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The Wounded God by A. E. W. Mason

 

THERE were only two really young people in Mrs. Maine's drawing-room that evening and naturally enough they sat apart talking to each other. At least that is how Cynthia Maine would have put it. The young man in fact was dutifully listening and Cynthia was in full flight. The eager thrill of her voice, her face a-quiver, the sparkling intensity of her charming and charmingly dressed person, all suggested that she was satisfactorily solving one of the world's great problems. But she was not. She was debating with her beau—as Cynthia understood debate—where they should go and dance the night away as soon as these tiresome elders had trailed off to their beds. Should it be the Fifty-Fifty, or the Embassy, or the Cafe de Paris? But before the momentous decision was reached, Cynthia suddenly gave up. She leaned back in her chair and her hands dropped over the arms.

"I have been fighting against it all the evening, but I'm beaten," she said moodily. Then she rose abruptly and slipped out between the curtains on to the balcony.

Her bewildered companion found her there. She was leaning, her elbows propped upon the red cushion which stretched along the top of the balcony's parapet, and her hands pressed tightly over her eyes in a vain endeavour to shut out some vision which obsessed her.

"Cynthia, what in the world have I done to hurt you?" the youth asked remorsefully.

Cynthia lifted her face up and stared at him. She found his quite natural question utterly inexplicable.

"You, Jim? Why, nothing of course."

She looked out over the Green Park, and threw up her head as though she was bathing her forehead and her throat in its cool fresh darkness; and drew from it some balm for her agitation.

"This is one of Mummy's parties," she said. "There are people here whom I don't know. People she met this spring when I wasn't with her, at Cairo, or Tunis, or Algiers, or somewhere. So I can't tell which of them is doing it. Can I?"

"No, you certainly can't," Jim asserted stoutly.

Cynthia swerved like a filly when a sheet of paper blows across the road in front of her, and with a frown wrinkling her pretty forehead, surveyed through the gaps between the curtains her mother's guests. Jim looked over her shoulder, frowning still more portentously, and forgot his manners.

"They look as commonplace a crowd as I ever saw gathered together in my life. Not one of them has got anything on you," he said.

"Yes, but there is one of them who isn't commonplace at all," returned Cynthia with conviction. "One of them is doing it."

Jim was half inclined to jest and sing, "Everybody's doing it." But tact was his strong suit on this summer night.

"Doing what, Cynthia?" he asked gently.

"Hush!"

An appealing hand was thrust under his arm and pressed into his coat-sleeve. Cynthia wanted companionship, not conversation.

"I shall have an awful night, Jim, unless we put up a barrage."

Cynthia was very miserable. Jim turned back his hand and got hold of Cynthia's.

"I know. We'll slip out now and get away. I have got my little car at the door."

Cynthia, however, shook her head.

"It wouldn't be fair on Mummy. We must wait. They'll all go very soon. Besides, it is important to me to find out which of them it is who's doing it. Then I can make sure that whoever it is never comes to this house again."

It was an appalling threat, but Jim recognized that it was just. People had no right to do things to Cynthia which would give her an awful night, even across a drawing-room. They must be black-balled thoroughly. Then a dreadful explanation of Cynthia's misery smote him.

"My dear, you are not a natural medium, are you?" he asked in a voice of awe. He turned her towards him and contemplated her with pleasure. He looked her up and down from her neatly shingled fair brown hair to her shining feet. She was a slim, long-legged, slinky creature. All that he had ever heard about mediums led him to believe that as a rule they ran to breadth and flesh. He drew a breath of relief, but Cynthia looked at him very curiously.

"No," she answered after a moment's reflection. "It's just this one thing. I am not odd in any other way. And this one thing isn't my fault either. And there's a very good real reason for it too." She broke off to ask anxiously, "I don't seem to you to be incoherent at all, do I, Jim?"

Jim firmly reassured her.

"No one could be more lucid."

Cynthia breathed her relief.

"Thank you. You are a comfort, Jim. I'll tell you something more now. This thing—somebody in that drawing-room knows about it—has been thinking about it all the evening—has been making me think about it—has come here to-night to make me think about it. And it's a horror!"

And she suddenly swept her arm out across the expanse of the Green Park, from Piccadilly on the north to Buckingham Palace on the south.

"Yes, it's a horror," she repeated in a low voice.

