He waited until the short, fierce yell of approval had died away. Then:
"Call the soldier Rolland!" he said.
My heart began to hammer in my throat. "I believe it's going hard with us," I muttered to Speed.
"Listen," he motioned.
I listened to the wretched creature Rolland while he told what had happened at the semaphore. In his eagerness he pushed close to where I stood, menacing me with every gesture, cursing and lashing himself into a rage, ignoring all pretence of respect and discipline for his own superiors.
"What are you waiting for?" he shouted, insolently, turning on Buckhurst. "I tell the truth; and if this man can afford to pay hundreds of francs for a telegram, he must be rich enough to pluck, I tell you!"
"You say he bribed you?" asked Buckhurst, gently.
"Yes; I've said it twenty times, haven't I?"
"And you took the bribes?"
"And you thought if you admitted it and denounced the man who bribed you that you would help divide a few millions with us, you rogue?" suggested Buckhurst, admiringly.
The wretch laughed outright.
"And you believe that you deserve well of the commune?" smiled Buckhurst.
The soldier grinned and opened his mouth to answer, and Buckhurst shot him through the face; and, as he fell, shot him again, standing wreathed in the smoke of his own weapon.
The deafening racket of the revolver, the smoke, the spectacle of the dusty, inert thing on the floor over which Buckhurst stood and shot, seemed to stun us all.
"I think," said Buckhurst, in a pleasantly persuasive voice, "that there will be no more bribery in this battalion." He deliberately opened the smoking weapon; the spent shells dropped one by one from the cylinder, clinking on the stone floor.
"No—no more bribery," he mused, touching the dead man with the carefully polished toe of his shoe. "Because," he added, reloading his revolver, "I do not like it."
He turned quietly to Mornac and ordered the corpse to be buried, and Mornac, plainly unnerved at the murderous act of his superior, repeated the order, cursing his men to cover the quaver in his voice.
"As for you," observed Buckhurst, glancing up at us where we stood speechless together, "you will be judged and sentenced when this drum-head court decides. Go into that room!"
The Countess did not move.
Speed touched her arm; she looked up quietly, smiled, and stepped across the threshold. Speed followed; Jacqueline slipped in beside him, and then I turned on Buckhurst, who had just ordered his soldiers to surround the house outside.
"As a matter of fact," I said, when the last armed ruffian had departed, "I am the only person in this house who has interfered with your affairs. The others have done nothing to harm you."
"The court will decide that," he replied, balancing his revolver in his palm.
I eyed him for an instant. "Do you mean harm to this unfortunate woman?" I asked.
"My friend," he replied, in a low voice, "you have very stupidly upset plans that have cost me months to perfect. You have, by stopping that train, robbed me of something less than twenty millions of francs. I have my labor for my pains; I have this mob of fools on my hands; I may lose my life through this whim of yours; and if I don't, I have it all to begin again. And you ask me what I am going to do!"
His eyes glittered.
"If I strike her I strike you. Ask yourself whether or not I will strike."
All the blood seemed to leave my heart; I straightened up with an effort.
"There are some murders," I said, "that even you must recoil at."
"I don't think you appreciate me," he replied, with a deathly smile.
He motioned toward the door with levelled weapon. I turned and entered the tea-room, and he locked the door from the outside.
The Countess, seated on the sofa, looked up as I appeared. She was terribly pale, but she smiled as my heavy eyes met hers.
"Is it to be farce or tragedy, monsieur?" she asked, without a tremor in her clear voice.
I could not have uttered a word to save my life. Speed, pacing the room, turned to read my face; and I think he read it, for he stopped short in his tracks. Jacqueline, watching him with blue, inscrutable eyes, turned sharply toward the window and peered out into the darkness.
Beyond the wall of the garden the fog, made luminous by the torches of the insurgents, surrounded the house with a circle of bright, ruddy vapor.
Speed came slowly across the room with me.
"Do they mean to shoot us?" he asked, bluntly.
