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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 20. "La Brabanconne"
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Barbarians - Chapter 20. 'La Brabanconne' Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2323

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Barbarians - Chapter 20. "La Brabanconne"

CHAPTER XX. "LA BRABANCONNE"

No shells were falling in Nivelle as they left the car on the outskirts of the town and entered the long main street. That was all of Nivelle, a long, treeless main street from which branched a few alleys.

Smouldering debris of what had been houses illuminated the street. There were no other lights. Nothing stirred except a gaunt cat flitting like a shadow along the gutter. There was not a sound save the faint stirring of the cinders over which pale flames played fitfully.

Abandoned trenches ditched the little town in every direction; temporary shelters made of boughs, sheds, and broken-down wagons stood along the street. Otherwise, all impedimenta, materials, and stores had apparently been removed by the retreating columns. There was little wreckage except the burning debris of the few shell-struck houses--a few rags, a few piles of firewood, a bundle of straw and hay here and there.

High, mounting toward the stars, the ancient tower with its gilded hippogriff dominated the place--a vast, vague shape brooding over the single mile-long street and grimy alleys branching from it.

Nobody guarded the portal; the ancient doors stood wide open; pitch darkness reigned within.

"Do you know the way?" whispered the airman.

"Yes. Take hold of my hand."

He dared not use his flash. Carrying bundle and bombsack under one arm, he sought for her hand and encountered it. Cool, slim fingers closed over his.

After a few moments' stealthy advance, she whispered:

"Here are the stairs. Be careful; they twist."

She started upward, feeling with her feet for every stone step. The ascent appeared to be interminable; the narrowing stone spiral seemed to have no end. Her hand grew warm within his own.

But at last they felt a fresh wind blowing and caught a glimpse of stars above them.

Then, tier on tier, the bells of the carillon, fixed to their great beams, appeared above them--a shadowy, bewildering wilderness of bells, rising, rank above rank, until they vanished in the darkness overhead. Beside them, almost touching them, loomed the great bell Clovis, a gigantic mass bulking enormously in that shadowy place.

A sonorous wind flowed through the open tower, eddying among the bells--a strong, keen night wind blowing from the north.

The airman walked to the south parapet and looked down. Below him in the starlight, like an indistinct map spread out, lay the Nivelle redoubt and the trench with its gabions, its sand bags, its timbers, its dugouts.

Very far away to the southeast they could see the glare of rockets and exploding shells, but the sound of the bombardment did not reach them. North, a single searchlight played and switched across the clouds; west, all was dark.

"They'll arrive just before dawn," said the airman, placing his sack of bombs on the pavement under the parapet. "Come, little bell-mistress, take me to see your keyboard."

"It is below--a few steps. This way--if you will follow me----"

She turned to the stone stairs again, descended a dozen steps, opened a door on a narrow landing.

And there, in the starlight, he saw the keyboard and the bewildering maze of wires running up and branching like a huge web toward the tiers of bells above.

He looked at the keyboard curiously. The little mistress of the bells displayed the two wooden gloves with which she encased her hands when she played the carillon.

"It would be impossible for one to play unless one's hands are armoured," she explained.

"It is almost a lost art," he mused aloud, "--this playing the carillon--this wonderful bell-music of the middle ages. There are few great bell-masters in this day."

"Few," she said dreamily.

"And"--he turned and stared at her--"few mistresses of the bells, I imagine."

"I think I am the only one in France or in Flanders.... And there are few carillons left. The Huns are battering them down. Towers of the ancient ages are falling everywhere in Flanders and in France under their shell fire. Very soon there will be no more of the old carillons left; no more bell-music in the world." She sighed heavily. "It is a pity."

She seated herself at the keyboard.

"Dare I play?" she asked, looking up over her shoulder.

"No; it would only mean a shell from the Huns."

She nodded, laid the wooden gloves beside her and let her delicate hands wander over the mute keys.

Leaning beside her the airman quietly explained the plan they were to follow.

"With dawn they will come creeping into Nivelle--the Huns," he said. "I have one of their officers' uniforms in that bundle above. I shall try to pass as a general officer. You see, I speak German. My education was partly ruined in Germany. So I'll get on very well, I expect.

"And directly under us is the trench and the main redoubt. They'll occupy that first thing. They'll swarm there--the whole trench will be crawling with them. They'll install their gas cylinders at once, this wind being their wind.

"But with sunrise the wind changes--and whether it changes or not, I don't care," he added. "I've got them at last where I want them."

