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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 3 - Chapter 20. The Semaphore
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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 3 - Chapter 20. The Semaphore Post by :CalGolden Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2946

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The Maids Of Paradise: A Novel - Part 3 - Chapter 20. The Semaphore

PART III CHAPTER XX. THE SEMAPHORE

The telegraph station at the semaphore was a little, square, stone hut, roofed with slate, perched high on the cliffs. A sun-scorched, wooden signal-tower rose in front of it; behind it a line of telegraph poles stretched away into perspective across the moors. Beyond the horizon somewhere lay the war-port of Lorient, with its arsenal, armed redoubts, and heavy bastions; beyond that was war.

While we plodded on, hip deep, through gorse and thorn and heath, we cautiously watched a spot of red moving to and fro in front of the station; and as we drew nearer we could see the sentry very distinctly, rifle slung muzzle down, slouching his beat in the sunshine.

He was a slovenly specimen, doubtless a deserter from one of the three provincial armies now forming for the hopeless dash at Belfort and the German eastern communications.

When Speed and I emerged from the golden gorse into plain view the sentinel stopped in his tracks, shoved his big, red hands into his trousers pockets, and regarded us sulkily.

"What are you going to do with this gentleman?" whispered Speed.

"Reason with him, first," I said; "a louis is worth a dozen kicks."

The soldier left his post as we started toward him, and advanced, blinking in the strong sunshine, meeting us half-way.

"Now, bourgeois," he said, shaking his unkempt head, "this won't do, you know. Orders are to keep off. And," he added, in a bantering tone, "I'm here to enforce them. Allons! En route, mes amis!"

"Are you the soldier Rolland?" I asked.

He admitted that he was with prompt profanity, adding that if we didn't like his name we had only to tell him so and he would arrange the matter.

I told him that we approved not only his name but his personal appearance; indeed, so great was our admiration for him that we had come clear across the Saint-Yssel moor expressly to pay our compliments to him in the shape of a hundred-franc note. I drew it from the soiled roll the Lizard had intrusted to me, and displayed it for the sentinel's inspection.

"Is that for me?" he demanded, unconvinced, plainly suspicious of being ridiculed.

"Under certain conditions," I said, "these five louis are for you."

The soldier winked. "I know what you want; you want to go in yonder and use the telegraph. What the devil," he burst out, "do all you bourgeois want with that telegraph in there?"

"Has anybody else asked to use it?" I inquired, disturbed.

"Anybody else?" he mimicked. "Well, I think so; there's somebody in there now--here, give your hundred francs or I tell you nothing, you understand!"

I handed him the soiled note. He scanned it with the inborn distrust of the true malefactor, turned it over and over, and finally, pronouncing it "en regle," shoved it cheerfully into the lining of his red forage cap.

"A hundred more if you answer my questions truthfully," I said, amiably.

"'Cre cochon!" he blurted out; "fire at will, comrade! I'll sell you the whole cursed semaphore for a hundred more! What can I do for you, captain?"

"Who is in that hut?"

"A lady--she comes often--she gives ten francs each time. Zut!--what is ten francs when a gentleman gives a hundred! She pays me for my complaisance--bon! Place aux dames! You pay me better--bon! I'm yours, gentlemen. War is war, but money pulls the trigger!"

The miserable creature cocked his forage-cap with a toothless smirk and twisted his scant mustache.

"Who is this lady who pays you ten francs?" I asked.

"I do not know her name--but," he added, with an offensive leer, "she's worth looking over by gentlemen like you. Do you want to see her? She's in there click-clicking away on the key with her pretty little fingers--bon sang! A morsel for a king, gentlemen."

"Wait here," I said, disgusted, and walked toward the stone station. The treacherous cur came running after me. "There's a side door," he whispered; "step in there behind the partition and take a look at her. She'll be done directly: she never stays more than fifteen minutes. Then you can use the telegraph at your pleasure, captain."

The side door was partly open; I stepped in noiselessly and found myself in a small, dusky closet, partitioned from the telegraph office. Immediately the rapid clicking of the Morse instrument came to my ears, and mechanically I read the message by the sound as it rattled on under the fingers of an expert:

"--Must have already found out that the signals were not authorized by the government. Before the _Fer-de-Lance returns to her station the German cruiser ought to intercept her off Groix. Did you arrange for this?"

There was a moment's silence, then back came rattling the reply in the Morse code, but in German:

"Yes, all is arranged. The _Augusta took a French merchant vessel off Pont Aven yesterday. The _Augusta ought to pass Groix this evening. You are to burn three white lights from Point Paradise if a landing-party is needed. It rests with you entirely."