"Messieurs," said the Countess, with a faint smile, "your whispers are no compliment to my race. Pray honor me by plain speaking. Are we to die?"
We stood absolutely speechless before her.
"Ah, Monsieur Scarlett," she said, gravely, "do you also fail me ... at the end?... You, too—even you?... Must I tell you that we of Trecourt fear nothing in this world?"
She made a little gesture, exquisitely imperious.
I stepped toward her; she waited for me to seat myself beside her.
"Are we to die?" she asked.
"Thank you," she said, softly.
I looked up. My head was swimming so that I could scarcely see her, scarcely perceive the deep, steady tenderness in her clear eyes.
"Do you not understand?" she asked. "You are my friend. I wished to know my fate from you."
"Madame," I said, hoarsely, "how can you call me friend when you know to what I have brought you?"
"You have brought me to know myself," she said, simply. "Why should I not be grateful? Why do you look at me so sadly, Monsieur Scarlett? Truly, you must know that my life has been long enough to prove its uselessness."
"It is not true!" I cried, stung by remorse for all I had said. "Such women as you are the hope of France! Such women as you are the hope of the world! Ah, that you should consider the bitterness and folly of such a man as I am—that you should consider and listen to the sorry wisdom of a homeless mountebank—a wandering fool—a preacher of empty platitudes, who has brought you to this with his cursed meddling!"
"You taught me truth," she said, calmly; "you make the last days of my life the only ones worth living. I said to you but an hour since—when I was angry—that we were unfitted to comprehend each other. It is not true. We are fitted for that. I had rather die with you than live without the friendship which I believe—which I know—is mine. Monsieur Scarlett, it is not love. If it were, I could not say this to you—even in death's presence. It is something better; something untroubled, confident, serene.... You see it is not love.... And perhaps it has no name.... For I have never before known such happiness, such peace, as I know now, here with you, talking of our death. If we could live,... you would go away.... I should be alone.... And I have been alone all my life,... and I am tired. You see I have nothing to regret in a death that brings me to you again.... Do you regret life?"
"Not now," I said.
"You are kind to say so. I do believe—yes, I know that you truly care for me.... Do you?"
"Then it will not be hard.... Perhaps not even very painful."
The key turning in the door startled us. Buckhurst entered, and through the hallway I saw his dishevelled soldiers running, flinging open doors, tearing, trampling, pillaging, wrecking everything in their path.
"Your business will be attended to in the garden at dawn," he observed, blinking about the room, for the bright lamp-light dazzled him.
Speed, who had been standing by the window with Jacqueline, wheeled sharply, took a few steps into the room, then sank into a chair, clasping his lank hands between his knees.
The Countess did not even glance up as the sentence was pronounced; she looked at me and laid her left hand on mine, smiling, as though waiting for the moment to resume an interrupted conversation.
"Do you hear?" demanded Buckhurst, raising his voice.
There was no answer for a moment; then Jacqueline stepped from the window and said: "Am I free to go?"
"You!" said Buckhurst, contemptuously; "who in hell are you?"
"I am Jacqueline."
"Really," sneered Buckhurst.
He went away, slamming and locking the door; and I heard Mornac complaining that the signals had gone out on the semaphore and that there was more treachery abroad.
"Get me a horse!" said Buckhurst. "There are plenty of them in the stables. Mornac, you stay here; I'll ride over to the semaphore. Gut this house and fire it after you've finished that business in the garden to-morrow morning."
"Where are you going?" demanded Mornac's angry voice. "Do you expect me to stay here while you start for Paris?"
"You have your orders," said Buckhurst, menacingly.
"Oh, have I? What are they? To stay here when the country is roused—stay here and perhaps be shelled by that damned cruiser out there—"
His voice was stifled as though a hand had clutched his throat; there came the swift sound of a struggle, the banging of scabbards and spurs, the scuffle of heavy boots.
"Are you mad?" burst out Mornac's strangled voice.
"Are you?" breathed Buckhurst. "Silence, you fool. Do you obey orders or not?"
