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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 1 - Chapter 1. At The Telegraph
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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 1 - Chapter 1. At The Telegraph Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3509

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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 1 - Chapter 1. At The Telegraph


On the third day of August, 1870, I left Paris in search of John Buckhurst.

On the 4th of August I lost all traces of Mr. Buckhurst near the frontier, in the village of Morsbronn. The remainder of the day I spent in acquiring that "general information" so dear to the officials in Paris whose flimsy systems of intelligence had already begun to break down.

On August 5th, about eight o'clock in the morning, the military telegraph instrument in the operator's room over the temporary barracks of the Third Hussars clicked out the call for urgency, not the usual military signal, but a secret sequence understood only by certain officers of the Imperial Military Police. The operator on duty therefore stepped into my room and waited while I took his place at the wire.

I had been using the code-book that morning, preparing despatches for Paris, and now, at the first series of significant clicks, I dropped my left middle finger on the key and repeated the signal to Paris, using the required variations. Then I rose, locked the door, and returned to the table.

"Who is this?" came over the wire in the secret code; and I answered at once: "Inspector of Foreign Division, Imperial Military Police, on duty at Morsbronn, Alsace."

After considerable delay the next message arrived in the Morse code: "Is that you, Scarlett?"

And I replied: "Yes. Who are you? Why do you not use the code? Repeat the code signal and your number."

The signal was repeated, then came the message: "This is the Tuileries. You have my authority to use the Morse code for the sake of brevity. Do you understand? I am Jarras. The Empress is here." Instantly reassured by the message from Colonel Jarras, head of the bureau to which I was attached, I answered that I understood. Then the telegrams began to fly, all in the Morse code:

_Jarras. "Have you caught Buckhurst?"

_I. "No."

_Jarras. "How did he get away?"

_I. "There's confusion enough on the frontier to cover the escape of a hundred thieves."

_Jarras. "Your reply alarms the Empress. State briefly the present position of the First Corps."

_I. "The First Corps still occupies the heights in a straight line about seven kilometres long; the plateau is covered with vineyards. Two small rivers are in front of us; the Vosges are behind us; the right flank pivots on Morsbronn, the left on Neehwiller; the centre covers Woerth. We have had forty-eight hours' heavy rain."

_Jarras. "Where are the Germans?"

_I. "Precise information not obtainable at headquarters of the First Corps."

_Jarras. "Does the Marshal not know where the Germans are?"

_I. "Marshal MacMahon does not know definitely."

_Jarras. "Does the Marshal not employ his cavalry? Where are they?"

_I. "Septeuil's cavalry of the second division lie between Elsasshausen and the Grosserwald; Michel's brigade of heavy cavalry camps at Eberbach; the second division of cavalry of the reserve, General Vicomte de Bonnemain, should arrive to-night and go into bivouac between Reichshofen and the Grosserwald."

There was a long pause; I lighted a cigar and waited. After a while the instrument began again:

_Jarras. "The Empress desires to know where the chateau called La Trappe is."

_I. "La Trappe is about four kilometres from Morsbronn, near the hamlet of Trois-Feuilles."

_Jarras. "It is understood that Madame de Vassart's group of socialists are about to leave La Trappe for Paradise, in Morbihan. It is possible that Buckhurst has taken refuge among them. Therefore you will proceed to La Trappe. Do you understand?"

_I. "Perfectly."

_Jarras. "If Buckhurst is found you will bring him to Paris at once. Shoot him if he resists arrest. If the community at La Trappe has not been warned of a possible visit from us, you will find and arrest the following individuals:

"Claude Tavernier, late professor of law, Paris School of Law;

"Achille Bazard, ex-instructor in mathematics, Fontainebleau Artillery School;

"Dr. Leo Delmont, ex-interne, Charity Hospital, Paris;

"Mlle. Sylvia Elven, lately of the Odeon;

"The Countess de Vassart, well known for her eccentricities.

