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E-text prepared by Suzanne Shell, Mary Meehan, and the Project
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AT A WINTER'S FIRE

by

BERNARD CAPES

Author of _The Lake of Wine_, etc.

1899







All except three of the following Tales have already appeared in English
or American Magazines. The best thanks of the author are due to the
Editors of the "Cornhill," "Macmillan's," "Lippincott's" and "Pearson's"
Magazines, and to the Editor of the "Sketch," for permission to reprint
such of the stories as have been published in their pages.




Contents

THE MOON STRICKEN

JACK AND JILL

THE VANISHING HOUSE

DARK DIGNUM

WILLIAM TYRWHITT'S "COPY"

A LAZY ROMANCE

BLACK VENN

AN EDDY ON THE FLOOR

DINAH'S MAMMOTH

THE BLACK REAPER

A VOICE FROM THE PIT




THE MOON STRICKEN


It so fell that one dark evening in the month of June I was belated
in the Bernese Oberland. Dusk overtook me toiling along the great
Chamounix Road, and in the heart of a most desolate gorge, whose towering
snow-flung walls seemed--as the day sucked inwards to a point secret as a
leech's mouth--to close about me like a monstrous amphitheatre of ghosts.
The rutted road, dipping and climbing toilfully against the shouldering
of great tumbled boulders, or winning for itself but narrow foothold over
slippery ridges, was thawed clear of snow; but the cold soft peril yet
lay upon its flanks thick enough for a wintry plunge of ten feet, or may
be fifty where the edge of the causeway fell over to the lower furrows
of the ravine. It was a matter of policy to go with caution, and a thing
of some moment to hear the thud and splintering of little distant
icefalls about one in the darkness. Now and again a cold arrow of wind
would sing down from the frosty peaks above or jerk with a squiggle of
laughter among the fallen slabs in the valley. And these were the only
voices to prick me on through a dreariness lonely as death.

I knew the road, but not its night terrors. Passing along it some days
before in the glory of sunshine, broad paddocks and islands of green had
comforted the shattered white ruin of the place, and I had traversed it
merely as a magnificent episode in the indifferent history of my life.
Now, as it seemed, I became one with it--an awful waif of solemnity, a
thing apart from mankind and its warm intercourse and ruddy inn doors, a
spectral anomaly, whose austere epitaph was once writ upon the snow
coating some fallen slab of those glimmering about me. I thought the
whole gorge smelt of tombs, like the vault of a cathedral. I thought, in
the incomprehensible low moaning sound that ever and again seemed to eddy
about me when the wind had swooped and passed, that I recognised the
forlorn voices of brother spirits long since dead and forgotten of the
world.

Suddenly I felt the sweat cold under the knapsack that swung upon my
back; stopped, faced about and became human again. Ridge over ridge
to my right the mountain summits fell away against a fathomless sky; and
topping the furthermost was a little paring of silver light, the coronet
of the rising moon. But the glory of the full orb was in the retrospect;
for, closing the savage vista of the ravine, stood up far away a cluster
of jagged pinnacles--opal, translucent, lustrous as the peaks of icebergs
that are the frozen music of the sea.

It was the toothed summit of the Aiguille Verte, now prosaically bathed
in the light of the full moon; but to me, looking from that grim and
passionless hollow, it stood for the white hand of God lifted in menace
to the evil spirits of the glen.

I drank my fill of the good sight, and then turned me to my tramp again
with a freshness in my throat as though it had gulped a glass of
champagne. Presently I knew myself descending, leaving, as I felt rather
than saw, the stark horror of the gorge and its glimmering snow patches
above me. Puffs of a warmer air purred past my face with little friendly
sighs of welcome, and the hum of a far-off torrent struck like a wedge
into the indurated fibre of the night. As I dropped, however, the
mountain heads grew up against the moon, and withheld the comfort of her
radiance; and it was not until the whimper of the torrent had quickened
about me to a plunging roar, and my foot was on the striding bridge that
took its waters at a step, that her light broke through a topmost cleft
in the hills, and made glory of the leaping thunder that crashed beneath
my feet.

Thereafter all was peace. The road led downwards into a broadening
valley, where the smell of flowers came about me, and the mountain walls
withdrew and were no longer overwhelming. The slope eased off, dipping
and rising no more than a ground swell; and by-and-by I was on a level
track that ran straight as a stretched ribbon and was reasonable to my
tired feet.

Now the first dusky châlets of the hamlet of Bel-Oiseau straggled towards
me, and it was music in my ears to hear the cattle blow and rattle in
their stalls under the sleeping lofts as I passed outside in the
moonlight. Five minutes more, and the great zinc onion on the spire of
the church glistened towards me, and I was in the heart of the silent
village.

