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Title: A Village of Vagabonds
Author: Smith, F. Berkeley (Frank Berkeley), 1869-
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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A VILLAGE OF VAGABONDS


By F. BERKELEY SMITH

Author of "The Lady of Big Shanty."



 A. L. BURT COMPANY
 PUBLISHERS  NEW YORK

 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION
 INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN

 COPYRIGHT, 1910, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
 PUBLISHED MAY, 1910

 COPYRIGHT, 1909, 1910, BY SMITH PUBLISHING HOUSE


       *       *       *       *       *


CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                                         PAGE

     I. The House by the Marsh                       3

    II. Monsieur le Curé                            35

   III. The Exquisite Madame de Bréville            63

    IV. The Smugglers                               91

     V. Marianne                                   120

    VI. The Baron's Perfectos                      151

   VII. The Horrors of War                         186

  VIII. The Million of Monsieur de Savignac        213

    IX. The Man with the Gun                       245

     X. The Bells of Pont du Sable                 274

    XI. The Miser--Garron                          308

   XII. Midwinter Flights                          339


       *       *       *       *       *


A VILLAGE OF VAGABONDS

      [Illustration: house by the marsh]

A Village of Vagabonds



CHAPTER ONE

THE HOUSE BY THE MARSH


It was in fat Madame Fontaine's little café at Bar la Rose, that Norman
village by the sea, that I announced my decision. It being market-day
the café was noisy with peasants, and the crooked street without jammed
with carts. Monsieur Torin, the butcher, opposite me, leaned back
heavily from his glass of applejack and roared.

Monsieur Pompanet, the blacksmith, at my elbow, put down his cup of
black coffee delicately in its clean saucer and opened his honest gray
eyes wide in amazement. Simultaneously Monsieur Jaclin, the mayor, in
his freshly ironed blouse, who for want of room was squeezed next to
Torin, choked out a wheezy "_Bon Dieu!_" and blew his nose in derision.

"Pont du Sable--_Bon Dieu!_" exclaimed all three. "Pont du Sable--_Bon
Dieu!_"

"_Cristi!_" thundered Torin. "You say you are going to _live_ in Pont du
Sable? _Hélas!_ It is not possible, my friend, you are in earnest!"

"That lost hole of a village of _sacré_ vagabonds," echoed Pompanet.
"Why, the mud when the tide is out smells like the devil. It is
unhealthy."

"Père Bordier and I went there for ducks twenty years ago," added the
mayor. "We were glad enough to get away before dark. B-r-r! It was
lonely enough, that marsh, and that dirty little fishing-village no
longer than your arm. Bah! It's a hole, just as Pompanet says."

Torin leaned across the table and laid a heavy hand humanely on my
shoulder.

"Take my advice," said he, "don't give up that snug farm of yours here
for a lost hole like Pont du Sable."

"But the sea-shooting is open there three hundred and sixty-five days in
the year," I protested, with enthusiasm. "I'm tired of tramping my legs
off here for a few partridges a season. Besides, what I've been looking
for I've found--a fine old abandoned house with a splendid old courtyard
and a wild garden. I had the good luck to climb over a wall and discover
it."

"I know the place you mean," interrupted the mayor. "It was a
post-tavern in the old days before the railroad ran there."

"And later belonged to the estate of the Marquis de Lys," I added
proudly. "Now it belongs to me."

"What! You've bought it!" exclaimed Torin, half closing his veal-like
eyes.

"Yes," I confessed, "signed, sealed, and paid for."

"And what the devil do you intend to do with that old stone pile now
that you've got it?" sneered Jaclin. "Ah! You artists are queer
fellows!"

"Live in it, messieurs," I returned as happily as I could, as I dropped
six sous for my glass into Madame Fontaine's open palm, and took my
leave, for under the torrent of their protest I was beginning to feel I
had been a fool to be carried away by my love of a gun and the
picturesque.

The marsh at Pont du Sable was an old friend of mine. So were the desert
beach beyond the dunes, and the lost fishing-village--"no longer than
your arm." I had tramped in wind and rain and the good sunlight over
that great desert of pasty black clay at low tide. I had lain at high
tide in a sand-pit at the edge of the open sea beyond the dunes, waiting
for chance shots at curlew and snipe. I had known the bay at the first
glimmer of dawn with a flight of silver plovers wheeling for a rush over
my decoys. Dawn--the lazy, sparkling noon and the golden hours before
the crisp, still twilight warned me it was high time to start back to
Bar la Rose fourteen kilometres distant. All these had become enchanting
memories.

Thus going to Pont du Sable for a day's shooting became a weekly
delight, then a biweekly fascination, then an incorrigible triweekly
habit. There was no alternative left me now but to live there. The
charm of that wild bay and its lost village had gotten under my skin.
And thus it happened that I deserted my farm and friends at Bar la Rose,
and with my goods and chattels boarded the toy train one spring morning,
bound for my abandoned house, away from sufficient-unto-itself Bar la
Rose and its pigheaded inhabitants, the butcher, the blacksmith, and the
mayor.

       *       *       *       *       *

It is such a funny little train that runs to my new-found Paradise,
rocking and puffing and grumbling along on its narrow-gauge track with
its cars labelled like grown-up ones, first, second, and third class;
and no two painted the same colour; and its noisy, squat engine like the
real ones in the toy-stores, that wind up with a key and go rushing off
frantically in tangents. No wonder the train to my lost village is
called "_Le petit déraillard_"--"The little get-off-the-track." And so I
say, it might all have come packed in excelsior in a neat box, complete,
with instructions, for the sum of four francs sixty-five centimes, had
it not been otherwise destined to run twice daily, rain or shine, to
Pont du Sable, and beyond.

Poor little train! It is never on time, but it does its best. It is at
least far more prompt than its passengers, for most of them come running
after it out of breath.

"Hurry up, mademoiselle!" cries the engineer to a rosy-cheeked girl in
sabots, rushing with a market-basket under one arm and a live goose
under the other. "Eh, my little lady, you should have gotten out of bed
earlier!" laughs the conductor as he pulls her aboard.

"Toot! Toot!" And off goes the little get-off-the-track again, rocking
and rumbling along past desert stretches of sand dunes screening the
blue sea; past modern villas, isolated horrors in brick, pink, and baby
blue, carefully planted away from the trees. Then suddenly the desert is
left behind! Past the greenest of fields now, dotted with sleek, grazing
cattle; past groves of pine; past snug Norman farms with low-thatched
roofs half-smothered in yellow roses. Again the dunes, as the toy train
swings nearer the sea. They are no longer desert wastes of sand and
wire-grass, but covered now with a riot of growing things, running in
one rich congested sweep of orchards, pastures, feathery woodlands and
matted hedges down to the very edge of the blue sea.

A sudden turn, and the toy train creeps out of a grove of pines to the
open bay. It is high tide. A flight of plover, startled by the engine,
go wheeling away in a silver streak to a spit of sand running out from
the marsh. A puff of smoke from the sand-spit, and the band leaves two
of its members to a gentleman in new leather leggings; then, whistling
over the calamity that has befallen them, they wheel again and strike
for the open sea and safety.

Far across the expanse of rippling turquoise water stands a white
lighthouse that at dusk is set with a yellow diamond. Snug at the lower
end of the bay, a long mile from where the plovers rise, lies the lost
village. Now the toy train is crawling through its crooked single
street, the engine-bell ringing furiously that stray dogs and children,
and a panicky flock of sheep may have time to get out of the way. The
sheep are in charge of a rough little dog with a cast in one eye and a
slim, barelegged girl who apologizes a dozen times to monsieur the
engineer between her cries to her flock.

"They are not very well brought up, my little one--those sacred mutton
of yours," remarks the engineer as he comes to a dead stop, jumps out of
his cab, and helps straighten out the tangle.

"Ah, monsieur!" sighs the girl in despair. "What will you have? It is
the little black one that is always to blame!"

The busy dog crowds them steadily into line. He seems to be everywhere
at once, darting from right to left, now rounding up a stubborn ewe and
her first-born, now cornering the black one.

"Toot! Toot!" And the little get-off-the-track goes rumbling on through
the village, past the homes of the fishermen--a straggling line of low
stone houses with quaint gabled roofs, and still quainter chimneys, and
old doorways giving glimpses of dark interiors and dirt floors. Past the
modest houses of the mayor, the baker, the butcher and Monsieur le
Curé; then through the small public square, in which nothing ever
happens, and up to a box of a station.

"Pont du Sable!" cries the conductor, with as much importance as if he
had announced Paris.

I have arrived.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was no doubt about my new-found home being abandoned! The low
stone wall that tempered the wind from courtyard and garden was green
with lichens. The wide stone gateway, with its oaken doors barred within
by massive cross-hooks that could have withstood a siege; the courtyard,
flanked by the house and its rambling appendages that contained within
their cavernous interiors the cider-press and cellars; the stable with
its long stone manger, and next it the carved wooden bunk for the groom
of two centuries ago; the stone pig-sty; the tile-roofed sheds--all had
about them the charm of dignified decay.

But the "château" itself!

Generations of spiders had veiled every nook and corner within, and the
nooks and corners were many. These cobwebs hung in ghostly festoons from
the low-beamed ceiling of the living room, opening out upon the wild
garden. They continued up the narrow stone stairway leading to the
old-fashioned stone-paved bedrooms; they had been spun in a labyrinth
all over the generous, spooky, old stone-paved attic, whose single eye
of a window looked out over the quaint gables and undulating tiled roofs
of adjoining attics, whose dark interiors were still pungent with the
tons of apples they had once sheltered. Beyond my rambling roofs were
rich orchards and noble trees and two cool winding lanes running up to
the green country beyond.

Ten days of strenuous settling passed, at the end of which my abandoned
house was resuscitated, as it were. Without Suzette, my little
maid-of-all-work, it would have been impossible. I may say we attacked
this seemingly superhuman task together--and Suzette is so human. She
has that frantic courage of youth, and a smile that is irresistible.

"To-morrow monsieur shall see," she said. "My kitchen is clean--that is
something, eh? And the beds are up, and the armoires, and nearly all of
monsieur's old studio furniture in place. _Eh, ben!_ To-morrow night
shall see most of the sketches hung and the rugs beaten--that is again
something, eh? Then there will be only the brass and the andirons and
the guns to clean."

Ten days of strenuous attack, sometimes in the rain, and when I hammer
my fingers in the rain I swear horribly; the average French saw, too,
would have placed Job in a sanitarium. Suzette's cheery smile is a
delight, and how her sturdy, dimpled arms can scrub, and dust, and cook,
and clean. When she is working at full steam she invariably sings; but
when her soufflé does not soufflé she bursts into tears--this good
little peasant maid-of-all-work!

And so the abandoned house by the marsh was settled. Now there is charm,
and crackling fires o' nights within, and sunny breakfasts in the garden
without--a garden that grew to be gay with flowers, and is still in any
wind, thanks to my friend the lichen-stained wall over which clamber
vines and all manner of growing things; and sometimes my kitten with her
snow-white breast, whose innocent green eyes narrow to slits as she
watches for hours two little birds that are trying to bring up a small
family in the vines. I have told her plainly if she even touches them I
will boil her in oil. "Do you hear, Miquette?" and she turns away and
licks her pink paw as if she had not heard--you essence of selfishness
that I love!

Shall I tell you who is coming to dine to-night, Green-eyes? Our
neighbours! Madame Alice de Bréville who spoils you, and the Marquis de
Clamard who does not like pussy-cats, but is too well-bred to tell you
so, and the marquise who flatters you, and Blondel! Don't struggle--you
cannot get away, I've got you tight. You are not going to have your way
all the time. Look at me! Claws in and your ears up! There! And Tanrade,
that big, whole-souled musician, with his snug old house and his two big
dogs, either one of which would make mince-meat of you should you have
the misfortune to mistake his garden for your own. Madame de
Bréville--do you hear?--who has but to half close her eyes to make
Tanrade forget his name. He loves her madly, you see, pussy-kit!

Ah, yes! The lost village! In which the hours are never dull. Lost
village! With these Parisian neighbours, whose day of discovery
antedated mine by several years. Lost village! In which there are jolly
fishermen and fishergirls as pretty as some gipsies--slim and fearless,
a genial old mayor, an optimistic blacksmith, and a butcher who is a
seigneur; gentle old women in white caps, blue-eyed children, kind dogs,
fresh air, and _life_!

There is a mysterious fascination about that half-hour before the first
glimmer of dawn. The leaves, this September morning, are shivering in
the dusk of my garden; the house is as silent as my sleeping cat save
for the resonant tick-tock, tick-tock, of the tall Norman clock in the
kitchen, to which I tiptoe down and breakfast by candle-light.

You should see the Essence of Selfishness then as she purrs around a
simmering saucepan of milk destined for my coffee, and inspects the
toast and jam, and sniffs at my breech-loader, well greased with
neatsfoot-oil, and now the ghostly light in the courtyard tells me to
hurry out on the bay.

Low tide. Far out on the desert of black clay a colony of gulls have
spent the night. Their quarrelsome jargon reaches me as I cautiously
raise my head over the dunes, for often a band of plover is feeding at
dawn out on the mud, close enough for a shot. Nothing in view save the
gulls, those gossiping concierges of the bay, who rise like a squall of
snow as I make a clean breast of my presence, and start across the
soggy, slippery mud toward the marsh running out to the open sea. A
curlew, motionless on his long legs, calls cheerfully from the point of
sand: "Curli--Curli!" Strong, cheerful old bird. The rifts of white mist
are lifting from the bay, thinned into rose vapour now, as the sun
creeps above the green hillsides.

Swish! Three silver plovers flash back of me--a clean miss. If we never
missed we should never love a gun. It is time now to stalk the bottoms
of the narrow, winding causeways that drain the bay. Their beds at low
tide are full of dead mussels, dormant clams, and awkward sputtering
crabs; the old ones sidling away from you with threatening claws wide
open for combat; the young ones standing their ground bravely, in
ignorance.

Swish again! But this time I manage to kill them both--two fat golden
plovers. The Essence of Selfishness shall have her fill at noon, and the
pupils of her green eyes will contract in ecstasy as she crunches and
gnaws.

Now all the bay is alive. Moreover, the sea is sweeping in, filling the
bay like a bath-tub, obliterating the causeways under millions of
dancing ripples of turquoise. Soon my decoys are out, and I am sunk in a
sand-pit at the edge of the sea. The wind holds strong from the
northeast, and I am kept busy until my gun-barrels are too hot to be
pleasant. All these things happen between dawn and a late breakfast in
my garden.

Suzette sang all day. It is always so with Suzette upon the days when
the abandoned house is giving a dinner. The truth is, Suzette loves to
cook; her pride and her happiness increase as the hour appointed for my
guests to arrive approaches. With Suzette it is a delightful event.

The cracked jingle-bell over my stone gateway had jingled incessantly
since early morning, summoning this good little Norman maid-of-all-work
to slip her trim feet into her sabots and rush across the court to open
the small door piercing my wall beside the big gates. Twice for beggars,
once for the grocer's boy, three times for the baker--who had, after
all, forgotten the _brioche_; again for the baker's boy, who invariably
forgets if he thinks there is another chance in his forgetting, of
paying a forgotten compliment to Suzette. I heard his mother scolding
him yesterday. His bread, which he kneads and bakes himself before dawn,
is losing its lightness. There is little harmony between rising yeast
and a failing heart. Again the bell jingles; this time it is the Mère
Marianne, with a basket of quivering, iridescent mackerel just in from
the night's fishing.

Mère Marianne, who once was a village belle, is now thirty-three years
of age, strong as a man, fair-haired, hatless, bronzed by the sun,
salt-tanned, blue-eyed, a good mother to seven fair-haired, blue-eyed
children; yet a hard, amiable drinker in her leisure hours after a good
catch.

"_Bonjour_, my all beautiful!" she greets Suzette as the door opens.

"_Bonjour_, madame!" returns Suzette, her cheeks flushed from her
kitchen fire.

The word "madame" seems out of place, for Mère Marianne wears her man's
short tarpaulin coat cinched about her waist with a thin tarred rope.
Her sinewy legs, bare to the knees, are tightly incased in a pair of
sea-soaked trousers.

"So monsieur is having his friends to dinner," she rattles on
garrulously, swinging her basket to the ground and kneeling before it.
"I heard it as I came up the road from Blancheville's girl, who had it
from the Mère Taurville. _Eh ben!_ What do you think of these?" she adds
in the same breath, as she turns up two handsful of live mackerel. "Six
sous apiece to you, my pretty one. You see I came to you first; I'm
giving them to you as cheap as if you were my own daughter."

"Come, be quick," returns Suzette. "I have my lobster to boil and my
roast to get ready; four sous if you like, but not a sou more."

"Four sous! _Bon Dieu!_ I would rather eat them myself. They only lack
speech to tell you themselves how fresh they are. Look at them!"

"Four sous," insists Suzette. "Do you think monsieur is rich enough to
buy the _république_."

"_Allez!_ Then, take them at four sous." And Mère Marianne laughs, slips
the money into her trousers pocket, and goes off to another bargain in
the village, where, if she gets two sous for her mackerel she will be
lucky.

At six Suzette lifts the Burgundy tenderly from its resting-place in a
closet beneath the winding stone stairs--a stone closet, low, sinister,
and dark, that suggests the solitary dungeons of feudal times. Three
cobwebbed bottles of Burgundy are now carefully ranged before the
crackling blaze in the living room. At six-thirty Suzette lays the
generous dark-oak table in lace and silver, thin glasses, red-shaded
candles, and roses--plenty of roses from the garden. Her kitchen by this
time is no longer open to visitors. It has become a sacred place,
teeming with responsibility--a laboratory of resplendent shining copper
sauce-pans, pots and casseroles, in which good things steam and stew and
bubble under lids of burnished gold, which, when lifted, give one a
rousing appetite.

       *       *       *       *       *

I knew Tanrade's ring--vigorous and hearty, like himself. You would
never guess this sturdy, broad-shouldered man has created delicious
music--fairy ballets, pantomimes, and operettas. All Paris has applauded
him for years, and his country has rewarded him with a narrow red
ribbon. Rough-bearded, bronzed like a sailor, his brown eyes gleam with
kindness and intelligence. The more I know this modest great man the
more I like him, and I have known him in all kinds of wind and weather,
for Tanrade is an indefatigable hunter. He and I have spent nights
together in his duck-blind--a submerged hut, a murderous deceit sunk far
out on the marsh--cold nights; soft moonlight nights--the marsh a mystic
fairy-land; black nights---mean nights of thrashing rain. Nights that
paled to dawn with no luck to bring back to Suzette's larder. Sunny
mornings after lucky nights, when Tanrade and I would thaw out over our
coffee in the garden among the roses.

Tanrade had arrived early, a habit with this genial gourmand when the
abandoned house is giving a dinner, for he likes to supervise the final
touches. He was looking critically over the three cobwebbed bottles of
his favourite Burgundy now warming before my fire, and having tenderly
lifted the last bottle in the row to a place which he considered a safer
temperature, he straightened and squared his broad shoulders to the
blaze.

"I'll send you half a dozen more bottles to-morrow," he said.

"No, you won't, my old one," I protested, but he raised his hand and
smiled.

"The better the wine the merrier shall be the giver. Eighteen bottles
left! _Eh bien!_ It was a lucky day when that monastery was forced to
disband," he chuckled, alluding to the recent separation of the church
from the state. "_Vive la République!_" He crossed the room to the
sideboard and, having assured himself the Camembert was of the right
age, went singing into Suzette's kitchen to glance at the salad.

"Bravo, my little one, for your romaine!" I heard him exclaim.

Then a moment's silence ensued, while he tasted the dressing.
"_Sacristi!_ My child, do you think we are rabbits. _Hélas!_ Not a bit
of astragon in your seasoning! A thousand thunders! A salad is not a
salad without astragon. Come, be quick, the lantern! I know where the
bed is in the garden."

"Ah, monsieur Tanrade! To think I should have forgotten it!" sighed the
little maid. "If monsieur will only let me hold the lantern for him!"

"There, there! Never mind! See, you are forgiven. Attend to your
lobster. Quick, your soup is boiling over!" And he went out into the
garden in search of the seasoning.

Suzette adores him--who does not in the lost village? He had rewarded
her with a two-franc piece and forgiven her with a kiss.

I had hardly time to open the big gates without and light the candles
within under their red shades glowing over the mass of roses still wet
from the garden, before I heard the devilish wail of a siren beyond the
wall; then a sudden flash of white light from two search-lights
illumined the courtyard, and with a wrenching growl Madame Alice de
Bréville's automobile whined up to my door. The next instant the tip of
a little patent-leather slipper, followed by the trimmest of silken
ankles framed in a frou-frou of creamy lace, felt for the steel step of
the limousine. At the same moment a small white-gloved hand was
outstretched to mine for support.

"_Bonsoir_, dear friend," she greeted me in her delicious voice. "You
see how punctual I am. _L'heure militaire_--like you Americans." And
she laughed outright, disclosing two exquisite rows of pearls, her soft,
dark eyes half closing mischievously as she entered my door--eyes as
black as her hair, which she wore in a bandeau. The tonneau growled to
its improvised garage under the wood-shed.

She was standing now in the hall at the foot of the narrow stone stairs,
and as I slipped the long opera-cloak of dove-gray from her shoulders as
white as ivory, she glided out of it, and into the living room--a room
which serves as gun room, dining room and salon.

"Stand where you are," I said, as madame approached the fire. "What a
portrait!"

She stopped, the dancing light from the flames playing over her lithe,
exquisite figure, moulded in a gown of scintillating scales of black
jet. Then, seeing I had finished my mental note of line and composition,
she half turned her pretty head and caught sight of the ruby, cobwebbed
row of old Burgundy.

"Ah! Tanrade's Burgundy!" she exclaimed with a little cry of delight.

"How did you guess?"

"Guess! One does not have to guess when one sees as good Burgundy as
that. You see I know it." She stretched forth her firm white arms to the
blaze.

"Where is he, that good-for-nothing fellow?" she asked.

"In the garden after some astragon for the salad."

She tripped to the half-open door leading to the tangled maze of paths.

"Tanrade! Tanrade! _Bonsoir, ami!_" she called.

"_Bonsoir_, Madame Punctual," echoed his great voice from the end of the
garden, and again he broke forth in song as he came hurrying back to the
house with his lantern and his bunch of seasoning. Following at his
heels trotted the Essence of Selfishness.

"Oh, you beauty!" cried Alice. She nodded mischievously to Tanrade, who
rushed to the piano, and before the Essence of Selfishness had time to
elude her she was picked up bodily, held by her fore paws and forced to
dance upon her hind legs, her sleek head turned aside in hate, her
velvety ears flattened to her skull.

"Dance! Dance!" laughed Alice. "One--two, one--two! _Voilà!_" The next
instant Miquette was caught up and hugged to a soft neck encircled with
jewels. "There, go! Do what you like, Mademoiselle Independent!"

And as Miquette regained her liberty upon her four paws, the Marquis and
Marquise de Clamard announced their arrival by tapping on the window, so
that for the moment the cozy room was deserted save by Miquette, who
profited during the interval by stealing a whole sardine from the
hors-d'oeuvres.

Another good fellow is the marquis--tall, with the air of a diplomat,
the simplicity of a child, and the manners of a prince. Another good
friend, too, is the marquise. They had come on foot, these near-by
neighbours, with their lantern. Was there ever such a marquise? This
once famous actress, who interpreted the comedies of Molière. Was there
ever a more charming grandmother? Ah! You do not look it even now with
your gray hair, for you are ever young and witty and gracious. She
clapped her hands as she peered across the dinner-table to the row
before the chimney.

"My Burgundy, I see!" she exclaimed, to my surprise; Tanrade was gazing
intently at a sketch. "Oh, you shall see," added the marquise seriously.
"You are not the only one, my friend, the gods have blessed. Did you not
send me a dozen bottles this morning, Monsieur Tanrade? Come, confess!"

He turned and shrugged his shoulders.

"Impossible! I cannot remember. I am so absent-minded, madame," and he
bent and kissed her hand.

"Where's Blondel?" cried Clamard, as he extracted a thin cigarette-case
from his waistcoat.

"He'll be here presently," I explained.

"It's a long drive for him," added the marquise, a ring of sympathy in
her voice. "Poor boy, he is working so hard now that he is editor of _La
Revue Normande_. Ah, those wretched politics!"

"He doesn't mind it," broke in Tanrade, "he has a skin like a
bear--driving night and day all over the country as he does. What
energy, _mon Dieu_!"

"Oh!" cried Madame de Bréville, "Blondel shall sing for us 'L'Histoire
de Madame X.' You shall cry with laughter."

"And 'Le Brigadier de Tours,'" added Tanrade.

The sound of hoofs and the rattle of a dog-cart beyond the wall sent us
hurrying to the courtyard.

"_Eh, voilà!_" shouted Tanrade. "There he is, that good Blondel!"

"Suzette!" I cried as I passed the kitchen. "The vermouth!"

"_Bien_, monsieur."

"Eh, Blondel, there is nothing to eat, you late vagabond!"

A black mare steaming from her hot pace of twelve miles, drawing a
red-wheeled dog-cart, entered the courtyard.

"A thousand pardons," came a voice out of a bearskin coat, "my editorial
had to go to press early, or I should have been here half an hour ago."

Then such a greeting and a general rush to unharness the tired mare, the
marquis tugging at one trace and I at the other, while Tanrade backed
the cart under the shed next to the cider-press, Alice de Bréville and
the marquise holding the mare's head. All this, despite the pleadings of
Blondel, who has a horror of giving trouble--the only man servant to the
abandoned house being Pierre, who was occupied at that hour in
patrolling the coast in the employ of the French République, looking out
for possible smugglers, and in whose spare hours served me as gardener.
And so the mare was led into the stable with its stone manger, where
every one helped with halter, blanket, a warm bed, and a good supper;
Alice de Bréville holding the lantern while the marquise bound on the
mare's blanket with a girdle of straw.

"Monsieur, dinner is served," announced Suzette gently as she entered
the stable.

"Vive Suzette!" shouted the company. "_Allons manger, mes enfants!_"

They found their places at the table by themselves. In the abandoned
house there is neither host nor formality, but in their stead
comradeship, understanding, and good cheer.

Blondel is delightful. You can always count on him for the current
events with the soup, the latest scandal with the roast, and a song of
his own making with the cheese. What more can one ask? It all rolls from
him as easily as the ink from his clever pen; it is as natural with him
as his smile or the merriment in his eyes.

During the entire dinner the Essence of Selfishness was busy visiting
from one friendly lap to another, frequently crossing the table to do
so, and as she refuses to dine from a saucer, though it be of the finest
porcelain of Rouen, she was fed piecemeal. It was easily seen Tanrade
was envious of this charity from one shapely little hand.

What a contrast are these dinners in the lost village to some I have
known elsewhere! What refreshing vivacity! How genuine and merry they
are from the arrival of the first guest to the going of the last! When
at last the coffee and liqueurs were reached and six thin spirals of
blue smoke were curling lazily up among the rafters of the low ceiling,
the small upright piano talked under Tanrade's vibrant touch. He sang
heartily whatever came into his head; now a quaint peasant song, again
the latest success of the café concert.

Alice de Bréville, stretched out in the long chair before the fire, was
listening intently.

And so with song and story the hands of the tall clock slipped by the
hours. It was midnight before we knew it. Again Tanrade played--this
time it was the second act of his new operetta. When he had finished he
took his seat beside the woman in the long chair.

"Bravo!" she murmured in his ear. Then she listened as he talked to her
earnestly.

"Good!" I overheard her say to him with conviction, her eyes gleaming.
"And you are satisfied at last with the second act?"

"Yes, after a month's struggle with it."

"Ah, I am so glad--so glad!" she sighed, and pressed his hand.

"I must go to Paris next week for the rehearsals."

"For long?" she asked.

He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "For weeks, perhaps. Come," he
said, "let us go out to the wall--the moon is up. The marsh is so
beautiful in the moonlight."

She rose, slipped on the dove-gray cloak he brought her, and together
they disappeared in the courtyard. The marquise raised her eyes to mine
and smiled.

"_Bonne promenade_, dear children," she called after them, but they did
not hear.

An hour later Alice de Bréville was speeding back to her château;
Blondel and his mare were also clattering homeward, for he had still an
article to finish before daylight. I had just bid the marquis and the
marquise good night when Tanrade, who was about to follow, suddenly
turned and called me aside in the shadow of the gateway. What he said to
me made my heart leap. His eyes were shining with a strange light; his
hands, gripping me by both shoulders, trembled.

"It is true," he repeated. "Don't tell me I am dreaming, old friend.
Yes, it is true. Alice--yes, it is Alice. Come, a glass of wine! I feel
faint--and happy!"

We went back to the dying fire, and I believe he heard all my
congratulations, though I am not sure. He seemed in a dream.

When he had gone Suzette lighted my candle.

"Suzette," I said, "your dinner was a success."

"Ah, but I am content, monsieur. _Mon Dieu_, but I do love to cook!"

"Come, Miquette! It's past your bedtime, you adorable egoist."

"_Bonsoir_, Suzette."

"_Bonsoir_, monsieur."

Village of Vagabonds! In which the hours are never dull! Lost village by
the Normand sea! In which lies a paradise of good-fellowship, romance,
love, and sound red wine!

      [Illustration: train]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: the little stone church]



CHAPTER TWO

MONSIEUR LE CURÉ


The sun had just risen, and the bell of the little stone church
chattered and jangled, flinging its impatient call over the sleeping
village of Pont du Sable. In the clear morning air its voice could be
heard to the tops of the green hills, and across the wide salt marsh
that stretched its feathery fingers to the open sea.

A lone, wrinkled fisherman, rolling lazily on the mighty heave of the
incoming tide, turned his head landward.

"_Sapristi!_" he grinned, as he slipped a slimy thumb from the meshes of
a mackerel-net and crossed himself. "She has a hoarse throat, that
little one."

Far up the hillside a mile back of the churchyard, a barelegged girl
driving a cow stopped to listen, her hood pushed back, her brown hands
crossed upon her breast.

Lower down, skirting the velvet edge of the marsh, filmy rifts of mist
broke into shreds or blended with the spirals of blue smoke mounting
skyward from freshly kindled fires.

Pont du Sable was awake for the day.

It is the most unimportant of little villages, yet it is four centuries
old, and of stone. It seems to have shrivelled by its great age, like
its oldest inhabitants. One-half of its two score of fishermen's houses
lie crouched to the rambling edge of its single street; the other half
might have been dropped at random, like stones from the pocket of some
hurrying giant. Some of these, including the house of the ruddy little
mayor and the polite, florid grocer, lie spilled along the edge of the
marsh.

As for Monsieur le Curé, he was at this very moment in the small stone
church saying mass to five fishermen, two devout housewives, a little
child, an old woman in a white cap, and myself. Being in my
shooting-boots, I had tiptoed into a back seat behind two of the
fishermen, and sat in silence watching Monsieur le Curé's gaunt figure
and listening to his deep, well-modulated, resonant voice.

What I saw was a man uncommonly tall and well built, dressed in a rusty
black soutane that reached in straight lines from beneath his chin to
his feet, which were encased in low calf shoes with steel buckles. I
noticed, too, that his face was angular and humorous; his eyes keen and
merry by turns; his hair of the colourless brown one sees among
fisherfolk whose lives are spent in the sun and rain. I saw, too, that
he was impecunious, for the front edges of his cassock were frayed and
three buttons missing, not to be wondered at, I said to myself, as I
remembered that the stone church, like the village it comforted, had
always been poor.

Now and then during the mass I saw the curé glance at the small leaded
window above him as if making a mental note of the swaying tree-tops
without in the graveyard. Then his keen gray eyes again reverted to the
page he knew by heart. The look evidently carried some significance,
for the gray-haired old sea-dog in front of me cocked his blue eye to
his partner--they were both in from a rough night's fishing--and
muttered:

"It will be a short mass."

"_Ben sûr_," whispered back the other from behind his leathery hand.
"The wind's from the northeast. It will blow a gale before sundown." And
he nodded toward the swaying tree-tops.

With this, the one with the blue eyes straightened back in the wooden
pew and folded his short, knotty arms in attention; the muscles of his
broad shoulders showing under his thick seaman's jersey, the collar
encircling his corded, stocky neck deep-seamed by a thousand winds and
seas. The gestures of these two old craftsmen of the sea, who had worked
so long together, were strangely similar. When they knelt I could see
the straw sticking from the heels of their four wooden sabots and the
rolled-up bottoms of their patched sail-cloth trousers.

As the mass ended the old woman in the white cap coughed gently, the
curé closed his book, stepped from the chancel, patted the child's head
in passing, strode rapidly to the sacristy, and closed the door behind
him.

I followed the handful of worshippers out into the sunlight and down the
hill. As I passed the two old fishermen I heard the one with the blue
eyes say to his mate with the leathery hand:

"_Allons, viens t'en!_ What if we went to the café after that dog's
night of a sea?"

"I don't say no," returned his partner; then he winked at me and pointed
to the sky.

"I know," I said. "It's what I've been waiting for."

I kept on down the crooked hill to the public square where nothing ever
happens save the arrival of the toy train and the yearly fête, and
deciding the two old salts were right after their "dog's night" (and it
had blown a gale), wheeled to the left and followed them to the tiniest
of cafés kept by stout, cheery Madame Vinet. It has a box of a kitchen
through which you pass into a little square room with just space enough
for four tables; or you may go through the kitchen into a snug garden
gay in geraniums and find a sheltered table beneath a rickety arbour.

"Ah, _mais_, it was bad enough!" grinned the one with the leathery hand
as he drained his thimbleful of applejack and, Norman-like, tossed the
last drop on the floor of the snug room.

"Bad enough! It was a sea, I tell you, monsieur, like none since the
night the wreck of _La Belle Marie_ came ashore," chimed in the one with
the blue eye, as he placed his elbows on the clean marbletop table and
made room for my chair. "_Mon Dieu!_ You should have seen the ducks
south of the Wolf. Aye, 'twas a sight for an empty stomach."

The one with the leathery hand nodded his confirmation sleepily.

"_Hélas!_" continued the one with the blue eye. "If monsieur could only
have been with us!" As he spoke he lifted his shaggy eyebrows in the
direction of the church and laughed softly. "He's happy with his
northeast wind; I knew 'twould be a short mass."

"A good catch?" I ventured, looking toward him as Madame Vinet brought
my glass.

"Eight thousand mackerel, monsieur. We should have had ten thousand had
not the wind shifted."

"_Ben sûr!_" grumbled the one with the leathery hand.

At this Madame Vinet planted her fists on her ample hips. "_Hélas!_
There's the Mère Coraline's girl to be married Thursday," she sighed,
"and Planchette's baby to be christened Tuesday, and the wind in the
northeast, _mon Dieu!_" And she went back to her spotless kitchen for a
sou's worth of black coffee for a little girl who had just entered.

Big, strong, hearty Madame Vinet! She has the frankness of a man and the
tenderness of a mother. There is something of her youth still left at
forty-six; not her figure--that is rotund simplicity itself--but in the
clearness of her brown eyes and the finely cut profile before it reaches
her double chin, and the dimples in her hands, well shaped even to-day.

And so the little girl who had come in for the sou's worth of coffee
received an honest measure, smoking hot out of a dipper and into the
bottle she had brought. In payment Madame Vinet kissed the child, and
added a lump of sugar to the bargain. From where I sat I could see the
tears start in the good woman's eyes. The next moment she came back to
us laughing to disguise them.

"Ah, you good soul!" I thought to myself. "Always in a good humour;
always pleasant. There you go again--this time it was the wife of a poor
fisherman who could not pay. How many a poor devil of a half-frozen
sailor you have warmed, you whose heart is so big and whose gains are so
small!"

I rose at length, bade the two old salts good morning, and with a
blessing of good luck, recovered my gun from the kitchen cupboard, where
I had reverently left it during mass, and went on my way to shoot. I,
too, was anxious to make the most of the northeast wind.

       *       *       *       *       *

There being no street in the lost village save the main thoroughfare,
one finds only alleys flanked by rambling walls. One of these runs up to
Tanrade's house; another finds its zigzag way to the back gate of the
marquis, who, being a royalist, insists upon telling you so, for the
keystone of his gate is emblazoned with a bas-relief of two carved
eagles guarding the family crest. Still another leads unexpectedly to
the silent garden of Monsieur le Curé. It is a protecting little by-way
whose walls tell no tales. How many a suffering heart seeking human
sympathy and advice has the strong figure in the soutane sent home with
fresh courage by way of this back lane. Indeed it would be a lost
village without him. He is barely over forty years old, and yet no curé
was ever given a poorer parish, for Pont du Sable has been bankrupt for
generations. Since a fortnight--so I am told--Monsieur le Curé has had
no _bonne_. The reason is that no good Suzette can be found to replace
the one whom he married to a young farmer from Bonville. The result is
the good curé dines many times a week with the marquis, where he is so
entertaining and so altogether delightful and welcome a guest that the
marquise tells me she feels ten years younger after he has gone.

"Poor man," she confided to me the other day, "what will you have? He
has no _bonne_, and he detests cooking. Yesterday he lunched at the
château with Alice de Bréville; to-morrow he will be cheering up two old
maiden aunts who live a league from Bar la Rose. Is it not sad?" And she
laughed merrily.

"Monsieur le Curé has no _bonne_!" _Parbleu!_ It has become a household
phrase in Pont du Sable. It is so difficult to get a servant here; the
girls are all fishing. As for Tanrade's maid-of-all-work, like the
noiseless butler of the marquis and the _femme de chambre_ of Alice de
Bréville, they are all from Paris; and yet I'll wager that no larder in
the village is better stocked than Monsieur le Curé's, for every
housewife vies with her neighbour in ready-cooked donations since the
young man from Bonville was accepted.

But these good people do not forget. They remember the day when the farm
of Père Marin burned; they recall the figure in the black soutane
stumbling on through flame and smoke carrying an unconscious little girl
in his strong arms to safety. Four times he went back where no man
dared go--and each time came out with a life.

Again, but for his indomitable grit, a half-drowned father and daughter,
clinging to a capsized fishing-smack in a winter sea, would not be
alive--there are even fisherfolk who cannot swim. Monsieur le Curé saw
this at a glance, alone he fought his way in the freezing surf out to
the girl and the man. He brought them in and they lived.

       *       *       *       *       *

But there is a short cut to the marsh if you do but know it--one that
has served me before. You can easily find it, for you have but to follow
your nose along the wall of Madame Vinet's café, creep past the modest
rose-garden of the mayor, zigzag for a hundred paces or more among
crumbling walls, and before you know it you are out on the marsh.

       *       *       *       *       *

The one with the blue eye was right.

The wind _was_ from the northeast in earnest, and the tide racing in.
Half a mile outward a dozen long puntlike scows, loaded to their brims
with sand, were being borne on the swirling current up the river's
channel, each guided at the stern by a ragged dot of a figure straining
at an oar.

