Read CHAPTER XXIX - BENEATH THE STARS of The Triflers , free online book, by Frederick Orin Bartlett, on ReadCentral.com.

The situation was absurd, but what could be done about it? France was at war, and there would be many who would sleep upon the ground who had never slept there before. Many, too, in the ground. Still, the situation was absurd that Marjory, with all her thousands of dollars, should be forced to sleep out of doors. It gave her a startling sense of helplessness. She had been before in crowded places, but the securing of accommodations was merely a matter of increasing the size of her check. But here, even if one had a thousand louis d’or, that would have made no difference. Officers of the Army of France were not to be disturbed by the tinkle of gold. With a single gold-piece, moreover, one could not even make a tinkle.

She went into the inn to tidy herself before supper; but she hurried back to Monte as quickly as possible. Out of sight of him she felt as lost as a child in a forest. She had nothing to lean upon now but him. Without him here she would scarcely have had even identity. Her name, except as signed to a check, meant nothing. To have announced herself as Miss Marjory Stockton, or even as Madame Covington, would have left the soldiers of France merely smiling. To her sex they might have paid some deference, but to her sex alone. She was not anything except as she was attached to Monte as a woman under the protection of her man.

This did not humble her. Her first clean, unguarded emotion was one of pride. Had it been her privilege to let herself go, she would have taken her place near him with her eyes afire with her head held as proudly as any queen. Gladly would she have rested by his side in an olive orchard or a fisherman’s hut or a forest or on the plains or anywhere fortune might take him. By his side that would have been enough. If she were his woman and he her man, that would have been enough.

If she could only let herself go! As she came into the smoky old tavern room and he stepped forward to meet her, she swayed a little. He looked so big and wholesome and eager with his arms outstretched! They were alone here. It would have been so easy just to close her eyes and let her head rest against his shoulder so easy and restful. He would have kissed her hair, and the ache would all have gone from her body and heart. He would draw her close and hold her tight yes, for a day or two or a month or two. Then he would remember that week in which she had trifled with him, and he would hate her.

She pulled herself together.

“Is supper ready?”

It was such an inane remark! He turned aside like a boy who has been snubbed.

Monsieur Soucin had provided bread and cheese, a salad, and coffee. It was enough. She had no appetite. She took much more satisfaction in watching Monte and in pouring his coffee. His honest hunger was not disturbed by any vain speculations. He ate like a man, as he did everything like a man. It restored her confidence again.

“Soucin lent a mattress, which I have arranged just the other side of the wall. That is your room. With plenty of blankets you should be comfortable enough there,” he said.

“And you?” she inquired.

“I am on this side of the wall,” he replied gravely.

“What are you going to sleep upon?”

“A blanket.”

If it had been possible to do so, she would have given him the mattress and slept upon the ground herself. That is what she would have liked to do.

“It’s no more than I have done in the woods when I could n’t make camp in time,” he explained. “I had hoped to take you some day to my cabin near the lake.”

She could think of nothing better than another inane remark:

“It must be beautiful there.”

He looked up.

“It always has been, but now without you ”

“You must n’t let me make any difference,” she put in quickly.

“Why not?”

“Because you must n’t. You must go on just as if you had never met me.”

“Why?” He was as direct as a boy.

“Because that’s best. Oh, I know, Monte. You must trust me to know what is good for you,” she cried.

“I don’t believe you know even what is good for yourself,” he answered.

“I I know what is right,” she faltered.

He saw that he was disturbing her, and he did not want to do that.

“Perhaps in time we’ll see,” he said. “I have a notion that some day you and I will get straightened out.”

“It does n’t make so much difference about me; but you you must get back to your schedule again as soon as ever you can.”

“Perhaps to a new one; but that must include you.”

She could not help the color in her cheeks. It was beyond her control.

“I must make my own little schedule,” she insisted.

“You are going back to the farm?”

She nodded.

“To-morrow we shall be in Italy. Then a train to Genoa and the next boat,” she said.

“After that?”

“In a week or so I shall be back where I started.”

“Then?”

She laughed nervously.

“I can’t think much ahead of that. Perhaps I shall raise chickens.”

“Year after year?”

“Maybe.”

“If you lived to be seventy you’d have a lot of chickens by then, would n’t you?”

“I I don’t know.”

It did sound ridiculous, the way he put it.

“Then would you will them to some one?” he asked.

He was laughing at her. She was glad to have him do that rather than remain serious.

“Please don’t make me look ahead to seventy,” she shuddered.

Monsieur Soucin was hovering about nervously. He wished to have everything cleared away before the officers arrived, and they would be here now in half an hour. He was solicitous about madame.

“It is a great pity that madame should sleep out of doors,” he said. “It makes my heart ache. But, with monsieur to guard her, at least madame will be safe.”

Yes, safe from every one but herself. However, Monsieur Soucin could not be expected to read a lady’s innermost thoughts. Indeed, it would scarcely have been gallant so to do.

“And now you wish to be rid of us,” said Monte as he rose.

“Monsieur should not be unkind,” sighed Soucin. “It is a necessity and not a wish.”

“You have done as well as you could,” Monte reassured him. “We shall probably rise early and be on our way before the soldiers, so ”

Monte slipped into his hand a gold-piece. It was too much from one point of view, and yet from another it was little enough. Soucin had unwittingly made an arrangement for which Monte could not pay in money.

“And my share?” inquired Marjory.

“One louis d’or,” answered Monte unblushingly.

She fumbled in her bag and brought it out the last she had. And Monte, in his reckless joy, handed that over also to Soucin. The man was too bewildered to do more than bow as he might before a prince and princess.