From the deep green shadow cast by the graveyard wall, heavily
buttressed against avalanches, a form wriggled out into the moonlight
and fell with a dusty thud at my feet, mowing and chopping at the air
with its aimless claws. I started back with a sudden jerk of my pulses.
The thing was horrible by reason of its inarticulate voice, which issued
from the shapeless folds of its writhings like the wet gutturizing of a
back-broken horse. Instinct with repulsion, I stood a moment dismayed,
when light flashed from an open doorway a dozen yards further down the
street, and a woman ran across to the prostrate form.

"Up, graceless one!" she cried; "and carry thy seven devils within
doors!"

The figure gathered itself together at her voice, and stood in an angle
of the buttresses quaking and shielding its eyes with two gaunt arms.

"Can I not exchange a word with Mère Pettit," scolded the woman, "but
thou must sneak from behind my back on thy crazed moon-hunting?"

"Pity, pity," moaned the figure; and then the woman noticed me, and
dropped a curtsy.

"Pardon," she said; "but he has been affronting Monsieur with his
antics?"

"He is stricken, Madame?"

"Ah, yes, Monsieur. Holy Mother, but how stricken!"

"It is sad."

"Monsieur knows not how sad. It is so always, but most a great deal when
the moon is full. He was a good lad once."

Monsieur puts his hand in his pocket. Madame hears the clink of coin and
touches the enclosed fingers with her own delicately. Monsieur withdraws
his hand empty.

"Pardon, Madame."

"Monsieur has the courage of a gentleman. Come, Camille, little fool! a
sweet good-night to Monsieur."

"Stay, Madame. I have walked far and am weary. Is there an hotel in
Bel-Oiseau?"

"Monsieur is jesting. We are but a hundred of poor châlets."

"An auberge, then--a cabaret--anything?"

"_Les Trois Chèvres_. It is not for such as you."

"Is it, then, that I must toil onwards to Châtelard?"

"Monsieur does not know? The _Hôtel Royal_ was burned to the walls six
months since."

"It follows that I must lie in the fields."

Madame hesitates, ponders, and makes up her mind.

"I keep Monsieur talking, and the night wind is sharp from the snow. It
is ill for a heated skin, and one should be indoors. I have a bedroom
that is at Monsieur's disposition, if Monsieur will condescend?"

Monsieur will condescend. Monsieur would condescend to a loft and a truss
of straw, in default of the neat little chilly chamber that is allotted
him, so sick are his very limbs with long tramping, and so uninviting
figures the further stretch in the moonlight to Châtelard, with its
burnt-out carcase of an hotel.

This is how I came to quarter myself on Madame Barbière and her idiot
son, and how I ultimately learned from the lips of the latter the strange
story of his own immediate fall from reason and the dear light of
intellect.

* * * * *

By day Camille Barbière proved to be a young man, some five and twenty
years of age, of a handsome and impressive exterior. His dark hair
lay close about his well-shaped head; his features were regular and cut
bold as an Etruscan cameo; his limbs were elastic and moulded into the
supple finish of one whose life has not been set upon level roads. At a
speculative distance he appeared a straight specimen of a Burgundian
youth--sinewy, clean-formed, and graceful, though slender to gauntness;
and it was only on nearer contact that one marvelled to see the soul die
out of him, as a face set in the shadow of leafage resolves itself into
some accident of twisted branches as one approaches the billowing tree
that presented it.

The soul of Camille, the idiot, had warped long after its earthly
tabernacle had grown firm and fair to look upon. Cause and effect were
not one from birth in him; and the result was a most wistful expression,
as though the lost intellect were for ever struggling and failing to
recall its ancient mastery. Mostly he was a gentle young man, noteworthy
for nothing but the uncomplaining patience with which he daily observed
the monotonous routine of simple duties that were now all-sufficient for
the poor life that had "crept so long on a broken wing." He milked the
big, red, barrel-bodied cow, and churned industriously for butter; he
kept the little vegetable garden in order and nursed the Savoys into
fatness like plumping babies; he drove the goats to pasture on the
mountain slopes, and all day sat among the rhododendrons, the forgotten
soul behind his eyes conning the dead language of fate, as a foreigner
vainly interrogates the abstruse complexity of an idiom.

By-and-by I made it an irregular habit to accompany him on these
shepherdings; to join him in his simple midday meal of sour brown bread
and goat-milk cheese; to talk with him desultorily, and study him the
while, inasmuch as he wakened an interest in me that was full of
speculation.



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