Another silence, then the operator in the next room began:

"You say that Lorient is alarmed by rumors of Uhlans, and therefore sends the treasure-train back to Brest. The train, you assure me, carries the diamonds of the crown, bar-silver, gold, the Venus of Milo, and ten battle-flags from the Invalides. Am I correct?"

"Yes."

"The insurgents here, under an individual in our pay, one John Buckhurst, are preparing to wreck the train at the Lammerin trestle.

"If the _Augusta can reach Point Paradise to-night, a landing-party could easily scatter these insurgents, seize the treasures, and re-embark in safety.

"There is, you declare, nothing to fear from Lorient; the only thing, then, to be dreaded is the appearance of the _Fer-de-Lance off Groix. She is not now in sight; I will notify you if she appears. If she does not come I will burn three white lights in triangle on Paradise headland."

A short pause, then:

"Are there any Prussian cavalry near enough to help us?"

And the answer:

"Prussian dragoons are scouting toward Bannalec. I will send a messenger to them if I can. This is all. Be careful. Good-bye."

"Good-bye," clicked the instrument in the next room. There was a rustle of skirts, a tap of small shoes on the stone floor. I leaned forward and looked through the little partition window; Sylvia Elven stood by the table, quietly drawing on her gloves. Her face was flushed and thoughtful.

Slowly she walked toward the door, hesitated, turned, hurried back to the instrument, and set the switch. Then, without seating herself, she leaned over and gave the station call, three _S's_.

"I forgot to say that the two Yankee officers of military police, Scarlett and Speed, are a harmless pair. You have nothing to fear from them. Good-bye."

And the reply:

"Watch them all the same. Be careful, madame, they are Yankees. Good-bye."

When she had gone, closing the outer door behind her, I sprang to the key, switched on, rattled out the three S's and got my man, probably before he had taken three steps from his table.

"I forgot to say," I telegraphed, using a light, rapid touch to imitate Sylvia's--"I forgot to say that, in case the treasure-train is held back to-night, the Augusta must run for the English Channel."

"What's that?" came back the jerky reply.

I repeated.

"Donnerwetter!" rattled the wires. "The entire French iron-clad fleet is looking for her."

"And I hope they catch her," I telegraphed.

"Are you crazy?" came the frantic reply. "Who are you?"

"A Yankee, idiot!" I replied. "Run for your life, you hopeless ass!"

There was, of course, no reply, though I sent a few jocular remarks flying after what must have been the most horrified German spy south of Metz.

Then, at a venture, I set the switch on the arsenal line, got a quick reply, and succeeded in alarming them sufficiently, I think, for in a few moments I was telegraphing directly to the governor of Lorient, and the wires grew hot with an interchange of observations, which resulted in my running to the locker, tumbling out all the signal bunting, cones, and balls, sorting five flags, two red cones, and a ball, and hastening out to the semaphore.

Speed and the soldier Rolland saw me set the cones, hoist away, break out the flags on the halyards, and finally drop the white arm of the semaphore.

I had set the signal for the _Fer-de-Lance to land in force and wipe Buckhurst and his grotesque crew from the face of the earth.

"Rolland," I said, "here is another hundred francs. Watch that halyard and guard it. To-night you will string seven of those little lamps on this other halyard, light them, hoist them, and then go up that tower and light the three red lamps on the left."

"'Tendu," he said, promptly.

"If you do it I will give you two hundred francs to-morrow. Is it a bargain?"

The soldier broke out into a torrent of promises which I cut short.

"That lady will never come here again, I think. If she does, she must not touch those halyards. Do you hear? If she offers you money, remember I will double it. But, Rolland, if you lie to _me I will have you killed as the Bretons kill pigs; you understand how that is done?"

He said that he understood, and followed us, fawning and whining his cowardly promises of fidelity until we ordered the wretch back to the post which he had already twice betrayed, and would certainly betray again if the opportunity offered.

Walking fast over the springy heath, I told Speed briefly what I had done--that the treasure-train would not now leave Lorient, that as soon as the _Fer-de-Lance came in sight of the semaphore Buckhurst's game must come to an end.

Far ahead of us we saw the flutter of a light dress on the moor; Sylvia Elven, the spy, was going home; and from the distance, across the yellow-flowered gorse, her gay song floated back to us:


"Those who die for a maid
Are paid;
Those who die for a creed
God-speed;
Those who die for their own dear land
Shall stand forever on God's right hand!--"


"A spy!" muttered Speed.

"I think," said I, "that she had better leave Paradise at once. Oh, the little fool, to risk all for a caprice--for a word to the poor fellow she ruined! Vanity does it every time, Speed."

