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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Road To Paradise
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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Road To Paradise Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2755

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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Road To Paradise

PART II CHAPTER IX. THE ROAD TO PARADISE

On the 3d of November Byram's American Circus, travelling slowly overland toward the Spanish frontier, drew up for an hour's rest at Quimperle. I, however, as usual, prepared to ride forward to select a proper place for our night encampment, and to procure the necessary license.

The dusty procession halted in the town square, which was crowded, and as I turned in my saddle I saw Byram stand up on the red-and-gold band-wagon and toss an armful of circulars and bills into the throng.

The white bits of paper fluttered wide and disappeared in the sea of white Breton head-dresses; there was a rhythmic clatter of wooden shoes, an undulation of snowy coiffes, then a low murmur as the people slowly read the circulars aloud, their musical monotone accompanying the strident nasal voice of Byram, who stood on the tarnished band-wagon shouting his crowd around him.

"Mossoors et madams! Ecooty see voo play! J'ai l'honnoor de vous presenter le ploo magnifique cirque--" And the invariable reclame continued to the stereotyped finis; the clown bobbed up behind Byram and made his usual grimaces, and the band played "The Cork Leg."

The Bretons looked on in solemn astonishment: my comrade, Speed, languidly stood up on the elephant and informed the people that our circus was travelling to Lorient to fill a pressing engagement, and if we disappointed the good people of Lorient a riot would doubtless result, therefore it was not possible to give any performance before we reached Lorient--and the admission was only ten sous.

Our clown then picked up the tatters of his threadbare comic speech. Speed, munching a stale sandwich, came strolling over to where I stood sponging out my horse's mouth with cool water.

"We'll ride into Paradise in full regalia, I suppose," he observed, munching away reflectively; "it's the cheapest reclame."

I dashed a bucket of water over my horse's legs. "You'd better look out for your elephant; those drunken Bretons are irritating him," I said. "Mahouts are born, not made."

Speed turned; the elephant was squealing and thrusting out a prehensile trunk among the people. There would be trouble if any fool gave him tobacco.

"Hi!" cried Speed, "tobah! Let the mem-log alone! Ai! he's snatched a coiffe! Drop it, Djebe! C'hast buhan! Don't be afraid, mesdames; the elephant is not ugly! Chomit oll en ho trankilite!"

The elephant appeared to understand the mixture of Hindu, French, and Breton--or perhaps it was the sight of the steel ankus that Speed flourished in his quality of mahout. The crowd pressed forward again, reassured by the "Chomit oll en ho trankilite!"

Speed swallowed the last crumb of his sandwich, wiped his hands on his handkerchief, and shoved them into his shabby pockets; the ankus dangled from his wrist.

We were in seedy circumstances; an endless chain of bad luck had followed us from Chartres--bad weather, torrents of rain, flooded roads, damaging delays on railways already overcrowded with troops and war material, and, above all, we encountered everywhere that ominous apathy which burdened the whole land, even those provinces most remote from the seat of war. The blockade of Paris had paralyzed France.

The fortune that Byram had made in the previous year was already gone; we no longer travelled by rail; we no longer slept at inns; we could barely pay for the food for our animals.

As for the employes, the list had been cut down below the margin of safety, yet for a month no salaries had been paid.

As I stood there in the public square of Quimperle, passing the cooling sponge over my horse's nose, old Byram came out of the hotel on the corner, edged his way through the stolid crowd that surrounded us gaunt mountebanks, and shuffled up to me.

"I guess we ain't goin' to push through to-night, Scarlett," he observed, wiping his sweating forehead on the sleeve of his linen duster.

"No, governor, it's too far," I said.

"We'll be all right, anyway," added Speed; "there's a change in the moon and this warm weather ought to hold, governor."

"I dunno," said Byram, with an abstracted glance at the crowd around the elephant.

"Cheer up, governor," I said, "we ought at least to pay expenses to the Spanish frontier. Once out of France we'll find your luck again for you."

"Mebbe," he said, almost wearily.

I glanced at Speed. This was the closest approach to a whine that we had heard from Byram. But the man had changed within a few days; his thin hair, brushed across his large, alert ears, was dusty and unkempt; hollows had formed under his shrewd eyes; his black broadcloth suit was as soiled as his linen, his boots shabby, his silk hat suitable only for the stage property of our clown.

