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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v5 - 5/5 -
conventional, natural, habitual, that would take his mind from the thing itself. At heart he was right. The rest was a question of living like a strong-nerved soldier to the last. The tobacco-smoke curled feebly from his lips, and was swallowed up in the clouds of powder-smoke that circled round them. With his head on his native servant's knee he watched Shorland uncork the bottle and pour the wine into the surgeon's medicine- glass. It was put in his fingers; he sipped it once and then drank it all. "Again," he said.
Again it was filled. The cigarette was smoked nearly to the end. Shorland must unburden his mind of one thought, and he said: "You took what was meant for me, my friend."
"Ah, no, no! It was the fortune, we will say the good fortune. C'est bien!" Then, "The wine, the wine," he said, and his fingers again clasped those of Shorland tremblingly. He took the glass in his right hand and lifted it. "God guard all at home, God keep France!" he said. He was about to place the glass to his lips, when a tremor seized him, and the glass fell from his hand. He fell back, his breath quick and vanishing, his eyes closing, and a faint smile upon his lips. "It is always the same with France," he said; "always the same." And he was gone.
The French had bought their victory dear with the death of Alencon Barre, their favourite officer. When they turned their backs upon a quelled insurrection, there was a gap that not even French buoyancy could fill. On the morning of the twenty-fifth they neared Noumea. Shorland thought of all that day meant to Luke and Clare. He was helpless to alter the course of events, to stay a terrible possibility.
"You can never trust a woman of Gabrielle's stamp," he said to himself, as they rode along through valleys of ferns, grenadillas, and limes. "They have no baseline of duty; they either rend themselves or rend others, but rend they must, hearts and not garments. Henri Durien knows, and she knows, and Alencon Barre knew, poor boy! But what Barre knew is buried with him back there under the palms. Luke and Clare are to be married to-morrow-God help them! And I can see them in their home, he standing by the fireplace in his old way--it's winter there--and looking down at Clare; and on the other side of the fireplace sits the sister of the Woman in the Morgue, waiting for the happiest moment in the lives of these two before her. And when it comes, as she did with the portrait, as she did with him before, she will set her foot upon his face and then on Clare's; only neither Luke nor Clare will live again after that crucifixion." Then aloud: "Hello! what's that?--a messenger riding hard to meet us! Smoke in the direction of Noumea and sound of firing! What's that, doctor? Convicts revolted, made a break at the prison and on the way to the quarries at the same moment! Of course--seized the time when the post was weakest, helped by ticket-of-leave-men and led by Henri Durien, Gaspard, and Gabrielle Rouget. Gabrielle Rouget, eh! And this is the twenty-fifth! Yes, I will take Barre's horse, captain, thank you; it is fresher than mine. Away we go! Egad, they're at it, doctor! Hear the rifles!" Answering to the leader's cry of "Forward, forward!" the detachment dashed into the streets of this little Paris, which, after the fashion of its far-away mother, was dipping its hands in Revolution. Outcast and criminal France were arrayed against military France once more. A handful of guards in the prison at Ile Nou were bravely holding in check a ruthless mob of convicts; and a crowd of convicts in the street keeping back a determined military force. Part of the newly-arrived reinforcements proceeded to Ile Nou, part moved towards the barricade. Shorland went to the barricade.
The convicts had the Cafe Voisin in their rear. As the reinforcements joined the besieging party a cheer arose, and a sally was made upon the barricade. It was a hail of fire meeting a slighter rain of fire--a cry of coming victory cutting through a sullen roar of despair. The square in which the convicts were massed was a trench of blood and bodies; but they fought on. There was but one hope--to break out, to meet the soldiers hand to hand and fight for passage to the friendly jungle and to the sea, where they might trust to that Providence who appears to help even the wicked sometimes. As Shorland looked upon the scene he thought of Alencon Barre's words: "It is always the same with France, always the same."
The fight grew fiercer, the soldiers pressed nearer. And now one clear voice was heard above the din, "Forward, forward, my children!" and some one sprang upon the outer barricade. It was the plotter of the revolt, the leader, the manager of the "Underground Railway," the beloved of the convicts--Gabrielle Rouget.
The sunlight glorified her flying hair and vivid dress-vivid with the blood of the fallen. Her arms, her shoulders, her feet were bare; all that she could spare from her body had gone to bind the wounds of her desperate comrades. In her hands she held a carbine. As she stood for an instant unmoving, the firing, as if by magic, ceased. She raised a hand. "We will have the guillotine in Paris," she said; "but not the hell of exile here."
Then Henri Durien, the convict, sprang up beside her; the man for whom she had made a life's sacrifice--for whom she had come to this! His head was bandaged and clotted with blood; his eyes shone with the fierceness of an animal at bay. Close after him crowded the handful of his frenzied compatriots in crime.
Then a rifle-crack was heard, and Henri Durieu fell at the feet of Gabrielle. The wave on the barricade quivered, and then Gabrielle's voice was heard crying, "Avenge him! Free yourselves, my children! Death is better than prison!"
The wave fell in red turmoil on the breakers. And still Gabrielle stood alone above the body of Henri Durien; but the carbine was fallen from her hands. She stood as one awaiting death, her eyes upon the unmoving form at her feet. The soldiers watched her, but no one fired. Her face was white; but in the eyes there was a wild triumph. She wanted death now; but these French soldiers had not the heart to kill her.
When she saw that, she leaned and thrust a hand into the bleeding bosom of Henri Durien, and holding it aloft cried: "For this blood men must die." Stooping again she seized the carbine and levelled it at the officer in command. Before she could pull the trigger some one fired, and she fell across the body of her lover. A moment afterwards Shorland stood beside her. She was shot through the lungs.
He stooped over her. "Gabrielle, Gabrielle!" he said. "Yes, yes, I know--I saw you. This is the twenty-fifth. He will be married to-morrow-Luke. I owed it to him to die; I owed it to Henri to die this way." She drew the scarred portrait of Luke Freeman from her bosom and gave it over.
"His eyes made me," she said. "They haunted me.
"Well, it is all done. I am sorry, ah! Never tell him of this. I go away--away--with Henri."
She closed her eyes and was still for a moment; so still that he thought her dead. But she looked up at him again and said with her last breath: "I am--the Woman in the Morgue--always--now!"
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