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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 14. La Ploo Belle
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Barbarians - Chapter 14. La Ploo Belle Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1974

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Barbarians - Chapter 14. La Ploo Belle

CHAPTER XIV. LA PLOO BELLE

They had been nearly three weeks on the voyage, three days in port, four more on cattle trains, and had been marching since morning from the nearest railway station at Estville-sur-Lesse.

Now, lugging their large leather hold-alls, they started up the main street of Sainte Lesse, three sunburnt, loud-talking Americans, young, sturdy, careless of glance and voice and gesture, perfectly self-satisfied.

Their footsteps echoed loudly on the pavement of this still, old town, lying so quietly in the shadow of its aged trees and its sixteenth century belfry, where the great bell, Bayard, had hung for hundreds of years, and, tier on tier above it, clustered in set ranks the fixed bells of the ancient carillon.

"Some skyscraper," observed Burley, patronizing the bell-tower with a glance.

As he spoke, they came to the inn, a very ancient hostelry built into a remnant of the old town wall, and now a part of it. On the signboard was painted a white doe; and that was the name of the inn.

So they trooped through the stone-arched tunnel, ushered by a lame innkeeper; and Burley, chancing to turn his head and glance back through the shadowy stone passage, caught a glimpse in the outer sunshine of the girl whose dark eyes had inspired him with jocular eloquence as he rode on his mule under the bell-tower of Sainte Lesse.

"A peach," he said to Smith. And the sight of her apparently going to his head, he burst into French: "Tray chick! Tray, tray chick! I'm glad I've got on this uniform and not overalls and one suspender."

"What's biting you?" inquired Smith.

"Nothing, Stick, nothing. But I believe I've seen the prettiest girl in the world right here in this two-by-four town."

Stick glanced over his shoulder, then shrugged:

"She's ornamental, only she's got a sad on."

But Burley trudged on with his leather hold-all, muttering to himself something about the prettiest girl in the world.

The "prettiest girl in the world" continued her way unconscious of the encomiums of John Burley and the critique of Sticky Smith. Her way, however, seemed to be the way of Burley and his two companions, for she crossed the sunny street and entered the White Doe by the arched door and tunnel-like passage.

Unlike them, however, she turned to the right in the stone corridor, opened a low wooden door, crossed the inn parlour, ascended a short stairway, and entered a bedroom.

Here, standing before a mirror, she unpinned her straw hat, smoothed her dark hair, resting her eyes pensively for a few moments on her reflected face. Then she sauntered listlessly about the little room in performance of those trivial, aimless offices, entirely feminine, such as opening all the drawers in her clothes-press, smoothing out various frilly objects and fabrics, investigating a little gilded box and thoughtfully inspecting its contents, which consisted of hair-pins. Fussing here, lingering there, loitering by her bird-cage, where a canary cheeped its greeting and hopped and hopped; bending over a cluster of white phlox in a glass of water to inhale the old-fashioned perfume, she finally tied on a fresh apron and walked slowly out to the ancient, vaulted kitchen.

An old peasant woman was cooking, while a young one washed dishes.

"Are the American gentlemen still at table, Julie?" she inquired.

"Mademoiselle Maryette, they are devouring everything in the house!" exclaimed old Julie, flinging both hands toward heaven. "_Tenez_, mamzelle, I have heard of eating in ancient days, I have read of Gargantua, I have been told of banquets, of feasting, of appetites! But there is one American in there! Mamzelle Maryette, if I should swear to you that he is on his third chicken and that a row of six pint bottles of '93 Margaux stand empty on the cloth at his elbow, I should do no penance for untruthfulness. _Tenez, Mamzelle Maryette, regardez un peu par l'oubliette_--" And old Julie slid open the wooden shutter on the crack and Maryette bent forward and surveyed the dining room outside.

They were laughing very loud in there, these three Americans--three powerful, sun-scorched young men, very much at their ease around the table, draining the red Bordeaux by goblets, plying knife and fork with joyous and undiminished vigour.