"Don't ride too far," said Byram, as I set foot to stirrup, "them band-wagon teams is most done up, an' that there camuel gits meaner every minute."

I wheeled my horse out into the road to Paradise, cursing the "camuel," the bane of our wearied caravan.

"Got enough cash for the license?" asked Byram, uneasily.

"Plenty, governor; don't worry. Speed, don't let him mope. We'll be in Lorient this time to-morrow," I called back, with a swagger of assumed cheerfulness.

Speed stepped swiftly across the square and laid his hand on my stirrup.

"What are you going to do if you see Buckhurst?"

"Nothing."

"Or the Countess?"

"I don't know."

"I suppose you will go out of your way to find her if she's in Paradise?"

"Yes."

"And tell her the truth about Buckhurst?"

"I expect to."

After a moment's silence he said: "Don't do anything until I see you to-night, will you?"

"All right," I replied, and set my horse at a gallop over the old stone bridge.

The highway to the sea which winds down through acres of yellow gorse and waving broom to the cliffs of Paradise is a breezy road, swept by the sweet winds that blow across Brittany from the Cote d'Or to the Pyrenees.

It is a land of sea-winds; and when in the still noontide of midsummer the winds are at play far out at sea, their traces remain in the furrowed wheat, in the incline of solitary trees, in the breezy trend of the cliff-clover and the blackthorn and the league-wide sweep of the moorlands.

And through this land whose inland perfume always savored the unseen sea I rode down to Paradise.

It was not until I had galloped through the golden forest of Kerselec that I came in sight of the ocean, although among the sunbeams and the dropping showers of yellow beech-leaves I fancied I could hear the sound of the surf.

And now I rode slowly, in full sight of the sea where it lay, an immense gray band across the world, touching a looming horizon, and in throat and nostril the salt stung sweetly, and the whole world seemed younger for the breath of the sea.

From the purple mystery of the horizon to the landward cliffs the ocean appeared motionless; it was only when I had advanced almost to the cliffs that I saw the movement of waves--that I perceived the contrast between inland inertia and the restless repose of the sea, stirring ceaselessly since creation.

The same little sparkling river I had crossed in Quimperle I now saw again, spreading out a wide, flat current which broke into waves where it tumbled seaward across the bar; I heard the white-winged gulls mewing, the thunderous monotone of the surf, and a bell in some unseen chapel ringing sweetly.

I passed a stone house, another; then the white road curved under the trees and I rode straight into the heart of Paradise, my horse's hoofs awaking echoes in the silent, stone-paved square.

Never had I so suddenly entered a place so peaceful, so quiet in the afternoon sun--yet the silence was not absolute, it was thrilling with exquisite sound, lost echoes of the river running along its quay of stone, half-heard harmonies of the ocean where white surf seethed over the sands beyond the headland.

There was a fountain, too, dripping melodiously under the trees; I heard the breathless humming of a spinning-wheel from one of the low houses of gray stone which enclosed the square, and a young girl singing, and the drone of bees in a bed of resida.

So this was Paradise! Truly the name did not seem amiss here, under the still vault of blue above; Paradise means peace to so many of us--surcease of care and sound and the brazen trample of nations--not the quiet of palace corridors or the tremendous silence of a cathedral, but the noiselessness of pleasant sounds, moving shadows of trees, wordless quietude, simplicity.

A young girl with a face like the Madonna stole across the square in her felt shoes.

"Can you tell me where the mayor lives?" I asked, looking down at her from my horse.

She raised her white-coiffed head with an innocent smile: "Eman' barz ar sal o leina."

"Don't you speak French?" I asked, appalled.

"Ho! ia; oui, monsieur, s'il faut bien. The mayor is at breakfast in his kitchen yonder."

"Thank you, my child."

I turned my horse across the shady square to a stone house banked up with bed on bed of scarlet geraniums. The windows were open; a fat man with very small eyes sat inside eating an omelet.

He watched me dismount without apparent curiosity, and when I had tied my horse and walked in at the open door he looked at me over the rim of a glass of cider, and slowly finished his draught without blinking. Then he said, "Bonjour."

I told him that I wanted a license for the circus to camp for one night; that I also desired permission to pitch camp somewhere in the vicinity. He made out the license, stamped it, handed it to me, and I paid him the usual fee.

"I've heard of circuses," he said; "they're like those shows at country fairs, I suppose."

"Yes--in a way. We have animals."

"What kind?"

