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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 19. Honour
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Barbarians - Chapter 19. Honour Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3864

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Barbarians - Chapter 19. Honour

CHAPTER XIX. HONOUR

For a moment the airman stood watching and listening. The whir of the receding car died away in the night.

Then, carrying his bundle and his bomber's sack, heavy with latent death, he went into the inn and through the cafe, where the sleeping innkeeper sat huddled, and felt his way cautiously to the little dining room.

The wooden shutters had been closed; a candle flared on the table. Maryette sat beside it, her arms extended across the cloth, her head bowed.

He thought she was asleep, but she looked up as his footfall sounded on the bare floor.

She was so pale that he asked her if she felt ill.

"No. I have been thinking of my friend," she replied in a low but steady voice.

"He may live," said the airman. "He was alive when we lifted him."

The girl nodded as though preoccupied--an odd, mysterious little nod, as though assenting to some intimate, inward suggestion of her own mind.

Then she raised her dark blue eyes to the airman, who was still standing beside the table, the sack of bombs hanging from his left shoulder, the bundle under his arm.

"Here is supper," she said, looking around absently at the few dishes. Then she folded her hands on the table's edge and sat silent, as though lost in thought.

He placed the sack carefully on a cane chair beside him, the bundle on the floor, and seated himself opposite her. There was bread, meat, and a bottle of red wine. The girl declined to eat, saying that she had supped.

"Your friend Jack," he said again, after a long silence, "--I have seen worse cases. He may live, mademoiselle."

"That," she said musingly, in her low, even voice, "is now in God's hands." She gave the slightest movement to her shoulders, as though easing them a trifle of that burden. "I have prayed. You saw me weep. That is ended--so much. Now--" and across her eyes shot a blue gleam, "--now I am ready to listen to _you_! In the cart--out on the road there--you said that anybody can weep, but that few dare avenge."

"Yes," he drawled, "I said that."

"Very well, then; tell me _how_!"

"What do _you want to avenge? Your friend?"

"His country's honour, and mine! If he had been slain--otherwise--I should have perhaps mourned him, confident in the law of France. But--I have seen the Rhenish swine on French soil--I saw the Boches do this thing in France. It is not merely my friend I desire to avenge; it is the triple crime against his life, against the honour of his country and of mine." She had not raised her voice; had not stirred in her chair.

The airman, who had stopped eating, sat with fork in hand, listening, regarding her intently.

"Yes," he said, resuming his meal, "I understand quite well what you mean. Some such philosophy sent my elder brother and me over here from New York--the wild hogs trampling through Belgium--the ferocious herds from the Rhine defacing, defiling, rending, obliterating all that civilized man has reverenced for centuries.... That's the idea--the world-wide menace of these unclean hordes--and the murderous filth of them!... They got my brother."

He shrugged, realizing that his face had flushed with the heat of inner fires.

"Coolness does it," he added, almost apologetically, "--method and coolness. The world must keep its head clear: yellow fever and smallpox have been nearly stamped out; the Hun can be eliminated--with intelligence and clear thinking.... And I'm only an American airman who has been shot down like a winged heron whose comrades have lingered a little to comfort him and have gone on.... Yes, but a winged heron can still stab, little mistress of the bells.... And every blow counts.... Listen attentively--for Jack's sake ... and for the sake of France. For I am going to explain to you how you can strike--if you want to."

"I am listening," said Maryette serenely.

"We may not live through it. Even my orders do not send me to do this thing; they merely permit it. Are you contented to go with me?"

She nodded, the shadow of a smile on her lips.

"Very well. You play the carillon?"

"Yes."

"You can play 'La Brabanconne'?"

"Yes."

"On the bells?"

"Yes."

He rose, went around the table, carrying his chair with him, and seated himself beside her. She inclined her pale, pretty head; he placed his lips close to her ear, speaking very slowly and distinctly, explaining his plan in every minute detail.

While he was still speaking in a whisper, the street outside filled with the trample of arriving cavalry. The Spahis were leaving the environs of Sainte Lesse; _chasseurs a cheval followed from still farther afield, escorting ambulances from the Nivelle hospitals now being abandoned.

"The trenches at Nivelle are being emptied," said the airman.

"And do you mean that you and I are to go there, to Nivelle?" she asked.

"That is exactly what I mean. In an hour I shall be in the Nivelle belfry. Will you be there with me?"

"Yes."

"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "You can play 'La Brabanconne' on the bells while I blow hell out of them in the redoubt below us!"

The infantry from the Nivelle trenches began to pass. There were a few wagons, a battery of seventy-fives, a soup kitchen or two and a long column of mules from Fontanes.

Two American muleteers knocked at the inn door and came stamping into the hallway, asking for a loaf and a bottle of red wine. Maryette rose from the table to find provisions; the airman got up also, saying in English:

"Where do you come from, boys?"

"From Fontanes corral," they replied, surprised to hear their own tongue spoken.

"Do you know Jack Burley, one of your people?"

