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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 9. L'ombre
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Barbarians - Chapter 9. L'ombre Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1287

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Barbarians - Chapter 9. L'ombre

CHAPTER IX. L'OMBRE

Aulnes Woods were brown and still under their unshed canopy of October leaves. Against a grey, transparent sky the oaks and beeches towered, unstirred by any wind; in the subdued light among the trees, ferns, startlingly green, spread delicate plumed fronds; there was no sound except the soft crash of his own footsteps through shriveling patches of brake; no movement save when a yellow leaf fluttered down from above or one of those little silvery grey moths took wing and fluttered aimlessly along the forest aisle, only to alight upon some lichen-spotted tree and cling there, slowly waving its delicate, translucent wings.

It was a very ancient wood, the Forest of Aulnes, and the old trees were long past timber value. Even those gleaners of dead wood and fallen branches seemed to have passed a different way, for the forest floor was littered with material that seldom goes to waste in Europe, and which broke under foot with a dull, thick sound, filling the nostrils with the acrid odour of decay.

Narrow paths full of dead leaves ran here and there through the woods, but he took none of these, keeping straight on toward the northwest until a high, moss-grown wall checked his progress.

It ran west through the silent forest; damp green mould and lichens stained it; patches of grey stucco had peeled from it, revealing underneath the roughly dressed stones. He followed the wall.

Now and then, far in the forest, and indistinctly, he heard faint sounds--perhaps the cautious tread of roebuck, or rabbits in the bracken, or the patter of a stoat over dry leaves; perhaps the sullen retirement of some wild boar, winding man in the depths of his own domain, and sulkily conceding him right of way.

After a while there came a break in the wall where four great posts of stone stood, and where there should have been gates.

But only the ancient and rusting hinges remained of either gate or wicket.

He looked up at the carved escutcheons; the moss of many centuries had softened and smothered the sculptured device, so that its form had become indistinguishable.

Inside stood a stone lodge. Tiles had fallen from the ancient roof; leaded panes were broken; nobody came to the closed and discoloured door of massive oak.

The avenue, which was merely an unkempt, overgrown ride, curved away between the great gateposts into the woods; and, as he entered it, three deer left stealthily, making no sound in the forest.

Nobody was to be seen, neither gatekeeper nor woodchopper nor charcoal burner. Nothing moved amid the trees except a tiny, silent bird belated in his autumn migration.

The ride curved to the east; and abruptly he came into view of the house--a low, weather-ravaged structure in the grassy glade, ringed by a square, wet moat.

There was no terrace; the ride crossed a permanent bridge of stone, passed the carved and massive entrance, crossed a second crumbling causeway, and continued on into the forest.

An old Breton woman, who was drawing a jug of water from the moat, turned and looked at Neeland, and then went silently into the house.

A moment later a younger woman appeared on the doorstep and stood watching his approach.

As he crossed the bridge he took off his cap.

"Madame, the Countess of Aulnes?" he inquired. "Would you be kind enough to say to her that I arrive from Lorient at her request?"

"I am the Countess of Aulnes," she said in flawless English.

He bowed again. "I am Captain Neeland of the British Expeditionary force."

"May I see your credentials, Captain Neeland?" She had descended the single step of crumbling stone.

"Pardon, Countess; may I first be certain concerning _your identity?"

There was a silence. To Neeland she seemed very young in her black gown. Perhaps it was that sombre setting and her dark eyes and hair which made her skin seem so white.

"What proof of my identity do you expect?" she asked in a low voice.

"Only one word, Madame."

She moved a step nearer, bent a trifle toward him. "L'Ombre," she whispered.

From his pocket he drew his credentials and offered them. Among them was her own letter to the authorities at Lorient.

After she had examined them she handed them back to him.

"Will you come in, Captain Neeland--or, perhaps we had better seat ourselves on the bridge--in order to lose no time--because I wish you to see for yourself----"

She lifted her dark eyes; a tint of embarrassment came into her cheeks: "It may seem absurd to you; it seems so to me, at times--what I am going to say to you--concerning L'Ombre----"

She had turned; he followed; and at her grave gesture of invitation, he seated himself beside her on the coping of mossy stone which ran like a bench under the parapet of the little bridge.

"Captain Neeland," she said, "I am a Bretonne, but, until recently, I did not suppose myself to be superstitious.... I really am not--unless--except for this one matter of L'Ombre.... My English governess drove superstition out of my head.... Still, living in Finistere--here in this house"--she flushed again--"I shall have to leave it to you.... I dread ridicule; but I am sure you are too courteous--... It required some courage for me to write to Lorient. But, if it might possibly help my country--to risk ridicule--of course I do not hesitate."