"You will affix the government seals to the house as usual; you will then escort the people named to the nearest point on the Belgian frontier. The Countess de Vassart usually dresses like a common peasant. Look out that she does not slip through your fingers. Repeat your instructions." I repeated them from my memoranda.

There was a pause, then click! click! the instrument gave the code signal that the matter was ended, and I repeated the signal, opened my code-book, and began to translate the instructions into cipher for safety's sake.

When I had finished and had carefully destroyed my first pencilled memoranda, the steady bumping of artillery passing through the street under the windows drew my attention.

It proved to be the expected batteries of the reserve going into park, between the two brigades of Raoult's division of infantry. I telegraphed the news to the observatory on the Col du Pigeonnier, then walked back to the window and looked out.

It had begun to rain again; down the solitary street of Morsbronn the artillery rolled, jolting; cannoneers, wrapped in their wet, gray overcoats, limbers, caissons, and horses plastered with mud. The slim cannon, with canvas-wrapped breeches uptilted, dripped from their depressed muzzles, like lank monsters slavering and discouraged.

A battery of Montigny mitrailleuses passed, grotesque, hump-backed little engines of destruction. To me there was always something repulsive in the shape of these stunted cannon, these malicious metal cripples with their heavy bodies and sinister, filthy mouths.

Before the drenched artillery had rattled out of Morsbronn the rain once more fell in floods, pouring a perpendicular torrent from the transparent, gray heavens, and the roar of the downpour on slate roofs and ancient gables drowned the pounding of the passing cannon.

Where the Vosges mountains towered in obscurity a curtain of rain joined earth and sky. The rivers ran yellow, brimful, foaming at the fords. The semaphore on the mountain of the Pigeonnier was not visible; but across the bridge, where the Gunstett highway spanned the Sauer, gray masses of the Niederwald loomed through the rain.

Somewhere in that spectral forest Prussian cavalry were hidden, watching the heights where our drenched divisions lay. Behind that forest a German army was massing, fresh from the combat in the north, where the tragedy of Wissembourg had been enacted only the day before, in the presence of the entire French army--the awful spectacle of a single division of seven thousand men suddenly enveloped and crushed by seventy thousand Germans.

The rain fell steadily but less heavily. I went back to my instrument and called up the station on the Col du Pigeonnier, asking for information, but got no reply, the storm doubtless interfering.

Officers of the Third Hussars were continually tramping up and down the muddy stairway, laughing, joking, swearing at the rain, or shouting for their horses, when the trumpets sounded in the street below.

I watched the departing squadron, splashing away down the street, which was now running water like a river; then I changed my civilian clothes for a hussar uniform, sent a trooper to find me a horse, and sat down by the window to stare at the downpour and think how best I might carry out my instructions to a successful finish.

The colony at La Trappe was, as far as I could judge, a product of conditions which had, a hundred years before, culminated in the French Revolution. Now, in 1870, but under different circumstances, all France was once more disintegrating socially. Opposition to the Empire, to the dynasty, to the government, had been seething for years; now the separate crystals which formed on the edges of the boiling under-currents began to grow into masses which, adhering to other masses, interfered with the healthy functions of national life.

Until recently, however, while among the dissatisfied there existed a certain tendency towards cohesion, and while, moreover, adhesive forces mutually impelled separate groups of malcontents to closer union, the government found nothing alarming in the menaces of individuals or of isolated groups. The Emperor always counted on such opposition in Paris; the palace of the Tuileries was practically a besieged place, menaced always by the faubourgs--a castle before which lay eternally the sullen, unorganized multitude over which the municipal police kept watch.

That opposition, hatred, and treason existed never worried the government, but that this opposition should remain unorganized occupied the authorities constantly.

Groups of individuals who proclaimed themselves devotees of social theories interested us only when the groups grew large or exhibited tendencies to unite with similar groups.

Clubs formed to discuss social questions were usually watched by the police; violent organizations were not observed very closely, but clubs founded upon moderate principles were always closely surveyed.

