There was no reply, because the young
man was hanging out over his window sill in the darkness
trying to switch away, from her closed window below,
the big, clattering Death’s Head moth which obstinately
and persistently fluttered there.
What possessed the moth to continue
battering its wings at the window of the room below?
Had the other moths which he released done so, too?
They had darted out of his room into the night, each
garnished with a tissue robe. He supposed they
had flown north; he had not looked out to see.
What had gone wrong with this moth, then?
He took his emaciated blond head between
his bony fingers and pondered, probing for reason
with German thoroughness that celebrated
thoroughness which is invariably riddled with flaws.
Of all contingencies he had thought or
so it seemed to him. He could not recollect any
precaution neglected. He had come to Sainte Lesse
for a clearly defined object and to make certain reports
concerning matters of interest to the German military
authorities north of Nivelle.
The idea, inspired by the experiments
of Henri Fabre, was original with him. Patiently,
during the previous year, he had worked it out had
proved his theory by a series of experiments with
moths of this species.
He had arranged with his staff comrade,
Dr. Glueck, for a forced hatching of the pupae which
the latter had patiently bred from the enormous green
and violet-banded caterpillars.
At least one female Death’s
Head must be ready, caged in the trenches beyond Nivelle.
Hundreds of pupae could not have died. Where,
then, was his error if, indeed, he had
Leaning from the window, he looked
down at the frantic moth, perplexed, a little uneasy
“Swine!” he muttered.
“What, then, ails you that you do not fly to
the mistress awaiting you over yonder?”
He could see the cylinder of white
tissue shining on the creature’s body, where
it fluttered against the pane, illuminated by the rays
of the candle from within the young girl’s room.
Could it be possible that the candle-light
was proving the greater attraction?
Even as the possibility entered his
mind, he saw another Death’s Head dart at the
window below and join the first one. But this
newcomer wore no tissue jacket.
Then, out of the darkness the Death’s
Heads began to come to the window below, swarms of
them, startling him with the racket of their wings.
From where did they arrive? They
could not be the moths he liberated. But....
Were they? Had some accident robbed their bodies
of the tissue missives? Had they blundered into
somebody’s room and been robbed?
Mystified, uneasy, he hung over his
window sill, staring with sickening eyes at the winged
With patient, plodding logic he began
to seek for the solution. What attracted these
moths to the room below? Was it the candle-light?
That alone could not be sufficient could
not contend with the more imperious attraction, the
subtle effluvia stealing out of the north and appealing
to the ruling passion which animated the frantic winged
things below him.
Patiently, methodically in his mind
he probed about for some clue to the solution.
The ruling passion animating the feathery whirlwind
below was the necessity for mating and perpetuating
That was the dominant passion; the
lure of candle-light a secondary attraction....
Then, if this were so and it had been proven
to be a fact then then what
was in that young girl’s bedroom just below him?
Even as the question flashed in his
mind he left the window, went to his door, listened,
noiselessly unlocked it.
A low murmur of voices came from the cafe.
He drew off both shoes, descended
the stairs on the flat pads of his large, bony feet,
listening all the while.
Candle-light streamed out into the
corridor from her open bedroom door; and he crept
to the sill and peered in, searching the place with
small, pale eyes.
At first he noticed nothing to interest
him, then, all in an instant, his gaze fell upon Madam
Death under her prison of glass.
There she sat, her great bulging abdomen
distended with eggs, her lambent eyes shining with
the terrible passion of anticipation. For one
thing only she had been created. That accomplished
she died. And there she crouched awaiting the
fulfillment of her life’s cycle with the blazing
eyes of a demon.
From the cafe below came the cautious
murmur of voices. The young man already knew
what they were whispering about; or, if he did not
know he no longer cared.
The patches of bright colour in his
sunken cheeks had died out in an ashen pallor.
As far as he was concerned the world was now ended.
And he knew it.
He went into the bedroom and sat down
on the bed’s edge. His little, pale eyes
wandered about the white room; the murmur of voices
below was audible all the while.
After a few moments’ patient
waiting, his gaze rested again on Madam Death, squatting
there with wings sloped, and the skull and bones staring
at him from her head and distended abdomen.
After all there was an odd resemblance
between himself and Madam Death. He had been
born to fulfill one function, it appeared. So
had she. And now, in his case as in hers, death
was immediately to follow. This was sentiment,
not science the blind lobe of the German
brain balancing grotesquely the reasoning lobe.
The voices below had ceased.
Presently he heard a cautious step on the stair.
He had a little pill-box in his pocket.
Methodically, without haste, he drew it out, chose
one white pellet, and, holding it between his bony
thumb and forefinger, listened.
Yes, somebody was coming up the stairs,
very careful to make no sound.
Well there were various
ways for a Death’s Head Hussar to die for his
War Lord. All were equally laudable. God the
God of Germany the celestial friend and
comrade of his War Lord would presently
correct him if he was transgressing military discipline
or the etiquette of Kultur. As for the levelled
rifles of the execution squad, he preferred another
way.... This way!...
His eyes were already glazing when
the burly form of Sticky Smith filled the doorway.
He looked down at Madam Death under
the tumbler beside him, then lifted his head and gazed
at Smith with blinded eyes.
“Swine!” he said complacently,
swaying gently forward and striking the floor with