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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Jacqueline
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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Jacqueline Post by :CalGolden Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2408

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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Jacqueline

PART II CHAPTER XII. JACQUELINE

The stars were still shining when I awoke in my blanket, lighted a candle, and stepped into the wooden tub of salt-water outside the tent.

I shaved by candle-light, dressed in my worn riding-breeches and jacket, then, candle in hand, began groping about among the faded bits of finery and tarnished properties until I found the silver-scaled swimming-tights once worn by the girl of whom we had heard so much.

She was very young when she leaped to her death in Antwerp--a slim slip of a creature, they said--so I thought it likely that her suit might fit Jacqueline.

The stars had begun to fade when I stepped out through the dew-soaked clover, carrying in one hand a satchel containing the swimming-suit, in the other a gun-case, in which, carefully oiled and doubly cased in flannel, reposed my only luxury--my breech-loading shot-gun.

The silence, intensified by the double thunder of the breakers on the sands, was suddenly pierced by a far cock-crow; vague gray figures passed across the square as I traversed it; a cow-bell tinkled near by, and I smelt the fresh-blown wind from the downs.

Presently, as I turned into the cliff-path, I saw a sober little Breton cow plodding patiently along ahead; beside her moved a fresh-faced maid of Paradise in snowy collarette and white-winged head-dress, knitting as she walked, fair head bent.

As I passed her she glanced up with tear-dimmed eyes, murmuring the customary salutation: "Bonjour d'ac'h, m'sieu!" And I replied in the best patois I could command: "Bonjour d'ec'h a laran, na oeled Ket! Why do you cry, mademoiselle?"

"Cry, m'sieu? They are taking the men of Paradise to the war. France must know how cruel she is to take our men from us."

We had reached the green crest of the plateau; the girl tethered her diminutive cow, sat down on a half-imbedded stone, and continued her knitting, crying softly all the while.

I asked her to direct me to the house where Robert, the Lizard, lived; she pointed with her needles to a large stone house looming up in the gray light, built on the rocks just under the beacon. It was white with sea-slime and crusted salt, yet heavily and solidly built as a fort, and doubtless very old, judging from the traces of sculptured work over portal and windows.

I had scarcely expected to find the ragged Lizard and more ragged Jacqueline housed in such an anciently respectable structure, and I said so to the girl beside me.

"The house is bare as the bones of Sainte-Anne," she said. "There is nothing within--not even crumbs enough for the cliff-rats, they say."

So I went away across the foggy, soaking moorland, carrying my gun and satchel in their cases, descended the grassy cleft, entered a cattle-path, and picked my way across the wet, black rocks toward the abode of the poacher.

The Lizard was standing on his doorsill when I came up; he returned my greeting sullenly, his keen eyes of a sea-bird roving over me from head to foot. A rumpled and sulky yellow cat, evidently just awake, sat on the doorstep beside him and yawned at intervals. The pair looked as though they had made a night of it.

"You took my letter last night?" I asked.

"Yes."

"Was there an answer for me?"

"Yes."

"Couldn't you have come to the camp and told me?"

"I could, but I had other matters to concern me," he replied. "Here's your letter," and he fished it out of his tattered pocket.

I was angry enough, but I did not wish to anger him at that moment. So I took the letter and read it--a formal line saying the Countess de Vassart would expect me at five that afternoon.

"You are not noted for your courtesy, are you?" I inquired, smiling.

Something resembling a grin touched his sea-scarred visage.

"Oh, I knew you'd come for your answer," he said, coolly.

"Look here, Lizard," I said, "I intend to be friends with you, and I mean to make you look on me as a friend. It's to my advantage and to yours."

"To mine?" he inquired, sneeringly, amused.

"And this is the first thing I want," I continued; and without further preface I unfolded our plans concerning Jacqueline.

"Entendu," he said, drawling the word, "is that all?"

"Do you consent?"

"Is that all?" he repeated, with Breton obstinacy.

"No, not all. I want you to be my messenger in time of need. I want you to be absolutely faithful to me."

"Is that all?" he drawled again.

"Yes, that is all."

"And what is there in this, to my advantage, m'sieu?"