Their voices receded. Speed sprang to the door to listen, then ran back to the window.
"Scarlett," he whispered, "there are the lights of a vessel at anchor off Groix."
I was beside him in an instant. "It's the cruiser," I said. "Oh, Speed, for a chance to signal!"
We looked at each other desperately.
"We could set the room afire," he said; "they might land to see what had happened."
"And find us all shot."
Jacqueline, standing beside Speed, said, quietly: "I could swim it. Wait. Raise the window a little."
"You cannot dive from that cliff!" I said.
She cautiously unlocked the window and peered out into the dark garden.
"The cliff falls sheer from the wall yonder," she whispered. "I shall try to drop. I learned much in the circus. I am not afraid, Speed. I shall drop into the sea."
"To your death," I said.
"Possibly, m'sieu. It is a good death, however. I am not afraid."
"Close the window," muttered Speed. "They'd shoot her from the wall, anyway."
Again the child gravely asked permission to try.
"No," said Speed, harshly, and turned away. But in that instant Jacqueline flung open the window and vaulted into the garden. Before I could realize what had happened she was only a glimmering spot in the darkness. Then Speed and I followed her, running swiftly toward the foot of the garden, but we were too late; a slim, white shape rose from the top of the wall and leaped blindly out through the ruddy torch glare into the blackness beyond.
We heard a soldier's startled cry, a commotion, curses, and astonished exclamations from the other side of the wall.
"It was something, I tell you!" roared a soldier. "Something that jumped over the cliff!"
"It was an owl, idiot!" retorted his comrade.
"I tell you I saw it!" protested the other, in a shaking voice.
"Then you saw a witch of Ker-Ys," bawled another. "Look out for your skin in the first battle. It's death to see such things."
I looked at Speed. He stood wide-eyed, staring at vacancy.
"Could she do it?" I asked, horrified.
"God knows," he whispered.
Soldiers were beginning to clamber up the garden wall from the outside; torches were raised to investigate. As we shrank back into the shadow of the shrubbery I stumbled over something soft—Jacqueline's clothes, lying in a circle as she had stepped out of them.
Speed took them. I followed him, creeping back to the window, where we entered in time to avoid discovery by a wretch who had succeeded in mounting the wall, torch in hand.
One or two soldiers climbed over and dropped into the garden, prowling around, prodding the bushes with their bayonets, even coming to press their dirty faces and hands against our window.
"They're all here!" sang out one. "It was an owl, I tell you!" And he menaced us with his rifle in pantomime and retired, calling his companions to follow.
"Where is Jacqueline?" asked the Countess, looking anxiously at the little blue skirt on Speed's knees. "Have they harmed that child?"
I told her.
A beautiful light grew in her eyes as she listened. "Did I not warn you that we Bretons know how to die?" she said.
I looked dully at Speed, who sat by the window, brooding over the little woollen skirt on his knees, stroking it, touching the torn hem, and at last folding it with unaccustomed and shaky hands.
There were noises outside our door, loud voices, hammering, the sound of furniture being dragged over stone floors, and I scarcely noticed it when our door was opened again.
Then somebody called out our names; a file of half-drunken soldiers grounded arms in the passageway with a bang that brought us to our feet, as Mornac, flushed with wine, entered unsteadily, drawn sword in hand.
"I'm damned if I stay here any longer," he broke out, angrily. "I'll see whether my rascals can't shoot straight by torch-light. Here, you! Scarlett, I mean! And you, Speed; and you, too, madame; patter your prayers, for you'll get no priest. Lieutenant, withdraw the guard at the wall. Here, captain, march the battalion back to Paradise and take the servants!"
A second later the drums began to beat, but Mornac, furious, silenced them.
"They can hear you at sea!" he shouted. "Do you want a boat-load of marines at your heels? Strike out those torches! Four will do for the garden. March!"
The shuffling tread of the insurgent infantry echoed across the gravel court-yard; torches behind the walls were extinguished; blackness enveloped the cliffs.
