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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 24. Bubbles
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Barbarians - Chapter 24. Bubbles Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2078

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Barbarians - Chapter 24. Bubbles

CHAPTER XXIV. BUBBLES

An east wind was very likely to bring gas to the trenches north of the Sainte Lesse salient. A north wind, according to season, brought snow or rain or fog upon British, French, Belgian and Boche alike. Winds of the south carried distant exhalations from orchards and green fields into the pitted waste of ashes where that monstrous desolation stretched away beneath a thundering iron rain which beat all day, all night upon the dead flesh of the world.

But the west wind was the vital wind, flowing melodiously through the trees--a clean, aromatic, refreshing wind, filling the sickened world with life again.

Sometimes, too, it brought the pleasant music of the bells into far-away trenches, when the little bell-mistress of Sainte Lesse played the carillon. And when her friend, the great bell, Bayard, spoke through the resounding sky of France to a million men-at-arms in blue and steel, who were steadily forging hell's manacles for the uncaged Hun, the loyal western wind carried far beyond the trenches an ominous iron vibration that meant doom for the Beast.

And the Beast heard, leering skyward out of pale pig-eyes, but did not comprehend.

At the base corral down in the meadow, mules had been scarce recently, because a transport had been torpedoed. But the next transport from New Orleans escaped; the dusty column had arrived at Sainte Lesse from the Channel port, convoyed by American muleteers, as usual; new mules, new negroes, new Yankee faces invaded the town once more.

However, it signified little to the youthful mistress-of-the-bells, Maryette Courtray, called "Carillonnette," for her Yankee lover still lay in his distant hospital--her muleteer, "Djack." So mules might bray, and negroes fill the Sainte Lesse meadows with their shouting laughter; and the lank, hawk-nosed Yankee muleteers might saunter clanking into the White Doe in search of meat or drink or tobacco, or a glimpse of the pretty bell-mistress, for all it meant to her.

Her Djack lived; that was what occupied her mind; other men were merely men--even his comrades, Sticky Smith and Kid Glenn, assumed individuality to distinguish them from other men only because they were Djack's friends. And as for all other muleteers, they seemed to her as alike as Chinamen, leaving upon her young mind a general impression of long, thin legs and necks and the keen eyes of hunting falcons.

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

She had washing to do that morning. Very early she climbed up into the ancient belfry, wound the drum so that the bells would play a few bars at the quarters and before each hour struck; and also in order that the carillon might ring mechanically at noon in case she had not returned to take her place at the keyboard with her wooden gloves.

There was a light west wind rippling through the tree tops; and everywhere sunshine lay brilliant on pasture and meadow under the purest of cobalt skies.

In the garden her crippled father, swathed in shawls, dozed in his deep chair beside the river-wall, waking now and then to watch the quill on his long bamboo fish-pole, stemming the sparkling current of the little river Lesse.

Sticky Smith, off duty and having filled himself to repletion with cafe-au-lait at the inn, volunteered to act as nurse, attendant, remover of fish and baiter of hook, while Maryette was absent at the stone-rimmed pool where the washing of all Sainte Lesse laundry had been accomplished for hundreds of years.

"You promise not to go away?" she cautioned him in the simple, first-aid French she employed in speaking to him, and pausing with both arms raised to balance the loaded clothes-basket on her head.

"Wee--wee!" he assured her with dignity. "Je fume mong peep! Je regard le vieux pecher. Voo poovay allay, Mademoiselle Maryette."

She hesitated, then removed the basket from her head and set it on the grass.

"You are very kind, Monsieur Steek-Smeet. I shall wash your underwear the very first garments I take out of my basket. Thank you a thousand times." She bent over with sweet solicitude and pressed her lips to her father's withered cheek:

"Au revoir, my father _cheri_. An hour or two at the meadow-_lavoir and I shall return to find thee. _Bonne chance, mon pere! Thou shalt surely catch a large and beautiful fish for luncheon before I return with my wash."

She swung the basket of wash to her head again without effort, and went her way, following the deeply trodden sheep-path behind the White Doe Inn.

The path wound down through a sloping pasture, across a footbridge spanning an arm of the Lesse which washed the base of the garden wall, then ascended a gentle aclivity among hazel thicket and tall sycamores, becoming for a little distance a shaded wood-path where thrushes sang ceaselessly in the sun-flecked undergrowth.