She looked uncertainly at the young man's pleasant, serious face, and, as though reassured:

"I shall have to tell you a little about myself first--so that you may understand better."

"Please," he said gravely.

"Then--my father and my only brother died a year ago, in battle.... It happened in the Argonne.... I am alone. We had maintained only two men servants here. They went with their classes. One old woman remains." She looked up with a forced smile. "I need not explain to you that our circumstances are much straitened. You have only to look about you to see that ... our poverty is not recent; it always has been so within my memory--only growing a little worse every year. I believe our misfortunes began during the Vendee.... But that is of no interest ... except that--through coincidence, of course--every time a new misfortune comes upon our family, misfortune also falls on France." He nodded, still mystified, but interested.

"Did you happen to notice the device carved on the gatepost?" she asked.

"I thought it resembled a fish----"

"Do you understand French, Captain Neeland?"

"Yes."

"Then you know that L'Ombre means 'the shadow'."

"Yes."

"Did you know, also, that there is a fish called 'L'Ombre'?"

"No; I did not know that."

"There is. It looks like a shadow in the water. L'Ombre does not belong here in Brittany. It is a northern fish of high altitudes where waters are icy and rapid and always tinctured with melted snow ... would you accord me a little more patience, Monsieur, if I seem to be garrulous concerning my own family? It is merely because I want you to understand everything ... _everything_...."

"I am interested," he assured her pleasantly.

"Then--it is a legend--perhaps a superstition in our family--that any misfortune to us--_and to France_--is always preceded by two invariable omens. One of these dreaded signs is the abrupt appearance of L'Ombre in the waters of our moat--" She turned her head slowly and looked down over the parapet of the bridge.--"The other omen," she continued quietly, "is that the clocks in our house suddenly go wrong--all striking the same hour, no matter where the hands point, no matter what time it really is.... These things have always happened in our family, they say. I, myself, have never before witnessed them. But during the Vendee the clocks persisted in striking four times every hour. The Comte d'Aulnes mounted the scaffold at that hour; the Vicomte died under Charette at Fontenay at that hour.... L'Ombre appeared in the waters of the moat at four o'clock one afternoon. And then the clocks went wrong.

"And all this happened again, they say, in 1870. L'Ombre appeared in the moat. Every clock continued to strike six, day after day for a whole week, until the battle of Sedan ended.... My grandfather died there with the light cavalry.... I am so afraid I am taxing your courtesy, Captain Neeland----"

"I am intensely interested," he repeated, watching the lovely, sensitive face which pride and dread of misinterpretation had slightly flushed again.

"It is only to explain--perhaps to justify myself for writing--for asking that an officer be sent here from Lorient for a few days----"

"I understand, Countess."

"Thank you.... Had it been merely for myself--for my own fears--my personal safety, I should not have written. But our misfortunes seem to be coincident with my country's mishaps.... So I thought--if they sent an officer who would be kind enough to understand----"

"I understand ... L'Ombre has appeared in the moat again, has it not?"

"Yes, it came a week ago, suddenly, at five o'clock in the afternoon."

"And--the clocks?"

"For a week they have been all wrong."

"What hour do they strike?" he asked curiously.

"Five."

"No matter where the hands point?"

"No matter. I have tried to regulate them. I have done everything I could do. But they continue to strike five every hour of the day and night.... I have"--a pale smile touched her lips--"I have been a little wakeful--perhaps a trifle uneasy--on my country's account. You understand...." Pride and courage had permitted her no more than uneasiness, it seemed. Or if fear had threatened her there in her lonely bedroom through the still watches of the night, she desired him to understand that her solicitude was for France, not for any daughter of the race whose name she bore.

The simplicity and directness of her amazing narrative had held his respect and attention; there could be no doubt that she implicitly believed what she told him.

But that was one thing; and the wild extravagance of the story was another. There must be, of course, an explanation for these phenomena other than a supernatural one. Such things do not happen except in medieval romance and tales of sorcery and doom. And of all regions on earth Brittany swarms with such tales and superstitions. He knew it. And this young girl was Bretonne after all, however educated, however accomplished, however honest and modern and sincere. And he began to comprehend that the germs of superstition and credulity were in the blood of every Breton ever born.

But he merely said with pleasant deference: "I can very easily understand your uneasiness and perplexity, Madame. It is a time of mental stress, of great nervous tension in France--of heart-racking suspense----"

She lifted her dark eyes. "You do not believe me, Monsieur."

"I believe what you have told me. But I believe, also, that there is a natural explanation concerning these matters."

"I tell myself so, too.... But I brood over them in vain; I can find no explanation."

"Of course there must be one," he insisted carelessly. "Is there anything in the world more likely to go queer than a clock?"

