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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 11. In Camp
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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 11. In Camp Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3322

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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 11. In Camp

PART II CHAPTER XI. IN CAMP

We went into camp under the landward glacis of the cliffs, in a field of clover which was to be ploughed under in a few days. We all were there except Kelly Eyre, who had gone to telegraph the governor of Lorient for permission to enter the port with the circus. Another messenger also left camp on private business for me.

It was part of my duty to ration the hay for the elephant and the thrice-accursed camel. The latter had just bitten Mr. Grigg, our clown--not severely--and Speed and Horan the "Strong Man" were hobbling the brute as I finished feeding my lions and came up to assist the others.

"Watch that darn elephant, too, Mr. Grigg," said Byram, looking up from a plate of fried ham that Miss Crystal, our "Trapeze Lady," had just cooked for him over our gypsy fires of driftwood.

"Look at that elephant! Look at him!" continued Byram, with a trace of animation lighting up his careworn face--"look at him now chuckin' hay over his back. Scrape it up, Mr. Scarlett; hay's thirty a ton in this war-starved country."

As I started to clean up the precious hay, the elephant gave a curious grunt and swung his trunk toward me.

"There's somethin' paltry about that elephant," said Byram, in a complaining voice, rising, with plate of ham in one hand, fork in the other. "He's gittin' as mean as that crafty camuel. Make him move, Mr. Speed, or he'll put his foot on the trombone."

"Ho Djebe! Mail!" said Speed, sharply.

The elephant obediently shuffled forward; Byram sat down again, and wearily cut himself a bit of fried ham; and presently we were all sitting around the long camp-table in the glare of two smoky petroleum torches, eating our bread and ham and potatoes and drinking Breton cider, a jug of which Mr. Horan had purchased for a few coppers.

Some among us were too tired to eat, many too tired for conversation, yet, from habit we fell into small talk concerning the circus, the animals, the prospects of better days.

The ladies of the company, whatever quarrels they indulged in among themselves, stood loyally by Byram in his anxiety and need. Miss Crystal and Miss Delany displayed edifying optimism; Mrs. Horan refrained from nagging; Mrs. Grigg, a pretty little creature, who was one of the best equestriennes I ever saw, declared that we were living too well and that a little dieting wouldn't hurt anybody.

McCadger, our band-master, came over from the other fire to say that the men had finished grooming the horses, and would I inspect the picket-line, as Kelly Eyre was still absent.

When I returned, the ladies had retired to their blankets under their shelter-tent; poor little Grigg lay asleep at the table, his tired, ugly head resting among the unwashed tin plates; Speed sprawled in his chair, smoking a short pipe; Byram sat all hunched up, his head sunk, eyes vacantly following the movements of two men who were washing dishes in the flickering torch-light.

He looked up at me, saying: "I guess Mr. Speed is right. Them lions o' yourn is fed too much horse-meat. Overeatin' is overheatin'; we've got to give 'em beef or they'll be clawin' you. Yes, sir, they're all het up. Hear 'em growl!"

"That's a fable, governor," I said, smiling and dropping into a chair. "I've heard that theory before, but it isn't true."

"The trouble with your lions is that you play with them too much and they're losing respect for you," said Speed, drowsily.

"The trouble with my lions," said I, "is that they were born in captivity. Give me a wild lion, caught on his native heath, and I'll know what to expect from him when I tame him. But no man on earth can tell what a lion born in captivity will do."

The hard cider had cheered Byram a little; he drew a cherished cigar from his vest-pocket, offered it to me, and when I considerately refused, he carefully set it alight with a splinter from the fire. Its odor was indescribable.

"Luck's a curious phenomena, ain't it, Mr. Scarlett?" he said.

I agreed with him.

"Luck," continued Byram, waving his cigar toward the four quarters of the globe, "is the rich man's slave an' the poor man's tyrant. It's also a see-saw. When the devil plays in luck the cherubim git spanked--or words to that effec'--not meanin' no profanity."

"It's about like that, governor," admitted Speed, lazily.