The girl looked up at him. He smiled that terrifying smile of his:

"With the explosion of my first bomb among their gas cylinders you are to start these bells above us. Are you afraid?"

"No."

"You are to play 'La Brabanconne.' That is the signal to our trenches."

"I have often played it," she said coolly.

"Not in the teeth of a barbarian army. Not in the faces of a murderous soldiery."

The girl sat quite still for a few moments; then looking up at him, and very pale in the starlight:

"Do you think they will tear me to pieces, monsieur?"

He said:

"I mean to hold those stairs with my sack of bombs until our people enter the trenches. If they can do it in an hour we will be all right."

"Yes."

"It is only a half-hour affair from our salient. I allow our people an hour."

"Yes."

"But if, even now, you had rather go back----"

"_No!_"

"There is no disgrace in going back."

"You said once, 'anybody can weep for friend and country. Few avenge either.' I am--happy--to be among the few."

He nodded. After a moment he said:

"I'll bet you something. My country is all right, but it's sick. It's got a nauseous dose of verbiage to spew up--something it's swallowed--something about being too proud to fight.... My brother and I couldn't stand it, so we came to France.... He was in the photo air service. He was in mufti--and about two miles up, I believe. Six Huns went for him.... And winged him. He had to land behind their lines.... In mufti.... Well--I've never found courage to hear the details. I can't stand them--yet."

"Your brother--is dead, monsieur?" she asked timidly.

"Oh, yes. With--circumstances. Well, then--after that, from an ordinary, commonplace man I became a machine for the extermination of vermin. That's all I am--an animated magazine of Persian powder--or I do it in any handy way. It's not a sporting proposition, you see, just get rid of them any old way. You don't understand, do you?"

"A--little."

"But it's slow work--slow work," he muttered vaguely, "--and the world is crawling--crawling with them. But if God guides my bomb this time and if I hit one of their gas cylinders--_that ought to be worth while."

In the starlight his features became tense and terrible; she shivered in her threadbare jacket.

After a few moments' silence he went away up the steps to put on his German uniform. When he descended again she had a troubled question for him to answer:

"But how shall you account for me, a French girl, monsieur, if they come to the belfry?"

A heavy flush darkened his face:

"Little mistress of the bells, I shall pretend to be what the Huns are. Do you know how they treat French women?"

"I have heard," she said faintly.

"Then if they come and find you here as my--_prisoner_--they will think they understand."

The colour flamed in her face and she bowed it, resting her elbows on the keyboard.

"Come," he said, "don't be distressed. Does it matter what a Hun thinks? Come; let's be cheerful. Can you hum for me 'La Brabanconne'?"

She did not reply.

"Well, never mind," he said. "But it's a grand battle anthem.... We Americans have one.... It's out of fashion. And after all, I had rather hear 'La Brabanconne' when the time comes.... What a terrible admission! But what Americans have done to my country is far more terrible. The nation's sick--sick!... I prefer 'La Brabanconne' for the time being."

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

The Prussians entered Nivelle a little before dawn. The airman had been watching the street below. Down there in the slight glow from the cinders of what once had been a cottage a cat had been squatting, staring at the bed of coals, as though she were once more installed upon the family hearthstone.

Then something unseen as yet by the airman attracted the animal's attention. Alert, crouching, she stared down the vista of dark, deserted houses, then turned and fled like a ghost.

For a long while the airman perceived nothing. Suddenly close to the house facades on either side of the street, shadowy forms came gliding forward.

They passed the glowing embers and went on toward Sainte-Lesse; jaegers, with knapsacks on back and rifles trailing; and on their heads oddly shaped pot helmets with battered looking visors.

One or two motorcyclists followed, whizzing through the desolate street and into the country beyond.

After a few minutes, out of the throat of the darkness emerged a solid column of infantry. In a moment, beneath the bell tower, the ground was swarming with Huns; every inch of the earth became infested with them; fields, hedges, alleys crawled alive with Germans. They overran every road, every street, every inch of open country; their wagons choked the main thoroughfare, they were already establishing themselves in the redoubt below, in the trench, running in and out of dugouts and all over scarp, counter-scarp, parades and parapet, ant-like in energy, busy with machine gun, trench mortar, installing telephones, searchlights, periscopes, machine guns.

Automobiles arrived--two armoured cars and grey passenger machines in which there were officers.

The airman laid his hand on Maryette's arm.

"Little bell-mistress," he said, "German officers are coming into the tower. I want them to find you in my arms when they come up into this belfry. Understand me, and forgive me."

"I--understand," she whispered.

"Play your part bravely. Will you?"

"Yes."