"Well," broke out Speed, hoarsely, "good-bye, Scarlett."
He held out his hand.
"Good-bye," I said, stunned.
I dropped my hand as two soldiers placed themselves on either side of him.
"Well, good-bye," he repeated, aimlessly; and then, remembering, he went to the Countess and offered his hand.
"I am so sorry for you," she said, with a pallid smile. "You have much to live for. But you must not feel lonely, monsieur; you will be with us—we shall be close to you."
She turned to me, and her hands fell to her side.
"Are you contented?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered.
"I, too," she said, sweetly, and offered her hands.
I held them very tightly. "You say," I whispered, "that it is not—love. But you do not speak for me. I love you."
A bright blush spread over brow and neck.
"So—it was love—after all," she said, under her breath. "God be with us to-day—I love you."
"March!" cried Mornac, as two soldiers took station beside me.
"I beg you will be gentle with this lady," I said, angrily, as two more soldiers pushed up beside the young Countess and laid their hands on her shoulders.
"Who the devil are you giving orders to?" shouted Mornac, savagely. "March!"
Speed passed out first; I followed; the Countess came behind me.
"Courage," I stammered, looking back at her as we stumbled out into the torch-lit garden.
She smiled adorably. Her forefathers had mounted the guillotine smiling.
Mornac pointed to the garden wall near the bench where we had sat together. A soldier dressed like a Turco lifted a torch and set it in the flower-bed under the wall, illuminating the spot where we were to stand. As this soldier turned to come back I saw his face.
"Salah Ben-Ahmed!" I cried, hoarsely. "Do Marabouts do this butcher's work?"
The Turco stared at me as though stunned.
"Salah Ben-Ahmed is a disgraced soldier!" I said, in a ringing voice.
"It's a lie!" he shouted, in Arabic—"it's a lie, O my inspector! Speak! Have these men tricked me? Are you not Prussians?"
"Silence! Silence!" bawled Mornac. "Turco, fall in! Fall in, I say! What! You menace me?" he snarled, cocking his revolver.
Then a man darted out of the red shadows of the torch-light and fell upon Mornac with a knife, and dragged him down and rolled on him, stabbing him through and through, while the mutilated wretch screamed and screamed until his soul struggled out through the flame-shot darkness and fled to its last dreadful abode.
The Lizard rose, shaking his fagot knife; they fell upon him, clubbing and stabbing with stock and bayonet, but he swung his smeared and sticky blade, clearing a circle around him. And I think he could have cut his way free had not Tric-Trac shot him in the back of the head.
Then a frightful tumult broke loose. Three of the torches were knocked to the ground and trampled out as the insurgents, doubly drunken with wine and the taste of blood, seized me and tried to force me against the wall; but the Turco, with his shrill, wolf-like battle yelp, attacked them, sabre-bayonet in hand. Speed, too, had wrested a rifle from a half-stupefied ruffian, and now stood at bay before the Countess; I saw him wielding his heavy weapon like a flail; then in the darkness Tric-Trac shot at me, so close that the powder-flame scorched my leg. He dropped his rifle to spring for my throat, knocking me flat, and, crouching on me, strove to strangle me; and I heard him whining with eagerness while I twisted and writhed to free my windpipe from his thin fingers.
At last I tore him from my body and struggled to my feet. He, too, was on his legs with a bound, running, doubling, dodging; and at his heels I saw a dozen sailors, broadaxes glittering, chasing him from tree to shrub.
"Speed!" I shouted—"the sailors from the Fer-de-Lance!"
The curtains of the house were on fire; through the hallway poured the insurgent soldiery, stampeding in frantic flight across the court out into the moors; and the marines, swarming along the cliffs, shot at them as they ran, and laughed savagely when a man fell into the gorse, kicking like a wounded rabbit.
Speed marked their flight, advancing coolly, pistol flashing; the Turco, Ben-Ahmed, dark arms naked to the shoulder, bounded behind the frightened wretches, cornering, hunting them through flower-beds and bushes, stealthily, keenly, now creeping among the shadows, now springing like a panther on his prey, until his blue jacket reeked and his elbows dripped.
