The charm was simple. We needed only to build a little fire of gorse, and walk through the smoke once or twice. So we built the fire and walked through the smoke, the Lizard coughing and cursing until I feared he might overdo it by smothering us both. Then stamping out the last spark—for he was a woodsman always—we tramped on in better humor with destiny.
"You think that turned the curse backward, m'sieu?" he asked.
"There is not the faintest doubt of that," I said.
Far away towards Sainte-Ysole we saw the blue woods which were our goal. However, we had no intention of going there as the bee flies, partly because Tric-Trac might see us, partly because the Lizard wished any prowling passer-by to observe that he was occupied with his illegitimate profession. For my part, I very much preferred a brush with a garde-champetre or a summons to explain why no shots were found in the Lizard's pheasants, rather than have anybody ask us why we were walking so fast towards Sainte-Ysole woods.
Therefore we promptly selected a hedge for operations, choosing a high, thick one, which separated two fields of wheat stubble.
Kneeling under the hedge, he broke a hole in it just large enough for a partridge to worry through. Then he bent his twig, fastened the hair-wire into a running noose, adjusted it, and stood up. This manoeuvre he repeated at various hedges or in thickets where he "lined" his trail with peeled twigs on every bush.
Once he paused to reset a hare-trap with a turnip, picked up in a neighboring field; once he limed a young sapling and fixed a bit of a mirror in the branches, but not a bird alighted, although the blackthorns were full of fluttering wings. And all the while we had been twisting and doubling and edging nearer and nearer to the Sainte-Ysole woods, until we were already within their cool shadow, and I heard the tinkle of a stream among leafy depths.
Now we had no fear; we were hidden from the eyes of the dry, staring plain, and the Lizard laughed to himself as he fastened a grasshopper to his hook and flung it into the broad, dark water of the pool at his feet.
Slowly he fished up stream, but, although he seemed to be intent on his sport, there was something in the bend of his head that suggested he might be listening for other sounds than the complex melodies of mossy waterfalls.
His poacher's eyes began to glisten and shimmer in the forest dusk like the eyes of wild things that hunt at night. As he noiselessly turned, his nostrils spread with a tremor, as a good dog's nose quivers at the point.
Presently he beckoned me, stepped into the moss, and crawled without a sound straight through the holly thicket.
"Watch here," he whispered. "Count a hundred when I disappear, then creep on your stomach to the edge of that bank. In the bed of the stream, close under you, you will see and hear your friend Tric-Trac."
Before I had counted fifty I heard the Lizard cry out, "Bonjour, Tric-Trac!" but I counted on, obeying the Lizard's orders as I should wish mine to be obeyed. I heard a startled exclamation in reply to the Lizard's greeting, then a purely Parisian string of profanity, which terminated as I counted one hundred and crept forward to the mossy edge of the bank, under the yellow beech leaves.
Below me stood the Lizard, intently watching a figure crouched on hands and knees before a small, iron-bound box.
The person addressed as Tric-Trac promptly tried to hide the box by sitting down on it. He was a young man, with wide ears and unhealthy spots on his face. His hair, which was oily and thick, he wore neatly plastered into two pointed love-locks. This not only adorned and distinguished him, but it lent a casual and detached air to his ears, which stood at right angles to the plane of his face. I knew that engaging countenance. It was the same old Tric-Trac.
"Zut, alors!" repeated Tric-Trac, venomously, as the poacher smiled again; "can't you give the company notice when you come in?"
"Did you expect me to ring the tocsin?" asked the Lizard.
"Flute!" snarled Tric-Trac. "Like a mud-rat, you creep with no sound—c'est pas polite, nom d'un nom!"
He began nervously brushing the pine-needles from his skin-tight trousers, with dirty hands.
"What's that box?" asked the Lizard, abruptly.
"Box? Where?" A vacant expression came into Tric-Trac's face, and he looked all around him except at the box upon which he was sitting.
"Box?" he repeated, with that hopeless effrontery which never deserts criminals of his class, even under the guillotine. "I don't see any box."
"You're sitting on it," observed the Lizard.
"That box? Oh! You mean that box? Oh!" He peeped at it between his meagre legs, then turned a nimble eye on the poacher.
"What's in it?" demanded the poacher, sullenly.
"Don't know," replied Tric-Trac, with brisk interest. "I found it."
"Found it!" repeated the Lizard, scornfully.
"Certainly, my friend; how do you suppose I came by it?"
"You stole it!"
They faced each other for a moment.
"Supposition that you are correct; what of it?" said the young ruffian, calmly.
The Lizard was silent.
"Did you bring me anything to chew on?" inquired Tric-Trac, sniffing at the poacher's sack.
"Bread, cheese, three pheasants, cider—more than I eat in a week," said the Lizard, quietly. "It will cost forty sous."
He opened his sack and slowly displayed the provisions.
I looked hard at the iron-bound box.
On one end was painted the Geneva cross. Dr. Delmont and Professor Tavernier had disappeared carrying red-cross funds. Was that their box?
"I said it costs forty sous—two silver francs," repeated the Lizard, doggedly.
"Forty sous? That's robbery!" sniffed the young ruffian, now using that half-whining, half-sneering form of discourse peculiar alike to the vicious chevalier of Paris and his confrere of the provincial centres. Accent and slang alone distinguish between them; the argot, however, is practically the same.
Tric-Trac fished a few coins from his pocket, counted carefully, and handed them, one by one, to the poacher.
The poacher coolly tossed the food on the ground, and, as Tric-Trac rose to pick it up, seized the box.
"Drop that!" said Tric-Trac, quickly.
"What's in it?"
"Nothing! Drop it, I tell you."
"Where's the key?"
"There's no key—it's a machine."
"What's in it?"
"Now I've been trying to find out for two weeks," sneered Tric-Trac, "and I don't know yet. Drop it!"
"I'm going to open it all the same," said the Lizard, coolly, lifting the lid.
A sudden silence followed; then the Lizard swore vigorously. There was another box within the light, iron-edged casket, a keyless cube of shining steel, with a knob on the top, and a needle which revolved around a dial on which were engraved the hours and minutes. And emblazoned above the dial was the coat of arms of the Countess de Vassart.
When Tric-Trac had satisfied himself concerning the situation, he returned to devour his food.
"Flute! Zut! Mince!" he observed; "you and your bad manners, they sicken me—tiens!"
The Lizard, flat on his stomach, lay with the massive steel box under his chin, patiently turning the needle from figure to figure.
"Wonderful! wonderful!" sneered Tric-Trac. "Continue, my friend, to put out your eyes with your fingers!"
The Lizard continued to turn the needle backward and forward around the face of the dial. Once, when he twirled it impatiently, a tiny chime rang out from within the box, but the steel lid did not open.
"It's the Angelus," said Tric-Trac, with a grimace. "Let us pray, my friend, for a cold-chisel—when my friend Buckhurst returns."
Still the Lizard lay, unmoved, turning the needle round and round.
Tric-Trac having devoured the cheese, bread, and an entire pheasant, made a bundle of the remaining food, emptied the cider-jug, wiped his beardless face with his cap, and announced that he would be pleased to "broil" a cigarette.
"Do you want the gendarmes to scent tobacco?" said the Lizard.
"Are the 'Flics' out already?" asked Tric-Trac, astonished.
"They're in Paradise, setting the whole Department by the ears. But they can't look sideways at me; I'm going to be exempt."
"It strikes me," observed Tric-Trac, "that you take great precautions for your own skin."
"I do," said the Lizard.
"What about me?"
The poacher looked around at the young ruffian. Those muscles in the human face which draw back the upper lip are not the muscles used for laughter. Animals employ them when they snarl. And now the Lizard laughed that way; his upper lip shrank from the edge of his yellow teeth, and he regarded Tric-Trac with oblique and burning eyes.
"What about me?" repeated Tric-Trac, in an offended tone. "Am I to live in fear of the Flics?"
The Lizard laughed again, and Tric-Trac, disgusted, stood up, settled his cap over his wide ears, humming a song as he loosened his trousers-belt:
"Si vous t'nez a vot' squelette Ne fait' pas comme Bibi! Claquer plutot dans vot' lit Que de claquer a la Roquette!"—
"Who are you gaping at?" he added, abruptly. "Bon; c'est ma geule. Et apres? Drop that box!"
"Come," replied the Lizard, coldly, placing the box on the moss, "you'd better not quarrel with me."
"Oh, that's a threat, is it?" sneered Tric-Trac. He walked over to the steel box, lifted it, placed it in the iron-edged case, and sat down on the case.
"I want you to comprehend," he added, "that you have pushed your nose into an affair that does not concern you. The next time you come here to sell your snared pheasants, come like a man, nom de Dieu! and not like a cat of the Glaciere!—or I'll find a way to stop your curiosity."
The dull-red color surged into the poacher's face and heavy neck; for a moment he stood as though stunned. Then he dragged out his knife.
Tric-Trac sat looking at him insolently, one hand thrust into the bosom of his greasy coat.
"I've got a toy under my cravate that says 'Papa!' six times—pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! Papa!" he continued, calmly; "so there's no use in your turning red and swelling the veins in your neck. Go to the devil! Do you think I can't live without you? Go to the devil with your traps and partridges and fish-hooks—and that fagot-knife in your fist—and if you try to throw it at me you'll make a sad mistake!"
The Lizard's half-raised hand dropped as Tric-Trac, with a movement like lightning, turned a revolver full on him, talking all the while in his drawling whine.
"C'est ca! Now you are reasonable. Get out of this forest, my friend—or stay and join us. Eh! That astonishes you? Why? Idiot, we want men like you. We want men who have nothing to lose and—millions to gain! Ah, you are amazed! Yes, millions—I say it. I, Tric-Trac of the Glaciere, who have done my time in Noumea, too! Yes, millions."
The young ruffian laughed and slowly passed his tongue over his thin lips. The Lizard slowly returned his knife to its sheath, looked all around, then deliberately sat down on the moss cross-legged. I could have hugged him.
"A million? Where?" he asked, vacantly.
"Parbleu! Naturally you ask where," chuckled Tric-Trac. "Tiens! A supposition that it's in this box!"
"The box is too small," said the Lizard, patiently.
Tric-Trac roared. "Listen to him! Listen to the child!" he cried, delighted. "Too small to hold gold enough for you? Very well—but is a ship big enough?"