"Sure. He's just been winged bad."

"The Huns done him up something fierce," added the other.

"Very bad?"

Maryette came back with a loaf and two bottles.

"I seen him at Fontanes," replied the muleteer, taking the provisions from the girl. "He's all shot to pieces, but they say he'll pull through."

The airman turned to Maryette:

"Jack will get well," he translated bluntly.

The girl, who had just refused the money offered by the American muleteer, turned sharply, became deadly white for a second, then her face flamed with a hot and splendid colour.

One of the muleteers said:

"Is this here his girl?"

"Yes," nodded the airman.

The muleteer became voluble, patting Maryette on one arm and then on the other:

"J'ai vue Jack Burley, mamzelle, toot a l'heure! Il est bien, savvy voo! Il est tray, tray bien! Bocoo de trou! N'importe! Il va tray bien! Savvy voo? Jack Burley, l'ami de voo! Comprenny? On va le guerir toot sweet! Wee! Wee! Wee!----"

The girl flung her arms around the amazed muleteer's neck and kissed him impetuously on both cheeks. The muleteer blushed and his comrade fidgeted. Only the girl remained unembarrassed.

Half laughing, half crying, terribly excited, and very lovely to look upon, she caught both muleteers by their sleeves and poured out a torrent of questions. With the airman's aid she extracted what information they had to offer; and they went their way, flustered, still blushing, clasping bread and bottles to their agitated breasts.

The airman looked her keenly in the eyes as she came back from the door, still intensely excited, adorably transfigured. She opened her lips to speak--the happy exclamation on her lips, already half uttered, died there.

"Well?" inquired the airman quietly.

Dumb, still breathing rapidly, she returned his gaze in silence.

"Now that your friend Jack is going to live--what next?" asked the airman pleasantly.

For a full minute she continued to stare at him without a word.

"No need to avenge him now," added the airman, watching her.

"No." She turned, gazed vaguely into space. After a moment she said, as though to herself: "But his country's honour--and mine? That reckoning still remains! Is it not true?"

The airman said, with a trace of pity in his voice, for the girl seemed very young:

"You need not go with me to Nivelle just because you promised."

"Oh," she said simply, "I must go, of course--it being a question of our country's honour."

"I do not ask it. Nor would Jack, your friend. Nor would your own country ask it of you, Maryette Courtray."

She replied serenely:

"But _I ask it--of _myself_. Do you understand, monsieur?"

"Perfectly." He glanced mechanically at his useless wrist watch, then inquired the time. She went to her room, returned, wearing a little jacket and carrying a pair of big, wooden gloves.

"It is after eleven o'clock," she said. "I brought my jacket because it is cold in all belfries. It will be cold in Nivelle, up there in the tower under Clovis."

"You really mean to go with me?"

She did not even trouble to reply to the question. So he picked up his packet and his sack of bombs, and they went out, side by side, under the tunnelled wall.

Infantry from Nivelle trenches were still plodding along the dark street under the trees; dull gleams came from their helmets and bayonets in the obscure light of the stars.

The girl stood watching them for a few moments, then her hand sought the airman's arm:

"If there is to be a battle in the street here, my father cannot remain."

The airman nodded, went out into the street and spoke to a passing officer. He, in turn, signalled the driver of a motor omnibus to halt.

The little bell-mistress entered the tavern, followed by two soldiers. In a few moments they came out bearing, chair-fashion between them, the crippled innkeeper.

The old man was much alarmed, but his daughter followed beside him to the omnibus, in which were several lamed soldiers.

"_Et toi?_" he quavered as they lifted him in. "What of thee, Maryette?"

"I follow," she called out cheerily. "I rejoin thee--" the bus moved on--"God knows when or where!" she added under her breath.

The airman was whispering to a fat staff officer when she rejoined him. All three looked up in silence at the belfry of Sainte Lesse, looming above them, a monstrous shadow athwart the stars. A moment later an automobile, arriving from the south, drew up in front of the inn.

"_Bonne chance_," said the fat officer abruptly; he turned and waddled swiftly away in the darkness. They saw him mount his horse. His legs stuck out sideways.

"Now," whispered the airman, with a nod to the chauffeur.

The little bell-mistress entered the car, her wooden gloves tucked under one arm. The airman followed with his packet and his sack of bombs. The chauffeur started his engine.

The middle of the road was free to him; the edges were occupied by the retreating infantry. As the car started, very slowly, cautiously feeling its way out of Sainte Lesse, the fat staff officer turned his horse and trotted up alongside. The car stopped, the engine still running.

"It's understood?" asked the officer in a low voice. "It's to be when we hear 'La Brabanconne'?"

"When you hear 'La Brabanconne.'"

"Understood," said the staff officer crisply, saluted and drew bridle. And the car moved out into the starlit night along an endless column of retreating soldiers, who were laughing, smoking, and chatting as though not in the least depressed by their withdrawal from the dry and cosy trenches of Nivelle which they were abandoning.

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