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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v5 - 3/5 -
required by law; a native here and there leaned idly against a house-wall or a magnolia tree; ill-looking men and women loitered in the shade. A Government officer went languidly by in full uniform--even the Governor wore uniform at all times to encourage respect--and the cafes were filling. Every hour was "absinthe-hour" in Noumea, which had improved on Paris in this particular. A knot of men stood at the door of the Cafe Voisin gesticulating nervously. One was pointing to a notice posted on the bulletin-board of the cafe announcing that all citizens must hold themselves in readiness to bear arms in case the rumoured insurrection among the natives proved serious. It was an evil-looking company who thus discussed Governor Rapont's commands. As the two passed in, Shorland noticed that one of the group made a menacing action towards Alencon Barre.
Gabrielle was talking to an ex-convict as they entered. Her face looked worn; there was a hectic spot on each cheek and dark circles round the eyes. There was something animal-like about the poise of the head and neck, something intense and daring about the woman altogether. Her companion muttered between his teeth: "The cursed English spy!"
But she turned on him sharply: "Go away, Gaspard, I have business. So have you--go." The ex-convict slowly left the cafe still muttering.
"Well, Gabrielle, how are your children this morning? They look gloomy enough for the guillotine, eh?" said M. Barre.
"They are much trouble, sometimes--my children."
"Last night, for instance."
"Last night. But monsieur was unwise. We do not love the English here. They do not find it comfortable on English soil, in Australia--my children! Not so comfortable as Louis Philippe and Louis Napoleon. Criminal kings with gold are welcome; criminal subjects without gold-- ah, that is another matter, monsieur. It is just the same. They may be gentlemen--many are; if they escape to Australia or go as liberes, they are hunted down. That is English, and they hate the English-- my children."
Gabrielle's voice was directed to M. Barre, but her eyes were on Shorland.
"Well, Gabrielle, all English are not inhospitable. My friend here, we must be hospitable to him. The coals of fire, you know, Gabrielle. We owe him some thing for yesterday. He wishes to speak to you. Be careful, Gabrielle. No communist justice, Citizen Gabrielle." M. Barre smiled gaily.
Gabrielle smiled in reply, but it was not a pleasant smile, and she said: "Treachery, M. Barre--treachery in Noumea? There is no such thing. It is all fair in love and war. No quarter, no mercy, no hope. All is fair where all is foul, M. Barre."
M. Barre shrugged his shoulders pleasantly and replied: "If I had my way your freedom should be promptly curtailed, Gabrielle. You are an active citizen, but you are dangerous, truly."
"I like you better when you do not have your way. Yet my children do not hate you, M. Barre. You speak your thought, and they know what to expect. Your family have little more freedom in France than my children have here."
M. Barre looked at her keenly for an instant, then, lighting a cigarette, he said: "So, Gabrielle, so! That is enough. You wish to speak to M. Shorland--well!" He waved his hand to her and walked away from them. Gabrielle paused a moment, looking sharply at Blake Shorland, then she said: "Monsieur will come with me?"
She led the way into another room, the boudoir, sitting-room, breakfast- room, library, all in one. She parted the curtains at the window, letting the light fall upon the face of her companion, while hers remained in the shadow. He knew the trick, and moved out of the belt of light. He felt that he was dealing with a woman of singular astuteness, with one whose wickedness was unconventional and intrepid. To his mind there came on the instant the memory of a Rocky Mountain lioness that he had seen caged years before; lithe, watchful, nervously powerful, superior to its surroundings, yet mastered by those surroundings--the trick of a lock, not a trick of strength. He thought he saw in Gabrielle a woman who for a personal motive was trying to learn the trick of the lock in Noumea, France's farthest prison. For a moment they looked at each other steadily, then she said: "That portrait--let me see it."
