—plenty of bread and beef, and nearly a quart of red wine.
"Call the escort—they are starving," I said to Buckhurst.
"I think not," he said, coolly. "I may eat again."
"Call the escort!" I repeated, sharply.
Buckhurst looked up at me in silence, then glanced warily at the Countess.
A few moments later the gaunt dragoons were munching dry bread as they rode, passing the bottle from saddle to saddle.
We were ascending another hill; the Countess, anxious to stretch her limbs, had descended to the road, and now walked ahead, one hand holding her hat, which the ever-freshening wind threatened.
Buckhurst bent towards me and said: "My friend, your suggestion that we deprive ourselves to feed those cavalrymen was a trifle peremptory in tone. I am wondering how much your tone will change when we reach Paris."
"You will see," said I.
"Oh, of course I'll see," he said,... "and so will you."
"I thought you had means to protect yourself," I observed.
"I have. Besides, I think you would rather keep those diamonds than give them up for the pleasure of playing me false."
I laughed in a mean manner, which reassured him. "Look here," said I, "if I were to make trouble for you in Paris I'd be the most besotted fool in France, and you know it."
And so I should have been. For there was something vastly more important to do than to arrest John Buckhurst for theft; and before I suffered a hair of his sleek, gray head to come to harm I'd have hung myself for a hopeless idiot. Oh no; my friend John Buckhurst had such colossal irons in the fire that I knew it would take many more men as strong as he to lift them out again. And I meant to know what those irons were for, and who were the gentlemen to aid him lift them. So not only must Buckhurst remain free as a lively black cricket in a bog, but he must not be frightened if I could help it.
And to that end I leered at him knowingly, and presently bestowed a fatuous wink upon him.
It was unpleasant for me to do this, for it implied that I was his creature; and, in spite of the remorseless requirements of my profession, I have an inborn hatred of falsehood in any shape. To lie in the line of duty is one of the disagreeable necessities of certain professions; and mine is not the only one nor the least respectable. The art of war is to deceive; strategy is the art of demonstrating falsehood plausibly; there is nothing respectable in the military profession except the manual—which is now losing importance in the eyes of advanced theorists. All men are liars—a few are unselfish ones.
"You have given me your word of honor," said Buckhurst.
"Have I?" I had not, and he knew it. I hoped I might not be forced to.
"Haven't you?" asked Buckhurst.
"You sneered at my word of honor," I said, with all the spite of a coward; "now you don't get it."
He no longer wanted it, but all he said was: "Don't take unnecessary offence; you're smart enough to know when you're well off."
* * * * *
I dozed towards sunset, waking when the Countess stepped back into the carriage and seated herself by my side. Then, after a little, I slept again. And it was nearly dark when I was awakened by the startling whistle of a locomotive. The carriage appeared to be moving slowly between tall rows of poplars and telegraph-poles; a battery of artillery was clanking along just ahead. In the dark southern sky a luminous haze hung.
"The lights of Strasbourg," whispered the Countess, as I sat up, rubbing my hot eyes.
I looked for Buckhurst; his place was empty.
"Mr. Buckhurst left us at the railroad crossing," she said.
"Yes! He boarded a train loaded with wounded.... He had business to transact in Colmar before he presented himself to the authorities in Paris.... And we are to go by way of Avricourt."
So Buckhurst had already begun to execute his programme. But the abrupt, infernal precision of the man jarred me unpleasantly.
In the dark I felt cautiously for my diamonds; they were safe in my left hip-pocket.
* * * * *
The wind had died out, and a fine rain began to filter down through a mist which lay over the flat plain as we entered the suburbs of Strasbourg.
Again and again we were halted by sentinels, then permitted to proceed in the darkness, along deserted avenues lighted by gas-jets burning in tall bronze lamp-posts through a halo of iridescent fog.
We passed deserted suburban villas, blank stretches of stucco walls enclosing gardens, patches of cabbages, thickets of hop-poles to which the drenched vines clung fantastically, and scores of abandoned houses, shutters locked, blinds drawn.
High to the east the ramparts of the city loomed, set at regular distances with electric lights; from the invisible citadel rockets were rising, spraying the fog with jewelled flakes, crumbling to golden powder in the starless void above.
Presently our carriage stopped before a tremendous mass of masonry pierced by an iron, arched gate, through which double files of farm-wagons were rolling, escorted by customs guards and marines.
"No room! no room!" shouted the soldiers. "This is the Porte de Pierre. Go to the Porte de Saverne!"
So we passed on beneath the bastions, skirting the ramparts to the Porte de Saverne, where, after a harangue, the gate guards admitted us, and we entered Strasbourg in the midst of a crush of vehicles. At the railroad station hundreds of cars choked the tracks; loaded freight trains stalled in the confusion, trains piled with ammunition and provisions, trains crowded with horses and cattle and sheep, filling the air with melancholy plaints; locomotives backing and whistling, locomotives blowing off deafening blasts of steam; gongs sounding, bells ringing, station-masters' trumpets blowing; and, above all, the immense clamor of human voices.
The Countess and our Alsatian driver helped me to the platform, I looked around with dread at the throng, being too weak to battle for a foothold; but the brave Alsatian elbowed a path for me, and the Countess warded off the plunging human cattle, and at length I found myself beside the cars where line-soldiers stood guard at every ten paces and gendarmes stalked about, shoving the frantic people into double files.
"Last train for Paris!" bawled an official in gilt and blue; and to the anxious question of the Countess he shook his head, saying, "There is no room, madame; it is utterly impossible—pardon, I cannot discuss anything now; the Prussians are signalled at Ostwald, and their shells may fall here at any moment."
"If that is so," I said, "this lady cannot stay here!"
"I can't help that!" he shouted, starting off down the platform.
I caught the sleeve of a captain of gendarmerie who was running to enter a first-class compartment.
"Eh—what do you want, monsieur?" he snapped, in surprise. Then, as I made him a sign, he regarded me with amazement. I had given the distress signal of the secret police.
"Try to make room for this lady in your compartment," I said.
"Willingly, monsieur. Hasten, madame; the train is already moving!" and he tore open the compartment door and swung the Countess to the car platform.
I suppose she thought I was to follow, for when the officer slammed the compartment door she stepped to the window and tried to open it.
"Quick!" she cried to the guard, who had just locked the door; "help that officer in! He is wounded—can't you see he is wounded?"
The train was gliding along the asphalt platform; I hobbled beside the locked compartment, where she stood at the window.
"Will you unlock that door?" said the Countess to the guard. "I wish to leave the train!"
The cars were rolling a little faster than I could move along.
The Countess leaned from the open window; through the driving rain her face in the lamp-light was pitifully white. I made a last effort and caught up with her car.
"A safe journey, madame," I stammered, catching at the hand she held out and brushing the shabby-gloved fingers with my lips.
"I shall never forgive this wanton self-sacrifice," she said, unsteadily. Then the car rolled silently past me, swifter, swifter, and her white face faded from my sight. Yet still I stood there, bareheaded, in the rain, while the twin red lamps on the rear car grew smaller and smaller, until they, too, were shut out in the closing curtains of the fog.
As I turned away into the lighted station a hospital train from the north glided into the yard and stopped. Soldiers immediately started carrying out the wounded and placing them in rows on mattresses ranged along the walls of the passenger depot; sisters of charity, hovering over the mutilated creatures, were already giving first aid to the injured; policemen kept the crowd from trampling the dead and dying; gendarmes began to clear the platforms, calling out sharply, "No more trains to-night! Move on! This platform is for government officials only!"
Through the scrambling mob a file of wounded tottered, escorted by police; women were forced back and pushed out into the street, only to be again menaced by galloping military ambulances arriving, accompanied by hussars. The confusion grew into a tumult; men struggled and elbowed for a passage to the platforms, women sobbed and cried; through the uproar the treble wail of terrified children broke out.
