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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 1 - Chapter 2. The Government Interferes
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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 1 - Chapter 2. The Government Interferes Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1749

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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 1 - Chapter 2. The Government Interferes


"There is a short cut across that meadow," said the young girl, raising a rounded, sun-tinted arm, bare to the shoulder.

"You are very kind," said I, looking at her steadily.

"And, after that, you will come to a thicket of white birches."

"Thank you, mademoiselle."

"And after that," she said, idly following with her blue eyes the contour of her own lovely arm, "you must turn to the left, and there you will cross a hill. You can see it from where we stand--"

She glanced at me over her outstretched arm. "You are not listening," she said.

I shifted a troubled gaze to the meadow which stretched out all glittering with moist grasses and tufts of rain-drenched wild flowers.

The girl's arm slowly fell to her side, she looked up at me again, I felt her eyes on me for a moment, then she turned her head toward the meadow.

A deadened report shook the summer air--the sound of a cannon fired very far away, perhaps on the citadel of Strasbourg. It was so distant, so indistinct, that here in this peaceful country it lingered only as a vibration; the humming of the clover bees was louder.

Without turning my head I said: "It is difficult to believe that there is war anywhere in the world--is it not, mademoiselle?"

"Not if one knows the world," she said, indifferently.

"Do you know it, my child?"

"Sufficiently," she said.

She had opened again the book which she had been reading when I first noticed her. From my saddle I saw that it was Moliere. I examined her, in detail, from the tips of her small wooden shoes to the scarlet velvet-banded skirt, then slowly upward, noting the laced bodice of velvet, the bright hair under the butterfly coiffe of Alsace, the delicate outline of nose and brow and throat. The ensemble was theatrical.

"Why do you tend turkeys?" I asked.

"Because it pleases me," she replied, raising her eyebrows in faint displeasure.

"For that same reason you read Monsieur Moliere?" I suggested.

"Doubtless, monsieur."

"Who are you?"

"Is a passport required in France?" she replied, languidly.

"Are you what you pretend to be, an Alsatian turkey tender?"

"Parbleu! There are my turkeys, monsieur."

"Of course, and there is your peasant dress and there are your wooden shoes, and there also, mademoiselle, are your soft hands and your accented speech and your plays of Moliere."

"You are very wise for a hussar," she said.

"Perhaps," said I, "but I have asked you a question which remains parried."

She balanced the hazel rod across her shoulders with a faintly malicious smile.

"One might almost believe that you are not a hussar, but an officer of the Imperial Police," she said.

"If you think that," said I, "you should answer my question the sooner--unless you come from La Trappe. Do you?"


"Oh! And what do you do at the Chateau de la Trappe?"

"I tend poultry--sometimes," she replied.

"And at other times?"

"I do other things, monsieur."

"What things?"

"What things? Mon Dieu, I read a little, as you perceive, monsieur."

"Who are you?" I demanded.

"Oh, a mere nobody in such learned company," she said, shaking her head with a mock humility that annoyed me intensely.

"Very well," said I, conscious every moment of her pleasure in my discomfiture; "under the circumstances I am going to ask you to accept my escort to La Trappe; for I think you are Mademoiselle Elven, recently of the Odeon theatre."

At this her eyes widened and the smile on her face became less genuine. "Indeed, I shall not go with you," she said.

"I'm afraid I'll have to insist," said I.

She still balanced her hazel rod across her shoulders, a smile curving her mouth.

"Monsieur," she said, "do you ride through the world pressing every peasant girl you meet with such ardent entreaties? Truly, your fashion of wooing is not slow, but everybody knows that hussars are headlong gentlemen--'Nothing is sacred from a hussar,'" she hummed, deliberately, in a parody which made me writhe in my saddle.

"Mademoiselle," said I, taking off my forage-cap, "your ridicule is not the most disagreeable incident that I expect to meet with to-day. I am attempting to do my duty, and I must ask you to do yours."

"By taking a walk with you, beau monsieur?"

"I'm afraid so."

"And if I refuse?"

"Then," said I, amiably, "I shall be obliged to set you on my horse." And I dismounted and went toward her.

"Set me on--on that horse?" she repeated, with a disturbed smile.

