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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 10. The Town-Crier
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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 10. The Town-Crier Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1282

Click below to download : The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 10. The Town-Crier (Format : PDF)

The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 10. The Town-Crier

PART II CHAPTER X. THE TOWN-CRIER

The bell in the unseen chapel ceased ringing as we came out on the cliffs of Paradise, where, on the horizon, the sun hung low, belted with a single ribbon of violet cloud.

Over acres of foaming shoals the crimson light flickered and spread, painting the eastern cliffs with sombre fire. The ebb-tide, red as blood, tumbled seaward across the bar, leaving every ledge a glowing cinder under the widening conflagration in the west.

The mayor carried his silver-buttoned jacket over his arm; the air had grown sultry. As we walked our gigantic shadows strode away before us across the kindling stubble, seeming to lengthen at every stride.

Below the cliffs, on a crescent of flat sand, from which sluggish, rosy rivulets crawled seaward, a man stood looking out across the water. And the mayor stopped and called down to him: "Ohe, the Lizard! What do you see on the ocean--you below?"

"I see six war-ships speeding fast in column," replied the man, without looking up.

The mayor hastily shaded his eyes with one fat hand, muttering: "All poachers have eyes like sea-hawks. There is a smudge of smoke to the north. Holy Virgin, what eyes the rascal has!"

As for me, strain my eyes as I would, I saw nothing save the faintest stain of smoke on the horizon.

"He, Lizard! Are they German, your six war-ships?" bawled the mayor. His voice had suddenly become tremulous.

"They are French," replied the poacher, tranquilly.

"Then Sainte-Eline keep them from the rocks!" sang out the mayor. "Ohe, Lizard, I want somebody to drum and read a proclamation. Where's Jacqueline?"

At that instant a young girl, a mere child, appeared on the beach, dragging a sea-rake over the ground behind her. She was a lithe creature, bare-limbed and ragged, with the sea-tan on throat and knee. The blue tatters of her skirt hung heavy with brine; the creamy skin on her arms glittered with wet spray, and her hair was wet, too, clustering across her cheeks in damp elf-locks.

The mayor glanced at her with that stolid contempt which Finistere Bretons cherish toward those women who show their hair--an immodesty unpardonable in the eyes of most Bretons.

The girl caught sight of the mayor and gave him a laughing greeting which he returned with a shrug.

"If you want a town-crier," she called up, in a deliciously fresh voice, scarcely tinged with the accent, "I'll cry your edicts and I'll drum for you, too!"

"Can your daughter beat the drum?" asked the mayor of the poacher, ignoring the girl's eager face upturned.

"Yes," said the poacher, indifferently, "and she can also beat the devil with two sticks."

The girl threw her rake into a boat and leaped upon the rocks at the base of the cliff.

"Jacqueline! Don't come up that way!" bawled the mayor, horrified. "Hey! Robert! Ohe! Lizard! Stop her or she'll break her neck!"

The poacher looked up at his daughter then shrugged his shoulders and squatted down on his ragged haunches, restless eyes searching the level ocean, as sea-birds search.

Breathless, hot, and laughing, the girl pulled herself up over the edge of the cliff. I held out my hand to aid her, but she pushed it away, crying, "Thank you all the same, but here I am!"

"Spawn of the Lizard," I heard the mayor mutter to himself, "like a snake you wriggle where honest folk fall to destruction!" But he spoke condescendingly to the bright-eyed, breathless child. "I'll pay six sous if you'll drum for me."

"I'll do it for love," she said, saucily--"for the love of drumming, not for your beaux yeux, m'sieu le maire."

The mayor looked at her angrily, but, probably remembering he was at her mercy, suppressed his wrath and held out the telegram. "Can you read that, my child?"

The girl, still breathing rapidly from her scramble, rested her hands on her hips and, head on one side, studied the blue sheets of the telegram over the mayor's outstretched arm.

"Yes, I can read it. Why not? Can't you?"

"Read? I the mayor of Paradise!" repeated the outraged magistrate. "What do you mean, lizard of lizards! gorse cat!"

"Now if you are going to say such things I won't drum for you," said the child, glancing at me out of her sea-blue eyes and giving a shake to her elf-locks.

"Yes, you will!" bawled the angry mayor. "Shame on your manners, Jacqueline Garenne! Shame on your hair hanging where all the world can see it! Shame on your bare legs--"

"Not at all," said the child, unabashed. "God made my legs, m'sieu the mayor, and my hair, too. If my coiffe does not cover my hair, neither does the small Paris hat of the Countess de Vassart cover her hair. Complain of the Countess to m'sieu the cure, then I will listen to you."