Jostled, shoved, pulled this way and that, I felt that I was destined to go down under the people's feet, and I don't know what would have become of me had not a violent push sent me against the door of the telegraph office. The door gave way, and I fell on my knees, staggered to my feet, and crept out once more to the platform.
The station-master passed, a haggard gentleman in rumpled uniform and gilt cap; and as he left the office by the outer door the heavy explosion of a rampart cannon shook the station.
"Can you get me to Paris?" I asked.
"Quick, then," he muttered; "this way—lean on me, monsieur! I am trying to send another train out—but Heaven alone knows! Quick, this way!"
The glare of a locomotive's headlight dazzled me; I made towards it, clinging to the arm of the station-master; the ground under my feet rocked with the shock of the siege-guns. Suddenly a shell fell and burst in the yard outside; there was a cry, a rush of trainmen, a gendarme shouting; then the piercing alarm notes of locomotives, squealing like terrified leviathans.
The train drawn up along the platform gave a jerk and immediately moved out towards the open country, compartment doors swinging wide, trainmen and guards running alongside, followed by a mob of frenzied passengers, who leaped into empty compartments, flinging satchels and rugs to the four winds. Crash! A shell fell through the sloping roof of the platform and blew up. Through the white cloud and brilliant glare I saw a porter, wheeling boxes and trunks, fall, buried under an avalanche of baggage, and a sister of charity throw up her arms as though to shield her face from the fragments.
A car, doors swinging wide, glided past me; I caught the rail and fell forward into a compartment. The cushions of the seats were afire, and a policeman was hammering out the sparks with naked fists.
I was too weak to aid him. Presently he hurled the last burning cushion from the open door and leaped out into the train-yard, where red and green lamps glowed and the brilliant flare of bursting shells lighted the fog. By this time the train was moving swiftly; the car windows shook with the thunder from the ramparts under which we were passing; then came inky darkness—a tunnel—then a rush of mist and wind from the open door as we swept out into the country.
Passengers clinging to the platforms now made their way into the compartment where I lay almost senseless, and soon the little place was crowded, and somebody slammed the door.
Then the flying locomotive, far ahead, shrieked, and the train leaped, rushing forward into the unknown. Blackness, stupefying blackness, outside; inside, unseen, the huddled passengers, breathing heavily with sudden stifled sobs, or the choked, indrawn breath of terror; but not a word, not a quaver of human voices; peril strangled speech as our black train flew onward through the night.
A MAN TO LET
The train which bore me out of the arc of the Prussian fire at Strasbourg passed in between the fortifications of Paris the next morning about eleven o'clock. Ten minutes later I was in a closed cab on my way to the headquarters of the Imperial Military Police, temporarily housed in the Luxembourg Palace.
The day was magnificent; sunshine flooded the boulevards, and a few chestnut-trees in the squares had already begun to blossom for the second time in the season; there seemed to be no prophecy of autumn in sky or sunlight.
The city, as I saw it from the open window of my cab, appeared to be in a perfectly normal condition. There were, perhaps, a few more national-guard soldiers on the streets, a few more brightly colored posters, notices, and placards on the dead walls, but the life of the city itself had not changed at all; the usual crowds filled the boulevards, the usual street cries sounded, the same middle-aged gentlemen sat in front of the cafes reading the same daily papers, the same waiters served them the same drinks; rows of cabs were drawn up where cabs are always to be found, and the same policemen dawdled in gossip with the same flower-girls. I caught the scent of early winter violets in the fresh Parisian breeze.
Was this the city that Buckhurst looked upon as already doomed?
On the marble bridge gardeners were closing up the morning flower-market; blue-bloused men with jointed hose sprinkled the asphalt in front of the Palais de Justice; students strolled under the trees from the School of Medicine to the Sorbonne; the Luxembourg fountain tossed its sparkling sheets of spray among the lotus.
All this I saw, yet a sinister foreboding oppressed me, and I could not shake it off even in this bright city where September was promising only a new lease of summer and the white spikes of chestnut blossoms hummed with eager bees.
Physically I felt well enough; the cramped sleep in the dark compartment, far from exhausting me, had not only rested me, but had also brought me an appetite which I meant to satisfy as soon as might be. As for my back, it was simply uncomfortable, but all effects of the shock had disappeared—unless this heavy mental depression was due to it.
My cab was now entering the Palace of the Luxembourg by the great arch facing the Rue de Tournon; the line sentinels halted us; I left the cab, crossed the parade in front of the guard-house, turned to the right, and climbed the stairs straight to my own quarters, which were in the west wing of the palace, and consisted of a bedroom, a working cabinet, and a dressing-room.
But I did not enter my door or even glance at it; I continued straight on, down the corridor to a door, on the ground-glass panes of which was printed in red lettering:
HEADQUARTERS IMPERIAL MILITARY POLICE SAFE DEPOSIT
The sentinel interrogated me for form's sake, although he knew me; I entered, passed rapidly along the face of the steel cage behind which some officers sat on high stools, writing, and presented myself at the guichet marked, "Foreign Division."
There was no military clerk in attendance there, and, to my surprise, the guichet was closed.
However, a very elegant officer strolled up to the guichet as I laid my bag of diamonds on the glass shelf, languidly unlocked the steel window-gate, and picked up the bag of jewels.
The officer was Mornac, the Emperor's alter ego, or ame damnee, who had taken over the entire department the very day I left Paris for the frontier. Officially, I could not recognize him until I presented myself to Colonel Jarras with my report; so I saluted his uniform, standing at attention in my filthy clothes, awaiting the usual question and receipt.
"Name and number?" inquired Mornac, indolently.
I gave both.
"You desire to declare?"
I enumerated the diamonds, and designated them as those lately stolen from the crucifix of Louis XI.
Mornac handed me a printed certificate of deposit, opened a compartment in the safe, and tossed in the bag without sealing it. And, as I stood waiting, he lighted a scented cigarette, glanced over at me, puffed once or twice, and finally dismissed me with a discourteous nod.
I went, because he was Mornac; I thought that I was entitled to a bureau receipt, but could scarcely demand one from the chief of the entire department who had taken over the bureau solely in order to reform it, root and branch. Doubtless his curt dismissal of me without the customary receipt and his failure to seal the bag were two of his reforms.
I limped off past the glittering steel cage, thankful that the jewels were safe, turned into the corridor, and hastened back to my own rooms.
To tear off my rags, bathe, shave, and dress in a light suit of civilian clothes took me longer than usual, for I was a trifle lame.
Bath and clean clothes ought to have cheered me; but the contrary was the case, and I sat down to a breakfast brought by a palace servant, and ate it gloomily, thinking of Buckhurst, and the Countess, and of Morsbronn, and of the muddy dead lying under the rifle smoke below my turret window.
I thought, too, of that astonishing conspiracy which had formed under the very shadow of the imperial throne, and through which already the crucifix and diamonds of Louis XI. had been so nearly lost to France.
Who besides Buckhurst was involved? How far had Colonel Jarras gone in the investigation during my absence? How close to the imperial throne had the conspiracy burrowed?
Pondering, I slowly retraced my steps through the bedroom and dressing-room, and out into the tiled hallway, where, at the end of the dim corridor, the door of Colonel Jarras's bureau stood partly open.
Jarras was sitting at his desk as I entered, and he gave me a leaden-eyed stare as I closed the door behind me and stood at attention.
For a moment he said nothing, but presently he partly turned his ponderous body towards me and motioned me to a chair.
As I sat down I glanced around and saw my old comrade, Speed, sitting in a dark corner, chewing a cigarette and watching me in alert silence.
"You are present to report?" suggested Colonel Jarras, heavily.
I bowed, glancing across at Speed, who shrugged his shoulders and looked at the floor with an ominous smile.
Mystified, I began my report, but was immediately stopped by Jarras with a peevish gesture: "All right, all right; keep all that for the Chief of Department. Your report doesn't concern me."
"Doesn't concern you!" I repeated; "are you not chief of this bureau, Colonel Jarras?"