She was watching a dreadful procession go by, endlessly and always from north to south. It moved not in the darkness, but along a straight white riband of road under a hot sun, between pleasant and sunny fields, but in a choking mist of yellow dust. There was a herd of white oxen at one point of the procession, and here a troop of goats and there a flock of bleating sheep. But the bulk of it was made up of old clumsy heavy carts, drawn by old, old horses, and accompanied by old, old men, and piled up with mattresses and stores and utensils, on the top of which lurched and clung old, old women and very young children. It was the age of all, men and beasts, who were taking part in this stupendous migration which gave to it its horror. These were no pioneers. It was a flight. There was one particularly dreadful spectacle, an old man without cart or horse who carried upon his bent back like a sack a still older woman. All through the day, dipping down from the northern horizon and rising to the edge of the southern, the procession streamed slowly by. At nightfall it just stopped; at daybreak it resumed. There would come a moment, Cynthia knew well—it always did come—but after she was asleep—when the procession would begin to race, when the old men and the old horses would begin to leap and jump, grotesquely with stiff limbs, like marionettes—and that was much more horrible. For some of them would fall and be trampled under foot, and no one would mind. But that moment was not yet.

There was a stir in the drawing-room behind her.

"They are going," she said.

Both of these young people turned to the window, and Cynthia laid her hand again on Jim's arm and detained him.

"Wait! Wait!" she whispered eagerly. "I believe we shall find out which of them it is."

They watched through the gap between the curtains all the preliminary movements of a general and on the whole eagerly welcomed retreat, the guests rising as one person, the hostess with just a little less but not much less alacrity and murmurs about a delightful evening coming as if from the mouths of a succession of polite automata. They saw Mrs. Maine turn her head towards a picture on the wall. They heard her say:

"That? Yes, it is quite lovely, isn't it? Let us look at it."

Both Cynthia and Jim fixed their eyes upon the particular guest who had called Mrs. Maine's attention to the picture and now crossed the room with her. A woman, if anything a little below the average height, of an indeterminate age somewhere between thirty-six and fifty, she had no distinctive personality. She was dark, neither ugly nor beautiful. There was even something ungraceful in her walk.

"She is as commonplace as a sheep," said Jim, meaning that it could not possibly be she who had so disturbed and controlled the shining young creature just in front of him.

"Wait!" Cynthia advised. "Were you introduced to her, Jim?"

"No."

"I suppose that Mummy introduced me to her. But I don't remember anything about her. She was at the other end of the dinner table too."

"It can't be her," said Jim.

Mrs. Maine led her visitor to the picture, a sketch of an old French chateau glowing in a blaze of sunlight. A great lawn, smooth and green as an emerald and set in a wide border of flowers, spread in front of a building at once elegant and solid; and a wide stream with a glint of silver, bathed the edge of the lawn in front. At the sides of the chateau, tall chestnut trees made an avenue and behind the chateau rose a high bare hill.

"Many years ago, my husband and I saw that house when we were touring in France," Mrs. Maine explained. "I fell in love with it and he bought it for me. We spent four months a year there. After my husband died, I still went back to it, but five years ago Cynthia—"

"Your daughter?" interrupted the stranger.

"Yes, my daughter took a distaste for it. So I sold it to a Monsieur Franchard. He made a great fortune out of the War and is very fond of it, I am told."

"That's the woman, Jim," said Cynthia with a little shake in her voice.

But the woman in question showed no further interest in the picture. Jim had a fear lest the very intensity of Cynthia's regard, the concentration of all her senses, should draw that strange woman's eyes to the curtain behind which the pair of them stood concealed. But not a bit of it! The strange woman smiled, thanked her hostess for her evening, shook her hand and waddled—the word was in Jim's thoughts—waddled out of the room. Nothing could have been more banal than her exit.

As soon as she had gone Cynthia slipped back between the curtains and took her place by her mother's side.

"Who was it who was talking to you about the Chateau Dore, Mummy?" she asked in an interval between shaking hands with departing guests.

"A Madame D'Estourie," replied her mother. "She was kind to me in Algiers. She came to London a week ago and called upon me. So I asked her to dinner."

"Algiers!" Cynthia repeated with a start, and to herself she said: "I was right. She must never come to the house any more. I'll speak to Mummy to-morrow."

The room was now empty except for her mother, herself and Jim.

"We are going off now to dance," she said.

Cynthia's mother smiled.

"You have got your latchkey?"

"Yes."

Mrs. Maine turned to the young man.

"And, Jim, don't let her stay up too late. She's going to dance again to-morrow. Good night, my dear."

