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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 18. The Aviator
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Barbarians - Chapter 18. The Aviator Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2997

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Barbarians - Chapter 18. The Aviator

CHAPTER XVIII. THE AVIATOR

Where the Fontanes highroad crosses the byroad to Sainte Lesse they were halted by a dusty column moving rapidly west--four hundred American mules convoyed by gendarmerie and remount troopers.

The sweating riders, passing at a canter, shouted from their saddles to the big gendarme in the market cart that neither Nivelle nor Sainte Lesse were to be defended at present, and that all stragglers were being directed to Fontanes and Le Marronnier. Mules and drivers defiled at a swinging trot, enveloped in torrents of white dust; behind them rode a peloton of the remount, lashing recalcitrant animals forward; and in the rear of these rolled automobile ambulances, red crosses aglow in the rays of the setting sun.

The driver of the last ambulance seemed to be ill; his head lay on the shoulder of a Sister of Charity who had taken the steering wheel.

The gendarme beside Maryette signalled her to stop; then he got out of the market cart and, lifting the body of the American muleteer in his powerful arms, strode across the road. The airman leaped from the market cart and followed him.

Between them they drew out a stretcher, laid the muleteer on it, and shoved it back into the vehicle.

There was a brief consultation, then they both came back to Maryette, who, rigid in her seat and very pale, sat watching the procedure in silence.

The gendarme said:

"I go to Fontanes. There's a dressing station on the road. It appears that your young man's heart hasn't quite stopped yet----"

The girl rose excitedly to her feet, but the gendarme gently forced her back into her seat and laid the reins in her hands. To the airman he growled:

"I did not tell this poor child to hope; I merely informed her that her friend yonder is still breathing. But he's as full of holes as a pepper pot!" He frowned at Maryette: "_Allons! My comrade here goes to Sainte Lesse. Drive him there now, in God's name, before the Uhlans come clattering on your heels!"

He turned, strode away to the ambulance once more, climbed in, and placed one big arm around the sick driver's shoulder, drawing the man's head down against his breast.

"_Bonne chance!_" he called back to the airman, who had now seated himself beside Maryette. "Explain to our little bell-mistress that we're taking her friend to a place where they fool Death every day--where to cheat the grave is a flourishing business! Good-bye! Courage! En route, brave Sister of the World!"

The Sister of Charity turned and smiled at Maryette, made her a friendly gesture, threw in the clutch, and, twisting the steering wheel with both sun-browned hands, guided the machine out onto the road and sped away swiftly after the cloud of receding dust.

"Drive on, mademoiselle," said the airman quietly.

In his accent there was something poignantly familiar to Maryette, and she turned with a start and looked at him out of her dark blue, tear-marred eyes.

"Are _you also American?" she asked.

"Gunner observer, American air squadron, mademoiselle."

"An airman?"

"Yes. My machine was shot down in Nivelle woods an hour ago."

After a silence, as they jogged along between the hazel thickets in the warm afternoon sunshine:

"Were you acquainted with my friend?" she asked wistfully.

"With Jack Burley? A little. I knew him in Calais."

The tears welled up into her eyes:

"Could you tell me about him?... He was my first friend.... I did not understand him in the beginning, monsieur. Among children it is different; I had known boys--as one knows them at school. But a man, never--and, indeed, I had not thought I had grown up until--he came--Djack--to live at our inn.... The White Doe at Sainte Lesse, monsieur. My father keeps it."

"I see," nodded the airman gravely.

"Yes--that is the way. He came--my first friend, Djack--with mules from America, monsieur--one thousand mules. And God knows Sainte Lesse had never seen the like! As for me--I thought I was a child still--until--do you understand, monsieur?"

"Yes, Maryette."

"Yes, that is how I found I was grown up. He was a man, not a boy--that is how I found out. So he became my first friend. He was quite droll, and very big and kind--and timid--following me about--oh, it was quite droll for both of us, because at first I was afraid, but pretended not to be."

She smiled, then suddenly her eyes filled with the tragedy again, and she began to whimper softly to herself, with a faint sound like a hovering pigeon.

"Tell me about him," said the airman.

She staunched her tears with the edge of her apron.

"It was that way with us," she managed to say. "I was enchanted and a little frightened--it being my first friendship. He was so big, so droll, so kind.... We were on our way to Nivelle this morning. I was to play the carillon--being mistress of the bells at Sainte Lesse--and there was nobody else to play the bells at Nivelle; and the wounded desired to hear the carillon."

"Yes."

"So Djack came after me--hearing rumours of Prussians in that direction. They were true--oh, God!--and the Prussians caught us there where you found us."

She bowed her supple figure double on the seat, covering her face with her sun-browned hands.

The airman drove on, whistling "La Brabanconne" under his breath, and deep in thought. From time to time he glanced at the curved figure beside him; but he said no more for a long time.

Toward sunset they drove into the Sainte Lesse highway.

He spoke abruptly, dryly:

"Anybody can weep for a friend. But few avenge their dead."

She looked up, bewildered.

They drove under the old Sainte Lesse gate as he spoke. The sunlight lay pink across the walls and tipped the turret of the watch tower with fire.

The town seemed very still; nothing was to be seen on the long main street except here and there a Spahi horseman _en vidette_, and the clock-tower pigeons circling in their evening flight.

The girl, Maryette, looked dumbly into the fading daylight when the cart stopped before her door. The airman took her gently by the arm, and that awakened her. As though stiffened by fatigue she rose and climbed to the sidewalk. He took her unresisting arm and led her through the tunnelled wall and into the White Doe Inn.

"Get me some supper," he said. "It will take your mind off your troubles."

"Yes."

