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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v5 - 4/5 -
Shorland noticed the interrupted word. He remembered it afterwards all too distinctly enough.
"The twenty-sixth, the twenty-sixth," she said.
Then a pause, and afterwards with a sudden sharpness: "Come to me on the twenty-fifth, and I will give you my reply, M. Shorland."
He still held the portrait in his hand. She stepped forward. "Let me see it again," she said.
He handed it to her: "You have spoiled a good face, Gabrielle."
"But the eyes are not hurt," she replied; "see how they look at one." She handed it back.
"And sadly. As though he still remembered Lucile. Lucile! I have not been called that name for a long time. It is on my grave-stone, you know. Ah, perhaps you do not know. You never saw my grave. I have. And on the tombstone is written this: By Luke to Lucile. And then beneath, where the grass almost hides it, the line: I have followed my Star to the last. You do not know what that line means; I will tell you. Once, when we were first married, he wrote me some verses, and he called them, 'My Star, Lucile.' Here is a verse--ah, why do you not smile, when I say I will tell you what he wrote? Chut! Women such as I have memories sometimes. One can admire the Heaven even if one lives in--ah, you know! Listen." And with a voice that seemed far away and not part of herself she repeated these lines:
"In my sky of delight there's a beautiful Star; 'Tis the sun and the moon of my days; And the doors of its glory are ever ajar, And I live in the glow of its rays. 'Tis my winter of joy and my summer of rest, 'Tis my future, my present, my past; And though storms fill the East and the clouds haunt the West, I shall follow my Star to the last."
"There, that was to Lucile. What would he write to Gabrielle--to Henri's Gabrielle? How droll--how droll!" Again she laughed that laugh of eternal recklessness.
It filled Shorland this time with a sense of fear. He lost sight of everything--this strange and interesting woman, and the peculiar nature of the events in which he was sharing, and saw only Clare Hazard's ruined life, Luke Freeman's despair, and the fatal 26th of January, so near at hand. He could see no way out of the labyrinth of disgrace. It unnerved him more than anything that had ever happened to him, and he turned bewildered towards the door. He saw that while Gabrielle lived, a dead misfortune would be ever crouching at the threshold of Freeman's home, that whether the woman agreed to be silent or not, the hurt to Clare would remain the same. With an angry bitterness in his voice that he did not try to hide he said: "There is nothing more to be done now, Gabrielle, that I can see. But it is a crime--it is a pity!"
"A pity that he did not tell the truth on the gravestone--that he did not follow his star to the last, monsieur? How droll! And you should see how green the grass was on my grave! Yes, it is a pity."
But Shorland, heavy at heart, looked at her and said nothing more. He wondered why it was that he did not loathe her. Somehow, even in her shame, she compelled a kind of admiration and awe. She was the wreck of splendid possibilities. A poisonous vitality possessed her, but through it glowed a daring and a candour that belonged to her before she became wicked, and that now half redeemed her in the eyes of this man, who knew the worst of her. Even in her sin she was loyal to the scoundrel for whom she had sacrificed two lives, her own and another's. Her brow might flush with shame of the mad deed that turned her life awry, and of the degradation of her present surroundings; but her eyes looked straight into those of Shorland without wavering, with the pride of strength if not of goodness.
"Yes, there is one thing more," she said. "Give me that portrait to keep--until the 25th. Then you may take it--from the woman in the Morgue."
Shorland thought for a moment. She had spoken just now without sneering, without bravado, without hardness. He felt that behind this woman's outward cruelty and varying moods there was something working that perhaps might be trusted, something in Luke's interest. He was certain that this portrait had moved her deeply. Had she come to that period of reaction in evil when there is an agonised desire to turn back towards the good? He gave the portrait to her.
Sitting in Alencon Barre's room an hour later, Shorland told him in substance the result of his conference with Gabrielle, and begged his consideration for Luke if the worst should happen. Alencon Barre gave his word as a man of honour that the matter should be sacred to him. As they sat there, a messenger came from the commandant to say that the detachment was to start that afternoon for Bompari. Then a note was handed to Shorland from Governor Rapont offering him a horse and a native servant if he chose to go with the troops. This was what Shorland had come for--news and adventure. He did not hesitate, though the shadow of the twenty-fifth was hanging over him. He felt his helplessness in the matter, but determined to try to be back in Noumea on that date. Not that he expected anything definite, but because he had a feeling that where Gabrielle was on that day he ought to be.