"This, for one thing," I said, carelessly, picking up my gun-case. I slowly drew out the barrels of Damascus, then the rose-wood stock and fore-end, assembling them lovingly; for it was the finest weapon I had ever seen, and it was breaking my heart to give it away.

The poacher's eyes began to glitter as I fitted the double bolts and locked breech and barrel with the extension rib. Then I snapped on the fore-end; and there lay the gun in my hands, a fowling-piece fit for an emperor.

"Give it?" muttered the poacher, huskily.

"Take it, my friend the Lizard," I replied, smiling down the wrench in my heart.

There was a silence; then the poacher stepped forward, and, looking me square in the eye, flung out his hand. I struck my open palm smartly against his, in the Breton fashion; then we clasped hands.

"You mean honestly by the little one?"

"Yes," I said; "strike palms by Sainte Thekla of Ycone!"

We struck palms heavily.

"She is a child," he said; "there is no vice in her; yet I've seen them nearly finished at her age in Paris." And he swore terribly as he said it.

We dropped hands in silence; then, "Is this gun mine?" he demanded, hoarsely.

"Yes."

"Strike!" he cried; "take my friendship if you want it, on this condition--what I am is my own concern, not yours. Don't interfere, m'sieu; it would be useless. I should never betray you, but I might kill you. Don't interfere. But if you care for the good-will of a man like me, take it; and when you desire a service from me, tell me, and I'll not fail you, by Sainte-Eline of Paradise!"

"Strike palms," said I, gravely; and we struck palms thrice.

He turned on his heel, kicking off his sabots on the doorsill. "Break bread with me; I ask it," he said, gruffly, and stalked before me into the house.

The room was massive and of noble proportion, but there was scarcely anything in it--a stained table, a settle, a little pile of rags on the stone floor--no, not rags, but Jacqueline's clothes!--and there at the end of the great chamber, built into the wall, was the ancient Breton bed with its Gothic carving and sliding panels of black oak, carved like the lattice-work in a chapel screen.

Outside dawn was breaking through a silver shoal of clouds; already its slender tentacles of light were probing the shadows behind the lattice where Jacqueline lay sleeping.

From the ashes on the hearth a spiral of smoke curled. The yellow cat walked in and sat down, contemplating the ashes.

Slowly a saffron light filled the room; Jacqueline awoke in the dim bed.

She pushed the panels aside and peered out, her sea-blue eyes heavy with slumber.

"Ma doue!" she murmured; "it is M'sieu Scarlett! Aie! Aie! Am I a countess to sleep so late? Bonjour, m'sieu! Bonjour, pa-pa!" She caught sight of the yellow cat, "Et bien le bonjour, Ange Pitou!"

She swathed herself in a blanket and sat up, looking at me sleepily.

"You came to see me swim," she said.

"And I've brought you a fish's silver skin to swim in," I replied, pointing at the satchel.

She cast a swift glance at her father, who, with the gun on his knees, sat as though hypnotized by the beauty of its workmanship. Her bright eyes fell on the gun; she understood in a flash.

"Then you'll take me?"

"If you swim as well as I hope you can."

"Turn your back!" she cried.

I wheeled about and sat down on the settle beside the poacher. There came a light thud of small, bare feet on the stone floor, then silence. The poacher looked up.

"She's gone to the ocean," he said; "she has the mania for baths--like you English." And he fell to rubbing the gunstock with dirty thumb.

The saffron light in the room was turning pink when Jacqueline reappeared on the threshold in her ragged skirt and stained velvet bodice half laced, with the broken points hanging, carrying an armful of driftwood.

Without a word she went to work; the driftwood caught fire from the ashes, flaming up in exquisite colors, now rosy, now delicate green, now violet; the copper pot, swinging from the crane, began to steam, then to simmer.

"Papa!"

"De quoi!" growled the poacher.

"Were you out last night?"

"Dame, I've just come in."

"Is there anything?"

The poacher gave me an oblique and evil glance, then coolly answered: "Three pheasant, two partridges, and a sea-trout in the net-shed. All are drawn."

So swiftly she worked that the pink light had scarcely deepened to crimson when the poacher, laying the gun tenderly in the blankets of Jacqueline's tumbled bed, came striding back to the table where a sea-trout smoked on a cracked platter, and a bowl of bread and milk stood before each place.