Byram leaned back and sucked meditatively at his cigar. The new moon was just rising over the elephant's hindquarters, and the poetry of the incident appeared to move the manager profoundly. He turned and surveyed the dim bivouac, the two silent tents, the monstrous, shadowy bulk of the elephant, rocking monotonously against the sky. "Kind of Silurian an' solemn, ain't it," he murmured, "the moon shinin' onto the rump of that primeval pachyderm. It's like the dark ages of the behemoth an' the cony. I tell you, gentlemen, when them fearsome an' gigantic mamuels was aboundin' in the dawn of creation, the public missed the greatest show on earth--by a few million years!"

We nodded sleepily but gravely.

Byram appeared to have recovered something of his buoyancy and native optimism.

"Gentlemen," he said, "let's kinder saunter over to the inn and have a night-cap with Kelly Eyre."

This unusual and expensive suggestion startled us wide awake, but we were only too glad to acquiesce in anything which tended to raise his spirits or ours. Dog tired but smiling we rose; Byram, in his shirt-sleeves and suspenders, wearing his silk hat on the back of his head, led the way, fanning his perspiring face with a red-and-yellow bandanna.

"Luck," said Byram, waving his cigar toward the new moon, "is bound to turn one way or t'other--like my camuel. Sometimes, resemblin' the camuel, luck will turn on you. Look out it don't bite you. I once made up a piece about luck:


"'Don't buck
Bad luck
Or you'll get stuck--'


I disremember the rest, but it went on to say a few other words to that effec'."

The lighted door of the inn hung ajar as we crossed the star-lit square; Byram entered and stood a moment in the doorway, stroking his chin. "Bong joor the company!" he said, lifting his battered hat.

The few Bretons in the wine-room returned his civility; he glanced about and his eye fell on Kelly Eyre, Speed's assistant balloonist, seated by the window with Horan.

"Well, gents," said Byram, hopefully, "an' what aire the prospects of smilin' fortune when rosy-fingered dawn has came again to kiss us back to life?"

"Rotten," said Eyre, pushing a telegram across the oak table.

Byram's face fell; he picked up the telegram and fumbled in his coat for his spectacles with unsteady hand.

"Let me read it, governor," said Speed, and took the blue paper from Byram's unresisting, stubby fingers.

"O-ho!" he muttered, scanning the message; "well--well, it's not so bad as all that--" He turned abruptly on Kelly Eyre--"What the devil are you scaring the governor for?"

"Well, he's got to be told--I didn't mean to worry him," said Eyre, stammering, ashamed of his thoughtlessness.

"Now see here, governor," said Speed, "let's all have a drink first. He ma belle!"--to the big Breton girl knitting in the corner--"four little swallows of eau-de-vie, if you please! Ah, thank you, I knew you were from Bannalec, where all the girls are as clever as they are pretty! Come, governor, touch glasses! There is no circus but the circus, and Byram is it's prophet! Drink, gentlemen!"

But his forced gayety was ominous; we scarcely tasted the liqueur. Byram wiped his brow and squared his bent shoulders. Speed, elbows on the table, sat musing and twirling his half-empty glass.

"Well, sir?" said Byram, in a low voice.

"Well, governor? Oh--er--the telegram?" asked Speed, like a man fighting for time.

"Yes, the telegram," said Byram, patiently.

"Well, you see they have just heard of the terrible smash-up in the north, governor. Metz has surrendered with Bazaine's entire army. And they're naturally frightened at Lorient.... And I rather fear that the Germans are on their way toward the coast.... And ... well ... they won't let us pass the Lorient fortifications."

"Won't let us in?" cried Byram, hoarsely.

"I'm afraid not, governor."

Byram stared at us. We had counted on Lorient to pull us through as far as the frontier.

"Now don't take it so hard, governor," said Kelly Eyre; "I was frightened myself, at first, but I'm ashamed of it now. We'll pull through, anyhow."

"Certainly," said Speed, cheerily, "we'll just lay up here for a few days and economize. Why can't we try one performance here, Scarlett?"

"We can," said I. "We'll drum up the whole district from Pontivy to Auray and from Penmarch Point to Plouharnel! Why should the Breton peasantry not come? Don't they walk miles to the Pardons?"