"There are five clocks in the house. Why should they all go wrong at the same time and in the same manner?"

He smiled. "I don't know," he said frankly. "I'll investigate, if you will permit me."

"Of course.... And, about L'Ombre. What could explain its presence in the moat? It is a creature of icy waters; it is extremely limited in its range. My father has often said that, except L'Ombre which has appeared at long intervals in our moat, L'Ombre never has been seen in Brittany."

"From where does this clear water come which fills the moat?" he asked, smiling.

"From living springs in the bottom."

"No doubt," he said cheerfully, "a long subterranean vein of water connects these springs with some distant Alpine river, somewhere--in the Pyrenees, perhaps--" He hesitated, for the explanation seemed as far-fetched as the water.

Perhaps it so appeared to her, for she remained politely silent.

Suddenly, in the house, a clock struck five times. They both sat listening intently. From the depths of the ancient mansion, the other clocks repeated the strokes, first one, then another, then two sounding their clear little bells almost in unison. All struck five. He drew out his watch and looked at it. The hour was three in the afternoon.

After a moment her attitude, a trifle rigid, relaxed. He muttered something about making an examination of the clocks, adding that to adjust and regulate them would be a simple matter.

She sat very still beside him on the stone coping--her dark eyes wandered toward the forest--wonderful eyes, dreamily preoccupied--the visionary eyes of a Bretonne, full of the mystery and beauty of magic things unseen.

Venturing, at last, to disturb the delicate sequence of her thoughts: "Madame," he said, "have you heard any rumours concerning enemy airships--or, undersea boats?"

The tranquil gaze returned, rested on him: "No, but something has been happening in the Aulnes Etang."

"What?"

"I don't know. But every day the wild ducks rise from it in fright--clouds of them--and the curlew and lapwings fill the sky with their clamour."

"A poacher?"

"I know of none remaining here in Finistere."

"Have you seen anything in the sky? An eagle?"

"Only the wild fowl whirling above the _etang_."

"You have heard nothing--from the clouds?"

"Only the _vanneaux complaining and the wild curlew answering."

"Where is L'Ombre?" he asked, vaguely troubled.

She rose; he followed her across the bridge and along the mossy border of the moat. Presently she stood still and pointed down in silence.

For a while he saw nothing in the moat; then, suspended midway between surface and bottom, motionless in the transparent water, a shadow, hanging there, colourless, translucent--a phantom vaguely detached from the limpid element through which it loomed.

L'Ombre lay very still in the silvery-grey depths where the glass of the stream reflected the facade of that ancient house.

Around the angle of the moat crept a ripple; a rat appeared, swimming, and, seeing them, dived. L'Ombre never stirred.

An involuntary shudder passed over Neeland, and he looked up abruptly with the instinct of a creature suddenly trapped--but not yet quite realizing it.

In the grey forest walling that silent place, in the monotonous sky overhead, there seemed something indefinitely menacing; a menace, too, in the intense stillness; and, in the twisted, uplifted limbs of every giant tree, a subtle and suspended threat.

He said tritely and with an effort: "For everything there are natural causes. These may always be discovered with ingenuity and persistence.... Shall we examine your clocks, Madame?"

"Yes.... Will your General be annoyed because I have asked that an officer be sent here? Tell me truthfully, are _you annoyed?"

"No, indeed," he insisted, striving to smile away the inexplicable sense of depression which was creeping over him.

He looked down again at the grey wraith in the water, then, as they turned and walked slowly back across the bridge together, he said, suddenly:

"_Something is wrong somewhere in Finistere. That is evident to me. There have been too many rumours from too many sources. By sea and land they come--rumours of things half seen, half heard--glimpses of enemy aircraft, sea-craft. Yet their presence would appear to be an impossibility in the light of the military intelligence which we possess.

"But we have investigated every rumour; although I, personally, know of no report which has been confirmed. Nevertheless, these rumours persist; they come thicker and faster day by day. But this--" He hesitated, then smiled--"this seems rather different----"

"I know. I realize that I have invited ridicule----"

"Countess----"

"You are too considerate to say so.... And perhaps I have become nervous--imagining things. It might easily be so. Perhaps it is the sadness of the past year--the strangeness of it, and----"

She sighed unconsciously.

"It is lonely in the Wood of Aulnes," she said.

"Indeed it must be very lonely here," he returned in a low voice.

"Yes.... Aulnes Wood is--too remote for them to send our wounded here for their convalescence. I offered Aulnes. Then I offered myself, saying that I was ready to go anywhere if I might be of use. It seems there are already too many volunteers. They take only the trained in hospitals. I am untrained, and they have no leisure to teach ... nobody wanted me."