As I struck out across the desolate waste of mud, bound for the point of
dry marsh, the figure steering the last scow, as he passed, waved a
warning to me. With the incoming sweep of tide the sunlight faded, the
bay became noisy with the cries of sea-fowl, and the lighthouse beyond
the river's channel stood out against the ominous green sky like a stick
of school-chalk.

I jerked my cap tighter over my ears, and lowering my head to the wind
kept on. I had barely time to make the marsh. Over the black desolate
waste of clay-mud the sea was spreading its hands--long, dangerous
hands, with fingers that every moment shot out longer and nearer my
tracks. The wind blew in howling gusts now, straight in from the open
sea. Days like these the ducks have no alternative but the bay. Only a
black diver can stand the strain outside. Tough old pirates
these--diving to keep warm.

I kept on, foolish as it was. A flight of becassines were whirled past
me, twittering in a panic as they fought their way out of sudden
squalls. I turned to look back. Already my sunken tracks were
obliterated under a glaze of water, but I felt I was safe, for I had
gained harder ground. It was a relief to slide to the bottom of one of
the labyrinth of causeways that drain the marsh, and plunge on sheltered
from the wind.

Presently I heard ducks quacking ahead. I raised my head cautiously to
the level of the wire-grass. A hundred rods beyond, nine black ducks
were grouped near the edge of a circular pool; behind them, from where I
stood, there rose from the level waste a humplike mound. I could no
longer proceed along the bottom of the causeway, as it was being rapidly
filled to within an inch below my boot-tops. The hump was my only
salvation, so I crawled to the bank and started to stalk the nine black
ducks.

It was difficult to keep on my feet on the slimy mud-bank, for the wind,
true to the fishermen's prediction, was now blowing half a gale.
Besides, this portion of the marsh was strange to me, as I had only
seen it at a distance from the lower end of the bay, where I generally
shot. I was within range of the ducks now, and had raised my hammers--I
still shoot a hammer-gun--when a human voice rang out. Then, like some
weird jack-in-the-box, there popped out from the mound a straight,
long-waisted body in black waving its arms.

It was the curé!

"Stay where you are," he shouted. "Treacherous ground! I'll come and
help you!" Then for a second he peered intently under his hand. "Ah! It
is you, monsieur--the newcomer; I might have guessed it." He laughed,
leaping out and striding toward me. "Ah, you Americans! You do not mind
the weather."

"_Bonjour_, Monsieur le Curé," I shouted back in astonishment, trying to
steady myself across a narrow bridge of mud spanning the causeway.

"Look out!" he cried. "That mud you're on is dangerous. She's sinking!"

It was too late; my right foot barely made another step before down I
went, gun, shells, and all, up to my chin in ice-cold water. The next
instant he had me by the collar of my leather coat in a grip of steel,
and I was hauled out, dripping and draining, on the bank.

"I'm all right," I sputtered.

"Come inside _instantly_," he said.

"Inside? Inside where?" I asked.

He pointed to the hump.

"You must get your wet things off and into bed at once." This came as a
command.

"Bed! Where? Whose bed?" Was he an Aladdin with a magic lamp, that could
summon comfort in that desolation? "Monsieur," I choked, "I owe you a
thousand apologies. I came near killing one of your nine decoys. I
mistook them for wild mallards."

He laughed softly. "They are not mine," he explained. "They belong to
the marquis; it is his gardener who pickets them out for me. I could not
afford to keep them myself. They eat outrageously, those nine deceivers.
They are well placed to-day; just the right distance." And he called the
three nearest us by name, for they were quacking loudly. "Be still,
Fannine! There, Pierrot! If your cord and swivel does not work, my good
drake, I'll fix it for you, but don't make such a fuss; you'll have
noise enough to make later." And gripping me by the arm, he pushed me
firmly ahead of him to a small open door in the mound. I peered into the
darkness within.

"Get in," said he. "It's small, but it's warm and comfortable inside.
After you, my friend," he added graciously, and we descended into a
narrow ditch, its end blocked by a small, safe-like door leading into a
subterranean hut, its roof being the mound, shelving out to a
semicircular, overhanging eyebrow skirting the edge of the circular pool
some ten yards back of the line of live decoys.

"Ah!" exclaimed Monsieur le Curé, "you should have seen the duck-blind I
had three years ago. This _gabion_ of mine is smaller, but it is in
better line with the flights," he explained as he opened the door. "Look
out for the steps--there are two."

I now stood shivering in the gloom of a box-like, underground anteroom,
provided with a grated floor and a low ribbed ceiling; beyond this,
through another small door, was an adjoining compartment deeper than the
one in which we stood, and in the darkness I caught the outline of a
cot-bed, a carved, high-backed, leather-seated chair, and the blue glint
of guns lying in their racks. The place was warm and smelled, like the
cabin of some fishing-sloop, of sea-salt and tar.

It did not take me long to get out of my clothes. When the last of them
lay around my heels I received a rubbing down with a coarse sailor's
shirt, that sent the blood back where it belonged.

"_Allons!_ Into bed at once!" insisted the curé. "You'll find those army
blankets dry."

I felt my way in while he struck a match and lighted a candle upon a
narrow shelf strewn with empty cartridges. The candle sputtered, sunk to
a blue flame, and flared up cheerfully, while the curé poured me out a
stiff glass of brandy, and I lay warm in the blankets of the _Armée
Française_, and gazed about me at my strange quarters.

Back of my pillow was, tightly closed, in three sections, a narrow
firing-slit. Beside the bed the candle's glow played over the carved
back of the leather-seated chair. Above the closed slit ran a shelf, and
ranged upon it were some fifty cartridges and an old-fashioned fat
opera-glass. This, then, was Monsieur le Curé's duck-blind, or rather,
in French, his _gabion_.

The live decoys began quacking nervously. The curé, about to speak,
tip-toed over to the firing-slit and let down cautiously one of its
compartments.

"A flight of plovers passing over us," he remarked. "Yes, there they go.
If the wind will only hold you shall see--there will be ducks in," his
gray eyes beaming at the thought.

Then he drew the chair away from the firing-slit and seated himself,
facing me.

"If you knew," he began, "how much it means to me to talk to one of the
outside world--your country--America! You must tell me much about it. I
have always longed to see it, but----" He shrugged his shoulders
helplessly. "Are you warm?" he asked.

"Warm?" I laughed. "I never felt better in my life." And I thanked him
again for his kindness to a stranger in distress. "A stranger in luck,"
I added.

"I saw you at mass this morning," he returned bending over, his hands on
his knees. "But you are not a Catholic, my friend? You are always
welcome to my church, however, remember that."

"Thank you," I said. "I like your little church, and--I like you,
Monsieur le Curé."

He put forth his hand. "Brother sportsmen," he said. "It _is_ a
brotherhood, isn't it? You are a Protestant, is it not so?" And his
voice sank to a gentle tone.

"Yes, I am what they call a blue Presbyterian."

"I have heard of that," he said. "'A _blue_ Presbyterian.'" He repeated
it to himself and smiled. Suddenly he straightened and his finger went
to his lips.

"Hark!" he whispered. "Hear their wings!"

Instantly the decoys set up a strenuous quacking. Then again all was
silent.

"Too high," muttered the curé. "I do not expect much in before the late
afternoon. Do you smoke?"

"Yes, gladly," I replied, "but my cigarettes are done for, I am afraid;
they were in the pocket of my hunting coat."

"Don't move," he said, noticing my effort to rise. "I've got
cigarettes." And he fumbled in the shadow of the narrow shelf.

I had hardly lighted my own over the candle-flame, which he held for me,
when I felt a gentle rocking and heard the shells rattle as they rolled
to the end of the shelf, stop, and roll back again.

"Do not be alarmed," he laughed, "it's only the water filling the outer
jacket of my _gabion_. We shall be settled and steady in a moment, and
afloat for the night."

"The night!" I exclaimed in amazement. "But, my good friend, I have no
intention of wearing out my welcome; I had planned to get home for
luncheon."

"Impossible!" he replied. "We are now completely surrounded by water. It
is always so at high tide at this end of the bay. Come, see for
yourself. Besides, you don't know how glad I am that we can have the
chance to shoot together. I've been waiting weeks for this wind."

He blew out the candle, and again opened the firing-slit. As far as one
could see the distant sea was one vast sweep of roaring water.

"You see," he said, closing the firing-slit and striking a match--"you
_must_ stay. I have plenty of dry clothes for you in the locker, and we
shall not go hungry." He drew out a basket from beneath the cot and took
from it a roasted chicken, two litres of red wine, and some bread and
cheese, which he laid on the shelf. "A present," he remarked, "from one
of my parishioners. You know, I have no _bonne_."

"I have heard so," said I.

He laughed softly. "One hears everything in the village. Ah! But what
good children they are! They even forgive my love of shooting!" He
crossed his strong arms in the rusty black sleeves of his cassock, and
for some moments looked at me seriously. "You think it strange, no
doubt, irreverent, for a curé to shoot," he continued. "Forgive me if I
have shocked the ideas of your faith."

"Nonsense!" I returned, raising my hand in protest. "You are only human,
an honest sportsman. We understand each other perfectly."

"Thank you," he returned, with sincerity. "I was afraid you might not
understand--you are the first American I have ever met."

He began taking out an outfit of sailor's clothes from the locker--warm
things--which I proceeded to get into with satisfaction. I had just
poked my head through the rough jersey and buckled my belt when our
decoys again gave warning.

Out went the candle.

"Mallards!" whispered the curé. "Here, take this gun, quick! It is the
marquis's favourite," he added in a whisper.

He reached for another breech-loader, motioned me to the chair, let down
the three compartments of the firing-slit, and stretched himself out
full length on the cot, his keen eyes scanning the bay at a glance.

We were just in time--a dozen mallards were coming straight for our
decoys.

Bang! thundered the curé's gun.

Bang! Bang! echoed my own. Then another roar from the curé's left
barrel. When the smoke cleared three fat ducks were kicking beyond our
deceivers.

"Take him!" he cried, as a straggler--a drake--shot past us. I snapped
in a shell and missed, but the curé was surer. Down came the straggler,
a dead duck at sixty yards.

"Bravo, Monsieur le Curé!" I cried.

But he only smiled modestly and, extracting the empty shell, blew the
lurking smoke free from the barrels. It was noon when we turned to half
the chicken and a bottle of _vin ordinaire_ with an appetite.

The northeast wind had now shifted to the south; the bay became like
glass, and so the afternoon passed until the blood-red sun, like some
huge ribbed lantern of the Japanese, slowly sank into the sea. It grew
dusk over the desolate marsh. Stray flights of plovers, now that the
tide was again on its ebb, began to choose their resting places for the
night.

"I'm going out to take a look," said the curé. Again, like some gopher
of the prairie, he rose up out of his burrow.

Presently he returned, the old enthusiastic gleam in his eyes.

"The wind's changing," he announced. "It will be in the north again
to-night; we shall have a full moon and better luck, I hope. Do you
know," he went on excitedly, "that one night last October I killed
forty-two ducks alone in this old _gabion_. _Forty-two!_ Twenty mallards
and the rest Vignon--and not a shot before one o'clock in the morning.
Then they came in, right and left. I believe my faithful decoys will
remember that night until their dying day. Ah, it was glorious!
Glorious!" His tanned, weather-beaten features wrinkled with delight; he
had the skin of a sailor, and I wondered how often the marsh had hid
him. "Ah, my friend," he said, with a sigh, as we sat down to the
remainder of the chicken and _vin ordinaire_ for supper, this time
including the cheese, "it is not easy for a curé to shoot. My good
children of the village do not mind, but----" He hesitated, running his
long, vibrant fingers through his hair.

"What then? Tell me," I ventured. "It will go no further, I promise
you."

"Rome!" he whispered. "I have already received a letter, a gentle
warning from the palace; but I have a good friend in Cardinal Z. He
understands."

During the whole of that cold moonlight we took turns of two hours each;
one sleeping while the other watched in the chair drawn up close to the
firing-slit.

What a night!

The marsh seen through the firing-slit, with its overhanging eyebrow of
sod, seemed not of this earth. The nine black decoys picketed before us
straining at their cords, gossiping, dozing for a moment, preening their
wings or rising up for a vigorous stretch, appeared by some curious
optical illusion four times their natural size; now they seemed to be
black dogs, again a group of sombre, misshapen gnomes.

While I watched, the curé slept soundly, his body shrouded in the
blankets like some carved Gothic saint of old. The silence was
intense--a silence that could be heard--broken only by the brisk
ticking of the curé's watch on the narrow shelf. Occasionally a
water-rat would patter over the sunken roof, become inquisitive, and
peer in at me through the slit within half a foot of my nose. Once in a
while I took down the fat opera-glass, focussing it upon the dim shapes
that resembled ducks, but that proved to be bits of floating seaweed or
a scurrying shadow as a cloud swept under the moon--all illusions, until
my second watch, when, with a rush, seven mallards tumbled among our
decoys. Instantly the curé awakened, sprang from his cot, and with sharp
work we killed four.

"Stay where you are," he said as he laid his gun back in its rack. "I'll
get into my hip-boots and get them before the water-rats steal what
we've earned. They are skilled enough to get a decoy now and then. The
marsh is alive with them at night."

Morning paled. The village lay half hidden behind the rifts of mist.
Then dawn and the rising sun, the water like molten gold, the black
decoys churning at their pickets sending up swirls of turquoise in the
gold.

Suddenly the cracked bell rang out from the distant village. At that
moment two long V-shaped strings of mallards came winging toward us from
the north. I saw the curé glance at them. Then he held out his hand to
me.

"You take them--I cannot," he said hurriedly. "I haven't a moment to
lose--it is the bell for mass. Here's the key. Lock up when you leave."

"Dine with me to-night," I insisted, one eye still on the incoming
ducks. "You have no _bonne_."

His hand was on the _gabion_ door. "And if the northeast wind holds," he
called back, "shall we shoot again to-night?"

"Yes, to-night!" I insisted.

"Then I'll come to dinner." And the door closed with a click.

Through the firing-slit I could see him leaping across the marsh toward
the gray church with the cracked bell, and as he disappeared by the
short cut I pulled the trigger of both barrels--and missed.

An hour later Suzette greeted me with eyes full of tears and anxiety.

"Ah! Mother of Pity! Monsieur is safe!" she cried. "Where has monsieur
been, _mon Dieu!_"

"To mass, my child," I said gravely, filling her plump arms with the
ducks. "Monsieur le Curé is coming to dinner!"

      [Illustration: flying ducks]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: a château]



CHAPTER THREE

THE EXQUISITE MADAME DE BRÉVILLE


Poor Tanrade! Just as I felt the future was all _couleur de rose_ with
him it has changed to gloom unutterable.

_Ah, les femmes!_ I should never dare fall in love with a woman as
exquisite as Alice de Bréville. She is too beautiful, too seductive,
with her olive skin, her frank smile, and her adorable head poised upon
a body much too well made. She is too tender, too complex, too
intelligent. She has a way of mischievously caressing you with her eyes
one moment and giving an old comrade like myself a platonic little pat
on the back the next, which is exasperating. As a friend I adore her,
but to fall in love with her! _Ah, non, merci!_ I have had a checkered
childhood and my full share of suffering; I wish some peace in my old
age. At sixteen one goes to the war of love blindly, but at forty it is
different. Our chagrins then plunge us into a state of dignified
desolation.

Poor Tanrade! I learned of the catastrophe the other night when he
solemnly entered my abandoned house by the marsh and sank his big frame
in the armchair before my fire. He was no longer the genial bohemian of
a Tanrade I had known. He was silent and haggard. He had not slept much
for a week; neither had he worked at the score of his new opera or
hunted, but he had smoked incessantly, furiously--a dangerous remedy
with which to mend a broken heart.

My poor old friend! I was so certain of his happiness that night after
dinner here in the House Abandoned, when he and Alice had lost
themselves in the moonlight. Was it the moonlight? Or the kiss she gave
him as they stood looking out over the lichen-stained wall of the
courtyard to the fairy marsh beyond, still and sublime--wedded to the
open sea at high tide--like a mirror of polished silver, its surface
ruffled now and then by the splash of some incoming duck. He had poured
out his heart to her then, and again over their liqueur and cigarettes
at that fatal dinner of two at the château.

All this he confessed to me as he sat staring into the cheery blaze on
my hearth. Under my friendly but somewhat judicial cross-examination
that ensued, it was evident that not a word had escaped Alice's lips
that any one but that big optimistic child of a Tanrade could have
construed as her promise to be his wife. He confided her words to me
reluctantly, now that he realized how little she had meant.

"Come," said I, in an effort to cheer him, "have courage! A woman's
heart that is won easily is not worth fighting for. You shall see, old
fellow--things will be better."

But he only shook his head, shrugged his great shoulders, and puffed
doggedly at his pipe in silence. My tall clock in the corner ticked the
louder, its brass pendulum glinting as it swung to and fro in the light
of the slumbering fire. I threw on a fresh log, kicked it into a blaze,
and poured out for him a stiff glass of applejack. I had faith in that
applejack, for it had been born in the moonlit courtyard years ago. It
roused him, for I saw something of his old-time self brighten within
him; he even made an attempt at a careless smile--the reminiscent smile
of a philosopher this time.

"What if I went to see her?" I remarked pointblank.

"You! _Mon Dieu!_" He half sprang out of the armchair in his intensity.
"Are you crazy?"

"Forgive me," I apologized. "I did not mean to hurt you. I only
thought--and you are in no condition to reason--that Alice may have
changed her mind, may regret having refused you. Women change their
minds, you know. She might even confess this to me since there is
nothing between us and we are old friends."

"No, no," he protested. "You are not to speak of me to Madame de
Bréville--do you understand?" he cried, his voice rising. "You are not
to mention my name, promise me that."

This time it was I who shrugged my shoulders in reply. He sat gripping
the arms of his chair, again his gaze reverted stolidly to the fire. The
clock ticked on past midnight, peacefully aloof as if content to be well
out of the controversy.

"A drop more?" I ventured, reaching for the decanter; but he stayed my
arm.

"I've been a fool," he said slowly. "_Ah! Mon Dieu! Les femmes! Les
femmes! Les femmes!_" he roared. "Very well," he exclaimed hotly, "it is
well finished. To-morrow I must go to Paris for the new rehearsals. I
have begged off for a week. Duclos is beside himself with anxiety--two
telegrams to-day, the last one imperative. The new piece must open at
the Folies Parisiennes the eighth."

I saw him out to the gate and there was a brave ring in his "_bonsoir,
mon vieux_," as he swung off in the dusk of the starlit road.

He left the village the next day at noon by the toy train, "the little
get off-the-track," as we call it. Perhaps he wished it would and end
everything, including the rehearsals.

Bah! To be rehearsing lovelorn shepherds and shepherdesses in sylvan
dells. To call a halt eighteen times in the middle of the romantic duet
between the unhappy innkeeper's daughter and the prince. To marry them
all smoothly in B flat in the finale, and keep the brass down and the
strings up in the apotheosis when the heart of the man behind the baton
has been cured of all love and illusion--for did he not tell me "It is
well finished"? Poor Tanrade!

Though it is but half a fortnight since he left, it seems years since he
used to come into my courtyard, for he came and went as freely at all
hours as the salt breeze from the marsh. Often he would wake me at
daybreak, bellowing up to my window at the top of his barytone lungs
some stirring aria, ending with: "Eh, _mon vieux!_ Stop playing the
prince! Get up out of that and come out on the marsh. There are ducks
off the point. Where's Suzette? Where's the coffee? _Sacristi!_ What a
house. Half-past four and nobody awake!"

And he would stand there grinning; his big chest encased in a
fisherman's jersey, a disreputable felt hat jammed on his head, and his
feet in a pair of sabots that clattered like a farm-horse as he went
foraging in the kitchen, upsetting the empty milk-tins and making such a
bedlam that my good little maid-of-all-work, Suzette, would hurry in
terror into her clothes and out to her beloved kitchen to save the rest
from ruin.

Needless to say, nothing ever happened to anything. He could make more
noise and do less harm than any one I ever knew. Then he would sing us
both into good humour until Suzette's peasant cheeks shone like ripe
apples.

"It is not the same without Monsieur Tanrade," Suzette sighed to-day as
she brought my luncheon to my easel in a shady corner of my wild
garden--a corner all cool roses and shadow.

"Ah, no!" I confessed as I squeezed out the last of a tube of vermilion
on the edge of my palette.

"Ah, no!" she sighed softly, and wiped her eyes briskly with the back of
her dimpled red hand. "Ah, no! _Parbleu!_"

And just then the bell over my gate jingled. "Some one rings," whispered
Suzette and she ran to open the gate. It was the _valet de chambre_ from
the château with a note from Alice, which read:


      DEAR FRIEND: It is lonely, this big house of mine. Do come
      and dine with me at eight.
                                 Hastily,   A. de B.


Added to this was the beginning of a postscript crossed out.

Upon a leaf torn from my sketchbook I scribbled the answer:


      GOOD DEAR CHARITABLE FRIEND: The House Abandoned is a
      hollow mockery without Tanrade. I'll come gladly at eight.


And Suzette brought it out to the waiting _valet de chambre_ whom she
addressed respectfully as "monsieur," half on account of his
yellow-striped waistcoat and half because he was a Parisian.

Bravo, Alice! Here then was the opportunity I had been waiting for, and
I hugged myself over the fact. It was like the first ray of sunshine
breaking through a week of leaden sky. For a long time I paced back and
forth among the paths of the snug garden, past the roses and the
heliotrope down as far as the flaming geraniums and the hollyhocks and
the droning bees, and back again by way of some excellent salads and the
bed of artichokes, while I turned over in my mind and rehearsed to
myself all I intended to say to her.

Alice lonely! With a château, two automobiles, and all Paris at her
pretty feet! Ha! ha! The symptoms were excellent. The patient was doing
well. To-night would see her convalescent and happily on the road to
recovery. This once happy family of comrades should be no longer under
the strain of disunion, we should have another dinner soon and the House
Abandoned would ring with cheer as it had never rung before. Japanese
lanterns among the fruit-trees of the tangled garden, the courtyard full
of villagers, red and blue fire, skyrockets and congratulations, a
Normand dinner and a keg of good sound wine to wish a long and happy
life to both. There would be the same Tanrade again and the same Alice,
and they would be married by the curé in the little gray church with the
cracked bell, with the marquis and the marquise as notables in the front
pew. In my enthusiasm I saw it all.

       *       *       *       *       *

The lane back of the House Abandoned shortens the way to the château by
half a kilometre. It was this lane that I entered at dusk by crawling
under the bars that divided it from the back pasture full of gnarled
apple-trees, under which half a dozen mild-eyed cows had settled
themselves for the night. They rose when they caught sight of me and
came toward me blowing deep moist breaths as a quiet challenge to the
intruder, until halted by the bars they stood in a curious group
watching me until I disappeared up the lane, a lane screened from the
successive pastures on either side by an impenetrable hedge and flanked
its entire length by tall trees, their tops meeting overhead like the
Gothic arches of a cathedral aisle. This roof of green made the lane at
this hour so dark that I had to look sharp to avoid the muddy places,
for the lane ascended like the bed of a brook until it reached the
plateau of woodlands and green fields above, commanding a sweeping view
of marsh and sea below.

Birds fluttered nervously in the hedges, frightened at my approaching
footsteps. A hare sniffing in the middle of the path flattened his long
ears and sprang into the thicket ahead. The nightingales in the forest
above began calling to one another. Two doves went skimming out of the
leaves over my head. Even a peacemaker may be mistaken for an enemy. And
now I had gained the plateau and it grew lighter--that gentle light with
which night favours the open places.

There are two crossroads at the top of the lane. The left one leads to
the hamlet of Beaufort le Petit, a sunken cluster of farms ten good
leagues from Pont du Sable; the right one swings off into the highroad
half a mile beyond, which in turn is met by the private way of the
château skirting the stone wall surrounding the park, which, as early
as 1608, served as the idle stronghold of the Duc de Rambutin. It has
seen much since then and has stood its ground bravely under the stress
of misfortune. The Prussians hammered off two of its towers, and an
artillery fire once mowed down some of its oldest trees and wrecked the
frescoed ceiling and walls of the salon, setting fire to the south wing,
which was never rebuilt and whose jagged and blackened walls the roses
and vines have long since lovingly hidden from view.

Alice bought this once splendid feudal estate literally for a song--the
song in the second act of Fremier's comedy, which had a long run at the
Variétés three years ago, and in which she earned an enviable success
and some beautiful bank-notes. Were the Duc de Rambutin alive I am sure
he would have presented it to her--shooting forest, stone wall, and all.
They say he had an intolerable temper, but was kind to ladies and
lap-dogs.

It was not long before I unlatched a moss-covered gate with one hinge
lost in the weeds--a little woebegone gate for intimate friends, that
croaked like a night-bird when it opened, and closed with a whine.
Beyond it lay a narrow path through a rose-garden leading to the
château. This rose-garden is the only cultivated patch within the
confines of the wall, for on either side of it tower great trees, their
aged trunks held fast in gnarled thickets of neglected vines. It is only
another "house abandoned," this château of Alice's, save that its bygone
splendour asserts itself through the scars, and my own by the marsh
never knew luxury even in its best days.

"Madame is dressing," announced that most faithful of old servitors,
Henri, who before Alice conferred a full-fledged butlership upon him in
his old age was since his youth a stage-carpenter at the Théâtre
Français.

"Will monsieur have the goodness to wait for madame in the library?"
added Henri, as he relieved me of my hat and stick, deposited them
noiselessly upon an oak table, and led me to a portière of worn Gobelin
which he lifted for me with a bow of the Second Empire.

What a rich old room it is, this silent library of the choleric duke,
with its walls panelled in worm-eaten oak reflecting the firelight and
its rows of volumes too close to the grave to be handled. Here and there
above the high wainscoting are ancestral portraits, some of them as
black as a favourite pipe. Above the great stone chimney-piece is a
full-length figure of the duke in a hunting costume of green velvet. The
candelabra that Henri had just lighted on the long centre-table,
littered with silver souvenirs and the latest Parisian comedies, now
illumined the duke's smile, which he must have held with bad grace
during the sittings. The rest of him was lost in the shadow above the
chimney-piece of sculptured cherubs, whose missing noses have been badly
restored in cement by the gardener.

I had settled myself in a chintz-covered chair and was idly turning the
pages of one of the latest of the Parisian comedies when I heard the
swish of a gown and the patter of two small slippered feet hurrying
across the hall. I rose to regard my hostess with a feeling of tender
curiosity mingled with resentment over her treatment of my old friend,
when the portière was lifted and Alice came toward me with both white
arms outstretched in welcome. She was so pale in her dinner gown of
black tulle that all the blood seemed to have taken refuge in her
lips--so pale that the single camellia thrust in her corsage was less
waxen in its whiteness than her neck.

I caught her hands and she stood close to me, smiling bravely, the tips
of her fingers trembling in my own.

"You are ill!" I exclaimed, now thoroughly alarmed. "You must go
straight to bed."

"No, no," she replied, with an effort. "Only tired, very tired."

"You should not have let me come," I protested.

She smiled and smoothed back a wave of her glossy black hair and I saw
the old mischievous gleam flash in her dark eyes.

"Come," she whispered, leading me to the door of the dining room. "It is
a secret," she confided, with a forced little laugh. "Look!" And she
pinched my arm.

I glanced within--the table with its lace and silver under the glow of
the red candle-shades was laid for two.

"It was nice of you," I said.

"We shall dine alone, you and I," she murmured. "I am so tired of
company."

I was on the point of impulsively mentioning poor Tanrade's absence, but
the subtle look in her eyes checked me. During dinner we should have our
serious little talk, I said to myself as we returned to the library
table.

"It's so amusing, that little comedy of Flandrean's," laughed Alice,
picking up the volume I had been scanning. "The second act is a jewel
with its delicious situation in which François Villers, the husband, and
Thérèse, his wife, divorce in order to carry out between them a secret
love-affair--a series of mysterious rendezvous that terminate in an
amusing elopement. _Très chic_, Flandrean's comedy. It should have a
_succès fou_ at the Palais Royal."

"Madame is served," gravely announced Henri.

Not once during dinner was Alice serious. Over the soup--an excellent
bisque of _écrevisses_--she bubbled over with the latest Parisian
gossip, the new play at the Odéon, the fashion in hats. With the fish
she prattled on over the limitations of the new directoire gowns and the
scandal involving a certain tenor and a duchess. Tanrade's defence,
which I had so carefully thought out and rehearsed in my garden, seemed
doomed to remain unheard, for her cleverness in evading the subject, her
sudden change to the merriest of moods, and her quick wit left me
helpless. Neither did I make any better progress during the pheasant and
the salad, and as she sipped but twice the Pommard and scarcely
moistened her lips with the champagne my case seemed hopeless. Henri
finally left us alone over our coffee and cigarettes. I had become
desperate.

"Alice," I said bluntly, "we are old friends. I have some things to say
to you of--of the utmost importance. You will listen, my friend, will
you not, until I am quite through, for I shall not mention it again?"

She leaned forward with a little start and gazed at me suddenly, with
dilated eyes--eyes that were the next minute lowered in painful
submission, the corners of her mouth contracting nervously.

"_Mon Dieu!_" she murmured, looking up. "_Mon Dieu!_ But you are cruel!"

"No," I replied calmly. "It is you who are cruel."

"No, no, you shall not!" she exclaimed, raising both ringless hands in
protest, her breath coming quick. "I--I know what you are going to say.
No, my dear friend--I beg of you--we are good comrades. Is it not so?
Let us remain so."

"Listen," I implored.

"Ah, you men with your idea of marriage!" she continued. "The wedding,
the aunts, the cousins, who come staring at you for a day and giving you
advice for years. A solemn apartment near the Etoile--madame with her
afternoons--monsieur with his club, his maîtresse, his gambling and his
debts--the children with their English governess. A villa by the sea,
tennis, infants and sand-forts. The annual stupid _voyage en Suisse_.
The inane slavery of it all. _You_ who are a bohemian, you who
_live_--with all your freedom--all my freedom! _Non, merci!_ I have seen
all that! Bah! You are as crazy as Tanrade."

"Alice," I cried, "you think----"

"Precisely, my friend."

She rose swiftly, crossed the room, and before I knew it slipped back of
my chair, put both arms about my neck, kissed me, and burst into tears.

"There, there, _mon pauvre petit_," she whispered. "Forgive me--I was
angry--we are not so stupid as all that--eh? We are not like the stupid
_bourgeoisie_."

"But it is not I----" I stammered.

She caught her breath in surprise, straightened, and slowly retraced her
steps to her vacant chair.

"Ah! So it is that?" she said slowly, drawing her chair close to my own.
Then she seated herself, rested her chin in her hands, and regarded me
for some moments intently.

"So you have come for--for him?" she resumed, her breast heaving. "I am
right, am I not?"

"He loves you," I declared. "Do you think I am blind as to your love for
him? You who came to greet me to-night out of your suffering?"

For some moments she was silent, her fingers pressed over her eyes.

"Do you love him?" I insisted.

"No, no," she moaned. "It is impossible."

"Do you know," I continued, "that he has not slept or hunted or smoked
for a week before he was forced to go to Paris? Can you realize what he
suffers now during days of exhausting rehearsals? He came to me a
wreck," I said. "You have been cruel and you have----"

Again she had become deathly pale. Then at length she rose slowly,
lifted her head proudly, and led the way back to the library fire.

"You must go," she said. "It is late."

       *       *       *       *       *

When the little boy of the fisherman, Jean Tranchard, was not to be
found playing with the other barelegged tots in the mud of the village
alleys, or wandering alone on the marsh, often dangerously near the
sweep of the incoming tide, one could be quite sure he was safe with
Tanrade. Frequently, too, when the maker of ballets was locked in his
domain and his servant had strict orders to admit no one--neither
Monsieur le Curé nor the mayor, nor so intimate a comrade as
myself--during such hours as these the little boy was generally beside
the composer, his chubby toes scarcely reaching to the rungs of the
chair beside Tanrade's working desk.

Though the little boy was barely seven he was a sturdy little chap with
fair curly hair, blue eyes, and the quick gestures of his father. He had
a way of throwing out his chest when he was pleased, and gesticulating
with open arms and closed fists when excited, which is peculiar to the
race of fishermen. The only time when he was perfectly still was when
Tanrade worked in silence. He would then often sit beside him for hours
waiting until the composer dropped his pen, swung round in his chair to
the keyboard at his elbow, and while the piano rang with melody the
little boy's eyes danced. He forgot during such moments of ecstasy that
his father was either out at sea with his nets or back in the village
good-naturedly drunk, or that his mother, whom he vaguely remembered,
was dead.

Tanrade was a so much better father to him than his own that the rest of
his wretched little existence did not count. When the father was
fishing, the little boy cared for himself. He knew how to heat the pot
and make the soup when there was any to make. He knew where to dig for
clams and sputtering crabs. It was the bread that bothered him most--it
cost two sous. It was Tanrade who discovered and softened these hard
details.

The house in which the fisherman and the little boy live is tucked away
in an angle of the walled lane leading out to the marsh. This stone
house of Tranchard's takes up as little room as possible, since its
front dare not encroach upon the lane and its back is hunched up
apologetically against the angle of the wall. The house has but two
compartments--the loft above stored with old nets and broken oars, and
the living room beneath, whose dirt floor dampens the feet of an oak
cupboard, a greasy table, a chair with a broken leg, and a mahogany bed.
Over the soot-blackened chimney-piece is a painted figure of the Virgin,
and a frigate in a bottle.

Monsieur le Curé had been watching all night beside the mahogany bed.
Now and then he slipped his hand in the breast of his soutane of rusty
black, drew out a steel watch, felt under a patchwork-quilt for a small
feverish wrist, counted its feeble pulse, and filling a pewter spoon
with a mixture of aconite, awakened the little boy who gazed at him with
hollow eyes sunken above cheeks of dull crimson.

In the corner, his back propped against the cupboard, his bare feet
tucked under him, dozed Tranchard. There was not much else he could do,
for he was soaked to the skin and half drunk. Occasionally he shifted
his feet, awakened, and dimly remembered the little boy was worse; that
this news had been hailed to him by the skipper of the mackerel smack,
_La Belle Élise_, and that he had hauled in his empty nets and come
home.

As the gray light of dawn crept into the room, the little boy again grew
restless. He opened the hollow eyes and saw dimly the black figure of
the curé.

"Tanné," he whimpered. "Where is he, Tanné?"

"Monsieur Tanrade will come," returned the curé, "if you go to sleep
like a brave little man."

"Tanné," repeated the child and closed his eyes obediently.

A cock crowed in a distant yard, awakening a sleek cat who emerged from
beneath the bed, yawned, stretched her claws, and walked out of the
narrow doorway into the misty lane.

The curé rose stiffly, went over to the figure in the corner and shook
it. Tranchard started up out of a sound sleep.

"Tell madame when she arrives that I have gone for Doctor Thévenet. I
shall return before night."

"I won't forget," grumbled Tranchard.

"I have left instructions for madame beside the candle. See that you
keep the kettle boiling for the poultices."

The fisherman nodded. "_Eh ben!_ How is it with the kid?" he inquired.
"He does not take after his mother. _Parbleu!_ She was as strong as a
horse, my woman."

Monsieur le Curé did not reply. He had taken down his flat black hat
from a peg and was carefully adjusting his square black cravat edged
with white beneath his chin, when Alice de Bréville entered the doorway.

"How is his temperature?" she asked eagerly, unpinning a filmy green
veil and throwing aside a gray automobile coat.

Monsieur le Curé graciously uncovered his head. "There has been no
change since you left at midnight," he said gravely. "The fever is still
high, the pulse weaker. I am going for Doctor Thévenet after mass. There
is a train at eight."

Tranchard was now on his knees fanning a pile of fagots into a blaze,
the acrid smoke drifting back into the low-ceiled room.

"I will attend to it," said Alice, turning to the fisherman. "Tell my
chauffeur to wait at the church for Monsieur le Curé. The auto is at the
end of the lane."

For some minutes after the clatter of Tranchard's sabots had died away
in the lane, Alice de Bréville and Monsieur le Curé stood in earnest
conversation beside the table.

"It may save the child's life," pleaded the priest. There was a ring of
insistence in his voice, a gleam in his eyes that made the woman beside
him tremble.

"You do not understand," she exclaimed, her breast heaving. "You do not
realize what you ask of me. I cannot."

"You must," he insisted. "He might not understand it coming from me. You
and he are old friends. You _must_, I tell you. Were he only here the
child would be happy, the fever would be broken. It must be broken and
quickly. Thévenet will tell you that when he comes."

Alice raised her hands to her temples.

"Will you?" he pleaded.

"Yes," she replied half audibly.

Monsieur le Curé gave a sigh of relief.

"God be with you!" said he.

He watched her as she wrote in haste the following telegram in pencil
upon the back of a crumpled envelope:


      MONSIEUR TANRADE, Théâtre des Folies Parisiennes, Paris.

      Tranchard's child very ill. Come at once.

                A. de Bréville.


This she handed to the priest in silence. Monsieur le Curé tucked it
safely in the breast of his cassock. "God be with you!" he repeated and
turned out into the lane. He ran, for the cracked bell for mass had
ceased ringing.

The woman stood still by the table as if in a dream, then she staggered
to the door, closed it, and throwing herself on her knees by the bedside
of the sleeping boy, buried her face in her hands.

The child stirred, awakened by her sobbing.

"Tanné," he cried feebly.

"He will come," she said.

Outside in the mist-soaked lane three toothless fisherwomen gossiped in
whispers.

Almost any day that you pass through the village you will see a chubby
little rascal who greets you with a cheery "_Bonjour_" and runs away,
dragging a tin horse with a broken tail. Should you chance to glance
over my wall you will discover the tattered remnants of two Japanese
lanterns hanging among the fruit-trees. They are all that remain of a
fête save the memory of two friends to whom the whole world now seems
_couleur de rose_.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Hi, there! wake up! Where's Suzette? Where's the coffee! Daylight and
not a soul up! _Mon Dieu_, what a house! Hurry up, _Mon vieux!_ Alice is
waiting!"

      [Illustration: three toothless fisherwomen]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: smuggler ship]



CHAPTER FOUR

THE SMUGGLERS


Some centuries ago the windows of my house abandoned on the marsh looked
out upon a bay gay with the ships of Spanish pirates, for in those days
Pont du Sable served them as a secret refuge for repairs. Hauled up to
the tawny marsh were strange craft with sails of apple-green, rose,
vermilion and sinister black; there were high sterns pierced by carved
cabin-windows--some of them iron-barred, to imprison ladies of high or
low degree and unfortunate gentlemen who fought bravely to defend them.
From oaken gunwales glistened slim cannon, their throats swabbed clean
after some wholesale murder on the open seas. Yes, it must have been a
lively enough bay some centuries ago!