"A big ship is."
Tric-Trac wriggled in convulsions of laughter.
"Oh, listen! He wants a big ship! Well—say a ship as big as that ugly, black iron-clad sticking up out of the sea yonder, like a Usine-de-gaz!"
"I think that ship would be big enough," said the poacher, seriously.
Tric-Trac did not laugh; his little eyes narrowed, and he looked steadily at the poacher.
"Do you mean what I mean?" he asked, deliberately.
"Well," said the Lizard, "what do you mean?"
"I mean that France is busy stitching on a new flag."
"Oh-h!" mused the poacher. "When does France hoist that new red flag?"
"When Paris falls."
The poacher rested his chin on his doubled fist and leaned forward across his gathered knees. "I see," he drawled.
"Under the commune there can be no more poverty," said Tric-Trac; "you comprehend that."
"And no more aristocrats."
"Well," said Tric-Trac, his head on one side, "how does that programme strike you?"
"It is impossible, your programme," said the poacher, rising to his feet impatiently.
"You think so? Wait a few days! Wait, my friend," cried Tric-Trac, eagerly; "and say!—come back here next Monday! There will be a few of us here—a few friends. And keep your mouth shut tight. Here! Wait. Look here, friend, don't let a little pleasantry stand between comrades. Your fagot-knife against my little flute that sings pa-pa!—that leaves matters balanced, eh?"
The young ruffian had followed the Lizard and caught him by his stained velvet coat.
"Voyons," he persisted, "do you think the commune is going to let a comrade starve for lack of Badinguet's lozenges? Here, take a few of these!" and the rascal thrust out a dirty palm full of twenty-franc gold pieces.
"What are these for?" muttered the Lizard, sullenly.
"For your beaux yeux, imbecile!" cried Tric-Trac, gayly. "Come back when you want more. My comrade, Citizen Buckhurst, will be glad to see you next Monday. Adieu, my friend. Don't chatter to the Flics!"
He picked up his box and the packet of provisions, dropped his revolver into the side-pocket of his jacket, cocked his greasy cap, blew a kiss to the Lizard, and started off straight into the forest. After a dozen steps he hesitated, turned, and looked back at the poacher for a moment in silence. Then he made a friendly grimace.
"You are not a fool," he said, "so you won't follow me. Come again Monday. It will really be worth while, dear friend." Then, as on an impulse, he came all the way back, caught the Lizard by the sleeve, raised his meagre body on tip-toe, and whispered.
The Lizard turned perfectly white; Tric-Trac trotted away into the woods, hugging his box and smirking.
The Lizard and I walked back together. By the time we reached Paradise bridge I understood him better, and he understood me. And when we arrived at the circus tent, and when Speed came up, handing me a telegram from Chanzy refusing my services, the Lizard turned to me like an obedient hound to take my orders—now that I was not to re-enter the Military Police.
I ordered him to disobey the orders from Lorient and from the mayor of Paradise; to take to the woods as though to avoid the conscription; to join Buckhurst's franc-company of ruffians, and to keep me fully informed.
"And, Lizard," I said, "you may be caught and hanged for it by the police, or stabbed by Tric-Trac."
"Bien," he said, coolly.
"But it is a brave thing you do; a soldierly thing!"
He was silent.
"It is for France," I said.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"And we'll catch this Tric-Trac red-handed," I suggested.
"Ah—yes!" His eyes glowed as though lighted up from behind. "And another who is high in the police, and a friend of this Tric-Trac!"
"Was it that man's name he whispered to you when you turned so white?" I said, suddenly.
The Lizard turned his glowing eyes on me.
"Was the man's name—Mornac?" I asked, at a hopeless venture.
The Lizard shivered; I needed no reply, not even his hoarse, "Are you the devil, that you know all things?"
I looked at him wonderingly. What wrong could Mornac have done a ragged outcast here on the Breton coast? And where was Mornac? Had he left Paris in time to avoid the Prussian trap? Was he here in this country, rubbing elbows with Buckhurst?
"Did Tric-Trac tell you that Mornac was at the head of that band?" I demanded.
"Why do you ask me?" stammered the Lizard; "you know everything—even when it is scarcely whispered!"
The superstitious astonishment of the man, his utter collapse and his evident fear of me, did not suit me. Treachery comes through that kind of fear; I meant to rule him in another and safer manner. I meant to be absolutely honest with him.
It was difficult to persuade him that I had only guessed the name whispered; that, naturally, I should think of Mornac as a high officer of police, and particularly so since I knew him to be a villain, and had also divined his relations with Buckhurst.
I drew from the poacher that Tric-Trac had named Mornac as head of the communistic plot in Brittany; that Mornac was coming to Paradise very soon, and that then something gay might be looked for.
And that night I took Speed into my confidence and finally Kelly Eyre, our balloonist.
And we talked the matter over until long after midnight.
The lions had now begun to give me a great deal of trouble. Timour Melek, the old villain, sat on his chair, snarling and striking at me, but still going through his paces; Empress Khatoun was a perfect devil of viciousness, and refused to jump her hoops; even poor little Aicha, my pet, fed by me soon after her foster-mother, a big Newfoundland, had weaned her, turned sullen in the pyramid scene. I roped her and trimmed her claws; it was high time.
Oh, they knew, and I knew, that matters had gone wrong with me; that I had, for a time, at least, lost the intangible something which I once possessed—that occult right to dominate.
It worried me; it angered me. Anger in authority, which is a weakness, is quickly discovered by beasts.
Speed's absurd superstition continued to recur to me at inopportune moments; in my brain his voice was ceaselessly sounding—"A man in love, a man in love, a man in love"—until a flash of temper sent my lions scurrying and snarling into a pack, where they huddled and growled, staring at me with yellow, mutinous eyes.
Yet, strangely, the greater the risk, and the plainer to me that my lions were slipping out of my control, the more my apathy increased, until even Byram began to warn me.
Still I never felt the slightest physical fear; on the contrary, as my irritation increased my disdain grew. It seemed a monstrous bit of insolence on the part of these overgrown cats to meditate an attack on me. Even though I began to feel that it was only a question of time when the moment must arrive, even though I gradually became certain that the first false move on my part would precipitate an attack, the knowledge left me almost indifferent.
That morning, as I left the training-cage—where, among others, Kelly Eyre stood looking on—I suddenly remembered Sylvia Elven and her message to Eyre, which I had never delivered.
We strolled towards the stables together; he was a pleasant, clean-cut, fresh-faced young fellow, a man I had never known very well, but one whom I was inclined to respect and trust.
"My son," said I, politely, "do you think you have arrived at an age sufficiently mature to warrant my delivering to you a message from a pretty girl?"
"There's no harm in attempting it, my venerable friend," he replied, laughing.
"This is the message," I said: "On Sunday the book-stores are closed in Paris."
"Who gave you that message, Scarlett?" he stammered.
I looked at him curiously, brutally; a red, hot blush had covered his face from neck to hair.
"In case you asked, I was to inform you," said I, "that a Bretonne at Point Paradise sent the message."
"A Bretonne!" he repeated, as though scared.
"But I don't know any!"
I shrugged my shoulders discreetly.
"Are you certain she was a Bretonne?" he asked. His nervousness surprised me.
"Does she not say so?" I replied.
"I know—I know—but that message—there is only one woman who could have sent it—" He hesitated, red as a pippin.
He was so young, so manly, so unspoiled, and so red, that on an impulse I said: "Kelly, it was Mademoiselle Elven who sent you the message."
His face expressed troubled astonishment.
"Is that her name?" he asked.
"Well—it's one of them, anyway," I replied, beginning to feel troubled in my turn. "See here, Kelly, it's not my business, but you won't mind if I speak plainly, will you? The times are queer—you understand. Everybody is suspicious; everybody is under suspicion in these days. And I want to say that the young lady who sent that curious message to you is as clever as twenty men like you and me."
He was silent.
"If it is a love affair, I'll stop now—not a question, you understand. If it is not—well, as an older and more battered and world-worn man, I'm going to make a suggestion to you—with your permission."
"Make it," he said, quietly.
"Then I will. Don't talk to Mademoiselle Elven. You, Speed, and I know something about a certain conspiracy; we are going to know more before we inform the captain of that cruiser out there beyond Point Paradise. I know Mademoiselle Elven—slightly. I am afraid of her—and I have not yet decided why. Don't talk to her."
"But—I don't know her," he said; "or, at least I don't know her by that name."
After a moment I said: "Is the person in question the companion of the Countess de Vassart?"
"If she is I do not know it," he replied.
"Was she once an actress?"
"It would astonish me to believe it!" he said.
"Then who do you believe sent you that message, Kelly?"
His cheeks began to burn again, and he gave me an uncomfortable look. A silence, and he sat down in my dressing-room, his boyish head buried in his hands. After a glance at him I began changing my training-suit for riding-clothes, whistling the while softly to myself. As I buttoned a fresh collar he looked up.
"Mr. Scarlett, you are well-born and—you are here in the circus with the rest of us. You know what we are—you know that two or three of us have seen better days,... that something has gone wrong with us to bring us here,... but we never speak of it,... and never ask questions.... But I should like to tell you about myself;... you are a gentleman, you know,... and I was not born to anything in particular.... I was a clerk in the consul's office in Paris when Monsieur Tissandier took a fancy to me, and I entered his balloon ateliers to learn to assist him."
He hesitated. I tied my necktie very carefully before a bit of broken mirror.
"Then the government began to make much of us,... you remember? We started experiments for the army.... I was intensely interested, and ... there was not much talk about secrecy then,... and my salary was large, and I was received at the Tuileries. My head was turned;... life was easy, brilliant. I made an invention—a little electric screw which steered a balloon ... sometimes..." He laughed, a mirthless laugh, and looked at me. All the color had gone from his face.
"There was a woman—" I turned partly towards him.
"We met first at the British Embassy,... then elsewhere,... everywhere.... We skated together at the club in the Bois at that celebrated fete,... you know?—the Emperor was there—"
"I know," I said.
He looked at me dreamily, passed his hand over his face, and went on:
"Somehow we always talked about military balloons. And that evening ... she was so interested in my work ... I brought some little sketches I had made—"
"I understand," I said.
He looked at me miserably. "She was to return the sketches to me at Calman's—the fashionable book-store,... next day.... I never thought that the next day was to be Sunday.... The book-stores of Paris are not open on Sunday—but the War Office is."
