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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 16. A Restless Man
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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 16. A Restless Man Post by :CalGolden Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :685

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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 2 - Chapter 16. A Restless Man

PART II CHAPTER XVI. A RESTLESS MAN

When I came into camp, late that afternoon, I found Byram and Speed groping about among a mass of newspapers and letters, the first mail we circus people had received for nearly two months.

There were letters for all who were accustomed to look for letters from families, relatives, or friends at home. I never received letters--I had received none of that kind in nearly a score of years, yet that curious habit of expectancy had not perished in me, and I found myself standing with the others while Byram distributed the letters, one by one, until the last home-stamped envelope had been given out, and all around me the happy circus-folk were reading in homesick contentment. I know of no lonelier man than he who lingers empty-handed among those who pore over the home mail.

But there were newspapers enough and to spare--French, English, American; and I sat down by my lion's cage and attempted to form some opinion of the state of affairs in France. And, as far as I could read between the lines, this is what I gathered, partly from my own knowledge of past events, partly from the foreign papers, particularly the English:

When, on the 3d of September, the humiliating news arrived that the Emperor was a prisoner and his army annihilated, the government, for the first time in its existence, acted with promptness and decision in a matter of importance. Secret orders were sent by couriers to the Bank of France, to the Louvre, and to the Invalides; and, that same night, train after train rushed out of Paris loaded with the battle-flags from the Invalides, the most important pictures and antique sculptures from the Louvre, the greater part of the gold and silver from the Bank of France, and, last but by no means least, the crown and jewels of France.

This Speed and I already knew.

These trains were despatched to Brest, and at the same time a telegram was directed to the admiral commanding the French iron-clad fleet in the Baltic to send an armored cruiser to Brest with all haste possible, there to await further orders, but to be fully prepared in any event to take on board certain goods designated in cipher. This we knew in a general way, though Speed understood that Lorient was to be the port of departure.

The plan was a good one and apparently simple; and there seemed to be no doubt that jewels, battle-flags, pictures, and coin were already beyond danger from the German armies, now plodding cautiously southward toward the capital, which was slowly recovering from its revolutionary convulsions and preparing for a siege.

The plan, then, was simple; but, for an equally simple reason, it miscarried in the following manner. Early in August, while the French armies from the Rhine to the Meuse were being punished with frightful regularity and precision, the French Mediterranean squadron had sailed up and down that interesting expanse of water, apparently in patriotic imitation of the historic


"King of France and twenty thousand men."


For, it now appeared, the French admiral was afraid that the Spanish navy might aid the German ships in harassing the French transports, which at that time were frantically engaged in ferrying a sea-sick Algerian army across the Mediterranean to the mother country.

Of course there was no ground for the admiral's suspicions. The German war-ships stayed in their own harbors, the Spaniards made no offensive alliance with Prussia, and at length the French admiral sailed triumphantly away with his battleships and cruisers.

On the 7th of August the squadron of four battleships, two armored corvettes, and a despatch-boat steamed out of Brest, picking up on its way northward three more iron-clad frigates, and several cruisers and despatch-boats; and on the 11th of August, 1870, the squadron anchored off Heligoland, from whence Admiral Fourichon proclaimed the blockade of the German coast.

It must have been an imposing sight! There lay the great iron-clads, the _Magnanime_, the _Heroine_, the _Provence_, the _Valeureuse_, the _Revanche_, the _Invincible_, the _Couronne_! There lay the cruisers, the _Atalante_, the _Renaud_, the _Cosmao_, the _Decres_! There, too, lay the single-screw despatch-boats _Reine-Hortense_, _Renard_, and _Dayot_. And upon their armored decks, three by three, stalked the French admirals. Yet, without cynicism, it may be said that the admirals of France fought better, in 1870, on dry land than they did on the ocean.

However, the German ships stayed peacefully inside their fortified ports, and the three French admirals pranced peacefully up and down outside, until the God of battles intervened and trouble naturally ensued.

On the 6th of September all the seas of Europe were set clashing under a cyclone that rose to a howling hurricane. The British iron-clad _Captain foundered off Finistere; the French fleet in the Baltic was scattered to the four winds.