He put his arms around her; they stood rigid, listening.

"Now!" he whispered, and drew her close, kissing her.

Spurred boots clattered on the stone floor:

"Herr Je!" exclaimed an astonished voice. Somebody laughed. But the airman coolly pushed the girl aside, and as the faint grey light of dawn fell on his field uniform bearing the ribbon of the iron cross, two pairs of spurred heels hastily clinked together and two hands flew to the oddly shaped helmet visors.

"Also!" exclaimed the airman in a mincing Berlin accent. "When I require a corps of observers I usually send my aide. That being now quite perfectly understood, you gentlemen will give yourselves the trouble to descend as you have come. Further, you will place a sentry at the tower door, and inform enquirers that General Count von Gierdorff and his staff are occupying the Nivelle belfry for purposes of observation."

The astounded officers saluted steadily; and if they imagined that the mythical staff of this general officer was clustered aloft somewhere up there where the bells hung it was impossible to tell by the strained expressions on their wooden countenances.

However, it was evidently perfectly plain to them what the high Excellenz was about in this vaulted room where wires led aloft to an unseen carillon on the landing in the belfry above.

The airman nodded; they went. And when their clattering steps echoed far below on the spiral stone stairs, the airman motioned to the little bell-mistress. She followed him up the short flight to where the bells hung.

"We're in for it now," he said. "If High Command comes into this place to investigate then I shall have to hold those stairs.... It's growing quite light in the east. Which way is the wind?"

"North," she said in a steady voice. She was terribly pale.

He went to the parapet and looked over, half wondering, perhaps, whether he would receive a rifle shot through the head.

Far below at the foot of the bell-tower the dimly discerned Nivelle redoubt, swarming with men, was being armed; and, to the south, wired he thought, but could not see distinctly.

Then, as the dusk of early dawn grew greyer, the first rifle shots rattled out in the west. The French salient was saluting the wire-stringers.

Back under shelter they tumbled; whistles sounded distantly; a trench mortar crashed; then the accentless tattoo of machine guns broke from every emplacement.

"The east is turning a little yellow," he said calmly. "I believe this matter is going through. Toss some dust into the air. Which way?"

"North," said the girl.

"Good. I think they're placing their cylinders. I think I can see them laying their coils. I'm certain of it. What luck!"

The airman was becoming excited and his voice trembled a little with the effort to control it.

"It's growing pink in the east. Try a handful of dust again," he suggested almost gaily.

"North," she said briefly, watching the dust aloft.

"Luck's with us! Look at the east! If their High Command keeps his nose out of this place!--if he _does_!--Look at the east, little bell-mistress! It's all gold! There's pink up higher. I can see a faint tinge of blue, too. Can you?"

"I think so."

A minute dragged like a year in prison. Then:

"Try the wind again," he said in a strained voice.

"North."

"Oh, luck! Luck!" he muttered, slinging his sack of bombs over his shoulder. "We've got them! We've certainly got them! What's that! An airplane! Look, little girl--one of our planes is up. There's another! Which way is the wind?"

"North."

"Got 'em!" he snapped between his teeth. "Run over to the stairs. Listen! Is anybody coming up?"

"I can hear nothing."

"Stand there and listen. Never mind the row the guns are making; listen for somebody on the stairs. Look how light it's getting! The sun will push up before many minutes. We've got 'em! _Got 'em! Wet your finger and try the wind!"

"North."

"North here, too. What do you know about that! Luck! Luck's with us! And we've got 'em--!" he lifted his clenched hand and laughed at her. "Like that!" he said, his blue eyes blazing. "They're getting ready to gas below. Look at 'em! Glory to God! I can see two cylinders directly under me. They're manning the nozzles! Every man is masking at his post! Anybody on the stairs! Any sound?"

"None."

"Are you certain?"

"It is as still as death below."

"Try the dust. The wind's changing, I think. Quick! Which way?"

"_West._"

"Oh, glory! Glory to God! They feel it below! They know. The wind has changed. Off came their respirators. No gas this morning, eh? Yes, by God, there will be gas enough for all----!"

He caught up a bomb, leaned over the parapet, held it aloft, poised, aiming steadily for one second of concentrated cooerdination of mind and muscle. Then straight down he launched it. The cylinder beneath him was shattered and a green geyser of gas burst from it deluging the trench.

Already a second bomb followed the first, then another, and then a third; and with the last report another cylinder in the trench below burst into thick green billows of death and flowed over the ground, _west_.

Two more bombs whirled down, bursting on a machine gun; then the airman turned with a cry of triumph, and at the same instant the sun rose above the hills and flung a golden ray straight across his face.