I began to put on my coat.
"And the sketches were asked for?" I suggested—"and you naturally told what had become of them?"
"I refused to name her."
"Of course; men of our sort can't do that."
"I am not of your sort—you know it."
"Oh yes, you are, my friend—and the same kind of fool, too. There's only one kind of man in this world."
He looked at me listlessly.
"So they sent you to a fortress?" I asked.
"To New Caledonia,... four years.... I was only twenty, Scarlett,... and ruined.... I joined Byram in Antwerp and risked the tour through France."
After a moment's thought I said: "In your opinion, what nation profited by your sketches? Italy? Spain? Prussia? Bavaria? England?... Perhaps Russia?"
"Do you mean that this woman was a foreign spy?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps she was only careless, or capricious,... or inconstant.... You never saw her again?"
"I was under arrest on Sunday. I do not know.... I like to believe that she went to the book-store on Monday,... that she made an innocent mistake,... but I never knew, Scarlett,... I never knew."
"Suppose you ask her?" I said.
He reddened furiously.
"I cannot.... If she did me a wrong, I cannot reproach her; if she was innocent—look at me, Scarlett!—a ragged, ruined mountebank in a travelling circus,... and she is—"
"An honest woman that a man might care for?"
"That is ... my belief."
"If she is," I said, "go and ask her about those drawings."
"But if she is not,... I cannot tell you!" he flashed out.
"Let us shake hands, Kelly," I said,... "and be very good friends. Will you?"
He gave me his hand rather shyly.
"We will never speak of her again," I said,... "unless you desire it. You have had a terrible lesson in caution; I need say no more. Only remember that I have trusted you with a secret concerning Buckhurst's conspiracy."
His firm hand tightened on mine, then he walked away, steadily, head high. And I went out to saddle my horse for a canter across the moor to Point Paradise.
It was a gray day, with a hint of winter in the air, and a wind that set the gorse rustling like tissue-paper. Up aloft the sun glimmered, a white spot in a silvery smother; pale lights lay on moorland and water; the sea tumbled over the bar, boiling like a flood of liquid lead from which the spindrift curled and blew into a haze that buried the island of Groix and turned the anchored iron-clad to a phantom.
A day for a gallop, if ever there was such a day!—a day to wash out care from a troubled mind and cleanse it in the whipping, reeking, wet east wind—a day for a fox! And I rose in my saddle and shouted aloud as a red fox shot out of the gorse and galloped away across the endless moorland, with the feathers of a mallard still sticking to his whiskers.
Oh, what a gallop, with risk enough, too; for I did not know the coast moors; and the deep clefts from the cliffs cut far inland, so that eye and ear and bridle-hand were tense and ready to catch danger ere it ingulfed us in some sea-churned crevice hidden by the bracken. And how the gray gulls squealed, high whirling over us, and the wild ducks in the sedge rose with clapping wings, craning their necks, only to swing overhead in circles, whimpering, and drop, with pendent legs and wings aslant, back into the bog from which we startled them.
A ride into an endless gray land, sweet with sea-scents, rank with the perfume of salty green things; a ride into a land of gushing winds, wet as spray, strong and caressing, too, and full of mischief; winds that set miles of sedge rippling; sudden winds, that turned still pools to geysers and set the yellow gorse flowers flying; winds that rushed up with a sea-roar like the sound in shells, then, sudden, died away, to leave the furrowed clover motionless and the tall reeds still as death.
So, by strange ways and eccentric circles, like the aerial paths of homing sea-birds, I came at last to the spot I had set out for, consciously; yet it surprised me to find I had come there.
Before I crossed the little bridge I scented the big orange-tinted tea-roses and the pinks. Leaves on apricots were falling; the fig-tree was bare of verdure, and the wind chased the big, bronzed leaves across the beds of herbs, piling them into heaps at the base of the granite wall.
A boy took my horse; a servant in full Breton costume admitted me; the velvet humming of Sylvia Elven's spinning-wheel filled the silence, like the whirring of a great, soft moth imprisoned in a room:
"Woe to the Maids of Paradise, Yvonne! Twice have the Saxons landed—twice! Yvonne! Yet shall Paradise see them thrice! Yvonne! Yvonne! Marivonik!
"Fair is their hair and blue their eyes, Yvonne! Body o' me! their words are lies, Yvonne! Maids of Paradise, oh, be wise! Yvonne! Yvonne! Marivonik!"
The door swung open noiselessly; the whir of the wheel and the sound of the song filled the room for an instant, then was shut out as the Countess de Vassart closed the door and came forward to greet me.
In her pretty, soft gown, with a tint of blue ribbon at the neck and shoulders, she seemed scarcely older than a school-girl, so radiant, so sweet and fresh she stood there, giving me her little hand to touch in friendship.
"It was so good of you to come," she said; "I know you made it a duty and gave up a glorious gallop to be amiable to me. Did you?"
I tried to say something, but her loveliness confused me.
Somebody brought tea—I don't know who; all I could see clearly was her gray eyes meeting mine—the light from the leaded window touching her glorious, ruddy hair.
As for the tea, I took whatever she offered; doubtless I drank it, but I don't remember. Nor do I remember what she said at first, for somehow I began thinking about my lions, and the thought obsessed me even while striving to listen to her, even in the tingling maze of other thoughts which kept me dumb under the exquisite spell of this intimacy with her.
The delicate odor of ripened herbs stole into the room from the garden; far away, through the whispering whir of the spinning-wheel, I heard the sea.
"Do you like Sylvia's song?" she asked, turning her head to listen. "It is a very old song—a very, very old one—centuries old. It's all about the English, how they came to harry our coasts in those days—and it has almost a hundred verses!" Something of the Bretonne came into her eyes for a moment, that shadow of sadness, that patient fatalism in which, too, there is something of distrust. The next instant her eyes cleared and she smiled.
"The Trecourts suffered much from the English raiders. I am a Trecourt, you know. That song was made about us—about a young girl, Yvonne de Trecourt, who was carried away by the English. She was foolish; she had a lover among the Saxons,... and she set a signal for him, and they came and sacked the town, and carried her away, and that was what she got for her folly."
She bent her head thoughtfully; the sound of the sea grew louder in the room; a yellow light stole out of the west and touched the window-panes, slowly deepening to orange; against it the fruit trees stood, a leafless tracery of fragile branches.
"It is the winter awaking, very far away," she said, under her breath.
Something in the hollow monotone of the sea made me think again of the low grumble of restless lions. The sound was hateful. Why should it steal in here—why haunt me even in this one spot in all the world where a world-tired man had found a moment's peace in a woman's eyes.
"Are you troubled?" she asked, then colored at her own question, as though deeming the impulse to speak unwarranted.
"No, not troubled. Happiness is often edged with a shadow. I am content to be here."
She bent her head and looked at the heavy rose lying in solitary splendor on the table. The polished wood reflected it in subdued tints of saffron.
"It is a strange friendship," I said.
I said, musing: "To me it is like magic. I scarce dare speak, scarce breathe, lest the spell break."
She was silent.
"—Lest the spell break—and this house, this room, fade away, leaving me alone, staring at the world once more."
"If there is a spell, you have cast it," she said, laughing at my sober face. "A wizard ought to be able to make his spells endure."
Then her face grew graver. "You must forget the past," she said; "you must forget all that was cruel and false and unhappy,... will you not?"
"I, too," she said, "have much to forget and much to hope for; and you taught me how to forget and how to hope."
"Yes,... at La Trappe, at Morsbronn, and here. Look at me. Have I not changed?"
"Yes," I said, fascinated.
"I know I have," she said, as though speaking to herself. "Life means more now. Somehow my childhood seems to have returned, with all its hope of the world and all its confidence in the world, and its certainty that all will be right. Years have fallen from my shoulders like a released burden that was crushing me to my knees. I have awakened from a dream that was not life at all,... a dream in which I, alone, staggered through darkness, bearing the world on my shoulders—the world doubly weighted with the sorrows of mankind,... a dream that lasted years, but...you awoke me."
She leaned forward and lifted the rose, touching her face with it.
"It was so simple, after all—this secret of the world's malady. You read it for me. I know now what is written on the eternal tablets—to live one's own life as it is given, in honor, charity, without malice; to seek happiness where it is offered; to share it when possible; to uplift. But, most of all, to be happy and accept happiness as a heavenly gift that is to be shared with as many as possible. And this I have learned since ... I knew you."
The light in the room had grown dimmer; I leaned forward to see her face.
"Am I not right?" she asked.
"I think so.... I am learning from you."
"But you taught this creed to me!" she cried.
"No, you are teaching it to me. And the first lesson was a gift,... your friendship."
"Freely given, gladly given," she said, quickly. "And yours I have in return,... and will keep always—always—"
She crushed the rose against her mouth, looking at me with inscrutable gray eyes, as I had seen her look at me once at La Trappe, once in Morsbronn.
I picked up my gloves and riding-crop; as I rose she stood up in the dusk, looking straight at me.
I said something about Sylvia Elven and my compliments to her, something else about the happiness I felt at coming to the chateau again, something about her own goodness to me—Heaven knows what!—and she gave me her hand and I held it a moment.
"Will you come again?" she asked.
I stammered a promise and made my way blindly to the door which a servant threw open, flung myself astride my horse, and galloped out into the waste of moorland, seeing nothing, hearing nothing save the low roar of the sea, like the growl of restless lions.
A RESTLESS MAN
When I came into camp, late that afternoon, I found Byram and Speed groping about among a mass of newspapers and letters, the first mail we circus people had received for nearly two months.
There were letters for all who were accustomed to look for letters from families, relatives, or friends at home. I never received letters—I had received none of that kind in nearly a score of years, yet that curious habit of expectancy had not perished in me, and I found myself standing with the others while Byram distributed the letters, one by one, until the last home-stamped envelope had been given out, and all around me the happy circus-folk were reading in homesick contentment. I know of no lonelier man than he who lingers empty-handed among those who pore over the home mail.