In the midst of the tempest a French despatch-boat, the _Hirondelle_, staggered into sight, signalling the flag-ship. Then the French admiral for the first time learned the heart-breaking news of Sedan, and as the tempest-tortured battle-ship drove seaward the signals went up: "Make for Brest!" The blockade of the German coast was at an end.

On the 4th of September the treasure-laden trains had left Paris for Brest. On the 5th the _Hirondelle steamed out towards the fleet with the news from Sedan and the orders for the detachment of a cruiser to receive the crown jewels. On the 6th the news and the orders were signalled to the flag-ship; but the God of battles unchained a tempest which countermanded the order and hurled the iron-clads into outer darkness.

Some of the ships crept into English ports, burning their last lumps of coal, some drifted into Dunkerque; but the flag-ship disappeared for nine long days, at last to reappear off Cherbourg, a stricken thing with a stricken crew and an admiral broken-hearted.

So, for days and days, the treasure-laden trains must have stood helpless in the station at Brest, awaiting the cruiser that did not come.

On the 17th of September the French Channel squadron, of seven heavy iron-clads, unexpectedly steamed into Lorient harbor and dropped anchor amid thundering salutes from the forts; and the next day one of the treasure-trains came flying into Lorient, to the unspeakable relief of the authorities in the beleaguered capital.

Speed and I already knew the secret orders sent. The treasures, including the crown diamonds, were to be stored in the citadel, and an armored cruiser was to lie off the arsenal with banked fires, ready to receive the treasures at the first signal and steam to the French fortified port of Saigon in Cochin China, by a course already determined.

Why on earth those orders had been changed so that the cruiser was to lie off Groix I could not imagine, unless some plot had been discovered in Lorient which had made it advisable to shift the location of the treasures for the third time.

Pondering there at the tent door, amid my heap of musty newspapers, I looked out into the late, gray afternoon and saw the maids of Paradise passing and repassing across the bridge with a clicking of wooden shoes and white head-dresses glimmering in the dusk of the trees.

The town had filled within a day or two; the Paradise coiffe was not the only coiffe to be seen in the square; there was the delicate-winged head-dress of Faouet, the beautiful coiffes of Rosporden, Sainte-Anne d'Auray, and Pont Aven; there, too, flashed the scarlet skirts of Bannalec and the gorgeous embroidered bodices of the interior; there were the men of Quimperle in velvet, the men of Penmarch, the men of Faouet with their dark, Spanish-like faces and their sombreros, and their short yellow jackets and leggings. All in holiday costume, too, for the maids were stiff in silver and lace, and the men wore carved sabots and embroidered gilets.

"Governor," I called out to Byram, "the town is filling fast. It's like a Pardon in Morbihan; we'll pack the old tent to the nigger's-heaven!"

"It's a fact," he said, pushing his glasses up over his forehead and fanning his face with his silk hat. "We're going to open to a lot of money, Mr. Scarlett, and ... I ain't goin' to forgit them that stood by me, neither."

He placed a heavy hand on my shoulder, and, stooping, peered into my face.

"Air you sick, m' friend?" he asked.

"I, governor? Why, no."

"Ain't been bit by that there paltry camuel nor nothin', hev ye?"

"No; do I look ill?"

"Peaked--kind o' peaked. White, with dark succles under your eyes. Air you nervous?"

"About the lions? Oh no. Don't worry about me, governor."

He sighed, adjusted his spectacles, and blew his nose.

"Mr. Speed--he's worriting, too; he says that Empress Khatoun means to hev ye one o' these days."

"You tell Mr. Speed to worry over his own affairs--that child, Jacqueline, for instance. I suppose she made her jump without trouble to-day? I was too nervous to stay and watch her."

"M' friend," said Byram, in solemn ecstasy, "I take off my hat to that there kid!" And he did so with a flourish. "You orter seen her; she hung on that flying trap, jest as easy an' sassy! We was all half crazy. Speed he grew blue around the gills; Miss Crystal, a-swingin' there in the riggin' by her knees, kept a swallerin' an' lickin' her lips, she was that scared.

"'Ready?' she calls out in a sort o' quaver.

"'Ready!' sez little Jacqueline, cool as ice, swingin' by her knees. 'Go!' sez Miss Crystal, an' the kid let go, an' Miss Crystal grabbed her by the ankles. 'Ready?' calls up Speed, beside the tank.

