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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLorraine: A Romance - Chapter 24. Lorraine Awakes
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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 24. Lorraine Awakes Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3481

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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 24. Lorraine Awakes

CHAPTER XXIV. LORRAINE AWAKES

When Lorraine had been asleep for an hour, Jack stole from the room and sought the old general who was in command of the park. He found him on the terrace, smoking and watching the woods through his field-glasses.

"Monsieur," said Jack, "my ward, Mademoiselle de Nesville, is asleep in her chamber. I must go to the forest yonder and try to find her father's body. I dare not leave her alone unless I may confide her to you."

"My son," said the old man, "I accept the charge. Can you give me the next room?"

"The next room is where our little Sister of Mercy died."

"I have journeyed far with death--I am at home in death's chamber," said the old general. He followed Jack to the death-room, accompanied by his aide-de-camp.

"It will do," he said. Then, turning to an aid, "Place a sentry at the next door. When the lady awakes, call me."

"Thank you," said Jack. He lingered a moment and then continued: "If I am shot in the woods--if I don't return--General Chanzy will take charge of Mademoiselle de Nesville, for my uncle's sake. They are sword-brothers."

"I accept the responsibility," said the old general, gravely.

They bowed to each other, and Jack went out and down the stairs to the lawn. For a moment he looked up into the sky, trying to remember where the balloon might have been when Von Steyr's explosive bullet set it on fire. Then he trudged on into the wood-road, buckling his revolver-case under his arm and adjusting the cross-strap of his field-glasses.

Once in the forest he breathed more freely. There was an odour of rotting leaves in the wet air; the branches quivered and dripped, and the tree-trunks, moist and black, exhaled a rank aroma of lichens and rain-soaked moss.

Along the park wall, across the Lisse, sentinels stood in the rain, peering out of their caped overcoats or rambling along the river-bank. A spiritless challenge or two halted him for a few moments, but he gave the word and passed on. Once or twice squads met him and passed with the relief, sick boyish soldiers, crusted with mud. Twice he met groups of roving, restless-eyed franc-tireurs in straight caps and sheepskin jackets, but they did not molest him nor even question him beyond asking the time of day.

And now he passed the carrefour where he and Lorraine had first met. Its only tenant was a sentinel, yellow with jaundice, who seized his chassepot with shaking hands and called a shrill "Qui Vive?"

From the carrefour Jack turned to the left straight into the heart of the forest. He risked losing his way; he risked more than that, too, for a shot from sentry or franc-tireur was not improbable, and, more-over, nobody knew whether Uhlans were in the woods or not.

As he advanced the forest growth became thicker; underbrush, long uncut, rose higher than his head. Over logs and brush tangles he pressed, down into soft, boggy gullys deep with dead leaves, across rapid, dark brooks, threads of the river Lisse, over stony ledges, stumps, windfalls, and on towards the break in the trees from which, on clear days, one could see the turret-spire of the Chateau de Nesville. When he reached this point he looked in vain for the turret; the rain hid it. Still, he could judge fairly well in which direction it lay, and he knew that the distance was half a mile.

"The balloon dropped near here," he muttered, and started in a circle, taking a gigantic beech-tree as the centre mark. Gradually he widened his circuit, stumbling on over the slippery leaves, keeping a wary eye out for the thing on the ground that he sought.

He had seen no game in the forest, and wondered a little. Once or twice he fancied that he heard some animal moving near, but when he listened all was quiet, save for the hoarse calling of a raven in some near tree. Suddenly he saw the raven, and at the same moment it rose, croaking the alarm. Up through a near thicket floundered a cloud of black birds, flapping their wings. They were ravens, too, all croaking and flapping through the rain-soaked branches, mounting higher, higher, only to wheel and sail and swoop in circles, round and round in the gray sky above his head. He shivered and hesitated, knowing that the dead lay there in the thicket. And he was right; but when he saw the thing he covered his eyes with both hands and his heart rose in his throat. At last he stepped forward and looked into the vacant eye-sockets of a skull from which shreds of a long beard still hung, wet and straggling.

It lay under the washed-out roots of a fir-tree, the bare ribs staring through the torn clothing, the fleshless hands clasped about a steel box.

How he brought himself to get the box from that cage of bones he never knew. At last he had it, and stepped back, the sweat starting from every pore. But his work was not finished. What the ravens and wolves had left of the thing he pushed with sticks into a hollow, and painfully covered it with forest mould. Over this he pulled great lumps of muddy clay, trampling them down firmly, until at last the dead lay underground and a heap of stones marked the sepulchre.

The ravens had alighted in the tree-tops around the spot, watching him gravely, croaking and sidling away when he moved with abruptness. Looking up into the tree-tops he saw some shreds of stuff clinging to the branches, perhaps tatters from the balloon or the dead man's clothing. Near him on the ground lay a charred heap that was once the wicker car of the balloon. This he scattered with a stick, laid a covering of green moss on the mound, placed two sticks crosswise at the head, took off his cap, then went his way, the steel box buttoned securely in his breast. As he walked on through the forest, a wolf fled from the darkening undergrowth, hesitated, turned, cringing half boldly, half sullenly, watching him with changeless, incandescent eyes.