A gray pallor settled on Byram's sunken face; with it came a certain dignity which sorrow sometimes brings even to men like him.

"Young gentlemen," he said, "I'm obliged to you. These here reverses come to everybody, I guess. The Lord knows best; but if He'll just lemme run my show a leetle longer, I'll pay my debts an' say, 'Thy will be done, amen!'"

"We all must learn to say that, anyway," said Speed.

"Mebbe," muttered Byram, "but I must pay my debts."

After a painful silence he rose, steadying himself with his hand on Eyre's broad shoulder, and shambled out across the square, muttering something about his elephant and his camuel.

Speed paid the insignificant bill, emptied his glass, and nodded at me.

"It's all up," he said, soberly.

"Let's come back to camp and talk it over," I said.

Together we traversed the square under the stars, and entered the field of clover. In the dim, smoky camp all lights were out except one oil-drenched torch stuck in the ground between the two tents. Byram had gone to rest, so had Kelly Eyre. But my lions were awake, moving noiselessly to and fro, eyes shining in the dusk; and the elephant, a shapeless pile of shadow against the sky, stood watching us with little, evil eyes.

Speed had some cigarettes, and he laid the pink package on the table. I lighted one when he did.

"Do you really think there's a chance?" he asked, presently.

"I don't know," I said.

"Well, we can try."

"Oh yes."

Speed dropped his elbows on the table. "Poor old governor," he said.

Then he began to talk of our own prospects, which were certainly obscure if not alarming; but he soon gave up speculation as futile, and grew reminiscent, recalling our first acquaintance as discharged soldiers from the African battalions, our hand-to-mouth existence as gentlemen farmers in Algiers, our bankruptcy and desperate struggle in Marseilles, first as dock-workmen, then as government horse-buyers for the cavalry, then as employes of the Hippodrome in Paris, where I finally settled down as bareback rider, lion-tamer, and instructor in the haute-ecole; and he accepted a salary as aid to Monsieur Gaston Tissandier, the scientist, who was experimenting with balloons at Saint-Cloud.

He spoke, too, of our enlistment in the Imperial Police, and the hopes we had of advancement, which not only brought no response from me, but left us both brooding sullenly on our wrongs, crouched there over the rough camp-table under the stars.

"Oh, hell!" muttered Speed, "I'm going to bed."

But he did not move. Presently he said, "How did you ever come to handle wild animals?"

"I've always been fond of animals; I broke colts at home; I had bear cubs and other things. Then, in Algiers, the regiment caught a couple of lions and kept them in a cage, and--well, I found I could do what I liked with them."

"They're afraid of your eyes, aren't they?"

"I don't know--perhaps it's that; I can't explain it--or, rather, I could partly explain it by saying that I am not afraid of them. But I never trust them."

"You drag them all around the cage! You shove them about like sacks of meal!"

"Yes,... but I don't trust them."

"It seems to me," said Speed, "that your lions are getting rather impudent these days. They're not very much afraid of you now."

"Nor I of them," I said, wearily; "I'm much more anxious about you when you go sailing about in that patched balloon of yours. Are you never nervous?"

"Nervous? When?"

"When you're up there?"

"Rubbish."

"Suppose the patches give way?"

"I never think of that," he said, leaning on the table with a yawn. "Oh, Lord, how tired I am!... but I shall not be able to sleep. I'm actually too tired to sleep. Have you got a pack of cards, Scarlett? or a decent cigar, or a glass of anything, or anything to show me more amusing than that nightmare of an elephant? Oh, I'm sick of the whole business--sick! sick! The stench of the tan-bark never leaves my nostrils except when the odor of fried ham or of that devilish camel replaces it.

"I'm too old to enjoy a gypsy drama when it's acted by myself; I'm tired of trudging through the world with my entire estate in my pocket. I want a home, Scarlett. Lord, how I envy people with homes!"

He had been indulging in this outburst with his back partly turned toward me. I did not say anything, and, after a moment, he looked at me over his shoulder to see how I took it.

"I'd like to have a home, too," I said.