"Lions, tigers--"

"I've seen them."

"--a camel, an elephant--"

"Alive?"

"Certainly."

"Ma doue!" he said, with slow emotion, "have you a live elephant?"

I admitted that fact.

Presently I said, "I hope the people of Paradise will come to the circus when we get to Lorient."

"Eh? Not they," said the mayor, wagging his head. "Do you think we have any money here in Paradise? And then," he added, cunningly, "we can all see your elephant when your company arrives. Why should we pay to see him again? War does not make millionaires out of the poor."

I looked miserably around. It was quite true that people like these had no money to spend on strolling players. But we had to live somehow, and our animals could not exist on air, even well-salted air.

"How much will it cost to have your town-crier announce the coming of the circus?" I inquired.

"That will cost ten sous if he drums and reads the announcement from here to the chateau."

I gave the mayor ten copper pennies.

"What chateau?" I asked.

"Dame, the chateau, monsieur."

"Oh," said I, "where the Countess lives?"

"The Countess? Yes, of course. Who else?"

"Is the Countess there?"

"Oui, dame, and others not to my taste."

I asked no more questions, but the mayor did, and when he found it might take some time to pump me, he invited me to share his omelet and cider and afterwards to sit in the sun among his geraniums and satisfy his curiosity concerning the life of a strolling player.

I was glad of something to eat. After I had unsaddled my horse and led him to the mayor's stable and had paid for hay and grain, I returned to sit in the mayor's garden and sniff longingly at his tobacco smoke and answer his impertinent questions as good-naturedly as they were intended.

But even the mayor of Paradise grew tired of asking questions in time; the bees droned among the flowers, the low murmur of the sea stole in on our ears, the river softly lapped the quay. The mayor slept.

He was fat, very fat; his short, velvet jacket hung heavy with six rows of enormous silver buttons, his little, round hat was tilted over his nose. A silver buckle decorated it in front; behind, two little velvet ribbons fluttered in futile conflict with the rising sea-breeze.

Men in embroidered knee-breeches, with bare feet thrust into straw-filled sabots, sat sunning on the quay under the purple fig-trees; one ragged fellow in soiled velvet bolero and embossed leggings lay in the sun, chin on fists, wooden shoes crossed behind him, watching the water with the eyes of a poacher.

This mild, balmy November weather, this afterglow of summer which in my own country we call Indian summer, had started new blossoms among the climbing tea-roses, lovely orange-tinted blossoms, and some of a clear lemon color, and their fragrance filled the air. Nowhere do roses blow as they blow near the sea, nowhere have I breathed such perfume as I breathed that drowsy afternoon in Paradise, where in every door-yard thickets of clove-scented pinks carpeted the ground and tall spikes of snowy phlox glimmered silver-white in the demi-light.

Where on earth could a more peaceful scene be found than in this sea-lulled land, here in the subdued light under aged, spreading oaks, where moss crept over the pavements and covered the little fountain as though it had been the stony brink of a limpid forest spring?

The mayor woke up toward five o'clock and stared at me with owlish gravity as though daring me to say that he had been asleep.

"Um--ah--ma fois oui!" he muttered, blowing his nose loudly in a purple silk bandanna. Then he shrugged his shoulders and added: "C'est la vie, monsieur. Que voulez-vous?"

And it was one kind of life after all--a blessed release from the fever of that fierce farandole which we of the outer world call "life."

The mayor scratched his ear, yawned, stretched one leg, then the other, and glanced at me.

"Paris still holds out?" he asked, with another yawn.

"Oh yes," I replied.

"And the war--is it still going badly for us?"

"There is always hope," I answered.

"Hope," he grumbled; "oh yes, we know what hope is--we of the coast live on it when there's no bread; but hope never yet filled my belly for me."

"Has the war touched you here in Paradise?" I asked.

"Touched us? Ho! Say it has crushed us and I'll strike palms with you. Why, not a keel has passed out of the port since August. Where is the fishing-fleet? Where are the sardine sloops that ought to have sailed from Algiers? Where are the Icelanders?"

"Well, where are they?" I suggested.

"Where? Ask the semaphore yonder. Where are our salt schooners for the Welsh coast? I don't know. They have not sailed, that's all I know. You do well to come with your circus and your elephant! You can peddle diamonds in the poor-house, too, if it suits your taste."

"Have the German cruisers frightened all your craft from the sea?" I asked, astonished.