"No," snapped Jarras; "and there's no bureau now—at least no bureau for the Foreign Division."
Speed leaned forward and said: "Scarlett, my friend, the Foreign Division of the Imperial Military Police is not in favor just now. It appears the Foreign Division is suspected."
"Suspected? Of what?"
"Treason, I suppose," said Speed, serenely.
I felt my face begin to burn, but the astonishing news left me speechless.
"I said," observed Speed, "that the Foreign Division is suspected; that is not exactly the case; it is not suspected, simply because it has been abolished."
"Who the devil did that?" I asked, savagely.
Mornac! The Emperor's shadow! Then truly enough it was all up with the Foreign Division. But the shame of it!—the disgrace of as faithful a body of police, mercenaries though they were, as ever worked for any cause, good or bad.
"So it's the old whine of treason again, is it?" I said, while the blood beat in my temples. "Oh, very well, doubtless Monsieur Mornac knows his business. Are we transferred, Speed, or just kicked out into the street?"
"Kicked out," replied Speed, rubbing his slim, bony hands together.
"And you, sir?" I asked, turning to Jarras, who sat with his fat, round head buried in his shoulders, staring at the discolored blotter on his desk.
The old Corsican straightened as though stung: "Since when, monsieur, have subordinates assumed the right to question their superiors?"
I asked his pardon in a low voice, although I was no longer his subordinate. He had been a good and loyal chief to us all; the least I could do now was to show him respect in his bitter humiliation.
I think he felt our attitude and that it comforted him, but all he said was: "It is a heavy blow. The Emperor knows best."
As we sat there in silence, a soldier came to summon Colonel Jarras, and he went away, leaning on his ivory-headed cane, head bowed over the string of medals on his breast.
When he had gone, Speed came over and shut the door, then shook hands with me.
"He's gone to see Mornac; it will be our turn next. Look out for Mornac, or he'll catch you tripping in your report. Did you find Buckhurst?"
"Look here," I said, angrily, "how can Mornac catch me tripping? I'm not under his orders."
"You are until you're discharged. You see, they've taken it into their heads, since the crucifix robbery, to suspect everybody and anybody short of the Emperor. Mornac came smelling around here the day you left. He's at the bottom of all this—a nice business to cast suspicion on our division because we're foreigners. Gad, he looks like a pickpocket himself—he's got the oblique trick of the eyes and the restless finger movement."
"Perhaps he is," I said.
Speed looked at me sharply.
"If I were in the service now I'd arrest Mornac—if I dared."
"You might as well arrest the Emperor," I said, wearily.
"That's it," observed Speed, throwing away his chewed cigarette. "Nobody dare touch Mornac; nobody dare even watch him. But if there's a leak somewhere, it's far more probable that Mornac did the dirty work than that there's a traitor in our division."
Presently he added: "Did you catch Buckhurst?"
"I don't want to talk about it," I said, disgusted.
"—Because," continued Speed, "if you've got him, it may save us. Have you?"
How I wished that I had Buckhurst safely handcuffed beside me!
"If you've got him," persisted Speed, "we'll shake him like a rat until he squeals. And if he names Mornac—"
"Do you think that Mornac would give him or us the chance?" I said. "Rubbish! He'd do the shaking in camera; and it would only be a hand-shaking if Buckhurst is really his creature. And he's rid himself of our division, anyhow. Wait!" I added, sharply; "perhaps that is the excuse! Perhaps that is the very reason that he's abolished the foreign division! We may have been getting too close to the root of this matter; I had already caught Buckhurst—"
"You had?" cried Speed, eagerly.
"But I'm not going to talk about it now," I added, sullenly. "My troubles are coming; I've a story to tell that won't please Mornac, and I have an idea that he means mischief to me."
Speed looked curiously at me, and I went on:
"I used my own judgment—supposing that Jarras was my chief. I knew he'd let me take my own way—but I don't know what Mornac will say."
However, I was soon to know what Mornac had to say, for a soldier appeared to summon us both, and we followed to the temporary bureau which looked out to the east over the lovely Luxembourg gardens.
Jarras passed us as we entered; his heavy head was bent, and I do not suppose that he saw either us or our salutes, for he shuffled off down the dark passage, tapping his slow way like a blind man; and Speed and I entered, saluting Mornac.
The personage whom we saluted was a symmetrical, highly colored gentleman, with black mustache and Oriental eyes. His skin was too smooth—there was not a line or a wrinkle visible on hand or face, nothing but plump flesh pressing the golden collar of his light-blue tunic and the half-dozen gold rings on his carefully kept, restless fingers. His light, curved sabre hung by its silver chain from a nail on a wall behind him; beside it, suspended by the neck cord, was his astrakhan-trimmed dolman of palest turquoise-blue, and over that hung his scarlet cap.
As he raised his heavy-lidded, insolent eyes to me, I thought I had never before appreciated the utter falseness of his visage as I did at that moment. Instantly I decided that he meant evil to me; and I instinctively glanced at Speed, standing beside me at attention, his clear blue eyes alert, his lank limbs and lean head fairly tremulous with comprehension.
At a careless nod from Mornac I muttered the formal "I have to report, sir—" and began mumbling a perfunctory account of my movements since leaving Paris. He listened, idly contemplating a silver penknife which he alternately snapped open and closed, the click of the spring punctuating my remarks.
I told the truth as far as I went, which brought me to my capture by Uhlans and the natural escape of my prisoner, Buckhurst. I merely added that I had secured the diamonds and had managed to reach Paris via Strasbourg.
"Is that all?" inquired Mornac, listlessly.
"All I have to report, sir."
"Permit me to be the judge of how much you have to report," said Mornac. "Continue."
I was silent.
"Do you prefer that I draw out information by questions?" asked Mornac, looking up at me.
I was already in his net; I ought not to have placed myself in the position of concealing anything, yet I distrusted him and wished to avoid giving him a chance to misunderstand me. But now it was too late; if the error could be wiped out at all, the only way to erase it was by telling him everything and giving him his chance to misinterpret me if he desired it.
He listened very quietly while I told of my encounter with Buckhurst in Morsbronn, of our journey to Saverne, to Strasbourg, and finally my own arrival in Paris.
"Where is Buckhurst?" he asked.
"I do not know," I replied, doggedly.
"That is to say that you had him in your power within the French lines yet did not secure him?"
"Your orders were to arrest him?"
"And shoot him if he resisted?"
"But you let him go?"
"There was something more important to do than to arrest Buckhurst. I meant to find out what he had on hand in Paradise."
"So you disobeyed orders?"
"If you care to so interpret my action."
"Why did you not arrest the Countess de Vassart?"
"I did; the Uhlans made me prisoner as I reported to you."
"I mean, why did you not arrest her after you left Morsbronn?"
"That would have prevented Buckhurst from going to Paradise."
"Your orders were to arrest the Countess?"
"Did you obey those orders?"
"No," I said, between my teeth.
"I had every reason to believe that an important conspiracy was being ripened somewhere near Paradise. I had every reason to believe that the robbery of the crown jewels might furnish funds for the plotters.
"The arrest of one man could not break up the conspiracy; I desired to trap the leaders; and to that end I deliberately liberated this man Buckhurst as a stool-pigeon. If my judgment has been at fault, I accept the blame."
Mornac's silver penknife closed. Presently he opened the blade again and tested the edge on his plump forefinger.
"I beg to call your attention to the fact," I continued, "that a word from Buckhurst to the provost at Morsbronn would have sent me before the squad of execution. In a way, I bought my freedom. But," I added, slowly, "I should never have bought it if the bargain by which I saved my own skin had been a betrayal of France. Nobody wants to die; but in my profession we discount that. No man in my division is a physical coward. I purchased my freedom not only without detriment to France, but, on the contrary, to the advantage of France."
"At the expense of your honor," observed Mornac.
My ears were burning; I advanced a pace and looked Mornac straight between the eyes; but his eyes did not meet mine—they were fixed on his silver penknife.