I had picked up a rifle with a broken bayonet; the Countess, clasping my left arm, stood swaying in the rifle-smoke, eyes closed; and, when a horrid screeching arose from the depths of the garden where they were destroying Tric-Trac, she fell to shuddering, hiding her face on my shoulder.
Suddenly Speed appeared, carrying a drenched little figure, partly wrapped in a sailor's pea-jacket, slim limbs drooping, blue with cold.
"Put out that fire in there," he said, hoarsely; "we must get her into bed. Hurry, for God's sake, Scarlett! There's nobody in the house!"
"Jacqueline! Jacqueline! brave little Bretonne," murmured the Countess, bending forward and gathering the unconscious child into her strong, young arms.
Through the dim dawn, through smoke and fading torch-light, we carried Jacqueline into the house, now lighted up with an infernal red from the burning dining-room.
"The house is stone; we can keep the flames to one room if we work hard," I said. A sailor stood by the door wiping the stained blade of his broadaxe, and I called on him to aid us.
A fresh company of sailors passed on the double, rifles trailing, their officer shouting encouragement, And as we came in view of the semaphore, I saw the signal tower on fire from base to top.
The gray moorland was all flickering with flashes where the bulk of the insurgent infantry began firing in retreat; the marines' fusillade broke out from Paradise village; rifle after rifle cracked along the river-bank. Suddenly the deep report of a cannon came echoing landward from the sea; a shell, with lighted fuse trailing sparks, flew over us with a rushing whistle and exploded on the moors.
All this I saw from the house where I stood with Speed and a sailor, buried in smoke, chopping out blazing woodwork, tearing the burning curtains from the windows. The marines fired steadily from the windows above us.
"They want the Red Terror!" laughed the sailors. "They shall have it!"
"Hunt them out! Hunt them out!" cried an officer, briskly. "Fire!" rang out a voice, and the volley broke crashing, followed by the clear, penetrating boatswain's whistle sounding the assault.
Blackened, scorched, almost suffocated, I staggered back to the tea-room, where the Countess stood clasping Jacqueline, huddled in a blanket, and smoothing the child's wet curls away from a face as white as death.
Together we carried her back through the smoking hallway, up the stairs to my bedroom, and laid her in the bed.
The child opened her eyes as we drew the blankets.
"Where is Speed?" she asked, dreamily.
A moment later he came in, and she turned her head languidly and smiled.
"Jacqueline! Jacqueline!" he whispered, bending close above her.
"Do you love me, Speed?"
"Ah, Jacqueline," he stammered, "more than you can understand."
Suddenly a step sounded on the stairs, a rifle-stock grounded, clanging, and a sonorous voice rang out:
"Salute, O my brother of the toug! The enemies of France are dead!"
And in the silence around him Salah Ben-Ahmed the Marabout recited the fatha, bearing witness to the eternal unity of God.
* * * * *
Late that night the light cavalry from Lorient rode into Paradise. At dawn the colonel, established in the mayory, from whence its foolish occupant had fled, sent for Speed and me, and when we reported he drew from his heavy dolman our commissions, restoring us to rank and pay in the regiment de marche which he commanded.
At sunrise I had bade good-bye to the sweetest woman on earth; at noon we were miles to the westward, riding like demons on Buckhurst's heavy trail.
I am not sure that we ever saw him again, though once, weeks later, Speed and I and a dozen hussars gave chase to a mounted man near St. Brieuc, and that man might have been Buckhurst. He led us a magnificent chase straight to the coast, where we rode plump into a covey of Prussian hussars, who were standing on their saddles, hacking away at the telegraph-wires with their heavy, curved sabres.