"Will you come on foot, then?"

"No, I will not!" she said, with a click of her teeth.

I looked at my watch--it lacked five minutes to one.

"In five minutes we are going to start," said I, cheerfully, and stood waiting, twisting the gilt hilt-tassels of my sabre with nervous fingers.

After a silence she said, very seriously, "Monsieur, would you dare use violence toward me?"

"Oh, I shall not be very violent," I replied, laughing. I held the opened watch in my hand so that she could see the dial if she chose.

"It is one o'clock," I said, closing the hunting-case with a snap.

She looked me steadily in the eyes.

"Will you come with me to La Trappe?"

She did not stir.

I stepped toward her; she gave me a breathless, defiant stare; then in an instant I caught her up and swung her high into my saddle, before either she or I knew exactly what had happened.

Fury flashed up in her eyes and was gone, leaving them almost blank blue. As for me, amazed at what I had done, I stood at her stirrup, breathing very fast, with jaws set and chin squared.

She was clever enough not to try to dismount, woman enough not to make an awkward struggle or do anything ungraceful. In her face I read an immense astonishment; fascination seemed to rivet her eyes on me, following my every movement as I shortened one stirrup for her, tightened the girths, and laid the bridle in her half-opened hand.

Then, in silence, I led the horse forward through the open gate out into the wet meadow.

Wading knee-deep through soaking foliage, I piloted my horse with its mute burden across the fields; and, after a few minutes a violent desire to laugh seized me and persisted, but I bit my lip and called up a few remaining sentiments of decency.

As for my turkey-girl, she sat stiffly in the saddle, with a firmness and determination that proved her to be a stranger to horses. I scarcely dared look at her, so fearful was I of laughing.

As we emerged from the meadow I heard the cannon sounding again at a great distance, and this perhaps sobered me, for presently all desire of laughter left me, and I turned into the road which led through the birch thicket, anxious to accomplish my mission and have done with it as soon as might be.

"Are we near La Trappe?" I asked, respectfully.

Had she pouted, or sulked, or burst into reproaches, I should have cared little--in fact, an outburst might have relieved me.

But she answered me so sweetly, and, too, with such composure, that my heart smote me for what I had done to her and what I was still to do.

"Would you rather walk?" I asked, looking up at her.

"No, thank you," she said, serenely.

So we went on. The spectacle of a cavalryman in full uniform leading a cavalry horse on which was seated an Alsatian girl in bright peasant costume appeared to astonish the few people we passed. One of these foot-farers, a priest who was travelling in our direction, raised his pallid visage to meet my eyes. Then he stole a glance at the girl in the saddle, and I saw a tint of faded color settle under his transparent skin.

The turkey-girl saluted the priest with a bright smile.

"Fortune of war, father," she said, gayly. "Behold! Alsace in chains."

"Is she a prisoner?" said the priest, turning directly on me. Of all the masks called faces, never had I set eyes on such a deathly one, nor on such pale eyes, all silvery surface without depth enough for a spark of light to make them seem alive.

"What do you mean by a prisoner, father?" I asked.

"I mean a prisoner," he said, doggedly.

"When the church cross-examines the government, the towers of Notre Dame shake," I said, pleasantly. "I mean no discourtesy, father; it is a proverb in Paris."

"There is another proverb," observed the turkey-girl, placidly. "Once a little inhabitant of hell stole the key to paradise. His punishment was dreadful. They locked him in."

I looked up at her, perplexed and irritated, conscious that she was ridiculing me, but unable to comprehend just how. And my irritation increased when the priest said, calmly, "Can I aid you, my child?"

She shook her head with a cool smile.

"I am quite safe under the escort of an officer of the Imperial--"

"Wait!" I said, hastily, but she continued, "of the Imperial Military Police."

Above all things I had not wanted it known that the Imperial Police were moving in this affair at La Trappe, and now this little fool had babbled to a strange priest--of all people in the world!

"What have the police to do with this harmless child?" demanded the priest, turning on me so suddenly that I involuntarily took a step backward.

"Is this the confessional, father?" I replied, sharply. "Go your way in peace, and leave to the police what alone concerns the police."