But there were newspapers enough and to spare—French, English, American; and I sat down by my lion's cage and attempted to form some opinion of the state of affairs in France. And, as far as I could read between the lines, this is what I gathered, partly from my own knowledge of past events, partly from the foreign papers, particularly the English:
When, on the 3d of September, the humiliating news arrived that the Emperor was a prisoner and his army annihilated, the government, for the first time in its existence, acted with promptness and decision in a matter of importance. Secret orders were sent by couriers to the Bank of France, to the Louvre, and to the Invalides; and, that same night, train after train rushed out of Paris loaded with the battle-flags from the Invalides, the most important pictures and antique sculptures from the Louvre, the greater part of the gold and silver from the Bank of France, and, last but by no means least, the crown and jewels of France.
This Speed and I already knew.
These trains were despatched to Brest, and at the same time a telegram was directed to the admiral commanding the French iron-clad fleet in the Baltic to send an armored cruiser to Brest with all haste possible, there to await further orders, but to be fully prepared in any event to take on board certain goods designated in cipher. This we knew in a general way, though Speed understood that Lorient was to be the port of departure.
The plan was a good one and apparently simple; and there seemed to be no doubt that jewels, battle-flags, pictures, and coin were already beyond danger from the German armies, now plodding cautiously southward toward the capital, which was slowly recovering from its revolutionary convulsions and preparing for a siege.
The plan, then, was simple; but, for an equally simple reason, it miscarried in the following manner. Early in August, while the French armies from the Rhine to the Meuse were being punished with frightful regularity and precision, the French Mediterranean squadron had sailed up and down that interesting expanse of water, apparently in patriotic imitation of the historic
"King of France and twenty thousand men." For, it now appeared, the French admiral was afraid that the Spanish navy might aid the German ships in harassing the French transports, which at that time were frantically engaged in ferrying a sea-sick Algerian army across the Mediterranean to the mother country.
Of course there was no ground for the admiral's suspicions. The German war-ships stayed in their own harbors, the Spaniards made no offensive alliance with Prussia, and at length the French admiral sailed triumphantly away with his battleships and cruisers.
On the 7th of August the squadron of four battleships, two armored corvettes, and a despatch-boat steamed out of Brest, picking up on its way northward three more iron-clad frigates, and several cruisers and despatch-boats; and on the 11th of August, 1870, the squadron anchored off Heligoland, from whence Admiral Fourichon proclaimed the blockade of the German coast.
It must have been an imposing sight! There lay the great iron-clads, the Magnanime, the Heroine, the Provence, the Valeureuse, the Revanche, the Invincible, the Couronne! There lay the cruisers, the Atalante, the Renaud, the Cosmao, the Decres! There, too, lay the single-screw despatch-boats Reine-Hortense, Renard, and Dayot. And upon their armored decks, three by three, stalked the French admirals. Yet, without cynicism, it may be said that the admirals of France fought better, in 1870, on dry land than they did on the ocean.
However, the German ships stayed peacefully inside their fortified ports, and the three French admirals pranced peacefully up and down outside, until the God of battles intervened and trouble naturally ensued.
On the 6th of September all the seas of Europe were set clashing under a cyclone that rose to a howling hurricane. The British iron-clad Captain foundered off Finistere; the French fleet in the Baltic was scattered to the four winds.
In the midst of the tempest a French despatch-boat, the Hirondelle, staggered into sight, signalling the flag-ship. Then the French admiral for the first time learned the heart-breaking news of Sedan, and as the tempest-tortured battle-ship drove seaward the signals went up: "Make for Brest!" The blockade of the German coast was at an end.
On the 4th of September the treasure-laden trains had left Paris for Brest. On the 5th the Hirondelle steamed out towards the fleet with the news from Sedan and the orders for the detachment of a cruiser to receive the crown jewels. On the 6th the news and the orders were signalled to the flag-ship; but the God of battles unchained a tempest which countermanded the order and hurled the iron-clads into outer darkness.
Some of the ships crept into English ports, burning their last lumps of coal, some drifted into Dunkerque; but the flag-ship disappeared for nine long days, at last to reappear off Cherbourg, a stricken thing with a stricken crew and an admiral broken-hearted.
So, for days and days, the treasure-laden trains must have stood helpless in the station at Brest, awaiting the cruiser that did not come.
On the 17th of September the French Channel squadron, of seven heavy iron-clads, unexpectedly steamed into Lorient harbor and dropped anchor amid thundering salutes from the forts; and the next day one of the treasure-trains came flying into Lorient, to the unspeakable relief of the authorities in the beleaguered capital.
Speed and I already knew the secret orders sent. The treasures, including the crown diamonds, were to be stored in the citadel, and an armored cruiser was to lie off the arsenal with banked fires, ready to receive the treasures at the first signal and steam to the French fortified port of Saigon in Cochin China, by a course already determined.
Why on earth those orders had been changed so that the cruiser was to lie off Groix I could not imagine, unless some plot had been discovered in Lorient which had made it advisable to shift the location of the treasures for the third time.
Pondering there at the tent door, amid my heap of musty newspapers, I looked out into the late, gray afternoon and saw the maids of Paradise passing and repassing across the bridge with a clicking of wooden shoes and white head-dresses glimmering in the dusk of the trees.
The town had filled within a day or two; the Paradise coiffe was not the only coiffe to be seen in the square; there was the delicate-winged head-dress of Faouet, the beautiful coiffes of Rosporden, Sainte-Anne d'Auray, and Pont Aven; there, too, flashed the scarlet skirts of Bannalec and the gorgeous embroidered bodices of the interior; there were the men of Quimperle in velvet, the men of Penmarch, the men of Faouet with their dark, Spanish-like faces and their sombreros, and their short yellow jackets and leggings. All in holiday costume, too, for the maids were stiff in silver and lace, and the men wore carved sabots and embroidered gilets.
"Governor," I called out to Byram, "the town is filling fast. It's like a Pardon in Morbihan; we'll pack the old tent to the nigger's-heaven!"
"It's a fact," he said, pushing his glasses up over his forehead and fanning his face with his silk hat. "We're going to open to a lot of money, Mr. Scarlett, and ... I ain't goin' to forgit them that stood by me, neither."
He placed a heavy hand on my shoulder, and, stooping, peered into my face.
"Air you sick, m' friend?" he asked.
"I, governor? Why, no."
"Ain't been bit by that there paltry camuel nor nothin', hev ye?"
"No; do I look ill?"
"Peaked—kind o' peaked. White, with dark succles under your eyes. Air you nervous?"
"About the lions? Oh no. Don't worry about me, governor."
He sighed, adjusted his spectacles, and blew his nose.
"Mr. Speed—he's worriting, too; he says that Empress Khatoun means to hev ye one o' these days."
"You tell Mr. Speed to worry over his own affairs—that child, Jacqueline, for instance. I suppose she made her jump without trouble to-day? I was too nervous to stay and watch her."
"M' friend," said Byram, in solemn ecstasy, "I take off my hat to that there kid!" And he did so with a flourish. "You orter seen her; she hung on that flying trap, jest as easy an' sassy! We was all half crazy. Speed he grew blue around the gills; Miss Crystal, a-swingin' there in the riggin' by her knees, kept a swallerin' an' lickin' her lips, she was that scared.
"'Ready?' she calls out in a sort o' quaver.
"'Ready!' sez little Jacqueline, cool as ice, swingin' by her knees. 'Go!' sez Miss Crystal, an' the kid let go, an' Miss Crystal grabbed her by the ankles. 'Ready?' calls up Speed, beside the tank.
"'Ready!' sez the kid, smilin'. 'Drop!' cries Speed. An' Jacqueline shot down like a blazing star—whir! swish! splash! All over! An' that there nervy kid a floatin' an' a sportin' like a minnie-fish at t'other end o' the tank! Oh, gosh, but it was grand! It was jest—"
Speech failed; he walked away, waving his arms, his rusty silk hat on the back of his head.
A few moments later drums began to roll from the square. Speed, passing, called out to me that the conscripts were leaving for Lorient; so I walked down to the bridge, where the crowd had gathered and where a tall gendarme stood, his blue-and-white uniform distinct in the early evening light. The mayor was there, too, dressed in his best, waddling excitedly about, and buttonholing at intervals a young lieutenant of infantry, who appeared to be extremely bored.
There were the conscripts of the Garde Mobile, an anxious peasant rabble, awkward, resigned, docile as cattle. Here stood a farmer, reeking of his barnyard; here two woodsmen from the forest, belted and lean; but the majority were men of the sea, heavy-limbed, sun-scorched fellows, with little, keen eyes always half closed, and big, helpless fists hanging. Some carried their packets slung from hip to shoulder, some tied their parcels to the muzzles of their obsolete muskets. A number wore the boatman's smock, others the farmer's blouse of linen, but the greater number were clad in the blue-wool jersey and cloth beret of the sailor.
Husbands, sons, lovers, looked silently at the women. The men uttered no protest, no reproach; the women wept very quietly. In their hearts that strange mysticism of the race predominated—the hopeless acceptance of a destiny which has, for centuries, left its imprint in the sad eyes of the Breton. Generations of martyrdom leave a cowed and spiritually fatigued race which breeds stoics.
Like great white blossoms, the spotless head-dresses of the maids of Paradise swayed and bowed above the crowd.
A little old woman stood beside a sailor, saying to anybody who would listen to her: "My son—they are taking my son. Why should they take my son?"
Another said: "They are taking mine, too, but he cannot fight on land. He knows the sea; he is not afraid at sea. Can nobody help us? He cannot fight on land; he does not know how!"
A woman carrying a sleeping baby stood beside the drummers at the fountain. Five children dragged at her skirts and peered up at the mayor, who shrugged his shoulders and shook his fat head.
"What can I do? He must march with the others, your man," said the mayor, again and again. But the woman with the baby never ceased her eternal question: "What can we live on if you take him? I do not mean to complain too much, but we have nothing. What can we live on, m'sieu the mayor?"
But now the drummers had stepped out into the centre of the square and were drawing their drum-sticks from the brass sockets in their baldricks.
"Good-bye! Good-bye!" sobbed the maids of Paradise, giving both hands to their lovers. "We will pray for you!"
"Pray for us," said the men, holding their sweethearts' hands.
"Attention!" cried the officer, a slim, hectic lieutenant from Lorient.
The mayor handed him the rolls, and the lieutenant, facing the shuffling single rank, began to call off:
"Roux of Bannalec?"
"Don't say, 'Here, monsieur!' Say, 'Present!' Now, Roux?"
"That's right! Penmarch?"