To-day Pont du Sable goes to bed without even turning the key in the
lock. This is because of a vast army of simple men whose word, in
France, is law.

To begin with, there are the President of the République and the
Ministers of War and Agriculture, and Monsieur the Chief of Police--a
kind little man in Paris whom it is better to agree with--and the préfet
and the sous-préfet--all the way down the line of authority to the
red-faced, blustering _chef de gare_ at Pont du Sable--and Pierre.

On off-duty days Pierre is my gardener at eleven sous an hour. On these
occasions he wears voluminous working trousers of faded green corduroy
gathered at the ankles; a gray flannel shirt and a scarlet cravat. On
other days his short, wiry body is encased in a carefully brushed
uniform of dark blue with a double row of gold buttons gleaming down his
solid chest. When on active duty in the Customs Coast Patrol of the
République Française at Pont du Sable, he carries a neatly folded cape
with a hood, a bayonet, a heavy calibred six-shooter and a trusty
field-glass, useful in locating suspicious-looking objects on marsh or
sea.

On this particular morning Pierre was late! I had been leaning over the
lichen-stained wall of my wild garden waiting to catch sight of him as
he left the ragged end of the straggling village. Had I mistaken the
day? Impossible! It was Thursday and I knew he was free. Finally I
caught sight of him hurrying toward me down the road--not in his working
clothes of faded green corduroy, but in the full majesty of his
law-enforcing uniform. What had happened? I wondered. Had his stern
brigadier refused to give him leave?

"_Bonjour_, Pierre!" I called to him as he came within hailing distance.

He touched the vizor of his cap in military salute, and a moment later
entered my garden.

"A thousand pardons, monsieur," he apologized excitedly, labouring to
catch his breath.

"My artichokes have been waiting for you," I laughed; "they are nearly
strangled with weeds. I expected you yesterday." He followed me through
a lane of yellow roses leading to the artichoke bed. "What has kept you,
Pierre?"

He stopped, looked me squarely in the eyes, placed his finger in the
middle of his spiked moustache, and raised his eyebrows mysteriously.

"Monsieur must not ask me," he replied. "I have been on duty for
forty-eight hours; there was not even time to change my uniform."

"A little matter for headquarters?" I ventured indiscreetly, with a nod
in the direction of Paris.

Pierre shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "Monsieur must ask the
semaphore; my lips are sealed."

Had he been the chief of the Secret Service just in possession of the
whereabouts of an international criminal, he could not have been more
uncommunicative.

"And monsieur's artichokes?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject.

Further inquiry I knew was useless--even dangerous. Indeed I swallowed
my curiosity whole, for I was aware that this simple gardener of mine,
in his official capacity, could put me in irons, drag me before my
friend the ruddy little mayor, and cast me in jail at Bar la Rose, had
I given him cause. Then indeed, as Pompanet said, I would be "A _sacré_
vagabond from Pont du Sable."

Was it not only the other day a well-dressed stranger hanging about my
lost village had been called for by two gendarmes, owing to Pierre's
watchful eye? And did not the farmer Milon pay dearly enough for the
applejack he distilled one dark night? I recalled, too, a certain
morning when, a stranger on the marsh, I had lighted Pierre's cigarette
with an honest wax-match from England. He recognized the brand
instantly.

"They are the best in the world," I had remarked bravely.

"Yes," he had replied, "but dear, monsieur. The fine is a franc apiece
in France."

We had reached the artichokes.

"_Mon Dieu!_" exclaimed Pierre, glancing at the riot of weeds as he
stripped off his coat and, unbuckling his belt with the bayonet, the
six-shooter and the field-glass, hung them in the shade upon a
convenient limb of a pear tree. He measured the area of the unruly
patch with a military stride, stood thinking for a moment, and then, as
if a happy thought had struck him, returned to me with a gesture of
enthusiasm.

"If monsieur will permit me to offer a suggestion--that is, if monsieur
approves--I should like to make a fresh planting. Ah! I will explain
what I mean to monsieur, so monsieur may see clearly my ideas. _Voilà!_"
he exclaimed. "It is to have the new artichokes planted in three
circles--in three circles, monsieur," he went on excitedly, "crossed
with the star of the compass," he continued, as the idea rapidly
developed in his peasant brain. "Then in the centre of the star to plant
monsieur's initials in blue and red flowers. _Voilà!_ It will be
something for monsieur's friends to admire, eh?"

He stood waiting tensely for my reply, for I shivered inwardly at the
thought of the prospective chromo.

"Excellent, my good Pierre," I returned, not wishing to hurt his
feelings. "Excellent for the gardens of the Tuileries, but my garden is
such a simple one."

"Pardon, monsieur," he said, with a touch of mingled disappointment and
embarrassment, "they shall be replanted, of course, just as monsieur
wishes." And Pierre went to digging weeds with a will while I went back
to my own work.

At noon Pierre knocked gently at my study door.

"I must breakfast, monsieur," he apologized, "and get a little sleep. I
have promised my brigadier to get back at three."

"And to-morrow?" I asked.

Again the shoulders shrugged under the uniform.

"Ah, monsieur!" he exclaimed helplessly. "_Malheureusement_, to-morrow I
am not free; nor the day after. _Parbleu!_ I cannot tell monsieur _when_
I shall be free."

"I understand, Pierre," said I.

       *       *       *       *       *

Before sundown the next afternoon I was after a hare through a maze of
thicket running back of the dunes fronting the open sea. I kept on
through a labyrinth of narrow trails--crossing and recrossing each
other--the private by-ways of sleek old hares in time of trouble, for
the dunes were honeycombed with their burrows. Now and then I came
across a tent-shaped thatched hut lined with a bed of straw, serving as
snug shelters for the coast patrol in tough weather.

I had just turned into a tangle of scrub-brush, and could hear the
breakers pound and hiss as they swept up upon the hard smooth beach
beyond the dunes, when a low whistle brought me to a leisurely halt, and
I saw Pierre spring up from a thicket a rod ahead of me--a Government
carbine nestled in the hollow of his arm.

I could scarcely believe it was the genial and ever-willing Pierre of my
garden. He was the hard-disciplined soldier now, under orders. I was
thankful he had not sent a bullet through me for not halting more
promptly than I did.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded, coming briskly toward me along a
trail no wider than his feet.

Instantly my free hand went to my hunting-cap in salute.

"After--a--hare!" I stammered innocently.

"Not so loud," he whispered. "_Mon Dieu!_ If the brigadier should hear
you! Come with me," he commanded, laying his hand firmly upon my arm.
"There are six of us hidden between here and the fortress. It is well
that you stumbled upon me first. They must know who you are. It is not
safe for you to be hunting to-day."

I had not followed him more than a dozen rods before one of his
companions was at my side. "The American," said Pierre in explanation,
and we passed on down through a riot of stunted growth that choked the
sides of a hollow.

Beyond this rose the top of a low circular fort overgrown with
wire-grass--the riot of tangle ceasing as we reached the bottom of the
hollow and stood in an open patch before an ancient iron gate piercing
the rear of the fort.

Pierre lifted the latch and we passed through a wall some sixteen feet
thick and into a stone-paved courtyard with a broad flight of steps at
its farther end sweeping to the top of the circular defence. Flanking
the sunken courtyard itself were a dozen low vaultlike compartments,
some of them sealed by heavy doors. At one of these, containing a
narrow window, Pierre knocked. The door opened and I stood in the
presence of the Brigadier Bompard.

"The American gentleman," announced Pierre, relieving me of my gun.

The brigadier bowed, looked me over sharply, and bade me enter.

"At your service, monsieur," he said coldly, waving his big freckled
hand toward a chair drawn up to a fat little stove blushing under a
forced draft.

"At yours, monsieur," I returned, bowed, and took my seat.

Then there ensued a dead silence, Pierre standing rigid behind my chair,
the brigadier reseated back of a desk littered with official papers.

For some moments he sat writing, his savage gray eyes scanning the page,
the ends of his ferocious moustache twitching nervously as his pen
scratched on. Back of his heavy shoulders ran a shelf supporting a row
of musty ledgers, and above a stout chest in one corner was a rack of
gleaming carbines.

The silence became embarrassing. Still the pen scratched on. Was he
writing my death-warrant, I wondered nervously, or only a milder order
for my arrest? It was a relief when he finally sifted a spoonful of fine
blue sand over the document, poured the remaining grains back into their
receptacle, puffed out his coarse red jowls, emitted a grunt of
approval, and raised his keen eyes to mine.

"A thousand pardons, monsieur," I began, "for being where I assure you I
would not have been had I known exactly where I was."

"So monsieur is fond of the chase of the hare?" he asked, with a grim
smile.

"So fond, Monsieur le Brigadier," I replied, "that my enthusiasm has, as
you see, led me thoughtlessly into your private territory. I beg of you
to accept my sincere apologies."

He reached back of him, took down one of the musty ledgers, and began to
turn the leaves methodically. From where I sat I saw his coarse
forefinger stop under a head-line.

"Smeeth, Berkelek," he muttered, and read on down the page. "Citizen of
_Amérique du Nord_.

"Height--medium.

"Age--forty-one.

"Hair--auburn.

"Eyes--brown.

"Chin and frontal--square.

"No scars."

"Would your excellency like to see my hunting permit and description?" I
ventured.

"Unnecessary--it is in duplicate here," he returned curtly, and his eyes
again reverted to the ledger. Then he closed the book, rose, and drawing
his chair to the stove planted his big fists on his knees.

I began to breathe normally.

"So you are a painter?" said he.

"Yes," I confessed, "but I do not make a specialty of fortresses, your
excellency, even in the most distant landscapes."

I was grateful he understood, for I saw a gleam of merriment flash in
his eyes.

"_Bon!_" he exclaimed briskly--evidently the title of "excellency"
helped. "It is not the best day, however, for you to be hunting hares.
Are you a good shot, monsieur?"

"That is an embarrassing question," I returned. "If I do not miss I
generally kill."

Pierre, who, during the interview, had been standing mute in attention,
now stepped up to him and bending with a hurried "Pardon," whispered
something in his coarse red ear.

The brigadier raised his shaggy eyebrows and nodded in assent.

"Ah! So you are a friend of Monsieur le Curé!" he exclaimed. "You would
not be Monsieur le Curé's friend if you were not a good shot.
_Sapristi!_" He paused, ran his hand over his rough jowls, and resumed
bluntly: "It is something to kill the wild duck; another to kill a man."

"Has war been suddenly declared?" I asked in astonishment.

A gutteral laugh escaped his throat, he shook his grizzled head in the
negative.

"A little war of my own," said he, "a serious business, _parbleu!_"

"Contraband?" I ventured.

The coarse mouth under the bristling moustache, four times the size of
Pierre's, closed with a snap, then opened with a growl.

"_Sacré mille tonnerres!_" he thundered, slamming his fist down on the
desk within reach of him. "They are the devil, those Belgians! It is for
them my good fellows lose their sleep." Then he stopped, and eyeing me
shrewdly added: "Monsieur, you are an outsider and a gentleman. I can
trust you. Three nights ago a strange sloop, evidently Belgian, from the
cut of her, tried to sneak in here, but our semaphore on the point held
her up and she had to run back to the open sea. Bah! Those _sacré_
Belgians have the patience of a fox!"

"She was painted like one of our fishing-smacks," interposed Pierre, now
too excited to hold his tongue, "but she did not know the channel."

"Aye, and she'll try it again," growled the brigadier, "if the night be
dark. She'll find it clear sailing in, but a hot road out."

"Tobacco?" I asked, now fully alive to the situation.

The brigadier spat.

"Of course, as full as she'll float," he answered. He leaned forward and
touched me good-humouredly on the shoulder. "I'm short of men," he said
hurriedly.

"Command me," I replied. "I'll do my best. I shall return to-night." And
I rose to take my leave, but he instantly raised his hand in protest.
"You are under arrest, monsieur," he declared quietly, with a shrug of
his shoulders.

I looked at him wide-eyed in astonishment.

"Arrest!" I gasped.

"Do not be alarmed," he replied. "It will only be temporary, I assure
you, but since you have so awkwardly stumbled among us there is no
alternative but for me to detain you until this _sacré_ affair is well
over. I cannot, at all events, let you return to the village to-night."

"But I give you my word of honour, monsieur," I declared, "I shall not
open my lips to a soul. Besides, I must dine at eight to-night with
Madame de Bréville. Your excellency can well understand."

"I know you have friends, monsieur; they might be inquisitive; and
those friends have servants, and those servants have friends," was his
reply. "No, it is better that you stay. Pierre, give monsieur a carbine
and a place ten metres from your own at sundown; then report to me he is
there. Now you may go, monsieur."

Pierre touched me on the shoulder; then suddenly realizing I was under
orders and a prisoner, I straightened, saluted the brigadier, and
followed Pierre out of the fort with the best grace I could muster.

"Pierre!" I exclaimed hotly, as we stood again in the thicket. "How long
since you've held up anything here--contraband, I mean?"

For a moment he hesitated, then his voice sank to a whisper.

"They say it is all of twenty years, perhaps longer," he confessed. "But
to-night monsieur shall see. Monsieur is, of course, not exactly a
prisoner or he would now be in the third vault from the right."

"A prisoner! The devil I'm not? Didn't he tell me I was?" I exclaimed.

"_Mon Dieu!_ What will you have, monsieur?" returned Pierre excitedly,
under his breath. "It is the brigadier's orders. I was afraid monsieur
might reply to him in anger. Ah, _par exemple!_ Then monsieur would have
seen a wild bull. Oh, la! la! When the brigadier is furious----Ah,
_ça!_" And he led the way to my appointed ambush without another word.

Despite my indignation at being thus forced into the service and made a
prisoner to boot--however temporary it might be--I gradually began to
see the humour of the situation. It was very like a comic opera, I
thought, as I lay flat on the edge of the thicket and pried away a small
opening in the tangle through which I could look down upon the sweep of
beach below me and far out to sea. Thus I lay in wait for the smuggling
crew to arrive--to be blazed at and perhaps captured.

What if they outnumber us? We might all perish then, with no hope of
quarter from these men whom we were lying in wait for like snakes in the
grass. One thing, however, I was firmly resolved upon, and that was to
shoot safely over anything that lay in range except in case of
self-defence. I was never of a murderous disposition, and the thought of
another's blood on my hands sent a fresh shiver along my prostrate
spine. Then again the comic-opera side of it struck me. I began to feel
more like an extra super in a one-night stand than a real soldier. What,
after all, if the smugglers failed us?

I was pondering upon the dangerous effect upon the brigadier of so
serious a stage wait, when Pierre crawled over to me from his ambush ten
metres from my own, to leave me my ration of bread and wine. He was so
excited by this time that his voice trembled in my ear.

"Gaston, my comrade, the fifth down the line," he whispered, "has just
seen two men prowling on the marsh; they are, without doubt,
accomplices. Gaston has gone to tell the brigadier." He ran his hand
carefully along the barrel of my carbine. "Monsieur must hold high," he
explained in another whisper, "since monsieur is unaccustomed to the gun
of war. It is this little machine here that does the trick." He bent his
eyes close to the hind sight and screwed it up to its notch at one
hundred and fifty metres.

I nodded my thanks, and he left me to my bread and wine and crept
cautiously back to his ambush.

       *       *       *       *       *

A black night was rapidly settling. Above me in the great unfathomable
vault of sky not a star glimmered. Under the gloom of the approaching
darkness the vast expanse of marsh to my left lay silent, desolate, and
indistinct, save for its low edge of undulating sand dunes. Only the
beach directly before me showed plainly, seemingly illumined by the
breakers, that gleamed white like the bared teeth of a fighting line of
wolves.

It was a sullen, cheerless sea, from which the air blew over me damp and
raw; the only light visible being the intermittent flash from the
distant lighthouse on Les Trois Loups, beyond the marsh.

One hour passed--two hours--during which I saw nothing alive and moving
save a hare foraging timidly on the beach for his own rations. After a
while he hopped back to his burrow in the thicket, a thicket of silence
from which I knew at any moment might break forth a murderous fire. It
grew colder and colder, I had to breathe lustily into the collar of my
jersey to keep out the chill. I began to envy the hare snug in his
burrow. Thus I held my vigil, and the night wore on.

Ah! my friend the curé! I mused. Was there ever such an indefatigable
sportsman? Lucky curé! He was not a prisoner, neither had he been
pressed into the customs patrol like a hired assassin. At that moment I
knew Monsieur le Curé was snug in his duck-blind for the night, a long
two miles from where I lay; warm, and comfortable, with every chance on
such a night to kill a dozen fat mallards before his daylight mass. What
would my friend Madame Alice de Bréville, and that whole-souled fellow
Tanrade, think when I did not appear as I had promised, at madame's
château, to dine at eight? Cold as I was, I could not help chuckling
over the fact that it was no fault of mine.

I was a prisoner. Alice and Tanrade would dine together. It would be
then a dinner for two. I have never known a woman as discreet as Alice.
She had insisted that I dine with them. In Paris Alice might not have
insisted, but in the lost village, with so many old women with nothing
to talk about save other peoples' affairs! Lucky Tanrade!

I could see from where I lay the distant mass of trees screening her
château, and picture to myself my two dear friends _alone_. Their
chairs--now that my vacant one was the only witness--drawn close
together; he holding her soft, responsive little hand between the soup
and the fish, between the duck and the salad; then continuously over
their dessert and Burgundy--she whom he had held close to his big heart
that night after dinner in that once abandoned house of mine, when they
had gone out together into my courtyard and disappeared in the shadows
of the moonlight.

Dining alone! The very thing I had tried to bring about. But for the
stern brigadier we should have been that wretched number--three--to-night
at the château. Ah, you dear human children, are you conscious and
grateful that I am lying out like a vagabond, a prisoner, that you
may be alone?

I began to wonder, too, what the Essence of Selfishness, that spoiled
and adorable cat of mine, would think when it came her bedtime hour.
Would Suzette, in her anxiety over my absence, remember to give her the
saucer of warm milk? Yet I knew the Essence of Selfishness would take
care of herself; she would sleep with Suzette. Catch her lying out on
the bare ground like her master when she could curl herself up at the
foot of two fuzzy blankets in a tiny room next to the warm kitchen.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was after midnight when Pierre crawled over to me again, and pointed
to a black patch of mussel rocks below.

"There are the two men Gaston saw," he whispered. "They are waiting to
signal the channel to their comrades."

I strained my eyes in the direction he indicated.

"I cannot see," I confessed.

"Here, take the glass," said he. "Those two humps behind the big one are
the backs of men. They have a lantern well hidden--you can see its glow
when the glass is steady."

I could see it all quite clearly now, and occasionally one of the humps
lift a head cautiously above the rock.

"She must be lying off close by," muttered Pierre, hoarse with
excitement. Again he hurriedly ran his hand over the breech of my
carbine. "The trigger pulls light," he breathed. "Courage, monsieur! We
have not long to wait now." And again he was gone.

I felt like a hired assassin weakening on the verge of a crime. The next
instant I saw the lantern hidden on the mussel rocks raised and lowered
thrice.

It was the signal!

Again all was darkness save the gleaming line of surf. My heart thumped
in my ears. Ten minutes passed; then again the lantern was raised, the
figures of the two men standing in silhouette against its steady rays.

I saw now a small sloop rear itself from the breakers, a short, squat
little craft with a ghostly sail and a flapping jib. On she came,
leaping and dropping broadside among the combers. The lantern now shone
as clearly as a beacon. A sea broke over the sloop, but she staggered up
bravely, and with a plunge was swept nearer and nearer the jagged point
of rocks awash with spume. Braced against the tiller was a man in
drenched tarpaulins; two other men were holding on to the shrouds like
grim death. On the narrow deck between them I made out a bale-like
bundle wrapped in tarpaulin and heavily roped, ready to be cast ashore.

A moment more, and the sloop would be on the rocks; yet not a sound came
from the thicket. The suspense was sickening. I had once experienced
buck-fever, but it was nothing compared to this. The short carbine began
to jump viciously under my grip.

The sloop was nearly on the rocks! At that critical moment overboard
went the bundle, the two men with the lantern rushing out and dragging
it clear of the swash.

Simultaneously, with a crackling roar, six tongues of flame spat from
the thicket and we charged out of our ambush and over the crest of the
dunes toward the smugglers' craft and its crew, firing as we ran. The
fellow next to me stumbled and fell sprawling in the sand.

In the panic that ensued I saw the sloop making a desperate effort to
put to sea. Meanwhile the two accomplices were running like rabbits for
the marsh. Close to the mysterious bundle their lantern lay smashed and
burning luridly in its oil. The brigadier sprang past me swearing like a
pirate, while his now thoroughly demoralized henchmen and myself
stumbled on, firing at random with still a good hundred yards between us
and the abandoned contraband.

At that instant I saw the sloop's sail fill and then, as if by a
miracle, she slowly turned back to the open sea. Above the general din
the brigadier's voice rang out, bellowing his orders. By the time the
sloop had cleared the breakers his language had become unprintable. He
had reached the mussel rocks and stood shaking his clenched fists at the
departing craft, while the rest of us crowded about the bundle and the
blazing lantern. Every one was talking and gesticulating at once as
they watched the sloop plunge away in the darkness.

"_Sacré mille tonnerres!_" roared the brigadier, sinking down on the
bundle. Then he turned and glared at me savagely. "Idiot!" he cried,
labouring for his breath. "_Espèce d'imbécile. Ah! Nom d'un petit
bonhomme._ You were on the end. Why did you not head off those devils
with the lantern?"

I shrugged my shoulders helplessly in reply. He was in no condition to
argue with.

"And the rest of you----" He choked in his rage, unable to frame his
words. They stood helplessly about, gesticulating their apologies.

He sprang to his feet, gave the bundle a sound kick, and snarled out an
order. Pierre and another jumped forward, and together they shouldered
it between them. Then the remainder of the valiant guard fell into
single file and started back to the fort, the brigadier and myself
bringing up the rear. As we trudged on through the sand together he kept
muttering to himself. It only occurred to me then that nobody had been
hit. By this time even the accomplices were safe.

"Monsieur," I ventured, as we regained the trail leading to the fort,
"it is with the sincerest regret of my heart that I offer you my
apologies. True, I might have done better, but I did my best in my
inexperience. We have the contraband--at least that is something, eh?"

He grew calmer as the thought struck him.

"Yes," he grumbled, "there are in that bundle at least ten thousand
cigars. It is, after all, not so bad."

"Might I ask," I returned, "when your excellency intends to honour me
with my liberty?"

He stopped, and to my delight held out his hand to me.

"You are free, monsieur," he said roughly, with a touch of his good
nature. "The affair is over--but not a word of the manoeuvre you have
witnessed in the village. Our work here is for the ears of the
Government alone."

As we reached the gate of the fort I saluted him, handed my carbine to
Pierre in exchange for my shotgun, and struck home in the mist of early
dawn.

       *       *       *       *       *

The morning after, I was leaning over the lichen-stained wall of my
garden caressing the white throat of the Essence of Selfishness, the
events of my night of service still in my mind, when I saw the coast
patrol coming across the marsh in double file. As they drew nearer I
recognized Pierre and his companion, who had shouldered the contraband.
The roped bundle was swung on a stout pole between them.

Presently they left the marsh and gained the road. As the double file of
uniformed men came past my wall they returned my salute. Pierre shifted
his end of the pole to the man behind him and stood at attention until
the rest had passed. Then the procession went on to inform Monsieur the
Mayor, who lived near the little square where nothing ever happened.

Pierre turned when they had left and entered my garden. What was he
going to tell me now? I wondered, with sudden apprehension. Was I to
serve another night?

"I'll be hanged if I will," I muttered.

He approached solemnly and slowly, his bayonet gleaming at his side, the
warm sunlight glinting on the buttons of his uniform. When he got near
enough for me to look into his eyes he stopped, raised his hand to his
cap in salute, and said with a smile:

"Now, monsieur, the artichokes."

      [Illustration: bundle of contraband]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: Marianne]



CHAPTER FIVE

MARIANNE


Monsieur le Curé slid the long chair up to my fire, bent his straight,
black body forward, and rubbing his chilled hands briskly before the
blazing logs, announced with a smile of content:

"Marianne is out of jail."

"_Sacristi!_" I exclaimed, "and in mid-winter! It must be cold enough in
that hut of hers by the marsh--poor old girl."

"And not a sou to be earned fishing," added the curé.

"Tell me about this last crime of hers," I asked.

Monsieur le Curé's face grew serious, then again the smile of content
spread to the corners of his firm mouth.

"Oh! Nothing very gruesome," he confessed, then after a moment's silence
he continued slowly: "Her children needed shoes and warm things for the
winter. Marianne stole sixty _mètres_ of nets from the fishing crew at
'The Three Wolves'--she is hopeless, my friend." With a vibrant gesture
he straightened up in his chair and flashed his keen eyes to mine. "For
ten years I have tried to reform her," he declared. "Bah!"--and he
tossed the stump of his cigarette into the blaze.

"You nursed her once through the smallpox," said I, "when no one dared
go near her. The mayor told me so. I should think _that_ would have long
ago persuaded her to do something for you in return."

"We go where we are needed," he replied simply. "She will promise me
nothing. One might as well try to make a faithful parishioner of a gipsy
as to change Marianne for the better." He brought his fist down sharply
on the broad arm of his chair. "I tell you," he went on tensely,
"Marianne is a woman of no morals and no religion--a woman who allows no
one to dictate to her save a gendarme with a warrant of arrest. Hardly
a winter passes but she goes to jail. She is a confirmed thief, a bad
subject," he went on vibrantly. "She can drink as no three sailors can
drink--and yet you know as well as I do," he added, lowering his voice,
"that there is not a mother in Pont du Sable who is as good to her
children as Marianne."

"They are a brave little brood," I replied. "I have heard that the
eldest boy and girl Marianne adopted, yet they resemble their mother,
with their fair curly hair and blue eyes, as much as do the youngest
boys and the little girl."

"Marianne has had many lovers," returned the curé gravely. "There is not
one of that brood of hers that has yet been baptized." An expression of
pain crossed his face. "I have tried hard; Marianne is impossible."

"Yet you admit she has her qualities."

"Yes, good qualities," he confessed, filling a fresh cigarette paper
full of tobacco. "Good qualities," he reiterated. "She has brought up
her children to be honest and she keeps them clean. She has never
stolen from her own village--it is a point of honour with her. Ah! you
do not know Marianne as I know her."

"It seems to me you are growing enthusiastic over our worst vagabond," I
laughed.

"I am," replied the curé frankly. "I believe in her; she is afraid of
nothing. You see her as a vagabond--an outcast, and the next instant,
_Parbleu!_ she forces out of you your camaraderie--even your respect.
You shake her by the hand, that straight old hag with her clear blue
eyes, her square jaw and her hard face! She who walks with the stride of
a man, who is as supple and strong as a sailor, and who looks you
squarely in the eye and studies you calmly, at times disdainfully--even
when drunk."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was late when Monsieur le Curé left me alone by my fire. I cannot say
"alone," for the Essence of Selfishness, was purring on my chest.

In this old _normand_ house of mine by the marsh, there comes a silence
at this hour which is exhilarating. Out of these winter midnights come
strange sounds, whirring flights of sea-fowl whistle over my roof, in
late for a lodging on the marsh. A heavy peasant's cart goes by,
groaning in agony under the brake. When the wind is from the sea, it is
like a bevy of witches shrilling my doom down the chimney. "Aye, aye,
'tis he," they seem to scream, "the stranger--the s-t-r-a-n-g-e-r."
One's mind is alert at this hour--one must be brave in a foreign land.

And so I sat up late, smoking a black pipe that gurgled in unison with
the purring on my chest while I thought seriously of Marianne.

I had seen her go laughing to jail two months ago, handcuffed to a
gendarme on the back seat of the last car of the toy train. It was an
occasion when every one in the lost village came charitably out to have
a look. I remembered, too, she sat there as garrulous as if she were
starting on a holiday--a few of her old cronies crowded about her. One
by one, her children gave their mother a parting hug--there were no
tears--and the gendarme sat beside her with a stolid dignity befitting
his duty to the _République_. Then the whistle tooted twice--a coughing
puff of steam in the crisp sunlight, a wheeze of wheels, and the toy
train rumbled slowly out of the village with its prisoner. Marianne
nodded and laughed back at the waving group.

"_Bon voyage!_" croaked a little old woman, lifting her claw. She had
borrowed five francs from the prisoner.

"_Au revoir!_" laughed back Marianne, but the words were faint, for the
last car was snaking around the bend.

Thus Marianne went to jail. Now that she is back, she takes her return
as carelessly and unblushingly as a _demi-mondaine_ does her annual
return from Dinard.

When Marianne was eighteen, they tell me, she was the prettiest girl in
Pont du Sable, that is to say, she was prettier than Emilienne Dagèt at
Bar la Rose, or than Berthe Pavoisiér, the daughter of the miller at
Tocqueville, who is now in Paris. At eighteen, Marianne was slim and
blonde; moreover, she was as bold as a hawk, and smiled as easily as
she lied. At twenty, she was rated as a valuable member of any fishing
crew that put out from the coast, for they found her capable during a
catch, and steady in danger, always doing her share and a little more
for those who could not help themselves. She is still doing it, for in
her stone hut on the edge of the marsh that serves as shelter for her
children and her rough old self, she has been charitable and given a
winter's lodging to three old wrecks of the sea. There are no beds, but
there are bunks filled with marsh-hay; there is no furniture, but there
are a few pots and pans, and in one corner of the dirt floor, a
crackling fire of drift wood, and nearly always enough applejack for
all, and now and then hot soup. Marianne wrenches these luxuries, so to
speak, out of the sea, often alone and single-handed, working as hard as
a gull to feed her young.

The curé was right; Marianne had her good qualities--I was almost
beginning to wonder to myself as I pulled drowsily at the black pipe if
her good qualities did not outweigh her bad ones, when the Essence of
Selfishness awakened and yawned. And so it was high time to send this
spoiled child of mine to bed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Marianne called her "_ma belle petite_," though her real name was
Yvonne--Yvonne Louise Tournéveau.

Yvonne kept her black eyes from early dawn until dark upon a dozen of
the Père Bourron's cows in her charge, who grazed on a long point of the
marsh, lush with salt grass, that lay sheltered back of the dunes
fronting the open sea.

Now and then, when a cow strayed over the dunes on to the hard beach
beyond to gaze stupidly at the breakers, the little girl's voice would
become as authoritative as a boy's. "_Eh ben, tu sais!_" she would shout
as she ran to head the straggler off, adding some sound whacks with a
stick until the cow decided to lumber back to the rest. "_Ah mais!_"
Yvonne would sigh as she seated herself again in the wire-grass, tucking
her firm bronzed legs under a patched skirt that had once served as a
winter petticoat for the Mère Bourron.

Occasionally a trudging coast guard or a lone hunter in passing would
call "_Bonjour!_" to her, and since she was pretty, this child of
fifteen, they would sometimes hail her with "_Ça va, ma petite!_" and
Yvonne would flush and reply bravely, "_Mais oui, M'sieur, merci._"

Since she was only a little girl with hair as black as a gipsy's, a
ruddy olive skin, fresh young lips and a well-knit, compact body,
hardened by constant exposure to the sea air and sun, no one bothered
their heads much about her name. She was only a child who smiled when
the passerby would give her a chance, which was seldom, and when she
did, she disclosed teeth as white as the tiny shells on the beach. There
were whole days on the marsh when she saw no one.

At noon, when the cracked bell in the distant belfry of the gray church
of Pont du Sable sent its discordant note quavering across the marsh,
Yvonne drew forth a sailor's knife from where it lay tucked safe within
the breast of her coarse chemise, and untying a square of blue cotton
cloth, cut in two her portion of peasant bread, saving half the bread
and half a bottle of Père Bourron's thinnest cider for the late
afternoon.

There were days, too, when Marianne coming up from the sea with her
nets, stopped to rest beside the child and talk. Yvonne having no mother
which she could remember, Marianne had become a sort of transient mother
to her, whom the incoming tide sometimes brought her and whom she would
wait for with uncertain expectancy, often for days.

One afternoon, early in the spring, when the cows were feeding in the
scant slanting shade of the dunes, Yvonne fell asleep. She lay out
straight upon her back, her brown legs crossed, one wrist over her eyes.
She slept so soundly that neither the breeze that had sprung up from the
northeast, stirring with every fresh puff the stray locks about her
small ears, or the sharp barking of a dog hunting rabbits for himself
over the dunes, awakened her. Suddenly she became conscious of being
grasped in a pair of strong arms, and, awakening with a little scream,
looked up into the grinning face of Marianne, who straightway gave her
a big, motherly hug until she was quite awake and then kissed her
soundly on both cheeks, until Yvonne laughed over her fright.

"_Oh, mon Dieu!_ but I was frightened," sighed the child, and sat up
straight, smoothing back her tumbled hair. "Oh! la! la!" she gasped.

"They are beauties, _hein!_" exclaimed Marianne, nodding to an oozing
basketful of mackerel; then, kneeling by the basket, she plunged her red
hands under the slimy, glittering mass of fish, lifting and dropping
them that the child might see the average size in the catch.

"_Eh ben!_" declared Marianne, "some day when thou art bigger, _ma
petite_, I'll take thee where thou canst make some silver. There's half
a louis' worth there if there's a sou!" There was a gleam of
satisfaction in her eyes, as she bent over her basket again, dressed as
she was in a pair of fisherman's trousers cut off at the knees.

"One can play the lady on half a louis," she continued, covering her
fish from the sun with her bundle of nets. "My man shall have a full
bottle of the best to-night," she added, wiping her wet hands across her
strong bare knees.

"How much 'cake' does that old crab of a Bourron pay thee?" she
inquired, turning again to the child.

"Six sous a day, and then my food and lodging," confessed Yvonne.

"He won't ruin himself," muttered Marianne.

"They say the girl at the Three Wolves gets ten," added the child with
awe, "but thou knowest how--she must do the washing besides."

Marianne's square jaw shut hard. She glanced at Yvonne's patched skirt,
the one that had been the Mère Bourron's winter petticoat, feeling its
quality as critically as a fashionable dressmaker.

"_Sacristi!_" she exclaimed, examining a rent, "there's one door that
the little north wind won't knock twice at before he enters. Keep still,
_ma petite_, I've got thread and a needle."

She drew from her trousers' pocket a leather wallet in which lay four
two-sous pieces, an iron key and a sail needle driven through a ball of
linen thread. "It is easily seen thou art not in love," laughed
Marianne, as she cross-stitched the tear. "Thou wilt pay ten sous for a
ribbon gladly some day when thou art in love."

The child was silent while she sewed. Presently she asked timidly, "One
eats well there?"

"Where?"

"But thou knowest--_there_."

"In the prison?"

"_Mais oui_," whispered Yvonne.

"Of course," growled Marianne, "one eats well; it is perfect. _Tiens!_
we have the good soup, that is well understood; and now and then meat
and rice."

"Oh!" exclaimed the child in awe.

"_Mais oui_," assured Marianne with a nod, "and prunes."

"Where is that, the prison?" ventured the child.

"It is very far," returned Marianne, biting off the thread, "and it is
not for every one either," she added with a touch of pride--"only I
happen to be an old friend and know the judge."

"And how much does it cost a day, the prison?" asked Yvonne.

"Not _that_," replied Marianne, snipping her single front tooth
knowingly with the tip of her nail.

"_Mon Dieu!_ and they give you all that for nothing?" exclaimed the
child in astonishment. "It is _chic_, that, _hein!_" and she nodded her
pretty head with decision, "_Ah mais oui, alors!_" she laughed.

"I must be going," said Marianne, abruptly. "My young ones will be
wanting their soup." She flattened her back against her heavy basket,
slipped the straps under her armpits and rose to her feet, the child
passing the bundle of nets to her and helping her shoulder them to the
proper balance.

"_Au revoir, ma belle petite_," she said, bending to kiss the girl's
cheek; then with her free hand she dove into her trousers' pocket and
drew out a two-sous piece. "_Tiens_," she exclaimed, pressing the
copper into the child's hand.

Yvonne gave a little sigh of delight. It was not often she had two sous
all to herself to do what she pleased with, which doubles the delight of
possession. Besides, the Mère Bourron kept her wages--or rather, count
of them, which was cheaper--on the back page of a greasy book wherein
were registered the births of calves.

"_Au revoir_," reiterated Marianne, and turned on her way to the village
down the trail that wound through the salt grass out to the road
skirting the bay. Yvonne watched her until she finally disappeared
through a cut in the dunes that led to the main road.

The marsh lay in the twilight, the curlews were passing overhead bound
for a distant mud flat for the night. "_Courli! Courli!_" they called,
the old birds with a rasp, the young ones cheerfully; as one says
"_bonsoir_." The cows, conscious of the fast-approaching dark, were
moving toward the child. She stood still until they had passed her,
then drove them slowly back to the Père Bourron's, her two-sous piece
clutched safe in her hand.

It was dark when she let down the bars of the orchard, leading into the
farm-yard. Here the air was moist and heavy with the pungent odour of
manure; a turkey gobbler and four timid hens roosting in a low apple
tree, stirred uneasily as the cows passed beneath them to their stable
next to the kitchen--a stable with a long stone manger and walls two
feet thick. Above the stable was a loft covered by a thatched roof; it
was in a corner of this loft, in a large box filled with straw and
provided with a patchwork-quilt, that Yvonne slept.

A light from the kitchen window streamed across the muddy court. The
Père and Mère Bourron were already at supper. The child bolted the
stable door upon her herd and slipped into her place at table with a
timid "_Bonsoir, m'sieur, madame_," to her masters, which was
acknowledged by a grunt from the Père Bourron and a spasm of coughing
from his spouse.

The Mère Bourron, who had the dullish round eye of a pig that gleamed
suspiciously when she became inquisitive, had supped well. Now and then
she squinted over her fat jowls veined with purple, plying her mate with
short, savage questions, for he had sold cattle that day at the market
at Bonville. Such evenings as these were always quarrelsome between the
two, and as the little girl did not count any more than the chair she
sat in, they argued openly over the day's sale. The best steer had
brought less than the Mère Bourron had believed, a shrewd possibility,
even after a month's bargaining. When both had wiped their plates clean
with bread--for nothing went to waste there--the child got up and
brought the black coffee and the decanter of applejack. They at last
ceased to argue, since the Mère Bourron had had the final word. Père
Bourron sat with closed fists, opening one now and then to strengthen
his coffee with applejack. Being a short, thickset man, he generally sat
in his blouse after he had eaten, with his elbows on the table and his
rough bullet-like head, with its crop of unkempt hair, buried in his
hands.

When Yvonne had finished her soup, and eaten all her bread, she rose and
with another timid "_Bonsoir_" slipped away to bed.

"Leave the brindle heifer tied!" shrilled madame as the child reached
the courtyard.