She turned and gazed dreamily at the forest.

"So there is nothing for me to do," she said, "except to remain here and sew for the hospitals." ... She looked out thoughtfully across the fern-grown _carrefour_: "Therefore I sew all day by the latticed window there--all day long, day after day--and when one is young and when there is nobody--nothing to look at except the curlew flying--nothing to hear except the _vanneaux_, and the clocks striking the hour----"

Her voice had altered subtly, but she lifted her proud little head and smiled, and her tone grew firm again:

"You see, Monsieur, I am truly becoming a trifle morbid. It is entirely physical; my heart is quite undaunted."

"You heart, Madame, is but a part of the great, undaunted heart of France."

"Yes ... therefore there could be no fear--no doubt of God.... Affairs go well with France, Monsieur?--may I ask without military impropriety?"

"France, as always, faces her destiny, Madame. And her destiny is victory and light."

"Surely ... I knew; only I had heard nothing for so long.... Thank you, Monsieur."

He said quietly: "The Light shall break. We must not doubt it, we English. Nor can you doubt the ultimate end of this vast and hellish Darkness which has been let loose upon the world to assail it. You shall live to see light, Madame--and I also shall see it--perhaps----"

She looked up at the young man, met his eyes, and looked elsewhere, gravely. A slight flush lingered on her cheeks.

On the doorstep of the house they paused. "Is it possible," she asked, "that an enemy aeroplane could land in the Aulnes Etang?--L'Etang aux Vanneaux?"

"In the Etang?" he repeated, a little startled. "How large is it, this Etang aux Vanneaux?"

"It is a lake. It is perhaps a mile long and three-quarters of a mile across. My old servant, Anne, had seen the werewolf in the reeds--like a man without a face--and only two great eyes--" She forced a pale smile. "Of course, if it were anything she saw, it was a real man.... And, airmen dress that way.... I wondered----"

He stood looking at her absently, worrying his short mustache.

"One of the rumours we have heard," he began, "concerns a supposed invasion by a huge fleet of German battle-planes of enormous dimensions--a new biplane type which is steered from the bridge like an ocean steamer.

"It is supposed to be three or four times as large as their usual _Albatross type, with a vast cruising radius, immense capacity for lifting, and powerful enough to carry a great weight of armour, equipment, munitions, and a very large crew.

"And the most disturbing thing about it is that it is said to be as noiseless as a high-class automobile."

"Has such an one been seen in Brittany?"

"Such a machine has been reported--many, many times--as though not one but hundreds were in Finistere. And, what is very disquieting to us--a report has arrived from a distant and totally independent source--from Sweden--that air-crafts of this general type have been secretly built in Germany by the hundreds."

After a moment's silence she stepped into the house; he followed.

The great, bare, grey rooms were in keeping with the grey exterior; age had more than softened and cooerdinated the ancient furnishings, it had rendered them colourless, without accent, making the place empty and monotonous.

Her chair and workbasket stood by a latticed window; she seated herself and took up her sewing, watching him where he stood before the fireplace fussing over a little mantel clock--a gilt and ebony affair of the consulate, shaped like a lyre, the pendulum being also the clock itself and containing the works, bell and dial.

When he had adjusted it to his satisfaction he tested it. It still struck five. He continued to fuss over it for half an hour, testing it at intervals, but it always struck five times, and finally he gave up his attempts with a shrug of annoyance.

"_I can't do anything with it," he admitted, smiling cheerfully across the room at her; "is there another clock on this floor?"

She directed him; he went into an adjoining room where, on the mantel, a modern enamelled clock was ticking busily. But after a little while he gave up his tinkering; he could do nothing with it; the bell persistently struck five. He returned to where she sat sewing, admitting failure with a perplexed and uneasy smile; and she rose and accompanied him through the house, where he tried, in turn, every one of the other clocks.

When, at length, he realized that he could accomplish nothing by altering their striking mechanism--that every clock in the house persisted in striking five times no matter where the hands were pointing, a sudden, odd, and inward rage possessed him to hurl the clocks at the wall and stamp the last vestiges of mechanism out of them.

As they returned together through the hushed and dusky house, he caught glimpses of faded and depressing tapestries; of vast, tarnished mirrors, through the dim depths of which their passing figures moved like ghosts; of rusted stands of arms, and armoured lay figures where cobwebs clotted the slitted visors and the frail tatters of ancient faded banners drooped.

And he understood why any woman might believe in strange inexplicable things here in the haunting stillness of this house where splendour had turned to mould--where form had become effaced and colour dimmed; where only the shadowy film of texture still remained, and where even that was slowly yielding--under the attacks of Time's relentless mercenaries, moth and dust and rust.

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