In the faubourgs, where every street had its bawling orator, and where the red flag was waved when the community had become sufficiently drunk, the government was quietly content to ignore proceedings, wisely understanding that the mouths of street orators were the safety-valves of the faubourgs, and that through them the ebullitions of the under-world escaped with nothing more serious than a few vinous shrieks. There were, however, certain secret and semi-secret organizations which caused the government concern. First among these came the International Society of Workingmen, with all its affiliations--the "Internationale," as it was called. In its wake trailed minor societies, some mild and harmless, some dangerous and secret, some violent, advocating openly the destruction of all existing conditions. Small groups of anarchists had already attracted groups of moderate socialistic tendencies to them, and had absorbed them or tainted them with doctrines dangerous to the state.

In time these groups began to adhere even more closely to the large bodies of the people; a party was born, small at first, embodying conflicting communistic principles.

The government watched it. Presently it split, as do all parties; yet here the paradox was revealed of a small party splitting into two larger halves. To one of these halves adhered the Red Republicans, the government opposition of the Extreme Left, the Opportunists, the Anarchists, certain Socialists, the so-called Communards, and finally the vast mass of the sullen, teeming faubourgs. It became a party closely affiliated with the Internationale, a colossal, restless, unorganized menace, harmless only because unorganized.

And the police were expected to keep it harmless. The other remaining half of the original party began to dwindle almost immediately, until it became only a group. _With one exception_, all those whom the police and the government regarded as inclined to violence left the group. There remained, _with this one exception_, a nucleus of earnest, thoughtful people whose creed was in part the creed of the Internationale, the creed of universal brotherhood, equality before the law, purity of individual living as an example and an incentive to a national purity.

To this inoffensive group came one day a young widow, the Countess de Vassart, placing at their disposal her great wealth, asking only to be received among them as a comrade.

Her history, as known to the police, was peculiar and rather sad: at sixteen she had been betrothed to an elderly, bull-necked colonel of cavalry, the notorious Count de Vassart, who needed what money she might bring him to maintain his reputation as the most brilliantly dissolute old rake in Paris.

At sixteen, Eline de Trecourt was a thin, red-haired girl, with rather large, grayish eyes. Speed and I saw her once, sitting in her carriage before the Ministry of War a year after her marriage. There had been bad news from Mexico, and there were many handsome equipages standing at the gates of the war office, where lists of killed and wounded were posted every day.

I noticed her particularly because of her reputed wealth and the evil reputation of her husband, who, it was said, was so open in his contempt for her that the very afternoon of their marriage he was seen publicly driving on the Champs-Elysees with a pretty and popular actress of the Odeon.

As I passed, glancing up at her, the sadness of her face impressed me, and I remember wondering how much the death of her husband had to do with it--for his name had appeared in the evening papers under the heading, "Killed in Action."

It was several years later before the police began to take an interest in the Comtesse Eline de Vassart. She had withdrawn entirely from society, had founded a non-sectarian free school in Passy, was interested in certain charities and refuges for young working-girls, when on a visit to England, she met Karl Marx, then a fugitive and under sentence of death.

From that moment social questions occupied her, and her doings interested the police, especially when she returned to Paris and took her place once more in Royalist circles, where every baby was bred from the cradle to renounce the Tuileries, the Emperor, and all his works.

Serious, tender-hearted, charitable, and intensely interested in all social reforms, she shocked the conservative society of the noble faubourg, aroused the distrust of the government, offended the Tuileries, and finally committed the mistake of receiving at her own house that notorious group of malcontents headed by Henri Rochefort, whose revolutionary newspaper, _La Marseillaise_, doubtless needed pecuniary support.

Her dossier--for, alas! the young girl already had a dossier--was interesting, particularly in its summing-up of her personal character:

"To the naive ignorance of a convent pensionnaire, she adds an innocence of mind, a purity of conduct, and a credulity which render her an easy prey to the adroit, who play upon her sympathies. She is dangerous only as a source of revenue for dangerous men."