But at the eastern edge of the copse the little hill fell away into an open, sunny meadow, fragrant with wild-flowers and clover, through which a rivulet ran deep and cold between grassy banks.

It supplied the drinking water of Sainte Lesse; and a branch of it poured bubbling into the stone-rimmed _lavoir where generations of Sainte Lesse maids had scrubbed the linen of the community, kneeling there amid wild flowers and fluttering butterflies in the shade of three tall elms.

There was nobody at the pool; Maryette saw that as she came out of the hazel copse through the meadow. And very soon she was on her knees at the clear pool's edge, bare of arm and throat and bosom, her blue wool skirts trussed up, and elbow deep in snowy suds.

Overhead the sky was a quivering, royal blue; the earth shimmered in its bath of sunshine; the west wind blowing carried away eastward the reverberations of the distant cannonade, so that not even the vibration of the concussions disturbed Sainte Lesse.

A bullfinch was piping lustily in a young tree as she began her task; a blackbird answered from somewhere among the hawthorns with a bewildering series of complicated trills.

As the little mistress-of-the-bells scrubbed and beat the clothes with her paddle, and rinsed and wrung them and soaped them afresh, she sang softly under her breath, to an ancient air of her _pays_, words that she improvised to fit it--_vrai chanson de laveuse_:


"A blackbird whistles
I love!
Over the thistles
Butterflies hover,
Each with her lover
In love.
Blue Demoiselles that glisten,
Listen, I love!
Wind of the west, oh, listen,
I am in love!
Sing my song, ye little gold bees!
Opal bubbles around my knees
All afloat in the soap-sud broth,
Whisper it low to the snowy froth;
And Thou who rulest the skies above,
Mary, adored--I love--I love!"


Slap-slap! went her paddle; the sud-spume flew like shreds of cotton; iridescent foam set with bubbles swirled in the stone-edged basin, constantly swept away down stream by the current, constantly renewed as she soaped and scrubbed, kneeling there in the meadow grass above the pool.

The blackbird came quite near to watch her; the bullfinch, attracted by her childish voice as she sang the song she was making, whistled bold response, silent only when the echoing slap of the paddle startled him where he sat on the trembling tip of an aspen.

Blue dragon flies drifted on glimmering wings; she put them into her song; the meadow was gay with butterflies' painted wings; she sang about them, too. Cloud and azure sky, tree tops and clover, the tiny rivulet dancing through deep grasses, the wind furrowing the fields, all these she put into her _chansonnette de laveuse_. And always in the clear glass of the stream she seemed to see the smiling face of her friend, Djack--her lover who had opened her eyes of a child to all things beautiful in the world.

Once or twice, from very far away, she fancied she heard the distant singing of the negro muleteers sunning themselves down by the corral. She heard, at quarter-hour intervals, her bells melodiously recording time as it sped by; then there were intervals of that sweet stillness which is but a composite harmony of summer--the murmur of insects, the whisper of leaves and water, capricious seconds of intense silence, then the hushed voice of life exquisitely audible again.

War, wickedness, the rage and cruelty of the Beast--all the vile and filthy ferocity of the ferocious Swine of the North became to her as unreal as a tragic legend half-forgotten. And death seemed very far away.

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

Her washing was done; the wet clothing piled in her basket. Perspiration powdered her forehead and delicate little nose.

Hot, flushed, breathing deeply and irregularly from her efforts under a vertical sun, she stood erect, loosening the blouse over her bosom to the breeze and pushing back the clustering masses of hair above her brow.

The water laughed up at her, invitingly; the last floating castle of white foam swept past her feet down stream. On the impulse of the moment she unlaced her blue wool skirt, dropped it around her feet, stepped from it; unbuckled both garters, stripped slippers and stockings from her feet, and waded out into the pool.

The fresh, delicious coolness of the water thrilled and encouraged her to further adventure; she twisted up her splendid hair, bound it with her blue kerchief, flung blouse and chemisette from her, and gave herself to the sparkling stream with a sigh of ecstasy.

Alders swept the eastern edges of the current where the rivulet widened beyond the basin and ran south along the meadow's edge to the Wood of Sainte Lesse--a cool, unruffled flow, breast deep, floored with sand as soft as silver velvet.

She waded, floated, swam a little, or, erect, roamed leisurely along the alder fringe, exploring the dim green haunts of frog and water-hen, stoat and becassine--a slim, wet dryad, gliding silently through sun and dappled shadow.