To Maryette the man stood transfigured, like the Blazing Guardian of the Flaming Sword.

"Ring out your Brabanconne!" he cried. "Let the Huns hear the war song of the land they've trampled! Now! Little bell-mistress, arm your white hands with your wooden gloves and make this old carillon speak in brass and iron!"

He caught her by the arm; they ran down the short flight of steps; she drew on her wooden gloves and sprang to the keyboard.

"I'll hold the stairs!" he cried. "I can hold these stairs for an hour against the whole world in arms. Now, then! The Brabanconne!"

Above the roaring confusion and the explosions far below, from high up in the sky a clear bell note floated as though out of Heaven itself--another, others, crystalline clear, imperious, filling all the sky with their amazing and terrible beauty.

The mistress of the bells struck the keyboard with armoured hands--beautiful, slender, avenging hands; the bells above her crashed out into the battle-song of Flanders, filling sky and earth with its splendid defiance of the Hun.

The airman, bomb in hand, stood at the head of the stone stairs; the ancient tower rocked with the fiercely magnificent anthem of revolt--the war cry of a devastated land--the land that died to save the world--the martyr, Belgium, still prone in the deathly trance awaiting her certain resurrection.

The rising sun struck the tower where three score ancient bells poured from metal throats their heavenly summons to battle!

The Hun heard it, tumbling, clawing, strangling below in the hellish vapours of his own death-fog; and now, from the rear his sky-guns hurled shrapnel at the carillon in the belfry of Nivelle.

Clouds possessed the tower--soft, white, fleecy clouds rolling, unfolding, floating about the ancient buttresses and gargoyles. An iron hail rained on slate and parapet and resounding bell-metal. But the bells pealed and pealed in clear-voiced beauty, and Clovis, the great iron giant, hung, scarcely sonorous under the shrapnel rain.

Suddenly there were bayonets on the stairs--the clatter of heavy feet--alien faces on the threshold. Then a bomb flew, and the terrible crash cleared the stairs.

Twice more the clatter came with the clank of bayonets and guttural cries; but both died out in the infernal roar of the grenades exploding inside that stony spiral. And no more bayonets flickered on the stairs.

The airman, frozen to a statue, listened. Again and again he thought he could hear bugles, but the roar from below blotted out the distant call.

"Little bell-mistress!"

She turned her head, her hands still striking the keyboard. He spoke through the confusion of the place:

"Sound the tocsin!"

Then Clovis thundered from the belfry like a great gun fired, booming out over the world. Around the iron colossus shrapnel swept in gusts; Clovis thundered on, annihilating all sound except his own tremendous voice, heedless of shell and bullet, disdainful of the hell's shambles below, where masked French infantry were already leaping the parapets of Nivelle Redoubt into the squirming masses below.

The airman shouted at her through the tumult:

"They murdered my brother. Did I tell you? They hacked him to slivers with their bayonets. I've settled the reckoning down in the gas there--their own green gas, damn them! You don't understand what I say, do you? He was my brother----"

A frightful explosion blew in the oubliette; the room rattled and clattered with shrapnel.

The airman swayed where he stood in the swirling smoke, lurched up against the stone coping, slid down to his knees.

When his eyes opened the little bell-mistress was bending over him.

"They got me," he gasped. All the front of his tunic was sopping red.

"They said it meant the cross--if I made good.... Are you hurt?"

"Oh, no!" she whispered. "But you----"

"Go on and play!" he whispered with a terrible effort.

"But you----"

"The Brabanconne! Quick!"

She went, whimpering. Standing before the keyboard she pulled on her wooden gloves and struck the keys.

Out over the infernal uproar below pealed the bells; the morning sky rang with the noble summons to all brave men. Once more the ancient tower trembled with the mighty out-crash of the battle hymn.

With the last note she turned and looked down at him where he lay against the wall. He opened his glazing eyes and tried to smile at her.

"Bully," he whispered. "Could you recite--the words--to me--just so I could hear them on my way--West?"

She left the keyboard, came and dropped on her knees beside him; and closing her eyes to check the tears sang in a low, tremulous, girlish voice, De Lonlay's words, to the battle anthem of revolution.

"Bully," he sighed. And spoke no more on earth.

But the little mistress of the bells did not know his soul had passed.

And the French officer who came leaping up the stairs, pistol lifted, halted in astonishment to see a dead man lying beside a sack of bombs and a young girl on her knees beside him, weeping and tremblingly intoning "La Brabanconne."

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