The mayor glared at her, but she tossed her head and laughed.

"Ho fois! Everybody knows what you are," sniffed the mayor--"and nobody cares, either," he muttered, waddling past me, telegram in hand.

The child, quite unconcerned, fell into step beside me, saying, confidentially: "When I was little I used to cry when they talked to me like that. But I don't now; I've made up my mind that they are no better than I."

"I don't know why anybody should abuse you," I said, loudly enough for the mayor to hear. But that functionary waddled on, puffing, muttering, stopping every now and then in the narrow cliff-path to strike flint to tinder or to refill the tiny bowl of his pipe, which a dozen puffs always exhausted.

"Oh, they all abuse us," said the child, serenely. "You see, you are a stranger and don't understand; but you will if you live here."

"Why is everybody unkind to you?" I asked, after a moment.

"Why? Oh, because I am what I am and my father is the Lizard."

"A poacher?"

"Ah," she said, looking up at me with delicious malice, "what is a poacher, monsieur?"

"Sometimes he's a fine fellow gone wrong," I said, laughing. "So I don't believe any ill of your father, or of you, either. Will you drum for me, Jacqueline?"

"For you, monsieur? Why, yes. What am I to read for you?"

I gave her a hand-bill; at the first glance her eyes sparkled, the color deepened under her coat of amber tan; she caught her breath and read rapidly to the end.

"Oh, how beautiful," she said, softly. "Am I to read this in the square?"

"I will give you a franc to read it, Jacqueline."

"No, no--only--oh, do let me come in and see the heavenly wonders! Would you, monsieur? I--I cannot pay--but would--_could you let me come in? I will read your notice, anyway," she added, with a quaver in her voice.

The flushed face, the eager, upturned eyes, deep blue as the sea, the little hands clutching the show-bill, which fairly quivered between the tanned fingers--all these touched and amused me. The child was mad with excitement.

What she anticipated, Heaven only knows. Shabby and tarnished as we were, the language of our hand-bills made up in gaudiness for the dingy reality.

"Come whenever you like, Jacqueline," I said. "Ask for me at the gate."

"And who are you, monsieur?"

"My name is Scarlett."

"Scarlett," she whispered, as though naming a sacred thing.

The mayor, who had toddled some distance ahead of us, now halted in the square, looking back at us through the red evening light.

"Jacqueline, the drum is in my house. I'll lend you a pair of sabots, too. Come, hasten little idler!"

We entered the mayor's garden, where the flowers were glowing in the lustre of the setting sun. I sat down in a chair; Jacqueline waited, hands resting on her hips, small, shapely toes restlessly brushing the grass.

"Truly this coming wonder-show will be a peep into paradise," she murmured. "Can all be true--really true as it is printed here in this bill--I wonder--"

Before she had time to speculate further, the mayor reappeared with drum and drum-sticks in one hand and a pair of sabots in the other. He flung the sabots on the grass, and Jacqueline, quite docile now, slipped both bare feet into them.

"You may keep them," said the mayor, puffing out his mottled cheeks benevolently; "decency must be maintained in Paradise, even if it beggars me."

"Thank you," said Jacqueline, sweetly, slinging the drum across her hip and tightening the cords. She clicked the ebony sticks, touched the tightly drawn parchment, sounding it with delicate fingers, then looked up at the mayor for further orders.

"Go, my child," said the mayor, amiably, and Jacqueline marched through the garden out into the square by the fountain, drum-sticks clutched in one tanned fist, the scrolls of paper in the other.

In the centre of the square she stood a moment, looking around, then raised the drum-sticks; there came a click, a flash of metal, and the quiet square echoed with the startling outcrash. Back from roof and wall bounded the echoes; the stony pavement rang with the racket. Already a knot of people had gathered around her; others came swiftly to windows and doorsteps; the loungers left their stone benches by the river, the maids of Paradise flocked from the bridge. Even Robert the Lizard drew in his dripping line to listen. The drum-roll ceased.

"_Attention! Men of Finistere! By order of the governor of Lorient, all men between the ages of twenty and forty, otherwise not exempt, are ordered to report at the navy-yard barracks, war-port of Lorient, on the 5th of November of the present year, to join the army of the Loire.

"Whosoever is absent at roll-call will be liable to the punishment provided for such delinquents under the laws governing the state of siege now declared in Morbihan and Finistere. _Citizens, to arms!