"Rhuis of Sainte-Yssel?"
"Herve of Paradise Beacon?"
The officer moistened his lips, turned the page, and continued:
"Carnac of Alincourt?"
There was a silence, then a voice cried, "Crippled!"
"Mark him off, lieutenant," said the mayor, pompously; "he's our little hunchback."
"Shall I mark you in his place?" asked the lieutenant, with a smile that turned the mayor's blood to water. "No? You would make a fine figure for a forlorn hope."
A man burst out laughing, but he was half crazed with grief, and his acrid mirth found no response. Then the roll-call was resumed:
There was another silence.
"Robert Garenne!" repeated the officer, sharply. "Monsieur the mayor has informed me that you are liable for military duty. If you are present, answer to your name or take the consequences!"
The poacher, who had been lounging on the bridge, slouched slowly forward and touched his cap.
"I am organizing a franc corps," he said, with a deadly sidelong glance at the mayor, who now stood beside the lieutenant.
"You can explain that at Lorient," replied the lieutenant. "Fall in there!"
"Fall in!" repeated the lieutenant.
The poacher's visage became inflamed. He hesitated, looking around for an avenue of escape. Then he caught my disgusted eye.
"For the last time," said the lieutenant, coolly drawing his revolver, "I order you to fall in!"
The poacher backed into the straggling rank, glaring.
"Now," said the lieutenant, "you may go to your house and get your packet. If we have left when you return, follow and report at the arsenal in Lorient. Fall out! March!"
The poacher backed out to the rear of the rank, turned on his heel, and strode away towards the coast, clinched fists swinging by his side.
There were not many names on the roll, and the call was quickly finished. And now the infantry drummers raised their sticks high in the air, there was a sharp click, a crash, and the square echoed.
"March!" cried the officer; and, drummers ahead, the long single rank shuffled into fours, and the column started, enveloped in a throng of women and children.
"Good-bye!" sobbed the women. "We will pray!"
The crowd pressed on into the dusk. Far up the darkening road the white coiffes of the women glimmered; the drum-roll softened to a distant humming.
The children, who did not understand, had gathered around a hunchback, the exempt cripple of the roll-call.
"Ho! Fois!" I heard him say to the crowd of wondering little ones, "if I were not exempt I'd teach these Prussians to dance the farandole to my biniou! Oui, dame! And perhaps I'll do it yet, spite of the crooked back I was not born with—as everybody knows! Oui, dame! Everybody knows I was born as straight as the next man!"
The children gaped, listening to the distant drumming, now almost inaudible.
The cripple rose, lighted a lantern, and walked slowly out toward the cliffs, carrying himself with that uncanny dignity peculiar to hunchbacks. And as he walked he sang, in his thin, sharp voice, the air of "The Three Captains":
"J'ai eu dans son coeur la plac' la plus belle, La plac' la plus belle. J'ai passe trois ans, trois ans avec elle, Trois ans avec elle. J'ai eu trois enfants qui sont capitaines, Qui sont capitaines. L'un est a Bordeaux, l'autre a la Rochelle, L'autre a la Rochelle. Le troisieme ici, caressent les belles, Caressent les belles."
Far out across the shadowy cliffs I heard his lingering, strident chant, and caught the spark of his lantern; then silence and darkness fell over the deserted square; the awed children, fingers interlocked, crept homeward through the dusk; there was no sound save the rippling wash of the river along the quay of stone.
Tired, a trifle sad, thinking perhaps of those home letters which had come to all save me, I leaned against the river wall, staring at the darkness; and over me came creeping that apathy which I had already learned to recognize and even welcome as a mental anaesthetic which set that dark sentinel, care, a-drowsing.
What did I care, after all? Life had stopped for me years before; there was left only a shell in which that unseen little trickster, the heart, kept tap-tapping away against a tired body. Was that what we call life? The sorry parody!
A shape slunk near me through the dusk, furtive, uncertain. "Lizard," I said, indifferently. He came up, my gun on his ragged shoulder.
"You go with your class?" I asked.
"No, I go to the forest," he said, hoarsely. "You shall hear from me."
"Are you content?" he demanded, lingering.
The creature wanted sympathy, though he did not know it. I gave him my hand and told him he was a brave man; and he went away, noiselessly, leaving me musing by the river wall.
After a long while—or it may only have been a few minutes—the square began to fill again with the first groups of women, children, and old men who had escorted the departing conscripts a little way on their march to Lorient. Back they came, the maids of Paradise silent, tearful, pitifully acquiescent; the women of Bannalec, Faouet, Rosporden, Quimperle chattering excitedly about the scene they had witnessed. The square began to fill; lanterns were lighted around the fountain; the two big lamps with their brass reflectors in front of the mayor's house illuminated the pavement and the thin tree-foliage with a yellow radiance.
The chatter grew louder as new groups in all sorts of gay head-dresses arrived; laughter began to be heard; presently the squealing of the biniou pipes broke out from the bowling-green, where, high on a bench supported by a plank laid across two cider barrels, the hunchback sat, skirling the farandole. Ah, what a world entire was this lost little hamlet of Paradise, where merrymakers trod on the mourners' heels, where the scream of the biniou drowned the floating note of the passing bell, where Misery drew the curtains of her bed and lay sleepless, listening to Gayety dancing breathless to the patter of a coquette's wooden shoes!
Long tables were improvised in the square, piled up with bread, sardines, puddings, hams, and cakes. Casks of cider, propped on skids, dotted the outskirts of the bowling-green, where the mayor, enthroned in his own arm-chair, majestically gave his orders in a voice thickened by pork, onions, and gravy.
Truly enough, half of Finistere and Morbihan was gathering at Paradise for a fete. The slow Breton imagination had been fired by our circus bills and posters; ancient Armorica was stirring in her slumber, roused to consciousness by the Yankee bill-poster.
At the inn all rooms were taken; every house had become an inn; barns, stables, granaries had their guests; fishermen's huts on coast and cliff were bright with coiffes and embroidered jerseys.
In their misfortune, the lonely women of Paradise recognized in this influx a godsend—a few francs to gain with which to face those coming wintry months while their men were absent. And they opened their tiny houses to those who asked a lodging.
The crowds which had earlier in the evening gathered to gape at our big tent were now noisiest in the square, where the endless drone of the pipes intoned the farandole.
A few of our circus folk had come down to enjoy the picturesque spectacle. Speed, standing with Jacqueline beside me, began to laugh and beat time to the wild music. A pretty maid of Bannalec, white coiffe and scarlet skirts a-flutter, called out with the broad freedom of the chastest of nations: "There is the lover I could pray for—if he can dance the farandole!"
"I'll show you whether I can dance the farandole, ma belle!" cried Speed, and caught her hand, but she snatched her brown fingers away and danced off, laughing: "He who loves must follow, follow, follow the farandole!"
Speed started to follow, but Jacqueline laid a timid hand on his arm.
"I dance, M'sieu Speed," she said, her face flushing under her elf-locks.
"You blessed child," he cried, "you shall dance till you drop to your knees on the bowling-green!" And, hand clasping hand, they swung out into the farandole. For an instant only I caught a glimpse of Jacqueline's blissful face, and her eyes like blue stars burning; then they darkened into silhouettes against the yellow glare of the lanterns and vanished.
Byram rambled up for a moment, to comment on the quaint scene from a showman's point of view. "It would fill the tent in old Noo York, but it's n. g. in this here country, where everybody's either a coryphee or a clown or a pantaloon! Camuels ain't no rara avises in the Sairy, an' no niggers go to burnt-cork shows. Phylosophy is the thing, Mr. Scarlett! Ruminate! Ruminate!"
I promised to do so, and the old man rambled away, coat and vest on his arm, silk hat cocked over his left eye, the lamp-light shining on the buckles of his suspenders. Dear old governor!—dear, vulgar incarnation of those fast vanishing pioneers who invented civilization, finding none; who, self-taught, unashamed taught their children the only truths they knew, that the nation was worthy of all good, all devotion, and all knowledge that her sons could bring her to her glory that she might one day fulfil her destiny as greatest among the great on earth.
The whining Breton bagpipe droned in my ears; the dancers flew past; laughter and cries arose from the tables in the square where the curate of St. Julien stood, forefinger wagging, soundly rating an intoxicated but apologetic Breton in the costume of Faouet.
I was tired—tired of it all; weary of costumes and strange customs, weary of strange tongues, of tinsel and mummers, and tarnished finery; sick of the sawdust and the rank stench of beasts—and the vagabond life—and the hopeless end of it all—the shabby end of a useless life—a death at last amid strangers! Soldiers in red breeches, peasants in embroidered jackets, strolling mountebanks all tinselled and rouged—they were all one to me.... I wanted my own land.... I wanted my own people.... I wanted to go home ... home!—and die, when my time came, under the skies I knew as a child,... under that familiar moon which once silvered my nursery windows....
I turned away across the bridge out into the dark road. Long before I came to the smoky, silent camp I heard the monotonous roaring of my lions, pacing their shadowy dens.
A little after sunrise on the day set for our first performance, Speed sauntered into my dressing-room in excellent humor, saying that not only had the village of Paradise already filled up with the peasantry of Finistere and Morbihan, but every outlying hamlet from St. Julien to Pont Aven was overflowing; that many had even camped last night along the roadside; in short, that the country was unmistakably aroused to the importance of the Anti-Prussian Republican circus and the Flying Mermaid of Ker-Ys.
I listened to him almost indifferently, saying that I was very glad for the governor's sake, and continued to wash a deep scratch on my left arm, using salt water to allay the irritation left by Aicha's closely pared claws—the vixen.
But the scratch had not poisoned me; I was in fine physical condition; rehearsals had kept us all in trim; our animals, too, were in good shape; and the machinery started without a creak when, an hour later, Byram himself opened the box-office at the tent-door and began to sell tickets to an immense crowd for the first performance, which was set for two o'clock that afternoon.
I had had an unpleasant hour's work with the lions, during which Marghouz, a beast hitherto lazy and docile, had attempted to creep behind me. Again I had betrayed irritation; again the lions saw it, understood it, and remembered. Aicha tore my sleeve; when I dragged Timour Melek's huge jaws apart he endured the operation patiently, but as soon as I gave the signal to retire he sprang snarling to the floor, mane on end, and held his ground, just long enough to defy me. Poor devils! Who but I knew that they were right and I was wrong! Who but I understood what lack of freedom meant to the strong—meant to caged creatures, unrighteously deprived of liberty! Though born in captivity, wild things change nothing; they sleep by day, walk by night, follow as well as they can the instincts which a caged life cannot crush in them, nor a miserable, artificial existence obliterate.