"Bread, wine, and some meat, if you have any. I'll be back in a few moments."

He left her at the inn door and went out into the street, whistling "La Brabanconne." A cavalryman directed him to the military telephone installed in the house of the notary across the street.

His papers identified him; the operator gave him his connection; they switched him to the headquarters of his air squadron, where he made his report.

"Shot down?" came the sharp exclamation over the wire.

"Yes, sir, about eleven-thirty this morning on the north edge of Nivelle forest."

"The machine?"

"Done for, sir. They have it."

"You?"

"A scratch--nothing. I had to run."

"What else have you to report?"

The airman made his brief report in an unemotional voice. Ending it, he asked permission to volunteer for a special service. And for ten minutes the officer at the other end of the wire listened to a proposition which interested him intensely.

When the airman finished, the officer said:

"Wait till I relay this matter."

For a quarter of an hour the airman waited. Finally the operator half turned on his camp chair and made a gesture for him to resume the receiver.

"If you choose to volunteer for such service," came the message, "it is approved. But understand--you are not ordered on such duty."

"I understand. I volunteer."

"Very well. Munitions go to you immediately by automobile. It is expected that the wind will blow from the west by morning. By morning, also, all reserves will arrive in the west salient. What is to be your signal?"

"The carillon from the Nivelle belfry."

"What tune?"

"'La Brabanconne.' If not that, then the tocsin on the great bell, Clovis."

------------------

In the tiny cafe the crippled innkeeper sat, his aged, wistful eyes watching three leather-clad airmen who had been whispering together around a table in the corner all the afternoon.

They nodded in silence to the new arrival, and he joined them.

Daylight faded in the room; the drum in the Sainte Lesse belfry, set to play before the hour sounded, began to turn aloft; the silvery notes of the carillon seemed to shower down from the sky, filling the twilight world with angelic melody. Then, in resonant beauty, the great bell, Bayard, measured the hour.

The airman who had just arrived went to a sink, washed the caked blood from his face and tied it up with a first-aid bandage. Then he began to pace the cafe, his head bent in thought, his nervous hands clasped behind him.

The room was dusky when he came back to the table where his three comrades still sat consulting in whispers. The old innkeeper had fallen asleep on his chair by the window. There was no light in the room except what came from stars.

"Well," said one of the airmen in a carefully modulated voice, "what are you going to do, Jim?"

"Stay."

"What's the idea?"

The bandaged airman rested both hands on the stained table-top:

"We quit Nivelle tonight, but our reserves are already coming up and we are to retake Nivelle tomorrow. You flew over the town this morning, didn't you?"

All three said yes.

"You took photographs?"

"Certainly."

"Then you know that our trenches pass under the bell-tower?"

"Yes."

"Very well. The wind is north. When the Boches enter our trenches they'll try to gas our salient while the wind holds. But west winds are predicted after sunrise tomorrow. I'm going to get into the Nivelle belfry tonight with a sack of bombs. I'm going to try to explode their gas cylinders if I can. The tocsin is the signal for our people in the salient."

"You're crazy!" remarked one of the airmen.

"No; I'll bluff it out. I'm to have a Boche uniform in a few moments."

"You _are crazy! You know what they'll do to you, don't you, Jim?"

The bandaged airman laughed, but in his eyes there was an odd flicker like a tiny flame. He whistled "La Brabanconne" and glanced coolly about the room.

One of the airmen said to another in a whisper:

"There you are. Ever since they got his brother he's been figuring on landing a whole bunch of Huns at one clip. This is going to finish him, this business."

Another said:

"Don't try anything like that, Jim----"

"Sure, I'll try it," interrupted the bandaged airman pleasantly. "When are you fellows going?"

"Now."

"All right. Take my report. Wait a moment----"

"For God's sake, Jim, act sensibly!"

The bandaged airman laughed, fished out from his clothing somewhere a note book and pencil. One of the others turned an electric torch on the table; the bandaged man made a little sketch, wrote a few lines which the others studied.

"You can get that note to headquarters in half an hour, can't you, Ed?"

"Yes."

"All right. I'll wait here for my answer."

"You know what risk you run, Jim?" pleaded the youngest of the airmen.

"Oh, certainly. All right, then. You'd better be on your way."

After they had left the room, the bandaged airman sat beside the table, thinking hard in the darkness.

Presently from somewhere across the dusky river meadow the sudden roar of an airplane engine shattered the silence; then another whirring racket broke out; then another.

He heard presently the loud rattle of his comrades' machines from high above him in the star-set sky; he heard the stertorous breathing of the old innkeeper; he heard again the crystalline bell-notes break out aloft, linger in linked harmonies, die away; he heard Bayard's mellow thunder proclaim the hour once more.

There was a watch on his wrist, but it had been put out of business when his machine fell in Nivelle woods. Glancing at it mechanically he saw the phosphorescent dial glimmer faintly under shattered hands that remained fixed.

An hour later Bayard shook the starlit silence ten times.

As the last stroke boomed majestically through the darkness an automobile came racing into the long, unlighted street of Sainte Lesse and halted, panting, at the door of the White Doe Inn.

The airman went out to the doorstep, saluted the staff captain who leaned forward from the tonneau and turned a flash on him. Then, satisfied, the officer lifted a bundle from the tonneau and handed it to the airman. A letter was pinned to the bundle.

After the airman had read the letter twice, the staff captain leaned a trifle nearer.

"Do you think it can be done?" he demanded bluntly.

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. Here are your munitions, too."

He lifted from the tonneau a bomb-thrower's sack, heavy and full. The airman took it and saluted.

"It means the cross," said the staff captain dryly. And to the engineer chauffeur: "Let loose!"

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