"I don't understand what you mean," he said.

"No, and I can't explain," I replied, thinking of Kelly Eyre. "But Sylvia Elven is running a fearful risk here. Mornac knows her record. Buckhurst would betray her in a moment if he thought it might save his own skin. She ought to leave before the _Fer-de-Lance sights the semaphore and reads the signal to land in force."

"Then you'll have to tell her," he said, gloomily.

"I suppose so," I replied, not at all pleased. For the prospect of humiliating her, of proving to this woman that I was not as stupid as she believed me, gave me no pleasure. Rather was I sorry for her, sorry for the truly pitiable condition in which she must now find herself.

As we reached the gates of Trecourt, dusty and tired from our moorland tramp, I turned and looked back. My signal was still set; the white arm of the semaphore glistened like silver against a brilliant sky of sapphire. Seaward I could see no sign of the _Fer-de-Lance_.

"The guns I heard at sea must have been fired from the German cruiser _Augusta_," I suggested to Speed. "She's been hovering off the coast, catching French merchant craft. I wish to goodness the _Fer-de-Lance would come in and give her a drubbing."

"Oh, rubbish!" he said. "What the deuce do we care?"

"It's human to take sides in this war, isn't it?" I insisted.

"Considering the fashion in which France has treated us individually, it seems to me that we may as well take the German side," he said.

"Are you going to?" I asked.

He hesitated. "Oh, hang it all, no! There's something about France that holds us poor devils--I don't know what. Barring England, she's the only human nation in the whole snarling pack. Here's to her--damn her impudence! If she wants me she can have me--empire, kingdom, or republic. Vive anything--as long as it's French!"

I was laughing when we entered the court; Jacqueline, her big, furry cat in her arms, came to the door and greeted Speed with:

"You have been away a very long time, and the thorns are all out of my arms and my legs, and I have been desiring to see you. Come into the house and read--shall we?"

Speed turned to me with an explanatory smile. "I've been reading the 'Idyls' aloud to her in English," he said, rather shyly. "She seems to like them; it's the noble music that attracts her; she can't understand ten words."

"I can understand nearly twenty," she said, flushing painfully.

Speed, who had no thought of hurting her, colored up, too.

"You don't comprehend, little one," he said, quickly. "It was in praise, not in blame, that I spoke."

"I knew it--I am silly," she said, with quick tears trembling in her eyes. "You know I adore you, Speed. Forgive me."

She turned away into the house, saying that she would get the book.

"Look here, Speed," I said, troubled, "Jacqueline is very much like the traditional maid of romance, which I never believed existed--all unspoiled, frankly human, innocently daring, utterly ignorant of convention. She's only a child now, but another year or two will bring something else to her."

"Don't you suppose I've thought of that?" he said, frowning.

"I hope you have."

"Well, I have. When I find enough to do to keep soul and body friendly I'm going to send her to school, if that old ruffian, her father, allows it."

"I think he will," I said, gravely; "but after that?"

"After what?"

"After she's educated and--unhappy?"

"She isn't any too happy now," he retorted.

"Granted. But after you have spent all your money on her, what then?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that you'll have no child to deal with, but a woman in full bloom, a woman fairly aquiver with life and intelligence, a high-strung, sensitive, fine-grained creature, whose educated ignorance will not be educated innocence, remember that! And I tell you, Speed, it's the heaviest responsibility a man can assume."

"I know it," he replied.

"Then it's all right, if you do know it," I said, cheerfully. "All I can say is, I am thankful she isn't to spend her life in the circus."

"Or meet death there," he added. "It's not to our credit that she escapes it."

Jacqueline came dancing back to the porch, cat under one arm, book under the other, so frankly happy, so charmingly grateful for Speed's society, that the tragedy of the lonely child touched me very deeply. I strove to discover any trace of the bar sinister in her, but could not, though now I understood, from her parentage, how it was possible for a poacher's child to have such finely sculptured hands and feet. Perhaps her dark, silky lashes and hair were Mornac's, but if this was so, I trusted that there the aristocratic blood had spent its force in the frail body of this child of chance.

I went into the house, leaving them seated on the porch, heads together, while in a low monotone Speed read the deathless "Morte d'Arthur."

Daylight was waning.

Out of the west a clear, greenish sky, tinged with saffron tints, promised a sea-wind. But the mild land-breeze was still blowing and the ebb-tide flowing as I entered the corridor and glanced at the corner where the spinning-wheel stood. Sylvia sat beside it, reading in the Lutheran Bible by the failing light.

She raised her dreamy eyes as I passed; I had never seen her piquantly expressive face so grave.