We ate silently. Ange Pitou, the yellow cat, came around with tail inflated. There were fishbones enough to gratify any cat, and Ange Pitou made short work of them.

The poacher bolted his food, sombre eyes brooding or stealing across the room to the bed where his gun lay. Jacqueline, to my amazement, ate as daintily as a linnet, yet with a fresh, hearty unconsciousness that left nothing in her bowl or wooden spoon.

"Schist?" inquired the poacher, lifting his tired eyes to me. I nodded. So he brought a jug of cold, sweet cider, and we all drank long and deeply, each in turn slinging the jug over the crooked elbow.

The poacher rose, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and made straight for his new gun.

"You two," he said, with a wave of his arm, "you settle it among yourselves. Jacqueline, is it true that Le Bihan saw woodcock dropping into the fen last night?"

"He says so."

"He is not a liar--usually," observed the poacher. He touched his beret to me, flung the fowling-piece over his shoulder, picked up a canvas bag in which I heard cartridges rattling, stepped into his sabots, and walked away. In a few moments the hysterical yelps of a dog, pleased at the prospect of a hunt, broke out from the net-shed.

Jacqueline placed the few dishes in a pan of hot water, wiped her fingers, daintily, and picked up Ange Pitou, who promptly acknowledged the courtesy by bursting into a crackling purring.

"Show me the swimming-suit," she said, shyly.

I drew it out of the satchel and laid it across my knees.

"Oh, it has a little tail behind--like a fish!" she cried, enchanted. "I shall look like the silver grilse of Quimperle!"

"Do you think you can swim in those scales?" I asked.

"Swim? I--Jacqueline? Attendez un peu--you shall see!"

She laughed an excited, confident little laugh and hugged Ange Pitou, who closed his eyes in ecstasy sheathing and unsheathing his sharp claws.

"It is almost sunrise," I said.

"It lacks many minutes to sunrise," she replied. "Ask Ange Pitou. At sunrise he leaves me; nothing can hold him; he does not bite or scratch, he just pushes and pulls until my arms are tired. Then he goes. It is always so."

"Why does he do that?"

"Ask him. I have often asked, but he never tells me--do you, my friend? I think he's a moor-sprite--perhaps a devil. Do devils hate all kinds of water?"

"No, only holy water," I replied.

"Well, then, he's something else. Look! Look! He is beginning! See him push to get free, see him drive his furry head into my hands. The sun is coming up out of the sea! It will soon be here."

She opened her arms; the cat sprang to the doorstep and vanished.

Jacqueline looked at the swimming-suit, then at me. "Will you go down to the beach, M'sieu Scarlett?"

But I had not traversed half the strip of rock and hard sand before something flew past--a slim, glittering shape which suddenly doubled up, straightened again, and fell headlong into the thundering surf.

The waves hurled her from crest to crest, clothing her limbs in froth; the singing foam rolled her over and over, stranding her on bubbling sands, until the swell found her again, lifted her, and tossed her seaward into the wide, white arms of the breakers.

Back to land she drifted and scrambled up on the beach, a slender, drenched figure, glistening and flashing with every movement.

Dainty of limb as a cat in wet grass, she shook the spray from her fingers and scrubbed each palm with sand, then sprang again headlong into the surf; there was a flash, a spatter, and she vanished.

After a long, long while, far out on the water she rose, floating.

Now the red sun, pushing above the ocean's leaden rim, flung its crimson net across the water. String after string of white-breasted sea-ducks beat to windward from the cove, whirling out to sea; the gray gulls flapped low above the shoal and settled in rows along the outer bar, tossing their sun-tipped wings; the black cormorant on the cliff craned its hideous neck, scanning the ocean with restless, brilliant eyes.

Tossed back once more upon the beach like an opalescent shell, Jacqueline, ankle-deep in foam, looked out across the flaming waters, her drenched hair dripping.

From the gorse on cliff and headland, one by one the larks shot skyward like amber rockets, trailing a shower of melody till the whole sky rained song. The crested vanneaux, passing out to sea, responded plaintively, flapping their bronze-green wings.