"Render unto Caesar," said the girl, quietly. "Good-bye, father."

Turning to look again at the priest, I was amazed to find him close to me, too close for a man with such eyes in his head, for a man who moved so swiftly and softly, and, in spite of me, a nervous movement of my hand left me with my fingers on the butt of my pistol.

"What the devil is all this?" I blurted out. "Stand aside, father. Do you think the Holy Inquisition is back in France? Stand aside then! I salute your cloth!"

And I passed on ahead, one hand on the horse's neck, the other touching the visor of my scarlet forage-cap. Once I looked back. The priest was standing where I had passed him.

We met a dozen people in all, I think, some of them peasants, one or two of the better class--a country doctor and a notary among them. None appeared to know my turkey-girl, nor did she even glance at them; moreover, all answered my inquiries civilly enough, directing me to La Trappe, and professing ignorance as to its inhabitants.

"Why do all the people I meet carry bundles?" I demanded of the notary.

"Mon Dieu, monsieur, they are too near the frontier to take risks," he replied, blinking through his silver-rimmed spectacles at my turkey-girl.

"You mean to say they are running away from their village of Trois-Feuilles?" I asked.

"Exactly," he said. "War is a rude guest for poor folk."

Disgusted with the cowardice of the hamlet of Trois-Feuilles, I passed on without noticing the man's sneer. In a moment, however, he repassed me swiftly, going in the same direction as were we, toward La Trappe.

"Wait a bit!" I called out. "What is your business in that direction, monsieur the notary?"

He looked around, muttered indistinctly about having forgotten something, and started on ahead of us, but at a sharp "Stop!" from me he halted quickly enough.

"Your road lies the other way," I observed, and, as he began to protest, I cut him short.

"You change your direction too quickly to suit me," I said. "Come, my friend the weather-cock, turn your nose east and follow it or I may ask you some questions that might frighten you."

And so I left him also staring after us, and I had half a mind to go back and examine his portfolio to see what a snipe-faced notary might be carrying about with him.

When I looked up at my turkey-girl, she was sitting more easily in the saddle, head bent thoughtfully.

"You see, mademoiselle, I take no chances of not finding my friends at home," I said.

"What friends, monsieur?"

"My friends at La Trappe."

"Oh! And ... you think that the notary we passed might have desired to prepare them for your visit, monsieur?"

"Possibly. The notary of Trois-Feuilles and the Chateau de la Trappe may not be unknown to each other. Perhaps even mademoiselle the turkey-girl may number the learned Trappists among her friends."

"Perhaps," she said.

Walking on along the muddy road beside her, arm resting on my horse's neck, I thought over again of the chances of catching Buckhurst, and they seemed slim, especially as after my visit the house at La Trappe would be vacant and the colony scattered, or at least out of French jurisdiction, and probably settled across the Belgian frontier.

Of course, if the government ordered the expulsion of these people, the people must go; but I for one found the order a foolish one, because it removed a bait that might attract Buckhurst back where we stood a chance of trapping him.

But in a foreign country he could visit his friends freely, and whatever movement he might ultimately contemplate against the French government could easily be directed from that paradise of anarchists, Belgium, without the necessity of his exposing himself to any considerable danger.

I was sorry that affairs had taken this turn.

A little breeze began blowing; the scarlet skirt of my turkey-girl fluttered above her wooden shoes, and on her head the silk bow quivered like a butterfly on a golden blossom.

"They say when the Lord fashioned the first maid of Alsace half the angels cried themselves ill with jealousy," said I, looking up at her.

"And the other half, monsieur?"

"The sterner half started for Alsace in a body. They were controlled with difficulty, mademoiselle. That is why St. Peter was given a key to lock them in, not to lock us poor devils out."

After a silence she said, musing: "It is a curious thing, but you speak as though you had seen better days."

"No," I said, "I have never seen better days. I am slowly rising in the world. Last year I was a lieutenant; I am now inspector."

"I meant," she said, scornfully, "that you had been well-born--a gentleman."

"Are gentlemen scarce in the Imperial Military Police?"

"It is not a profession that honors a man."

"Of all people in the world," said I, "the police would be the most gratified to believe that this violent world needs no police."