"'Ready!' sez the kid, smilin'. 'Drop!' cries Speed. An' Jacqueline shot down like a blazing star--whir! swish! splash! All over! An' that there nervy kid a floatin' an' a sportin' like a minnie-fish at t'other end o' the tank! Oh, gosh, but it was grand! It was jest--"

Speech failed; he walked away, waving his arms, his rusty silk hat on the back of his head.

A few moments later drums began to roll from the square. Speed, passing, called out to me that the conscripts were leaving for Lorient; so I walked down to the bridge, where the crowd had gathered and where a tall gendarme stood, his blue-and-white uniform distinct in the early evening light. The mayor was there, too, dressed in his best, waddling excitedly about, and buttonholing at intervals a young lieutenant of infantry, who appeared to be extremely bored.

There were the conscripts of the Garde Mobile, an anxious peasant rabble, awkward, resigned, docile as cattle. Here stood a farmer, reeking of his barnyard; here two woodsmen from the forest, belted and lean; but the majority were men of the sea, heavy-limbed, sun-scorched fellows, with little, keen eyes always half closed, and big, helpless fists hanging. Some carried their packets slung from hip to shoulder, some tied their parcels to the muzzles of their obsolete muskets. A number wore the boatman's smock, others the farmer's blouse of linen, but the greater number were clad in the blue-wool jersey and cloth beret of the sailor.

Husbands, sons, lovers, looked silently at the women. The men uttered no protest, no reproach; the women wept very quietly. In their hearts that strange mysticism of the race predominated--the hopeless acceptance of a destiny which has, for centuries, left its imprint in the sad eyes of the Breton. Generations of martyrdom leave a cowed and spiritually fatigued race which breeds stoics.

Like great white blossoms, the spotless head-dresses of the maids of Paradise swayed and bowed above the crowd.

A little old woman stood beside a sailor, saying to anybody who would listen to her: "My son--they are taking my son. Why should they take my son?"

Another said: "They are taking mine, too, but he cannot fight on land. He knows the sea; he is not afraid at sea. Can nobody help us? He cannot fight on land; he does not know how!"

A woman carrying a sleeping baby stood beside the drummers at the fountain. Five children dragged at her skirts and peered up at the mayor, who shrugged his shoulders and shook his fat head.

"What can I do? He must march with the others, your man," said the mayor, again and again. But the woman with the baby never ceased her eternal question: "What can we live on if you take him? I do not mean to complain too much, but we have nothing. What can we live on, m'sieu the mayor?"

But now the drummers had stepped out into the centre of the square and were drawing their drum-sticks from the brass sockets in their baldricks.

"Good-bye! Good-bye!" sobbed the maids of Paradise, giving both hands to their lovers. "We will pray for you!"

"Pray for us," said the men, holding their sweethearts' hands.

"Attention!" cried the officer, a slim, hectic lieutenant from Lorient.

The mayor handed him the rolls, and the lieutenant, facing the shuffling single rank, began to call off:

"Roux of Bannalec?"

"Here, monsieur--"

"Don't say, 'Here, monsieur!' Say, 'Present!' Now, Roux?"

"Present, monsieur--"

"Idiot! Kedrec?"

"Present!"

"That's right! Penmarch?"

"Present!"

"Rhuis of Sainte-Yssel?"

"Present!"

"Herve of Paradise Beacon?"

"Present!"

"Laenec?"

"Present!"

"Duhamel?"

"Present!"

The officer moistened his lips, turned the page, and continued:

"Carnac of Alincourt?"

There was a silence, then a voice cried, "Crippled!"

"Mark him off, lieutenant," said the mayor, pompously; "he's our little hunchback."

"Shall I mark you in his place?" asked the lieutenant, with a smile that turned the mayor's blood to water. "No? You would make a fine figure for a forlorn hope."

A man burst out laughing, but he was half crazed with grief, and his acrid mirth found no response. Then the roll-call was resumed:

"Gestel?"

"Present!"

"Garenne!"

There was another silence.

"Robert Garenne!" repeated the officer, sharply. "Monsieur the mayor has informed me that you are liable for military duty. If you are present, answer to your name or take the consequences!"