"I did the best I could do in the line of duty," I said. "You ask me why I did not break my word and arrest Buckhurst after we left the German lines. And I answer you that I had given my word not to arrest him, in pursuance of my plan to use him further."
Mornac examined his carefully kept finger-tips in detail.
"You say he bribed you?"
"I said that he attempted to do so," I replied, sharply.
"With the diamonds?"
"You have them?"
"I deposited them as usual."
Angry as I was, I saluted, wheeled, and hastened off to the safe deposit. The jewel-bag was delivered when I presented my printed slip; I picked it up and marched back, savagely biting my mustache and striving to control my increasing exasperation. Never before had I endured insolence from a superior officer.
Mornac was questioning Speed as I entered, and that young man, who has much self-control to learn, was already beginning to answer with disrespectful impatience, but my advent suspended matters, and Mornac took the bag of jewels from my hands and examined it. He seemed to be in no hurry to empty it; he lolled in his chair with an absent-minded expression like the expression of a cat who pretends to forget the mouse between her paws. Danger was written all over him; I squared my shoulders and studied him, braced for a shock.
The shock came almost immediately, for, without a word, he suddenly emptied the jewel-bag on the desk before him. The bag contained little pebbles wrapped in tissue-paper.
I heard Speed catch his breath sharply; I stared stupidly at the pebbles. Mornac made a careless, sweeping gesture, spreading the pebbles out before us with his restless, ringed fingers.
"Suppose you explain this farce?" he suggested, unmoved.
"Suppose you explain it!" I stammered.
He raised his delicately arched eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that an hour ago that bag contained the diamonds from the crucifix of Louis XI! I mean that I handed them over to you on my arrival at this bureau!"
"Doubtless you can prove what you say," he observed, and his silver penknife snapped shut like the click of a trap, and he lay back in his padded chair and slipped the knife into his pocket.
I looked at Speed; his sandy hair fairly bristled, but his face was drawn and tense. I looked at Mornac; his heavy, black eyes met mine steadily.
"It seems to me," he said, "that it was high time we abolished the Foreign Division, Imperial Military Police."
"I refuse to be discharged!" I said, hoarsely. "It is your word against mine; I demand an investigation!"
"Certainly," he replied, almost wearily, and touched a bell. "Bring that witness," he added to the soldier who appeared in answer to the silvery summons.
"I mean an official inquiry," I said—"a court-martial. It is my right where my honor is questioned."
"It is my right, when you question my honor, to throw you into Mont Valerien, neck and heels," he said, showing his teeth under his silky, black mustache.
Almost stunned by his change of tone, I stood like a stone. Somebody entered the room behind me, passed me; there was an odor of violets in the air, a faint rustle of silk, and I saw Mornac rise and bow to his guest and conduct her to a chair.
His guest was the young Countess de Vassart.
She looked up at me brightly, gave me a pretty nod of recognition, then turned expectantly to Mornac, who was still standing at her elbow, saying, "Then it is no longer a question of my exile, monsieur?"
"No, madame; there has been a mistake. The government has no reason to suspect your loyalty." He turned directly on me. "Madame, do you know this officer?"
"Yes," said the Countess, smiling.
"Did you see him receive a small sack of diamonds in Morsbronn?"
The Countess gave me a quick glance of surprise. "Yes," she said, wonderingly.
"Thank you, madame; that is sufficient," he replied; and before I could understand what he was about he had conducted the Countess to the next room and had closed the door behind him.
"Quick!" muttered Speed at my elbow; "let's back out of this trap. There's no use; he's one of them, and he means to ruin you."
"I won't go!" I said, in a cold fury; "I'll choke the truth out of him, I tell you."
"Man! Man! He's the Emperor's shadow! You're done for; come on while there's time. I tell you there's no hope for you here."
"Hope! What do I care?" I said, harshly. "Why, Speed, that man is a common thief."
"What of it?" whispered Speed. "Doesn't everybody know that the conspiracy runs close to the throne? What do you care? Come on, I tell you; I've had enough of this rotten government. So have you. And we've both seen enough to ruin us. Come on!"
"But he's got those diamonds! Do you think I can stand that?"
"I think you've got to," muttered Speed, savagely. "Do you want to rot in Cayenne? If you do, stay here and bawl for a court-martial!"
"But the government—"
"Let the government go to the devil! It's going fast enough, anyhow. Come, don't let Mornac find us here when he returns. He may be coming now—quick, Scarlett! We've got to cut for it!"
"Speed," I said, unsteadily, "it's enough to make an honest man strike hands with Buckhurst in earnest."
Speed took my arm with a cautious glance at the door of the next room, and urged me toward the corridor.
"The government has kicked us out into the street," he muttered; "be satisfied that the government didn't kick us into Biribi. And it will yet if you don't come."
"Come? Where? I haven't any money, and now they've got my honor—"
"Rubbish!" he whispered, fairly dragging me into the hallway. "Here! No—don't go to your rooms. Leave everything—get clear of this rat-pit, I tell you."
He half pushed, half dragged me to the parade; then, dropping my arm, he struck a jaunty pace through the archway, not even glancing at the sentinels. I kept pace with him, scarcely knowing what I did.
In the Rue de Seine I halted suddenly, crying out that I must go back, but he seized me with a growl of "Idiot! come on!" and fairly shoved me through the colonnades of the Institute, along the quay, down the river-wall, to a dock where presently a swift river-boat swung in for passengers. And when the bateau mouche shot out again into mid-stream, Speed and I stood silently on deck, watching the silver-gray facades of Paris fly past above us under the blue sky.
We sat far forward, quite alone, and separated from the few passengers by the pilot-house and jointed funnel. And there, carelessly lounging, with one of his lank legs crossed over the other and a cigar between his teeth, my comrade coolly recounted to me the infamous history of the past week:
"Jarras put his honest, old, square-toed foot in it by accident; I don't know how he managed to do it, but this is certain: he suddenly found himself on a perfectly plain trail which could only end at Mornac's threshold.
"Then he did a stupid thing—he called Mornac in and asked him, in perfect faith, to clear up the affair, never for a moment suspecting that Mornac was the man.
"That occurred the day you started to catch Buckhurst. And on that day, too, I had found out something; and like a fool I told Jarras."
Speed chewed his cigar and laughed.
"In twenty-four hours Jarras was relieved of his command; I was requested not to leave the Luxembourg—in other words, I was under arrest, and Mornac took over the entire department and abolished the Foreign Division 'for the good of the service,' as the Official had it next day.
"Then somebody—Mornac probably—let loose a swarm of those shadowy lies called rumors—you know how that is done!—and people began to mutter, and the cafes began to talk of treason among the foreign police. Of course Rochefort took it up; of course the Official printed a half-hearted denial which was far worse than an avowal. Then the division was abolished, and the illustrated papers made filthy caricatures of us, and drew pictures of Mornac, sabre in hand, decapitating a nest full of American rattlesnakes and British cobras, and Rochefort printed a terrible elaboration of the fable of the farmer and the frozen serpent."
"Oh, that's enough," I said, sick with rage and disgust. "Let them look out for their own country now. I pity the Empress; I pity the Emperor. I don't know what Mornac means to do, but I know that the Internationale boa-constrictor is big enough to swallow government, dynasty, and Empire, and it is going to try."
"I am certain of one thing," said Speed, staring out over the sun-lit water with narrowing eyes. "I know that Mornac is using Buckhurst."
"Perhaps it is Buckhurst who is using Mornac," I suggested.
"I think both those gentlemen have the same view in end—to feather their respective nests under cover of a general smash," said Speed. "It would not do for Mornac to desert the Empire under any circumstances. But he can employ Buckhurst to squeeze it dry and then strike an attitude as its faithful defender in adversity."
"But why does Buckhurst desire to go to Paradise?" I asked.