At the door of the drawing-room Cynthia said:

"Jim, I am going to run up for a cloak and you can start your old car and wait for me in the hall."

She ran upstairs, through her little sitting-room and into her bedroom beyond it. Whilst she was getting her cloak out of the cupboard, it seemed to her that she heard a slight movement in her sitting-room. When she reentered that room she saw that the door on to the staircase was closed; and that Madame D'Estourie was sitting in a chair, waiting for her.

But Madame D'Estourie was no longer insignificant.

II

"I thought that you had gone," Cynthia stammered.

Madame D'Estourie smiled at so childish a notion and by her smile made Cynthia feel a child and rather a helpless child—a sensation which she very much disliked.

"I knew of course that you were behind the curtains on the balcony," Madame D'Estourie explained quite calmly. "I slipped into the dark room at the side of the drawing-room and watched for you. I saw you run upstairs. I followed you."

Cynthia was troubled and exasperated. She did something she hated herself for even whilst she was doing it. She became impudent.

"Do you think it's decent manners to come to Mummy's dinner-party in order to spy and intrude on me?" she asked, haughtily lifting her pretty face above the ermine collar of her coat and stamping her foot.

"I didn't give my manners a thought," Madame D'Estourie replied calmly. "I have been searching for you for years. I got this spring the first hint that it was you I was searching for. I became certain to-night. I couldn't let you go for the sake of my good manners."

Cynthia did not pretend any bewilderment as to the object of Madame D'Estourie's persistence.

"I have never spoken about it to anyone, not even to Mummy," she said, yielding a little in spite of herself.

"In that you are to blame," Madame D'Estourie returned relentlessly.

Cynthia's face had lost its resentment. She was on weak ground here. She had no sharp words of rejoinder.

"I hate thinking about it at all," she said in excuse.

"Yet you do think about it."

"At times. I can't help it;" and Cynthia shivered and clasped her cloak about her.

"When you have talked about it, you won't have to think about it. You will be freed from the tyranny of your memories."

Cynthia looked curiously, almost hopefully, at Madame D'Estourie.

"I wonder," she said.

It might be possible that all these recurring nightmares, these obsessions by day were warnings that she should speak, and punishments because she did not. She tried one final evasion.

"I'll come and talk to you one day, Madame D'Estourie, and quite, quite soon. I have to go out to-night."

Madame D'Estourie shook her head, and for the first time in that interview a smile of humour softened the set of her lips.

"It will take you five minutes to tell your story, and the young gentleman in the hall has before now no doubt waited for ten."

Cynthia was no match for her unwelcome visitor. Madame D'Estourie was as undistinguished as Jim had declared. But she had the tremendous power conferred by a single purpose never forgotten for an hour during ten long years. The young girl, gracious, independent, exquisite and finished from the points of her toes to the top of her head, in spite of her belief that the world belonged exclusively to the young, sat obediently down in face of her commonplace and rather dowdy companion and recited her story. Recited is the only suitable word: her recollections were so continuous and so clear.

III

"I was nine years old that July. On the fifteenth of the month I crossed from England with my governess, passed through Paris and out by the Eastern Railway to Neuilly-sur-Morin, which was the station for the Chateau Dore. Mummy was in London and meant to join me in August. So, you see, my governess and I were caught at the Chateau Dore. Even in Paris, on the Friday nothing definite was known and then at midday on Saturday the Eastern Railway was taken over by the Army. There we were, fifty miles from Paris. Our two motors, every horse under twenty years old, and the farm carts were commandeered the next day. No one could get to us, we could not get away and no letters or telegrams arrived—not even a newspaper. You can understand that a little girl of nine thoroughly enjoyed it. I was reading with my governess Jules Verne's Career of a Comet, and I used to play at imagining that we had been carried away into space like the soldiers in the garrison. We were indeed just as isolated—except for the noise of the great trains which thundered by to the East at the back of the hill all day and all night.

"Thrilling things too happened in our little village. One morning I found the old schoolmaster and Polydore Cromecq, the Mayor who kept the little estaminet, driving two great posts into the road and closing it with a heavy chain.

"'Now let the spies come!' cried Polydore Cromecq. 'Ah, les salauds! We shall be ready for them.'

"He took a great pull at a bock of beer and explained to the little Miss as he called me that night and day there was to be a guard upon the chain and no one was to pass without papers.