That was our first and last sight of the enemy in either Prussian or communistic guise, though in the long, terrible days and nights of that winter of '71, when three French armies froze, and the white death, not the Prussians, ended all for France, rumors of insurrection came to us from the starving capital, and we heard of the red flag flying on the Hotel-de-Ville, and the rising of the carbineers under Flourens; and some spoke of the leader of the insurrection and called him John Buckhurst.
That Buckhurst could have penetrated Paris neither Speed nor I believed; but, as all now know, we were wrong, though the testimony concerning his death[A] at the hands of his terrible colleague, Mortier, was not in evidence until a young ruffian, known as "The Mouse," confessed before he expiated his crimes on Sartory Plain in 1872.
Thus, for three blank, bitter months, freezing and starving, the 1st Regiment de marche of Lorient Hussars stood guard at Brest over the diamonds of the crown of France.
[A] This affair is dealt with in Ashes of Empire.
The news of the collapse of the army of the East found our wretchedly clothed and half-starved hussars still patrolling the environs of Brest from Belair to the Pont Tournant, and from the banks of the Elorn clear around the ramparts to Lannion Bay, where the ice-sheathed iron-clads lay with banked fires off the Port Militaire, and the goulet guard-boats patrolled the Port de Commerce from the Passe de l'Ouest to the hook on the Digue and clear around to Cap Espagnol.
All Brest, from the battlements of the Chateau of St. Martin, in Belair, was on watch, so wrought up was the governor over the attempt on the treasure-train. For three months our troopers scarcely left their saddles, except to be taken to the hospital in Recouvrance.
The rigor of the constant alert wore us to shadows; rockets from the goulet, the tocsin, the warning boom of a gun from the castle, found us spurring our jaded horses through ice and snow to scour the landward banlieue and purge it of a dreaded revolt. The names of Marx, of Flourens, of Buckhurst, were constantly repeated; news of troubles at Bordeaux, rumors of the red flag at Marseilles, only served to increase the rigid system of patrol, which brought death to those in the trenches as well as to our sleet-soaked videttes.
Suddenly the nightmare ended with a telegram. Paris had surrendered.
Immediately the craze to go beset us all; our improvised squadrons became clamoring mobs of peasants, wild to go home. Deserters left us every night; they shot some in full flight; some were shot after drum-head seances in which Speed and I voted in vain for acquittal. But affairs grew worse; our men neglected their horses; bands of fugitives robbed the suburbs, roving about, pillaging, murdering, even burning the wretched hovels where nothing save the four walls remained even for the miserable inmates.
Our hussars were sent on patrol again, but they deserted with horses and arms in scores, until, when we rode into the Rue du Bois d'Amour, scarce a squadron clattered into the smoky gateway, and the infantry of the line across the street jeered and cursed us from their barracks.
On the last day of February our regiment was disbanded, and the officers ordered to hold themselves in readiness to recruit the debris of a dragoon regiment, one squadron of which at once took possession of our miserable barracks.
On the first day of March, by papers from London, we learned that the war was at an end, and that the preliminary treaty of Sunday, the 26th, had been signed at Versailles.
The same mail brought to me an astonishing offer from Cairo, to assist in the reorganization and accept a commission in the Egyptian military police. Speed and I, shivering in our ragged uniforms by the barrack stove, discussed the matter over a loaf of bread and a few sardines, until we fell asleep in our greasy chairs and dreamed of hot sunshine, and of palms, and of a crimson sunset against which a colossal basking monster, half woman, half lion, crouched, wallowing to her stone breasts in a hot sea of sand.
When I awoke in the black morning hours I knew that I should go. All the roaming instinct in me was roused. I, a nomad, had stayed too long in one stale place; I must be moving on. A feverish longing seized me; inertia became unbearable; the restless sea called me louder and louder, thundering on the breakwater; the gulls, wheeling above the arsenal at dawn, screamed a challenge.
Leave of absence, and permission to travel pending acceptance of my resignation, I asked for and obtained before the stable trumpets awoke my comrade from his heavy slumber by the barrack stove.