"Yes, partly. Then there's an ugly French cruiser lying off Groix, yonder, and her black stacks are dribbling smoke all day and all night. We have orders to keep off and use Lorient when we want a port."

"Do you know why the cruiser warns your fishing-boats from this coast?" I inquired.

"No," he said, shortly.

"Do you know the name of the cruiser?"

"She's a new one, the _Fer-de-Lance_. And if I were not a patriot and a Breton I'd say: 'May Sainte-Anne rot her where she lies; she's brought a curse on the coast from Lorient to the Saint-Julien Light!--and the ghosts of the Icelanders will work her evil yet.'"

The mayor's round, hairless face was red; he thumped the arm of his chair with pudgy fists and wagged his head.

"We have not seen the end of this," he said--"oh no! There's a curse coming on Paradise--the cruiser brought it, and it's coming. He! did a Bannalec man not hear the were-wolf in Kerselec forest a week since? Pst! Not a word, monsieur. But old Kloark, of Roscoff, heard it too--oui dame!--and he knows the howl of the Loup-Garou! Besides, did I not with my own eyes see a black cormorant fly inland from the sea? And, by Sainte-Eline of Paradise! the gulls squeal when there's no storm brewing and the lancons prick the dark with flames along the coast till you'd swear the witches of Ker-Is were lighting death-candles from Paradise to Pont-Aven."

"Do you believe in witches, monsieur the mayor?" I asked, gravely.

He gave me a shrewd glance. "Not at all--not even in bed and the light out," he said, with a fat swagger. "_I believe in magic? Ho! foi non! But many do. Oui dame! Many do."

"Here in Paradise?"

"Parbleu! Men of parts, too, monsieur. Now there's Terrec, who has the evil eye--not that I believe it, but, damn him, he'd better not try any tricks on me!

"Others stick twigs of aubepine in their pastures; the apothecary is a man of science, yet every year he makes a bonfire of dried gorse and drives his cattle through the smoke. It may keep off witches and lightning--or it may not. I myself do not do such things."

"Still you believe the cruiser out at sea yonder is going to bring you evil?"

"She has brought it. But it's all the same to me. I am mayor, and exempt, and I have cider and tobacco and boudin for a few months yet."

He caressed his little, selfish chin, which hung between his mottled jowls, peered cunningly at me, and opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment we both caught sight of a peasant running and waving a packet of blue papers in the air. "Monsieur the mayor! Monsieur the mayor!" he called, while still far away.

"Cre cochon de malheur!" muttered the mayor, turning pale. "He's got a telegram!"

The man came clattering across the square in his wooden shoes.

"A telegram," repeated the mayor, wiping the sudden sweat from his forehead. "I never get telegrams. I don't want telegrams!"

He turned to me, almost bursting with suppressed prophecy.

"It has come--the evil that the black cruiser brings us! You laughed! Tenez, monsieur; there's your bad luck in these blue morsels of paper!"

And he snatched the telegram from the breathless messenger, reading it with dilating eyes.

For a long while he sat there studying the telegram, his fat forefinger following the scrawl, a crease deepening above his eyebrows, and all the while his lips moved in noiseless repetition of the words he spelled with difficulty and his labored breathing grew louder.

When at length the magistrate had mastered the contents of his telegram, he looked up with a stupid stare.

"I want my drummer. Where's the town-crier?" he demanded, as though dazed.

"He has gone to Lorient, m'sieu the mayor," ventured the messenger.

"To get drunk. I remember. Imbecile! Why did he go to-day? Are there not six other days in this cursed week? Who is there to drum? Nobody. Nobody knows how in Paradise. Seigneur, Dieu! the ignorance of this town!"

"M'sieu the mayor," ventured the messenger, "there's Jacqueline."

"Ho! Vrai. The Lizard's young one! She can drum, they say. She stole my drum once. Why did she steal it but to drum upon it?"

"The little witch can drum them awake in Ker-Is," muttered the messenger.

The mayor rose, looked around the square, frowned. Then he raised his voice in a bellow: "Jacqueline! Jacqueline! _Thou Jacqueline!"

A far voice answered, faintly breaking across the square from the bridge: "She is on the rocks with her sea-rake!"

The mayor thrust the blue telegram into his pocket and waddled out of his garden, across the square, and up the path to the cliffs.

Uninvited, I went with him.

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