"Polydore fascinated me at that time tremendously. He was short and squat and swarthy; he had a great rumbling laugh and great hands and feet to match the laugh; and he had an enormous walrusy black moustache, which I adored. For it used to get all covered with the froth of the beer and then there would be little bubbles winking and breaking all over it, until after a time he would put a huge tongue out and lick it all off. He knew how I adored this and used to make quite a performance of it. I watched him now and clapped my hands when he had finished. Polydore burst out laughing.

"'Good little Miss! Sleep in your bed without fear! No one shall pass. Courage! Courage!'

"Polydore in those days was always shouting 'Courage!' though why I could not imagine. We knew of course that leagues and leagues away soldiers were fighting, but it wasn't real to any of us—yet. Our village was not even on the main road which ran east and west at the back of the hill close to the railway. It was tucked into its own little corner at a bend of the Morin and the by-road which led to it led to nowhere else.

"For three weeks then our village slept in the sunlight, and Polydore shouted, 'Courage! Courage! We shall get them.' Then Polydore shouted no more, and he went about heavy and sour and if he saw me he shrugged his shoulders and said bitterly, 'Of course, it's only France'; as if, because I wasn't French, I had scored some mean advantage over France. For the carts of the refugees began to rumble all day on the road on the other side of the hill, and we heard each day a little nearer the boom and reverberation of the heavy guns, and my governess set to work to install the chateau as a hospital. Then one night, the last night I slept in the Chateau Dore, I heard suddenly in the middle of a deadly stillness a quite new strange sound. It was as though a boy was running along a path and drawing, as he ran, a stick across a paling of iron rails. It was the first time I had ever heard a machine-gun.

"The next morning, immediately after breakfast, I ran down to the village. The whole of the village council was assembled in the Mayor's office, and the remaining inhabitants were standing silent and crowded together outside watching through the windows the progress of the debate. A rumour had spread that we were surrounded by Uhlans. Everybody believed it. Uhlans! There were peasants who remembered 1870. The mere name carried with it panic and despair. So overwhelming was the dread that when a party of four men in uniform came out from a little wood, at the end of the village, the women and even some of the men began to scream, 'The Uhlans! The Uhlans!'

"The village council broke up in a hurry and rushed into the street, Polydore wiping his forehead with a great coloured handkerchief, and cursing under his breath. The old schoolmaster was the first to recall everybody to reason.

"'These are French uniforms,' he cried. 'They are Zouaves'; and everybody began to pelt along the streets towards them, cheering at the tops of their voices in their relief. But the cheers dropped as we got nearer. For we saw that three of the Zouaves were supporting and almost carrying the fourth. He was a young lieutenant, almost a boy, and very handsome. He was as white as a sheet of paper, and there was a dreadful look of pain in his eyes, though his lips smiled at us. The blood was bubbling out of his coat at the breast. He seemed to me a young wounded god.

"I forced my way through the crowd and said:

"'He must be taken to the chateau. There we will look after him.'

"But one of the soldiers shook his head and smiled gratefully.

"'No, Miss. We must leave him here at the first house. If the bleeding is stopped and he can lie quiet, he may recover. Many do. Besides, we have to find our own company.'

"The first house in the village was a small general store and sweet-shop kept by a Mademoiselle Cromecq, a withered old spinster and a sister of the Mayor.

"'But he will spoil my furniture,' she cried, standing in her shop door and barring the way.

"A storm of protests rose from the throats of all the other villagers who didn't have to have their furniture spoiled. On all sides I heard:

"'Did you ever hear anything like it?'

"'There's a Frenchwoman for you!'

"'A dirty vixen!'

"Fists were shaken, mouths spat. The only good-humoured people were the soldiers.

"'Come, Mother,' said the one who had smiled at me. 'Imagine for a moment that this fine lad's your son.'

"They pushed her good-humouredly out of the way and carried the boy into a room at the side of the shop and laid him very gently on a couch. Then the leader of them—he wore a sergeant's stripes—came out again and, walking straight up to me, saluted.

"'Mademoiselle,' he said, 'at your chateau you have bandages and someone who can nurse. He is a good boy, our young officer. I leave him to you. For us, we have been separated from our battalion—a glass of wine in a hurry—what?—and we go back.'

"Somehow, in the presence of this cheerful—what shall I say?—adequate soldier who knew exactly what he wanted, we all felt emboldened. Polydore ran to his estaminet half-way down the small village street for a jug of wine and some glasses. Meanwhile I—you must remember that I was a child of nine—I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me, my heart swelling with pride. The smiling soldier had singled me out, had confided the young wounded god to my care. Fast as I ran, however, I had not reached the house before I heard a great sound of cheering and looking down from the slope leading up to the chateau, I saw the three remaining soldiers waving their kepis as they hurried back into the wood. I burst into the house with my story and in a minute, my governess with Honorine, one of the servants, and myself at her heels, all of us laden with lint and cotton-wool and bottles of disinfectant, and a suit of pyjamas, were racing back to the little general store.

