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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 22. The Suspect
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Barbarians - Chapter 22. The Suspect Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3860

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Barbarians - Chapter 22. The Suspect

CHAPTER XXII. THE SUSPECT

That night she wrote to her lover at the great hospital in the south, where he lay slowly growing well:


MY DJACK:

Today has been very beautiful, made so for me by my thoughts of you and by a warm September sun which makes for human happiness, too.

I am wearing my ribbon of the Legion. Ah, my Djack, it belongs more rightly to you, who would not let me go alone to Nivelle that dreadful day. Why do they not give you the cross? They must be very stupid in Paris.

All day my happy thoughts have been with you, my Djack. It all seems a blessed dream that we love each other. And I--oh, how could I have been so ignorant, so silly, not to know it sooner than I did!

I don't know; I thought it was friendship. And that was so wonderful to me that I never dreamed any other miracle possible!

_Allons_, my Djack. Come and instruct me quickly, because my desire for further knowledge is very ardent.

The news? _Cher ami_, there is little. Always the far thunder beyond Nivelle in ruins; sometimes a battle-plane high in the blue; a convoy of your beloved mules arriving from the coast; nothing more exciting.

Monsieur Smeet and Monsieur Glenn inquire always concerning you. They are brave and kind; their odd jests amuse me.

My father caught a tench in the Lesse this morning.

My gardener, Karl, collected many unpleasant creatures while hoeing our potatoes. Poor lad, he seems unhealthy. I am glad I could offer him employment.

My Djack, there could not possibly be any mistake about him, could there? His papers are en regle. He is what he pretends, a Belgian student from Ypres in distress and ill health, is he not?

But how can you answer me, you who lie there all alone in a hospital at Nice? Also, I am ashamed of myself for doubting the unfortunate young man. I am too happy to doubt anybody, perhaps.

And so good night, my Djack. Sleep sweetly, guarded by powerful angels.


Thy devoted,
MARYETTE.


She had been writing in the deserted cafe. Now she took a candle and went slowly upstairs. On the white plaster wall of her bedroom was a Death's Head moth.

The girl, startled for an instant, stood still; an unfeigned shiver of displeasure passed over her. Not that the Death's Head was an unfamiliar or terrifying sight to her; in late summer she usually saw one or two which had flown through some lighted window.

But it was the amorous history of this creature which the student Karl had related that now repelled her. This night creature with the skull on its neck, once scarcely noticed, had now become a trifle repulsive.

She went nearer, lifting the lighted candle. The thing crouched there with slanted wings. It was newly hatched, its sleek body still wet with the humors of incubation--wet as a soaked mouse. Its abdomen, too, seemed enormous, all swelled and distended with unfertilized eggs. No, there could be no question concerning the sex of the thing; this was a female, and her tumefied body was almost bursting with eggs.

In startling design the yellow skull stood out; the ribs of the skeleton. Two tiny, fiery eyes glimmered at the base of the antennae--two minute jewelled sparks of glowing, lambent fire. They seemed to be watching her, maliciously askance.

The very horrid part of it was that, if touched, the creature would cry out. The girl knew this, hesitated, looked at the open window through which it must have crawled, and sat down on her bed to consider the situation.

"After all," she said to herself resolutely. "God made it. It is harmless. If God thought fit to paint one of his lesser creatures like a skeleton, perhaps it was to remind us that life is brief and that we should lose no time to live it nobly in His sight.... I think that perhaps explains it."

However, she did not undress.

"I am quite foolish to be afraid of this poor moth. I repeat that I am foolish. _Allez_--I am _not afraid. I am no longer afraid. I--I admire this handiwork of God."

She sat looking at the creature, her hands lying clasped in her lap.

"It's a very odd thing," she said to herself, "that a lover can find this creature even if he be miles and miles away.... Maybe he's on his way now----"

Instinctively she sprang up and closed her bedroom window.