"I suppose homes are not meant for men like you and me," he said. "Lord, how I would appreciate one, though--anything with a bit of grass in the yard and a shovelful of dirt--enough to grow some damn flower, you know.... Did you smell the posies in the square to-night?... Something of that kind,... anything, Scarlett--anything that can be called a home!... But you can't understand."

"Oh yes, I can," I said.

He went on muttering, half to himself: "We're of the same breed--pariahs; fortunately, pariahs don't last long,... like the wild creatures who never die natural deaths,... old age is one of the curses they can safely discount,... and so can we, Scarlett, so can we.... For you'll be mauled by a lion or kicked into glory by a horse or an ox or an ass,... and I'll fall off a balloon,... or the camel will give me tetanus, or the elephant will get me in one way or another,... or something...."

Again he twisted around to look at me. "Funny, isn't it?"

"Rather funny," I said, listlessly.

He leaned over, pulled another cigarette from the pink packet, broke a match from the card, and lighted it.

"I feel better," he observed.

I expressed sleepy gratification.

"Oh yes, I'm much better. This isn't a bad life, is it?"

"Oh no!" I said, sarcastically.

"No, it's all right, and we've got to pull the poor old governor through and give a jolly good show here and start the whole country toward the tent door! Eh?"

"Certainly. Don't let me detain you."

"I'll tell you what," he said, "if we only had that poor little girl, Miss Claridge, we'd catch these Bretons. That's what took the coast-folk all over Europe, so Grigg says."

Miss Claridge had performed in a large glass tank as the "Leaping Mermaid." It took like wildfire according to our fellow-performers. We had never seen her; she was killed by diving into her tank when the circus was at Antwerp in April.

"Can't we get up something like that?" I suggested, hopelessly.

"Who would do it? Miss Claridge's fish-tights are in the prop-box; who's to wear them?"

He began to say something else, but stopped suddenly, eyes fixed. We were seated nearly opposite each other, and I turned around, following the direction of his eyes.

Jacqueline stood behind me in the smoky light of the torch--Jacqueline, bare of arm and knee, with her sea-blue eyes very wide and the witch-locks clustering around the dim oval of her face. After a moment's absolute silence she said: "I came from Paradise. Don't you remember?"

"From Paradise?" said Speed, smiling; "I thought it might be from elf-land."

And I said: "Of course I remember you, Jacqueline. And I have an idea you ought to be in bed."

There was another silence.

"Won't you sit down?" asked Speed.

"Thank you," said Jacqueline, gravely.

She seated herself on a sack of sawdust, clasping her slender hands between her knees, and looked earnestly at the elephant.

"He won't harm you," I assured her.

"If you think I am afraid of _that_," she said, "you are mistaken, Monsieur Scarlett."

"I don't think you are afraid of anything," observed Speed, smiling; "but I know you are capable of astonishment."

"How do you know that?" demanded the girl.

"Because I saw you with your drum on the high-road when we came past Paradise. Your eyes were similar to saucers, and your mouth was not closed, Mademoiselle Jacqueline."

"Oh--pour ca--yes, I was astonished," she said. Then, with a quick, upward glance: "Were you riding, in armor, on a horse?"

"No," said Speed; "I was on that elephant's head."

This appeared to make a certain impression on Jacqueline. She became shyer of speech for a while, until he asked her, jestingly, why she did not join the circus.

"It is what I wish," she said, under her breath.

"And ride white horses?"

"Will you take me?" she cried, passionately, springing to her feet.

Amazed at her earnestness, I tried to explain that such an idea was out of the question. She listened anxiously at first, then her eyes fell and she stood there in the torch-light, head hanging.

"Don't you know," said Speed, kindly, "that it takes years of practice to do what circus people do? And the life is not gay, Jacqueline; it is hard for all of us. We know what hunger means; we know sickness and want and cold. Believe me, you are happier in Paradise than we are in the circus."

"It may be," she said, quietly.

"Of course it is," he insisted.

"But," she flashed out, "I would rather be unhappy in the circus than happy in Paradise!"

He protested, smiling, but she would have her way.