Darkness was creeping into the forest when he came out on the wood-road. He had a mile and a half before him without lantern or starlight, and he hastened forward through the mire, which seemed to pull him back at every step. It astonished him that he received no challenge in the twilight; he peered across the river, but saw no sentinels moving. The stillness was profound, save for the drizzle of the rain and the drip from the wet branches. He had been walking for a minute or two, trying to keep his path in the thickening twilight, when, far in the depths of the mist, a cannon thundered. Almost at once he heard the whistling quaver of a shell, high in the sky. Nearer and nearer it came, the woods hummed with the shrill vibration; then it passed, screeching; there came a swift glare in the sky, a sharp report, and the steel fragments hurtled through the naked trees.

He was running now; he knew the Prussian guns had opened on the Chateau again, and the thought of Lorraine in the tempest of iron terrified him. And now the shells were streaming into the woods, falling like burning stars from the heavens, bursting over the tree-tops; the racket of tearing, splintering limbs was in his ears, the dull shock of a shell exploding in the mud, the splash of fragments in the river. Behind him a red flare, ever growing, wavering, bursting into crimson radiance, told him that the Chateau de Nesville was ablaze. The black, trembling shadows cast by the trees grew blacker and steadier in the fiery light; the muddy road sprang into view under his feet; the river ran vermilion. Another light grew in the southern sky, faint yet, but growing surely. He ran swiftly, spurred and lashed by fear, for this time it was the Chateau Morteyn that sent a column of sparks above the trees, higher, higher, under a pall of reddening smoke.

At last he stumbled into the garden, where a mass of plunging horses tugged and strained at their harnessed guns and caissons. Muddy soldiers put their ragged shoulders to the gun-wheels and pushed; teamsters cursed and lashed their horses; officers rode through the throng, shouting. A squad of infantry began a fusillade from the wall; other squads fired from the lawn, where the rear of a long column in retreat stretched across the gardens and out into the road.

As Jack ran up the terrace steps the gatling began to whir like a watchman's rattle; needle-pointed flames pricked the darkness from hedge and wall, where a dark line swayed to and fro under the smoke.

Up the stairs he sped, and flung open the door of the bedroom. Lorraine stood in the middle of the room, looking out into the darkness. She turned at the sound of the opening door:

"Jack!"

"Hurry!" he gasped; "this time they mean business. Where is your sentinel? Where is the general? Hurry, my child--dress quickly!"

He went out to the hall again, and looked up and down. On the floor below he heard somebody say that the general was dead, and he hurried down among a knot of officers who were clustered at the windows, night-glasses levelled on the forest. As he entered the room a lieutenant fell dead and a shower of bullets struck the coping outside.

He hastened away up-stairs again. Lorraine, in cloak and hat, met him at the door.

"Keep away from all windows," he said. "Are you ready?"

She placed her arm in his, and he led her down the stairs to the rear of the Chateau.

"Have they gone--our soldiers?" faltered Lorraine. "Is it defeat? Jack, answer me!"

"They are holding the Chateau to protect the retreat, I think. Hark! The gatling is roaring like a furnace! What has happened?"

"I don't know. The old general came to speak to me when I awoke. He was very good and kind. Then suddenly the sentinel on the stairs fell down and we ran out. He was dead; a bullet had entered from the window at the end of the hall. After that I went into my room to dress, and the general hurried down-stairs, telling me to wait until he called for me. He did not come back; the firing began, and some shells hit the house. All the troops in the garden began to leave, and I did not know what to do, so I waited for you."

Jack glanced right and left. The artillery were leaving by the stable road; from every side the infantry streamed past across the lawn, running when they came to the garden, where a shower of bullets fell among the shrubbery. A captain hastening towards the terrace looked at them in surprise.

"What is it?" cried Jack. "Can't you hold the Chateau?"

"The other Chateau has been carried," said the captain. "They are taking us on the left flank. Madame," he added, "should go at once; this place will be untenable in a few moments."

Lorraine spoke breathlessly: "Are you to hold the Chateau with the gatling until the army is safe?"

"Yes, madame," said the captain. "We are obliged to."

There came a sudden lull in the firing. Lorraine caught Jack's arm.

"Come," cried Jack, "we've got to go now!"

"I shall stay!" she said; "I know my work is here!"

The German rifle-flames began to sparkle and flicker along the river-bank; a bullet rang out against the granite facade behind them.

"Come!" he cried, sharply, but she slipped from him and ran towards the house.

Drums were beating somewhere in the distant forest--shrill, treble drums--and from every hill-side the hollow, harsh Prussian trumpets spoke. Then came a sound, deep, menacing--a far cry:

"Hourra! Preussen!"