"_Mais, oui madame_, it is done," answered Yvonne, and crept into her
box beneath the thatch.

       *       *       *       *       *

At sixteen Yvonne was still guarding the cows for the Bourrons. At
seventeen she fell in love.

He was a slick, slim youth named Jean, with a soapy blond lock plastered
under the visor of his leather cap pulled down to his red ears. On fête
days, he wore in addition a scarlet neck-tie girdling his scrawny
throat. He had watched Yvonne for a long time, very much as the snake in
the fable saved the young dove until it was grown.

And so, Yvonne grew to dreaming while the cows strayed. Once the Père
Bourron struck at her with a spade for her negligence, but missed.
Another night he beat her soundly for letting a cow get stalled in the
mud. The days on the marsh now became interminable, for he worked for
Gavelle, the carpenter, a good three _kilomètres_ back of Pont du Sable
and the two could see each other only on fête days when he met her
secretly among the dunes or in the evenings near the farm. He would wait
for her then at the edge of the woods skirting the misty sea of pasture
that spread out below the farm like some vast and silent dry lake,
dotted here and there with groups of sleeping cattle.

She saw Marianne but seldom now, for the latter fished mostly at the
Three Wolves, sharing her catch with a crew of eight fishermen. Often
they would seine the edge of the coast, their boat dancing off beyond
the breakers while they netted the shallow water, swishing up the hard
beach--these gamblers of the sea. They worked with skill and precision,
each one having his share to do, while one--the quickest--was appointed
to carry their bundle of dry clothes rolled in a tarpaulin.

Marianne seemed of casual importance to her now. We seldom think of our
best friends in time of love. Yvonne cried for his kisses which at
first she did not wholly understand, but which she grew to hunger for,
just as when she was little she craved for all she wanted to eat for
once--and candy.

She began to think of herself, too--of Jean's scarlet cravat--of his new
shoes too tight for him, which he wore with the pride of a village dandy
on fête days and Sundays--and of her own patched and pitifully scanty
wardrobe.

"She has nothing, that little one," she had heard the gossips remark
openly before her, time and time again, when she was a child. Now that
she was budding into womanhood and was physically twice as strong as
Jean, now that she was conscious of _herself_, she began to know the
pangs of vanity.

It was about this time that she bought the ribbon, just as Marianne had
foretold, a red ribbon to match Jean's tie, and which she fashioned into
a bow and kept in a paper box, well hidden in the straw of her bed. The
patched skirt had long ago grown too short, and was now stuffed into a
broken window beyond the cow manger to temper the draught from the neck
of a sick bull.

She wore now, when it stormed, thick woollen stockings and sabots; and
another skirt of the Mère Bourron's fastened around a chemise of coarse
homespun linen, its colour faded to a delicious pale mazarine blue,
showing the strength and fullness of her body.

       *       *       *       *       *

She had stolen down from the loft this night to meet him at the edge of
the woods.

"Where is he?" were his first words as he sought her lips in the dark.

"He has gone," she whispered, when her lips were free.

"Where?"

"_Eh ben_, he went away with the Père Detour to the village--madame is
asleep."

"Ah, good!" said he.

"_Mon Dieu!_ but you are warm," she whispered, pressing her cheek
against his own.

"I ran," he drawled, "the patron kept me late. There is plenty of work
there now."

He put his arm around her and the two walked deeper into the wood, he
holding her heavy moist hand idly in his own. Presently the moon came
out, sailing high among the scudding clouds, flashing bright in the
clear intervals. A white mist had settled low over the pasture below
them, and the cattle were beginning to move restlessly under the chill
blanket, changing again and again their places for the night. A bull
bellowed with all his might from beyond the mysterious distance. He had
evidently scented them, for presently he emerged from the mist and moved
along the edge of the woods, protected by a deep ditch. He stopped when
he was abreast of them to bellow again, then kept slowly on past them.
They had seated themselves in the moonlight among the stumps of some
freshly cut poplars.

"_Dis donc_, what is the matter?" he asked at length, noticing her
unusual silence, for she generally prattled on, telling him of the
uneventful hours of her days.

"Nothing," she returned evasively.

"_Mais si; bon Dieu!_ there _is_ something."

She placed her hands on her trembling knees.

"No, I swear there is nothing, Jean," she said faintly.

But he insisted.

"One earns so little," she confessed at length. "Ten sous a day, it is
not much, and the days are so long on the marsh. If I knew how to cook
I'd try and get a place like Emilienne."

"Bah!" said he, "you are crazy--one must study to cook; besides, you are
not yet eighteen, the Père Bourron has yet the right to you for a year."

"That is true," confessed the girl simply; "one has not much chance when
one is an orphan. Listen, Jean."

"What?"

"Listen--is it true that thou dost love me?"

"Surely," he replied with an easy laugh.

"Listen," she repeated timidly; "if thou shouldst get steady work--I
should be content ... to be..." But her voice became inaudible.

"_Allons!_... what?" he demanded irritably.

"To ... to be married," she whispered.

He started. "_Eh ben! en voilà_ an idea!" he exclaimed.

"Forgive me, Jean, I have always had that idea----" She dried her eyes
on the back of her hand and tried hard to smile. "It is foolish, eh? The
marriage costs so dear ... but if thou shouldst get steady work..."

"_Eh ben!_" he answered slowly with his Normand shrewdness, "I don't say
no."

"I'll help thee, Jean; I can work hard when I am free. One wins forty
sous a day by washing, and then there is the harvest."

There was a certain stubborn conviction in her words which worried him.

"_Eh ben!_" he said at length, "we might get married--that's so."

She caught her breath.

"Swear it, Jean, that thou wilt marry me, swear it upon Sainte Marie."

"_Eh voilà_, it's done. _Oui_, by Sainte Marie!"

She threw her arms about him, crushing him against her breast.

"_Dieu!_ but thou art strong," he whispered.

"Did I hurt thee?"

"No--thou art content now?"

"Yes--I am content," she sobbed, "I am content, I am content."

He had slipped to the ground beside her. She drew his head back in her
lap, her hand pressed hard against his forehead.

"_Dieu!_ but I am content," she breathed in his ear.

He felt her warm tears dropping fast upon his cheek.

       *       *       *       *       *

All night she lay in the straw wide awake, flushed, in a sort of fever.
At daylight she drove her cows back to the marsh without having barely
touched her soup.

Far across the bay glistened the roof of a barn under construction. An
object the size of a beetle was crawling over the new boards.

It was Jean.

"I'm a fool," he thought, as he drove in a nail. Then he fell to
thinking of a girl in his own village whose father was as rich as the
Père Bourron.

"_Sacré Diable!_" he laughed at length, "if every one got married who
had sworn by Sainte Marie, Monsieur le Curé would do a good business."

       *       *       *       *       *

A month later Père Bourron sold out a cartful of calves at the market at
Bonville. It was late at night when he closed his last bargain over a
final glass, climbed up on his big two-wheeled cart, and with a face of
dull crimson and a glazed eye, gathered up the reins and started swaying
in his seat for home. A boy carrying milk found him at daylight the next
morning lying face down in the track of his cart, dead, with a fractured
skull. Before another month had passed, the Mère Bourron had sold the
farm and gone to live with her sister--a lean woman who took in sewing.

Yvonne was free.

Free to work and to be married, and she did work with silent ferocity
from dawn until dark, washing the heavy coarse linen for a farm, and
scrubbing the milk-pans bright until often long after midnight--and
saved. Jean worked too, but mostly when he pleased, and had his hair
cut on fête days, most of which he spent in the café and saw Yvonne
during the odd moments when she was free.

Life over the blacksmith's shop, where she had taken a room, went
merrily for a while. Six months later--it is such an old story that it
is hardly worth the telling--but it was long after dark when she got
back from work and she found it lying on the table in her rough clean
little room--a scrap of paper beside some tiny worsted things she had
been knitting for weeks.

"I am not coming back," she read in an illiterate hand.

She would have screamed, but she could not breathe. She turned again,
staring at the paper and gripping the edge of the table with both
hands--then the ugly little room that smelt of singed hoofs rocked and
swam before her.

When she awoke she lay on the floor. The flame of the candle was
sputtering in its socket. After a while she crawled to her knees in the
dark; then, somehow, she got to her feet and groped her way to the
door, and down the narrow stairs out to the road. She felt the need of a
mother and turned toward Pont du Sable, keeping to the path at the side
of the wood like a homeless dog, not wishing to be observed. Every
little while, she was seized with violent trembling so that she was
obliged to stop--her whole body ached as if she had been beaten.

A sharp wind was whistling in from the sea and the night was so black
that the road bed was barely visible.

It was some time before she reached the beginning of Pont du Sable, and
turned down a forgotten path that ran back of the village by the marsh.
A light gleamed ahead--the lantern of a fishing-boat moored far out on
the slimy mud. She pushed on toward it, mistaking its position, in her
agony, for the hut of Marianne. Before she knew it, she was well out on
the treacherous mud, slipping and sinking. She had no longer the
strength now to pull her tired feet out. Twice she sank in the slime
above her knees. She tried to go back but the mud had become ooze--she
was sinking--she screamed--she was gone and she knew it. Then she
slipped and fell on her face in a glaze of water from the incoming tide.
At this instant some one shouted back, but she did not hear.

It was Marianne.

It was she who had moored the boat with the lantern and was on her way
back to her hut when she heard a woman scream twice. She stopped as
suddenly as if she had been shot at, straining her eyes in the direction
the sound came from--she knew that there was no worse spot in the bay, a
semi-floating solution of mud veined with quicksand. She knew, too, how
far the incoming tide had reached, for she had just left it at her bare
heels by way of a winding narrow causeway with a hard shell bottom that
led to the marsh. She did not call for help, for she knew what lay
before her and there was not a second to lose. The next instant, she had
sprung out on the treacherous slime, running for a life in the
fast-deepening glaze of water.

"Lie down!" she shouted. Then her feet touched a solid spot caked with
shell and grass. Here she halted for an instant to listen--a choking
groan caught her ear.

"Lie down!" she shouted again and sprang forward. She knew the knack of
running on that treacherous slime.

She leapt to a patch of shell and listened again. The woman was choking
not ten yards ahead of her, almost within reach of a thin point of
matted grass running back of the marsh, and there she found her, and she
was still breathing. With her great strength she slid her to the point
of grass. It held them both. Then she lifted her bodily in her arms,
swung her on her back and ran splashing knee-deep in water to solid
ground.

"_Sacré bon Dieu!_" she sobbed as she staggered with her burden. "_C'est
ma belle petite!_"

       *       *       *       *       *

For weeks Yvonne lay in the hut of the worst vagabond of Pont du Sable.
So did a mite of humanity with black eyes who cried and laughed when he
pleased. And Marianne fished for them both, alone and single-handed,
wrenching time and time again comforts from the sea, for she would
allow no one to go near them, not even such old friends as Monsieur le
Curé and myself--that old hag, with her clear blue eyes, who walks with
the stride of a man, and who looks at you squarely, at times
disdainfully--even when drunk.

      [Illustration: sabots]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: a Normande]



CHAPTER SIX

THE BARON'S PERFECTOS


Strange things happen in my "Village of Vagabonds." It is not all fisher
girls, Bohemian neighbours, romance, and that good friend the curé who
shoots one day and confesses sinners the next. Things from the outside
world come to us--happenings with sometimes a note of terror in them to
make one remember their details for days.

Only the other day I had run up from the sea to Paris to replenish the
larder of my house abandoned by the marsh at Pont du Sable, and was
sitting behind a glass of vermouth on the terrace of the Café de la Paix
when the curtain rose.

One has a desire to promenade with no definite purpose these soft
spring days, when all Paris glitters in the warm sun. The days slip by,
one into another--days to be lazy in, idle and extravagant, to promenade
alone, seeking adventure, and thus win a memory, if only the amiable
glance of a woman's eyes.

I was drinking in the tender air, when from my seat on the terrace I
recognized in the passing throng the familiar figure of the Brazilian
banker, the Baron Santos da Granja. The caress of spring had enticed the
Baron early this afternoon to the Boulevard. Although he had been
pointed out to me but once, there was no mistaking his conspicuous
figure as he strode on through the current of humanity, for he stood
head and shoulders above the average mortal, and many turned to glance
at this swarthy, alert, well-preserved man of the world with his keen
black eyes, thin pointed beard and moustache of iron gray. From his
patent-leather boots to his glistening silk hat the Baron Santos da
Granja was immaculate.

Suddenly I saw him stop, run his eyes swiftly over the crowded tables
and then, though there happened to be one just vacated within his
reach, turn back with a look of decision and enter the Government's
dépôt for tobacco under the Grand Hotel.

I, too, was in need of tobacco, for had not my good little
maid-of-all-work, Suzette, announced to me only the day before:

"Monsieur, there are but three left of the big cigars in the thin box;
and the ham of the English that monsieur purchased in Paris is no more."

"It is well, my child," I had returned resignedly, "that ham could not
last forever; it was too good."

"And if Monsieur le Curé comes to dinner there is no more kümmel," the
little maid had confessed, and added with a shy lifting of her truthful
eyes, "monsieur does not wish I should get more of the black cigars at
the grocery?"

I had winced as I recalled the last box, purchased from the only store
in Pont du Sable, where they had lain long enough to absorb the pungent
odour of dried herring and kerosene.

Of course it was not right that our guests should suffer thus from an
empty larder and so, as I have said, I had run up from the sea to
replenish it. It was, I confess, an extravagant way of doing one's
marketing; but then there was Paris in the spring beckoning me, and who
can resist her seductive call at such a time?

But to my story: I finished my glass of vermouth, and, following the
Baron's example, entered the Government's store, where I discovered him
selecting with the air of a connoisseur a dozen thin boxes of rare
perfectos. He chatted pleasantly with the clerk who served him and upon
going to the desk, opened a Russian-leather portfolio and laid before
the cashier six crisp, new one-hundred-franc notes in payment for the
lot. I have said that the Baron was immaculate, and he _was_, even to
his money. It was as spotless and unruffled as his linen, as neat, in
fact, as were the noble perfectos of his choice, long, mild and pure,
with tiny ends, and fat, comforting bodies that guaranteed a quality fit
for an emperor; but then the least a bank can do, I imagine, is to
provide clean money to its president.

As the Baron passed out and my own turn at the desk came to settle for
my modest provision of Havanas, I recalled to my mind the current gossip
of the Baron's extravagance, of the dinners he had lately given that
surprised Paris--and Paris is not easily surprised. What if he had "sold
more than half of his vast estate in Brazil last year"? And suppose he
was no longer able or willing "to personally supervise his racing
stable," that he "had grown tired of the track," etc. Nonsense! The
press knows so little of the real truth. For me the Baron Santos da
Granja a was simply a seasoned man of the world, with the good taste to
have retired from its conspicuous notoriety; and good taste is always
expensive. His bank account did not interest me.

       *       *       *       *       *

I knew her well by sight, for she passed me often in the Bois de
Boulogne when I ran up to Paris on just such errands as my present one.
She had given me thus now and then glimpses of her feverish
life--gleams from the facets, since her success in Paris was as
brilliant as a diamond. Occasionally I would meet her in the shaded
alleys, but always in sight of her brougham, which kept pace with her
whims at a safe but discreet distance.

There was a rare perfection about her lithe, graceful person, an ease
and subtlety of line, an allure which was satisfying--from her trim
little feet gloved in suède, to the slender nape of her neck, from which
sprang, back of the loveliest of little ears, the exquisite sheen of her
blonde hair.

There were mornings when she wore a faultless tailor-made of plain dark
blue and carried a scarlet parasol, with its jewelled handle held in a
firm little hand secreted in spotless white kid.

I noticed, too, in passing that her eyes were deep violet and
exceedingly alert, her features classic in their fineness. Once I saw
her smile, not at me, but at her fox terrier. It was then that I caught
a glimpse of her young white teeth--pearly white in contrast to the
freshness of her pink and olive skin, so clear that it seemed to be
translucent, and she blushed easily, having lived but a score of springs
all told.

In the afternoon, when she drove in her brougham lined with dove-gray,
the scarlet parasol was substituted by one of filmy, creamy lace,
shading a gown of pale mauve or champagne colour.

I had heard that she was passionately extravagant, that she seldom, if
ever, won at the races--owned a little hotel with a carved façade in the
Avenue du Bois, a villa at Dinard, and three fluffy little dogs, who
jingled their gold bells when they followed her.

She dined at Paillard's, sometimes at the Café de la Paix, rarely at
Maxim's; skated at the Palais de Glace on the most respectable
afternoons--drank plain water--rolled her own cigarettes--and possessed
a small jewel box full of emeralds, which she seldom wore.

_Voilà!_ A spoiled child for you!

There were mornings, too, when, after her tub, as early as nine, she
galloped away on her cob to the _Bois_ for her coffee and hot _brioche_
at the Pré Catelan, a romantic little farm with a café and a stableful
of mild-eyed cows that provide fresh milk to the weary at daylight, who
are trying hard to turn over a new leaf before the next midnight. Often
she came there accompanied by her groom and the three little dogs with
the jingling bells, who enjoyed the warm milk and the run back of the
fleet hoofs of her saddle-horse.

On this very morning--upon which opens the second act of my drama, I
found her sitting at the next table to mine, chiding one of the jingling
little dogs for his disobedience.

"_Eh ben! tu sais!_" she exclaimed suddenly, with a savage gleam in her
eyes.

I turned and gazed at her in astonishment. It was the first time I had
heard her voice. It was her accent that made me stare.

"_Eh ben! tu sais!_" she repeated, in the patois of the Normand peasant,
lifting her riding crop in warning to the ball of fluff who had refused
to get on his chair and was now wriggling in apology.

"Who is that lady?" I asked the old waiter Emile, who was serving me.

"Madame is an Austrian," he confided to me, bending his fat back as he
poured my coffee.

"Austrian, eh! Are you certain, Emile?"

"_Parbleu_, monsieur" replied Emile, "one is never certain of any one in
Paris. I only tell monsieur what I have heard. Ah! it is very easy to be
mistaken in Paris, monsieur. Take, for instance, the lady in deep
mourning, with the two little girls, over there at the table under the
lilac bush."

"She is young to be a widow," I interposed, glancing discreetly in the
direction he nodded.

Emile smiled faintly. "She is not a widow, monsieur," he returned,
"neither is she as Spanish as she looks; she is Polish and dances at the
Folies Parisiennes under the name of _La Belle Gueritta_ from Seville."

"But her children look French," I ventured.

"They are the two little girls of her concierge, monsieur." Emile's
smile widened until it spread in merry wrinkles to the corners of his
twinkling eyes.

"In all that lace and velvet?" I exclaimed.

"Precisely, monsieur."

"And why the deep mourning, Emile?"

"It is a pose, monsieur. One must invent novelties, eh? when one is as
good-looking as that. Besides, madame's reputation has not been of the
best for some time. Monsieur possibly remembers the little affair last
year in the Rue des Mathurins? Very well, it was she who extracted the
hundred thousand francs from the Marquis de Villiers. Madame now gives
largely to charity and goes to mass."

"Blackmail, Emile?"

"Of the worst kind, and so monsieur sees how easily one can be mistaken,
is it not so? _Sacristi!_ one never knows."

"But are you certain you are not mistaken about your Austrian, Emile?" I
ventured.

He shrugged his shoulders as if in apology for his opinion, and I turned
again to study his Austrian. The noses of her little dogs with the
jingling bells were now contentedly immersed in a bowl of milk.

A moment later I saw her lift her clear violet eyes and catch sight of
one of the milkers, who was trying to lead a balky cow through the court
by a rope badly knotted over her horns. She was smiling as she sat
watching the cow, who now refused to budge. The boy was losing his
temper when she broke into a rippling laugh, rose, and going over to the
unruly beast, unknotted the rope from her horns and, replacing it by two
half hitches with the ease and skill of a sailor, handed the rope back
to the boy.

"There, you little stupid!" she exclaimed, "she will lead better now.
_Allez!_" she cried, giving the cow a sharp rap on her rump. "_Allez!
Hup!_"

A murmur of surprise escaped Emile. "It is not the first time madame has
done that trick," he remarked under his hand, as she crossed the
courtyard to regain her chair.

"She is Normande," I declared, "I am certain of it by the way she said
'_Eh ben!_' And did you not notice her walk back to her table? Erect,
with the easy, quick step of a fisher girl? The same walk of the race of
fisher girls who live in my village," I continued with enthusiastic
decision. "There is no mistaking it; it is peculiar to Pont du Sable,
and note, too, her _patois_!"

"It is quite possible, monsieur," replied Emile, "but it does not
surprise me. One sees every one in Paris. There are few _grandes dames_
left. When one has been a _garçon de café_, as I have, for over thirty
years, one is surprised at nothing; not even----"

The tap of a gold coin on the rim of a cold saucer interrupted our talk.
The summons was from my lady who had conquered the cow.

"_Voilà_, madame!" cried Emile, as he left me to hasten to her table,
where he made the change, slipped the _pourboire_ she gave him into his
alpaca pocket, and with a respectful, "_Merci bien_, madame," drew back
her chair as she rose and summoned her groom, who a moment later stood
ready to help her mount. The next instant I saw her hastily withdraw her
small foot from the hollow of his coarse hand, and wave to a passing
horse and rider. The rider, whose features were half hidden under the
turned-down brim of a panama, wheeled his horse, reined up before her,
dismounted, threw his rein to her groom and bending, kissed her on both
cheeks. She laughed; murmured something in his ear; the panama nodded in
reply, then, slipping his arm under her own, the two entered the
courtyard. There they were greeted by Emile.

"Madame and I will breakfast here to-day, Emile," said the voice beneath
the panama. "The little table in the corner and the same Pommard."

He threw his riding crop on a vacant chair and, lifting his hat, handed
it to the veteran waiter.

It was the Baron Santos da Granja!

       *       *       *       *       *

Hidden at the foot of a plateau skirting the desert marshes, two miles
above my village of Pont du Sable, lies in ruins all that remains of the
deserted village known as La Poche.

It is well named "The Pocket," since for years it served as a safe
receptacle for itinerant beggars and fugitives from justice who found an
ideal retreat among its limestone quarries, which, being long
abandoned, provided holes in the steep hillside for certain vagabonds,
who paid neither taxes to the government, nor heed to its law.

There is an old cattle trail that leads to La Poche, crossed now and
then by overgrown paths, that wind up through a labyrinth of briers,
rank ferns and matted growth to the plateau spreading back from the
hillside. I use this path often as a short cut home.

One evening I had shot late on the marshes and started for home by way
of La Poche. It was bright moonlight when I reached a trail new to me
and approached the deserted village by way of a tangled, overgrown road.

The wind had gone down with the rising of the moon, and the intense
stillness of the place was such that I could hear about me in the tangle
the lifting of a trampled weed and the moving of the insects as my boots
disturbed them. The silence was uncanny. Under the brilliancy of the
moon all things gleamed clear in a mystic light, their shadows as black
as the sunken pits of a cave.

I pushed on through the matted growth, with the collar of my leather
coat buttoned up, my cap pulled down, and my hands thrust in my sleeves,
hugging my gun under my arm, for the briars made tough going.

Presently, I got free of the tangle and out to a grassy stretch of road,
once part of the river bed. Here and there emerged, from the matted
tangle of the hillside flanking it, the ruins of La Poche. Often only a
single wall or a tottering chimney remained silhouetted against the
skeleton of a gabled roof; its rafters stripped of tiles, gleaming in
the moonlight like the ribs and breastbone of a carcass.

If La Poche is a place to be shunned by day--at night it becomes
terrible; it seems to breathe the hidden viciousness of its past, as if
its ruins were the tombs of its bygone criminals.

I kept on the road, passed another carcass and drew abreast of a third,
which I stepped out of the road to examine. Both its floors had long
before I was born dropped into its cellar; its threshold beneath my feet
was slippery with green slime; I looked up through its ribs, from which
hung festoons of cobwebs and dead vines, like shreds of dried flesh
hanging from a skeleton.

Still pursuing my way, I came across an old well; the bucket was drawn
up and its chain wet; it was the first sign of habitation I had come
across. As my hand touched the windlass, I instinctively gave it a turn;
it creaked dismally and a dog barked savagely at the sound from
somewhere up the hillside; then the sharp, snappy yelping of other dogs
higher up followed.

I stopped, felt in my pockets and slipped two shells into my gun,
heavily loaded for duck, with the feeling that if I were forced to shoot
I would hold high over their heads. As I closed the breech of my gun and
clicked back my hammers to be ready for any emergency, the tall figure
of a man loomed up in the grassy road ahead of me, his legs in a ray of
moonlight, the rest of him in shadow.

"Does this road lead out to the main road?" I called to him, not being
any too sure that it did.

"Who is there?" he demanded sharply and in perfect French; then he
advanced and I saw that the heavy stick he carried with a firm grip was
mounted in silver.

"A hunter, monsieur," I returned pleasantly, noticing now his dress and
bearing.

It was so dark where we stood, that I could not yet distinguish his
features.

"May I ask you, monsieur, whom I have the pleasure of meeting," I
ventured, my mind now more at rest.

He strode toward me.

"My name is de Brissac," said he, extending his hand. "Forgive me," he
added with a good-natured laugh, "if I startled you; it is hardly the
place to meet a gentleman in at this hour. Have you missed your way?"

"No," I replied, "I shot late and took a short cut to reach my home." I
pointed in the direction of the marshes while I searched his face which
was still shrouded in gloom, in my effort to see what manner of man I
had run across.

"And have you had good luck?" he inquired with a certain meaning in his
voice, as if he was still in doubt regarding my trespass.

"Not worth speaking of," I returned in as calm a voice as I could
muster; "the birds are mostly gone. And do you shoot also, may I ask?"

"It is an incorrigible habit with me," he confessed in a more reassured
tone. "I have, however, not done so badly of late with the birds; I
killed seventeen plovers this morning--a fine lot."

Here his tone changed. All his former reserve had vanished. "Come with
me," said he; "I insist; I'll show you what I killed; they make a pretty
string, I assure you. You shall see, too, presently, my house; it is the
one with the new roof. Do you happen to have seen it?"

This came with a certain note of seriousness in his voice.

"No, but I am certain it must be a luxury in the débris," I laughed;
"but," I added, "I am afraid I must postpone the pleasure until another
time." I was still undecided as to my course.

Again his tone changed to one of extreme courtesy, as if he had been
quick to notice my hesitation.

"I know it is late," said he, "but I must insist on your accepting my
hospitality. The main road lies at the end of the plateau, and I will
see you safely out to it and on your way home."

I paused before answering. Under the circumstances, I knew, I could not
very well refuse, and yet I had a certain dread of accepting too easily.
In France such refusals are sometimes considered as insults. "Thank
you," I said at last, resolved to see the adventure out; "I accept with
pleasure," adding with a laugh and speaking to his shadowy bulk, for I
could not yet see his face:

"What silent mystery, what an uncanny fascination this place has about
it! Even our meeting seems part of it. Don't you think so?"

"Yes, there is a peculiar charm here," he replied, in a more cautious
tone as he led me into a narrow trail, "a charm that has taken hold of
me, so that I bury myself here occasionally; it is a rest from Paris."

From Paris, eh? I thought--then he does not belong to the coast.

I edged nearer, determined now to catch a glimpse of his features, the
light of the moon having grown stronger. As he turned, its rays
illumined his face and at the same instant a curious gleam flashed into
his eyes.

Again the Baron da Granja stood before me.

Da Granja! the rich Brazilian! President of one of the biggest foreign
banks in Paris. Man of the world, with a string of horses famous for
years on a dozen race tracks. What the devil was he doing here? Had the
cares of his bank driven him to such a lonely hermitage as La Poche? It
seemed incredible, and yet there was not the slightest doubt as to his
identity--I had seen him too often to be mistaken. His voice, too, now
came back to me.

He strode on, and for some minutes kept silent, then he stopped suddenly
and in a voice in which the old doubting tones were again audible said:

"You are English?"

Here he barred the path.

"No," I answered, a little ill at ease at his sudden change of manner.
"American, from New York."

"And yet, I think I have seen you in Paris," he replied, after a
moment's hesitation, his eyes boring into mine, which the light of the
moon now made clear to him.

"It is quite possible," I returned calmly; "I think I have seen you
also, monsieur; I am often in Paris."

Again he looked at me searchingly.

"Where?" he asked.

"At the Government's store, buying cigars." I did not intend to go any
further.

He smiled as if relieved. He had been either trying to place me, or his
suspicions had been again aroused, I could not tell which. One thing was
certain: he was convinced I had swallowed the name "de Brissac" easily.

All at once his genial manner returned. "This way, to the right," he
exclaimed. "Pardon me if I lead the way; the path is winding. My ruin,
as I sometimes call it, is only a little farther up, and you shall have
a long whiskey and siphon when you get there. You know Pont du Sable, of
course," he continued as I kept in his tracks; the talk having again
turned on his love of sport.

"Somewhat. I live there."

This time the surprise was his.

"Is it possible?" he cried, laying his hand on my shoulder, his face
alight.

"Yes, my house is the once-abandoned one with the wall down by the
marsh."

"Ah!" he burst out, "so you are _the_ American, the newcomer, the man I
have heard so much about, the man who is always shooting; and how the
devil, may I ask, did you come to settle in Pont du Sable?"

"Well, you see, every one said it was such a wretched hole that I felt
there must be some good in it. I have found it charming, and with the
shooting it has become an old friend. I am glad also to find that you
like it well enough to (it was I who hesitated now) to visit it."

"Yes, to shoot is always a relief," he answered evasively, and then in a
more determined voice added, "This way, to the right, over the rocks!
Come, give me your gun! The stones are slippery."

"No, I will carry it," I replied. "I am used to carrying it," and though
my voice did not betray me, I proposed to continue to carry it. It was
at least a protection against a walking stick with a silver top. My mind
being still occupied with his suspicions, his inquiries, and most of all
his persistence that I should visit his house, with no other object in
view than a whiskey and siphon and a string of plovers. And yet, despite
the gruesomeness of the surroundings, while alert as to his slightest
move, I was determined to see the adventure through.

He did not insist, but turned sharply to the left, and the next instant
I stood before the threshold of a low stone house with a new tiled roof.
A squat, snug house, the eaves of whose steep gabled roof came down well
over its two stories, like the snuffer on a candle. He stepped to the
threshold, felt about the door as if in search for a latch, and rapped
three times with the flat of his hand. Then he called softly:

"Léa!"

"_C'est toi?_" came in answer, and a small hand cautiously opened a
heavy overhead shutter, back of which a shaded lamp was burning.

"Yes, it is all right, it is I," said he. "Come down! I have a surprise
for you. I have captured an American."

There came the sound of tripping feet, the quick drawing of a heavy
bolt, and the door opened.

My little lady of the Pré Catelan!

Not in a tea-gown from the Rue de la Paix--nothing of that kind
whatever; not a ruffle, not a jewel--but clothed in the well-worn
garment of a fisher girl of the coast--a coarse homespun chemise of
linen, open at the throat, and a still coarser petticoat of blue, faded
by the salt sea--a fisher girl's petticoat that stopped at her knees,
showing her trim bare legs and the white insteps of her little feet,
incased in a pair of heelless felt slippers.

For the second time I was treated to a surprise. Really, Pont du Sable
was not so dead a village after all.

Emile was wrong. She was one of my village people.

My host did not notice my astonishment, but waved his hand courteously.

"_Entrez_, monsieur!" he cried with a laugh, and then, turning sharply,
he closed the door and bolted it.

I looked about me.

We were in a rough little room, that would have won any hunter's heart;
there were solid racks, heavy with guns, on the walls, a snapping wood
fire, and a clean table, laid for dinner, and lastly, the chair quickly
drawn to it for the waiting guest. This last they laughingly forced me
into, for they both insisted I should dine with them--an invitation
which I gladly accepted, for my fears were now completely allayed.

We talked of the neighbourhood, of hunting, of Paris, of the new play at
the Nouveautés--I did not mention the Bois. One rarely mentions in
France having seen a woman out of her own home, although I was sure she
remembered me from a look which now and then came into her eyes that
left but little doubt in my mind that she vaguely recalled the incident
at the Pré Catelan with the cow.

It was a simple peasant dinner which followed. When it was over, he
went to a corner cupboard and drew forth a flat box of long perfectos,
which I recognized instantly as the same brand of rare Havanas he had so
extravagantly purchased from the Government. If I had had my doubt as to
the identity of my man it was at rest now.

"You will find them mild," said he with a smile, as he lifted the
tinfoil cover.

"No good cigar is strong," I replied, breaking the untouched row and
bending my head as my host struck a match, my mind more on the scene in
the Government's shop than the quality of his tobacco. And yet with all
the charm that the atmosphere of his place afforded, two things still
seemed to me strange--the absence of a servant, until I realized
instinctively the incident of the balky cow, and the prompt bolting of
the outside door.

The first I explained to myself as being due to her peasant blood and
her ability to help herself; the second to the loneliness of the place
and the characters it sometimes harboured. As for my host, I had to
admit, despite my mental queries, that his bearing and manner
completely captivated me, for a more delightful conversationalist it
would have been difficult to find.

Not only did he know the art of eliminating himself and amusing you with
topics that pleased you, but his cleverness in avoiding the personal was
amazingly skilful. His tact was especially accentuated when, with a
significant look at his companion, who at once rose from her seat and,
crossing the room, busied herself with choosing the liqueurs from a
closet in the corner of the room, he drew me aside by the fire, and in a
calm, sotto voce said with intense earnestness:

"You may think it strange, monsieur, that I invited you, that I was even
insistent. You, like myself, are a man of the world and can understand.
You will do me a great favour if you will not mention to any one having
met either myself or my little housekeeper" (there was not a tremor in
his voice), "who, as you see, is a peasant; in fact, she was born here.
We are not bothered with either friends or acquaintances here, nor do we
care for prowlers; you must excuse me for at first taking you for one.
You, of course, know the reputation of La Poche."

"You could not have chosen a better place to be lost in," I answered,
smiling as discreetly as one should over the confession of another's
love affair. "Moreover, in life I have found it the best policy to keep
one's mouth shut. You have my word, monsieur--it is as if we had never
met--as if La Poche did not exist."

"Thank you," said he calmly, taking the tiny liqueur glasses from her
hands; "what will you have--cognac or green chartreuse?"

"Chartreuse," I answered quietly. My eye had caught the labels which I
knew to be genuine from the Grenoble printer.

"Ah! you knew it--_Dieu!_ but it is good, that old chartreuse!"
exclaimed my hostess with a rippling laugh as she filled my glass, "we
are lucky to find it."

Then something happened which even now sends a cold chill down my spine.
Hardly had I raised my glass to my lips when there came a sharp,
determined rap at the bolted door, and my host sprang to his feet. For
a moment no one spoke--I turned instinctively to look at my lady of the
Pré Catelan. She was breathing with dilated eyes, her lips drawn and
quivering, every muscle of her lithe body trembling. He was standing
erect, his head thrown back, his whole body tense. One hand gripped the
back of his chair, the other was outstretched authoritatively toward us
as if to command our silence.

Again the rapping, this time violent, insistent.

"Who is there?" he demanded, after what seemed to me an interminable
moment of suspense.

With this he slipped swiftly through a door leading into a narrow
corridor, closed another door at the end of the passage, broke the key
in the lock and returned on tiptoe as noiselessly as he left the room.
Then picking up the lamp he placed it under the table, thus deadening
its glow.

Now a voice rang out, "Open in the name of the Law."

No one moved.

He again gripped the back of the chair, his face deathly white, his jaw
set, his eyes with a sullen gleam in them.

I turned to look at her. Her hands were outstretched on the table, her
dilated eyes staring straight at the bolt as if her whole life depended
on its strength.

Again came the command to open, this time in a voice that allowed no
question as to the determination of the outsider:

"Open in the name of the Law."

No one moved or answered.

A crashing thud, from a heavy beam, snapped the bolt from its screws,
another blow tore loose the door. Through the opening and over the
débris sprang a short, broad-shouldered man in a gray suit, while three
other heavily built men entered, barring the exit.

The woman screamed and fell forward on the table, her head buried in her
clenched hands. The Baron faced the one in gray.

"What do you want?" he stammered in the voice of a ghost.

"You, Pedro Maceiö," said the man in the gray suit, in a low, even tone,
"for the last trick you will pull off in some years; open up things, do
you hear? All of it, and quick."

The Brazilian did not reply; he stood behind his chair, eyeing sullenly
the man in gray, who now held a revolver at a level with his heart.

Then the man in gray called to one of his men, his eye still on the
banker. "Break in the door at the end of the passage."

With the quickness of a cat, the Brazilian grabbed the chair and with a
swinging blow tried to fell his assailant and dash past him. The man in
gray dodged and pocketed his weapon. The next instant he had his
prisoner by the throat and had slammed him against the wall; then came
the sharp click of a pair of handcuffs. The banker tripped and fell to
the floor.

It had all happened so quickly that I was dazed as I looked on. What it
was all about I did not know. It seemed impossible that my host, a man
whose bank was well known in Paris, was really a criminal. Were the
intruders from the police? Or was it a clever ruse of four determined
burglars?

I began now to gather my wits and think of myself, although so far not
one of the intruders had taken the slightest notice of my presence.

One of the men was occupied in breaking open the door at the end of the
corridor, while another stood guard over the now sobbing, hysterical
woman. The fourth had remained at the open doorway.

As for the prisoner, who had now regained his feet, he had sunk into the
chair he had used in defence and sat there staring at the floor,
breathing in short gasps.

The man who had been ordered by his chief to break open the door at the
end of the corridor, now returned and laid upon the dinner table two
engraved metal plates, and a handful of new one-hundred-franc notes;
some I noticed from where I sat were blank on one side. With the plates
came the acrid stench of a broken bottle of acid.

"My God! Counterfeiting!" I exclaimed half aloud.

The Baron rose from his seat and stretched out his linked hands.

"She is innocent," he pleaded huskily, lifting his eyes to the woman. I
could not repress a feeling of profound pity for him.

The man in gray made no reply; instead he turned to me.

"I shall escort you, too, monsieur," he remarked coolly.

"Escort me? _Me?_ What have I got to do with it, I'd like to know?" I
cried, springing to my feet. "I wish to explain--to make clear to
you--_clear_. I want you to understand that I stumbled here by the
merest chance; that I never spoke to this man in my life until to-night,
that I accepted his hospitality purely because I did not wish to offend
him, although I had shot late and was in a hurry to get home."

He smiled quietly.

"Please do not worry," he returned, "we know all about you. You are the
American. Your house is the old one by the marsh in Pont du Sable. I
called on you this afternoon, but you were absent. I am really indebted
to you if you do but know it. By following your tracks, monsieur, we
stumbled on the nest we have so long been looking for. Permit me to hand
you my card. My name is Guinard--Sous Chief of the Paris Police."

I breathed easier--things were clearing up.