They are right to resist.
I mentioned something of this to Speed as I was putting on my coat to go out, but he only scowled at me, saying: "Your usefulness as a lion-tamer is ended, my friend; you are a fool to enter that cage again, and I'm going to tell Byram."
"Don't spoil the governor's pleasure now," I said, irritably; "the old man is out there selling tickets with both hands, while little Griggs counts receipts in a stage whisper. Let him alone, Speed; I'm going to give it up soon, anyway—not now—not while the governor has a chance to make a little money; but soon—very soon. You are right; I can't control anything now—not even myself. I must give up my lions, after all."
"When?" said Speed.
"Soon—I don't know. I'm tired—really tired. I want to go home."
"Home! Have you one?" he asked, with a faint sneer of surprise.
"Yes; a rather extensive lodging, bounded east and west by two oceans, north by the lakes, south by the gulf. Landlord's a relation—my Uncle Sam."
"Are you really going home, Scarlett?" he asked, curiously.
"I have nothing to keep me here, have I?"
"Not unless you choose to settle down and ... marry."
I looked at him; presently my face began to redden; and, "What do you mean?" I asked, angrily.
He replied, in a very mild voice, that he did not mean anything that might irritate me.
I said, "Speed, don't mind my temper; I can't seem to help it any more; something has changed me, something has gone wrong."
"Perhaps something has gone right," he mused, looking up at the flying trapeze, where Jacqueline swung dangling above the tank, watching us with sea-blue eyes.
After a moment's thought I said: "Speed, what the devil do you mean by that remark?"
"Now you're angry again," he said, wearily.
"No, I'm not. Tell me what you mean."
"Oh, what do you imagine I mean?" he retorted. "Do you think I'm blind? Do you suppose I've watched you all these years and don't know you? Am I an ass, Scarlett? Be fair; am I?"
"No; not an ass," I said.
"Then let me alone—unless you want plain speaking instead of a bray."
"I do want it."
"You know; go on."
"Am I to tell you the truth?"
"As you interpret it—yes."
"Very well, my friend; then, at your respectful request, I beg to inform you that you are in love with Madame de Vassart—and have been for months."
I did not pretend surprise; I knew he was going to say it. Yet it enraged me that he should think it and say it.
"You are wrong," I said, steadily.
"No, Scarlett; I am right."
"You are wrong," I repeated.
"Don't say that again," he retorted. "If you do not know it, you ought to. Don't be unfair; don't be cowardly. Face it, man! By Heaven, you've got to face it some time—here, yonder, abroad, on the ocean, at home—no matter where, you've got to face it some day and tell yourself the truth!"
His words hurt me for a moment; then, as I listened, that strange apathy once more began to creep over me. Was it really the truth he had told me? Was it? Well—and then? What meaning had it to me?... Of what help was it?... of what portent?... of what use?... What door did it unlock? Surely not the door I had closed upon myself so many years ago!
Something of my thoughts he may have divined as I stood brooding in the sunny tent, staring listlessly at my own shadow on the floor, for he laid his hand on my shoulder and said: "Surely, Scarlett, if happiness can be reborn in Paradise, it can be reborn here. I know you; I have known you for many years. And in all that time you have never fallen below my ideal!"
"What are you saying, Speed?" I asked, rousing from my lethargy to shake his hand from my shoulder.
"The truth. In all these years of intimacy, familiarity has never bred contempt in me; I am not your equal in anything; it does not hurt me to say so. I have watched you as a younger brother watches, lovingly, jealous yet proud of you, alert for a failing or a weakness which I never found—or, if I thought I found a flaw in you, knowing that it was but part of a character too strong, too generous for me to criticise."
"Speed," I said, astonished, "are you talking about me—about me—a mountebank—and a failure at that? You know I'm a failure—a nobody—" I hesitated, touched by his kindness. "Your loyalty to me is all I have. I wish it were true that I am such a man as you believe me to be."
"It is true," he said, almost sullenly. "If it were not, no man would say it of you—though a woman might. Listen to me, Scarlett. I tell you that a man shipwrecked on the world's outer rocks—if he does not perish—makes the better pilot afterwards."
"But ... I perished, Speed."
"It is not true," he said, violently; "but you will if you don't steer a truer course than you have. Scarlett, answer me!"
"Answer you? What?"
"Are you in love?"
"Yes," I said.
He waited, looked up at me, then dropped his hands in his pockets and turned away toward the interior of the tent where Jacqueline, having descended from the rigging, stood, drawing her slim fingers across the surface of the water in the tank.
I walked out through the tent door, threading my way among the curious crowds gathered not only at the box-office, but even around the great tent as far as I could see. Byram hailed me with jovial abandon, perspiring in his shirt-sleeves, silk hat on the back of his head; little Grigg made one of his most admired grimaces and shook the heavy money-box at me; Horan waved his hat above his head and pointed at the throng with a huge thumb. I smiled at them all and walked on.
Cloud and sunshine alternated on that capricious November morning; the sea-wind was warm; the tincture of winter had gone. On that day, however, I saw wavering strings of wild ducks flying south; and the little hedge-birds of different kinds were already flocking amiably together in twittering bands that filled the leafless blackthorns on the cliffs;—true prophets, all, of that distant cold, gathering somewhere in the violet north.
I walked fast across the moors, as though I had a destination. And I had; yet when I understood it I sheered off, only to turn again and stare fascinated in the direction of the object that frightened me.
There it rose against the seaward cliffs, the little tower of Trecourt farm, sea-smitten and crusted, wind-worn, stained, gray as the lichened rocks scattered across the moorland. Over it the white gulls pitched and tossed in a windy sky; beyond crawled the ancient and wrinkled sea.
"It is a strange thing," I said aloud, "to find love at the world's edge." I looked blindly across the gray waste. "But I have found it too late."
The wind blew furiously; I heard the gulls squealing in the sky, the far thunder of the surf.
Then, looking seaward again, for the first time I noticed that the black cruiser was gone, that nothing now lay between the cliffs and the hazy headland of Groix save a sheet of lonely water spreading league on league to meet a flat, gray sky.
Why had the cruiser sailed? As I stood there, brooding, to my numbed ears the moor-winds bore a sound coming from a great distance—the sound of cannon—little, soft reports, all but inaudible in the wind and the humming undertone of the breakers. Yet I knew the sound, and turned my unquiet eyes to the sea, where nothing moved save the far crests of waves.
For a while I stood listening, searching the sea, until a voice hailed me, and I turned to find Kelly Eyre almost at my elbow.
"There is a man in the village haranguing the people," he said, abruptly. "We thought you ought to know."
"A man haranguing the people," I repeated. "What of it?"
"Speed thinks the man is Buckhurst."
"What!" I cried.
"There's something else, too," he said, soberly, and drew a telegram from his pocket.
I seized it, and studied the fluttering sheet:
"The governor of Lorient, on complaint of the mayor of Paradise, forbids the American exhibition, and orders the individual Byram to travel immediately to Lorient with his so-called circus, where a British steamship will transport the personnel, baggage, and animals to British territory. The mayor of Paradise will see that this order of expulsion is promptly executed.
"(Signed) Breteuil. "Chief of Police."
"Where did you get that telegram?" I asked.
"It's a copy; the mayor came with it. Byram does not know about it."
"Don't let him know it!" I said, quickly; "this thing will kill him, I believe. Where is that fool of a mayor? Come on, Kelly! Stay close beside me." And I set off at a swinging pace, down the hollow, out across the left bank of the little river, straight to the bridge, which we reached almost on a run.
"Look there!" cried my companion, as we came in sight of the square.
The square was packed with Breton peasants; near the fountain two cider barrels had been placed, a plank thrown across them, and on this plank stood a man holding a red flag.
The man was John Buckhurst.
When I came nearer I could see that he wore a red scarf across his breast; a little nearer and I could hear his passionless voice sounding; nearer still, I could distinguish every clear-cut word:
"Men of the sea, men of that ancient Armorica which, for a thousand years, has suffered serfdom, I come to you bearing no sword. You need none; you are free under this red flag I raise above you."
He lifted the banner, shaking out the red folds.
"Yet if I come to you bearing no sword, I come with something better, something more powerful, something so resistless that, using it as your battle-cry, the world is yours!
"I come bearing the watchword of world-brotherhood—Peace, Love, Equality! I bear it from your battle-driven brothers, scourged to the battlements of Paris by the demons of a wicked government! I bear it from the devastated towns of the provinces, from your homeless brothers of Alsace and Lorraine.
"Peace, Love, Equality! All this is yours for the asking. The commune will be proclaimed throughout France; Paris is aroused, Lyons is ready, Bordeaux watches, Marseilles waits!
"You call your village Paradise—yet you starve here. Let this little Breton village be a paradise in truth—a shrine for future happy pilgrims who shall say: 'Here first were sewn the seeds of the world's liberty! Here first bloomed the perfect flower of universal brotherhood!"
He bent his sleek, gray head meekly, pausing as though in profound meditation. Suddenly he raised his head; his tone changed; a faint ring of defiance sounded under the smooth flow of words.
He began with a blasphemous comparison, alluding to the money-changers in the temple—a subtle appeal to righteous violence.
"It rests with us to cleanse the broad temple of our country and drive from it the thieves and traitors who enslave us! How can we do it? They are strong; we are weak. Ah, but are they truly strong? You say they have armies? Armies are composed of men. These men are your brothers, whipped forth to die—for what? For the pleasure of a few aristocrats. Who was it dragged your husbands and sons away from your arms, leaving you to starve? The governor of Lorient. Who is he? An aristocrat, paid to scourge your husbands and children to battle—paid, perhaps, by Prussia to betray them, too!"
A low murmur rose from the people. Buckhurst swept the throng with colorless eyes.
"Under the commune we will have peace. Why? Because there can be no hunger, no distress, no homeless ones where the wealth of all is distributed equally. We will have no wars, because there will be nothing to fight for. We will have no aristocrats where all must labor for the common good; where all land is equally divided; where love, equality, and brotherhood are the only laws—"
"Where's the mayor?" I whispered to Eyre.