Where the stream comes to Sainte Lesse Wood, there is a hill set thick with hazel and clumps of fern, haunted by one roe-deer and numerous rabbits and pheasants.

She was close to its base, now, gliding through the shade like some lithe creature of the forest; making no sound save where the current curled around her supple body in twisted necklaces of liquid light.

Then, as she stood, peering cautiously through tangled branches for a glimpse of the little roe-deer, she heard a curious sound up on the hill--an inexplicable sound like metal striking stone.

She stood as though frozen; clink, clink came the distant sound. Then all was still. But presently she saw a scared cock-pheasant, crouching low with flattened neck outstretched, run like a huge rat through the hazel growth, out across the meadow.

She remained motionless, scarcely daring to draw her breath. Somebody had passed over the hill--if, indeed, he or she had actually continued on their mysterious way. Had they? But finally the intense quiet reassured her, and she concluded that whoever had made that metallic sound had continued on toward Sainte Lesse Wood.

She had taken with her a cake of soap. Now, here in the green shade, she made her ablutions, soaping herself from head to foot, turning her head leisurely from time to time to survey her leafy environment, or watch the flight of some tiny woodland bird, or study with pretty and speculative eyes the soap-suds swirling in a dimpled whirlpool around her thighs.

The bubbles fascinated her; she played with them, capriciously, touching one here, one there, with tentative finger to see them explode in a tiny rainbow shower.

Finally she chose a hollow stem from among a cluster of scented rushes, cleared it with a vigorous breath, soaped one end, and, touching it to the water, blew from it a prodigious bubble, all swimming with gold and purple hues.

Into the air she tossed it, from the end of the hollow reed; the breeze caught it and wafted it upward until it burst.

_Then a strange thing happened! Before her upturned eyes another bubble slowly arose from a clump of aspens out of the hazel thickets on the hill--a big, pearl-tinted, translucent bubble, as large as a melon. Upward it floated, slowly ascending to the tree-tops. There the wind caught it, drove it east, but it still mounted skyward, higher, higher, sailing always eastward, until it dwindled to the size of a thistledown and faded away in mid-air.

Astounded, the little mistress-of-the-bells stood motionless, waist deep in the stream, lips parted, eyes straining to pierce the dazzling ether above.

And then, before her incredulous gaze, another pearl-tinted, translucent bubble slowly floated upward from the thicket near the aspens, mounted until the breeze struck it, then soared away skyward and melted like a snowflake into the east.

Moving as stealthily as some sinuous creature of the water-weeds, the girl stole forward, threading her way among the rushes, gliding, twisting around tussock and alder, creeping along fern-set banks, her eyes ever focused on the clump of aspens quivering against the sky above the hazel.

She could see nobody, hear not a sound from the thicket on the little hill. But another bubble rose above the aspens as she looked.

Naked, she dared not advance into the woods--scarcely dared linger where she was, yet found enough courage to creep out on a carpet of moss and lie flat under a young fir, listening and watching.

No more bubbles rose above the aspens; there was not a sound, not a movement in the hazel.

For an hour or more she lay there; then, with infinite caution, she slipped back into the stream, waded across, crept into the meadow, and sped like a scared fawn along the bank until she stood panting by the stone-rimmed pool again.

Sun and wind had dried her skin; she dressed rapidly, swung her basket to her head, and started swiftly for Sainte Lesse.

Before she came in sight of the White Doe Tavern, she could hear the negro muleteers singing down by the corral. Sticky Smith still squatted in the garden by the river-wall, smoking his pipe. Her father lay asleep in his chair, his wrinkled hands still clasping the fishing pole, the warm breeze blowing his white hair at the temples.

She disposed of the wash; then she and Sticky Smith gently aroused the crippled bell-master and aided him into the house.

The old peasant woman who cooked for the inn had soup ready. The noonday meal in Sainte Lesse had become an extremely simple affair.

"Monsieur Steek," said the girl carelessly, "did you ever, as a child, fly toy balloons?"

"Sure, Maryette. A old Eyetalian wop used to come 'round town selling them. He had a stick with about a hundred little balloons tied to it--red, blue, green, yellow--all kinds and colours. Whenever I had the price I bought one."

"Did it fly?"

"Yes. The gas in it wasn't much good unless you got a fresh one."