The tall one with the crisp hair and clear, grayish eyes--he of the three chickens--was already achieving the third--a crisply browned bird, fresh from the spit, fragrant and smoking hot. At intervals he buttered great slices of rye bread, or disposed of an entire young potato, washing it down with a goblet of red wine, but always he returned to the rich roasted fowl which he held, still impaled upon its spit, and which he carved as he ate, wings, legs, breast falling in steaming flakes under his skillful knife blade.

Sticky Smith finally pushed aside his drained glass and surveyed an empty plate frankly and regretfully, unable to continue. He said:

"I'm going to bed and I'm going to sleep twenty-four hours. After that I'm going to eat for twenty-four more hours, and then I'll be in good shape. Bong soir."

"Aw, stick around with the push!" remonstrated Kid Glenn thickly, impaling another potato upon his fork and gesticulating with it.

Smith gazed with surfeited but hopeless envy upon Burley's magnificent work with knife and fork, saw him crack a seventh bottle of Bordeaux, watched him empty the first goblet.

But even Glenn's eyes began to dull in spite of himself, his head nodded mechanically at every mouthful achieved.

"I gotta call it off, Jack," he yawned. "Stick and I need the sleep if you don't. So here's where we quit----"

"Let me tell you about that girl," began Burley. "I never saw a prettier--" But Glenn had appetite neither for food nor romance:

"Say, listen. Have a heart, Jack! We need the sleep!"

Stick had already risen; Glenn shoved back his chair with a gigantic yawn and shambled to his feet.

"I want to tell you," insisted Burley, "that she's what the French call tray, tray chick----"

Stick pointed furiously at the fowl:

"Chick? I'm fed up on chick! Maybe she is some chick, as you say, but it doesn't interest me. Goo'bye. Don't come battering at my door and wake me up, Jack. Be a sport and lemme alone----"

He turned and shuffled out, and Glenn followed, his Mexican spurs clanking.

Burley jeered them:

"Mollycoddles! Come on and take in the town with us!"

But they slammed the door behind them, and he heard them stumbling and clanking up stairs.

So Burley, gazing gravely at his empty plate, presently emptied the last visible bottle of Bordeaux, then stretching his mighty arms and superb chest, fished out a cigarette, set fire to it, unhooked the cartridge-belt and holster from the back of his chair, buckled it on, rose, pulled on his leather-peaked cap, and drew a deep breath of contentment.

For a moment he stood in the centre of the room, as though in pleasant meditation, then he slowly strode toward the street door, murmuring to himself: "Tray, tray chick. The prettiest girl in the world.... La ploo belle fille du monde ... la ploo belle...."

He strolled as far as the corral down in the meadow by the stream, where he found the negro muleteers asleep and the mules already watered and fed.

For a while he hobnobbed with the three gendarmes on duty there, practicing his kind of French on them and managing to understand and be understood more or less--probably less.

But the young man was persistent; he desired to become that easy master of the French language that his tongue-tied comrades believed him to be. So he practiced garrulously upon the polite, suffering gendarmes.

He related to them his experience on shipboard with a thousand mutinous mules to pacify, feed, water, and otherwise cherish. They had, it appeared, encountered no submarines, but enjoyed several alarms from destroyers which eventually proved to be British.

"A cousin of mine," explained Burley, "Ned Winters, of El Paso, went down on the steamer _John B. Doty_, with eleven hundred mules and six niggers. The Boches torpedoed the ship and then raked the boats. I'd like to get a crack at one Boche before I go back to God's country."

The gendarmes politely but regretfully agreed that it was impracticable for Burley to get a crack at a Hun; and the American presently took himself off to the corral, after distributing cigarettes and establishing cordial relations with the Sainte Lesse Gendarmerie.

He waked up a negro and inspected the mules; that took a long time. Then he sought out the negro blacksmith, awoke him, and wrote out some directions.

"The idea is," he explained, "that whenever the French in this sector need mules they draw on our corral. We are supposed to keep ten or eleven hundred mules here all the time and look after them. Shipments come every two weeks, I believe. So after you've had another good nap, George, you wake up your boys and get busy. And there'll be trouble if things are not in running order by tomorrow night."

"Yas, suh, Mistuh Burley," nodded the sleepy blacksmith, still blinking in the afternoon sunshine.

"And if you need an interpreter," added Burley, "always call on me until you learn French enough to get on. Understand, George?"