"In his house; Speed is with him."
"Come on, then," I said, pushing my way around the outskirts of the crowd to the mayor's house.
The door was shut and the blinds drawn, but a knock brought Speed to the door, revolver in hand.
"Oh," he said, grimly, "it's time you arrived. Come in."
The mayor was lying in his arm-chair, frightened, sulky, obstinate, his fat form swathed in a red sash.
"O-ho!" I said, sharply, "so you already wear the colors of the revolution, do you?"
"Dame, they tied it over my waistcoat," he said, "and there are no gendarmes to help me arrest them—"
"Never mind that just now," I interrupted; "what I want to know is why you wrote the governor of Lorient to expel our circus."
"That's my own affair," he snapped; "besides, who said I wrote?"
"Idiot," I said, "somebody paid you to do it. Who was it?"
The mayor, hunched up in his chair, shut his mouth obstinately.
"Somebody paid you," I repeated; "you would never have complained of us unless somebody paid you, because our circus is bringing money into your village. Come, my friend, that was easy to guess. Now let me guess again that Buckhurst paid you to complain of us."
The mayor looked slyly at me out of the corner of his mottled eyes, but he remained mute.
"Very well," said I; "when the troops from Lorient hear of this revolution in Paradise, they'll come and chase these communards into the sea. And after that they'll stand you up against a convenient wall and give you thirty seconds for absolution—"
"Stop!" burst out the mayor, struggling to his feet. "What am I to do? This gentleman, Monsieur Buckhurst, will slay me if I disobey him! Besides," he added, with cowardly cunning, "they are going to do the same thing in Lorient, too—and everywhere—in Paris, in Bordeaux, in Marseilles—even in Quimperle! And when all these cities are flying the red flag it won't be comfortable for cities that fly the tricolor." He began to bluster. "I'm mayor of Paradise, and I won't be bullied! You get out of here with your circus and your foolish elephants! I haven't any gendarmes just now to drive you out, but you had better start, all the same—before night."
"Oh," I said, "before night? Why before night?"
"Wait and see then," he muttered. "Anyway, get out of my house—d' ye hear?"
"We are going to give that performance at two o'clock this afternoon," I said. "After that, another to-morrow at the same hour, and on every day at the same hour, as long as it pays. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," sneered the mayor.
"And," I continued, "if the governor of Lorient sends gendarmes to conduct us to the steamship in Lorient harbor, they'll take with them somebody besides the circus folk."
"You mean me?" he inquired.
"What do I care?" he bawled in a fury. "You had better go to Lorient, I tell you. What do you know about the commune? What do you know about universal brotherhood? Everybody's everybody's brother, whether you like it or not! I'm your brother, and if it doesn't suit you you may go to the devil!"
Watching the infuriated magistrate, I said in English to Speed: "This is interesting. Buckhurst has learned we are here, and has paid this fellow heavily to have us expelled. What sense do you make of all this?—for I can make none."
"Nor can I," muttered Speed; "there's a link gone; we'll find it soon, I fancy. Without that link there's no logic in this matter."
"Look here," I said, sharply, to the mayor, who had waddled toward the door, which was guarded by Kelly Eyre.
"Well, I'm looking," he snarled.
Then I patiently pointed out to him his folly, and he listened with ill-grace, obstinate, mute, dull cunning gleaming from his half-closed eyes.
Then I asked him what he would do if the cruiser began dropping shells into Paradise; he deliberately winked at me and thrust his tongue into his cheek.
"So you know that the cruiser has gone?" I asked.
"Do you suppose Buckhurst's men hold the semaphore? If they do, they sent that cruiser on a fool's errand," whispered Speed.
Here was a nice plot! I stepped to the window. Outside in the square Buckhurst was still speaking to a spellbound, gaping throng. A few men cheered him. They were strangers in Paradise.
"What's he doing it for?" I asked, utterly at a loss to account for proceedings which seemed to me the acme of folly. "He must know that the commune cannot be started here in Brittany! Speed, what is that man up to?"
Behind us the mayor was angrily demanding that we leave his house; and after a while we did so, skirting the crowd once more to where, in a cleared space near the fountain, Buckhurst stood, red flag in hand, ranging a dozen peasants in line. The peasants were not Paradise men; they wore the costumes of the interior, and somebody had already armed them with scythes, rusty boarding-pikes, stable-forks, and one or two flintlock muskets. An evil-looking crew, if ever I saw one; wild-eyed, long-haired, bare of knee and ankle, loutish faces turned toward the slim, gray, pale-faced orator who confronted them, flag in hand. They were the scum of Morbihan.
He told them that they were his guard of honor, the glory of their race—a sacred battalion whose names should shine high on the imperishable battlements of freedom.
Around them the calm-eyed peasants stared at them stupidly; women gazed fascinated when Buckhurst, raising his flag, pointed in silence to the mayor's house, where that official stood in his doorway, observing the scene:
"Forward!" said Buckhurst, and the grotesque escort started with a clatter of heavy sabots and a rattle of scythes. The crowd fell back to give them way, then closed in behind like a herd of sheep, following to the mayor's house, where Buckhurst set his sentinels and then entered, closing the door behind him.
"Well!" muttered Speed, in amazement.
After a long silence, Kelly Eyre looked at his watch. "It's time we were in the tent," he observed, dryly; and we turned away without a word. At the bridge we stopped and looked back. The red flag was flying from the mayor's house.
"Speed," I said, "there's one thing certain: Byram can't stay if there's going to be fighting here. I heard guns at sea this morning; I don't know what that may indicate. And here's this idiotic revolution started in Paradise! That means the troops from Lorient, and a wretched lot of bushwhacking and guerrilla work. Those Faouet Bretons that Buckhurst has recruited are a bad lot; there is going to be trouble, I tell you."
Eyre suggested that we arm our circus people, and Speed promised to attend to it and to post them at the tent doors, ready to resist any interference with the performance on the part of Buckhurst's recruits.
It was already nearly one o'clock as we threaded our way through the crowds at the entrance, where our band was playing gayly and thousands of white head-dresses fluttered in the sparkling sunshine that poured intermittently from a sky where great white clouds were sailing seaward.
"Walk right up, messoors! Entry done, mesdames, see voo play!" shouted Byram, waving a handful of red and blue tickets. "Animals all on view before the performance begins! Walk right into the corridor of livin' marvels and defunct curiosities! Bring the little ones to see the elephant an' the camuel—the fleet ship of the Sairy! Don't miss nothing! Don't fail to contemplate le ploo magnifique spectacle in all Europe! Don't let nobody say you died an' never saw the only Flyin' Mermaid! An' don't forget the prize—ten thousand francs to the man, woman, or che-ild who can prove that this here Flyin' Mermaid ain't a fictious bein' straight from Paradise!"
Speed and I made our way slowly through the crush to the stables, then around to the dressing-rooms, where little Grigg, in his spotted clown's costume, was putting the last touches of vermilion to his white cheeks, and Horan, draped in a mangy leopard-skin to imitate Hercules, sat on his two-thousand-pound dumbbell, curling his shiny black mustache with Mrs. Grigg's iron.
"Jacqueline's dressed," cried Miss Crystal, parting the curtain of her dressing-room, just enough to show her pretty, excited eyes and nose.
"All right; I won't be long," replied Speed, who was to act as ring-master. And he turned and looked at me as I raised the canvas flap which screened my dressing-room.
"I think," I said, "that we had better ride over to Trecourt after the show—not that there's any immediate danger—"
"There is no immediate danger," said Speed, "because she is here."
My face began to burn; I looked at him miserably. "How do you know?"
"She is there in the tent. I saw her."
He came up and held his hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry I told you," he said.
"Why?" I asked. "She knows what I am. Is there any reason why she should not be amused? I promise you she shall be!"
"Then why do you speak so bitterly? Don't misconstrue her presence. Don't be a contemptible fool. If I have read her face—and I have never spoken to her, as you know—I tell you, Scarlett, that young girl is going through an ordeal! Do women of that kind come to shows like this to be amused?"
"What do you mean?" I said, angrily.
"I mean that she could not keep away! And I tell you to be careful with your lions, to spare her any recklessness on your part, to finish as soon as you can, and get out of that cursed cage. If you don't you're a coward, and a selfish one at that!"
His words were like a blow in the face; I stared at him, too confused even for anger.
"Oh, you fool, you fool!" he said, in a low voice. "She cares for you; can't you understand?"
And he turned on his heel, leaving me speechless.
I do not remember dressing. When I came out into the passageway Byram beckoned me, and pointed at a crack in the canvas through which one could see the interior of the amphitheatre. A mellow light flooded the great tent; spots of sunshine fell on the fresh tan-bark, where long, luminous, dusty beams slanted from the ridge-pole athwart the golden gloom.
Tier on tier the wooden benches rose, packed with women in brilliant holiday dress, with men gorgeous in silver and velvet, with children decked in lace and gilt chains. The air was filled with the starched rustle of white coiffes and stiff collarettes; a low, incessant clatter of sabots sounded from gallery to arena; gusts of breathless whispering passed like capricious breezes blowing, then died out in the hush which fell as our band-master, McCadger, raised his wand and the band burst into "Dixie."
At that the great canvas flaps over the stable entrance slowly parted and the scarlet-draped head of Djebe, the elephant, appeared. On he came, amid a rising roar of approval, Speed in gorgeous robes perched on high, ankus raised. After him came the camel, all over tassels and gold net, bestridden by Kelly Eyre, wearing a costume seldom seen anywhere, and never in the Sahara. White horses, piebald horses, and cream-colored horses pranced in the camel's wake, dragging assorted chariots tenanted by gentlemen in togas; pretty little Mrs. Grigg, in habit and scarlet jacket, followed on Briza, the white mare; Horan came next, driving more horses; the dens of ferocious beasts creaked after, guarded by a phalanx of stalwart stablemen in plumes and armor; then Miss Crystal, driving zebras to a gilt chariot; then more men in togas, leading monkeys mounted on ponies; and finally Mrs. Horan seated on a huge egg drawn by ostriches.
Once only they circled the sawdust ring; then the band stopped, the last of the procession disappeared, the clown came shrieking and tumbling out into the arena with his "Here we are again!"
And the show was on.