The boat swung into a dock near the Point du Jour; a few passengers left, a few came aboard; the boat darted on again under the high viaduct of masonry, past bastions on which long siege cannon glistened in the sunshine, past lines of fresh earthworks, past grassy embankments on which soldiers moved to the rumble of drums.
"I know something about Paradise," said Speed, in a low voice.
I waited; Speed chewed his cigar grimly.
"Look here, Scarlett," he said. "Do you know what has become of the crown jewels of France?"
"No," I said.
"Well, I'll tell you. You know, of course, that the government is anxious; you know that Paris is preparing to stand siege if the Prussians double up Bazaine and the army of Chalons in the north. But you don't know what a pitiable fright the authorities are in. Why, Scarlett, they are scared almost to the verge of idiocy."
"They've passed that verge," I observed.
"Yes, they have. They have had a terrible panic over the safety of the crown jewels—they were nervous enough before the robbery. And this is what they've done in secret:
"The crown jewels, the bars of gold of the reserve, the great pictures from the Louvre, the antiques of value, including the Venus of Milo, have been packed in cases and loaded on trains under heavy guard.
"Twelve of these trains have already left Paris for the war-port of Lorient. The others are to follow, one every twenty-four hours at midnight.
"Whether these treasures are to be locked up in Lorient, or whether they are to be buried in the sand-dunes along the coast, I don't know. But I know this: a swift cruiser—the Fer-de-Lance—is lying off Paradise, between the light-house and the Ile de Groix, with steam up night and day, ready to receive the treasures of the government at the first alarm and run for the French possessions in Cochin-China.
"And now, perhaps, you may guess why Buckhurst is so anxious to hang around Paradise."
Of course I was startled. Speed's muttered information gave me the keys to many doors. And behind each door were millions and millions and millions of francs' worth of plunder.
Our eyes met in mute interrogation; Speed smiled.
"Of course," said I, with dry lips, "Buckhurst is devil enough to attempt anything."
"Especially if backed by Mornac," said Speed.
Suddenly the professional aspect of the case burst on me like a shower of glorious sunshine.
"Oh, for the chance!" I said, brokenly. "Speed! Think of it! Think how completely we have the thing in hand!"
"Yes," he said, with a shrug, "only we have just been kicked out of the service in disgrace, and we are now going to be fully occupied in running away from the police."
That was true enough; I had scarcely had time to realize our position as escaped suspects of the department. And with the recognition of my plight came a rush of hopeless rage, of bitter regret, and soul-sickening disappointment.
So this was the end of my career—a fugitive, disgraced, probably already hunted. This was my reward for faithful service—penniless, almost friendless, liable to arrest and imprisonment with no hope of justice from Emperor or court-martial—a banned, ruined, proscribed outcast, in blind flight.
"I've thought of the possibility of this," observed Speed, quietly. "We've got to make a living somehow. In fact, I'm to let—and so are you."
I looked at him, too miserable to speak.
"I had an inkling of it," he said. A shrewd twinkle came into his clear, Yankee eyes; he chewed his wrecked cigar and folded his lank arms.
"So," he continued, tranquilly, blinking at the sparkling river, "I drew out all my money—and yours, too."
"Mine!" I stammered. "How could you?"
"Forged an order," he admitted. "Can you forgive me, Scarlett?"
"Forgive you! Bless your generous heart!" I muttered, as he handed me a sealed packet.
"Not at all," he said, laughing; "a crime in time saves nine—eh, Scarlett? Pocket it; it's all there. Now listen. I have made arrangements of another kind. Do you remember an application for license from the manager of a travelling American show—a Yankee circus?"
"Byram's Imperial American Circus?" I said.
"That's it. They went through Normandy last summer. Well, Byram's agent is going to meet us at Saint-Cloud. We're engaged; I'm to do ballooning—you know I worked one of the military balloons before Petersburg. You are to do sensational riding. You were riding-master in the Spahis—were you not?"
I looked at him, almost laughing. Suddenly the instinct of my vagabond days returned like a sweet wind from the wilds, smiting me full in the face.
"I tamed three lions for my regiment at Constantine," I said.
"Good lad! Then you can play with Byram's lions, too. Oh, what the devil!" he cried, recklessly; "it's all in a lifetime. Quand meme, and who cares? We've life before us and an honest living in view, and Byram has packed two of his men back to England and I've tinkered up their passports to suit us. So we're reasonably secure."
"Will you tell me, Speed, why you were wise enough to do all this while I was gone?" I asked, in astonishment.
"Because," said Speed, deliberately, "I distrusted Mornac from the hour he entered the department."
A splendid officer of police was spoiled when Mornac entered the department.
Presently the deck guard began to shout: "Saint-Cloud! Saint-Cloud!" and the little boat glided up alongside the floating pier. Speed rose; I followed him across the gang-plank; and, side by side, we climbed the embankment.
"Do you mean to say that Byram is going travelling about with his circus in spite of the war?" I whispered.
"Yes, indeed. We start south from Chartres to-morrow."
Presently I said: "Do you suppose we will go to Lorient or—Paradise?"
"We will if I have anything to say about it," replied Speed, throwing away his ragged cigar.
And I walked silently beside him, thinking of the young Countess and of Buckhurst.
THE ROAD TO PARADISE
On the 3d of November Byram's American Circus, travelling slowly overland toward the Spanish frontier, drew up for an hour's rest at Quimperle. I, however, as usual, prepared to ride forward to select a proper place for our night encampment, and to procure the necessary license.
The dusty procession halted in the town square, which was crowded, and as I turned in my saddle I saw Byram stand up on the red-and-gold band-wagon and toss an armful of circulars and bills into the throng.
The white bits of paper fluttered wide and disappeared in the sea of white Breton head-dresses; there was a rhythmic clatter of wooden shoes, an undulation of snowy coiffes, then a low murmur as the people slowly read the circulars aloud, their musical monotone accompanying the strident nasal voice of Byram, who stood on the tarnished band-wagon shouting his crowd around him.
"Mossoors et madams! Ecooty see voo play! J'ai l'honnoor de vous presenter le ploo magnifique cirque—" And the invariable reclame continued to the stereotyped finis; the clown bobbed up behind Byram and made his usual grimaces, and the band played "The Cork Leg."
The Bretons looked on in solemn astonishment: my comrade, Speed, languidly stood up on the elephant and informed the people that our circus was travelling to Lorient to fill a pressing engagement, and if we disappointed the good people of Lorient a riot would doubtless result, therefore it was not possible to give any performance before we reached Lorient—and the admission was only ten sous.
Our clown then picked up the tatters of his threadbare comic speech. Speed, munching a stale sandwich, came strolling over to where I stood sponging out my horse's mouth with cool water.
"We'll ride into Paradise in full regalia, I suppose," he observed, munching away reflectively; "it's the cheapest reclame."
I dashed a bucket of water over my horse's legs. "You'd better look out for your elephant; those drunken Bretons are irritating him," I said. "Mahouts are born, not made."
Speed turned; the elephant was squealing and thrusting out a prehensile trunk among the people. There would be trouble if any fool gave him tobacco.
"Hi!" cried Speed, "tobah! Let the mem-log alone! Ai! he's snatched a coiffe! Drop it, Djebe! C'hast buhan! Don't be afraid, mesdames; the elephant is not ugly! Chomit oll en ho trankilite!"
The elephant appeared to understand the mixture of Hindu, French, and Breton—or perhaps it was the sight of the steel ankus that Speed flourished in his quality of mahout. The crowd pressed forward again, reassured by the "Chomit oll en ho trankilite!"
Speed swallowed the last crumb of his sandwich, wiped his hands on his handkerchief, and shoved them into his shabby pockets; the ankus dangled from his wrist.
We were in seedy circumstances; an endless chain of bad luck had followed us from Chartres—bad weather, torrents of rain, flooded roads, damaging delays on railways already overcrowded with troops and war material, and, above all, we encountered everywhere that ominous apathy which burdened the whole land, even those provinces most remote from the seat of war. The blockade of Paris had paralyzed France.
