The Merry Men

Page 102

At the humiliating spectacle Anastasie clutched her nightdress desperately about her and burst loudly into tears. The Doctor flew to console her; but she elbowed him away. She suspected everybody of being the general public, and thought the darkness was alive with eyes.

Another gleam and another violent gust arrived together; the house was seen to rock on its foundation, and, just as the light was once more eclipsed, a crash which triumphed over the shouting of the wind announced its fall, and for a moment the whole garden was alive with skipping tiles and brickbats. One such missile grazed the Doctor's ear; another descended on the bare foot of Aline, who instantly made night hideous with her shrieks.

By this time the hamlet was alarmed, lights flashed from the windows, hails reached the party, and the Doctor answered, nobly contending against Aline and the tempest. But this prospect of help only awakened Anastasie to a more active stage of terror.

'Henri, people will be coming,' she screamed in her husband's ear.

'I trust so,' he replied.

'They cannot. I would rather die,' she wailed.

'My dear,' said the Doctor reprovingly, 'you are excited. I gave you some clothes. What have you done with them?'

'Oh, I don't know - I must have thrown them away! Where are they?' she sobbed.

Desprez groped about in the darkness. 'Admirable!' he remarked; 'my grey velveteen trousers! This will exactly meet your necessities.'

'Give them to me!' she cried fiercely; but as soon as she had them in her hands her mood appeared to alter - she stood silent for a moment, and then pressed the garment back upon the Doctor. 'Give it to Aline,' she said - 'poor girl.'

'Nonsense!' said the Doctor. 'Aline does not know what she is about. Aline is beside herself with terror; and at any rate, she is a peasant. Now I am really concerned at this exposure for a person of your housekeeping habits; my solicitude and your fantastic modesty both point to the same remedy - the pantaloons.' He held them ready.

'It is impossible. You do not understand,' she said with dignity.

By this time rescue was at hand. It had been found impracticable to enter by the street, for the gate was blocked with masonry, and the nodding ruin still threatened further avalanches. But between the Doctor's garden and the one on the right hand there was that very picturesque contrivance - a common well; the door on the Desprez' side had chanced to be unbolted, and now, through the arched aperture a man's bearded face and an arm supporting a lantern were introduced into the world of windy darkness, where Anastasie concealed her woes. The light struck here and there among the tossing apple boughs, it glinted on the grass; but the lantern and the glowing face became the centre of the world. Anastasie crouched back from the intrusion.

'This way!' shouted the man. 'Are you all safe?' Aline, still screaming, ran to the new comer, and was presently hauled head- foremost through the wall.

'Now, Anastasie, come on; it is your turn,' said the husband.

'I cannot,' she replied.

'Are we all to die of exposure, madame?' thundered Doctor Desprez.

'You can go!' she cried. 'Oh, go, go away! I can stay here; I am quite warm.'

The Doctor took her by the shoulders with an oath.

'Stop!' she screamed. 'I will put them on.'

She took the detested lendings in her hand once more; but her repulsion was stronger than shame. 'Never!' she cried, shuddering, and flung them far away into the night.

Next moment the Doctor had whirled her to the well. The man was there and the lantern; Anastasie closed her eyes and appeared to herself to be about to die. How she was transported through the arch she knew not; but once on the other side she was received by the neighbour's wife, and enveloped in a friendly blanket.

Beds were made ready for the two women, clothes of very various sizes for the Doctor and Jean-Marie; and for the remainder of the night, while madame dozed in and out on the borderland of hysterics, her husband sat beside the fire and held forth to the admiring neighbours.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

All Pages of This Book