"And may I ask, monsieur, how you knew I had gone in the direction of La
Poche?" I inquired. That was still a mystery.

"You have a little maid," he replied; "and little maids can sometimes be
made to talk."

He paused and then said slowly, weighing each word.

"Yes, that no doubt surprises you, but we follow every clue. You were
both sportsmen; that, as you know, monsieur, is always a bond, and we
had not long to wait, although it was too dark for us to be quite sure
when you both passed me. It was the bolting of the door that clinched
the matter for me. But for the absence of two of my men on another scent
we should have disturbed you earlier. I must compliment you, monsieur,
on your knowledge of chartreuse as well as your taste for good cigars;
permit me to offer you another." Here he slipped his hand into his
pocket and handed me a duplicate of the one I had been smoking.

"Twelve boxes, Maceiö, were there not? Not expensive, eh, when purchased
with these?" and he spread out the identical bank-notes with which his
prisoner had paid for them in the Government store on the boulevard.

"As for you, monsieur, it is only necessary that one of my men take your
statement at your house; after that you are free.

"Come, Maceiö," and he shook the prisoner by the shoulder, "you take the
midnight train with me back to Paris--you too, madame."

       *       *       *       *       *

And so I say again, and this time you must agree with me, that strange
happenings, often with a note of terror in them, occur now and then in
my lost village by the sea.

      [Illustration: cigar]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: soldiers]



CHAPTER SEVEN

THE HORRORS OF WAR


At the very beginning of the straggling fishing-village of Pont du Sable
and close by the tawny marsh stands the little stone house of the mayor.
The house, like Monsieur le Maire himself, is short and sturdy. Its
modest façade is half hidden under a coverlet of yellow roses that have
spread at random over the tiled roof as high as the chimney. In front,
edging the road, is a tidy strip of garden with more roses, a wood-pile,
and an ancient well whose stone roof shelters a worn windlass that
groans in protest whenever its chain and bucket are disturbed.

I heard the windlass complaining this sunny morning as I passed on my
way through the village and caught sight of the ruddy mayor in his blue
blouse lowering the bucket. The chain snapped taut, the bucket gulped
its fill, and Monsieur le Maire caught sight of me.

"_Ah bigre!_" he exclaimed as he left the bucket where it hung and came
forward with both hands outstretched in welcome, a smile wrinkling his
genial face, clean-shaven to the edges of his short, cropped gray
side-whiskers, reaching well beneath his chin. "Come in, come in," he
insisted, laying a persuasive hand on my shoulder, as he unlatched his
gate.

It is almost impossible for a friend to pass the mayor's without being
stopped by just such a welcome. The twinkle in his eyes and the hearty
genuineness of his greeting are irresistible. The next moment you have
crossed his threshold and entered a square, low-ceiled room that for
over forty years has served Monsieur le Maire as living room, kitchen,
and executive chamber.

He had left me for a moment, as he always does when he welcomes a
friend. I could hear from the pantry cupboard beyond the shivery tinkle
of glasses as they settled on a tray. He had again insisted, as he
always does, upon my occupying the armchair in the small parlour
adjoining, with its wax flowers and its steel engraving of Napoleon at
Waterloo; but I had protested as I always do, for I prefer the kitchen.

I like its cavernous fireplace with its crane and spit, and the low
ceiling upheld by great beams of rough-hewn oak, and the tall clock in
the corner, and the hanging copper saucepans, kettles and ladles, kept
as bright as polished gold. Here, too, is a generous Norman armoire with
carved oaken doors swung on bar-hinges of shining steel, and a
centre-table provided with a small bottle of violet ink, a scratchy pen
and an iron seal worked by a lever--a seal that has grown dull from long
service in the stamping of certain documents relative to plain justice,
marriage, the official recognition of the recently departed and the
newly born. Above the fireplace hangs a faded photograph of a prize
bull, for you must know that Monsieur le Maire has been for half a
generation a dealer in Norman cattle.

Presently he returned with the tray, placing it upon the table within
reach of our chairs while I stood admiring the bull.

He stopped as he half drew the cork from a fat brown jug, and looked at
me curiously, his voice sinking almost to a whisper.

"You never were a dealer in beef?" he ventured timidly.

I shook my head sadly.

"_Hélas! Hélas!_ Never mind," said he. "One cannot be everything.
There's my brother-in-law, Péquin; he does not know a yearling from a
three-year-old. It is he who keeps the little store at Saint Philippe."

The cork squeaked out. He filled the thimble glasses with rare old
applejack so skilfully that another drop would have flushed over their
worn gilt rims. What a gracious old gentleman he is! If it be a question
of clipping a rose from his tidy garden and presenting it to a lady, he
does it with such a gentle courtliness that the rose smells the sweeter
for it--almost a lost art nowadays.

"I saw the curé this morning," he remarked, as we settled ourselves for
a chat. "He could not stop, but he waved me an _au revoir_, for he was
in a hurry to catch his train. He had been all night in his
duck-blind--I doubt if he had much luck, for the wind is from the south.
There is a fellow for you who loves to shoot," chuckled the mayor.

"Some news for him of game?" I inquired.

The small eyes of the mayor twinkled knowingly. "_Entre nous_," he
confided, "he has gone to Bonvilette to spray the sick roses of a friend
with sulphate of iron--he borrowed my squirt-gun yesterday."

"And how far is it to Bonvilette?"

"_Eh ben!_ One must go by the little train to Nivelle," explained
Monsieur le Maire, "and from Nivelle to Bonvilette there lies a good
twenty kilometres for a horse. Let us say he will be back in three
days."

"And the mass meanwhile?" I ventured.

"_Mon Dieu!_ What will you have? The roses of his old friend are sick.
It is the duty of a curé to tend the sick. Besides----"

Here Monsieur le Maire leaned forward within reach of my ear, and I
caught in whispers something relative to a château and one of the best
cellars of Bordeaux in France.

"Naturally," I replied, with a wink, and again my eyes reverted to the
prize bull. It is not wise to raise one's voice in so small a village as
Pont du Sable, even indoors.

"A pretty beast!" affirmed the mayor, noticing my continued interest in
live stock. "And let me tell you that I took him to England in
'eighty-two. _Ah, mais oui! Hélas! Hélas!_ What a trip!" he sighed.
"Monsieur Toupinet--he that has the big farm at Saint Philippe--and I
sailed together the third of October, in 1882, with forty steers. Our
ship was called _The Souvenir_, and I want to tell you, my friend, it
wasn't gay, that voyage. _Ah, mais non!_ Toupinet was sea-sick--I was
sea-sick--the steers were sea-sick--all except that _sacré_ brute up
there, and he roared all the way from Calais to London. _Eh ben!_ And
would you believe it?" At the approaching statement Monsieur le Maire's
countenance assumed a look of righteous indignation. He raised his fist
and brought it down savagely on the table as he declared: "Would you
believe it? We were _thirty-four hours_ without eating and _twenty-nine
hours, mon Dieu!_ without drinking!"

I looked up in pained astonishment.

"And that wasn't all," continued the mayor. "A hurricane struck us three
hours out, and we rolled all night in a dog's sea. The steers were up to
their bellies in water. Aye, but she did blow, and _The Souvenir_ had
all she could do to keep afloat. The captain was lashed to the bridge
all night and most of the next day. Neither Toupinet nor myself ever
expected to see land again, and there we were like calves in a pen on
the floor of the cabin full of tobacco-smoke and English, and not a word
of English could we speak except 'yes' and 'good morning.'" Here
Monsieur le Maire stopped and choked. Finally he dried his eyes on the
sleeve of his blouse, for he was wheezing with laughter, took a sip from
his glass, and resumed:

"Well, the saints did not desert us. _Ah, mais non!_ For about four
o'clock in the afternoon the captain sighted Su-Tum-Tum."

"Sighted what?" I exclaimed.

"_Eh ben!_ Su-Tum-Tum," he replied.

"Where had you drifted? To the Corean coast?"

"_Mais non_," he retorted, annoyed at my dullness to comprehend. "We
were saved--_comprenez-vous?_--for there, to starboard, lay Su-Tum-Tum
as plain as a sheep's nose."

"England? Impossible!" I returned.

"_Mais parfaitement!_" he declared, with a hopeless gesture.
"_Su-Tum-Tum_," he reiterated slowly for my benefit.

"Never heard of it," I replied.

The next instant he was out of his chair, and fumbling in a drawer of
the table extracted a warped atlas, reseated himself, and began to turn
the pages.

"_Eh, voilà!_" he cried as his forefinger stopped under a word along the
English coast. "That's Su-Tum-Tum plain enough, isn't it?"

"Ah! Southampton!" I exclaimed. "Of course--plain as day."

"Ah!" ejaculated the mayor, leaning back in his chair with a broad smile
of satisfaction. "You see, I was right, Su-Tum-Tum. _Eh ben!_ Do you
know," he said gently as I left him, "when you first came to Pont du
Sable there were times then, my poor friend, when I could not understand
a word you said in French."

Then, as if a sudden thought had struck him, he called me back as he
closed the gate.

"Are those gipsies still camped outside your wall?" he inquired,
suddenly assuming the dignity of his office. "_Bon Dieu!_ They are a bad
lot, those vagabonds! If I don't tell them to be off you won't have a
duck or a chicken left."

"Let them stay," I pleaded, "they do no harm. Besides, I like to see the
light of their camp-fire at night scurrying over my wall."

"How many are there?" inquired his excellency.

"Seven or eight, not counting the dogs chained under the wagons," I
confessed reluctantly, fearing the hand of the law, for I have a
fondness for gipsies. "But you need not worry about them. They won't
steal from me. Their wagons are clean inside and out."

"_Ah, mais!_" sighed the mayor. "It's just like you. You spoil your
cat, you spoil your dog, and now you're spoiling these rascals by giving
them a snug berth. Have they their papers of identity?"

"Yes," I called back, "the chief showed them to me when he asked
permission to camp."

"Of course," laughed the mayor. "You'll never catch them without
them--signed by officials we never can trace."

He waved me a cheery _au revoir_ and returned to the well of the
groaning windlass while I continued on my way through the village.

Outside the squat stone houses, nets were drying in the sun. Save for
the occasional rattle of a passing cart, the village was silent, for
these fisher-folk go barefooted. Presently I reached the public square,
where nothing ever happens, and, turning an iron handle, entered Pont du
Sable's only store. A box of a place, smelling of dried herring,
kerosene, and cheese; and stocked with the plain necessities--almost
everything, from lard, tea, and big nails to soap, tarpaulins, and
applejack. The night's catch of mackerel had been good, and the small
room with its zinc bar was noisy with fisher-folk--wiry fishermen with
legs and chests as hard as iron; slim brown fisher girls as hardy as the
men, capricious, independent and saucy; a race of blonds for the most
part, with the temperament of brunettes. Old women grown gray and
leathery from fighting the sea, and old men too feeble to go--one of
these hung himself last winter because of this.

It was here, too, I found Marianne, dripping wet, in her tarpaulins.

"What luck?" I asked her as I helped myself to a package of cigarettes
from a pigeonhole and laid the payment thereof on the counter.

"_Eh ben!_" she laughed. "We can't complain. If the good God would send
us such fishing every night we should eat well enough."

She strode through the group to the counter to thrust out an empty
bottle.

"Eight sous of the best," she demanded briskly of the mild-eyed grocer.
"My man's as wet as a rat--he needs some fire in him and he'll feel as
fit as a marquis."

A good catch is a tonic to Pont du Sable. Instantly a spirit of good
humour and camaraderie spreads through the village--even old scores are
forgotten. A good haul of mackerel means a let-up in the daily struggle
for existence, which in winter becomes terrible. The sea knows not
charity. It massacres when it can and adds you to the line of dead
things along its edge where you are only remembered by the ebb and flow
of the tide. On blue calm mornings, being part of the jetsam, you may
glisten in the sun beside a water-logged spar; at night you become a
nonentity, of no more consequence along the wavering line of drift than
a rotten gull. But if, like Marianne, you have fought skilfully, you may
again enter Pont du Sable with a quicker eye, a harder body, and a
deeper knowledge of the southwest gale.

       *       *       *       *       *

Within the last week Pont du Sable has undergone a transformation. The
dead village is alive with soldiers, for it is the time of the
manoeuvres. Houses, barns and cow-sheds are filled by night with the
red-trousered infantry of the French _République_. By day, the window
panes shiver under the distant flash and roar of artillery. The air
vibrates with the rip and rattle of musketry--savage volleys, filling
the heavens with shrill, vicious waves of whistling bullets that kill at
a miraculous distance. It is well that all this murderous fire occurs
beyond the desert of dunes skirting the open sea, for they say the
result upon the iron targets on the marsh is something frightful. The
general in command is in a good humour over the record.

Despatch-bearers gallop at all hours of the day and night through Pont
du Sable's single street. The band plays daily in the public square.
Sunburned soldiers lug sacks of provisions and bundles of straw out to
five hundred more men bivouacked on the dunes. Whole regiments return to
the little fishing-village at twilight singing gay songs, followed by
the fisher girls.

    Ah! Mesdames--voilà du bon fromage!
    Celui qui l'a fait il est de son village!
    Voilà du bon fromage au lait!
    Il est du pays de celui qui l'a fait.

Three young officers are stopping at Monsieur le Curé's, who has
returned from the sick roses of his friend; and Tanrade has a colonel
and two lieutenants beneath his roof. As for myself and the house
abandoned by the marsh, we are very much occupied with a blustering old
general, his aide-de-camp, and two common soldiers; but I tremble lest
the general should discover the latter two, for you see, they knocked at
my door for a lodging before the general arrived, and I could not refuse
them. Both of them put together would hardly make a full-sized warrior,
and both play the slide-trombone in the band. Naturally their artistic
temperament revolted at the idea of sleeping in the only available place
left in the village--a cow-shed with cows. They explained this to me
with so many polite gestures, mingled with an occasional salute at their
assured gratefulness should I acquiesce, that I turned them over for
safe keeping to Suzette, who has given them her room and sleeps in the
garret. Suzette is overjoyed. Dream of dreams! For Suzette to have one
real live soldier in the house--but to have two! Both of these
red-eared, red-trousered dispensers of harmony are perfect in
deportment, and as quiet as mice. They slip out of my back gate at
daylight, bound for the seat of war and slip in again at sundown like
obedient children, talk in kitchen whispers to Suzette over hot cakes
and cider, and go punctually to bed at nine--the very hour when the
roaring old general and his aide-de-camp are toasting their gold spurs
before my fire.

       *       *       *       *       *

The general is tall and broad-shouldered, and as agile as a boy. There
is a certain hard, compact firmness about him as if he had been cast in
bronze. His alert eyes are either flashing in authority or beaming in
gentleness. The same play between dominant roughness and tenderness is
true, too, of his voice and manner.

"Madame," he said, last night, after dinner, as he bent and graciously
kissed Alice de Bréville's hand, "forgive an old savage who pays you
homage and the assurance of his profound respect." The next moment my
courtyard without rocked with his reprimand to a bungling lieutenant.

To-night the general is in an uproar of good humour after a storm, for
did not some vagabonds steal the danger-posts intended to warn the
public of the location of the firing-line, so that new ones had to be
sent for? When the news of the theft reached him his rage was something
to behold. I could almost hear the little slide-trombonists shake as far
back as Suzette's kitchen. Fortunately, the cyclone was of short
duration--to-night he is pleased over the good work of his men during
the days of mock warfare and at the riddled, twisted targets, all of
which is child's play to this veteran who has weathered so many real
battles.

To-night he has dined well, and his big hand is stroking the Essence of
Selfishness who purrs against his medalled chest under a caress as
gentle as a woman's. He sings his favourite airs from "Faust" and "Aïda"
with gusto, and roars over the gallant stories of his aide-de-camp, who,
being from the south of _La belle France_, is never at a loss for a
tale--tales that make the general's medals twinkle merrily in the
firelight. It is my first joyful experience as host to the military,
but I cannot help being nervous over Suzette and the trombonists.

"Bah! Those _sacré_ musicians!" exclaimed the general to-night as he
puffed at his cigarette. "If there's a laggard in my camp, you may be
sure it is one of those little devils with a horn or a whistle. _Mon
Dieu!_ Once during the manoeuvres outside of Périgord I found three of
them who refused to sleep on the ground--stole off and begged a lodging
in a château, _parbleu!_"

"Ah--indeed?" I stammered meekly.

"Yes, they did," he bellowed, "but I cured them." I saw the muscles in
his neck flush crimson, and tried to change the subject, but in vain.

"If they do that in time of peace, they'll do the same in war," he
thundered.

"Naturally," I murmured, my heart in my throat. The aide-de-camp grunted
his approval while the general ran his hand over the gray bristles on
his scarred head.

"Favours!" roared the general. "Favours, eh? When my men sleep on the
ground in rough weather, I sleep with them. What sort of discipline do
you suppose I'd have if I did not share their hardships time and time
again? Winter campaigns, forced marches--twenty-four hours of it
sometimes in mountain snow. Bah! That is nothing! They need that
training to go through worse, and yet those good fellows of mine,
heavily loaded, never complain. I've seen it so hot, too, that it would
melt a man's boots. It is always one of those imbeciles, then, with
nothing heavier to carry than a clarinet, who slips off to a comfortable
farm."

"_Bien entendu, mon général!_" agreed his aide-de-camp tersely as he
leaned forward and kindled a fresh cigarette over the candle-shade.

Happily I noticed at that moment that the cigarette-box needed
replenishing. It was an excuse at least to leave the room. A moment
later I had tiptoed to the closed kitchen door and stood listening.
Suzette was laughing. The trombonists were evidently very much at ease.
They, too, were laughing. Little pleasantries filtered through the
crack in the heavy door that made me hold my breath. Then I heard the
gurgle of cider poured into a glass, followed swiftly by what I took to
be unmistakably a kiss.

It was all as plain now as Su-Tum-Tum. I dared not break in upon them.
Had I opened the door, the general might have recognized their voices.
Meanwhile, silly nothings were demoralizing the heart of my good
Suzette. She would fall desperately in love with either one or the other
of those _sacré_ virtuosos. Then another thought struck me! One of them
might be Suzette's sweetheart, hailing from her own village, the
manoeuvres at Pont du Sable a lucky meeting for them. A few sentences
that I now hurriedly caught convinced me of my own denseness in not
having my suspicions aroused when they singled out my domain and begged
my hospitality.

The situation was becoming critical. By the light of the crack I
scribbled the following:

"Get those two imbeciles of yours hidden in the hay-loft, quick. The
general wants to see the kitchen," and slipped it under the door,
coughing gently in warning.

There was an abrupt silence--the sound of Suzette's slippered feet--and
the scrap of paper disappeared. Then heavy, excited breathing within.

I dashed upstairs and was down again with the cigarettes before the
general had remarked my tardiness to his aide. At midnight I lighted
their candles and saw them safely up to bed. Then I went to my room
fronting the marsh and breathed easier.

"Her sweetheart from her own village," I said to myself as I blew out my
candle. "The other"--I sighed drowsily--"was evidently his cousin. The
mayor was right. I have a bad habit of spoiling people and pets."

Then again my mind reverted to the general. What if he discovered them?
My only consolation now was that to-day had seen the end of the
manoeuvres, and the soldiers would depart by a daylight train in the
morning. I recalled, too, the awkward little speech of thanks for my
hospitality the trombonists had made to me at an opportune moment
before dinner. Finally I fell into a troubled sleep.

Suzette brought me my coffee at seven.

"Luckily the general did not discover them!" I exclaimed when Suzette
had closed the double door of my bedroom.

"_Mon Dieu!_ What danger we have run!" whispered the little maid. "I
could not sleep, monsieur, thinking of it."

"You got them safely to the haymow?" I inquired anxiously.

"Oh! _Mais oui_, monsieur. But then they slept over the cider-press back
of the big casks. Monsieur advised the hay-loft, but they said the roof
leaked. And had it rained, monsieur--"

"See here," I interrupted, eyeing her trim self from head to foot
savagely. "You've known that little devil with the red ears before."

I saw Suzette pale.

"Confess!" I exclaimed hoarsely, with a military gesture of impatience.
"He comes from your village. Is it not so, my child?"

Suzette was silent, her plump hands twisting nervously at her apron
pocket.

"I am right, am I not? I might have guessed as much when they came."

"Oh, monsieur!" Suzette faltered, the tears welling up from the depths
of her clear trustful eyes.

"Is it not so?" I insisted.

"Oh! Oh! _Mon Dieu, oui_," she confessed half audibly. "He--he is the
son of our neighbor, Monsieur Jacot."

"At Saint Philippe?"

"At Saint Philippe, monsieur. We were children together, Gaston and I.
I--I--was glad to see him again, monsieur," sobbed the little maid. "He
is very nice, Gaston."

"When are you to be married?" I ventured after a moment's pause.

"_Ben--eh ben!_ In two years, monsieur--after Gaston finishes his
military service. He--has a good trade, monsieur."

"Soloist?" I asked grimly.

"No, monsieur--tailor for ladies. We shall live in Paris," she added,
and for an instant her eyes sparkled; then again their gaze reverted to
the now sadly twisted apron pocket, for I was silent.

"No more Suzette then!" I said to myself. No more merry, willing little
maid-of-all-work! No more hot mussels steaming in a savory sauce! Her
purée of peas, her tomato farcies, the stuffed artichokes, and her
coffee the like of which never before existed, would vanish with the
rest. But true love cannot be argued. There was nothing to do but to
hold out my hand in forgiveness. As I did so the general rang for his
coffee.

"_Mon Dieu!_" gasped Suzette. "He rings." And flew down to her kitchen.

An hour later the general was sauntering leisurely up the road through
the village over his morning cigar. The daylight train, followed rapidly
by four extra sections, had cleared Pont du Sable of all but two of the
red-trousered infantry--my trombonists! They had arrived an hour and
twenty minutes late, winded and demoralized. They sat together outside
the locked station unable to speak, pale and panic-stricken.

The first object that caught the general's eye as he slowly turned into
the square by the little station was their four red-trousered legs--then
he caught the glint of their two brass trombones. The next instant heads
appeared at the windows. It was as if a bomb had suddenly exploded in
the square.

The two trombonists were now on their feet, shaking from head to foot
while they saluted their general, whose ever-approaching stride struck
fresh agony to their hearts. He was roaring:

"_Canailles! Imbéciles!_ A month of prison!" and "_Sacré bon Dieu's!_"
were all jumbled together. "Overslept! Overslept, did you?" he bellowed.
"In a château, I'll wager. _Parbleu!_ Where then? Out with it!"

"_Pardon, mon général!_" chattered Gaston. "It was in the stone house of
the American gentleman by the marsh."

       *       *       *       *       *

We lunched together in my garden at noon. He had grown calm again under
the spell of the Burgundy, but Suzette, I feared, would be ill.

"Come, be merciful," I pleaded.

"He is the fiancé of my good Suzette; besides, you must not forget that
you were all my guests."

The general shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "They were lucky to have
gotten off with a month!" he snapped. "You saw that those little devils
were handcuffed?" he asked of his aide.

"Yes, my general, the gendarme attended to them."

"You were my guests," I insisted. "Hold me responsible if you wish."

"Hold _you_ responsible!" he exclaimed. "But you are a foreigner--it
would be a little awkward."

"It is my good Suzette," I continued, "that I am thinking of."

He leaned back in his chair, and for a moment again ran his hands
thoughtfully over the bristles of his scarred head. He had a daughter of
his own.

"The coffee," I said gently to my unhappy Suzette as she passed.

"_Oui! Oui_, monsieur," she sighed, then suddenly mustering up her
courage, she gasped:

"_Oh, mon général!_ Is it true, then, that Gaston must go to jail? _Ah!
Mon Dieu!_"

"_Eh bien_, my girl! It will not kill him, _Sapristi!_ He will be a
better soldier for it."

"Be merciful," I pleaded.

"_Eh bien! Eh bien!_" he retorted. "_Eh bien!_" And cleared his throat.

"Forgive them," I insisted. "They overslept. I don't want Suzette to
marry a jail-bird."

Again he scratched his head and frowned. Suzette was in tears.

"Um! Difficult!" he grumbled. "Order for arrest once given--" Then he
shot a glance at me. I caught a twinkle in his eye.

"_Eh bien!_" he roared. "There--I forgive them! Ah, those _sacré_
musicians!"

Suzette stood there trembling, unable even to thank him, the colour
coming and going in her peasant cheeks.

"Are they free, general?" I asked.

"Yes," he retorted, "both of them."

"Bravo!" I exclaimed.

"Understand that I have done it for the little girl--and _you_. Is that
plain?"

"Perfectly," I replied. "As plain as Su-Tum-Tum!" I added under my
breath as I filled his empty glass in gratefulness to the brim.

"Halt!" shouted the general as the happiest of Suzettes turned toward
her kitchen.

"Eh--um!" he mumbled awkwardly in a voice that had suddenly grown thick.
Then he sprang to his feet and raised his glass.

"A health to the bride!" he cried.

      [Illustration: The general]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: a formal garden]



CHAPTER EIGHT

THE MILLION OF MONSIEUR DE SAVIGNAC


The bay of Pont du Sable, which the incoming tide had so swiftly filled
at daylight, now lay a naked waste of oozing black mud. The birds had
gone with the receding sea, and I was back from shooting, loafing over
my pipe and coffee in a still corner among the roses of my wild garden,
hidden behind the old wall, when that Customhouse soldier-gardener of
mine, Pierre, appeared with the following message:

"Monsieur de Savignac presents his salutations the most distinguished
and begs that monsieur will give him the pleasure of calling on him _à
propos_ of the little spaniel."

What an unexpected and welcome surprise! For weeks I had hunted in vain
for a thoroughbred. I had never hoped to be given one from the kennels
of Monsieur de Savignac's château.

"Enchanted, Pierre!" I cried--"Present my compliments to Monsieur de
Savignac. Tell him how sincerely grateful I am, and say that he may
expect me to-morrow before noon."

I could easily imagine what a beauty my spaniel would be, clean-limbed
and alert like the ones in the coloured lithographs. "No wonder," I
thought, as Pierre left me, "that every peasant for miles around spoke
of this good Monsieur de Savignac's generosity. Here he was giving me a
dog. To me, his American neighbour, whom he had never met!"

As I walked over to the château with Pierre the next morning, I recalled
to my mind the career of this extraordinary man, whose only vice was his
great generosity.

When Monsieur de Savignac was twenty-one he inherited a million francs,
acquired a high hat with a straight brim, a standing collar, well open
at the throat (in fashion then under Napoleon III.), a flowing cravat--a
plush waistcoat with crystal buttons, a plum-coloured broadcloth coat
and trousers of a pale lemon shade, striped with black, gathered tight
at the ankles, their bottoms flouncing over a pair of patent-leather
boots with high heels.

He was tall, strong and good-natured, this lucky Jacques de Savignac,
with a weakness for the fair sex which was appalling, and a charm of
manner as irresistible as his generosity. A clumsy fencer, but a good
comrade--a fellow who could turn a pretty compliment, danced better than
most of the young dandies at court, drove his satin-skinned pair of bays
through the Bois with an easy smile, and hunted hares when the shooting
opened with the dogged tenacity of a veteran poacher.

When he was twenty-one, the Paris that Grévin drew was in the splendour
of an extravagant life that she was never to see again, and never has.
One could _amuse_ one's self then--ah! _Dame, oui!_

There is no emperor now to keep Paris gay.

What suppers at Véfour's! What a brilliant life there was in those days
under the arcades of the dear old Palais Royal, the gay world going
daily to this mondaine cloister to see and be seen--to dine and
wine--to make conquests of the heart and dance daylight quadrilles.

Paris was ordered to be daily _en fête_ and the host at the Tuileries
saw to it that the gaiety did not flag. It was one way at least from
keeping the populace from cutting one another's throats, which they did
later with amazing ferocity.

There were in those good old days under Louis Napoleon plenty of places
to gamble and spend the inherited gold. Ah! it was Rabelaisian enough!
What an age to have been the recipient of a million at twenty-one! It
was like being a king with no responsibilities. No wonder de Savignac
left the university--he had no longer any need of it. He dined now at
the Maison Dorée and was seen nightly at the "Bal Mabille" or the
"Closerie des Lilas," focussing his gold-rimmed monocle on the flying
feet and lace _frou-frous_ of "Diane la Sournoise," or roaring with
laughter as he chucked gold louis into the satined lap of some
"Francine" or "Cora" amid the blare of the band, and the flash of
jewels strung upon fair arms and fairer necks of woman who went nightly
to the "Bal Mabille" in smart turnouts and the costliest gowns money
could buy--and after the last mad quadrille was ended, on he went to
supper at Bignon's where more gaiety reigned until blue dawn, and where
the women were still laughing and merry and danced as easily on the
table as on the floor.

What a time, I say, to have inherited a million! And how many good
friends he had! Painters and musicians, actors and wits (and there
_were_ some in those days)--no king ever gathered around him a jollier
band.

It was from one of these henchmen of his that de Savignac purchased his
château (long since emptied of its furniture)--from a young nobleman
pressed hard for his debts, like most young noblemen are--and so the
great château close to my Village of Vagabonds, and known for miles
around, became de Savignac's.

What house parties he gave then!--men and women of talent flocked under
his hospitable roof--indeed there was no lack of talent--some of it
from the Opéra--some of it from the Conservatoire, and they brought
their voices and their fiddles with them and played and sang for him for
days, in exchange for his feudal hospitality--more than that, the
painter Paul Deschamps covered the ceiling of his music room with chubby
cupids playing golden trumpets and violins--one adorable little fellow
in the cove above the grand piano struggling with a 'cello twice as high
as himself, and Carin painted the history of love in eight panels upon
the walls of the old ballroom, whose frescoes were shabby enough, so I
am told, when de Savignac purchased them.

There were times also when the château was full to overflowing with
guests, so that the late comers were often quartered in a low two-story
manor close by, that nestled under great trees--a cosey, dear old place
covered with ivy and climbing yellow roses, with narrow alleys leading
to it flanked by tall poplars, and a formal garden behind it in the
niches of whose surrounding wall were statues of Psyche and Venus, their
smooth marble shoulders stained by rain and the drip and ooze of
growing things. One of them even now, still lifts its encrusted head to
the weather.

During the shooting season there were weeks when he and his guests shot
daily from the crack of dawn until dark, the game-keepers following with
their carts that by night were loaded with hares, partridges, woodcock
and quail--then such a good dinner, sparkling with repartee and good
wine, and laughter and dancing after it, until the young hours in the
morning. One was more solid in those days than now--tired as their dogs
after the day's hunt, they dined and danced themselves young again for
the morrow.

And what do you think they did after the Commune? They made him mayor.
Yes, indeed, to honour him--Mayor of Hirondelette, the little village
close to his estate, and de Savignac had to be formal and dignified for
the first time in his life--this good Bohemian--at the village fêtes, at
the important meetings of the Municipal Council, composed of a dealer in
cattle, the blacksmith and the notary. Again, in time of marriage,
accident or death, and annually at the school exercises, when he
presented prizes to the children spic and span for the occasion, with
voices awed to whispers, and new shoes. And he loved them all--all those
dirty little brats that had been scrubbed clean, and their ruddy cheeks
polished like red apples, to meet "Monsieur le Maire."

He was nearing middle life now, but he was not conscious of it, being
still a bachelor. There was not as yet, a streak of gray in his
well-kept beard, and the good humour sparkled in his merry eyes as of
old. The only change that had occurred concerned the million. It was no
longer the brilliant solid million of his youth. It was sadly torn off
in places--there were also several large holes in it--indeed, if the
truth be told, it was little more than a remnant of its once splendid
entirety. It had been eaten by moths--certain shrewd old wasps, too, had
nested in it for years--not a sou of it had vanished in speculation or
bad investment. Monsieur de Savignac (this part of it the curé told me)
was as ignorant as a child concerning business affairs and stubbornly
avoided them. He had placed his fortune intact in the Bank of France,
and had drawn out what he needed for his friends. In the first year of
his inheritance he glanced at the balance statement sent him by the
bank, with a feeling of peaceful delight. As the years of his generosity
rolled on, he avoided reading it at all--"like most optimists," remarked
the curé, "he did not wish to know the truth." At forty-six he married
the niece of an impoverished old wasp, a gentleman still in excellent
health, owing to de Savignac's generosity. It was his good wife now, who
read the balance statement.

For a while after his marriage, gaiety again reigned at the château, but
upon a more economical basis; then gradually they grew to entertain less
and less; indeed there were few left of the moths and old wasps to give
to--they had flown to cluster around another million.

Most of this Pierre, who was leading me through the leafy lane that led
to de Savignac's home, knew or could have known, for it was common talk
in the country around, but his mind to-day was not on de Savignac's
past, but on the dog which we both were so anxious to see.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Monsieur has never met Monsieur de Savignac?" ventured Pierre as we
turned our steps out of the brilliant sunlight, and into a wooded path
skirting the extensive forest of the estate.

"Not yet, Pierre."

"He is a fine old gentleman," declared Pierre, discreetly lowering his
voice. "Poor man!"

"Why _poor_, Pierre?" I laughed, "with an estate like this--nonsense!"

"Ah! Monsieur does not know?"--Pierre's voice sunk to a whisper--"the
château is mortgaged, monsieur. There is not a tree or a field left
Monsieur de Savignac can call his own. Do you know, monsieur, he has no
longer even the right to shoot over the ground? Monsieur sees that low
roof beyond with the single chimney smoking--just to the left of the
château towers?"

I nodded.

"That is where Monsieur de Savignac now lives. It is called the
garçonnière."

"But the château, Pierre?"

"It is rented to a Peruvian gentleman, monsieur, who takes in boarders."

"Pierre!" I exclaimed, "we go no farther. I knew nothing of this. I am
not going to accept a dog from a gentleman in Monsieur de Savignac's
unfortunate circumstances. It is not right. No, no. Go and present my
deep regrets to Monsieur de Savignac and tell him--tell him what you
please. Say that my rich uncle has just sent me a pair of pointers--that
I sincerely appreciate his generous offer, that--"

Pierre's small black eyes opened as wide as possible. He shrugged his
shoulders twice and began twisting thoughtfully the waxed ends of his
moustache to a finer point.

"Pardon, monsieur," he resumed after an awkward pause, "but--but
monsieur, by not going, will grieve Monsieur de Savignac--He will be so
happy to give monsieur the dog--so happy, monsieur. If Monsieur de
Savignac could not give something to somebody he would die. Ah, he
gives everything away, that good Monsieur de Savignac!" exclaimed
Pierre. "I was once groom in his stables--_oui_, monsieur, and he
married us when he was Mayor of Hirondelette, and he paid our
rent--_oui_, monsieur, and the doctor and...."

"We'll proceed, Pierre," said I. "A man of de Savignac's kind in the
world is so rare that one should do nothing to thwart him."

We walked on for some distance along the edge of a swamp carpeted with
strong ferns. Presently we came to a cool, narrow alley flanked and
roofed by giant poplars. At the end of this alley a wicket gate barred
the entrance to the courtyard of the garçonnière.

As we drew nearer I saw that its ancient two-story façade was completely
covered by the climbing mass of ivy and yellow roses, the only openings
being the Louis XIV. windows, and the front door, flush with the
gravelled court, bordered by a thick hedge of box.

"Monsieur the American gentleman for the dog," announced Pierre to the
boy servant in a blue apron who appeared to open the wicket gate.

A moment later the door of the garçonnière opened, and a tall, heavily
built man with silver white hair and beard came forth to greet me.

I noticed that the exertion of greeting me made him short of breath, and
that he held his free hand for a second pressed against his heart as he
ushered me across his threshold and into a cool, old-fashioned sitting
room, the walls covered with steel engravings, the furniture upholstered
in green rep.

"Have the goodness to be seated, monsieur," he insisted, waving me to an
armchair, while he regained his own, back of an old-fashioned desk.

"Ah! The--little--dog," he began, slowly regaining his breath. "You are
all the time shooting, and I heard you wanted one. It is so difficult to
get a really--good--dog--in this country. François!" he exclaimed, "You
may bring in the little dog--and, François!" he added, as the boy
servant turned to go--"bring glasses and a bottle of Musigny--you will
find it on the shelf back of the Medoc." Then he turned to me: "There
are still two bottles left," and he laughed heartily.

"Bien, monsieur," answered the boy, and departed with a key big enough
to have opened a jail.

The moment had arrived for me to draw forth a louis, which I laid on his
desk in accordance with an old Norman custom, still in vogue when you
accept as a gift a dog from an estate.

"Let your domestics have good cheer and wine to-night," said I.

"Thank you," he returned with sudden formality. "I shall put it aside
for them," and he dropped the gold piece into a small drawer of his
desk.

I did not know until Pierre, who was waiting outside in the court, told
me afterwards, that his entire staff of servants was composed of the boy
with the blue apron and the cook--an old woman--the last of his faithful
servitors, who now appeared with a tray of trembling glasses, followed
by the boy, the dusty cobwebbed bottle of rare Musigny and--my dog!

Not a whole dog. But a flub-dub little spaniel puppy--very blond--with
ridiculously long ears, a double-barrelled nose, a roly-poly stomach and
four heavy unsteady legs that got in his way as he tried to navigate in
a straight line to make my acquaintance.

"_Voilà!_" cried de Savignac. "Here he is. He'll make an indefatigable
hunter, like his mother--wait until he is two years old--He'll stand to
his day's work beside the best in France----"

"And what race is he? may I ask, Monsieur de Savignac."

"Gorgon--Gorgon of Poitou," he returned with enthusiasm. "They are
getting as rare now as this," he declared, nodding to the cobwebbed
bottle, as he rose, drew the cork, and filled my glass.

While we sipped and chatted, his talk grew merry with chuckles and
laughter, for he spoke of the friends of his youth, who played for him
and sang to him--the thing which he loved most of all, he told me.
"Once," he confessed to me, "I slipped away and travelled to Hungary.
Ah! how those good gipsies played for me there! I was drunk with their
music for two weeks. It is stronger than wine, that music of the
gipsies," he said knowingly.

Again our talk drifted to hunting, of the good old times when hares and
partridges were plentiful, and so he ran on, warmed by the rare Musigny,
reminiscing upon the old days and his old friends who were serious
sportsmen, he declared, and knew the habits of the game they were after,
for they seldom returned with an empty game-bag.

"And you are just as keen about shooting as ever?" I ventured.

"I shoot no more," he exclaimed with a shrug. "One must be a philosopher
when one is past sixty--when one has no longer the solid legs to tramp
with, nor the youth and the digestion to _live_. Ah! Besides, the life
has changed--Paris was gay enough in my day. I _lived_ then, but at
sixty--I stopped--with my memories. No! no! beyond sixty it is quite
impossible. One must be philosophic, eh?"