"The village was still massed outside the shop, still on fire with loyalty. We were welcomed with a torrent of cheers.

"'Ah, the English women! The English women!' some of them cried—we were popular in France in those days except with Polydore. And an old man of eighty looked at me with a chuckle.

"'The little one! I wish I had her legs—that's all!'

"'Yes, she has the legs, the little foreigner,' Polydore added sourly. 'She will be able to run.'

"My governess would not allow me to follow them into the house. So I remained outside, hopping from one foot on to the other in my anxiety, wondering what they were doing to my young wounded god, and praying with all my heart that they would not hurt him. Meanwhile the villagers drifted away. It was summer. The crops had to be got in, the vines to be tended, and there were no young men to help. I was glad when they went. I didn't want them to hear a groan or even a sign of pain from my young god, lest they should remember it and thereafter think the less of him. But not a sound came through the open window. And all my pride in him was changed into a dreadful fear lest he should have died.

"I remember shutting my eyes and clenching my fists in a refusal to believe it, when I heard Polydore Cromecq grumbling behind me.

"'It is true, you know. The old one will have her furniture spoilt. All that blood! And who will pay for it? The Government? I don't think!'

"It was the grocer who replied, a little ferrety man:

"'Yes, they should have taken him to the chateau. What does it matter to the rich ones at the chateau if some of their fine sheets are ruined? They can afford it. He will die? But this is war and he is a soldier.'

"'It is worse than war,' cried Polydore Cromecq with an oath. 'This is 1870 over again.'

"Suddenly they became silent and I had a conviction that one of them was nudging the other in the ribs and pointing towards me.

"The silence was broken by a new-comer to that group—my old friend, the schoolmaster.

"'Monsieur le Maire,' he said, addressing Polydore Cromecq in the formal tones which he kept for authority, 'I think that if a wounded officer is brought into this village the enemy must be very near. We hear no good accounts of them from the refugees. I put it to you, Monsieur le Maire, that the women should be ordered to leave.'

"The old schoolmaster was the only man in the village with a cool head upon his shoulders. Polydore Cromecq and the little grocer Gavroche had been occupied by their own little grievances and meannesses. We had lost our hearts and our senses in our enthusiasm over our wounded hero. The proximity of the enemy had been overlooked. Even the Uhlans had been forgotten during the last hour.

"Polydore ran off to make out an order for the evacuation of the village and at the same time my governess called to me from the window of the cottage.

"'He wants to thank you.'

"I went into the room on tiptoe. The young Zouave was lying in a bed made up on a great couch. His wound had been staunched, he had been washed and dressed in the pyjamas we had brought from the chateau.

"'You need not speak, Monsieur Henri,' said my governess. He was already 'Monsieur Henri' to them—in his full title the Lieutenant Henri Flavelle of the 6th Regiment of Zouaves.

"'He has been shot through the lung, but the wound is clean and, if he is sensible, he will get well.'

"The Zouave smiled at me. He was easier now. The look of pain had gone from his eyes. He beckoned me with a little movement of his fingers and I sat down—oh, so gently!—on the side of his bed so as not to shake him.

"'You wanted to take me into your chateau,' he whispered. 'I thank you, little friend. No, you mustn't cry. You heard what Mademoiselle said. I am going to get well.' Then he laughed a little, in spite of a warning shake of the fingers from my governess. 'When I am well and you are grown up, will you marry me, little friend?'

"I clasped my hands together with a gasp. Oh, wouldn't I just!

"'Good! Then that's settled,' he said, his eyes twinkling with fun, and then he became serious. 'Now listen, all of you! You must leave this village to-night. You have bicycles? Good! Take what money you have and leave secretly after dark. Countries at war are not very safe for young women with no men to protect them. Travel by the by-roads as fast as you can, and not towards Paris. Go south.'

"'But we can't leave you here like this,' I cried, and he shook his head reproachfully.

"'What sort of dog's life shall we lead when we are married, if you refuse my first prayer. Promise!'

"Before I could promise, a boy covered with dust and panting for breath burst into the room.

"'I was sent here from the chateau. It is Mees Lovetear.'