It was from her salon that young Victor Noir went to his death at Auteuil on the 10th of January; and possibly the shock of the murder and the almost universal conviction that justice under the Empire was hopeless drove the young Countess to seek a refuge in the country where, at her house of La Trappe, she could quietly devote her life to helping the desperately wretched, and where she could, in security, hold council with those who also had chosen to give their lives to the noblest of all works--charity and the propaganda of universal brotherhood.

And here, at La Trappe, the young aristocrat first donned the robe of democracy, dedicated her life and fortune to the cause, and worked with her own delicate hands for every morsel of bread that passed her lips.

Now this was all very well while it lasted, for her father, the choleric old Comte de Trecourt, had died rich, and the young girl's charities were doubled, and there was nobody to stay her hand or draw the generous purse-strings; nobody to advise her or to stop her. On the contrary, there were plenty of people standing around with outstretched, itching, and sometimes dirty hands, ready to snatch at the last centime.

Who was there to administer her affairs, who among the generous, impetuous, ill-balanced friends that surrounded her? Not the noble-minded geographer, Elisee Reclus; not the fiery citizen-count, Rochefort; not the handsome, cultivated Gustave Flourens, already "fey" with the doom to which he had been born; not that kindly visionary, the Vicomte de Coursay-Delmont, now discarding his ancient title to be known only among his grateful, penniless patients as Doctor Delmont; and surely not Professor Tavernier, nor yet that militant hermit, the young Chevalier de Gray, calling himself plain Monsieur Bazard, who chose democracy instead of the brilliant career to which Grammont had destined him, and whose sensitive and perhaps diseased mind had never recovered from the shock of the murder of his comrade, Victor Noir.

But the simple life at La Trappe, the negative protest against the Empire and all existing social conditions, the purity of motive, the serene and inspired self-abnegation, could not save the colony at La Trappe nor the young chatelaine from the claws of those who prey upon the innocence of the generous.

And so came to this ideal community one John Buckhurst, a stranger, quiet, suave, deadly pale, a finely moulded man, with delicately fashioned hands and feet, and two eyes so colorless that in some lights they appeared to be almost sightless.

In a month from that time he was the power that moved that community even in its most insignificant machinery. With marvellous skill he constructed out of that simple republic of protestants an absolute despotism. And he was the despot.

The avowed object of the society was the advancement of universal brotherhood, of liberty and equality, the annihilation of those arbitrary barriers called national frontiers--in short, a society for the encouragement of the millennium, which, however, appeared to be coy.

And before the eyes of his brother dreamers John Buckhurst quietly cancelled the entire programme at one stroke, and nobody understood that it was cancelled when, in a community founded upon equality and fraternity, he raised another edifice to crown it, a sort of working model as an example to the world, but _limited_. And down went democracy without a sound.

This working model was a superior community which was established at the Breton home of the Countess de Vassart, a large stone house in the hamlet of Paradise, in Morbihan.

An intimation from the Tuileries interrupted a meeting of the council at the house in Paradise; an arrest was threatened--that of Professor Reclus--and the indignant young Countess was requested to retire to her chateau of La Trappe. She obeyed, but invited her guests to accompany her. Among those who accepted was Buckhurst.

About this time the government began to take a serious interest in John Buckhurst. On the secret staff of the Imperial Military Police were always certain foreigners--among others, myself and a young man named James Speed; and Colonel Jarras had already decided to employ us in watching Buckhurst, when war came on France like a bolt from the blue, giving the men of the Secret Service all they could attend to.

In the shameful indecision and confusion attending the first few days after the declaration of war against Prussia, Buckhurst slipped through our fingers, and I, for one, did not expect to hear of him again. But I did not begin to know John Buckhurst, for, within three days after he had avoided an encounter with us, Buckhurst was believed to have committed one of the most celebrated crimes of the century.

The secret history of that unhappy war will never be fully written. Prince Bismarck has let the only remaining cat out of the bag; the other cats are dead. Nor will all the strange secrets of the Tuileries ever be brought to light, fortunately.