The fortune that Byram had made in the previous year was already gone; we no longer travelled by rail; we no longer slept at inns; we could barely pay for the food for our animals.
As for the employes, the list had been cut down below the margin of safety, yet for a month no salaries had been paid.
As I stood there in the public square of Quimperle, passing the cooling sponge over my horse's nose, old Byram came out of the hotel on the corner, edged his way through the stolid crowd that surrounded us gaunt mountebanks, and shuffled up to me.
"I guess we ain't goin' to push through to-night, Scarlett," he observed, wiping his sweating forehead on the sleeve of his linen duster.
"No, governor, it's too far," I said.
"We'll be all right, anyway," added Speed; "there's a change in the moon and this warm weather ought to hold, governor."
"I dunno," said Byram, with an abstracted glance at the crowd around the elephant.
"Cheer up, governor," I said, "we ought at least to pay expenses to the Spanish frontier. Once out of France we'll find your luck again for you."
"Mebbe," he said, almost wearily.
I glanced at Speed. This was the closest approach to a whine that we had heard from Byram. But the man had changed within a few days; his thin hair, brushed across his large, alert ears, was dusty and unkempt; hollows had formed under his shrewd eyes; his black broadcloth suit was as soiled as his linen, his boots shabby, his silk hat suitable only for the stage property of our clown.
"Don't ride too far," said Byram, as I set foot to stirrup, "them band-wagon teams is most done up, an' that there camuel gits meaner every minute."
I wheeled my horse out into the road to Paradise, cursing the "camuel," the bane of our wearied caravan.
"Got enough cash for the license?" asked Byram, uneasily.
"Plenty, governor; don't worry. Speed, don't let him mope. We'll be in Lorient this time to-morrow," I called back, with a swagger of assumed cheerfulness.
Speed stepped swiftly across the square and laid his hand on my stirrup.
"What are you going to do if you see Buckhurst?"
"Or the Countess?"
"I don't know."
"I suppose you will go out of your way to find her if she's in Paradise?"
"And tell her the truth about Buckhurst?"
"I expect to."
After a moment's silence he said: "Don't do anything until I see you to-night, will you?"
"All right," I replied, and set my horse at a gallop over the old stone bridge.
The highway to the sea which winds down through acres of yellow gorse and waving broom to the cliffs of Paradise is a breezy road, swept by the sweet winds that blow across Brittany from the Cote d'Or to the Pyrenees.
It is a land of sea-winds; and when in the still noontide of midsummer the winds are at play far out at sea, their traces remain in the furrowed wheat, in the incline of solitary trees, in the breezy trend of the cliff-clover and the blackthorn and the league-wide sweep of the moorlands.
And through this land whose inland perfume always savored the unseen sea I rode down to Paradise.
It was not until I had galloped through the golden forest of Kerselec that I came in sight of the ocean, although among the sunbeams and the dropping showers of yellow beech-leaves I fancied I could hear the sound of the surf.
And now I rode slowly, in full sight of the sea where it lay, an immense gray band across the world, touching a looming horizon, and in throat and nostril the salt stung sweetly, and the whole world seemed younger for the breath of the sea.
From the purple mystery of the horizon to the landward cliffs the ocean appeared motionless; it was only when I had advanced almost to the cliffs that I saw the movement of waves—that I perceived the contrast between inland inertia and the restless repose of the sea, stirring ceaselessly since creation.
The same little sparkling river I had crossed in Quimperle I now saw again, spreading out a wide, flat current which broke into waves where it tumbled seaward across the bar; I heard the white-winged gulls mewing, the thunderous monotone of the surf, and a bell in some unseen chapel ringing sweetly.
I passed a stone house, another; then the white road curved under the trees and I rode straight into the heart of Paradise, my horse's hoofs awaking echoes in the silent, stone-paved square.
Never had I so suddenly entered a place so peaceful, so quiet in the afternoon sun—yet the silence was not absolute, it was thrilling with exquisite sound, lost echoes of the river running along its quay of stone, half-heard harmonies of the ocean where white surf seethed over the sands beyond the headland.
There was a fountain, too, dripping melodiously under the trees; I heard the breathless humming of a spinning-wheel from one of the low houses of gray stone which enclosed the square, and a young girl singing, and the drone of bees in a bed of resida.
So this was Paradise! Truly the name did not seem amiss here, under the still vault of blue above; Paradise means peace to so many of us—surcease of care and sound and the brazen trample of nations—not the quiet of palace corridors or the tremendous silence of a cathedral, but the noiselessness of pleasant sounds, moving shadows of trees, wordless quietude, simplicity.
A young girl with a face like the Madonna stole across the square in her felt shoes.
"Can you tell me where the mayor lives?" I asked, looking down at her from my horse.
She raised her white-coiffed head with an innocent smile: "Eman' barz ar sal o leina."
"Don't you speak French?" I asked, appalled.
"Ho! ia; oui, monsieur, s'il faut bien. The mayor is at breakfast in his kitchen yonder."
"Thank you, my child."
I turned my horse across the shady square to a stone house banked up with bed on bed of scarlet geraniums. The windows were open; a fat man with very small eyes sat inside eating an omelet.
He watched me dismount without apparent curiosity, and when I had tied my horse and walked in at the open door he looked at me over the rim of a glass of cider, and slowly finished his draught without blinking. Then he said, "Bonjour."
I told him that I wanted a license for the circus to camp for one night; that I also desired permission to pitch camp somewhere in the vicinity. He made out the license, stamped it, handed it to me, and I paid him the usual fee.
"I've heard of circuses," he said; "they're like those shows at country fairs, I suppose."
"Yes—in a way. We have animals."
"I've seen them."
"—a camel, an elephant—"
"Ma doue!" he said, with slow emotion, "have you a live elephant?"
I admitted that fact.
Presently I said, "I hope the people of Paradise will come to the circus when we get to Lorient."
"Eh? Not they," said the mayor, wagging his head. "Do you think we have any money here in Paradise? And then," he added, cunningly, "we can all see your elephant when your company arrives. Why should we pay to see him again? War does not make millionaires out of the poor."
I looked miserably around. It was quite true that people like these had no money to spend on strolling players. But we had to live somehow, and our animals could not exist on air, even well-salted air.
"How much will it cost to have your town-crier announce the coming of the circus?" I inquired.
"That will cost ten sous if he drums and reads the announcement from here to the chateau."
I gave the mayor ten copper pennies.
"What chateau?" I asked.
"Dame, the chateau, monsieur."
"Oh," said I, "where the Countess lives?"
"The Countess? Yes, of course. Who else?"
"Is the Countess there?"
"Oui, dame, and others not to my taste."
I asked no more questions, but the mayor did, and when he found it might take some time to pump me, he invited me to share his omelet and cider and afterwards to sit in the sun among his geraniums and satisfy his curiosity concerning the life of a strolling player.
I was glad of something to eat. After I had unsaddled my horse and led him to the mayor's stable and had paid for hay and grain, I returned to sit in the mayor's garden and sniff longingly at his tobacco smoke and answer his impertinent questions as good-naturedly as they were intended.
But even the mayor of Paradise grew tired of asking questions in time; the bees droned among the flowers, the low murmur of the sea stole in on our ears, the river softly lapped the quay. The mayor slept.
He was fat, very fat; his short, velvet jacket hung heavy with six rows of enormous silver buttons, his little, round hat was tilted over his nose. A silver buckle decorated it in front; behind, two little velvet ribbons fluttered in futile conflict with the rising sea-breeze.
Men in embroidered knee-breeches, with bare feet thrust into straw-filled sabots, sat sunning on the quay under the purple fig-trees; one ragged fellow in soiled velvet bolero and embossed leggings lay in the sun, chin on fists, wooden shoes crossed behind him, watching the water with the eyes of a poacher.