The poacher, who had been lounging on the bridge, slouched slowly forward and touched his cap.

"I am organizing a franc corps," he said, with a deadly sidelong glance at the mayor, who now stood beside the lieutenant.

"You can explain that at Lorient," replied the lieutenant. "Fall in there!"

"But I--"

"Fall in!" repeated the lieutenant.

The poacher's visage became inflamed. He hesitated, looking around for an avenue of escape. Then he caught my disgusted eye.

"For the last time," said the lieutenant, coolly drawing his revolver, "I order you to fall in!"

The poacher backed into the straggling rank, glaring.

"Now," said the lieutenant, "you may go to your house and get your packet. If we have left when you return, follow and report at the arsenal in Lorient. Fall out! March!"

The poacher backed out to the rear of the rank, turned on his heel, and strode away towards the coast, clinched fists swinging by his side.

There were not many names on the roll, and the call was quickly finished. And now the infantry drummers raised their sticks high in the air, there was a sharp click, a crash, and the square echoed.

"March!" cried the officer; and, drummers ahead, the long single rank shuffled into fours, and the column started, enveloped in a throng of women and children.

"Good-bye!" sobbed the women. "We will pray!"

"Good-bye! Pray!"

The crowd pressed on into the dusk. Far up the darkening road the white coiffes of the women glimmered; the drum-roll softened to a distant humming.

The children, who did not understand, had gathered around a hunchback, the exempt cripple of the roll-call.

"Ho! Fois!" I heard him say to the crowd of wondering little ones, "if I were not exempt I'd teach these Prussians to dance the farandole to my biniou! Oui, dame! And perhaps I'll do it yet, spite of the crooked back I was not born with--as everybody knows! Oui, dame! Everybody knows I was born as straight as the next man!"

The children gaped, listening to the distant drumming, now almost inaudible.

The cripple rose, lighted a lantern, and walked slowly out toward the cliffs, carrying himself with that uncanny dignity peculiar to hunchbacks. And as he walked he sang, in his thin, sharp voice, the air of "The Three Captains":


"J'ai eu dans son coeur la plac' la plus belle,
La plac' la plus belle.
J'ai passe trois ans, trois ans avec elle,
Trois ans avec elle.
J'ai eu trois enfants qui sont capitaines,
Qui sont capitaines.
L'un est a Bordeaux, l'autre a la Rochelle,
L'autre a la Rochelle.
Le troisieme ici, caressent les belles,
Caressent les belles."


Far out across the shadowy cliffs I heard his lingering, strident chant, and caught the spark of his lantern; then silence and darkness fell over the deserted square; the awed children, fingers interlocked, crept homeward through the dusk; there was no sound save the rippling wash of the river along the quay of stone.

Tired, a trifle sad, thinking perhaps of those home letters which had come to all save me, I leaned against the river wall, staring at the darkness; and over me came creeping that apathy which I had already learned to recognize and even welcome as a mental anaesthetic which set that dark sentinel, care, a-drowsing.

What did I care, after all? Life had stopped for me years before; there was left only a shell in which that unseen little trickster, the heart, kept tap-tapping away against a tired body. Was that what we call life? The sorry parody!

A shape slunk near me through the dusk, furtive, uncertain. "Lizard," I said, indifferently. He came up, my gun on his ragged shoulder.

"You go with your class?" I asked.

"No, I go to the forest," he said, hoarsely. "You shall hear from me."

I nodded.

"Are you content?" he demanded, lingering.

The creature wanted sympathy, though he did not know it. I gave him my hand and told him he was a brave man; and he went away, noiselessly, leaving me musing by the river wall.

After a long while--or it may only have been a few minutes--the square began to fill again with the first groups of women, children, and old men who had escorted the departing conscripts a little way on their march to Lorient. Back they came, the maids of Paradise silent, tearful, pitifully acquiescent; the women of Bannalec, Faouet, Rosporden, Quimperle chattering excitedly about the scene they had witnessed. The square began to fill; lanterns were lighted around the fountain; the two big lamps with their brass reflectors in front of the mayor's house illuminated the pavement and the thin tree-foliage with a yellow radiance.

