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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 23. Madam Death
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Barbarians - Chapter 23. Madam Death Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3047

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Barbarians - Chapter 23. Madam Death

CHAPTER XXIII. MADAM DEATH

There was no reply, because the young man was hanging out over his window sill in the darkness trying to switch away, from her closed window below, the big, clattering Death's Head moth which obstinately and persistently fluttered there.

What possessed the moth to continue battering its wings at the window of the room below? Had the other moths which he released done so, too? They had darted out of his room into the night, each garnished with a tissue robe. He supposed they had flown north; he had not looked out to see.

What had gone wrong with this moth, then?

He took his emaciated blond head between his bony fingers and pondered, probing for reason with German thoroughness--that celebrated thoroughness which is invariably riddled with flaws.

Of all contingencies he had thought--or so it seemed to him. He could not recollect any precaution neglected. He had come to Sainte Lesse for a clearly defined object and to make certain reports concerning matters of interest to the German military authorities north of Nivelle.

The idea, inspired by the experiments of Henri Fabre, was original with him. Patiently, during the previous year, he had worked it out--had proved his theory by a series of experiments with moths of this species.

He had arranged with his staff comrade, Dr. Glueck, for a forced hatching of the pupae which the latter had patiently bred from the enormous green and violet-banded caterpillars.

At least one female Death's Head must be ready, caged in the trenches beyond Nivelle. Hundreds of pupae could not have died. Where, then, was his error--if, indeed, he had made any?

Leaning from the window, he looked down at the frantic moth, perplexed, a little uneasy now.

"Swine!" he muttered. "What, then, ails you that you do not fly to the mistress awaiting you over yonder?"

He could see the cylinder of white tissue shining on the creature's body, where it fluttered against the pane, illuminated by the rays of the candle from within the young girl's room.

Could it be possible that the candle-light was proving the greater attraction?

Even as the possibility entered his mind, he saw another Death's Head dart at the window below and join the first one. But this newcomer wore no tissue jacket.

Then, out of the darkness the Death's Heads began to come to the window below, swarms of them, startling him with the racket of their wings.

From where did they arrive? They could not be the moths he liberated. But.... _Were they? Had some accident robbed their bodies of the tissue missives? Had they blundered into somebody's room and been robbed?

Mystified, uneasy, he hung over his window sill, staring with sickening eyes at the winged tumult below.

With patient, plodding logic he began to seek for the solution. What attracted these moths to the room below? Was it the candle-light? That alone could not be sufficient--could not contend with the more imperious attraction, the subtle effluvia stealing out of the north and appealing to the ruling passion which animated the frantic winged things below him.

Patiently, methodically in his mind he probed about for some clue to the solution. The ruling passion animating the feathery whirlwind below was the necessity for mating and perpetuating the species.

That was the dominant passion; the lure of candle-light a secondary attraction.... Then, if this were so--and it had been proven to be a fact--then--then--_what was in that young girl's bedroom just below him?

Even as the question flashed in his mind he left the window, went to his door, listened, noiselessly unlocked it.

A low murmur of voices came from the cafe.

He drew off both shoes, descended the stairs on the flat pads of his large, bony feet, listening all the while.

Candle-light streamed out into the corridor from her open bedroom door; and he crept to the sill and peered in, searching the place with small, pale eyes.

At first he noticed nothing to interest him, then, all in an instant, his gaze fell upon Madam Death under her prison of glass.

There she sat, her great bulging abdomen distended with eggs, her lambent eyes shining with the terrible passion of anticipation. For one thing only she had been created. That accomplished she died. And there she crouched awaiting the fulfillment of her life's cycle with the blazing eyes of a demon.

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

From the cafe below came the cautious murmur of voices. The young man already knew what they were whispering about; or, if he did not know he no longer cared.

The patches of bright colour in his sunken cheeks had died out in an ashen pallor. As far as he was concerned the world was now ended. And he knew it.

He went into the bedroom and sat down on the bed's edge. His little, pale eyes wandered about the white room; the murmur of voices below was audible all the while.

After a few moments' patient waiting, his gaze rested again on Madam Death, squatting there with wings sloped, and the skull and bones staring at him from her head and distended abdomen.

After all there was an odd resemblance between himself and Madam Death. He had been born to fulfill one function, it appeared. So had she. And now, in his case as in hers, death was immediately to follow. This was sentiment, not science--the blind lobe of the German brain balancing grotesquely the reasoning lobe.

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

The voices below had ceased. Presently he heard a cautious step on the stair.

He had a little pill-box in his pocket. Methodically, without haste, he drew it out, chose one white pellet, and, holding it between his bony thumb and forefinger, listened.

Yes, somebody was coming up the stairs, very careful to make no sound.

Well--there were various ways for a Death's Head Hussar to die for his War Lord. All were equally laudable. God--the God of Germany--the celestial friend and comrade of his War Lord--would presently correct him if he was transgressing military discipline or the etiquette of Kultur. As for the levelled rifles of the execution squad, he preferred another way.... _This way!...

His eyes were already glazing when the burly form of Sticky Smith filled the doorway.

He looked down at Madam Death under the tumbler beside him, then lifted his head and gazed at Smith with blinded eyes.

"Swine!" he said complacently, swaying gently forward and striking the floor with his face.

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