"Yas, suh."

"Because," said Burley, walking away, "a thorough knowledge of French idioms is necessary to prevent mistakes. When in doubt always apply to me, George, for only a master of the language is competent to deal with these French people."

It was his one vanity, his one weakness. Perhaps, because he so ardently desired proficiency, he had already deluded himself with the belief that he was a master of French.

So, belt and loaded holster sagging, and large silver spurs clicking and clinking at every step, John Burley sauntered back along the almost deserted street of Sainte Lesse, thinking sometimes of his mules, sometimes of the French language, and every now and then of a dark-eyed, dark-haired girl whose delicately flushed and pensive gaze he had encountered as he had ridden into Sainte Lesse under the old belfry.

"Stick Smith's a fool," he thought to himself impatiently. "Tray chick doesn't mean 'some chicken.' It means a pretty girl, in French."

He looked up at the belfry as he passed under it, and at the same moment, from beneath the high, gilded dragon which crowned its topmost spire, a sweet bell-note floated, another, others succeeding in crystalline sweetness, linked in a fragment of some ancient melody. Then they ceased; then came a brief silence; the great bell he had heard before struck five times.

"Lord!--that's pretty," he murmured, moving on and turning into the arched tunnel which was the entrance to the White Doe Inn.

Wandering at random, he encountered the innkeeper in the parlour, studying a crumpled newspaper through horn-rimmed spectacles on his nose.

"Tray jolie," said Burley affably, seating himself with an idea of further practice in French.

"_Plait-il?_"

"The bells--tray beau!"

The old man straightened his bent shoulders a little proudly.

"For thirty years, m'sieu, I have been Carillonneur of Sainte Lesse." He smiled; then, saddened, he held out both hands toward Burley. The fingers were stiff and crippled with rheumatism.

"No more," he said slowly; "the carillon is ended for me. The great art is no more for Jean Courtray, Master of Bells."

"What is a carillon?" inquired John Burley simply.

Blank incredulity was succeeded by a shocked expression on the old man's visage. After a silence, in mild and patient protest, he said:

"I am Jean Courtray, Carillonneur of Sainte Lesse.... Have you never heard of the carillon of Sainte Lesse, or of me?"

"Never," said Burley. "We don't have anything like that in America."

The old carillonneur, Jean Courtray, began to speak in a low voice of his art, his profession, and of the great carillon of forty-six bells in the ancient tower of Sainte Lesse.

A carillon, he explained, is a company of fixed bells tuned according to the chromatic scale and ranging through several octaves. These bells, rising tier above tier in a belfry, the smallest highest, the great, ponderous bells of the bass notes lowest, are not free to swing, but are fixed to huge beams, and are sounded by clappers connected by a wilderness of wires to a keyboard which is played upon by the bell-master or carillonneur.

He explained that the office of bell-master was an ancient one and greatly honoured; that the bell-master was also a member of the municipal government; that his salary was a fixed one; that not only did he play upon the carillon on fete days, market days, and particular occasions, but he also travelled and gave concerts upon the few existing carillons of other ancient towns and cities, not alone in France where carillons were few, but in Belgium and Holland, where they still were comparatively many, although the German barbarians had destroyed some of the best at Liege, Arras, Dixmude, Termonde, and Ypres.

"Monsieur," he went on in a voice which began to grow a little unsteady, "the Huns have destroyed the ancient carillons of Louvain and of Mechlin. In the superb bell-tower of Saint Rombold I have played for a thousand people; and the Carillonneur, Monsieur Vincent, and the great bell-master, Josef Denyn, have come to me to congratulate me with tears in their eyes--in their eyes----"

There were tears in his own now, and he bent his white head and looked down at the worn floor under his crippled feet.

"Alas," he said, "for Denyn--and for Saint Rombold's tower. The Hun has passed that way."

After a silence:

"Who is it now plays the carillon in Sainte Lesse!" asked Burley.

"My daughter, Maryette. Sainte Lesse has honoured me in my daughter, whom I myself instructed. My daughter--the little child of my old age, monsieur--is mistress of the bells of Sainte Lesse.... They call her Carillonnette in Sainte Lesse----"

The door opened and the girl came in.

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