Monte led her up the incline through the heavy-leaved olive trees to her couch against the wall. It had been made up as neatly as in any hotel, with plenty of blankets and a pillow for her head.

“If you wish to retire at once,” he said, “I’ll go back to my side of the wall.”

She hesitated. The wall was man-high and so thick that once he was behind it she would feel terribly alone.

“Or better still,” he suggested, “you lie down and let me sit and smoke here. I ’ll be quiet.”

It was a temptation she would have resisted had she not been so tired physically. As it was, half numbed with fatigue, she removed her hat and lay down between the blankets.

Monte slipped on his sweater with the black “H” and took a place against the wall at Marjory’s feet.

“All comfy?” he asked.

“It’s impossible to feel altogether comfortable when you’re selfish,” Marjory declared.

He took a thoughtful puff of his cigarette.

“I think you’re right about that,” he answered. “Only in this case there’s no reason in the world for you to feel like that, because I’m comfortable too.”

“Honestly?”

“Cross my heart. I’d rather be here than in the finest bed in Paris.”

“You’re so good,” she murmured.

With all her muscles relaxed, and with him there, she felt as if she were floating in the clouds.

“It’s strange you’ve always had that notion, because I ’m not especially good,” he replied. “Do you want to go to sleep, or may I talk a while longer?”

“Please to talk.”

“Of course,” he ran on meditatively, “something depends upon what you mean by being good. I used to think it was merely being decent. I’ve been that. It happened to be easy. But being good, as I see it now, is being good when it isn’t easy and then something more.”

She was listening with bated breath, because he was voicing her own thoughts.

“It’s being good to others besides yourself,” he continued. “Forgetting yourself for them when that is n’t easy.”

“Yes, it’s that,” she said.

“I don’t want to boast,” he said; “but, in a way, I come nearer being good at this moment, than ever before in my life.”

“You mean because it’s tiresome for you to sit there?”

“Because it’s hard for me to sit here when I’d like to be kneeling by your side, kissing your hand, your forehead, your lips,” he answered passionately.

She started to her elbow.

“I shan’t move,” he assured her. “But it is n’t easy to sit here like a bump on a log with everything you’re starving for within arm’s reach.”

“Monte!” she gasped. “Perhaps you’d better not talk.”

“If it were only as easy to stop thinking!”

“Why don’t one’s thoughts mind?” she cried. “When they are told what’s right, why don’t they come right?”

“God knows,” he answered. “I sit here and tell myself that if you don’t love me I should let it go at that, and think the way I did before the solemn little pastor in Paris got so serious over what wasn’t meant to be serious. I’ve tried, little woman. I tried hard when I left you with Peter. I could n’t do it then, and I can’t do it now. I hear over and over again the words the little minister spoke, and they grow more wonderful and fine every day. I think he must have known then that I loved you or he would not have uttered them.”

The leaves in the olive trees rustled beneath the stars.

“Dear wife,” he cried, “when are you coming to me?”

He did not move. She saw his broad shoulders against the wall. She saw his arms folded over his chest as if to keep them tight. She saw his clenched lips.

“God help me to keep silent,” she prayed.

“When are you coming?” he repeated wearily. “Will it be one year or two years or three years?”

She moistened her lips. He seemed to speak as though it were only a matter of time as though it were he who was being punished and it was only a question of how long. She sank back with her eyes upon the stars darting shafts of white light through the purple.

“And what am I going to do while I’m waiting?” he went on, as though to himself.

Grimly she forced out the words:

“You you must n’t wait. There ’s nothing to wait for.”

She saw his arms tighten; saw his lips grow hard.

“Nothing?” he exclaimed. “Don’t make me believe that, because then there would n’t be anything.”

She grew suddenly afraid.

“There would be everything else in the world for you everything except me,” she trembled. “And I count for so little. That’s what I want you to learn. That’s what, in a little while, you will learn. That’s what you must learn. If you’ll only hold on until to-morrow until the next day and I’m gone ”

“Gone?”

He sprang to his feet.

“Monte!” she warned.

In terror she struggled to her own feet. The white light of the stars bathed their faces. In the distance he heard the notes of a trumpet sounding taps. It roused him further. It was as though the night were closing in upon him as though life were closing in on him.

He turned and seized her.

“Marjory!” he cried. “Look me in the eyes.”

She obeyed.

“They are sounding taps over there,” he panted. “Before they are through do you love me, Marjory?”

Never before in all his life had he asked her that directly. Always she had been able to avoid the direct answer. Now

She tried to struggle free.

“Don’t don’t ask me that!” she pleaded.

“Before they are through do you love me?”

Piercing the still night air the final notes came to her. There was no escape. Either she must lie or tell the truth and to lie that meant death.

“Quick!” he cried.

“I do!” she whispered.

“Then ”

He tried to draw her to him.

“You made me tell you, Monte,” she sobbed. “Oh, you made me tell the truth.”

“The truth,” he nodded with a smile; “that was all that was necessary. It’s all that is ever necessary.”

He had released her. She was crowding against the wall. She looked up at him.

“Now,” he said, “if it’s one year or two years or three years what’s the difference?”

Her eyes suddenly grew as brilliant as the stars. She straightened herself.

“Then,” she trembled, “if it’s like that ”

“It might as well be now,” he pleaded.

Unsteadily, like one walking in a dream, she tottered toward him. He caught her in his arms and kissed her lips there in the starlight, there in the olive orchard, there in the Garden of Eden.