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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 21. The Gardener
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Barbarians - Chapter 21. The Gardener Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1723

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Barbarians - Chapter 21. The Gardener

CHAPTER XXI. THE GARDENER

A week later, toward noon, as usual, the two American, muleteers, Smith and Glenn, sauntered over from their corral to the White Doe Tavern where, it being a meatless day, they ate largely of potato soup and of a tench, smoking hot.

The tench had been caught that morning off the back doorstep, which was an ancient and mossy slab of limestone let into the coping of the river wall.

Jean Courtray, the crippled inn-keeper, caught it. All that morning he had sat there in the sun on the river wall, half dozing, opening his dim eyes at intervals to gaze at his painted quill afloat among the water weeds of the little river Lesse. At intervals, too, he turned his head with that peculiar movement of the old, and peered at his daughter, Maryette, and the Belgian gardener who were working among the potatoes in the garden.

And at last he had hooked his fish and the emaciated young Belgian dropped his hoe and came over and released it from the hook where it lay flopping and quivering and glittering among the wild grasses on the river bank. And that was how Kid Glenn and Sticky Smith, American muleteers on duty at Saint Lesse, came to lunch on freshly caught tench at the Inn of the White Doe.

After luncheon, agreeably satiated, they rose from the table in the little dining room and strolled out to the garden in the rear of the inn, their Mexican spurs clanking. Maryette heard them; they tipped their caps to her; she acknowledged their salute gravely and continued to cultivate her garden with a hoe, the blond, consumptive Belgian trundling a rickety cultivator at her heels.

"Look, Stick," drawled Glenn. "Maryette's got her decoration on."

From where they lounged by the river wall they could see the cross of the Legion pinned to the girl's blouse.

Both muleteers had been present at the investment the day before, when a general officer arrived from Paris and the entire garrison of Sainte Lesse had been paraded--an impressive total of three dozen men--six gendarmes and a brigadier; one remount sub-lieutenant and twenty troopers; a veterinary, two white American muleteers, and five American negro hostlers from Baton Rouge.

The girl had nearly died of shyness during the ceremony, had endured the accolade with crimson cheeks, had stammered a whispered response to the congratulations of neighbors who had gathered to see the little bell-mistress of Sainte Lesse honoured by the country which she had served in the belfry of Nivelle.

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

As she came past Smith and Glenn, trailing her hoe, the latter now sufficiently proficient in French, said gaily:

"Have you heard from Jack again, Mamzelle Maryette?"

The girl blushed:

"I hear from Djack by every mail," she said, with all the transparent honesty that characterized her.

Smith grinned:

"Just like that! Well, tell him from me to quit fooling away his time in a hospital and come and get you or somebody is going to steal you."

The girl was very happy; she stood there in the September sunshine leaning on her hoe and gazing half shyly, half humorously down the river where a string of American mules was being watered.

Mellow Ethiopian laughter sounded from the distance as the Baton Rouge negroes exchanged pleasantries in limited French with a couple of gendarmes on the bank above them. And there, in the sunshine of the little garden by the river, war and death seemed very far away. Only at intervals the veering breeze brought to Sainte Lesse the immense vibration of the cannonade; only at intervals the high sky-clatter of an airplane reminded the village that the front was only a little north of Nivelle, and that what had been Nivelle was not so very far away.

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

"If you were _my girl, Maryette," remarked Smith, "I'd die of worry in that hospital."

"_You might have reason to, Monsieur," retorted the girl demurely. "But you see it's Djack who is convalescing, not you."

She had become accustomed to the ceaseless banter of Burley's two comrades--a banter entirely American, and which at first she was unable to understand. But now all things American, including accent and odd, perverted humour, had become very dear to her. The clink-clank of the muleteer's big spurs always set her heart beating; the sight of an arriving convoy from the Channel port thrilled her, and to her the trample of mules, the shouts of foreign negroes, the drawling, broken French spoken by the white muleteers made heavenly real to her the dream which love had so suddenly invaded, and into which, as suddenly, strode Death, clutching at Love.

She had beaten him off--she had--or God had--routed Death, driven him from the dream. For it was a dream to her still, and she thought she could never be able to comprehend the magic reality of it, even when at last her man, "Djack," came back to prove the blessed miracle which held her in the magic of its thrall.

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

"Who's the guy with the wheelbarrow?" inquired Sticky Smith, rolling a cigarette.

"Karl, his name is," she answered; "--a Belgian refugee."

"He looks like a Hun to me," remarked Glenn, bluntly.

"He has his papers," said the girl.

Glenn shrugged.

"With his little pink eyes of a pig and his whitish hair and eyebrows--well, maybe they make 'em like that in Belgium."

"Papers," added Smith, "_can be swiped."

The girl shook her head:

"He's an invalid student from Ypres. He looks quite ill, I think."

"He looks the lunger, all right. But Huns have it, too. What does he do--wander about town at will?"

"He works for us, monsieur. Your suspicions are harsh. Karl is quite harmless, poor boy."

"What does he do after hours?" demanded Sticky Smith, watching the manoeuvres of the sickly blond youth and the wheelbarrow.

"Monsieur Smith, if you knew how innocent is his pastime!" she exclaimed, laughing. "He collects and studies moths and butterflies. Is there, if you please, a mania more harmless in the world?... And now I must return to my work, messieurs."

As the two muleteers strode clanking away toward the canal in the meadow, the blond youth turned his head and looked after them out of eyes which were naturally pale and small, and which, as he watched the two Americans, seemed to grow paler and smaller yet.

That afternoon old Courtray, swathed in a shawl, sat on the mossy doorstep and fished among the water weeds of the river. The sun was low; work in the garden had ended.