"We were all accustomed to hearing Miss Lowther addressed in that way. My governess held out her hand, and the boy put his hand into his blouse and drew forth a letter. It was from Mummy.

"'I have got to Barbizon, but cannot get nearer. Come at once on your bicycles. The boy will show you the way.'

"'You see,' said the Zouave. 'To-night you will go?'

"We promised. The boy had come on a bicycle from Barbizon, and had been two days upon the journey. We sent him off to the chateau to get some food. My governess put a jug of water by the Zouave's bed, gave him some opium tablets, and paid some money to Mademoiselle Cromecq for his nourishment. Then we left him.

"It was a day of events. Opposite the little 'Mairie' I saw our old bearded forest-guardian, Papa Francois, talking to Polydore Cromecq and Gavroche, and the tears were rolling down his face. He was blubbering like a child as he talked...It was horrible to see...And it frightened me. But the moment we got near, Polydore cried 'Chut! Chut!' in a savage undertone and the old forester stopped at once. That frightened me still more. I had a feeling that something horrible was growing and growing in the village, some idea which was monstrous. I returned to the chateau and whilst we ate a meal and waited for darkness my uneasiness grew until I burst out sobbing as if my heart would break. My governess put my outburst down to terror at our position, to fear for myself. But I wasn't afraid for myself. I hadn't realized that we were in any danger.

"'It's getting dark already, Cynthia,' she said to comfort me. 'We'll be off in a few minutes'; and she went upstairs to put a few things together.

"I was left alone in the great dining-room. The shadows were deepening in every corner every second. I ran into the kitchen. All the servants had gone already. Only the boy who was to guide us was there finishing his meal.

"'Gilbert,' I asked, 'which way do we go?'

"'Over the little bridge at the back of the village, across the Morin, then by the cart-track through Jouy-le-Chatel, Mademoiselle.'

"'Good! You must take my bicycle with you, Gilbert. I will meet you and Mademoiselle at the gate where the cart-track begins. Tell Mademoiselle and wait for me there.'

"I gave him no time to answer me. I left him gaping at me with his mouth open. I was terrified lest my governess should come down whilst I was still in the house. I ran out by the kitchen and down the avenue of trees. In the village there was only one light burning and that came through the open door of Cromecq's estaminet and lay like a broad yellow blade across the street. I crept to the edge of it and then raced across. But no one had seen me. No one called. I ran on to the cottage at the end of the village. That was in darkness too. I stopped under the window where the Zouave lay and listened. I couldn't even hear him breathing. I raised my hand to tap upon the window-pane. But the window was open. I stood upon tiptoe with my fingers on the sill and could just look in. It was all black—yes, even where the white sheets of his bed should have glimmered.

"'Henri,' I whispered. 'Monsieur Henri!' But not even a sigh answered me.

"I felt sure that he was dead. I heard myself sobbing. But I had got to make sure. I tried the door. It was locked. I knocked upon it gently at first, then in a fury. There wasn't a sound. The house was empty—empty of all perhaps but the young Zouave. I found a pail, by chance. I turned it upside down and standing on it climbed into the room through the open window.

"'Monsieur Henri,' I whispered. I was terribly afraid, but I had got to make sure. There was no one on the couch at all. The very sheets had been taken away. I crept over to the corner where I had seen his uniform folded. That too had disappeared. So had his sword which had been leaning against the corner of the wall. There was no longer a trace of him at all. I was seized with a panic as I stood in that dark empty room. I ran to the window and tumbled out of it—somehow. As I reached the ground I upset the pail. The clattering of it sounded to me like a peal of thunder. I turned to run and someone grasped and held my arm. I gave a gasp and should have fainted, but a rough friendly voice spoke to me.

"'You, Mademoiselle! What are you doing here? You should have gone with the rest. All the women have gone. There is an order. Don't you know that?' and he shook my arm chidingly. 'My word, how you frightened me! It is not right to frighten an old man like that!'

"'We are going to-night. Papa Francois,' I answered. 'We are going to Barbizon. But I wanted to say goodbye to the Zouave and make sure that he was comfortable. And he has gone, Papa Francois.'

"'But of course he has gone. Don't you know? Haven't you heard? They will occupy the village tomorrow morning.' I did not have to ask whom he meant by 'they.' 'They caught me in the forest and sent me back with a message for the Mayor. If a French soldier, a French weapon, even a French uniform is found in Neuilly-sur-Morin, they will burn every house to the ground. We could not leave an officer at the very first house they will come to—the house of Mademoiselle Cromecq too. You see that, little Miss?' Poor Papa Francois was torn between terror for his village and pity for the young officer. Remorsefully he pleaded his necessity. 'The house of the sister of the Mayor. No, then, for sure, everything would be destroyed. So we moved him—but very tenderly. There is a stretcher, you know. We did not hurt him—oh, no.'