For two days they travelled, the friendship between them growing hourly closer. It was the swift amalgamation of two kindred natures in the flame of a perfect sincerity, for even with the dramatic element so strongly developed in him, the Englishman was downright and true. His friendship was as tenacious as his head was cool.
On the evening of the third day Shorland noticed that the strap of his spur was frayed. He told his native servant to attend to it. Next morning as they were starting he saw that the strap had not been mended or replaced. His language on the occasion was pointed and confident. The fact is, he was angry with himself for trusting anything to a servant. He was not used to such a luxury, and he made up his mind to live for the rest of the campaign without a servant, as he had done all his life long.
The two friends rode side by side for miles through the jungle of fern and palm, and then began to enter a more open but scrubby country. The scouts could be seen half a mile ahead. Not a sign of natives had been discovered on the march. More than once Barre had expressed his anxiety at this. He knew it pointed to concentrated trouble ahead, and, just as they neared the edge of the free country, he rose in his saddle and looked around carefully. Shorland imitated his action, and, as he resumed his seat, he felt his spur-strap break. He leaned back, and drew up the foot to take off the spur. As he did so, he felt a sudden twitch at his side, and Barre swayed in his saddle with a spear in the groin. Shorland caught him and prevented him falling to the ground. A wild cry rose from the jungle behind and from the clearing ahead, and in a moment the infuriated French soldiers were in the thick of a hand-to-hand fray under a rain of spears and clubs. The spear that had struck Barre would have struck Shorland had he not bent backward when he did. As it was the weapon had torn a piece of cloth from his coat.
A moment, and the wounded man was lifted to the ground. The surgeon shook his head in sad negation. Death already blanched the young officer's face. Shorland looked into the misty eyes with a sadness only known to those who can gauge the regard of men who suffer for each other. Four days ago this gallant young officer had taken risk for him, had saved him from injury, perhaps death; to-day the spear meant for him had stricken down this same young officer, never to rise again. The vicarious sacrifice seemed none the less noble to the Englishman because it was involuntary and an accident. The only point clear in his mind was that had he not leant back, Barre would be the whole man and he the wounded one.
"How goes it, my friend?" said Shorland, bending over him.
Alencon Barre looked up, agony twitching his nostrils and a dry white line on his lips. "Ah, mon camarade," he answered huskily, "it is in action--that is much; it is for France, that is more to me--everything. They would not let me serve France in Paris, but I die for her in New Caledonia. I have lived six-and-twenty years. I have loved the world. Many men have been kind, and once there was a woman--and I shall see her soon, quite soon. It is strange. The eyes will become blind, and then they will open, and--ah!" His fingers closed convulsively on those of Blake Shorland. When the ghastly tremor, the deadly corrosions of the poisoned spear passed he said: "So--so! It is the end. C'est bien, c'est bien!"
All round them the fight raged, and French soldiers were repeating English bravery in the Soudan.
"It is not against a great enemy, but it is good," said the wounded man as he heard the conquering cries of a handful of soldiers punishing ten times their numbers. "You remember Prince Eugene and the assegais?"
"Our Houses were enemies, but we were friends, he and I. And so, and so, you see, it is the same for both."
Again the teeth of the devouring poison fastened on him, and, when it left him, a grey pallor had settled upon the face.
Blake Shorland said to him gently: "How do you feel about it all?"
As if in gentle protest the head moved slightly. "All's well, all's well," the low voice said.
A pause, in which the cries of the wounded came through the smoke, and then the dying man, feeling the approach of another convulsion, said: "A cigarette, mon ami."
Blake Shorland put a cigarette between his lips and lighted it.
"And now a little wine," the fallen soldier added. The surgeon, who had come again for a moment, nodded and said: "It may help."
Barre's native servant brought a bottle of champagne intended to be drunk after the expected victory, but not in this fashion!
Shorland understood. This brave young soldier of a dispossessed family wished to show no fear of pain, no lack of outward and physical courage in the approaching and final shock. He must do something that was
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