Maryette had gone up into her belfry to play the sunset hymn on the noble old carillon. Through the sunset sky the lovely bell-notes floated far and wide, exquisitely chaste and aloof as the high-showering ecstasy of a skylark.

As always the little village looked upward and listened, pausing in its humble duties as long as their little bell-mistress remained in her tower.

After the hymn she played "Myn hart is vol verlangen" and "Het Lied der Vlamingen," and ended with the delicate, bewitching little folk-song, "Myn Vryer," by Hasselt.

Then in the red glow of the setting sun the girl laid aside her wooden gloves, rose from the ancient keyboard, wound up the drum, and, her duty done for the evening, came down out of the tower among the transparent evening shadows of the tree-lined village street.

The sun hung over Nivelle hills, which had turned to amethyst. Sunbeams laced the little river in a red net through which old Courtray's quill stemmed the ripples. He still clutched his fishing pole, but his eyes were closed, his chin resting on his chest.

Maryette came silently into the garden and looked at her father--looked at the blond Karl seated on the river wall beside the dozing angler. The blond youth had a box on his knees into which he was intently peering.

The girl came to the river wall and seated herself at her father's feet. The Belgian refugee student had already risen to attention, his heels together, but Maryette signed him to be seated again.

"What have you found now, Karl?" she inquired in a cautiously modulated voice.

"Ah, mademoiselle, fancy! I haff by chance with my cultivator among your potatoes already twenty pupae of the magnificent moth, Sphinx Atropos, upturned! See! Regard them, mademoiselle! What lucky chance! What fortune for me, an entomologist, this wonderful sphinx moth to discover encased within its chrysalis!"

The girl smiled at his enthusiasm:

"But, Karl, those funny, smooth brown things which resemble little polished evergreen-cones are not rare in my garden. Often, when spading or hoeing among the potato vines, I uncover them."

"Mademoiselle, the caterpillar which makes this chrysalis feeds by night on the leaves of the potato, and, when ready to transform, burrows into the earth to become a chrysalis or pupa, as we call it. That iss why mademoiselle has often disinterred the pupae of this largest and strangest of our native sphinx-moths."

Maryette leaned over and looked into the wooden box, where lay the chrysalides.

"What kind of moth do they make?" she asked.

He blinked his small, pale eyes:

"The Death's Head," he said, complacently.

The girl recoiled involuntarily:

"Oh!" she exclaimed under her breath, "--_that creature!"

For everywhere in France the great moth, with its strange and ominous markings, is perfectly well known. To the superstitious it is a creature of evil omen in its fulvous, black and lead-coloured livery of death. For the broad, furry thorax bears a skull, and the big, mousy body the yellow ribs of a skeleton.

Measuring often more than five inches across the expanded wings, its formidable size alone might be sufficient to inspire alarm, but in addition it possesses a horrid attribute unknown among other moths and butterflies; it can utter a cry--a tiny shrill, shuddering complaint. Small wonder, perhaps, that the peasant holds it in horror--this sleek, furry, powerfully winged creature marked with skull and bones, which whirrs through the night and comes thudding against the window, and shrieks horridly when touched by a human hand.

"So _that is what turns into the Death's Head moth," said the girl in a low voice as though to herself. "I never knew it. I thought those things were legless cock-chafers when I dug them out of potato hills. Karl, why do you keep them?"

"Ah, mademoiselle! To study them. To breed from them the moth. The Death's Head is magnificent."

"God made it," admitted the girl with a faint shudder, "but I am afraid I could not love it. When do they hatch out?"

"It is time now. It is not like others of the sphinx family. Incubation requires but a few weeks. These are nearly ready to emerge, mademoiselle."

"Oh. And then what do they do?"

"They mate."

She was silent.

"The males seek the females," he said in his pedantic, monotonous voice. "And so ardent are the lovers that although there be no female moth within five, eight, perhaps ten miles, yet will her lover surely search through the night for her and find her."

Maryette shuddered again in spite of herself. The thought of this creature marked with the emblems of death and possessed of ardour, too, was distasteful.

"Amour macabre--what an unpleasant thought, Karl. I do not care for your Death's Head and for the history of their amours."

She turned and gently laid her head on her father's knees. The young man regarded her with a pallid sneer.

Addressing her back, still holding his boxful of pupae on his bony knees, he said with the sneer quite audible in his voice:

"Your famous savant, Fabre, first inspired me to study the sex habits of the Death's Head."

She made no reply, her cheek resting on her father's knees.

"It was because of his wonderful experiments with the Great Peacock moth and with others of the genus that I have studied to acquaint myself concerning the amours of the Death's Head. _And I have discovered that he will find the female even if she be miles and miles away._"

The man was grinning now in the dusk--grinning like a skull; but the girl's back was still turned and she merely found something in his voice not quite agreeable.

"I think," she said in a low, quiet voice, "that I have now heard sufficient about the Death's Head moth."

"Ah--have I offended mademoiselle? I ask a thousand pardons----"

Old Courtray awoke in the dusk.

"My quill, Maryette," he muttered, "--see if it floats yet?"

The girl bent over the water and strained her eyes. Her father tested the line with shaky hands. There was no fish on the hook.

"_Voyons! The _asticot also is gone. Some robber fish has been nibbling!" exclaimed the girl cheerfully, reeling in the line. "Father, one cannot fish and doze at the same time."

"Eternal vigilance is the price of success--in peace as well as in war," said Karl, the student, as he aided Maryette to raise her father from the chair.

"Vigilance," repeated the girl. "Yes, always now in France. Because always the enemy is listening." ... Her strong young arm around her father, she traversed the garden slowly toward the house. A pleasant odour came from the kitchen of the White Doe, where an old peasant woman was cooking.

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