"No," she said, looking severely at the motionless moth, "you shall have no visitors in my room. You may remain here; I shall not disturb you; and tomorrow you will go away of your own accord. But I cannot permit you to receive company----"

A heavy fall on the floor above checked her. Breathless, listening, she crept to her door.

"Karl!" she called.

Listening again, she could hear distant and vaguely dreadful sounds from the gardener-student's room above.

She was frightened but she went up. The youth had had a bad hemorrhage. She sat beside him late into the night. After his breathing grew quieter, sitting there in silence she could hear odd sounds, rustling, squeaking sounds from the box of Death's Head chrysalids on the night table beside his bed.

The pupae of the Death's Head were making merry in anticipation of the rapidly approaching change--the Great Adventure of their lives--the coming metamorphosis.

The youth lay asleep now. As she extinguished the candle and stole from the room, all the pupae of the Death's Head began to squeak in the darkness.

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

The student-gardener could do no more work for the present. He lay propped up in bed, pasty, scarlet lipped, and he seemed bald and lidless, so colourless were hair and eye-lashes.

"Can I do anything for you, Karl?" asked Maryette, coming in for a moment as usual in the intervals of her many duties.

"The ink, if you would be so condescending--and a pen," he said, watching her out of hollow, sallow eyes of watery blue.

She fetched both from the cafe.

She came again in another hour, knocking at his door, but he said rather sharply that he wished to sleep.

Scarcely noticing the querulous tone, she departed. She had much to do besides her duties in the belfry. Her father was an invalid who required constant care; there was only one servant, an old peasant woman who cooked. The Government required her father to keep open the White Doe Tavern, and there was always a little business from the scanty garrison of Sainte Lesse, always a few meals to get, a few drinks to serve, and nobody now to do it except herself.

Then, in the belfry she had duties other than playing, than practice. Always at night the clock-drum was to be wound.

She had no assistant. The town maintained none, and her salary as Mistress of the Bells of Sainte Lesse did not permit her to engage anybody to help her.

So she oiled and wound all the machinery herself, adjusted and cared for the clock, swept the keyboard clean, inspected and looked after the wires leading to the tiers of bells overhead.

Then there was work to do in the garden--a few minutes snatched between other duties. And when night arrived at last she was rather tired--quite weary on this night in particular, having managed to fulfill all the duties of the sick youth as well as her own.

The night was warm and fragrant. She sat in the dark at her open window for a while, looking out into the north where, along the horizon, heat lightning seemed to play. But it was only the reflected flashes of the guns. When the wind was right, she could hear them.

She had even managed to write to her lover. Now, seated beside the open window, she was thinking of him. A dreamy, happy lethargy possessed her; she was on the first delicate verge of slumber, so close to it that all earthly sounds were dying out in her ears. Then, suddenly, she was awake, listening.

A window had been opened in the room overhead.

She went to the stars and called:

"Karl!"

"What?" came the impatient reply.

"Are you ill?"

"No. N-no, I thank you--" His voice became urbane with an apparent effort. "Thank you for inquiring----"

"I heard your window open--" she said.

"Thank you. I am quite well. The air is mild and grateful.... I thank mademoiselle for her solicitude."

She returned to her room and lighted her candle. On the white plaster wall sat the Death's Head moth.

She had not been in her room all day. She was astonished that the moth had not left.

"Shall I have to put you out?" she thought dubiously. "Really, I can not keep my window closed for fear of visitors for you, Madam Death! I certainly shall be obliged to put you out."

So she found a sheet of paper and a large glass tumbler. Over the moth she placed the tumbler, then slipped the sheet of paper under the glass between moth and wall.

The thing cried and cried, beating at the glass with wings as powerful as a bird's, and the girl, startled and slightly repelled, placed the moth on her night table, imprisoned under the tumbler.

For a while it fluttered and flapped and cried out in its strange, uncanny way, then settled on the sheet of paper, quivering its wings, both eyes like living coals.