Before I could reply, Madame de Savignac entered the room. I felt the
charm of her personality, as I looked into her eyes, and as she welcomed
me I forgot that her faded silk gown was once in fashion before I was
born, or that madame was short and no longer graceful. As the talk went
on, I began to study her more at my ease, when some one rapped at the
outer door of the vestibule. She started nervously, then, rising,
whispered to François, who had come to open it, then a moment later rose
again and, going out into the hall, closed the door behind her.

"Thursday then," I heard a man's gruff voice reply brusquely.

I saw de Savignac straighten in his chair, and lean to one side as if
trying to catch a word of the muffled conversation in the vestibule. The
next instant he had recovered his genial manner to me, but I saw that
again he laboured for some moments painfully for his breath.

The door of the vestibule closed with a vicious snap. Then I heard the
crunch of sabots on the gravelled court, and the next instant caught a
glimpse of the stout, brutal figure of the peasant Le Gros, the big
dealer in cattle, as he passed the narrow window of the vestibule.

It was _he_, then, with his insolent, bestial face purple with good
living, who had slammed the door. I half started indignantly from my
chair--then I remembered it was no affair of mine.

Presently madame returned--flushed, and, with a forced smile, in which
there was more pain than pleasure, poured for me another glass of
Musigny. I saw instantly that something unpleasant had passed--something
unusually unpleasant--perhaps tragic, and I discreetly rose to take my
leave.

Without a word of explanation as to what had happened, Madame de
Savignac kissed my dog good-bye on the top of his silky head, while de
Savignac stroked him tenderly. He was perfectly willing to come with me,
and cocked his head on one side.

We were all in the courtyard now.

"_Au revoir_," they waved to me.

"_Au revoir_," I called back.

"_Au revoir_," came back to me faintly, as Pierre and the doggie and I
entered the green lane and started for home.

"Monsieur sees that I was right, is it not true?" ventured Pierre, as we
gained the open fields. "Monsieur de Savignac would have been grieved
had not monsieur accepted the little dog."

"Yes," I replied absently, feeling more like a marauder for having
accepted all they had out of their hearts thrust upon me.

Then I stopped--lifted the roly-poly little spaniel, and taking him in
my arms whispered under his silky ear: "We shall go back often, you and
I"--and I think he understood.

       *       *       *       *       *

A few days later I dropped into Madame Vinet's snug little café in Pont
du Sable. It was early in the morning and the small room of the café,
with barely space enough for its four tables still smelt of fresh soap
suds and hot water. At one of the tables sat the peasant in his black
blouse, sipping his coffee and applejack.

Le Gros lifted his sullen face as I entered, shifted his elbows, gripped
the clean marble slab of his table with both his red hands, and with a
shrewd glint from his small, cruel eyes, looked up and grunted.

"Ah!--_bonjour_, monsieur."

"_Bonjour_, Monsieur Le Gros," I replied. "We seem to be the only ones
here. Where's the patronne?"

"Upstairs, making her bed--another dry day," he muttered, half to
himself, half to me.

"She will stay dry for some days," I returned. "The wind is well set
from the northeast."

"_Sacristi!_ a dirty time," he growled. "My steers are as dry as an
empty cask."

"I'd like a little rain myself," said I, reaching for a chair--"I have a
young dog to train--a spaniel Monsieur de Savignac has been good enough
to give me. He is too young to learn to follow a scent on dry ground."

Le Gros raised his bull-like head with a jerk.

"De Savignac gave you a _dog_, did he? and he has a dog to give away,
has he?"

The words came out of his coarse throat with a snarl.

I dropped the chair and faced him.

(He is the only man in Pont du Sable that I positively dislike.)

"Yes," I declared, "he gave me a dog. May I ask you what business it is
of yours?"

A flash of sullen rage illumined for a moment the face of the cattle
dealer. Then he muttered something in his peasant accent and sat
glowering into his empty coffee cup as I turned and left the room, my
mind reverting to Madame de Savignac's door which his coarse hand had
closed with a vicious snap.

       *       *       *       *       *

We took the short cut across the fields often now--my yellow puppy and
I. Indeed I grew to see these good friends of mine almost daily, and as
frequently as I could persuade them, they came to my house abandoned by
the marsh.

The Peruvian gentleman's boarding house had been a failure, and I
learned from the curé that the de Savignacs were hard pressed to pay
their creditors.

It was Le Gros who held the mortgage, I further gleaned.

And yet those two dear people kept a brave heart. They were still giving
what they had, and she kept him in ignorance as best she could,
softening the helplessness of it all, with her gentleness and her
courage.

In his vague realization that the end was near, there were days when he
forced himself into a gay mood and would come chuckling down the lane to
open the gate for me, followed by Mirza, the tawny old mother of my
puppy, who kept her faithful brown eyes on his every movement. Often it
was she who sprang nimbly ahead and unlatched the gate for me with her
paw and muzzle, an old trick he had taught her, and he would laugh when
she did it, and tell me there were no dogs nowadays like her.

Thus now and then he forced himself to forget the swarm of little
miseries closing down upon him--forgot even his aches and pains, due
largely to the dampness of the vine-smothered garçonnière whose
old-fashioned interior smelt of cellar damp, for there was hardly a room
in it whose wall paper had escaped the mould.

It was not until March that the long-gathering storm broke--as quick as
a crackling lizard of lightning strikes. Le Gros had foreclosed the
mortgage.

The Château of Hirondelette was up for sale.

When de Savignac came out to open the gate for me late that evening his
face was as white as the palings in the moonlight.

"Come in," said he, forcing a faint laugh---he stopped for a moment as
he closed and locked the gate--labouring painfully for his breath. Then
he slipped his arm under my own. "Come along," he whispered, struggling
for his voice. "I have found another bottle of Musigny."

A funeral, like a wedding or an accident, is quickly over. The sale of
de Savignac's château consumed three days of agony.

As I passed the "garçonnière" by the lane beyond the courtyard on my way
to the last day's sale, I looked over the hedge and saw that the
shutters were closed--farther on, a doctor's gig was standing by the
gate. From a bent old peasant woman in sabots and a white cap, who
passed, I learned which of the two was ill. It was as I had feared--his
wife. And so I continued on my way to the sale.

As I passed through the gates of the château, the rasping voice of the
lean-jawed auctioneer reached my ears as he harangued in the drizzling
rain before the steps of the château the group of peasants gathered
before him--widows in rusty crêpe veils, shrewd old Norman farmers in
blue blouses looking for bargains, their carts wheeled up on the
mud-smeared lawn. And a few second-hand dealers from afar, in black
derbys, lifting a dirty finger to close a bid for mahogany.

Close to this sordid crowd on the mud-smeared lawn sat Le Gros, his
heavy body sunk in a carved and gilded arm-chair that had once graced
the boudoir of Madame de Savignac. As I passed him, I saw that his face
was purple with drink. He sat there the picture of insolent ignorance,
this pig of a peasant.

At times the auctioneer rallied the undecided with coarse jokes, and
the crowd roared, for they are not burdened with delicacy, these Norman
farmers.

"_Allons! Allons!_ my good ladies!" croaked the auctioneer. "Forty sous
for the lot. A bed quilt for a princess and a magnificent water filter
de luxe that will keep your children well out of the doctor's hands.
_Allons!_ forty sous, forty-one--two?"

A merchant in hogs raised his red, puffy hand, then turned away with a
leer as the shrill voice of a fisher woman cried, "Forty-five."

"Sold!" yelped the auctioneer--"sold to madame the widow Dupuis of
Hirondelette," who was now elbowing her broad way through the crowd to
her bargain which she struggled out with, red and perspiring, to the
mud-smeared lawn, where her eldest daughter shrewdly examined the
bedquilt for holes.

I turned away when it was all over and followed the crowd out through
the gates. Le Gros was climbing into his cart. He was drunk and swearing
over the poor result of the sale. De Savignac was still in his debt--and
I continued on my way home, feeling as if I had attended an execution.

Half an hour later the sharp bark of my yellow puppy greeted me from
beyond my wall. As I entered my courtyard, he came to me wriggling with
joy. Suddenly I stopped, for my ear caught the sound of a tail gently
patting the straw in the cavernous old stable beyond my spaniel's
kennel. I looked in and saw a pair of eyes gleaming like opals in the
gloom. Then the tawny body of Mirza, the mother, rose from the straw and
came slowly and apologetically toward me with her head lowered.

"Suzette!" I called, "how did she get here?"

"The boy of Monsieur de Savignac brought her an hour ago, monsieur,"
answered the little maid. "There is a note for monsieur. I have left it
on the table."

I went in, lighted the fire, and read the following:


      "THE GARÇONNIÈRE, _Saturday_.

      "Take her, my friend. I can no longer keep her with me. You
      have the son, it is only right you should have the mother.
      We leave for Paris to-morrow. We shall meet there soon, I
      trust. If you come here, do not bring her with you. I said
      good-bye to her this morning.

              "Jacques de Savignac."


It was all clear to me now--pitifully clear--the garçonnière had gone
with the rest.

       *       *       *       *       *

On one of my flying trips to Paris I looked them up in their refuge, in
a slit of a street. Here they had managed to live by the strictest
economy, in a plain little nest under the roof, composed of two rooms
and a closet for a kitchen.

One night, early in June, after some persuasion, I forced him to go with
me to one of those sparkling _risquée_ little comedies at the Palais
Royal which he loved, and so on to supper at the Café de la Paix, where
that great gipsy, Boldi, warms the heart with his fiddle.

The opera was just out, when we reached our table, close to the band.
Beauty and the Beast were arriving, and wraps of sheen and lace were
being slipped from fair shoulders into the fat waiting hands of the
garçons, while the busy maître d'hôtel beamed with his nightly smile and
jotted down the orders.

The snug supper room glittered with light, clean linen and shining
glass. Now that the theatres were out, it had become awake with the
chatter with which these little midnight suppers begin--suppers that so
often end in confidences, jealousy and even tears, that need only the
merriest tone of a gipsy's fiddle to turn to laughter.

Boldi is an expert at this. He watches those to whom he plays, singling
out the one who needs his fiddle most, and to-night he was watching de
Savignac.

We had finished our steaming dish of lobster, smothered in a spiced
sauce that makes a cold dry wine only half quench one's thirst, and were
proceeding with a crisp salad when Boldi, with a rushing crescendo
slipped into a delicious waltz. De Savignac now sat with his chin sunk
heavily in his hands, drinking in the melody with its spirited
accompaniment as the cymballist's flexible hammers flew over the
resonant strings, the violins following the master in the red coat, with
that keen alertness with which all real gipsies play. I realized now,
what the playing of a gipsy meant to him. By the end of the waltz De
Savignac's eyes were shining.

Boldi turned to our table and bowed.

"Play," said I, to him in my poor Hungarian (that de Savignac might not
understand, for I wished to surprise him) "a real czardas of your
people--ah! I have it!" I exclaimed. "Play the legend and the mad dance
that follows--the one that Racz Laczi loved--the legend of the young man
who went up the mountain and met the girl who jilted him."

Boldi nodded his head and grinned with savage enthusiasm. He drew his
bow across the sobbing strings and the legend began. Under the spell of
his violin, the chatter of the supper room ceased--the air now heavy
with the mingled scent of perfume and cigars, seemed to pulsate under
the throb of the wild melody--as he played on, no one spoke--the men
even forgetting to smoke; the women listening, breathing with parted
lips. I turned to look at de Savignac--he was drunk and there was a
strange glitter in his eyes, his cheeks flushed to a dull crimson, but
not from wine.

Boldi's violin talked--now and then it wept under the vibrant grip of
the master, who dominated it until it dominated those to whom it played.

The young man in the legend was rushing up the mountain path in earnest
now, for he had seen ahead of him the girl he loved--now the melody
swept on through the wooing and the breaking of her promise, and now
came the rush of the young man down to the nearest village to drown his
chagrin and forget her in the mad dance, the "Czardas," which followed.

As the czardas quickened until its pace reached the speed of a
whirlwind, de Savignac suddenly staggered to his feet--his breath coming
in short gasps.

"Sit down!" I pleaded, not liking the sudden purplish hue of his
cheeks.

"Let--me--alone," he stammered, half angrily. "It--is so good--to--be
alive again."

"You shall not," I whispered, my eye catching sight of a gold louis
between his fingers. "You don't know what you are doing--it is not
right--this is my dinner, old friend--_all of it_, do you understand?"

"Let--me--alone," he breathed hoarsely, as I tried to get hold of the
coin--"it is my last--my last--my last!"--and he tossed the gold piece
to the band. It fell squarely on the cymballum and rolled under the
strings.

"Bravo!" cried a little woman opposite, clapping her warm, jewelled
hands. Then she screamed, for she saw Monsieur de Savignac sway heavily,
and sink back in his seat, his chin on his chest, his eyes closed.

I ripped open his collar and shirt to give him breath. Twice his chest
gave a great bound, and he murmured something I did not catch--then he
sank back in my arms--dead.

During the horror and grim reality of it all--the screaming women, the
physician working desperately, although he knew all hope was gone--while
the calm police questioned me as to his identity and domicile, I shook
from head to foot--and yet the worst was still to come--I had to tell
Madame de Savignac.

      [Illustration: spilled bottle of wine]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: The man with the gun]



CHAPTER NINE

THE MAN WITH THE GUN


It is at last decided! The kind and sympathetic Minister of Agriculture
has signed the official document opening the shooting-season for hares
and partridges in _La belle France_, to-morrow, Sunday, the thirtieth of
September. Thrice happy hunters!--they who had begun to grumble in their
cafés over the rumour that the opening of the shooting-season might be
postponed until the second or even third Sunday in October.

My good friend the mayor of Pont du Sable has just handed me my
hunting-permit for the coming year bearing the stamp of the _République
Française_, the seal of the prefecture, the signature of the préfet, and
including everything, from the colour of my hair and complexion to my
height, age, birth and domicile. On the back of this important piece of
paper I read as follows:

That the permit must be produced at the demand of all agents authorized
by law. That it is prohibited to shoot without it, or upon lands without
the consent of the proprietor having the right--or outside of the season
fixed by the laws of the préfets.

Furthermore:

The father--the mother--the tutor--the masters, and guardians are
civilly responsible for the misdemeanours committed while shooting by
their infants--wards--pupils, or domestics living with them.

And finally:

That the hunter who has lost his permit cannot resume again the exercise
of the hunt until he has obtained and paid for a new one, twenty-eight
francs and sixty centimes.

To-morrow, then, the jolly season opens.

"_Vive la République!_"

It is a season, too, of crisp twilights after brilliant days, so short
that my lost village is plunged in darkness as early as seven, and goes
to bed to save the candle--the hour when the grocer's light gleaming
ahead of me across the slovenly little public square becomes the only
beacon in the village; and, guided by it, I pick my way in the dark
along the narrow thoroughfare, stumbling over the laziest of the village
dogs sprawled here and there in the road outside the doorways of the
fishermen.

Across one of these thresholds I catch a glimpse to-night of a tired
fisher girl stretched on her bed after her long day at sea. Beside the
bed a very old woman in a white cotton cap bends over her bowl of soup
by the wavering light of a tallow dip.

"_Bonsoir_, monsieur!" croaks a hoarse voice from the dark. It is
Marianne. She has fished late.

At seven-thirty the toy train rumbles into Pont du Sable, stops for a
barefooted passenger, and rumbles out again through the
village--crawling lest it send one of the laziest dogs yelping to its
home. The headlight on the squat locomotive floods the way ahead,
suddenly illumining the figure of a blinking old man laden with nets
and three barelegged children who scream, "_Bonsoir_, monsieur," to the
engineer.

What glorious old days are these! The wealth of hedged fields---the lush
green grass, white with hoar frost at daybreak--the groups of mild-eyed
cows and taciturn young bulls; in all this brilliant clearness of sea
air, sunshine and Norman country spreading its richness down to the very
edge of the sea, there comes to the man with the gun a sane
exhilaration--he is alive.

On calm nights the air is pungent and warm with the perfume of tons of
apples lying heaped in the orchards, ready for the cider-making, nights,
when the owls hoot dismally under a silver moon.

When the wind veers to the north it grows cold. On such nights as these
"the Essence of Selfishness" seeks my fireside.

She is better fed than many other children in the lost village beyond my
wall. And spoiled!--_mon Dieu!_ She is getting to be hopeless.

Ah, you queen of studied cruelty and indifference! You, with your nose
of coral pink, your velvet ears that twitch in your dreams, and your
blue-white breast! You, who since yesterday morning have gnawed to death
two helpless little birds in my hedge which you still think I have not
discovered! And yet I still continue to feed you by hand piecemeal since
you disdain to dine from my best china, and Suzette takes care of you
like a nurse.

_Eh bien!_ Some day, do you hear, I shall sell you to the rabbit-skin
man, who has a hook for a hand, and the rest of you will find its way to
some cheap table d'hôte, where you will pass as ragout of rabbit Henri
IV. under a thick sauce. What would you do, I should like to know, if
you were the vagabond cat who lives back in the orchard, and whose four
children sleep in the hollow trunk of the tree and are content with what
their mother brings them, whether it be plain mole or the best of
grasshopper. Eh, mademoiselle? Open those topaz eyes of yours--Suzette
is coming to put you to bed.

The trim little maid entered, crossed noiselessly in the firelight to my
chair, and, laying a sealed note from my friend the Baron beneath the
lamp, picked up the sleepy cat and carried her off to her room.

The note was a delightful surprise.

"_Cher monsieur_: Will you make me the pleasure and the honour to come
and do the _ouverture_ of the hunt at my château to-morrow, Sunday--my
auto will call for you about six of the morning. We will be about ten
guns, and I count on the amiability of my partridges and my hares to
make you pass a beautiful and good day. Will you accept, dear sir, the
assurance of my sentiments the most distinguished?"

It was nice of the Baron to think of me, for I had made his acquaintance
but recently at one of Tanrade's dinners, during which, I recall, the
Baron declared to me as he lifted his left eyebrow over his cognac, that
the hunt--_la chasse_--"was always amusing, and a great blessing to men,
since it created the appetite of the wolf and was an excuse to get rid
of the ladies." He told me, too, as he adjusted his monocle safely in
the corner of his aristocratic aquiline nose, that his favourite saint
was St. Hubert. He would have liked to have known him--he must have
been a _bon garçon_, this patron saint of hunting.

"Ah! _Les femmes!_" he sighed, as he straightened his erect torso, that
had withstood so many Parisian years, against the back of his chair.
"Ah! _Les femmes!_ But in zee fields zey cannot follow us? _Hein?_" He
laughed, lapsing into his broken English. "Zey cannot follow us through
zee hedges, ovaire zee rough grounds, in zee rains, in zee muds. Nevaire
take a woman hunting," he counselled me sotto voce beneath his vibrant
hand, for Alice de Bréville was present. "One can _nevaire_ make love
and kill zee agile little game at zee same time. _Par exemple!_ You
whispaire somezing in madame's leetle ear and brrrh! a partridge--_que
voulez-vous, mon cher?_" he concluded, with a shrug. "It is quite
impossible--_quite_ impossible."

I told him leisurely, as we sipped our liqueur, of the hunting in my own
country, of the lonely tramps in the wilderness following a line of
traps in the deep snow, the blind trails, the pork sandwich melted
against the doughnuts at noon, leaking lean-tos, smoky fires, and bad
coffee.

"_Parbleu!_" he roared. "You have not zee rendezvous? You have not zee
hunting breakfast? I should be quite ill--you hunt like zee Arabs--like
zee gipsies--ah, yes, I forget--zee warm sandwich and zee native nuts."

He tapped the table gently with his rings, smiling the while
reminiscently into his glass, then, turning again to me, added
seriously:

"It is not all zee play--zee hunt. I have had zee legs broken by zee
fatigue. Zee good breakfast is what you say 'indispensable' to break zee
day. Zee good stories, zee camaraderie, zee good kind wine--_enfin
tout!_ But"--and again he leaned nearer--"but _not zee_
ladies--_nevaire_--only zee memories."

I repeat, it was nice of the Baron to think of me. I could easily
picture to myself as I reread his note his superb estate, that
stronghold of his ancestors; the hearty welcome at its gates; the
gamekeepers in their green fustians; the pairs of perfectly trained
dogs; the abundance of partridges and hares; and the breakfast in the
old château, a feast that would be replete with wit and old Burgundy.
How splendid are these Norman autumns! What exhilarating old days
during this season of dropping apples, blue skies, and falling leaves!
Days when the fat little French partridges nestle in companies in the
fields, shorn to stubble after the harvest, and sleek hares at sunrise
lift their long ears cautiously above the dew-bejeweled cobwebs along
the ditches to make sure that the green feeding-patch beyond is safe
from the man and the gun.

Fat, garrulous Monsieur Toupin of the village becomes under the spell of
Madame Vinet's best cognac so uproarious when he has killed one of these
sleek, strong-limbed hares, that madame is obliged to draw the
turkey-red curtain over the window of her small café that Monsieur
Toupin may not be seen by his neighbours.

"Suzette," I called, "my candle! I must get a good night's sleep, for
to-morrow I shoot with the Baron."

"_Tiens!_" exclaimed the little maid. "At the grand château?" And her
frank eyes opened wide. "Ah, _mais_--but monsieur will not have to work
hard for a partridge there."

"And so you know the château, my little one?"

"Ah, _mais oui_, monsieur! Is it not at La Sapinière near Les Roses? My
grandfather was gardener there when I was little. I passed the château
once with my mother and heard the guns back of the great wall. Monsieur
will be content--ah, _mais oui_!"

"My coffee at five-thirty promptly, _ma petite_!"

"_Bien_, monsieur." And Suzette passed me my lighted candle, the flame
of which rose brilliantly from its wick.

"That means good luck, monsieur," said she, pointing to the
candle-flame, as my foot touched the winding stairs.

"Nonsense!" I laughed, for I am always amused at her peasant belief in
superstitions. Once, I remember, I was obliged to send for the
doctor--Suzette had broken a mirror.

"Ah, _mais si_," declared Suzette, with conviction, as she unlatched her
kitchen door. "When the wick burns like that--ah, _ça!_" And with a
cheery _bonsoir_ she closed the door behind her.

I had just swallowed my coffee when the siren of the Baron's automobile
emitted a high, devilish wail, and subsided into a low moan outside my
wall. The next instant the gate of the court flew open, and I rushed
out, to greet, to my surprise, Tanrade in his shooting-togs, and--could
it be true? Monsieur le Curé.

"You, too?" I exclaimed in delight.

"Yes," he smiled and added, with a wink: "I could not refuse so gamy an
invitation."

"And I would not let him," added Tanrade. "Quick! Where are your traps?
We have a good forty kilometres ahead of us; we must not keep the Baron
waiting." And the composer of ballets rushed into the house and
shouldered my valise containing a dry change.

"You shall have enough partridges to fill your larder for a month," I
heard him tell Suzette, and he did not forget to pat her rosy cheek in
passing. Suzette laughed and struggled by him, her firm young arms
hugging my gun and shell-case.

Before I could stop him, the curé, in his black soutane, had clambered
nimbly to the roof of the big car and was lashing my traps next to
Tanrade's and his own. At this instant I started to take a long breath
of pure morning air--and hesitated, then I caught the alert eye of the
chauffeur, who was grinning.

"What are you burning? Fish oil?" said I.

"_Mon Dieu_, monsieur----" began the chauffeur.

"Cheese," called down the curé, pointing to a round paper parcel on the
roof of the limousine. "Tanrade got it at daylight; woke up the whole
village getting it."

"Had to," explained Tanrade, as Suzette helped him into his great coat.
"The Baron is out of cheese; he added a postscript to my invitation
praying that I would be amiable enough to bring one. _Eh voilà!_ There
it is, and real cheese at that. Come, get in, quick!" And he opened the
door of the limousine, the interior of which was lined in gray suède and
appointed with the daintiest of feminine luxuries.

"Look out for that row of gold bottles back of you, you brute of a
farmer!" Tanrade counseled me, as the curé found his seat. "If you
scratch those monograms the Baroness will never forgive you."

Then, with a wave to Suzette, we swept away from my house by the marsh,
were hurled through Pont du Sable, and shot out of its narrowest end
into the fresh green country beyond.

It was so thoroughly chic and Parisian, this limousine. Only a few days
ago it had been shopping along the Rue de la Paix, and later rushing to
the cool Bois de Boulogne carrying a gracious woman to dinner; now it
held two vagabonds and a curé. We tore on while we talked
enthusiastically of the day's shooting in store for us. The curé was in
his best humour. How he does love to shoot and what a rattling good shot
he is! Neither Tanrade nor myself, and we have shot with him day in and
day out on the marsh and during rough nights in his gabion, has ever
beaten him.

On we flew, past the hamlet of Fourche-la-Ville, past Javonne, past Les
Roses. _Sacristi!_ I thought, what if the gasoline gave out or the spark
refused to sparkle, what if they had----Why worry? That cheese was
strong enough to have gotten us anywhere.

Suddenly we slowed down, hastily consulted a blue iron sign at the
crossroad, and swung briskly to the right.

A noble forest and the roofs and _tourelles_ of the château now loomed
ahead of us. We turned into a clean, straight road, flanked by superb
oaks leading to an ancient stone gateway. A final wail from the siren,
the gates swung open, and we came to a dead stop in front of the Baron,
four setter dogs, and a group of gentlemen immaculately attired for the
hunt. From their tan-leather leggings to their yellow dogskin gloves and
gleaming guns, they were faultless.

While the Baron greeted us, his guests stood waiting to be presented;
their formal bow would have done credit to a foreign embassy during an
imperial audience. The next moment we were talking as naturally together
and with as much camaraderie as if we had known each other for years.

"Make yourselves at home, my children!" cried the Baron. "_Vous êtes
chez vous_; the ladies have gone to Paris."

It was not such a very grand place, this estate of the Baron, after all.
It had an air about it of having seen better days, but the host was a
good fellow, and his welcome genuine, and we were all happy to be there.
No keepers in green fustians, no array of thoroughbred dogs, but instead
four plain setters with a touch of shepherd in them. The château itself
was plain and comfortable within and scarred by age without. Some of the
little towers had lost their tops, and the extensive wall enclosing the
snug forest bulged dangerously in places.

"You will see," explained the Baron to me in his fluent French, as our
little party sauntered out into the open fields to shoot, "I do not get
along very well with my farmer. I must tell you this in case he gives us
trouble to-day. He has the right, owing to a stupid lease my aged aunt
was unwise enough to sign with him some years ago, to exclude us from
hunting over many fields contiguous to my own; above all, we cannot put
foot in his harvest."

"I see," I returned, with a touch of disappointment, for I knew the
birds were where the harvest was still uncut.

"There are acres of grain going to seed beyond us which he would rather
lose than have me hunt over," the Baron confessed. "Bah! We shall see
what the _canaille_ will do, for only this morning he sent me word
threatening to break up the hunt. Nothing would please him better than
have us all served with a _procès-verbal_ for trespassing."

I confess I was not anxious to be hauled before the court of the
country-seat time after time during a trial conducted at a snail's pace
and be relieved of several hundred francs, for this is what a
_procès-verbal_ meant. It was easily seen that the Baron was in a no
more tranquil state of mind himself.

"You are all my guests!" he exclaimed, with sudden heat. "That _sacré_
individual will deal with _me_. It is _I_ who am alone responsible," he
generously added. "Ah! We shall see. If you meet him, don't let him
bulldoze you. Don't show him your hunting permit if he demands it, for
what he will want is your name. I have explained all this to the rest."

"_Eh bien!_ my dear friends," he called back to the others as we reached
a cross-road, "we shall begin shooting here. Half of you to the
right--half to the left!"

"What is the name of your farmer?" I inquired, as we spread out into two
slowly moving companies.

"Le Bour," returned the Baron grimly as the breech of his gun snapped
shut.

The vast cultivated plain undulating below us looked like the
patchwork-quilt of a giantess, stitched together with well-knit hedges.
There were rectangles of apple-green clover, canary-yellow squares of
mustard, green pastures of ochre stubble, rich green strips of beets,
and rolling areas of brown-ribbed furrows freshly plowed.

Time after time we were obliged to pass around companies of partridges
that had taken refuge under the idiotic lease of the aged aunt. It was
exasperating, for, from the beginning of the shoot, every bird seemed to
know where it was safe from the gleaming guns held so skilfully by the
_messieurs_ in the yellow dogskin gloves. By eleven o'clock there were
barely a score of birds in the game-bags when there should have been a
hundred.

At the second cross road, the right and left party convened. It was what
Le Bour had been waiting for.

A sour old man in a blue blouse now rose up out of a hedge in which he
had hidden himself, and came glowering toward us. As he drew nearer I
saw that his gun swung loosely in his hand and was at full cock, its
muzzle wavering unpleasantly over us as he strode on. His mean old eyes
glittered with rage, his jaw trembled under a string of oaths. His
manner was that of a sullen bull about to charge.

There was no mistaking his identity--it was Le Bour.

"_Procès-verbal_ for all of you," he bellowed; "you, Monsieur le Baron,
and you, Monsieur le Vicomte," he snapped, as the Baron advanced to
defend his guests. "I saw you cross my buckwheat," he declared pointing
an ugly finger at the Vicomte.

"You lie!" shouted the Baron, before the Vicomte could find his words.
"I forbid you to open your head to my guests. Not one of these gentlemen
has set foot in your harvest. What right have _you_ to carry a gun?
Where is your hunting permit?" thundered the Baron. "Where's your
commission as guard, that you should have the insolence to threaten us
with a _procès-verbal_."

"Ah!" exclaimed the Baron, as the permit was not forthcoming, "I thought
as much. I appoint you witness, Monsieur le Curé, the fellow has no
permit." And we swelled the merriment with a forced sputter of ridicule.

"Come, my friends, we shall leave this imbecile to himself," laughed the
Baron.

Le Bour sprang past him and confronted us.

"_Eh ben_, my fine gentlemen," he snarled, "you'll not get away so
easily. I demand, in the name of the law, your hunting permits. Come,
_allons_! All of you!"

At the same instant he tore open his blouse and displayed, to our
dismay, an oval brass plaque bearing his name and the number 1247.

"There!" cried the old man, white and trembling with rage. "There's my
full commission as guard."

My companion with the gloves next to me fidgeted nervously and coughed.
I saw the Vicomte turn a little pale. Tanrade shrugged his shoulders.
Monsieur le Curé's face wore an expression of dignified gravity. Not
once, however, had Le Bour's eyes met his own. It was evident that he
reverently excluded the curé from the affair.

The Vicomte looked uncomfortable enough. The truth was, he was not known
to be at the hunt. The Vicomtesse was shrewd when it came to the
question of his whereabouts. A _procès-verbal_ meant publicity;
naturally the Vicomtesse would know. It might even reach the adorable
ears of Mademoiselle Rosalie, of the _corps de ballet_, who imagined the
Vicomte safe with his family. The Baron was fuming, but he did not
speak.

"Your permits!" reiterated Le Bour, flourishing his license.

There was an awkward silence; not a few in the party had left their
permits at home.

"_Pouf!_" exclaimed the Baron. "Enough of this! _En route_, my friends!"

"_Eh, bien!_" growled the farmer. "You refuse to produce your permits on
demand of a guard. It shall be stated," he threatened, "in the
_procès-verbal_." Then Le Bour turned on his muddy heel and launched a
parting volley at the Baron denouncing his château and everything
connected with him.

"Do not forget the time you stole the ducks of my uncle," cried the
Baron, shaking a clenched fist at the old man, "or the morning--" But
his words were lost on Le Bour, who had disappeared in the hedge.

By eleven-thirty we had killed some two dozen birds and three hares; and
as we were now stricken with "the appetite of the wolf," we turned back
to the château for breakfast.

Here a sponge and a rub-down sent us in gay spirits down to the
billiard-room, where a bottle of port was in waiting--a rare bottle for
particular occasions. It was "the last of a dozen," explained the Baron
as we touched glasses, sent to the château by Napoleon in payment for a
night's lodging during one of his campaigns. "The very time, in fact,"
he added, "when the little towers lost their tops."

Under the spell of the Emperor's port the Vicomte regained his nerves,
and even the unpleasant incident of the morning was half forgotten while
the piano in the historic salon rang merrily under Tanrade's touch until
we filed in to luncheon.

It was as every French shooting-luncheon is intended to be--a pleasant
little fête full of good cheer and understanding; the good soup, the
decanters of Burgundy, the clean red-and-white checkered napkins and
cloth, the heavy family silver, the noiseless old servants--and what an
appetite we had! What a _soufflé_ of potatoes, and such chicken
smothered in cream! And always the "good kind wine," until the famous
cheese that Tanrade had waked up Pont du Sable in procuring was passed
quickly and went out to the pantry, never to return. Ah, yes! And the
warm champagne without which no French breakfast is complete.

Over the coffee and liqueurs, the talk ran naturally to gallantry.

"Ah, _les femmes_! The memories," as the Baron had said.

"You should have seen Babette Deslys five years ago," remarked one of
our jolly company when the Baron had left the room in search of some
milder cigars.

I saw the Vicomte raise his eyebrows in subtle warning to the speaker,
who, like myself, knew the Baron but slightly. If he was treading upon
delicate ground he was unconscious of it, this _bon vivant_ of a
Parisian; for he continued rapidly in his enthusiasm, despite a second
hopeless attempt of the Vicomte to check him.

"You should have seen Babette in the burlesque as Phryne at the
Variétés--_une merveille, mon cher!_" he exclaimed, addressing the
sous-lieutenant on his right, and he blew a kiss to the ceiling. "The
complexion of a rosebud and amusing! Ah--la! la!"

"I hear her debts ran close to a million," returned the lieutenant.

"She was feather-brained," continued the _bon vivant_, with a blasé
shrug. "She was a good little quail with more heart than head! Poor
Babette!"

"Take care!" cautioned the Vicomte pointblank, as the Baron re-entered
with the box of milder Havanas.

And thus the talk ran on among these men of the world who knew Paris as
well as their pockets; and so many Babettes and Francines and other
careless little celebrities whose beauty and extravagance had turned
peace and tranquillity into ruin and chaos.

At last the jolly breakfast came to an end. We rose, recovered our guns
from the billiard-table, and with fresh courage went forth again into
the fields to shoot until sunset. During the afternoon we again saw Le
Bour, but he kept at a safe distance watching our movements with
muttered oaths and a vengeful eye, while we added some twenty-odd
partridges to the morning's score.

       *       *       *       *       *

Toward the end of the afternoon, a week later, at Pont du Sable, Tanrade
and the curé sat smoking under my sketching-umbrella on the marsh. The
curé is far from a bad painter. His unfinished sketch of the distant
strip of sea and dunes lay at my feet as I worked on my own canvas while
the sunset lasted.

Tanrade was busy between puffs of his pipe in transposing various
passages in his latest score. Now and then he would hesitate, finger the
carefully thought out bar on his knee, and again his stub of a pencil
would fly on through a maze of hieroglyphics that were to the curé and
myself wholly unintelligible.

Suddenly the curé looked up, his keen gaze rivetted upon two dots of
figures on bicycles speeding rapidly toward us along the path skirting
the marsh.

"Hello!" exclaimed the curé, and he gave a low whistle. "The gendarmes!"

There was no mistaking their identity; their gold stripes and white duck
trousers appeared distinctly against the tawny marsh.

The next moment they dismounted, left their wheels on the path, and came
slowly across the desert of wire-grass toward us.

"_Diable!_" muttered Tanrade, under his breath, and instantly our minds
reverted to Le Bour.

The two officials of the law were before us.

"We regret to disturb you, messieurs," began the taller of the two
pleasantly as he extracted a note-book from a leather case next to his
revolver. "But"--and he shrugged his military shoulders--"it is for the
little affair at Hirondelette."

"Which one of us is elected?" asked Tanrade grimly.

"Ah! _Bon Dieu!_" returned the tall one; half apologetically. "A
_procès-verbal_ unfortunately for you, Monsieur Tanrade. Read the
charge," he said to the short one, who had now unfolded a paper, cleared
his throat, and began to read in a monotonous tone.

"Monsieur Gaston Emile Le Bour, agriculturist at Hirondelette, charges
Monsieur Charles Louis Ernest Tanrade, born in Paris, soldier of the
Thirteenth Infantry, musician, composer, with flagrant trespass in his
buckwheat on hectare number seven, armed with the gun of percussion on
the thirtieth of September at ten-forty-five in the morning."

"I was _not_ in his _sacré_ buckwheat!" declared Tanrade, and he
described the entire incident of the morning.

"Take monsieur's denial in detail," commanded the tall one.

His companion produced a small bottle of ink and began to write slowly
with a scratchy pen, while we stood in silence.

"Kindly add your signature, monsieur," said the tall one, when the
bottle was again recorked.

Tanrade signed.

The gendarmes gravely saluted and were about to withdraw when Tanrade
asked if he was "the only unfortunate on the list."

"Ah, _non_!" confessed the tall one. "There is a similar charge against
Monsieur le Vicomte--we have just called upon him. Also against Monsieur
le Baron."

"And what did they say?"

"_Eh bien_, monsieur, a general denial, just as monsieur has made."

"The affair is ridiculous," exclaimed Tanrade hotly.

"That must be seen," returned the tall one firmly.

Again we all saluted and they left us, recovered their bicycles, and
went spinning off back to Pont du Sable.

"_Nom d'un chien!_" muttered Tanrade, while the curé and I stared
thoughtfully at a clump of grass.

"Why didn't he get me?" I ventured, after a moment.

"Foreigner," explained Tanrade. "You're in luck, old boy--no record of
identity, and how the devil do you suppose Le Bour could pronounce your
name?"

Half an hour later I found the Vicomte, who lived close to our village.
He was pacing up and down his salon in a rage.

"I was _not_ in the buckwheat!" he declared frantically. "Do you suppose
I have nothing better to do, my friend, than see this wretched business
out at the county-seat? The Vicomtesse is furious. We were to leave, for
a little voyage in Italy, next week. Ah, that young son of the Baron! He
is the devil! _He_ is responsible for this--naturally." And he fell
again to pacing the room.

I looked blankly at the Vicomte.

"Son? What young son?" I asked.

The Vicomte stopped, with a gesture of surprise.

"Ah! _Sapristi!_ You do not know?" he exclaimed. "You do not know that
Babette Deslys is Le Bour's daughter? That the Baron's son ran away with
her and a hundred thousand francs? That the hundred thousand francs
belonged to Le Bour? _Sapristi!_ You did not know _that_?"

      [Illustration: sign: CHASSE GARDEÉ]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: the yellow car]



CHAPTER TEN

THE BELLS OF PONT DU SABLE


The big yellow car came ripping down the road--a clean hard ribbon of a
road skirting the tawny marsh that lay this sparkling August morning
under a glaze of turquoise blue water at high tide.

With a devilish wail from its siren, the yellow car whizzed past my
house abandoned by the marsh. I was just in time, as I raised my head
above the rambling wall of my courtyard, to catch sight of my good
friend the curé on the back seat, holding on tight to his saucer-like
hat. In the same rapid glance I saw the fluttering ends of a
bottle-green veil, in front of the curé's nose and knew Germaine was
driving.