Still, at this time, there is no reason why it should not be generally known that the crown jewels of France were menaced from the very first by a conspiracy so alarming and apparently so irresistible that the Emperor himself believed, even in the beginning of the fatal campaign, that it might be necessary to send the crown jewels of France to the Bank of England for safety.

On the 19th of July, the day that war was declared, certain of the crown jewels, kept temporarily at the palace of the Tuileries, were sent under heavy guards to the Bank of France. Every precaution was taken; yet the great diamond crucifix of Louis XI. was missing when the guard under Captain Siebert turned over the treasures to the governor of the Bank of France.

Instantly absolute secrecy was ordered, which I, for one, believed to be a great mistake. Yet the Emperor desired it, doubtless for the same reasons which always led him to suppress any affair which might give the public an idea that the opposition to the government was worthy of the government's attention.

So the news of the robbery never became public property, but from one end of France to the other the gendarmerie, the police, local, municipal, and secret, were stirred up to activity.

Within forty-eight hours, an individual answering Buckhurst's description had sold a single enormous diamond for two hundred and fifty thousand francs to a dealer in Strasbourg, a Jew named Fishel Cohen, who, counting on the excitement produced by the war and the topsy-turvy condition of the city, supposed that such a transaction would create no interest.

Mr. Cohen was wrong; an hour after he had recorded the transaction at the Strasbourg Diamond Exchange he and the diamond were on their way to Paris, in charge of a detective. A few hours later the stone was identified at the Tuileries as having been taken from the famous crucifix of Louis XI.

From Fishel Cohen's agonized description of the man who had sold him the diamond, Colonel Jarras believed he recognized John Buckhurst. But how on earth Buckhurst had obtained access to the jewels, or how he had managed to spirit away the cross from the very centre of the Tuileries, could only be explained through the theory of accomplices among the trusted intimates of the imperial entourage. And if there existed such a conspiracy, who was involved?

It is violating no secret now to admit that every soul in the Tuileries, from highest to lowest, was watched. Even the governor of the Bank of France did not escape the attentions of the secret police. For it was certain that somebody in the imperial confidence had betrayed that confidence in a shocking manner, and nobody could know how far the conspiracy had spread, or who was involved in the most daring and shameless robbery that had been perpetrated in France since Cardinal de Rohan and his gang stole the celebrated necklace of Marie Antoinette.

Nor was it at all certain that the remaining jewels of the French crown were safe in Paris. The precautions taken to insure their safety, and the result of those precautions, are matters of history, but nobody outside of a small, strangely assorted company of people could know what actually happened to the crown jewels of France in 1870, or what pieces, if any, are still missing.

My chase after Buckhurst began as soon as Colonel Jarras could summon me; and as Buckhurst had last been heard of in Strasbourg, I went after him on a train loaded with red-legged, uproarious soldiers, who sang all day:

"Have you seen Bismarck
Drinking in the gay cafe,
With that other brother spark--
Monsieur Badinguet?"

and had drunk themselves into a shameful frenzy long before the train thundered into Avricourt.

I tracked Buckhurst to Morsbronn, where I lost all traces of him; and now here I was with my orders concerning the unfortunate people at La Trappe, staring out at the dismal weather and wondering where my wild-goose chase would end.

I went to the door and called for the military telegraph operator, whose instrument I had been permitted to monopolize. He came, a pleasant, jaunty young fellow, munching a crust of dry bread and brushing the crumbs from his scarlet trousers.

"In case I want to communicate with you I'll signal the tower on the Col du Pigeonnier," I said. "Come up to the loft overhead."

The loft in the house which had now been turned into a cavalry barracks was just above my room, a large attic under the dripping gables, black with the stains of centuries, littered with broken furniture, discarded clothing, and the odds and ends cherished by the thrifty Alsatian peasant, who never throws away anything from the day of his birth to the day of his death. And, given a long line of forefathers equally thrifty, and an ancient high-gabled house where his ancestors first began collecting discarded refuse, the attic of necessity was a marvel of litter and decay, among which generations of pigeons had built nests and raised countless broods of squealing squabs.