This mild, balmy November weather, this afterglow of summer which in my own country we call Indian summer, had started new blossoms among the climbing tea-roses, lovely orange-tinted blossoms, and some of a clear lemon color, and their fragrance filled the air. Nowhere do roses blow as they blow near the sea, nowhere have I breathed such perfume as I breathed that drowsy afternoon in Paradise, where in every door-yard thickets of clove-scented pinks carpeted the ground and tall spikes of snowy phlox glimmered silver-white in the demi-light.
Where on earth could a more peaceful scene be found than in this sea-lulled land, here in the subdued light under aged, spreading oaks, where moss crept over the pavements and covered the little fountain as though it had been the stony brink of a limpid forest spring?
The mayor woke up toward five o'clock and stared at me with owlish gravity as though daring me to say that he had been asleep.
"Um—ah—ma fois oui!" he muttered, blowing his nose loudly in a purple silk bandanna. Then he shrugged his shoulders and added: "C'est la vie, monsieur. Que voulez-vous?"
And it was one kind of life after all—a blessed release from the fever of that fierce farandole which we of the outer world call "life."
The mayor scratched his ear, yawned, stretched one leg, then the other, and glanced at me.
"Paris still holds out?" he asked, with another yawn.
"Oh yes," I replied.
"And the war—is it still going badly for us?"
"There is always hope," I answered.
"Hope," he grumbled; "oh yes, we know what hope is—we of the coast live on it when there's no bread; but hope never yet filled my belly for me."
"Has the war touched you here in Paradise?" I asked.
"Touched us? Ho! Say it has crushed us and I'll strike palms with you. Why, not a keel has passed out of the port since August. Where is the fishing-fleet? Where are the sardine sloops that ought to have sailed from Algiers? Where are the Icelanders?"
"Well, where are they?" I suggested.
"Where? Ask the semaphore yonder. Where are our salt schooners for the Welsh coast? I don't know. They have not sailed, that's all I know. You do well to come with your circus and your elephant! You can peddle diamonds in the poor-house, too, if it suits your taste."
"Have the German cruisers frightened all your craft from the sea?" I asked, astonished.
"Yes, partly. Then there's an ugly French cruiser lying off Groix, yonder, and her black stacks are dribbling smoke all day and all night. We have orders to keep off and use Lorient when we want a port."
"Do you know why the cruiser warns your fishing-boats from this coast?" I inquired.
"No," he said, shortly.
"Do you know the name of the cruiser?"
"She's a new one, the Fer-de-Lance. And if I were not a patriot and a Breton I'd say: 'May Sainte-Anne rot her where she lies; she's brought a curse on the coast from Lorient to the Saint-Julien Light!—and the ghosts of the Icelanders will work her evil yet.'"
The mayor's round, hairless face was red; he thumped the arm of his chair with pudgy fists and wagged his head.
"We have not seen the end of this," he said—"oh no! There's a curse coming on Paradise—the cruiser brought it, and it's coming. He! did a Bannalec man not hear the were-wolf in Kerselec forest a week since? Pst! Not a word, monsieur. But old Kloark, of Roscoff, heard it too—oui dame!—and he knows the howl of the Loup-Garou! Besides, did I not with my own eyes see a black cormorant fly inland from the sea? And, by Sainte-Eline of Paradise! the gulls squeal when there's no storm brewing and the lancons prick the dark with flames along the coast till you'd swear the witches of Ker-Is were lighting death-candles from Paradise to Pont-Aven."
"Do you believe in witches, monsieur the mayor?" I asked, gravely.
He gave me a shrewd glance. "Not at all—not even in bed and the light out," he said, with a fat swagger. "I believe in magic? Ho! foi non! But many do. Oui dame! Many do."
"Here in Paradise?"
"Parbleu! Men of parts, too, monsieur. Now there's Terrec, who has the evil eye—not that I believe it, but, damn him, he'd better not try any tricks on me!
"Others stick twigs of aubepine in their pastures; the apothecary is a man of science, yet every year he makes a bonfire of dried gorse and drives his cattle through the smoke. It may keep off witches and lightning—or it may not. I myself do not do such things."
"Still you believe the cruiser out at sea yonder is going to bring you evil?"
"She has brought it. But it's all the same to me. I am mayor, and exempt, and I have cider and tobacco and boudin for a few months yet."
He caressed his little, selfish chin, which hung between his mottled jowls, peered cunningly at me, and opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment we both caught sight of a peasant running and waving a packet of blue papers in the air. "Monsieur the mayor! Monsieur the mayor!" he called, while still far away.
"Cre cochon de malheur!" muttered the mayor, turning pale. "He's got a telegram!"
The man came clattering across the square in his wooden shoes.
"A telegram," repeated the mayor, wiping the sudden sweat from his forehead. "I never get telegrams. I don't want telegrams!"
He turned to me, almost bursting with suppressed prophecy.
"It has come—the evil that the black cruiser brings us! You laughed! Tenez, monsieur; there's your bad luck in these blue morsels of paper!"
And he snatched the telegram from the breathless messenger, reading it with dilating eyes.
For a long while he sat there studying the telegram, his fat forefinger following the scrawl, a crease deepening above his eyebrows, and all the while his lips moved in noiseless repetition of the words he spelled with difficulty and his labored breathing grew louder.
When at length the magistrate had mastered the contents of his telegram, he looked up with a stupid stare.
"I want my drummer. Where's the town-crier?" he demanded, as though dazed.
"He has gone to Lorient, m'sieu the mayor," ventured the messenger.
"To get drunk. I remember. Imbecile! Why did he go to-day? Are there not six other days in this cursed week? Who is there to drum? Nobody. Nobody knows how in Paradise. Seigneur, Dieu! the ignorance of this town!"
"M'sieu the mayor," ventured the messenger, "there's Jacqueline."
"Ho! Vrai. The Lizard's young one! She can drum, they say. She stole my drum once. Why did she steal it but to drum upon it?"
"The little witch can drum them awake in Ker-Is," muttered the messenger.
The mayor rose, looked around the square, frowned. Then he raised his voice in a bellow: "Jacqueline! Jacqueline! Thou Jacqueline!"
A far voice answered, faintly breaking across the square from the bridge: "She is on the rocks with her sea-rake!"
The mayor thrust the blue telegram into his pocket and waddled out of his garden, across the square, and up the path to the cliffs.
Uninvited, I went with him.
The bell in the unseen chapel ceased ringing as we came out on the cliffs of Paradise, where, on the horizon, the sun hung low, belted with a single ribbon of violet cloud.
Over acres of foaming shoals the crimson light flickered and spread, painting the eastern cliffs with sombre fire. The ebb-tide, red as blood, tumbled seaward across the bar, leaving every ledge a glowing cinder under the widening conflagration in the west.
The mayor carried his silver-buttoned jacket over his arm; the air had grown sultry. As we walked our gigantic shadows strode away before us across the kindling stubble, seeming to lengthen at every stride.
Below the cliffs, on a crescent of flat sand, from which sluggish, rosy rivulets crawled seaward, a man stood looking out across the water. And the mayor stopped and called down to him: "Ohe, the Lizard! What do you see on the ocean—you below?"
"I see six war-ships speeding fast in column," replied the man, without looking up.
The mayor hastily shaded his eyes with one fat hand, muttering: "All poachers have eyes like sea-hawks. There is a smudge of smoke to the north. Holy Virgin, what eyes the rascal has!"
As for me, strain my eyes as I would, I saw nothing save the faintest stain of smoke on the horizon.
"He, Lizard! Are they German, your six war-ships?" bawled the mayor. His voice had suddenly become tremulous.
"They are French," replied the poacher, tranquilly.
"Then Sainte-Eline keep them from the rocks!" sang out the mayor. "Ohe, Lizard, I want somebody to drum and read a proclamation. Where's Jacqueline?"
At that instant a young girl, a mere child, appeared on the beach, dragging a sea-rake over the ground behind her. She was a lithe creature, bare-limbed and ragged, with the sea-tan on throat and knee. The blue tatters of her skirt hung heavy with brine; the creamy skin on her arms glittered with wet spray, and her hair was wet, too, clustering across her cheeks in damp elf-locks.