"'And where is he now, Papa Frangois?' I broke in.

"The old man hesitated and blundered. Oh, it took ages to get the truth out of him, as he grumbled and quavered and whispered in that dark street.

"'It is the only place...He is safe there...The village too. And after all it is not so bad. Bah! He is a soldier. He has slept in many worse places this last month...'

"'Where? Where?' I insisted.

"'It is in the Fire-shed. But it is only for an hour or two. To-night Monsieur le Maire and Gavroche will carry him across the Morin and hide him safely in a farm—'

"But I did not wait to hear more excuses. I tore my arm free from Papa Francois and darted across the street. Yes, we had a Fire-shed at the back of the estaminet, on the river bank—a miserable little hut filled up with our little hand-drawn fire-engine, and with a mud floor. Oh, I was not afraid any longer. I was mad with passion, the passion of a little girl nine years old for a young god, in a uniform too, dropped out of the clouds, wounded—a young god who had asked her to marry him. And they treated him like that! Once more I hadn't a doubt who 'they' were—Polydore Cromecq, and his sister whose furniture would be spoilt by a bleeding man, and little Gavroche, the grocer!

"Skimming along in the darkness, with my heart all upside down, I nearly ran headlong into the vine-covered trellis work which stretched out into the road on each side of the estaminet and made a shelter for the little tables. I pulled up in time, however, and the next moment I was crouching against the vine-leaves, holding my breath, listening—that is, listening as well as the beating of my heart would allow me.

"For just on the other side of the trellis, seated at a little table in the corner where the light from the open door could not reach, there were Polydore and Gavroche, drinking. They must have heard me, I was convinced, but they had not, and immediately I learnt why.

"The neck of a bottle rattled on the rim of a glass and Polydore in a thick wheedling voice said:

"'Another glass, old comrade! I do not bring out such brandy as this for every client. No!'

"'It is good,' answered Gavroche. 'We need such drink for our work. To save this little corner of France, eh, my friend.'

"They were both of them half drunk. I did not trouble my head about what they were saying. They talked of France, they thought of themselves. But they had not yet carried my wounded god across the river. I slipped by the side of the house through the grass to the little Fire-shed. It was very dark that night, but I had the eyes of a cat and I could see the triangle of the roof against the sky. The door was unlocked. I pulled it open.

"'Monsieur Henri,' I said in a low voice, and he answered from my feet. There was just room for him to lie across the shed between the engine and the door, and they had laid his stretcher there on the mud floor.

"'You little angel!' he whispered in a startled tone. 'What are you doing here? You should have gone hours ago.'

"I dropped down on my knees beside him. He was shivering with cold.

"'The brutes! The brutes!'

"He lifted a hand and laid it over my lips.

"'Listen, little one! Before you go. You must never mention to anyone, not even to your mother, one word about what has happened to-night. Promise me? For the honour of France!'

"'I don't understand,' I sobbed.

"'But you will, dear. Kiss me once! Thank you! Remember! For the honour of France! Now go!' and since I did not move, his voice strengthened suddenly. 'Then I shall sit up and that will kill me.'

"'No, no!' I prayed, and I sprang to my feet—and through the open door we both heard the Mayor and Gavroche encouraging one another drunkenly as they stumbled through the grass.

"'Look quickly! Do they carry a lantern?' Henri asked. He was frightened now—since the morning of that day I have never been able to mistake the sound of fear in a man's voice—but frightened for me.

"'No, they have no lantern.'

"The Zouave drew a breath of relief.

"'Then run! Run, little betrothed one, as fast as you can, as silently as you can. Oh, whilst there's time, my dear.' His head fell back upon the pillow. 'You see I can do nothing!'

"There was such an agony of appeal in his voice that I slipped round the side of the shed at once. I hid behind a bush on the river bank and I heard Polydore utter a startled oath as his hand knocked against the open door of the shed.

"'So you have had a visitor, my Lieutenant,' he said, and I never heard geniality ring with so false a note.

"'I?' replied Henri, and he spoke as loudly, as warningly as he could. 'I was stifled in here. I pushed the door open with the one hand I could use.'