I stood in the shadow of the stable-tent, dressed in my frock-coat, white stock, white cords, and hunting-boots, sullen, imbittered, red with a false shame that better men than I have weakened under, almost desperate in my humiliation, almost ready to end it all there among those tawny, restless brutes pacing behind the bars at my elbow, watching me stealthily with luminous eyes.
She knew what I was—but that she could come to see with her own eyes I could not understand, I could not forgive. Speed's senseless words rang in my ears—"She cares for you!" But I knew they were meaningless, I knew she could not care for me. What fools' paradise would he have me enter? What did he know of this woman whom I knew and understood—whom I honored for her tenderness and pity to all who suffered—who I knew counted me as one among a multitude of unhappy failures whom her kindness and sympathy might aid.
Because she had, in her gracious ignorance, given me a young girl's impulsive friendship, was I to mistake her? What could Speed know of her—of her creed, her ideals, her calm, passionless desire to help where help was needed—anywhere—in the palace, in the faubourgs, in the wretched chaumieres, in the slums? It was all one to her—to this young girl whose tender heart, bruised by her own sad life, opened to all on whom the evil days had dawned.
And yet she had come here—and that was cruel; and she was not cruel. Could she know that I had a shred of pride left—one little, ragged thread of pride left in me—that she should come to see me do my mountebank tricks to the applause of a greasy throng?
No, she had not thought of that, else she would have stayed away; for she was kind, above all else—generous and kind.
Speed passed me in ring-master's dress; there came the hollow thud of hoofs as Mrs. Grigg galloped into the ring on her white mare, gauze skirts fluttering, whip raised; and, "Hoop-la!" squealed the clown as his pretty little wife went careering around and around the tan-bark, leaping through paper-hoops, over hurdles, while the band played frantically and the Bretons shouted in an ecstasy of excitement.
Then Grigg mounted his little trick donkey; roars of laughter greeted his discomfiture when Tim, the donkey, pitched him headlong and cantered off with a hee-haw of triumph.
Miss Delany tripped past me in her sky-blue tights to hold the audience spellbound with her jugglery, and spin plates and throw glittering knives until the satiated people turned to welcome Horan and his "cogged" dumbbells and clubs.
"Have you seen her?" whispered Speed, coming up to me, long whip trailing.
I shook my head.
He looked at me in disgust. "Here's something for you," he said, shortly, and thrust an envelope into my hand.
In the envelope was a little card on which was written: "I ask you to be careful, for a friend's sake." On the other side of the card was engraved her name.
I raised my head and looked at Speed, who began to laugh nervously. "That's better," he said; "you don't look like a surly brute any more."
"Where is she?" I said, steadying my voice, which my leaping heart almost stifled.
He drew me by the elbow and looked toward the right of the amphitheatre. Following the direction of his eyes, I saw her leaning forward, pale-faced, grave, small, gloved hands interlocked. Beside her sat Sylvia Elven, apparently amused at the antics of the clown.
Shame filled me. Not the false shame I had felt—that vanished—but shame that I could have misunderstood the presence of this brave friend of mine, this brave, generous, tender-hearted girl, who had given me her friendship, who was true enough to care what might happen to me—and brave enough to say so.
"I will be careful," I said to Speed, in a low voice. "If it were not for Byram I would not go on to-day—but that is a matter of honor. Oh, Speed," I broke out, "is she not worth dying for?"
"Why not live for her?" he observed, dryly.
"I will—don't misunderstand me—I know she could never even think of me—as I do—of her—yes, as I dare to, Speed. I dare to love her with all this wretched heart and soul of mine! It's all right—I think I am crazy to talk like this—but you are kind, Speed—you will forget what I said—you have forgotten it already—bless your heart—"
"No, I haven't," he retorted, obstinately. "You must win her—you must! Shame on you for a coward if you do not speak that word which means life to you both!"
"Speed!" I began, angrily.
"Oh, go to the devil!" he snapped, and walked off to where Jacqueline stood glittering, her slim limbs striking fire from every silver scale.
"All ready, little sweetheart!" he cried, reassuringly, as she raised her blue eyes to his and shook her elf-locks around her flushed face. "It's our turn now; they're uncovering the tank, and Miss Crystal is on her trapeze. Are you nervous?"
"Not when you are by me," said Jacqueline.
"I'll be there," he said, smiling. "You will see me when you are ready. Look! There's the governor! It's your call! Quick, my child!"
"Good-bye," said Jacqueline, catching his hand in both of hers, and she was off and in the middle of the ring before I could get to a place of vantage to watch.
Up into the rigging she swung, higher, higher, hanging like a brilliant fly in all that net-work of wire and rope, turning, twisting, climbing, dropping to her knees, until the people's cheers rose to a sustained shriek.
"Ready!" quavered Miss Crystal, hanging from her own trapeze across the gulf.
It was the first signal. Jacqueline set her trapeze swinging and hung by her knees, face downward.
"Ready!" called Miss Crystal again, as Jacqueline's trapeze swung higher and higher.
"Ready!" said Jacqueline, calmly.
Like a meteor the child flashed across the space between the two trapezes; Miss Crystal caught her by her ankles.
"Ready?" called Speed, from the ground below. He had turned quite pale. I saw Jacqueline, hanging head down, smile at him from her dizzy height.
"Ready," she said, calmly.
Down, down, like a falling star, flashed Jacqueline into the shallow pool, then shot to the surface, shimmering like a leaping mullet, where she played and dived and darted, while the people screamed themselves hoarse, and Speed came out, ghastly and trembling, colliding with me like a blind man.
"I wish I had never let her do it; I wish I had never brought her here—never seen her," he stammered. "She'll miss it some day—like Miss Claridge—and it will be murder—and I'll have done it! Anybody but that child, Scarlett, anybody else—but I can't bear to have her die that way—the pretty little thing!"
He let go of my arm and stood back as my lion-cages came rolling out, drawn by four horses.
"It's your turn," he said, in a dazed way. "Look out for that lioness."
As I walked out into the arena I saw only one face. She tried to smile, and so did I; but a terrible, helpless sensation was already creeping over me—the knowledge that I was causing her distress—the knowledge that I was no longer sure of myself—that, with my love for her, my authority over these caged things had gone, never to return. I knew it, I recognized it, and admitted it now. Speed's words rang true—horribly true.
I entered the cage, afraid.
Almost instantly I was the centre of a snarling mass of lions; I saw nothing; my whip rose and fell mechanically. I stood like one stunned, while the tawny forms leaped right and left.
Suddenly I heard a keeper say, "Look out for Empress Khatoun, sir!" And a moment later a cry, "Look out, sir!"
Something went wrong with another lion, too, for the people were standing up and shouting, and the sleeve of my coat hung from the elbow, showing my bare shoulder. I staggered up against the bars of the sliding door as a lioness struck me heavily and I returned the blow. I remember saying, aloud: "I must keep my feet; I must not fall!" Then daylight grew red, and I was on my knees, with the foul breath of a lion in my face. A hot iron bar shot across the cage. The roaring of beasts and people died out in my ears; then, with a shock, my soul seemed to be dashed out of me into a terrific darkness.
A light was shining in my eyes and I was talking excitedly; that and the odor of brandy I remember—and something else, a steady roaring in my ears; then darkness, out of which came a voice, empty, meaningless, finally soundless.
After a while I realized that I was in pain; that, at intervals, somebody forced morsels of ice between my lips; that the darkness around me had turned grayer.
Time played tricks on me; centuries passed steadily, year following year—long years they were, too, with endless spring-tides, summers, autumns, winters, each with full complement of months, and every month crowded with days. Space, illimitable space, surrounded me—skyless, starless space. And through its terrific silence I heard a clock ticking seconds of time.
Years and years later a yellow star rose and stood still before my open eyes; and after a long while I saw it was the flame of a candle: and somebody spoke my name.
"I know you, Speed," I said, drowsily.
"You are all right, Scarlett?"
"Yes,... all right."
"Does the candle-light pain you?"
"No;... do they contract?"
"A little.... Yes, I am sure the pupils of your eyes are contracting. Don't talk."
"No;... then it was concussion of the brain?"
"Yes;... the shock is passing.... Don't talk."
Time moved on again; space slowly contracted into a symmetrical shape, set with little points of light; sleep and fatigue alternated with glimmers of reason, which finally grew into a faint but steady intelligence. And, very delicately, memory stirred in a slumbering brain.
Reason and memory were mine again, frail toys for a stricken man, so frail I dared not, for a time, use them for my amusement—and one of them was broken, too—memory!—broken short at the moment when full in my face I had felt the hot, fetid breath of a lion.
"Yes; I am here."
"What time is it?"
I heard the click of his hunting-case. "Eleven o'clock."
"When—" I hesitated. I was afraid.
"Well?" he asked, quietly.
"When was I hurt? Many days ago—many weeks?"
"You were hurt at half-past three this afternoon."
I tried to comprehend; I could not, and after a while I gave up my feeble grasp on time.
"What is that roaring sound?" I asked. "Not drums? Not my lions?"
"It is the sea."
I turned my head on the white pillow. "Where is this bed? Where is this room?"
"Shall I tell you?"
I was silent, struggling with memory.
"Tell me," I said. "Whose bed is this?"
"It is hers."
The candle-flame glimmered before my wide-open eyes once more, and—
"Oh, you are all right," he muttered, then leaned heavily against the bedside, dropping his arms on the coverlet.
"It was a close call—a close call!" he said, hoarsely. "We thought it was ended.... They were all over you—Empress dragged you; but they all crowded in too close—they blocked each other, you see;... and we used the irons.... Your left arm lay close to the cage door and ... we got you away from them, and ... it's all right now—it's all right—"
He broke down, head buried in his arms. I moved my left hand across the sheets so that it rested on his elbow. He lay there, gulping for a while; I could not see him very clearly, for the muscles that controlled my eyes were still slightly paralyzed from the shock of the blow that Empress Khatoun had dealt me.
"It's all very well," he stammered, with a trace of resentment in his quavering voice—"it's all very well for people who are used to the filthy beasts; but I tell you, Scarlett, it sickened me. I'm no coward, as men go, but I was afraid—I was terrified!"
"Yet you dragged me out," I said.
"Who told you that? How could you know—"
"It was not necessary to tell me. You said, 'We got you away'; but I know it was you, Speed, because it was like you. Look at me! Am I well enough to dress?"