The chatter grew louder as new groups in all sorts of gay head-dresses arrived; laughter began to be heard; presently the squealing of the biniou pipes broke out from the bowling-green, where, high on a bench supported by a plank laid across two cider barrels, the hunchback sat, skirling the farandole. Ah, what a world entire was this lost little hamlet of Paradise, where merrymakers trod on the mourners' heels, where the scream of the biniou drowned the floating note of the passing bell, where Misery drew the curtains of her bed and lay sleepless, listening to Gayety dancing breathless to the patter of a coquette's wooden shoes!

Long tables were improvised in the square, piled up with bread, sardines, puddings, hams, and cakes. Casks of cider, propped on skids, dotted the outskirts of the bowling-green, where the mayor, enthroned in his own arm-chair, majestically gave his orders in a voice thickened by pork, onions, and gravy.

Truly enough, half of Finistere and Morbihan was gathering at Paradise for a fete. The slow Breton imagination had been fired by our circus bills and posters; ancient Armorica was stirring in her slumber, roused to consciousness by the Yankee bill-poster.

At the inn all rooms were taken; every house had become an inn; barns, stables, granaries had their guests; fishermen's huts on coast and cliff were bright with coiffes and embroidered jerseys.

In their misfortune, the lonely women of Paradise recognized in this influx a godsend--a few francs to gain with which to face those coming wintry months while their men were absent. And they opened their tiny houses to those who asked a lodging.

The crowds which had earlier in the evening gathered to gape at our big tent were now noisiest in the square, where the endless drone of the pipes intoned the farandole.

A few of our circus folk had come down to enjoy the picturesque spectacle. Speed, standing with Jacqueline beside me, began to laugh and beat time to the wild music. A pretty maid of Bannalec, white coiffe and scarlet skirts a-flutter, called out with the broad freedom of the chastest of nations: "There is the lover I could pray for--if he can dance the farandole!"

"I'll show you whether I can dance the farandole, ma belle!" cried Speed, and caught her hand, but she snatched her brown fingers away and danced off, laughing: "He who loves must follow, follow, follow the farandole!"

Speed started to follow, but Jacqueline laid a timid hand on his arm.

"I dance, M'sieu Speed," she said, her face flushing under her elf-locks.

"You blessed child," he cried, "you shall dance till you drop to your knees on the bowling-green!" And, hand clasping hand, they swung out into the farandole. For an instant only I caught a glimpse of Jacqueline's blissful face, and her eyes like blue stars burning; then they darkened into silhouettes against the yellow glare of the lanterns and vanished.

Byram rambled up for a moment, to comment on the quaint scene from a showman's point of view. "It would fill the tent in old Noo York, but it's n. g. in this here country, where everybody's either a coryphee or a clown or a pantaloon! Camuels ain't no rara avises in the Sairy, an' no niggers go to burnt-cork shows. Phylosophy is the thing, Mr. Scarlett! Ruminate! Ruminate!"

I promised to do so, and the old man rambled away, coat and vest on his arm, silk hat cocked over his left eye, the lamp-light shining on the buckles of his suspenders. Dear old governor!--dear, vulgar incarnation of those fast vanishing pioneers who invented civilization, finding none; who, self-taught, unashamed taught their children the only truths they knew, that the nation was worthy of all good, all devotion, and all knowledge that her sons could bring her to her glory that she might one day fulfil her destiny as greatest among the great on earth.

The whining Breton bagpipe droned in my ears; the dancers flew past; laughter and cries arose from the tables in the square where the curate of St. Julien stood, forefinger wagging, soundly rating an intoxicated but apologetic Breton in the costume of Faouet.

I was tired--tired of it all; weary of costumes and strange customs, weary of strange tongues, of tinsel and mummers, and tarnished finery; sick of the sawdust and the rank stench of beasts--and the vagabond life--and the hopeless end of it all--the shabby end of a useless life--a death at last amid strangers! Soldiers in red breeches, peasants in embroidered jackets, strolling mountebanks all tinselled and rouged--they were all one to me.... I wanted my own land.... I wanted my own people.... I wanted to go home ... home!--and die, when my time came, under the skies I knew as a child,... under that familiar moon which once silvered my nursery windows....

I turned away across the bridge out into the dark road. Long before I came to the smoky, silent camp I heard the monotonous roaring of my lions, pacing their shadowy dens.

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