"Why don't you cheer?" faltered Lorraine, mounting the terrace. The artillerymen looked at her in surprise. Jack caught her arm; she shook him off impatiently.

"Cheer!" she cried again. "Is France dumb?" She raised her hand.

"Vive la France!" shouted the artillerymen, catching her ardour. "Vive la Patrie! Vive Lorraine!"

Again the short, barking, Prussian cheer sounded, and again the artillerymen answered it, cheer on cheer, for France, for the Land, for the Province of Lorraine. Up in the windows of the Chateau the line soldiers were cheering, too; the engineers on the roof, stamping out the sparks and flames, swung their caps and echoed the shouts from terrace and window.

In the sudden silence that followed they caught the vibration of hundreds of hoofs--there came a rush, a shout:

"Hourra! Preussen! Hourra! Hourra!" and into the lawn dashed the German cavalry, banging away with carbine and revolver. At the same moment, over the park walls swarmed the Bavarians in a forest of bayonets. The Chateau vomited flame from every window; the gatling, pulled back into the front door, roared out in a hundred streaks of fire. Jack dragged Lorraine to the first floor; she was terribly excited. Almost at once she knelt down and began to load rifles, passing them to Jack, who passed them to the soldiers at the windows. Once, when a whole window was torn in and the mattress on fire, she quenched the flames with water from her pitcher; and when the soldiers hesitated at the breach, she started herself, but Jack held her back and led the cheering, and piled more mattresses into the shattered window.

Below in the garden the Bavarians were running around the house, hammering with rifle-butts at the closed shutters, crouching, dodging from stable to garden, perfectly possessed to get into the house. Their officers bellowed orders and shook their sabres in the very teeth of the rifle blast; the cavalry capered and galloped, and flew from thicket to thicket.

Suddenly they all gave way; the garden and lawns were emptied save for the writhing wounded and motionless dead.

"Cheer!" gasped Lorraine; and the battered Chateau rang again with frenzied cries of triumph.

The wounded were calling for water, and Jack and Lorraine brought it in bowls. Here and there the bedding and wood-work had caught fire, but the line soldiers knocked it out with their rifle-butts. Whenever Lorraine entered a room they cheered her--the young officers waved their caps, even a dying bugler raised himself and feebly sounded the salute to the colours.

By the light of the candles Jack noticed for the first time that Lorraine wore the dress of the Province--that costume that he had first seen her in--the scarlet skirt, the velvet bodice, the chains of silver. And as she stood loading the rifles in the smoke-choked room, the soldiers saw more than that: they saw the Province itself in battle there--the Province of Lorraine. And they cheered and leaped to the windows, firing frenziedly, crying the old battle-cry of Lorraine: "Tiens ta Foy! Frappe! Pour le Roy!" while the child in the bodice and scarlet skirt stood up straight and snapped back the locks of the loaded chassepots, one by one.

"Once again! For France!" cried Lorraine, as the clamour of the Prussian drums broke out on the hill-side, and the hoarse trumpets signalled from wood to wood.

A thundering cry arose from the Chateau:

"France!"

The sullen boom of a Prussian cannon drowned it; the house shook with the impact of a shell, bursting in fury on the terrace.

White faces turned to faces whiter still.

"Cannon!"

"Hold on! For France!" cried Lorraine, feverishly.

"Cannon!" echoed the voices, one to another.

Again the solid walls shook with the shock of a solid shot.

Jack stuffed the steel box into his breast and turned to Lorraine.

"It is ended, we cannot stay--" he began; but at that instant something struck him a violent blow on the chest, and he fell, striking the floor with his head.

In a second Lorraine was at his side, lifting him with all the strength of her arms, calling to him: "Jack! Jack! Jack!"

The soldiers were leaving the windows now; the house rocked and tottered under the blows of shell and solid shot. Down-stairs an officer cried: "Save yourselves!" There was a hurry of feet through the halls and on the stairs. A young soldier touched Lorraine timidly on the shoulder.

"Give him to me; I will carry him down," he said.

She clung to Jack and turned a blank gaze on the soldier.

"Give him to me," he repeated; "the house is burning." But she would not move nor relinquish her hold. Then the soldier seized Jack and threw him over his shoulder, running swiftly down the stairs, that rocked under his feet. Lorraine cried out and followed him into the darkness, where the crashing of tiles and thunder of the exploding shells dazed and stunned her; but the soldier ran on across the garden, calling to her, and she followed, stumbling to his side.

"To the trees--yonder--the forest--" he gasped.

They were already among the trees. Then Lorraine seized the man by the arm, her eyes wide with despair.

"Give me my dead!" she panted. "He is mine! mine! mine!"

"He is not dead," faltered the soldier, laying Jack down against a tree. But she only crouched and took him in her arms, eyes closed, and lips for the first time crushed to his.

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