The mayor glanced at her with that stolid contempt which Finistere Bretons cherish toward those women who show their hair—an immodesty unpardonable in the eyes of most Bretons.
The girl caught sight of the mayor and gave him a laughing greeting which he returned with a shrug.
"If you want a town-crier," she called up, in a deliciously fresh voice, scarcely tinged with the accent, "I'll cry your edicts and I'll drum for you, too!"
"Can your daughter beat the drum?" asked the mayor of the poacher, ignoring the girl's eager face upturned.
"Yes," said the poacher, indifferently, "and she can also beat the devil with two sticks."
The girl threw her rake into a boat and leaped upon the rocks at the base of the cliff.
"Jacqueline! Don't come up that way!" bawled the mayor, horrified. "Hey! Robert! Ohe! Lizard! Stop her or she'll break her neck!"
The poacher looked up at his daughter then shrugged his shoulders and squatted down on his ragged haunches, restless eyes searching the level ocean, as sea-birds search.
Breathless, hot, and laughing, the girl pulled herself up over the edge of the cliff. I held out my hand to aid her, but she pushed it away, crying, "Thank you all the same, but here I am!"
"Spawn of the Lizard," I heard the mayor mutter to himself, "like a snake you wriggle where honest folk fall to destruction!" But he spoke condescendingly to the bright-eyed, breathless child. "I'll pay six sous if you'll drum for me."
"I'll do it for love," she said, saucily—"for the love of drumming, not for your beaux yeux, m'sieu le maire."
The mayor looked at her angrily, but, probably remembering he was at her mercy, suppressed his wrath and held out the telegram. "Can you read that, my child?"
The girl, still breathing rapidly from her scramble, rested her hands on her hips and, head on one side, studied the blue sheets of the telegram over the mayor's outstretched arm.
"Yes, I can read it. Why not? Can't you?"
"Read? I the mayor of Paradise!" repeated the outraged magistrate. "What do you mean, lizard of lizards! gorse cat!"
"Now if you are going to say such things I won't drum for you," said the child, glancing at me out of her sea-blue eyes and giving a shake to her elf-locks.
"Yes, you will!" bawled the angry mayor. "Shame on your manners, Jacqueline Garenne! Shame on your hair hanging where all the world can see it! Shame on your bare legs—"
"Not at all," said the child, unabashed. "God made my legs, m'sieu the mayor, and my hair, too. If my coiffe does not cover my hair, neither does the small Paris hat of the Countess de Vassart cover her hair. Complain of the Countess to m'sieu the cure, then I will listen to you."
The mayor glared at her, but she tossed her head and laughed.
"Ho fois! Everybody knows what you are," sniffed the mayor—"and nobody cares, either," he muttered, waddling past me, telegram in hand.
The child, quite unconcerned, fell into step beside me, saying, confidentially: "When I was little I used to cry when they talked to me like that. But I don't now; I've made up my mind that they are no better than I."
"I don't know why anybody should abuse you," I said, loudly enough for the mayor to hear. But that functionary waddled on, puffing, muttering, stopping every now and then in the narrow cliff-path to strike flint to tinder or to refill the tiny bowl of his pipe, which a dozen puffs always exhausted.
"Oh, they all abuse us," said the child, serenely. "You see, you are a stranger and don't understand; but you will if you live here."
"Why is everybody unkind to you?" I asked, after a moment.
"Why? Oh, because I am what I am and my father is the Lizard."
"Ah," she said, looking up at me with delicious malice, "what is a poacher, monsieur?"
"Sometimes he's a fine fellow gone wrong," I said, laughing. "So I don't believe any ill of your father, or of you, either. Will you drum for me, Jacqueline?"
"For you, monsieur? Why, yes. What am I to read for you?"
I gave her a hand-bill; at the first glance her eyes sparkled, the color deepened under her coat of amber tan; she caught her breath and read rapidly to the end.
"Oh, how beautiful," she said, softly. "Am I to read this in the square?"
"I will give you a franc to read it, Jacqueline."
"No, no—only—oh, do let me come in and see the heavenly wonders! Would you, monsieur? I—I cannot pay—but would—could you let me come in? I will read your notice, anyway," she added, with a quaver in her voice.
The flushed face, the eager, upturned eyes, deep blue as the sea, the little hands clutching the show-bill, which fairly quivered between the tanned fingers—all these touched and amused me. The child was mad with excitement.
What she anticipated, Heaven only knows. Shabby and tarnished as we were, the language of our hand-bills made up in gaudiness for the dingy reality.
"Come whenever you like, Jacqueline," I said. "Ask for me at the gate."
"And who are you, monsieur?"
"My name is Scarlett."
"Scarlett," she whispered, as though naming a sacred thing.
The mayor, who had toddled some distance ahead of us, now halted in the square, looking back at us through the red evening light.
"Jacqueline, the drum is in my house. I'll lend you a pair of sabots, too. Come, hasten little idler!"
We entered the mayor's garden, where the flowers were glowing in the lustre of the setting sun. I sat down in a chair; Jacqueline waited, hands resting on her hips, small, shapely toes restlessly brushing the grass.
"Truly this coming wonder-show will be a peep into paradise," she murmured. "Can all be true—really true as it is printed here in this bill—I wonder—"
Before she had time to speculate further, the mayor reappeared with drum and drum-sticks in one hand and a pair of sabots in the other. He flung the sabots on the grass, and Jacqueline, quite docile now, slipped both bare feet into them.
"You may keep them," said the mayor, puffing out his mottled cheeks benevolently; "decency must be maintained in Paradise, even if it beggars me."
"Thank you," said Jacqueline, sweetly, slinging the drum across her hip and tightening the cords. She clicked the ebony sticks, touched the tightly drawn parchment, sounding it with delicate fingers, then looked up at the mayor for further orders.
"Go, my child," said the mayor, amiably, and Jacqueline marched through the garden out into the square by the fountain, drum-sticks clutched in one tanned fist, the scrolls of paper in the other.
In the centre of the square she stood a moment, looking around, then raised the drum-sticks; there came a click, a flash of metal, and the quiet square echoed with the startling outcrash. Back from roof and wall bounded the echoes; the stony pavement rang with the racket. Already a knot of people had gathered around her; others came swiftly to windows and doorsteps; the loungers left their stone benches by the river, the maids of Paradise flocked from the bridge. Even Robert the Lizard drew in his dripping line to listen. The drum-roll ceased.
"Attention! Men of Finistere! By order of the governor of Lorient, all men between the ages of twenty and forty, otherwise not exempt, are ordered to report at the navy-yard barracks, war-port of Lorient, on the 5th of November of the present year, to join the army of the Loire.
"Whosoever is absent at roll-call will be liable to the punishment provided for such delinquents under the laws governing the state of siege now declared in Morbihan and Finistere. Citizens, to arms!
"The enemy is on the march! Though Metz has fallen through treachery, Paris holds firm! Let the provinces rise and hurl the invader from the soil of the mother-land!
"Bretons! France calls! Answer with your ancient battle-cry, 'Sainte-Anne! Sainte-Anne!' The eyes of the world are on Armorica! To arms!"
The girl's voice ceased; a dead silence reigned in the square. The men looked at one another stupidly; a woman began to whimper.
"The curse is on Paradise!" cried a hoarse voice.
The drummer was already drawing another paper from her ragged pocket, and again in the same clear, emotionless voice, but slightly drawling her words, she read:
"To the good people of Paradise! The manager of the famous American travelling circus, lately returned from a tour of the northern provinces, with camels, elephants, lions, and a magnificent company of artists, announces a stupendous exhibition to be held in Lorient at greatly reduced prices, thus enabling the intelligent and appreciative people of Paradise to honor the Republican Circus, recently known as the Imperial Circus, with their benevolent and discerning patronage! Long live France! Long live the Republic! Long live the Circus!"