Into this attic we climbed, edged our way toward a high window out of which the leaded panes had long since tumbled earthward, and finally stood together, looking out over the mountains of the Alsatian frontier.

The rain had ceased; behind the Col du Pigeonnier sunshine fell through a rift in the watery clouds. It touched the rushing river, shining on foaming fords where our cavalry pickets were riding in the valley mist.

Somewhere up in the vineyards behind us an infantry band was playing; away among the wet hills to the left the strumming vibrations of wet drums marked the arrival of a regiment from goodness knows where; and presently we saw them, their gray overcoats and red trousers soaked almost black with rain, rifles en bandouliere, trudging patiently up the muddy slope above the town. Something in the plodding steps of those wet little soldiers touched me. Bravely their soaked drums battered away, bravely they dragged their clumsy feet after them, brightly and gayly the breaking sun touched their crimson forage-caps and bayonets and the swords of mounted officers; but to me they were only a pathetic troop of perplexed peasants, dragged out of the bosom of France to be huddled and herded in a strange pasture, where death watched them from the forest yonder, marking them for slaughter with near-sighted Teutonic eyes.

A column of white cloud suddenly capped the rocks on the vineyard above. Bang! and something came whistling with a curious, bird-like cry over the village of Morsbronn, flying far out across the valley: and among the pines of the Prussian forest a point of flame flashed, a distant explosion echoed.

Down in the street below us an old man came tottering from his little shop, peering sideways up into the sky.

"Il pleut, berger," called out the operator beside me, in a bantering voice.

"It will rain--bullets," said the old man, simply, and returned to his shop to drag out a chair on the doorsill and sit and listen to the shots which our cavalry outposts were exchanging with the Prussian scouts.

"Poor old chap," said the operator; "it will be hard for him. He was with the Grand Emperor at Jena."

"You speak as though our army was already on the run," I said.

"Yes," he replied, indifferently, "we'll soon be on the run."

After a moment I said: "I'm going to ride to La Trappe. I wish you would send those messages to Paris."

"All right," he said.

Half an hour later I rode out of Morsbronn, clad in the uniform of the Third Hussars, a disguise supposed to convey the idea to those at La Trappe that the army and not the police were responsible for their expulsion.

The warm August sunshine slanted in my face as I galloped away up the vineyard road and out on to the long plateau where, on every hillock, a hussar picket sat his wiry horse, carbine poised, gazing steadily toward the east.

Over the sombre Prussian forests mist hung; away to the north the sun glittered on the steel helmets and armor of the heavy cavalry, just arriving. And on the Col du Pigeonnier I saw tiny specks move, flags signalling the arrival of the Vicomte de Bonnemain with the "grosse cavalerie," the splendid cuirassier regiments destined in a few hours to join the cuirassiers of Waterloo, riding into that bright Valhalla where all good soldiers shall hear the last trumpet call, "Dismount!"

With a lingering glance at the rivers which separated us from German soil, I turned my horse and galloped away into the hills.

A moist, fern-bordered wood road attracted me; I reasoned that it must lead, by a short cut, across the hills to the military highway which passed between Trois-Feuilles and La Trappe. So I took it, and presently came into four cross-roads unknown to me.

This grassy carrefour was occupied by a flock of turkeys, busily engaged in catching grasshoppers; their keeper, a prettily shaped peasant girl, looked up at me as I drew bridle, then quietly resumed the book she had been reading.

"My child," said I, "if you are as intelligent as you are beautiful, you will not be tending other people's turkeys this time next year."

"Merci, beau sabreur!" said the turkey-girl, raising her blue eyes. Then the lashes veiled them; she bent her head a little, turning it so that the curve of her cheeks gave to her profile that delicate contour which is so suggestive of innocence when the ears are small and the neck white.

"My child," said I, "will you kindly direct me, with appropriate gestures, to the military highway which passes the Chateau de la Trappe?"

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