"'Yes, it is bad,' Gavroche agreed. 'But all that are left in the village are asleep now. We can carry you, my Lieutenant, to a place where no one can betray you. Gently! Gently! So!'

"The two men moved away from the shed with the stretcher between them. Yes, but they didn't carry it eastwards towards the bridge but westwards where there was no bridge at all. They were drunk—that was what I thought—they had mistaken their way. I ran out from the hedge—I was on the point of calling to them—when I heard an oath and one of them stumbled—or seemed to stumble. I heard a loud splash, I saw in the darkness a sudden swirl of white as the river broke into foam, and above the sound of the splash a cry rose in a clear young vibrating voice:

"'Run! Run!'

"A cry to me! But I was paralysed by the horror of the accident. For a moment I couldn't run. Then I did—towards the spot where the accident had happened. I was close to them when a dreadful thing happened. The wounded Zouave's head rose above the water, his hands clutched at the bank, and I saw Polydore Cromecq raise a great stick and beat with all his strength upon the knuckles. A groan answered the blows, and the Zouave with a groan sank again beneath the water.

"The two men remained kneeling upon the bank, peering into the darkness, listening. Polydore said:

"'It is over now.'

"And Gavroche replied:

"'Yes, it is over. We had to think of our village, hadn't we? Yes, yes, we had to think of France.'

"Then they stood up and saw me just behind them. Now, indeed, I ran, with both of them at my heels, in and out amongst the bushes along the river bank, towards the bridge. Polydore Cromecq had grudged me my young legs that afternoon. He grudged me them still more during these minutes. I heard the two men crushing through the grass after me, panting, swaying, but I gained on them. Then Polydore raised his voice:

"'Little Miss, wait for me! Come back to the estaminet and wish us good-bye! You shall see me drink a bock and the little bubbles wink on my big moustache. That will be amusing—what? For the last time, eh? It is good to part with a laugh.'

"But I ran the faster. I crossed the bridge. My governess and the boy were waiting with the bicycles at the gate.

"'Quick, please, quick,' I cried. 'I will tell you afterwards.'

"My governess was the woman for an emergency. We were off down the cart-track on our bicycles when Polydore and Gavroche crossed the bridge.

"'Little Miss! Little Miss!'

"The cry rang out, once, twice, and each time fainter. Then we heard it no more. I never did tell my governess afterwards of the crime which was committed that night—no, nor anyone, since my Zouave had forbidden me. But I have broken my promise to him to-night. The cruel thing is that 'they' never did enter the village. For they began their retreat the next morning."

IV

Cynthia ended her story. For a minute the middle-aged woman and the girl stared into the unlit grate. Then Madame D'Estourie said slowly:

"For the honour of France, he said."

"Yes. I didn't understand what he meant. I do now, of course. It's better that nothing should be said. War makes some men monsters."

Madame D'Estourie stood up.

"And many women, childless," she added.

Cynthia looked quickly at her.

"But Madame D'Estourie," she began, and her visitor interrupted her.

"I was Madame Flavelle, before I was Madame D'Estourie. Your wounded Zouave was my boy. For six years I have been searching why he died and meaning to exact justice to the uttermost farthing. But—for the honour of France—he said;" and she let her arms drop against her sides in resignation. She turned her eyes to Cynthia. They were wells of pain. "I may kiss you?" she asked. She held the girl tight to her breast. "Thank you! Thank you!" she whispered in a breaking voice. She let her go and wrapped her cloak about her throat.

"Now," she said in a cheerful voice. "We shall go downstairs together."

But Cynthia drew back. Madame D'Estourie, however, would have none of it.

"No, no, that won't do," she cried. "That poor young man has been waiting in the hall more than his ten minutes. Let us go to him. And I think that old misery, now that you have told it to me, will not haunt you any more."

She put her arm tenderly about Cynthia's waist and they went down the stairs. But half-way down Madame D'Estourie ran forward with a little sob, as though her self-restraint at last was failing her. When Cynthia reached the floor, she found Jim seated patiently on a hall-chair, exchanging consolatory phrases with a no less patient butler.

It did not occur to Jim to complain, nor on the other hand did it occur to Cynthia to apologize. She said:

"Oh, Jim, I don't want to dance to-night. Be an angel, will you? Drive me down the Portsmouth road as far as Ripley and back, will you?"

Jim's face lit up with a smile.

"Cynthia," he said, "there are bright moments in your young life which give me hopes for your future;" and he went outside and cranked up his car.

 
 
 

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