"Would it fly high?"

"Sure. Sky-high. I've seen 'em go clean out of sight when you got a fresh one."

"Nobody uses them here, do they?"

"Here? No, it wouldn't be allowed. A spy could send a message by one of those toy balloons."

"Oh," nodded Maryette thoughtfully.

Smith shook his head:

"No, children wouldn't be permitted to play with them things now, Maryette."

"Then there are not any toy balloons to be had here in Sainte Lesse?"

"I rather guess not! Farther north there are."

"Where?"

"The artillery uses them."

"How?"

"I don't know. The balloon and flying service use 'em, too. I've seen officers send them up. Probably it is to find out about upper air currents."

"_Our flying service?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"_Ballons d'essai_," she nodded carelessly. But she was not yet entirely convinced regarding the theory she was pondering.

After lunch she continued to be very busy in the laundry for a time, but the memory of those three little balloons above the aspens troubled her.

Smith had gone on duty at the corral; Kid Glenn sauntered clanking into the bar and was there regaled with a _bock and a _tranche_.

"Monsieur Keed," said Maryette, "are any of our airmen in Sainte Lesse today?"

Glenn drained his glass and smacked his lips:

"No, ma'am," he said.

"No balloonists, either?"

"I don't guess so, Maryette. We've got the Boche flyers scared stiff. They don't come over our first lines anymore, and our own people are out yonder."

"Keed," she said, winningly sweet, "do you, in fact, love me a little--for Djack's sake?"

"Yes'm."

"I borrow of you that automatic pistol. Yes?" She smiled at him engagingly.

"Sure. Anything you want! What's the trouble, Maryette?"

She shrugged her pretty shoulders:

"Nothing. It just came into my cowardly head that the path to the _lavoir is lonely at sundown. And there are new muleteers in Sainte Lesse. And I must wash my clothes."

"I reckon," he said gravely, unbuckling his weapon-filled holster and quietly strapping it around her shoulder with its pocketed belt of clips.

"You will not require it this afternoon?" she asked.

"No fear. You won't either. Them mule-whacking coons is white."

She understood.

"Some men who seem whitest are blacker than any negro," she remarked. "_Eh, bien! I thank you, Keed, _mon ami_, for your complaisance. You are very amiable to submit to the whim of a silly girl who suddenly becomes afraid of her own shadow."

Glenn grinned and glanced significantly at the cross dangling from her bosom:

"Sure," he said, "your government decorates cowards. That's why it gave you the Legion."

She blushed but looked up at him seriously:

"Keed, if I flew a little toy balloon in the air, where would the west wind carry it?"

"Into the Boche trenches," he replied, much interested in the idea. "If you've got one, we'll paint 'To hell with Willie' on it and set it afloat! But we'll have to get permission from the gendarmes first."

She said, smiling:

"I'm sorry, but I haven't any toy balloons."

She picked up her basket with its new load of soiled linen, swung it gracefully to her head, ignoring his offered assistance, gave him a beguiling glance, and went away along the sheep-path.

Once more she followed the deep-trodden and ancient trail through copse and pasture and over the stream down into the meadow, where the west wind furrowed the wild-flowers and the early afternoon sun fell hot.

She set her clothes to soak, laid paddle and soap beside them, then, straightening up, remained erect on her knees, her intent gaze fixed on the distant clump of aspens, delicate as mist above the hazel copse on the little hill beyond.

It was a whole hour before her eyes caught the high glimmer of a tiny balloon. Only for a moment was it visible at that distance, then it became merged in the dazzling blue above the woods.

She waited. At last she concluded that there were to be no more balloons. Then a sudden fear assailed her lest she had waited too long to investigate; and she sprang to her feet, hurried over the single plank used as a footbridge, and sped down through the alders.

Here and there a pheasant ran headlong across her path; a rabbit or two scuttled through the ferns. Nearing the hazel copse she slackened speed and advanced with caution, scanning the thicket ahead.

Suddenly, on the ground in front of her, she caught sight of a small iron cylinder. Evidently it had rolled down there from the slope above.

Very gingerly she approached and picked it up. It was not very heavy, not too big for her skirt pocket.

As she slipped it into the pocket of her blue woolen peasant-skirt, her quick eye caught a movement among the hazel bushes on the hillside to her right. She sank to the ground and lay huddled there.

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