Seated on the bedside, Maryette looked at it, schooling herself to think of it kindly as one of God's creatures before she released it at her open window.

And, as she sat there, something came whizzing into the room through her window, circled around her at terrific speed with a humming, whispering whirr, then dropped with a solid thud on the night table beside the imprisoned female moth.

It was the first suitor arrived from outer darkness--a big, powerful Death's Head moth with eyes aglow, the yellow skull displayed in startling contrast on his velvet-black body.

The girl watched him, fascinated. He scrambled over to the tumbler, tested it with heavy antennae; then, ardent and impatient, beat against the glass with muscular wings that clattered in the silence.

But it was not the amorous fury of the creature striking the tumbler with resounding wings, not the glowing eyes, the strong, clawed feet, the Death's Head staring from its funereal black thorax that held the girl's attention. It was something else; something entirely different riveted her eyes on the creature.

For the cigar-shaped body, instead of bearing the naked ribs of a skeleton, was snow white.

And now she began to understand. Somebody had already caught the moth, had wrapped around its body a cylinder of white tissue paper--tied it on with a fine, white silk thread.

The moth was very still now, exploring the interstices between tumbler and table with heavy, pectinated antennae.

Cautiously Maryette bent forward and dropped both hands on the moth.

Instantly the creature cried out horribly; it was like a mouse between her shrinking fingers; but she slipped the cylinder of tissue paper from its abdomen and released it with a shiver; and it darted and whizzed around the room, gyrating in whistling circles around her head until, unnerved, she struck at it again and again with empty hands, following, driving it toward the open window, out of which it suddenly darted.

But now there was another Death's Head in the room, a burly, headlong, infatuated male which drove headlong at the tumbler and clung to it, slipping, sliding, filling the room with a feathery tattoo of wings.

It, also, had a snow-white body; and before she had seized the squeaking thing and had slipped the tissue wrapper from its body, another Death's Head whirred through the window; then another, then two; then others. The room swarmed; they were crawling all over the tumbler, the table, the bed. The room was filled with the soft, velvety roar of whirring wings beating on wall and ceiling and against the tumbler where Madam Death sat imprisoned, quivering her wings, her eyes two molten rubies, and the ghastly skull staring from her back.

How Maryette ever brought herself to do it; how she did it at last, she had no very clear idea. The touch of the slippery, mousy bodies was fearsomely repugnant to her; the very sight of the great, skull-bearing things began to sicken her physically. A dreadful, almost impalpable floss from their handled wings and bodies smeared her hands; the place vibrated with their tiny goblin cries.

Somehow she managed to strip them of the tissue cylinders, drive them from where they crawled on ceiling, wall and sill into whistling flight. Amid a whirlwind of wings she fought them toward the open window; whizzing, flitting, circling they sped in widening spirals to escape her blows, where she stood half blinded in the vortex of the ghostly maelstrom.

One by one they darted through the open window out into the night; and when the last spectral streak of grey had sped into outer darkness the girl slammed the windowpanes shut and leaned against the sill enervated, exhausted, revolted.

The room was misty with the microscopic dust from the creatures' wings; on her palms and fingers were black stains and stains of livid orange; and across wall and ceiling streaks and smudges of rusty colour.

She was still trembling when she washed the smears from her hands. Her fingers were still unsteady as she smoothed out each tiny sheet of tissue paper and laid it on her night table. Then, seated on the bed's edge beside the lighted candle, she began to read the messages written in ink on these frail, translucent tissue missives.

Every bit of tissue bore a message; the writing was microscopic, the script German, the language Flemish. Slowly, with infinite pains, the little bell-mistress of Sainte Lesse translated to herself each message as she deciphered it.

She was trembling more than ever when she finished. Every trace of colour had fled from her cheeks.