I made my packet—not much—a few threadbare garments folded around her letters, one to mark each miserable day that had passed since I spurred my horse out of Trecourt on the track of the wickedest man I ever knew.
Speed awoke with the trumpets, and stared at me where I knelt before the stove in my civilian clothes, strapping up my little packet.
"Oh," he said, briefly, "I knew you were going."
"So did I," I replied. "Will you ride to Trecourt with me? I have two weeks' permission for you."
He had no clothing but the uniform he wore, and no baggage except a razor, a shirt, a tooth-brush, and a bundle of letters, all written on Madame de Vassart's crested paper, but not signed by her.
We bolted our breakfast of soup and black bread, and bawled for our horses, almost crazed with impatience, now that the moment had come at last.
"Good-bye!" shouted the shivering dragoon officers, wistfully, as we wheeled our horses and spurred, clattering, towards the black gates. "Good-bye and good luck! We drink to those you love, comrades!"
"And they shall drink to you! Good-bye! Good-bye!" we cried, till the salt sea-wind tore the words from our teeth and bowed our heads as we galloped through the suburbs and out into the icy high-road, where, above us, the telegraph-wires sang their whirring dirge, and the wind in the gorse whistled, and the distant forest sounded and resounded with the gale's wailing.
On, on, hammering the flinty road with steel-shod hoofs, racing with the racing clouds, thundering across the pontoon, where benumbed soldiers huddled to stare, then bounding forward through the narrow lanes of hamlets, where pinched faces peered out at us from hovels, and gaunt dogs fled from us into the frozen hedge.
Far ahead we caught sight of the smoke of a locomotive.
"Landerneau!" gasped Speed. "Ride hard, Scarlett!"
The station-master saw us and halted the moving train at a frantic signal from Speed, whose uniform was to be reckoned with by all station-masters, and ten minutes later we stood swaying in a cattle-car, huddled close to our horses to keep warm, while the locomotive tore eastward, whistling frantically, and an ocean of black smoke poured past, swarming with sparks. Crossing the Aune trestle with a ripping roar, the train rushed through Chateaulin, south, then east, then south.
Toward noon, Speed, clinging to the stall-bars, called out to me that he could see Quimper, and in a few moments we rolled into the station, dropped two cars, and steamed out again into the beautiful Breton country, where the winter wheat was green as new grass and the gorse glimmered, and the clear streams rushed seaward between their thickets of golden willows and green briers, already flushing with the promise of new buds.
Rosporden we passed at full speed; scarcely a patch of melting snow remained at Bannalec; and when we steamed slowly into Quimperle, the Laita ran crystal-clear as a summer stream, and I saw the faint blue of violets on the southern slope of the beech-woods.
Some gendarmes aided us to disembark our horses, and a sub-officer respectfully offered us hospitality at the barracks across the square; but we were in our saddles the moment our horses' hoofs struck the pavement, galloping for Paradise, with a sweet, keen wind blowing, hinting already of the sea.
This was that same road which led me into Paradise on that autumn day which seemed years and years ago. The forests were leafless but beautiful; the blackthorns already promised their scented snow to follow the last melting drift which still glimmered among the trees in deep woodland gullies. A violet here and there looked up at us with blue eyes; in sheltered spots, fresh, reddish sprouts pricked the moist earth, here a whorl of delicate green, there a tender spike, guarding some imprisoned loveliness; buds on the beeches were brightening under a new varnish; naked thickets, no longer dead gray, softened into harmonies of pink and gold and palest purple.
Once, halting at a bridge, above the quick music of the stream we heard an English robin singing all alone.
"I never longed for spring as I do now," broke out Speed. "The horror of this black winter has scarred me forever—the deathly whiteness, month after month; the freezing filth of that ghastly city; the sea, all slime and ice!"
"Gallop," I said, shuddering. "I can smell the moors of Paradise already. The winds will cleanse us."
We spoke no more; and at last the road turned to the east, down among the trees, and we were traversing the square of Paradise village, where white-capped women turned to look after us, and children stared at us from their playground around the fountain, and the sleek magpies fluttered out of our path as we galloped over the bridge and breasted the sweet, strong moor wind, spicy with bay and gorse.