The girl twisted her hair and wrung it till the last salt drop had fallen. Sitting there in the sands, idle fingers cracking the pods of gilded sea-weed, she glanced up at me and laughed contentedly. Presently she rose and walked out to a high ledge, motioning me to follow. Far below, the sun-lit water shimmered in a shallow basin of silver sand.

"Look!" she cried, flinging her arms above her head, and dropped into space, falling like a star, down, down into the shallow sea. Far below I saw a streak of living light shoot through the water--on, on, closer to the surface now, and at last she fairly sprang into the air, quivering like a gaffed salmon, then fell back to float and clear her blue eyes from her tangled hair.

She gave me a glance full of malice as she landed, knowing quite well that she had not only won, but had given me a shock with her long dive into scarce three feet of water.

Presently she climbed to the sun-warmed hillock of sand and sat down beside me to dry her hair.

A langouste, in his flaming scarlet coat of mail, passed through a glassy pool among the rocks, treading sedately on pointed claws; the lancons tunnelled the oozing beach under her pink feet, like streams of living quicksilver; the big, blue sea-crabs sidled off the reef, sheering down sideways into limpid depths. Landward the curlew walked in twos and threes, swinging their long sickle bills; the sea-swallows drove by like gray snow-squalls, melting away against the sky; a vitreous living creature, blazing with purest sapphire light, floated past under water.

Ange Pitou, coveting a warm sun-bath in the sand, came wandering along pretending not to see us; but Jacqueline dragged him into her arms for a hug, which lasted until Ange Pitou broke loose, tail hoisted but ears deaf to further flattery.

So Jacqueline chased Ange Pitou back across the sand and up the rocky path, pursuing her pet from pillar to post with flying feet that fell as noiselessly as the velvet pads of Ange Pitou.

"Come to the net-shed, if you please!" she called back to me, pointing to a crazy wooden structure built above the house.

As I entered the net-shed the child was dragging a pile of sea-nets to the middle of the floor.

"In case I fall," she said, coolly.

"Better let me arrange them, then," I said, glancing up at the improvised trapeze which dangled under the roof-beams.

She thanked me, seized a long rope, and went up, hand over hand. I piled the soft nets into a mattress, but decided to stand near, not liking the arrangements.

Meanwhile Jacqueline was swinging, head downward, from her trapeze. Her cheeks flamed as she twisted and wriggled through a complicated manoeuvre, which ended by landing her seated on the bar of the trapeze a trifle out of breath. With both hands resting on the ropes, she started herself swinging, faster, faster, then pretended to drop off backward, only to catch herself with her heels, substitute heels for hands, and hang. Doubling back on her own body, she glided to her perch beneath the roof, shook her damp hair back, set the trapeze flying, and curled up on the bar, resting as fearlessly and securely as a bullfinch in a tree-top.

Above her the red-and-black wasps buzzed and crawled and explored the sun-scorched beams. Spiders watched her from their silken hammocks, and the tiny cliff-mice scuttled from beam to beam. Through the open door the sunshine poured a flood of gold over the floor where the bronzed nets were spread. Mending was necessary; she mentioned it, and set herself swinging again, crossing her feet.

"You think you could drop from there into a tank of water?" I asked.

"How deep?"

"Say four feet."

She nodded, swinging tranquilly.

"Have you any fear at all, Jacqueline?"

"No."

"You would try whatever I asked you to try?"

"If I thought I could," she replied, naively.

"But that is not it. I am to be your master. You must have absolute confidence in me and obey orders instantly."

"Like a soldier?"

"Exactly."

"Bien."

"Then hang by your hands!"

Quick as a flash she hung above me.

"You trust me, Jacqueline?"

"Yes."

"Then drop!"

Down she flashed like a falling meteor. I caught her with that quick trick known to all acrobats, which left her standing on my knee.

"Jump!"

She sprang lightly to the heap of nets, lost her balance, stumbled, and sat down very suddenly. Then she threw back her head and laughed; peal on peal of deliciously childish laughter rang through the ancient net-shed, until, overhead, the passing gulls echoed her mirth with querulous mewing, and the sea-hawk, towering to the zenith, wheeled and squealed.

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