"Lucky curé!" I said to myself, as I returned to my half-finished
sketch, "carried off again to luncheon by one of the dearest of little
women."

No wonder during his lonely winters, when every villa or château of
every friend of his for miles around is closed, and my vagabond village
of Pont du Sable rarely sees a Parisian, the curé longs for midsummer.
It is his gayest season, since hardly a day passes but some friend
kidnaps him from his presbytery that lies snug and silent back of the
crumbling wall which hides both his house and his wild garden from the
gaze of the passer-by.

He is the kind of curé whom it is a joy to invite--this straight, strong
curé, who is French to the backbone; with his devil-may-care geniality,
his irresistible smile of a comedian, his quick wit of an Irishman, and
his heart of gold.

To-day Germaine had captured him and was speeding him away to a jolly
luncheon of friends at her villa, some twenty kilometres below Pont du
Sable--Germaine with her trim, lithe figure and merry brown eyes, eyes
that can become in a flash as calm and serious as the curé's, and in
turn with her moods (for Germaine is a pretty collection of moods) gleam
with the impulsive devilry of a _gamine_; Germaine, who teases an old
vagabond painter like myself, by daubing a purple moon in the middle of
my morning sketch, adds a dab on my nose when I protest, and the next
instant embraces me, and begs my forgiveness.

I cannot conceive of anyone not forgiving Germaine, beneath whose firm
and delicate beauty lies her warm heart, as golden in quality as the
curé's.

Ah! It is gay enough in midsummer with Germaine and such other good
Bohemians as Alice de Bréville, Tanrade, and his reverence to cheer my
house abandoned by the marsh.

I heard the yellow car tearing back to Pont du Sable late that night. It
slowed down as it neared my walled domain, and with a wrenching grunt
stopped in front of my gate. The next instant the door of my den opened
and in rushed the curé.

"All of us to luncheon to-morrow at The Three Wolves!" he cried,
flinging his hat on the floor; then bending, with a grin of
satisfaction over the lamp chimney, he kindled the end of a fat
cigarette he had rolled in the dark. His eyes were snapping, while the
corners of his humorous mouth twitched in a satisfied smile. He strode
up and down the room for some moments, his hands clasped behind him, his
strong, sun-tanned face beaming in the glow of the shaded lamplight,
while he listened to my delight over the pleasant news he had brought.

"Ah! They are good to me, these children of mine," he declared with
enthusiasm. "Germaine tells me there is a surprise in store for me and
that I am not to know until to-morrow, at luncheon. Beyond that, she
would tell me nothing, the little minx, except that I managed to make
her confess that Alice was in the secret."

He glanced at his watch, "Ah!" he ejaculated, "I must be getting to bed;
you, too, my old one, for we must get an early start in the morning, if
we are to reach The Three Wolves by noon." He recovered his hat from the
floor, straightened up, brushed the cigarette ashes from the breast of
his long black soutane, shiny from wear, and held out his strong hand.

"Sleep well," he counselled, "for to-morrow we shall be _en fête_."

Then he swung open my door and passed out into the night, whistling as
he crossed my courtyard a _café chantant_ air that Germaine had taught
him.

A moment later, the siren of the yellow car sent forth its warning wail,
and he was speeding back to his presbytery under the guidance of
Germaine's chauffeur.

       *       *       *       *       *

The curé was raking out the oysters; he stood on the sandy rim of a pool
of clear sea-water that lay under the noonday sun like a liquid emerald.
As Monsieur le Curé plunged in his long rake and drew it back heavy with
those excellent bivalves for which the restaurant at The Three Wolves
has long been famous, his tall black figure, silhouetted against the
distant sea and sky, reminded me of some great sea-crow fishing for its
breakfast.

To the right of him crouched the restaurant, a low wooden structure,
with its back to the breakers. It has the appearance of being cast there
at high tide, its zigzag line of tiled roofs drying in the air and sun,
like the scaled shell of some stranded monster of the sea. There is a
cavernous old kitchen within, resplendent in shining copper--a busy
kitchen to-day, sizzling in good things and pungent with the aroma of
two tender young chickens, basting on a spit, a jolly old kitchen, far
more enticing than the dingy long dining-room adjoining it, whose walls
are frescoed in panels representing bottle-green lobsters, gaping
succulent clams, and ferocious crabs sidling away indignantly from nets
held daintily by fine ladies and their gallants, in costumes that were
in vogue before the revolution. Even when it pours, this cheerless old
dining-room at The Three Wolves is deserted, since there are half a
score of far cosier little round pavilions for lovers and intimate
friends, built over the oyster pools.

Beyond them, hard by the desolate beach, lie the rocks known as The
Three Wolves. In calm weather the surf smashes over their glistening
backs--at low water, as it happened to be to-day, the seethe of the tide
scurried about their dripping bellies green with hairy sea-weed.

Now and then came cheery ripples of laughter from our little pavilion,
where Germaine and Alice de Bréville were arranging a mass of scarlet
nasturtiums, twining their green leaves and tendrils amongst the plates
of _hors d'oeuvres_ and among the dust-caked bottles of Chablis and
Burgundy--Alice, whose dark hair and olive skin are in strong contrast
to Germaine's saucy beauty.

They had banished Tanrade, who had offered his clumsy help--and spilled
the sardines. He had climbed on the roof and dropped pebbles down on
them through the cracks and had later begged forgiveness through the
key-hole. Now he was yelling like an Indian, this celebrated composer of
ballets, as he swung a little peasant maid of ten in a creaky swing
beyond the pool--a dear little maid with eyes as dark as Alice's, who
screamed from sheer delight, and insisted on that good fellow playing
all the games that lay about them, from _tonneau_ to _bilboquet_.

Together, the curé and I carried the basket, now plentifully filled with
oysters back to the kitchen, while Tanrade was hailed from the pavilion,
much to the little maid's despair.

"_Dépêchez-vous!_" cried Alice, who had straightway embraced her exiled
Tanrade on his return and was now waving a summons to the curé and
myself.

"_Bon_," shouted back the curé. "_Allons, mes enfants, à table_--and the
one who has no appetite shall be cast into the sea--by the heels," added
his reverence.

What a breakfast followed! Such a rushing of little maids back and forth
from the jolly kitchen with the great platters of oysters. What a sole
smothered in a mussel sauce! What a lobster, scarlet as the cap of a
cardinal and garnished with crisp romaine! and the chickens! and the
mutton! and the _soufflé_ of potatoes, and the salad of shrimps--_Mon
Dieu!_ What a luncheon, "sprayed," as the French say, with that rare old
Chablis and mellow Burgundy! And what laughter and camaraderie went
with it from the very beginning, for to be at table with friends in
France is to be _en fête_--it is the hour when hearts are warmest and
merriest.

Ah, you dear little women! You who know just when to give those who love
you a friendly pressure of the hand, or the gift of your lips if needs
be, even in the presence of so austere a personage as Monsieur le Curé.
You who understand. You who are tender or merry with the mood, or
contrary to the verge of exasperation--only to caress with the subtle
light of your eyes and be forgiven.

It was not until we had reached our coffee and liqueur, that the
surprise for the curé was forthcoming. Hardly had the tiny glasses been
filled, when the clear tone of the bell ringing from the ancient church
of The Three Wolves made us cease our talk to listen.

Alice turned to the curé; it was evidently the moment she had been
waiting for.

"Listen," said Alice softly--"how delicious!"

"It is the bell of Ste. Marie," returned the curé.

Even Tanrade was silent now, for his reverence had made the sign of the
cross. As his fingers moved I saw a peculiar look come into his eyes--a
look of mingled disappointment and resignation.

Again Alice spoke: "Your cracked bell at Pont du Sable has not long to
ring, my friend," she said very tenderly.

"One must be content, my child, with what one has," replied the curé.

Alice leaned towards him and whispered something in his ear, Germaine
smiling the while.

I saw his reverence give a little start of surprise.

"No, no," he protested half aloud. "Not that; it is too much to ask of
you with all your rehearsals at the Bouffes Parisiennes coming."

"_Parbleu!_" exclaimed Alice, "it will not be so very difficult--I shall
accomplish it, you shall see what a concert we shall give--we shall make
a lot of money; every one will be there. It has the voice of a frog,
your bell. _Dieu!_ What a fuss it makes over its crack. You shall have a
new one--two new ones, _mon ami_, even if we have to make bigger the
belfry of your little gray church to hang them."

The curé grew quite red. I saw for an instant his eyes fill with tears,
then with a benign smile, he laid his hand firmly over Alice's and
lifting the tips of her fingers, kissed them twice in gratefulness.

He was very happy. He was happy all the way back in Germaine's yellow
car to Pont du Sable. Happy when he thrust his heavy key in the rusty
lock of the small door that let him into his silent garden, cool under
the stars, and sweet with the scent of roses.

       *       *       *       *       *

A long winter has passed since that memorable luncheon at The Three
Wolves. Our little pavilion over the emerald pool will never see us
reunited, I fear. A cloud has fallen over my good friend the curé, a
cloud so unbelievable, and yet so dense, if it be true, and so filled
with ominous mutterings of thunder and lightning, crime, defalcation,
banishment, and the like, that I go about my work dazed at the rumoured
situation.

They tell me the curé still says mass, and when it is over, regains the
presbytery by way of the back lane skirting the marsh. I am also told
that he rarely even ventures into his garden, but spends most of his
days and half of his nights alone in his den with the door locked, and
strict orders to his faithful old servant Marie, who adores him, that he
will see no one who calls.

For days I have not laid eyes on him--he who kept his napkin tied in a
sailor's knot in my cupboard and came to breakfast, luncheon, or dinner
when he pleased, waking up my house abandoned by the marsh with his good
humour, joking with Suzette, my little maid-of-all-work, until her fair
cheeks grew the rosier, and rousing me out of the blues with his quick
wit and his hearty laugh.

It seems impossible to me that he is guilty of what he is accused of,
yet the facts seem undeniable.

Only the good go wrong, is it not so? The bad have become so
commonplace, they do not attract our attention.

Now the ways of the curé were always just. I have never known him to do
a mean thing in his life, far less a dishonest one. I have known him to
give the last few sous he possessed to a hungry fisherwoman who needed
bread for herself and her brood of children and content himself with
what was left among the few remaining vegetables in his garden. There
are days, too, when he is forced to live frugally upon a peasant soup
and a pear for dinner, and there have been occasions to my knowledge,
when the soup had to be omitted and his menu reduced to a novel, a
cigarette and the pear.

It is a serious matter, the separation of the state from the church in
France, since it has left the priest with the munificent salary of four
hundred francs a year, out of which he must pay his rent and give to the
poor.

Once we dined nobly together upon two fat sparrows, and again we had a
blackbird for dinner. He had killed it that morning from his window,
while shaving, for I saw the lather dried on the stock of his duck gun.

Monsieur le Curé is ingenious when it comes to hard times.

Again, there are days when he is in luck, when some generous parishioner
has had the forethought to restock his larder. Upon such bountiful
occasions he insists on Tanrade and myself dining with him at the
presbytery as long as these luxuries last, refusing to dine with either
of us until there is no more left of his own to give.

The last time I saw him, I had noticed a marked change in his reverence.
He was moody and unshaven, and his saucerlike hat was as dusty and
spotted as his frayed soutane. Only now and then he gave out flashes of
his old geniality and even they seemed forced. I was amazed at the
change in him, and yet, when I consider all I have heard since, I do not
wonder much at his appearance.

Tanrade tells me (and he evidently believes it) that some fifteen
hundred francs, raised by Alice's concert and paid over to the curé to
purchase the bells for his little gray church at Pont du Sable, have
disappeared and that his reverence refuses to give any account.

Despite his hearty Bohemian spirit, Tanrade, like most musicians, is a
dreamer and as ready as a child to believe anything and anybody. Being a
master of the pianoforte and a composer of rare talent, he can hardly be
called sane. And yet, though I have seen him enthusiastic, misled, moved
to tears over nothing, indignant over an imaginary insult, or ready to
forgive any one who could be fool enough to be his enemy, I have never
known him so thoroughly upset or so positive in his convictions as when
the other morning, as I sat loafing before my fire, he entered my den.

"It is incredible, _mon vieux_, incredible!" he gasped, throwing himself
disconsolately into my arm-chair. "I have just been to the presbytery.
Not only does he refuse to give an account of the money, but he declines
to offer any explanation beyond the one that he "spent it." Moreover, he
sits hunched up before his stove in his little room off the kitchen,
chewing the end of a cigarette. Why, he didn't even ask me to have a
drink--the curé, _mon ami_--our curé--_Mon Dieu_, what a mess! Ah, _mon
Dieu!_"

He sank his chin in his hands and gazed at me with a look of utter
despair.

I regarded him keenly, then I went to the decanter and poured out for
him a stiff glass of applejack.

"Drink that," said I, "and get normal."

With an impetuous gesture he waved it away.

"No, not now!" he exclaimed, "wait until I tell you all--nothing until I
tell you."

"Go on, then," I returned, "I want to hear all about this wretched
business. Go slow and tell it to me from top to bottom. I am not as
convinced of the curé's guilt as you are, old boy. There may be nothing
in it more than a pack of village lies; and if there is a vestige of the
truth, we may, by putting our heads together, help matters."

He started to speak, but I held up my hand.

"One thing before you proceed," I declared with conviction. "I can no
more believe the curé is dishonest than Alice or yourself. It is
ridiculous to presume so for a moment. I have known the curé too well.
He is a prince. He has a heart as big as all outdoors. Look at the good
he's done in this village! There is not a vagabond in it but will tell
you he is as right as rain. Ask the people he helps what they think of
him, they'll tell you 'he's just the curé for Pont du Sable.' _Voilà!_
That's what they'll tell you, and they mean it. All the gossip in the
world can't hurt him. Here," I cried, forcing the glass into his hand,
"get that down you, you maker of ballets, and proceed with the horrible
details, but proceed gently, merrily, with the right sort of beat in
your heart, for the curé is as much a friend of yours as he is of mine."

Tanrade shrugged his broad shoulders, and for some moments sipped his
glass. At length, he set it down on the broad table at his elbow, and
said slowly: "You know how good Alice is, how much she will do for any
one she is fond of--for a friend, I mean, like the curé. Very well, it
is not an easy thing to give a concert in Paris that earns fifteen
hundred francs for a curé whom, it is safe to say, no one in the
audience, save Germaine, Alice and myself had ever heard of. It was a
veritable _tour de force_ to organize. You were not there. I'm glad you
were not. It was a dull old concert that would not have amused you
much--Lassive fell ill at the last moment, Delmar was in a bad humour,
and the quartet had played the night before at a ball at the Élysée and
were barely awake. Yet in spite of it the theatre was packed; a chic
audience, too. Frambord came out with half a column in the _Critique des
Arts_ with a pretty compliment to Alice's executive energy, and added
'that it was one of the rare soirées of the season.' He must have been
drunk when he wrote it. I played badly--I never can play when they
gabble. It was as garrulous as a fish market in front. _Enfin!_ It was
over and we telegraphed his reverence the result; from a money
standpoint it was a '_succès fou_.'"

Tanrade leaned back and for a few seconds gazed at the ceiling of my
den.

"Where every penny has gone," he resumed, with a strained smile, "_Dieu
sait!_ There is no bell, not even the sound of one, _et voilà!_"

He turned abruptly and reached for his glass, forgetting he had drained
it. A fly was buzzing on its back in the last drop. And then we both
smiled grimly, for we were thinking of Monsieur le Curé.

I rang the bell of the presbytery early the next morning, by inserting
my jackknife, to spare my fingers, in a loop at the end of a crooked
wire which dangles over the rambling wall of the curé's garden. The door
itself is of thick oak, and framed by stones overgrown with lichens--a
solid old playground for nervous lizards when the sun shines, and a
favourite sticking place for snails when it rains. I had to tug hard on
the crooked wire before I heard a faint jingle issuing in response from
the curé's cavernous kitchen, whose hooded chimney and stone-paved floor
I love to paint.

Now came the klop-klop of a pair of sabots--then the creak of a heavy
key as it turned over twice in the rusty lock, and his faithful Marie
cautiously opened the garden door. I do not know how old Marie is,
there is so little left of this good soul to guess by. Her small
shrunken body is bent from age and hard work. Her hands are heavy--the
fingers gnarled and out of proportion to her gaunt thin wrists. She has
the wrinkled, leathery face of some kindly gnome. She opened her eyes in
a sort of mute appeal as I inquired if Monsieur le Curé was at home.

"Ah! My poor monsieur, his reverence will see no one"--she
faltered--"_Ah! Mais_"--she sighed, knowing that I knew the change in
her master and the gossip thereof.

"My good Marie," I said, persuasively patting her bony shoulder, "tell
his reverence that I _must_ see him. Old friends as we are--"

"_Bon Dieu, oui!_" she exclaimed after another sigh. "Such old friends
as you and he--I will go and see," said she, and turned bravely back
down the path that led to his door while I waited among the roses.

A few moments later Marie beckoned to me from the kitchen window.

"He will see you," she whispered, as I crossed the stone floor of the
kitchen. "He is in the little room," and she pointed to a narrow door
close by the big chimney, a door provided with old-fashioned little
glass panes upon which are glued transparent chromos of wild ducks.

I knocked gently.

"_Entrez!_" came a tired voice from within.

I turned the knob and entered his den--a dingy little box of a room,
sunk a step below the level of the kitchen, with a smoke-grimed ceiling
and corners littered with dusty books and pamphlets.

He was sitting with his back to me, humped up in a worn arm-chair,
before his small stove, just as Tanrade had found him. As I edged around
his table--past a rack holding his guns, half-hidden under two
dilapidated game bags and a bicycle tyre long out of service, he turned
his hollow eyes to mine, with a look I shall long remember, and feebly
grasped my outstretched hand.

"Come," said I, "you're going to get a grip on yourself, _mon ami_.
You're going to get out of this wretched, unkempt state of melancholia
at once. Tanrade has told me much. You know as well as I do, the village
is a nest of gossip--that they make a mountain out of a molehill; if I
were a pirate chief and had captured this vagabond port, I'd have a few
of those wagging tongues taken out and keel-hauled in the bay."

He started as if in pain, and again turned his haggard eyes to mine.

"I don't believe there's a word of truth in it," I declared hotly.

"There--_is_," he returned hoarsely, trembling so his voice faltered--"I
am--a thief."

He sat bolt-upright in his chair, staring at me like a man who had
suddenly become insane. His declaration was so sudden and amazing, that
for some moments I knew not what to reply, then a feeling of pity took
possession of me. He was still my friend, whatever he had done. I saw
his gaze revert to the crucifix hanging between the steel engravings of
two venerable saints, over the mantel back of the stove--a mantel heaped
with old shot bags and empty cartridge shells.

"How the devil did it happen?" I blurted out at length. "You don't mean
to say you stole the money?"

"Spent it," he replied half inaudibly.

"How spent it? On yourself?"

"No, no! Thank God--"

"How, then?"

He leaned forward, his head sunk in his hands, his eyes riveted upon
mine.

"There is--so--much--dire--need of money," he said, catching his breath
between his words. "We are all human--all weak in the face of another's
misery. It takes a strong heart, a strong mind, a strong body to resist.
There are some temptations too terrible even for a priest. I wish with
all my heart that Alice had never given it into my hands."

I started to speak, but he held up his arms.

"Do not ask me more," he pleaded--"I cannot tell you--I am ill and
weak--my courage is gone."

"Is there any of the money left?" I ventured quietly, after waiting in
vain for him to continue.

"I do not know," he returned wearily, "most of it has gone--over there,
beneath the papers, in the little drawer," he said pointing to the
corner; "I kept it there. Yes, there is some left--but I have not dared
count it."

Again there ensued a painful silence, while I racked my brain for a
scheme that might still save the situation, bad as it looked. In the
state he was in, I had not the heart to worry out of him a fuller
confession. Most of the fifteen hundred francs was gone, that was plain
enough. What he had done with it I could only conjecture. Had he given
it to save another I wondered. Some man or woman whose very life and
reputation depended upon it? Had he fallen in love hopelessly and past
all reasoning? There is no man that some woman cannot make her slave. It
was not many years ago, that a far more saintly priest than he eloped to
Belgium with a pretty seamstress of Les Fosses. Then I thought of
Germaine!--that little minx, badly in debt--perhaps? No, no, impossible!
She was too clever--too honest for that.

"Have you seen Alice?" I broke our silence with at length.

He shook his head wearily. "I could not," he replied, "I know the
bitterness she must feel toward me."

At that moment Marie knocked at the door. As she entered, I saw that her
wrinkled face was drawn, as with lowered eyes she regarded a yellow
envelope stamped with the seal of the _République Française_.

With a trembling hand she laid it beside the curé, and left the room.

The curé started, then he rose nervously to his feet, steadying himself
against the table's edge as he tore open the envelope, and glanced at
its contents. With a low moan he sank back in his chair.--"Go," he
pleaded huskily, "I wish to be alone--I have been summoned before the
mayor."

       *       *       *       *       *

Never before in the history of the whole country about, had a curé been
hauled to account. Pont du Sable was buzzing like a beehive over the
affair. Along its single thoroughfare, flanked by the stone houses of
the fishermen, the gossips clustered in groups. From what I caught in
passing proved to me again that his reverence had more friends than
enemies.

It was in the mayor's kitchen, which serves him as executive chamber as
well, that the official investigation took place.

With the exception of the Municipal Council, consisting of the baker,
the butcher, the grocer, and two raisers of cattle, none were to be
admitted at the mayor's save Tanrade, myself and Alice de Bréville,
whose presence the mayor had judged imperative, and who had been
summoned from Paris.

Tanrade and I had arrived early--the mayor greeting us at the gate of
his trim little garden, and ushering us to our chairs in the clean,
well-worn kitchen, with as much solemnity as if there had been a death
in the house. Here we sat, under the low ceiling of rough beams and
waited in a funereal silence, broken only by the slow ticking of the
tall clock in the corner. It was working as hard as it could, its brass
pendulum swinging lazily toward three o'clock, the hour appointed for
the investigation.

Monsieur le Maire to-day was no longer the genial, ruddy old raiser of
cattle, who stops me whenever I pass his gate with a hearty welcome. He
was all Mayor to-day, clean shaven to the raw edges of his cropped gray
side-whiskers with a look of grave importance in his shrewd eyes and a
firm setting of his wrinkled upper lip, that indicated the dignity of
his office; a fact which was further accentuated by his carefully
brushed suit of black, a clean starched collar and the tri-coloured silk
sash, with gold tassels, which he is forced to gird his fat paunch with,
when he either marries you or sends you to jail. The clock ticked on,
its oaken case reflecting the copper light from the line of saucepans
hanging beside it on the wall. Presently, the Municipal Council filed in
and seated themselves about a centre table, upon which lay in readiness
the official seal, pen, ink and paper. Being somewhat ill at ease in his
starched shirt, the florid grocer coughed frequently, while the two
cattle-raisers in their black blouses, talked in gutteral whispers over
a bargain in calves. Through the open window, screened with cool vines,
came the faint murmur of the village--suddenly it ceased. I rose, and
going to the window, looked up the street. The curé was coming down it,
striding along as straight as a savage, nodding to those who nodded to
him. An old fisherwoman hobbled forth and kissed his hand. Young and
old, gamblers of the sea, lifted their caps as he passed.

"The census of opinion is with him," I whispered to Tanrade, as I
regained my chair. "He has his old grit with him, too."

The next instant, his reverence strode in before us--firm, cool, and so
thoroughly master of himself that a feeling of intense relief stole over
me.

"I have come," he said, in a clear, even voice, "in answer to your
summons, Monsieur le Maire."

The mayor rose, bowed gravely, waved the curé to a chair opposite the
Municipal Council, and continued in silence the closely written contents
of two official documents containing the charge. The stopping of an
automobile at his gate now caused him to look up significantly. Madame
de Bréville had arrived. As Alice entered every man in the room rose to
his feet. Never had I seen her look lovelier, gowned, as she was, in
simple black, her dark hair framing her exquisite features, pale as
ivory, her sensitive mouth tense as she pressed Tanrade's hand
nervously, and took her seat beside us. For an instant, I saw her dark
eyes flash as she met the steady gaze of the curé's.

"In the name of the _République Française_," began the mayor in measured
tones.

The curé folded his arms, his eyes fixed on the open door.

"Pardon me," interrupted Alice, "I wish it to be distinctly understood
before you begin, Monsieur le Maire, that I am here wholly against my
will."

The curé turned sharply.

"You have summoned me," continued Alice, "and there was no alternative
but to come--I know nothing in detail concerning the charge against
Monsieur le Curé, nor do I wish to take any part whatever in this
unfortunate affair. It is imperative that I return to Paris in time to
play to-night, I beg of you that you will let me go at once."

There was a polite murmur of surprise from the Municipal Council. The
curé sprang to his feet.

"Alice, my child!" he cried, "look at me."

Her eyes met his own, her lips twitching nervously, her breast heaving.

"I wish _you_ to judge me before you go," he pleaded. "They accuse me of
being a thief;" his voice rose suddenly to its full vibrant strength;
"they do not know the truth."

Alice leaned forward, her lips parted.

"God only knows what this winter has been," declared his
reverence--"Empty nets--always empty nets."

He struck the table with his clenched fist. "Empty nets!" he cried,
"until I could bear it no longer. My children were in dire need; they
came to you," he declared, turning to the mayor, "and you refused them."

The mayor shrugged his shoulders with a grunt of resentment.

"I gave what I could, while it lasted, from the public fund," he
explained frankly; "there were new roads to be cut."

"Roads!" shouted the curé. "What are roads in comparison to illness and
starvation? They came to me," he went on, turning to Alice, "little
children--mothers, ill, with little children and not a sou in the house,
and none to be earned fishing. Old men crying for bread for those whom
they loved. I grew to hate the very thought of the bells; they seemed to
me a needless luxury among so much misery."

His voice rose until it rang clear in the room.

"I gave it to them," he cried out. "There in my little drawer lay the
power to save those who were near death from sickness, from dirt, from
privation!"

Alice's ringless white hands were clenched in her lap.

"And I saw, as I gave," continued the curé, "the end of pain and of
hunger--little by little I gave, hoping somehow to replace it, until I
dared give no more."

He paused, and drew forth from the breast of his soutane a small cotton
sack that had once held his gun wads. "Here is what is left, gentlemen,"
said he, facing the Municipal Council; "I have counted it at last, four
hundred and eighty francs, sixty-five centimes."

There were tears now in Alice's eyes; dark eyes that followed the curé's
with a look of tenderness and pain. The mayor sat breathing irritably.
As for the Municipal Council, it was evident to Tanrade and myself, that
not one of these plain, red-eared citizens was eager to send a priest to
jail--it was their custom occasionally to go to mass.

"Marianne's illness," continued the curé, "was an important item. You
seemed to consider her case of typhoid as a malady that would cure
itself if let alone. Marianne needed care, serious care, strong as she
was. The girl, Yvonne, she saved from drowning last year, and her baby,
she still shelters among her own children in her hut. They, too, had to
be fed; for Marianne was helpless to care for them. There was the little
boy, too, of the Gavons--left alone, with a case of measles well
developed when I found him, on the draughty floor of a loft; the mother
and father had been drunk together for three days at Bar la Rose. And
there were others--the Mère Gailliard, who would have been sold out for
her rent, and poor old Varnet, the fisherman; he had no home, no money,
no friends; he is eighty-four years old. Most of the winter he slept in
a hedge under a cast-off sail. I got him a better roof and something for
his stomach, Monsieur le Maire."

He paused again, and drew out a folded paper from his pocket. "Here is a
list of all I can remember I have given to, and the amounts as near as I
can recall them," he declared simply. Again he turned to Alice. "It is
to you, dear friend, I have come to confess," he continued; "as for you,
gentlemen, my very life, the church I love, all that this village means
to me, lies in your hands; I do not beg your mercy. I have sinned and I
shall take the consequences--all I ask you to do is to judge fairly the
error of my ways." Monsieur le Curé took his seat.

"It is for you, Madame de Bréville, to decide," said the mayor, after
some moments conference with the Council, "since the amount in question
was given by your hand."

Alice rose--softly she slipped past the Municipal Council of Pont du
Sable, until she stood looking up into the curé's eyes; then her arms
went about his strong neck and she kissed him as tenderly as a sister.

"Child!" I heard him murmur.

"We shall give another concert," she whispered in his ear.

      [Illustration: bell]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: The miser--Garron]



CHAPTER ELEVEN

THE MISER--GARRON


We've had a drowning at Pont du Sable. Drownings are not infrequent on
this rough Norman coast of France. Only last December five able
fishermen went down within plain sight of the dunes in a roaring white
sea that gave no quarter. This gale by night became a cyclone; the sea a
driving hell of water, hail and screaming wind. The barometer dropped to
twenty-eight. The wind blew at one hundred and twenty kilometers an
hour. Six fishing boats hailing from Boulogne perished with their crews.
Their women went by train to Calais, still hoping for news, and returned
weeping and alone.

At Boulogne the waves burst in spray to a height of forty feet over the
breakwater--small wonder that the transatlantic liner due there to take
on passengers, signalled to her plunging tender already in
danger--"Going through--No passengers--" and proceeded on her way to New
York.

The sea that night killed with a blow.

This latest drowning at Pont du Sable was a tragedy--or rather, the
culmination of a series of tragedies.

"Suicide?"

"_Non_--_mon ami_--wait until you hear the whole truth of this plain
tale."

On my return from shooting this morning, Suzette brought me the news.
The whole fishing village has known it since daylight.

It seems that the miser, Garron--Garron's boy--Garron's woman, Julie,
and another woman who nobody seems to know much about, are mixed up in
the affair.

Garron's history I have known for months--my good friend the curé
confided to me much concerning the unsavory career of this vagabond of a
miser, whose hut is on the "Great Marsh," back of Pont du Sable. Garron
and I hailed "_bonjour_" to each other through the mist at dawn one
morning, as I chanced to pass by his abode, a wary flight of vignon
having led me a fruitless chase after them across the great marsh. At a
distance through the rifts of mist I mistook this isolated hut of
Garron's for a _gabion_. As I drew within hailing distance of its owner
I saw that the hut stood on a point of mud and wire grass that formed
the forks of the stream that snakes its way through the centre of this
isolated prairie, and so on out to the open sea, two kilometers beyond.

As shrewd a rascal as Garron needed just such a place to settle on. As
he returned my _bonjour_, his woman, Julie, appeared in the low doorway
of the hut and grinned a greeting to me across the fork of the stream.
She impressed me as being young, though she was well on in the untold
forties. Her mass of fair hair--her ruddy cheeks--her blue eyes and her
thick strong body, gave her the appearance of youthful buxomness.

Life must be tough enough with a man like Garron. With the sagacity of
an animal he knew the safety of the open places. By day no one could
emerge from the far horizon of low woodland skirting the great marsh,
without its sole inhabitant noting his approach. By night none but as
clever a poacher as Garron could have found his way across the labyrinth
of bogs, ditches and pitfalls. Both the hut and the woman cost Garron
nothing; both were a question of abandoned wreckage.

Garron showed me his hut that morning, inviting me to cross a muddy
plank as slippery as glass, with which he had spanned the stream, that
he might get a closer look at me and know what manner of man I was. He
did not introduce me to the woman, and I took good care, as I crossed
his threshold and entered the dark living-room with its dirt floor, not
to force her acquaintance, but instead, ran my eye discreetly over the
objects in the gloom--a greasy table littered with dirty dishes, a bed
hidden under a worn quilt and a fireplace of stones over which an iron
pot of soup was simmering. Beyond was another apartment, darker than
the one in which I stood--a sort of catch-all for the refuse of the
former.

The whole of this disreputable shack was built of the wreckage of honest
ships. It might have been torn down and reassembled into some sort of a
decent craft. Part of a stout rudder with its heavy iron hinges, served
as the door. For years it had guided some good ship safe into port--then
the wreck occurred. For weeks after--months, perhaps--it had drifted at
sea until it found a resting place on the beach and was stolen by Garron
to serve him as a strong barrier.

Garron had a bad record--you saw this in his small shifty black eyes,
that evaded your own when you spoke to him, and were riveted upon you
the moment your back was turned. He was older than the woman--possibly
fifty years of age, when I first met him, and, though he lived in the
open, there was a ghastly pallor in his hard face with its determined,
square jaw--a visage well seamed by sin--and crowned by a shock of black
hair streaked with gray. In body he was short, with unusually broad
shoulders and unnaturally long arms. Physically he was as strong as an
ape, yet I believe the woman could easily have strangled him with her
bare hands. Garron had been a hard drinker in his youth, a capable thief
and a skilful poacher. His career in civilization ended when he was
young and--it is said--good-looking.

Some twenty-five years ago--so the curé tells me--Garron worked one
summer for a rich cattle dealer named Villette, on his farm some sixty
kilometers back of the great marsh. Villette was one of those big,
silent Normans, who spoke only when it was worth while, and was known
for his brusqueness and his honesty. He was a giant in build--a man
whose big hands and feet moved slowly but surely; a man who avoided
making intimate friendships and was both proud and rich--proud of his
goods and chattels--of his vast grazing lands and his livestock--proud
too, of his big stone farmhouse with its ancient courtyard flanked by
his stone barns and his entrance gate whose walls were as thick as those
of some feudal stronghold; proud, too, of his wife--a plump little
woman with a merry eye and whom he never suspected of being madly
infatuated with his young farm hand, Garron.

Their love affair culminated in an open scandal. The woman lacked both
the shrewdness and discretion of her lover; he had poached for years and
had never been caught;--it is, therefore, safe to say he would as
skilfully have managed to evade suspicion as far as the woman was
concerned, had not things gone from bad to worse.

Villette discovered this too late; Garron had suddenly disappeared,
leaving madame to weather the scandal and the divorce that followed.
More than this, young Garron took with him ten thousand francs belonging
to the woman, who had been fool enough to lend him her heart--a sum out
of her personal fortune which, for reasons of her own, she deemed it
wisest not to mention.

With ten thousand francs in bank notes next his skin, Garron took the
shortest cut out of the neighbourhood. He travelled by night and slept
by day, keeping to the unfrequented wood roads and trails secreted
between the thick hedges, hidden by-ways that had proved their value
during the guerilla warfares that were so successfully waged in Normandy
generations ago. Three days later Garron passed through the modest
village of Hirondelette, an unknown vagabond. He looked so poor that a
priest in passing gave him ten sous.

"Courage, my son," counselled the good man--"you will get work soon. Try
the farm below, they are in need of hands."

"May you never be in want, father," Garron strangled out huskily in
reply. Then he slunk on to the next farm and begged his dinner. The bank
notes no longer crinkled when he walked; they had taken the contour of
his hairy chest. Every now and then he stopped and clutched them to see
if they were safe, and twice he counted and recounted them in a ditch.

With the Great Marsh as a safe refuge in his crafty mind, he passed by
the next sundown back of Pont du Sable; slept again in a hedge, and by
dawn had reached the marsh. Most of that day he wandered over it looking
for a site for his hut. He chose the point at the forks of the
stream--no one in those days, save a lone hunter ever came there.
Moreover, there was another safeguard. The Great Marsh was too cut up by
ditches and bogs to graze cattle on, hence no one to tend them, and the
more complete the isolation of its sole inhabitant.

Having decided on the point, he set about immediately to build his hut.
The sooner housed the better, thought Garron, besides, the packet next
his chest needed a safe hiding place.

For days the curlews, circling high above the marsh, watched him snaking
driftwood from the beach up the crooked stream to the point at the
forks. The rope he dragged them with he stole from a fisherman's boat
picketed for the night beyond the dunes. When he had gathered a
sufficient amount of timber he went into Pont du Sable with three hares
he had snared and traded them for a few bare necessities--an old saw, a
rusty hammer and some new nails. He worked steadily. By the end of a
fortnight he had finished the hut. When it was done he fashioned (for he
possessed considerable skill as a carpenter) a clever hiding place in
the double wall of oak for his treasure. Then he nailed up his door and
went in search of a mate.

       *       *       *       *       *

He found her after dark--this girl to his liking--at the _fête_ in the
neighbouring village of Avelot. She turned and leered at him as he
nudged her elbow, the lights from the merry-go-round she stood watching
illumining her wealth of fair hair and her strong young figure
silhouetted against the glare. Garron had studied her shrewdly, singling
her out in the group of village girls laughing with their sweethearts.
The girl he nudged he saw did not belong to the village--moreover, she
was barefooted, mischievously drunk, and flushed with riding on the
wooden horses. She was barely eighteen. She laughed outright as he
gripped her strong arm, and opened her wanton mouth wide, showing her
even, white teeth. In return for her welcome he slapped her strong waist
soundly.

"_Allons-y_--what do you say to a glass, _ma belle_?" ventured Garron
with a grin.

"_Eh ben!_ I don't say no," she laughed again, in reply.

He felt her turn instinctively toward him--there was already something
in common between these two. He pushed her ahead of him through the
group with a certain familiar authority. When they were free of the
crowd and away from the lights his arm went about her sturdy neck and he
crushed her warm mouth to his own.

"_Allons-y_--" he repeated--"Come and have a glass."

They had crossed in the mud to a dingy tent lighted by a lantern; here
they seated themselves on a rough bench at a board table, his arm still
around her. She turned to leer at him now, half closing her clear blue
eyes. When he had swallowed his first thimbleful of applejack he spat,
and wiped his mouth with the back of his free hand, while the girl grew
garrulous under the warmth of the liquor and his rough affection. Again
she gave him her lips between two wet oaths. No one paid any attention
to them--it was what a _fête_ was made for. For a while they left their
glasses and danced with the rest to the strident music of the
merry-go-round organ.

It was long after midnight when Garron paid his score under the tent.
She had told him much in the meantime--there was no one to care whom she
followed. She told him, too, she had come to the _fête_ from a hamlet
called Les Forêts, where she had been washing for a woman. The moon was
up when they took the highroad together, following it until it reached
the beginning of Pont du Sable, then Garron led the way abruptly to the
right up a tangled lane that ran to an old woodroad that he used to gain
the Great Marsh. They went lurching along together in comparative
silence, the man steadying the girl through the dark places where the
trees shut out the moon. Garron knew the road as well as his pocket--it
was a favourite with him when he did not wish to be seen. Now and then
the girl sang in a maudlin way:

    "_Entrez, entrez, messieurs,
    C'est l'amour qui vous attend._"

It was gray dawn when they reached the edge of the Great Marsh that lay
smothered under a blanket of chill mist.

"It is over there, my nest," muttered Garron, with a jerk of his thumb
indicating the direction in which his hut lay. Again he drew her roughly
to him.

"_Dis donc, toi!_" he demanded brusquely: "how do they call you?" It had
not, until then, occurred to him to ask her name.