Speed flung out his arm, pointing. "The circus camp was there," he said. "They have ploughed the clover under."
A moment later I saw the tower of Trecourt, touched with a ray of sunshine, and the sea beyond, glittering under a clearing sky.
As we dismounted in the court-yard the sun flashed out from the fringes of a huge, snowy cloud.
"There is Jacqueline!" cried Speed, tossing his bridle to me in his excitement, and left me planted there until a servant came from the stable.
Then I followed, every nerve quivering, almost dreading to set foot within, lest happiness awake me and I find myself in the freezing barracks once more, my brief dream ended.
In the hallway a curious blindness came over me. I heard Jacqueline call my name, and I felt her hands in mine, but scarcely saw her; then she slipped away from me, and I found myself seated in the little tea-room, listening to the dull, double beat of my own heart, trembling at distant sounds in the house—waiting, endlessly waiting.
After a while a glimmer of common-sense returned to me. I squared my shoulders and breathed deeply, then rose and walked to the window.
The twigs on the peach-trees had turned wine-color; around the roots of the larkspurs delicate little palmated leaves clustered; crocus spikes pricked the grass everywhere, and the tall, polished shoots of the peonies glistened, glowing crimson in the sun. A heavy cat sunned its sleek flanks on the wall, brilliant eyes half closed, tail tucked under. Ange Pitou had grown very fat in three months.
A step at the door, and I wheeled, trembling. But it was only a Breton maid, who bore some letters on a salver of silver.
"For me?" I asked.
"If you please," she said, demurely.
Two letters, and I knew the writing on one. The first I read standing:
"Buffalo, N. Y., Feb. 3, 1871.
"Mr. Scarlett, Dear Sir and Friend,—Trusting you're well I am pleased to admit the same, the blind Goddess having smiled on me and the circus since we quit that damn terra firma for a more peeceful climb.
"We are enjoying winter quarters near to the majestic phenomena of Niagara, fodder is cheap and vittles bountiful.
"Would be pleased to have you entertain idees of joining us, and the same to Mr. Speed—you can take the horses. I have a lion man from Jersey City. We open in Charleston S. C. next week no more of La continong for me, savvy voo! home is good enough for me. That little Jacqueline left me I got a girl and am training her but she ain't Jacqueline. Annimals are well Mrs. Grigg sends her love and is joined by all especially the ladies and others too numerous to mention. Hoping to hear from you soon about the horses I remain yours truly and courteously,
"H. Byram Esq."
The second letter I opened carelessly, smiling a little:
"New York, Feb. 1, 1871.
"Dear Mr. Scarlett,—We were married yesterday. We have life before us, but are not afraid. I shall never forget you; my wife can never forget the woman you love. We have both passed through hell—but we have passed through alive. And we pray for the happiness of you and yours.
Sobered, I laid this letter beside the first, turned thoughtfully away into the room, then stood stock-still.
The Countess de Vassart stood in the doorway, a smile trembling on her lips. In her gray eyes I read hope; and I took her hands in mine. She stood silent with bent head, exquisite in her silent shyness; and I told her I loved her, and that I asked for her love; that I had found employment in Egypt, and that it was sufficient to justify my asking her to wed me.
"As for my name," I said, "you know that is not the name I bear; yet, knowing that, you have given me your love. You read my dossier in Paris; you know why I am alone, without kin, without a family, without a home. Yet you believe that I am not tainted with dishonor. And I am not. Listen, this is what happened; this is why I gave up all; and ... this is my name!" ...
And I bent my head and whispered the truth for the first time in my life to any living creature.
When I had ended I stood still, waiting, head still bowed beside hers.
She laid her hand on my hot face and slowly drew it close beside hers.
"What shall I promise you?" she whispered.
"Take me.... Is that all?"
She turned in my arms and clasped her hands behind my head, pressing her mouth to mine.