The hand that she held out was unsteady, and it looked strangely white and cold. He drew the photograph from his pocket and handed it to her. A flush passed across her face as she looked at it, and was followed by a marked paleness. She gazed at the portrait for a moment, then her lips parted and a great sigh broke from her. She was about to hand it back to him, but an inspiration seemed to seize her, and she threw it on the floor and put her heel upon it. "That is the way I treated him," she said, and she ground her heel into the face of the portrait. Then she took her foot away. "See, see," she cried, "how his face is scarred and torn! I did that. Do you know what it is to torture one who loves you? No, you do not. You begin with shame and regret. But the sight of your lover's agonies, his indignation, his anger, madden you and you get the lust of cruelty. You become insane. You make new wounds. You tear open old ones. You cut, you thrust, you bruise, you put acid in the sores-- the sharpest nitric acid; and then you heal with a kiss of remorse, and that is acid too--carbolic acid, and it smells of death. They put it in the room where dead people are. Have you ever been to the Morgue in Paris? They use it there."
She took up the portrait. "Look," she said, "how his face is torn! Tell me of him."
"First, who are you?"
She steadied herself. "Who are you?" she asked.
"I am his friend, Blake Shorland."
"Yes, I remember your name." She threw her hands up with a laugh, a bitter hopeless laugh. Her eyes half closed, so that only light came from them, no colour. The head was thrown back with a defiant recklessness, and then she said: "I was Lucile Laroche, his wife--Luke Freeman's wife."
"But his wife died. He identified her in the Morgue."
"I do not know why I speak to you so, but I feel that the time has come to tell all to you. That was not his wife in the Morgue. It was his wife's sister, my sister whom my brother drowned for her money--he made her life such a misery! And he did not try to save her when he knew she meant to drown herself. She was not bad; she was a thousand times better than I am, a million times better than he was. He was a devil. But he is dead now too. . . . She was taken to the Morgue. She looked like me altogether; she wore a ring of mine, and she had a mark on her shoulder the same as one on mine; her initials were the same. Luke had never seen her. He believed that I lay dead there, and he buried her for me. I thought at the time that it would be best I should be dead to him and to the world. And so I did not speak. It was all the same to my brother. He got what was left of my fortune, and I got what was left of hers. For I was dead, you see--dead, dead, dead!"
She paused again. Neither spoke for a moment. Shorland was thinking what all this meant to Clare Hazard and Luke Freeman.
"Where is he? What is he doing?" she said at length. "Tell me. I was --I am--his wife."
"Yes, you were--you are--his wife. But better if you had been that woman in the Morgue," he said without pity. What were this creature's feelings to him? There was his friend and the true-souled Clare.
"I know, I know," she replied. "Go on!"
"He is well. The man that was born when his wife lay before him in the Morgue has found another woman, a good woman who loves him and--"
"And is married to her?" interrupted Gabrielle, her face taking on again a shining whiteness. But, as though suddenly remembering something, she laughed that strange laugh which might have come from a soul irretrievably lost. "And is married to her?"
Blake Shorland thought of the lust of cruelty, of the wounds, and the acids of torture. "Not yet," he said; "but the marriage is set for the twenty-six of this month."
"How I could spoil all that!"
"Yes, you could spoil all that. But you have spoiled enough already. Don't you think that if Luke Freeman does marry, you had better be dead as you have been this last five years? To have spoiled one life ought to be enough to satisfy even a woman like you."
Her eyes looked through Blake Shorland's eyes and beyond them to something else; and then they closed. When they opened again, she said: "It is strange that I never thought of his marrying again. And now I want to kill her--just for the moment. That is the selfish devil in me. Well, what is to be done, monsieur? There is the Morgue left. But then there is no Morgue here. Ah, well, we can make one, perhaps--we can make a Morgue, monsieur."
"Can't you see that he ought to be left the rest of his life in peace?"
"Yes, I can see that."
"Well--and then, monsieur? Ah, you did not wish him to marry me. He told me so. 'A fickle foreigner,' you said. And you were right, but it was not pleasant to me. I hated you then, though I had never spoken to you nor seen you; not because I wanted him, but because you interfered. He said once to me that you had told the truth in that. But--and then, monsieur?"
"Then continue to efface yourself. Continue to be the woman in the Morgue."
"But others know."
"Yes, Henri Durien knows and M. Barre suspects."
"So, you see."
"But Henri Durien is a prisoner for life; he cannot hear of the marriage unless you tell him. M. Barre is a gentleman: he is my friend; his memory will be dead like you."
"For M. Barre, well! But the other--Henri. How do you know that he is here for life? Men get pardoned, men get free, men--get free, I tell
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