"Monsieur, there is another remedy for violence."

"And what may that remedy be, mademoiselle?"

"Non-resistance--absolute non-resistance," said the girl, earnestly, bending her pretty head toward me.

"That is not human nature," I said, laughing.

"Is the justification of human nature our aim in this world?"

"Nor is it possible for mankind to submit to violence," I added.

"I believe otherwise," she said, gravely.

As we mounted the hill along a sandy road, bordered with pines and with cool, green thickets of broom and gorse, I looked up at her and said: "In spite of your theories, mademoiselle, you yourself refused to accompany me."

"But I did not resist your violence," she replied, smiling.

After a moment's silence I said: "For a disciple of a stern and colorless creed, you are very human. I am sorry that you believe it necessary to reform the world."

She said, thoughtfully: "There is nothing joyless in my creed--above all, nothing stern. If it be fanaticism to desire for all the world that liberty of thought and speech and deed which I, for one, have assumed, then I am, perhaps, a fanatic. If it be fanaticism to detest violence and to deplore all resistance to violence, I am a very guilty woman, monsieur, and deserve ill of the Emperor's Military Police."

This she said with that faintly ironical smile hovering sometimes in her eyes, sometimes on her lips, so that it was hard to face her and feel quite comfortable.

I began, finally, an elaborate and logical argument, forgetting that women reason only with their hearts, and she listened courteously. To meet her eyes when I was speaking interrupted my train of thought, and often I was constrained to look out across the hills at the heavy, solid flanks of the mountains, which seemed to steady my logic and bring rebellious thought and wandering wisdom to obedience.

I explained my theory of the acceptance of three things--human nature, the past, and the present. Given these, the solution of future problems must be a different solution from that which she proposed.

At moments the solemn absurdity of it all came over me--the turkey-girl, with her golden head bent, her butterfly coiffe a-flutter, discussing ethics with an irresponsible fly-by-night, who happened at that period of his career to carry a commission in the Imperial Police.

The lazy roadside butterflies flew up in clouds before the slow-stepping horse; the hill rabbits, rising to their hindquarters, wrinkled their whiskered noses at us; from every thicket speckled hedge-birds peered at us as we went our way solemnly deciding those eternal questions already ancient when the Talmud branded woman with the name of Lilith.

At length, as we reached the summit of the sandy hill, "There is La Trappe, monsieur," said my turkey-girl, and once more stretched out her lovely arm.

There appeared to be nothing mysterious about the house or its surroundings; indeed, a sunnier and more peaceful spot would be hard to find in that land of hills, ravines, and rocky woodlands, outposts of those cloudy summits soaring skyward in the south.

The house itself was visible through gates of wrought iron, swinging wide between pillars of stone, where an avenue stretched away under trees to a granite terrace, glittering in the sun. And under the terrace a quiet pool lay reflecting tier on tier of stone steps which mounted to the bright esplanade above.

There was no porter at the gate to welcome me or to warn me back; the wet road lay straight in front, barred only by sunbeams.

"May we enter?" I asked, politely.

She did not answer, and I led the horse down that silent avenue of trees towards the terrace and the glassy pool which mirrored the steps of stone.

Masses of scarlet geraniums, beds of living coals, glowed above the terrace. As we drew nearer, the water caught the blaze of color, reflecting the splendor in subdued tints of smothered flame. And always, in the pool, I saw the terrace steps, reversed, leading down into depths of sombre fire.

"And here we dismount," said I, and offered my aid.

She laid her hands on my shoulders; I swung her to the ground, where her sabots clicked and her silver neck-chains jingled in the silence.

I looked around. How intensely still was everything--the leaves, the water! The silent blue peaks on the horizon seemed to be watching me; the trees around me were so motionless that they also appeared to be listening with every leaf.

This quarter of the world was too noiseless for me; there might have been a bird-note, a breeze to whisper, a minute stirring of unseen life--but there was not.

"Is that house empty?" I asked, turning brusquely on my companion.

"The Countess de Vassart will give you your answer," she replied.

"Kindly announce me, then," I said, grimly, and together we mounted the broad flight of steps to the esplanade, above which rose the gray mansion of La Trappe.

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