"_Eh ben_--Julie," she replied. "It's a _sacré_ little name I never
liked. _Eh, tu sais_," she added slowly--"when I don't like a thing--"
she drew back a little and gazed at him sullenly--"_Eh ben_--I am like
that when I don't like a thing." Her flash of temper pleased him--he had
had enough of the trustful kitten of Villette's.

"Come along," said he gruffly.

"_Dis donc, toi_," she returned without moving. "It is well understood
then about my dress and the shoes?"

"_Mais oui! Bon Dieu!_" replied the peasant irritably. He was hungry and
wanted his soup. He swore at the chill as he led the way across the
marsh while she followed in his tracks, satisfied with his promise of
the dress and shoes. She wanted a blue dress and she had seen the shoes
that pleased her some months before in the grocery at Pont du Sable when
a dog and she had dragged a fisherwoman in her cart for their board and
lodging.

By the time they reached the forks of the stream the rising sun had
melted the blanket of the mist until it lay over the desolate prairie in
thin rifts of rose vapour.

It was thus the miser, Garron, found his mate.

       *       *       *       *       *

Julie proved to be a fair cook, and the two lived together, at the
beginning, in comparative peace. Although it was not until days after
the _fête_ at Avelot that she managed to hold him to his promise about
the blue dress, he sent her to Pont du Sable for her shoes the day
after their arrival on the marsh--she bought them and they hurt her. The
outcome of this was their first quarrel.

"_Sacré bon Dieu!_" he snarled--"thou art never content!" Then he struck
her with the back of his clenched fist and, womanlike, she went
whimpering to bed. Neither he nor she thought much of the blow. Her mind
was on the shoes that did not fit.

When she was well asleep and snoring, he ran his sinewy arm in the hole
he had made in the double wall--lifted the end of a short, heavy plank,
caught it back against a nail and gripped the packet of bank notes that
lay snug beneath it. Satisfied they were safe and his mate still asleep,
he replaced the plank over his fortune--crossed the dirt floor to his
barrier of a door, dropped an iron rod through two heavy staples,
securely bolting it--blew out the tallow dip thrust in the neck of an
empty bottle, and went to bed.

Months passed--months that were bleak and wintry enough on the marsh for
even a hare to take to the timber for comfort. During most of that
winter Garron peddled the skins of rabbits he snared on the marsh, and
traded and bought their pelts, and he lived poor that no one might
suspect his wealth. He and his mate rose, like the wild fowl, with the
sun and went to bed with it, to save the light of the tallow dip. Though
I have said she could easily have strangled him with her hands, she
refrained. Twice, when she lay half awake she had seen him run his wiry
arm in the wall--one night she had heard the lifting of the heavy plank
and the faint crinkling sound of the package as he gripped it. She had
long before this suspected he had money hidden.

Julie was no fool!

With the spring the marsh became more tenable. The smallest song birds
from the woods flitted along the ditches; there were days, too, when the
desolate prairie became soft--hazy--and inviting.

At daybreak, the beginning of one of these delicious spring days,
Garron, hearing a sharp cry without, rose abruptly and unbolted his
barrier. He would have stepped out and across his threshold had not his
bare foot touched something heavy and soft. He looked down--still half
asleep--then he started back in a sort of dull amazement. The thing his
foot had touched was a bundle--a rolled and well-wrapped blanket, tied
with a stout string. The sharp cry he had heard he now realized, issued
from the folds of the blanket. Garron bent over it, his thumb and
forefinger uncovering the face of a baby.

"_Sacristi!_" he stammered--then leaned back heavily against the old
rudder of a door. Julie heard and crawled out of bed. She was peering
over his shoulder at the bundle at his feet before he knew it.

Garron half wheeled and faced her as her breath touched his coarse ear.

"_Eh bien!_ what is it?" he exclaimed, searching vainly for something
else to say.

"_Eh ben! Ça! Nom de Dieu!_" returned his mate nodding to the bundle.
"It is pretty--that!"

"_Tu m'accuses, hein?_" he snarled.

"They do not leave bundles of that kind at the wrong door," she retorted
in reply, half closing her blue eyes and her red hands.

"_Allons! allons!_" he exclaimed with heat, still at a loss for his
words.

With her woman's instinct she brushed past him and started to pick up
the bundle, but he was too quick for her and drew her roughly back,
gripping her waist so sharply that he felt her wince.

"It does not pass like that!" he cried sharply. "_Eh ben!_ listen to me.
I'm too old a rat to be made a fool of--to be tricked like that!"

"Tricked!" she laughed back--"No, my old one--it is as simple as
_bonjour_, and since it is thine thou wilt keep it. Thou'lt--keep what
thou--"

The pent-up rage within him leaped to his throat:

"It does not pass like that!" he roared. With his clenched fist he
struck her squarely across the mouth. He saw her sink limp to the
ground, bleeding, her head buried between her knees. Then he picked up
the child and started with it across the plank that spanned the fork of
the stream. A moment later, still dizzy from the blow, she saw him
dimly, making rapidly across the marsh toward a bend in the stream. Then
the love of a mother welled up within her and she got to her feet and
followed him.

"Stay where thou art!" he shouted back threateningly.

The child in his arms was screaming. She saw his hand cover its
throat--the next moment she had reached him and her two hands were about
his own in a grip that sent him choking to his knees. The child rolled
from his arms still screaming, and the woman who was strangling Garron
into obedience now sank her knee in his back until she felt him give up.

"_Assez!_" he grunted out when he could breathe.

"_Eh ben!_ I am like _that_ when I don't like a thing!" she cried,
savagely repeating her old words. He looked up and saw a dangerous gleam
in her eyes. "_Ah, mais oui alors!_" she shouted defiantly. "Since it is
thine thou wilt keep it!"

Garron did not reply. She knew the fight was out of him and picked up
the still screaming baby, which she hugged to her breast, crooning over
it while Garron got lamely to his feet. Without another word she started
back to the hut, Garron following his mate and his son in silence.

       *       *       *       *       *

Years passed and the boy grew up on the marsh, tolerated by Garron and
idolized and spoiled by Julie--years that transformed the black-eyed
baby into a wiry, reckless young rascal of sixteen with all the vagabond
nature of his father--straight and slim, with the clear-cut features of
a gypsy. A year later the brother of Madame Villette, a well-known
figure on the Paris Bourse, appeared and after a satisfactory
arrangement with Garron, took the boy with him to Paris to be educated.

It was hard on Julie, who adored him. Her consent was not even asked,
but at the time she consoled herself with the conviction, however, that
the good fortune that had fallen to the lot of the baby she had saved,
was for the best. The uncle was rich--that in itself appealed strongly
to her peasant mind. That, and her secret knowledge of Garron's fortune,
for she had discovered and counted it herself and, motherlike, told the
boy.

       *       *       *       *       *

In Paris the attempt to educate Jacques Baptiste Garron was an expensive
experiment. When he went to bed at all it was only when the taverns and
cafés along the "Boul-miche" closed before dawn. Even then he and his
band of idle students found other retreats and more glasses in the
all-night cafés near the Halles. And so he ate and drank and slept and
made love to any little outcast who pleased him--one of these amiable
_petites femmes_--the inside of whose pocketbook was well greased with
rouge--became his devoted slave.

She was proud of this handsome devil-may-care "type" of hers and her
jealousy was something to see to believe. Little by little she dominated
him until he ran heavily in debt. She even managed the uncle when the
nephew failed--she was a shrewd little brat--small and tense as wire,
with big brown eyes and hair that was sometimes golden and sometimes a
dry Titian red, according to her choice. Once, when she left him for two
days, Garron threatened to kill himself.

"_Pauvre gosse!_" she said sympathizingly on her return--and embraced
him back to sanity.

The real grain of saneness left in young Garron was his inborn love of a
gun. It was the gun which brought him down from Paris, back to the Great
Marsh now and then when the ducks were on flight.

He had his own _gabion_ now at the lower end of the bay at Pont du
Sable, in which he slept and shot from nights when the wind was
northeast--a comfortable, floating box of a duck-blind sunk in an outer
jacket of tarred planks and chained to a heavy picket driven in the mud
and wire grass, for the current ran dangerously strong there when the
tide was running out.

Late in October young Garron left Paris suddenly and the girl with the
Titian hair was with him. He, like his father, needed a safe refuge.
Pressed by his creditors he had forged his uncle's name. The only way
out of the affair was to borrow from Julie to hush up the matter. It did
not occur to him at the time how she would feel about the girl; neither
did he realize that he had grown to be an arrogant young snob who now
treated Julie, who had saved his life, and pampered him, more like a
servant than a foster-mother.

The night young Garron arrived was at the moment of the highest tides.
The four supped together that night in the hut--the father silent and
sullen throughout the meal and Julie insanely jealous of the girl. Later
old Garron went off across the marsh in the moonlight to look after his
snares.

When the three were alone Julie turned to the boy. For some moments she
regarded him shrewdly. She saw he was no longer the wild young savage
she had brought up; there was a certain nervous, blasé feebleness about
his movements as he sat uneasily in his chair, his hands thrust in the
pockets of his hunting coat, his chin sunk on his chest. She noticed
too, the unnatural redness of his lips and the haggard pallor about his
thin, sunken cheeks.

"_Eh ben, mon petit_--" she began at length. "It is a poor place to get
fat in, your Paris! They don't feed you any too well--_hein?_--Those
grand restaurants you talk so much about. Pouf!"

"_Penses-tu?_" added the girl, since Garron did not reply. Instead he
lighted a fresh cigarette, took two long puffs from it, and threw it on
the floor.

The girl, angered at his silence and lack of courage, gave him a vicious
glance.

"_Hélas!_" sighed Julie, "you were quicker with your tongue when you
were a baby."

"_Ah zut!_" exclaimed the girl in disgust. "He has something to tell
you--" she blurted out to Julie.

"_Eh ben!_ What?" demanded Julie firmly.

"I need some money," muttered the boy doggedly. "I _need it!!_" he cried
suddenly, gaining courage in a sort of nervous hysteria.

Julie stared at him in amazement, the girl watching her like a lynx.

"_Bon Dieu!_" shouted Julie. "And it is because of _that_ you sit there
like a sick cat! Listen to me, my little one. Eat the good grease like
the rest of us and be content if you keep out of jail."

The boy sank lower in his chair.

"It will be jail for me," he said, "unless you help me. Give me five
hundred francs. I tell you I am in a bad fix. _Sacré bon Dieu!_--you
_shall_ give it to me!" he cried, half springing from his chair.

"Shut up, thou," whispered the girl--"not so fast!"

"Do you think it rains money here?" returned Julie, closing her red
fists upon the table, "that all you have to do is to ask for it? _Ah,
mais non, alors!_"

The boy slunk back in his chair staring at the tallow dip
disconsolately. The girl gritted her small teeth--somehow, she felt
abler than he to get it out of Julie in the end.

"You stole it, _hein?_" cried Julie, "like your father. Name of a dog!
it is the same old trick that, and it brings no good. _Allons!_" she
resumed after a short pause. "_Dépêche toi!_ Get out for your ducks--I'm
going to bed."

"Give me four hundred," pleaded the boy.

"Not a sou!" cried Julie, bringing her fist down on the greasy table,
and she shot a jealous glance at the girl.

Without a word, young Garron rose dejectedly, got into his goatskin
coat, picked up his gun and, turning, beckoned to the girl.

"Go on!" she cried; "I'll come later."

"He is an infant," said she to Julie, when young Garron had closed the
door behind him. "He has no courage. You know the fix we are in--the
Commissaire of Police in Paris already has word of it."

Julie did not reply; she still sat with her clenched fists outstretched
on the table.

"He has forged his uncle's check," snapped the girl.

Julie did not reply.

"_Ah, c'est comme ça!_" sneered the girl with a cool laugh--"and when
he is in jail," she cried aloud, "_Eh, bien--quoi?_"

"He will not have _you_, then," returned Julie faintly.

"Ah----" she exclaimed. She slipped her tense little body into her thick
automobile coat and with a contemptuous toss of her chin passed out into
the night, leaving the door open.

"Jacques!" she called shrilly--"Jacques!--_Attends._"

"_Bon!_" came his voice faintly in reply from afar on the marsh.

After some moments Julie got slowly to her feet, crossed the dirt floor
of the hut and closing the door dropped the bar through the staples.
Then for the space of some minutes she stood by the table struggling
with a jealous rage that made her strong knees tremble. She who had
saved his life, who had loved him from babyhood--she told herself--and
what had he done for her in return? The great Paris that she knew
nothing of had stolen him; Paris had given him _her_--that little viper
with her red mouth; Paris had ruined him--had turned him into a thief
like his father. Silently she cursed his uncle. Then her rage reverted
again to the girl. She thought too, of her own life with Garron--of all
its miserly hardships. "They have given me nothing--" she sobbed
aloud--"nothing."

"Five hundred francs would save him!" she told herself. She caught her
breath, then little by little again the motherly warmth stole up into
her breast deadening for the moment the pain of her jealousy. She
straightened to her full height, squaring her broad shoulders like a man
and stepped across to the wall.

"It is as much mine as it is his," she said between her teeth.

She ran her arm into the hole in the wall, lifted the heavy plank and
drew out a knitted sock tied with a stout string. From the toe she drew
out Garron's fortune.

"He shall have it--the _gosse_--" she said, "and the rest--is as much
mine as it is his."

She thrust the package in her breast.

Half an hour later Julie stood, scarcely breathing, her ear to the
locked door of his _gabion_.

"A pretty lot you came from," she overheard the girl say, "that old cat
would sooner see you go to jail." The rest of her words were half lost
in the rush and suck of the tide slipping out from the _gabion's_ outer
jacket of boards. The heavy chain clinked taut with the pull of the
outgoing tide, then relaxed in the back rush of water.

"Bah!" she heard him reply, "they are pigs, those peasants. I was a fool
to have gone to them for help."

"You had better have gone to the old man," taunted the girl, "as I told
you at first."

"He is made of the same miserly grizzle as she," he retorted hotly.
Again the outrush of the tide drowned their words.

Julie clenched her red fists and drew a long breath. A sudden frenzy
seized her. Before she realized what she was doing, she had crawled in
the mud on her hands and knees to the heavy picket. Here she waited
until the backward rush again slackened the chain, then she half drew
the iron pin that held the last link. Half drew it! Had the girl been
alone, she told herself, she would have given her to the ebb tide.

Julie rose to her feet and turned back across the marsh, unconscious
that the last link was nearly free and that the jerk and pull of the
outgoing tide was little by little freeing the pin from the link.

She kept on her way, towards a hidden wood road that led down to the
marsh at the far end of Pont du Sable and beyond.

She was done with the locality forever. Garron's money was still in her
breast.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the first glimmer of dawn the next morning, the short, solitary
figure of a man prowled the beach. He was hatless and insane with rage.
In one hand he gripped an empty sock. He would halt now and then and
wave his long, ape-like arms--cursing the deep strip of sea water that
prevented him from crossing to the hard desert of sand beyond--far out
upon which lay an upturned _gabion_. Within this locked and stranded
box lay two dead bodies. Crabs fought their way eagerly through the
cracks of the water-sprung door, and over it, breasting the salt breeze,
slowly circled a cormorant--curious and amazed at so strange a thing at
low tide.

      [Illustration: the upturned gabion]


       *       *       *       *       *


      [Illustration: game birds on the marsh]



CHAPTER TWELVE

MIDWINTER FLIGHTS


One dines there much too well.

This snug Restaurant des Rois stands back from the grand boulevard in a
slit of a street so that its ancient windows peer out askance at the gay
life streaming by the corner.

The burgundy at "Les Rois" warms the soul, and the Chablis! Ah! where
else in all Paris is there such Chablis? golden, sound and clear as
topaz. Chablis, I hold, should be drank by some merry blonde whose heart
is light; Burgundy by a brunette in a temper.

The small café on the ground floor is painted white, relieved by a
frieze of gilded garlands and topped by a ceiling frescoed with rosy
nymphs romping in a smoked turquoise sky.

Between five and seven o'clock these midwinter afternoons the café is
filled with its _habitués_--distinguished old Frenchmen, who sip their
absinthe leisurely enough to glance over the leading articles in the
conservative _Temps_ or the slightly gayer _Figaro_. Upstairs, by means
of a spiral stairway, is a labyrinth of narrow, low-ceiled corridors
leading to half a dozen stuffy little _cabinets particuliers_, about
whose faded lambrequins and green velveted chairs there still lurks the
scent of perfumes once in vogue with the gallants, beaux and belles of
the Second Empire.

Alice de Bréville, Tanrade, and myself, are dining to-night in one of
these _intime_ little rooms. The third to the left down the corridor.

_Sapristi!_ what a change in Tanrade. He is becoming a responsible
person---he has even grown neat and punctual--he who used to pound at
the door of my house abandoned by the marsh at Pont du Sable, an hour
late for dinner, dressed in a fisherman's sea-going overalls of brown
canvas, a pair of sabots and a hat that any passing vagabond might have
discarded by the roadside. I could not help noticing carefully to-night
his new suit of black broadcloth, with its standing collar, buttoned up
under his genial chin. His black hair is neatly combed and his
broad-brimmed hat that hangs over my own on the wall, is but three days
old. Thus had this _bon garçon_ who had won the Prix de Rome been
transformed---and Alice was responsible, I knew, for the change. Who
would not change anything for so exquisite and dear a friend as Alice?
She, too, was in black, without a jewel--a gown which her lithe body
wore with all its sveltness--a gown that matched her dark eyes and hair,
accentuating the clean-cut delicacy of her features and the ivory
clearness of her olive skin. She was a very merry Alice to-night, for
her long engagement at the Bouffes Parisiennes was at an end. And she
had been making the best of her freedom by keeping Tanrade hard at work
over the score of his new ballet. They are more in love with each other
than ever--so much so that they insist on my dining with them, and so
these little dinners of three at "Les Rois" have become almost nightly
occurrences. It is often so with those in love to be generous to an old
friend--even lovers have need of company.

We were lingering over our coffee when the talk reverted to the new
ballet.

"It is done, _ma chérie_," declared Tanrade, in reply to an imperative
inquiry from Alice. "Bavière shall have the whole of the second act
to-morrow."

"And the ballet in the third?" she asked sternly, lifting her brilliant
eyes.

"_Eh, voilà!_" laughed that good fellow, as he drew forth from his
pocket a thin roll of manuscript and spread it out before her, that she
might see--but it was not discreet for me to continue, neither is it
good form to embrace before the old _garçon de café_, who at that moment
entered apologetically with the liqueurs--as for myself, I have long
since ceased to count in such tender moments of reward, during which I
am of no more consequence than a faithful poodle.

Again the garçon entered, this time with smiling assurance, for he
brought me a telegram forwarded from my studio by my concierge. I opened
the despatch: the next instant I jumped to my feet.

"Read!" I cried, poking the blue slip under Tanrade's nose, "it's from
the curé."

"Howling northeast gale"--Tanrade read aloud--"Duck and geese--come
midnight train, bring two hundred fours, one hundred double zeros for
ten bore."

"_Vive le curé!_" I shouted, "the good old boy to let us know. A
northeast gale at last--a howler," he says.

"He is charming--the curé," breathed Alice, her breast
heaving--"Charming!" she repeated in a voice full of suppressed emotion.

Tanrade did not speak. He had let the despatch slip to the floor and sat
staring at his glass.

"You'll come, of course," I said with sudden apprehension, but he only
shook his head. "What! you're not going?" I exclaimed in amazement.
"We'll kill fifty ducks a night--it's the gale we've been waiting for."

I saw the sullen gleam that had crept into Alice's eyes soften; she drew
near him--she barely touched his arm:

"Go, _mon cher_!" she said simply--"if you wish."

He lifted his head with a grim smile, and I saw their eyes meet. I well
knew what was passing in his mind--his promise to her to work--more than
this, I knew he had not the heart to leave her during her well-earned
rest.

"_Ah! les hommes!_" Alice exclaimed, turning to me impetuously--"you are
quite crazy, you hunters."

I bowed in humble apology and again her dark eyes softened to
tenderness.

"_Non_--forgive me, _mon ami_," she went on, "you are sane enough until
news comes of those wretched little ducks, then, _mon Dieu!_ there is no
holding you. Everything else goes out of your head; you become as mad as
children rushing to a fête. Is it not so?"

Still Tanrade was silent. Now and then he gave a shrug of his big
shoulders and toyed with his half empty glass of liqueur. _Sapristi!_
it is not easy to decide between the woman you love and a northeast gale
thrashing the marsh in front of my house abandoned. He, like myself,
could already picture in his mind's eye duck after duck plunge out of
the night among our live decoys. My ears, like his own, were already
ringing with the roar of the guns from the _gabions_--I could not resist
a last appeal.

"Come," I insisted--"both of you--no--seriously--listen to me. There is
plenty of dry wood in the garret; you shall have the _chambre d'amis_,
dear friend, and this brute of a composer shall bunk in my room--we'll
live, and shoot and be happy. Suzette will be overjoyed at your coming.
Let me wire her to have breakfast ready for us?"

Alice laughed softly: "You are quite crazy, my poor friend," she said,
laying her white hand on my shoulder. "You will freeze down there in
that stone house of yours. Oh, la! la!" she sighed knowingly--"the leaks
for the wind--the cold bedrooms, the cold stone floors--B-r-r-h-h!"

Tanrade straightened back in his chair: "No," said he, "it is
impossible; Bavière can not wait. He must have his score. The rehearsals
have been delayed long enough as it is--Go, _mon vieux_, and good luck
to you!"

Again the old garçon entered, this time with the timetable I had sent
him for in a hurry.

"_Voilà_, monsieur!" he began excitedly, his thumbnail indicating the
line--"the 12.18, as monsieur sees, is an express--monsieur will not
have to change at Lisieux."

"_Bon!_" I cried--"quick--a taxi-auto."

"_Bien_, monsieur--a good hunt to monsieur," and he rushed out into the
narrow corridor and down the spiral stairs while I hurried into my coat
and hat.

Tanrade gripped my hand:

"Shoot straight!" he counselled with a smile. Alice gave me her cheek,
which I reverently kissed and murmured my apologies for my insistence in
her small ear. Then I swung open the door and made for the spiral
stairs. At the bottom step I stopped short. I had completely forgotten I
should not return until after New Year's, and I rushed back to wish
them a _Bonne Année_ in advance, but I closed the door of the stuffy
little _cabinet particulier_ quicker than I opened it, for her arms were
about the sturdy neck of a good comrade whose self-denial made me feel
like the mad infant rushing to the fête.

"_Bonne Année, mes enfants!_" I called from the corridor, but they did
not hear.

Ten minutes later I reached my studio, dumped three hundred cartridges
into a worn valise and caught the 12.18 with four minutes to spare.

       *       *       *       *       *

_Enfin!_ it is winter in earnest!

The northeast gale gave, while it lasted, the best shooting the curé and
I have ever had. Then the wind shifted to the southwest with a falling
barometer, and the flights ceased. Again, for three days, the Norman
coast has been thrashed by squalls of driving snow. The wild geese are
honking in V-shaped lines to an inland refuge for the white sea is no
longer tenable. Curlews cry hoarsely over the frozen fields. It is
tough enough lying hidden in my sand pit on the open beach beyond the
dunes, where I crack away at the ricketing flights of fat gray plover
and beat myself to keep warm. Fuel is scarce and there is hardly a sou
to be earned fishing in such cruel weather as this.

The country back of my house abandoned by the marsh is now stripped to
bare actualities--all things are reduced to their proper size. Houses,
barns and the skeletons of leafless trees stand out, naked facts in the
landscape. The orchards are soggy in mud and the once green feathery
lane back of my house abandoned, is now a rough gash of frozen pools and
rotten leaves.

Birds twitter in the thin hedges.

I would never have believed my wild garden, once so full of mystery--gay
flowers, sunshine and droning bees, to be so modest in size. A few
rectangles of bare, frozen ground, and a clinging vine trembling against
the old wall, is all that remains, save the scraggly little fruit trees
green with moss. Beyond, in a haze of chill sea mist, lie the
woodlands, long undulating ribbons of gray twigs crouching under a
leaden sky.

In the cavernous cider press whose doors creak open within my courtyard
Père Bordier and a boy in eartabs, are busy making cider. If you stop
and listen you can hear the cider trickling into the cask and Père
Bordier encouraging the patient horse who circles round and round a
great stone trough in which revolve two juggernauts of wooden wheels.
The place reeks with the ooze and drip of crushed apples. The giant
screw of oak, the massive beams, seen dimly in the gloomy light that
filters through a small barred window cut through the massive stone
wall, gives the old pressoir the appearance of some feudal torture
chamber. Blood ran once, and people shrieked in such places--as these.

       *       *       *       *       *

To-morrow begins the new year and every peasant girl's cheeks are
scrubbed bright and her hair neatly dressed, for to-morrow all France
embraces--so the cheeks are rosy in readiness.

"_Tiens_, mademoiselle!" exclaims the butcher's boy clattering into my
kitchen in his sabots.

_Eh, voilà!_ My good little maid-of-all-work, Suzette, has been kissed
by the butcher's boy and a moment later by Père Bordier, who has left
the cider press for a steaming bowl of _café au lait_; and ten minutes
later by the Mère Péquin who brings the milk, and then in turn by the
postman--by her master, by the boy in eartabs and by every child in the
village since daylight for they have entered my courtyard in droves to
wish the household of my house abandoned a happy new year, and have gone
away content with their little stomachs filled and two big sous in their
pockets.

And now an old fisherman enters my door. It is the Père Varnet--he who
goes out with his sheep dog to dig clams, since he is eighty-four and
too old to go to sea.

"_Ah, malheur!_" he sighs wearily, lifting his cap with a trembling hand
as seamed and tough as his tarpaulin. "Ah, the bad luck," he repeats in
a thin, husky voice. "I would not have deranged monsieur, but _bon
Dieu_, I am hungry. I have had no bread since yesterday. It is a little
beast this hunger, monsieur. There are no clams--I have searched from
the great bank to Tocqueville."

It is surprising how quick Suzette can heat the milk.

The old man is now seated in her kitchen before a cold duck of the
curé's killing and hot coffee--real coffee with a stiff drink of
applejack poured into it, and there is bread and cheese besides. Like
hungry men, he eats in silence and when he has eaten he tells me his dog
is dead--that woolly sheep dog of his with a cast in one fishy green
eye.

"_Oui_, monsieur," confided the old man, "he is dead. He was all I had
left. It is not gay, monsieur, at eighty-four to lose one's last
friend--to have him poisoned."

"Who poisoned him?" I inquired hotly--"was it Bonvin the butcher? They
say it was he poisoned both of Madame Vinet's cats."

"_Eh, ben!_" he returned, and I saw the tears well up into his watery
blue eyes--"one should not accuse one's neighbours, but they say it was
he, monsieur--they say it was in his garden that Hector found the bad
stuff--there are some who have no heart, monsieur."

"Bonvin!" I cried, "so it was that pig who poisoned him, eh? and you
saved his little girl the time the _Belle Marie_ foundered."

"_Oui_, monsieur--the time the _Belle Marie_ foundered. It is true I
did--we did the best we could! Had it not been for the fog and the ebb
tide I think we could have saved them all."

He fell to eating again, cutting into the cheese discreetly--this fine
old gentleman of the sea.

It is a pity that some one has not poisoned Bonvin I thought. A short
thick fellow, is Bonvin, with cheeks as red as raw chops and small eyes
that glitter with cruelty. Bonvin, whose youngest child--a male, has the
look and intelligence of a veal and whose mother weighs one hundred and
five kilos--a fact which Bonvin is proud of since his first wife, who
died, was under weight despite the fact that the Bonvins being in the
business, eat meat twice daily. I have always believed the veal
infant's hair is curled in suet. Its face grows purple after meals.

       *       *       *       *       *

A rough old place is my village of vagabonds in winter, and I am glad
Alice did not come. Poor Tanrade--how he would have enjoyed that
northeast gale!

       *       *       *       *       *

Two weeks later there came to my house abandoned by the marsh such
joyful news that my hand trembled as I realized it--news that made my
heart beat quicker from sudden surprise and delight. As I read and
reread four closely written pages from Tanrade and a corroborative
postscript from Alice, leaving no doubt as to the truth.

"Suzette! Suzette!" I called. "Come quick--_Eh! Suzette!_"

I heard her trim feet running to me from the garden. The next instant
she opened the door of my den and stood before me, her blue eyes and
pretty mouth both open in wonder at being so hurriedly summoned.

"What is the matter, monsieur?" she exclaimed panting, her fresh young
cheeks all the rosier from her run.

"Monsieur Tanrade and Madame de Bréville are going to be married," I
announced as calmly as I could.

"_Hélas!_" gasped Suzette.

"_Et voilà--et voilà!_" I cried, throwing the letter back on the table,
while I squared my back to the blazing fire of my den and waited for the
little maid's astonishment to subside.

Suzette did not speak.

"It is true, nevertheless," I added with enthusiasm, "they are to be
married in Pont du Sable. We shall have a fête such as there never was.
Ah! you will have plenty of cooking to do, _mon enfant_. Run and find
Monsieur le Curé--he must know at once."

Suzette did not move--without a word she buried her face in her apron
and burst into tears:

"Oh, monsieur!" she sobbed. "Oh, monsieur! It is
true--that--I--I--have--no luck!"

I looked at her in astonishment.

"_Eh, bien!_ my child," I returned--"and it is thus you take such happy
news?"

"_Ah, mon Dieu!_" sobbed the little maid--"it is--true--I--have no
luck."

"What is the matter Suzette--tell me?" I pleaded. Never had I seen her
so brokenhearted, even on the day she smashed the mirror.

I saw her sway toward me like the child she was.

"There--there--_mais voyons!_" I exclaimed in a vain effort to stop her
tears--"_mais voyons!_ Come, you must not cry like that." Little by
little she ceased crying, until her sobbing gave way to brave little
hiccoughs, then, at length, she opened her eyes.

"Suzette," I whispered--the thought flashing through my mind, "is it
possible that _you_ love Monsieur Tanrade?"

I saw her strong little body tremble: "No, monsieur," she breathed, and
the tears fell afresh.

"Tell me the truth, Suzette."

"I have told monsieur the--the--truth," she stammered bravely with a
fresh effort to strangle her sobs.

"You do not love Monsieur Tanrade, my child?"

"No, monsieur--I--I--was a little fool to have cried. It was stronger
than I--the news. The marriage is so gay, monsieur--it is so easy for
some."

"Ah--then you do love some one?"

"_Oui_, monsieur--" and her eyes looked up into mine.

"Who?"

"Gaston, monsieur--as always."

"Gaston, eh! the little soldier I lodged during the manoeuvres--the
little trombonist whom the general swore he would put in jail for
missing his train. _Sapristi!_ I had forgotten him--and you wish to
marry him, Suzette?"

She nodded mutely in assent, then with a hopeless little sigh she added:
"_Hélas_--it is not easy--when one has nothing one must work hard and
wait--_Ah, mon Dieu!_"

"Sit down, my little one," I said. "I have something serious to think
over." She did as I bade her, seating herself in silence before the
fire. I have never regarded Suzette as a servant--she has always been to
me more like a child whom I was responsible for. What would my house
abandoned by the marsh have been without her cheeriness, and her
devotion, I thought, and what would it be when she was gone? No other
Suzette would ever be like her--and her cooking would vanish with the
rest. _Diable!_ these little marriages play the devil with us at times.
And yet, if any one deserved to be happy it was Suzette. I realized too,
all that her going would mean to me, and moreover that her devotion to
her master was such that if I should say "stay" she would have stayed on
quite as if her own father had counselled her.

As I turned toward her sitting humbly in the chair, I saw she was again
struggling to keep back her tears. It was high time for me to speak.

I seated myself beside her upon the arm of the chair and took her warm
little hands in mine.

"You shall marry your Gaston, Suzette," I said, "and you shall have
enough to marry on even if I have to sell the big field and the cow that
goes with it."

She started, trembling violently, then gave a little gasp of joy.

"Oh, monsieur! and it is true?" she cried eagerly.

"Yes, my child--there shall be two weddings in Pont du Sable! Now run
and tell Monsieur le Curé."

       *       *       *       *       *

Monsieur le Curé ran too, when he heard the news--straight to my house
abandoned, by the short cut back of the village.

"_Eh bien! Eh bien!_" he exclaimed as he burst into my den, his keen
eyes shining. "It is too good to be true--and not a word to us about it
until now! _Ah, les rosses! Ah, les rosses!_" he repeated with a broad
grin of delight as he eagerly read Tanrade's letter, telling him that
the banns were published; that he was to marry them in the little gray
church with the new bells and that but ten days remained before the
wedding. He began pacing the floor, his hands clasped behind him--a
habit he had when he was very happy.

"And Suzette?" I asked, "has she told you?"

"Yes," he returned with a nod. "She is a good child--she deserves to be
happy." Then he stopped and inquired seriously--"What will you do
without her?"

"One must not be selfish," I replied with a helpless shrug. "Suzette has
earned it--so has Tanrade. It was his unfinished opera that was in the
way: Alice was clever."

He crossed to where I stood and laid his hand on my shoulder, and though
he did not open his lips I knew what was passing in his mind.

"Charity to all," he said softly at length. "It is so good to make
others happy! Courage, _mon petit_--the price we pay for love,
devotion--friendship friendship, is always a heavy one." Suddenly his
face lighted up. "Have you any idea?" he exclaimed, "how much there is
to do and how little time to do it in? Let us prepare!"

And thus began the busiest week the house abandoned had ever known,
beginning with the curé and I restocking the garret with dry wood while
Suzette worked ferociously at house cleaning, and every detail of the
wedding breakfast was planned and arranged for--no easy problem in my
lost village in midwinter. If there was a good fish to be had out of the
sea we knew we could rely on Marianne to get it. Even the old fisherman,
Varnet, went off with fresh courage in search for clams and good Madame
Vinet opened her heart and her wine cellar.

It was the curé who knew well a certain dozen of rare burgundy that had
lain snug beneath the stairs of Madame Vinet's small café--a vintage the
good soul had come into possession of the first year of her own marriage
and which she ceded to me for the ridiculously low price of twenty sous
the bottle, precisely what it had cost her in her youth.

       *       *       *       *       *

It is over, and I am alone by my fire.

As I look back on to-day--their wedding day--it seems as if I had been
living through some happy dream that has vanished only too quickly and
out of which I recall dimly but half its incidents.

That was a merry procession of old friends that marched to the ruddy
mayor's where there was the civil marriage and some madeira, and so on
to the little gray church where Monsieur le Curé was waiting--that musty
old church in which the tall candles burned and Monsieur le Curé's voice
sounded so grave and clear. And we sat together, the good old general
and I, and in front of us were Alice's old friend Germaine, chic and
pretty in her sables, and Blondel, who had left his unfinished editorial
and driven hard to be present, and beside him in the worn pew sat the
Marquis and Marquise de Clamard, and the rest of the worn pews were
filled with fisherfolk and Marianne sat on my left, and old Père Varnet
with Suzette beyond him--and every one's eyes were upon Alice and
Tanrade, for they were good to look upon. And it was over quickly, and I
was glad of it, for the candle flames had begun to form halos before my
eyes.

And so we went on singing through the village amid the booming of
shotguns in honour of the newly wed, to the house abandoned. And all the
while the new bells that Alice had so generously regiven rang lustily
from the gray belfry--rang clear--rang out after us, all the way back to
the house abandoned and were still ringing when we sat down to our jolly
breakfast.

"Let them ring!" cried the curé. "I have two old salts of the sea taking
turns at the rope," he confided in my ear. "Ring on!" he cried aloud, as
we lifted our glasses to the bride--"Ring loud--that the good God may
hear!"

And how lovely the room looked, for the table was a mass of roses fresh
from Paris, and the walls and ceiling were green with mistletoe and
holly. Moreover, the old room was warm with the hearts of friends and
the cheer from blazing logs that crackled merrily up the blackened
throat of my chimney. And there were kisses with this feast that came
from the heart; and sound red wine that went to it. And later, the
courtyard was filled with villagers come to congratulate and to drink
the health of the bride and groom.

       *       *       *       *       *

They are gone.

And the thrice-happy Suzette is dreaming of her own wedding to come, for
it is long past midnight and I am alone with my wise old cat--"The
Essence of Selfishness," and my good and faithful spaniel whom I call
"Mr. Bear," for he looks like a young cinnamon, all save his ears. If
poor de Savignac were alive he would hardly recognize the little spaniel
puppy he gave me, he has grown so. He has crept into my arms, big as he
is, awakening jealousy in "The Essence of Selfishness"--for she hates
him--besides, we have taken her favourite chair. Poor Mr. Bear--who
never troubles her----

"And _you_--beast whom I love--another hiss out of you, another
flattening of your ears close to your skull, and you go straight to bed.
There will be no Suzette to put you there soon, and there is now no
Alice, nor Tanrade to spoil you. They are gone, pussy kit."

One o'clock--and the fire in embers.

I rose and Mr. Bear followed me out into the garden. The land lay still
and cold under millions of stars. High above my chimney came faintly the
"Honk, honk," of a flock of geese.

I closed my door, bolted the inner shutter, lighted my candle and
motioned to Mr. Bear. The Essence of Selfishness was first on the creaky
stairs. She paused half way up to let Mr. Bear pass, her ears again flat
to her skull. Then I took them both to my room where they slept in
opposite corners.

       *       *       *       *       *

Lost village by the tawny marsh. Lost village, indeed, to-night! in
which were hearts I loved, good comrades and sound red wine--Hark! the
rush of wings. I must be up at dawn. It will help me forget----Sleep
well, Mr. Bear!


THE END

      [Illustration: village]


       *       *       *       *       *


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       *       *       *       *       *

TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE:

Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as
possible, including obsolete and variant spellings. Obvious
typographical errors in punctuation (misplaced quotes and the like) have
been fixed. Corrections [in brackets] in the text are noted below:

page 24: typo corrected

    the courtyard, and with a wrenching growl Madame Alice de
    Breville's[Bréville's] automobile whined up to my door. The next

page 201: swapped words fixed

    To-night the general is an in[in an] uproar of good humour

page 225: spurious quote removed

    this country. ["]François!" he exclaimed, "You may bring in the
    little dog--and, François!"

page 272: typo corrected

    business out at the county-seat? The Vicomtess[e] is furious. We
    were to leave, for a little voyage

page 276: quote added

    "All of us to luncheon to-morrow at The Three Wolves!["] he cried,
    flinging his hat on

page 277: quote added

    morning, if we are to reach The Three Wolves by noon.["] He
    recovered his hat from the floor,

page 343: typo corrected

    smiling assurance, for be[he] brought me a telegram forwarded from
    my studio by my concierge.

page 350: spurious comma removed; typo corrected

    gone away content with their little stomachs[,] filled and two big
    sous in their pockets.

    and ten minutes later by the Mère Pequin[Péquin] who brings the
    milk, and then in turn





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