"May I speak to you alone a moment, after dinner?" I asked.

"If you wish," she replied.

I bowed and started on, but she called me back.

"Did you know that Monsieur Eyre is here?"

"Kelly Eyre?"

"Oui, monsieur. He returns with an order from the governor of Lorient for the balloon."

I was astonished, and asked where Eyre had gone.

"He is in your room," she said, "loading your revolver. I hope you will not permit him to go alone to Paradise."

"I'll see about that," I muttered, and hurried up the stairs and down the hallway to my bedchamber.

He sprang to the door as I entered, giving me both hands in boyish greeting, saying how delighted they all were to know that my injury had proved so slight.

"That balloon robbery worried me," he continued. "I knew that Speed depended on his balloon for a living; so as soon as we entered Lorient I went to our consul, and he and I made such a row that the governor of Lorient gave me an order for the balloon. Here it is, Mr. Scarlett."

His heightened color and excitement, his nervous impetuosity, were not characteristic of this quiet and rather indifferent young countryman of mine.

I looked at him keenly but pleasantly.

"You are going to load my revolver, and go over to Paradise and take that balloon from these bandits?" I asked, smiling.

"An order is all right, but it is the more formal when backed by a bullet," he said.

"Do you mean to tell me that you were preparing to go over into that hornet's nest alone?"

He shrugged his shoulders with a reckless laugh.

"Give me my revolver," I said, coldly.

His face fell. "Let me take it, Mr. Scarlett," he pleaded; but I refused, and made him hand me the weapon.

"Now," I said, sternly, "I want to know what the devil you mean by attempting suicide? Do you suppose that those ruffians care a straw for you and your order? Kelly, what's the matter with you? Is life as unattractive as all that?"

His flushed and sullen face darkened.

"If you want to risk your life," I said, "you have plenty of chances in your profession. Did you ever hear of an aged aeronaut? Kelly, go back to America and break your neck like a gentleman."

He darted a menacing glance at me, but there was nothing of irony in my sober visage.

"You appear here," I said, "after the others have sailed from Lorient. Why? To do Speed this generous favor? Yes--and to do yourself the pleasure of ending an embittered life under the eyes of the woman who ruined you."

The boy flinched as though I had struck him in the face. For a moment I expected a blow; his hands clinched convulsively, and he focussed me with blazing eyes.

"Don't," I said, quietly. "I am trying to be your friend; I am trying to save you from yourself, Kelly. Don't throw away your life--as I have done. Life is a good thing, Kelly, a good thing. Can we not be friends though I tell you the truth?"

The color throbbed and throbbed in his face. There was a chair near him; he groped for it, and sat down heavily.

"Life is a good thing," I said again, "but, Kelly, truth is better. And I must tell you the--well, something of the truth--as much as you need know ... now. My friend, _she is not worth it_."

"Do you think that makes any difference?" he said, harshly. "Let me alone, Scarlett. I know!... _I know_, I tell you!"

"Do you mean to tell me that you know she deliberately betrayed you?" I demanded.

"Yes, I know it--I tell you I know it!"

"And ... you love her?"

"Yes." He dropped his haggard face on his arms a moment, then sat bolt upright. "Truth is better than life," he said, slowly. "I lied to you and to myself when I came back. I did come to get Speed's balloon, but I came ... for her sake,... to be near her,... to see her once more before I--"

"Yes, I understand, Kelly."

He winced and leaned wearily back.

"You are right," he said; "I wanted to end it,... I am tired."

I sat thinking for a moment; the light in the room faded to a glimmer on the panes.

"Kelly," I said, "there remains another way to risk your neck, and, I think, a nobler way. There is in this house a woman who is running a terrible risk--a German spy whose operations have been discovered. This woman believes that she has in her pay the communist leader of the revolt, a man called Buckhurst. She is in error. And she must leave this house to-night."

Eyre's face had paled. He bent forward, clasped hands between his knees, eyes fastened on me.

"There will be trouble here to-night--or, in all probability, within the next twenty-four hours. I expect to see Buckhurst a prisoner. And when that happens it will go hard with Mademoiselle Elven, for he will turn on her to save himself.... And you know what that means;... a blank wall, Kelly, and a firing-squad. There is but one sex for spies."

A deadly fear was stamped on his bloodless face. I saw it, tense and quivering, in the gray light of the window.

"She must leave to-night, Kelly. She must try to cross into Spain. Will you help her?"

He nodded, striving to say "yes."

"You know your own risk?"

"Yes."

"Her company is death for you both if you are taken."

He stood up very straight. In what strange forms comes happiness to man!

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