"The enemy is on the march! Though Metz has fallen through treachery, Paris holds firm! Let the provinces rise and hurl the invader from the soil of the mother-land!

"_Bretons! France calls! Answer with your ancient battle-cry, 'Sainte-Anne! Sainte-Anne!' The eyes of the world are on Armorica! _To arms!_"

The girl's voice ceased; a dead silence reigned in the square. The men looked at one another stupidly; a woman began to whimper.

"The curse is on Paradise!" cried a hoarse voice.

The drummer was already drawing another paper from her ragged pocket, and again in the same clear, emotionless voice, but slightly drawling her words, she read:

"To the good people of Paradise! The manager of the famous American travelling circus, lately returned from a tour of the northern provinces, with camels, elephants, lions, and a magnificent company of artists, announces a stupendous exhibition to be held in Lorient at greatly reduced prices, thus enabling the intelligent and appreciative people of Paradise to honor the Republican Circus, recently known as the Imperial Circus, with their benevolent and discerning patronage! Long live France! Long live the Republic! Long live the Circus!"

A resounding roll of the drum ended the announcements; the girl slung the drum over her shoulder, turned to the right, and passed over the stone bridge, sabots clicking. Presently from the hamlet of Alincourt over the stream came the dull roll of the drum again and the faint, clear voice:

"Attention! Men of Finistere! By order of the governor of Lorient, all men--" The wind changed and her voice died away among the trees.

The maids of Paradise were weeping now by the fountain; the men gathered near, and their slow, hushed voices scarcely rose above the ripple of the stream where Robert the Lizard fished in silence.

It was after sunset before Jacqueline finished her rounds. She had read her proclamation in Alincourt hamlet, she had read it in Sainte-Ysole, her drum had aroused the inert loungers on the breakwater at Trinite-on-Sea. Now, with her drum on her shoulder and her sabots swinging in her left hand, she came down the cliffs beside the Chapel of Our Lady of Paradise, excited and expectant.

Of the first proclamation which she had read she apparently understood little. When she announced the great disaster at Metz in the north, and when her passionless young voice proclaimed the levee en masse--the call to arms for the men of the coast from Sainte-Ysole to Trinite Beacon--she scarcely seemed to realize what it meant, although all around her women turned away sobbing, or clung, deathly white, to sons and husbands.

But there was certainly something in the other proclamation which thrilled her and set her heart galloping as she loitered on the cliff.

I walked across to the Quimperle road and met her, dancing along with her drum; and she promptly confided her longings and desires to me as we stood together for an instant on the high-road. The circus! Once, it appeared, she had seen--very far off--a glittering creature turning on a trapeze. It was at the fair near Bannalec, and it was so long ago that she scarcely remembered anything except that somebody had pulled her away while she stood enchanted, and the flashing light of fairyland had been forever shut from her eyes.

At times, when the maids of Paradise were sociable at the well in the square, she had listened to stories of the splendid circus which came once to Lorient. And now it was coming again!

We stood in the middle of the high-road looking through the dust haze, she doubtless dreaming of the splendors to come, I very, very tired. The curtain of golden dust reddened in the west; the afterglow lit up the sky once more with brilliant little clouds suspended from mid-zenith. The moorland wind rose and tossed her elf-locks in her eyes and whipped her skirt till the rags fluttered above her smooth, bare knees.

Suddenly, straight out of the flaming gates of the sunset, the miracle was wrought. Celestial shapes in gold and purple rose up in the gilded dust, chariots of silver, milk-white horses plumed with fire.

Breathless, she shrank back among the weeds, one hand pressed to her throbbing throat. But the vision grew as she stared; there was heavenly music, too, and the clank of metal chains, and the smothered pounding of hoofs. Then she caught sight of something through the dust that filled her with a delicious terror, and she cried out. For there, uptowering in the haze, came trudging a great, gray creature, a fearsome, swaying thing in crimson trappings, flapping huge ears. It shuffled past, swinging a dusty trunk; the sparkling horsemen cantered by, tin armor blazing in the fading glory; the chariots dragged after, and the closed dens of beasts rolled behind in single file, followed by the band-wagon, where Heaven-inspired musicians played frantically and a white-faced clown balanced his hat on a stick and shrieked.

So the circus passed into Paradise; and I turned and followed in the wake of dust, stale odors, and clamorous discord, sick at heart of wandering over a world I had not found too kind.

And at my heels stole Jacqueline.

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