Then, as she sat there, struggling to keep her mind clear of the horror of the thing, striving to understand what was to be done, there came upon her window pane a sudden muffled drumming sound, and her frightened gaze fell upon a Death's Head moth outside, its eyes like coals, its misty wings beating furiously for admittance. And around its body was tied a cylinder of white tissue.

But the girl needed no more evidence. The wretched youth in the room overhead had already sealed his own doom with any one of these tissue cylinders. Better for him if the hemorrhage had slain him. Now a firing squad must do that much for him.

Yet, even still, the girl hesitated, almost incredulous, trying to comprehend the monstrous grotesquerie of the abominable plot.

Intuition pointed to the truth; logic proved it; somewhere in the German trenches a comrade of this spy was awaiting these messages with a caged Death's Head female as the bait--a living loadstone wearing the terrific emblems of death--an unfailing magnet to draw the skull-bearing messengers for miles--had it not been that a _nearer magnet deflected them in their flight!

That was it! That was what the miserable youth upstairs had not counted on. Chance had ruined him; destiny had sent Madam Death into the room below him to draw, with her macabre charms, every ardent winged messenger which he liberated from his bedroom window.

The subtle effluvia permeating the night air for miles around might have guided these messengers into the German trenches had not a nearer and more imperious perfume annihilated it. Headlong, amorous, impatient they had whirled toward the embraces of Madam Death; the nearer and more powerful perfume had drawn the half-maddened, half-drugged messengers. The spy in the room upstairs, like many Germans, had reasoned wrongly on sound premises. His logic had broken down, not his amazing scientific foundation. His theory was correct; his application stupid.

And now this young man was about to die. Maryette understood that. She comprehended that his death was necessary; that it was the unavoidable sequence of what he had attempted to do. Trapped rats must be drowned; vermin exterminated by easiest and quickest methods; spies who betray one's native land pass naturally the same route.

But this thing, this grotesque, incredible, terrible attempt to engraft treachery on one of nature's most amazing laws--this secret, cunning Teutonic reasoning, this scientific scoundrelism, this criminal enterprise based on patient, plodding and German efficiency, still bewildered the girl.

And yet she vaguely realized how science had been already prostituted to Prussian malignancy and fury; she had heard of flame jets, of tear-bombs, of bombs containing deadly germs; she herself had beheld the poison gas rolling back into the trenches at Nivelle under the town tower. Dimly she began to understand that the Hun, in his cunning savagery, had tricked, betrayed and polluted civilization itself into lending him her own secrets with which she was ultimately to be destroyed.

The very process of human thinking had been imitated by these monkeys of Europe--apes with the ferocity of hogs--and no souls, none--nothing to lift them inside the pale where dwells the human race.

There came a rapping on the cafe door. The girl rose wearily; an immense weight seemed to crush her shoulders so that her knees had become unsteady.

She opened the cafe door; it was Sticky Smith, come for his nightcap before turning in.

"The man upstairs is a German spy," she said listlessly. "Had you not better go over and get a gendarme?"

"Who's a spy? That Dutch shrimp you had in your garden?"

"Yes."

"Where is he?" demanded the muleteer with an oath.

She placed her lighted candle on the bar.

"Wait," she said. "Read these first--we must be quite certain about what we do."

She laid the squares of tissue paper out on the bar.

"Do you read Flemish?" she whispered.

"No, ma'am----"

"Then I will translate into French for you. And first of all I must tell you how I came to possess these little letters written upon tissue. Please listen attentively."

He rested his palm on the butt of his dangling automatic.

"Go on," he said.

She told him the circumstances.

As she commenced to translate the tissue paper messages in a low, tremulous voice, the sound of a door being closed and locked in the room overhead silenced her.

The next instant she had stepped out to the stairs and called:

"Karl!"

There was no reply. Smith came out to the stair-well and listened.

"It is his custom," she whispered, "to lock his door before retiring. That is what we heard."

"Call again."

"He can't hear me. He is in bed."

"Call, all the same."

"Karl!" she cried out in an unsteady voice.

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