"I once saw a man, in spangles, turning, turning, and ever turning upon a rod. He was very far away, and that was very long ago--at the fair in Bannalec. But I have not forgotten! No, monsieur! In our net-shed I also have fixed a bar of wood, and on it I turn, turn continually. I am not ignorant of twisting. I can place my legs over my neck and cross my feet under my chin. Also I can stand on both hands, and I can throw scores of handsprings--which I do every morning upon the beach--I, Jacqueline!"

She was excited; she stretched out both bare arms as though preparing to demonstrate her ability then and there.

"I should like to see a circus," she said. "Then I should know what to do. That I can swing higher than any girl in Paradise has been demonstrated often," she went on, earnestly. "I can swim farther, I can dive deeper, I can run faster, with bare feet or with sabots, than anybody, man or woman, from the Beacon to Our Lady's Chapel! At bowls the men will not allow me because I have beaten them all, monsieur, even the mayor, which he never forgave. As for the farandole, I tire last of all--and it is the biniou who cries out for mercy!"

She laughed and pushed back her hair, standing straight up in the yellow radiance like a moor-sprite. There was something almost unearthly in her lithe young body and fearless sea-blue eyes, sparkling from the shock of curls.

"So you can dive and swim?" asked Speed, with a glance at me.

"Like the salmon in the Laita, monsieur."

"Under water?"

"Parbleu!"

After a pause I asked her age.

"Fifteen, M'sieu Scarlett."

"You don't look thirteen, Jacqueline."

"I think I should grow faster if we were not so poor," she said, innocently.

"You mean that you don't get enough to eat?"

"Not always, m'sieu. But that is so with everybody except the wealthy."

"Suppose we try her," said Speed, after a silence. "You and I can scrape up a little money for her if worst comes to worst."

"How about her father?"

"You can see him. What is he?"

"A poacher, I understand."

"Oh, then it's easy enough. Give him a few francs. He'll take the child's salary, anyway, if this thing turns out well."

"Jacqueline," I said, "we can't afford to pay you much money, you know."

"Money?" repeated the child, vacantly. "_Money! If I had my arms full--so!--I would throw it into the world--so!"--she glanced at Speed--"reserving enough for a new skirt, monsieur, of which I stand in some necessity."

The quaint seriousness, the resolute fearlessness of this little maid of Paradise touched us both, I think, as she stood there restlessly, balancing on her slim bare feet, finger-tips poised on her hips.

"Won't you take me?" she asked, sweetly.

"I'll tell you what I'll do, Jacqueline," said I. "Very early in the morning I'll go down to your house and see your father. Then, if he makes no objection, I'll get you to put on a pretty swimming-suit, all made out of silver scales, and you can show me, there in the sea, how you can dive and swim and play at mermaid. Does that please you?"

She looked earnestly at me, then at Speed.

"Is it a promise?" she asked, in a quivering voice.

"Yes, Jacqueline."

"Then I thank you, M'sieu Scarlett,... and you, m'sieur, who ride the elephant so splendidly.... And I will be waiting for you when you come.... We live in the house below the Saint-Julien Light.... My father is pilot of the port.... Anybody will tell you." ...

"I will not forget," said I.

She bade us good-night very prettily, stepped back out of the circle of torch-light, and vanished--there is no other word for it.

"Gracious," said Speed, "wasn't that rather sudden? Or is that the child yonder? No, it's a bush. Well, Scarlett, there's an uncanny young one for you--no, not uncanny, but a spirit in its most delicate sense. I've an idea she's going to find poor Byram's lost luck for him."

"Or break her neck," I observed.

Speed was quiet for a long while.

"By-the-way," he said, at last, "are you going to tell the Countess about that fellow Buckhurst?"

"I sent a note to her before I fed my lions," I replied.

"Are you going to see her?"

"If she desires it."

"Who took the note, Scarlett?"

"Jacqueline's father,... that Lizard fellow."

"Well, don't let's stir up Buckhurst now," said Speed. "Let's do what we can for the governor first."

"Of course," said I. "And I'm going to bed. Good-night."

"Good-night," said Speed, thoughtfully. "I'll join you in a moment."

When I was ready for bed and stood at the tent door, peering out into the darkness, I saw Speed curled up on a blanket between the elephant's forefeet, sound asleep.

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