Leg of Gold
A weird and dramatic tale from the land where men walk on stilts
JAMES FRANCIS DWYER
WHEN THEY reached the small strange village that they had chosen as a starting point for their walking trip, they were oddly nervous. The afternoon had been a hungry mouth that sucked the courage out of them in a queer manner. The joy of adventure that had romped within them like an unloosed hound when they left Paris was now a whimpering thing in a dark corner of each heart. Hot fear swaggered in the brown eyes of Dorothy so visibly that Peter did not like to look at her, wondering greatly as he kept his gaze away if his own face showed such crippled courage. He thought it did.
It had been fine on the thundering express that had carried them southward toward the Spanish frontier. Fine and pleasurable, their blood singing to the song of the wheels, but at Morcenx they had changed from the express to a stubby, ill-furnished train that had dragged them into a new and puzzling world. A world of dark shade and sorrow. For hours through the sullen afternoon the rackety train had wormed its way through millions of pine trees, the tortured pines of the Landes, that weird strip of country stretching for a hundred kilometres along the Atlantic between the fat old ports of Bayonne and Bordeaux.
The trees thrust themselves up to the narrow unfenced track as if anxious to expose their scarified trunks. In serried battalions they stood, each with its deep incision showing fleshly-white, each martyrlike, bearing beneath the wound the earthenware pot into which dribbled the precious sap. Once Dorothy had broken a silence that ran for miles by whispering: “Just for an instant I thought I heard them bleeding. For a quick instant.”
In the resin-scented dusk the low auberge received them grudgingly. When they asked for two rooms the landlady leered at them, showing a large yellow tooth that looked like the gravestone of buried desire. “Pourquoi deux?” she asked, and the leer spread. “I have one. Wouldn’t one room be sufficient?”
“It wouldn’t,” snapped Peter, and, much astonished, the woman said that she would remove one of the children from a small cell at the back of the bar and give it to him, but hei'manner showed that she was greatly annoyed.
They ordered dinner, and, as they waited to be served, they sat to a wooden table whose top had been slashed and scarred by other expectant diners in a manner that made Peter and Dorothy think of the tortured trees. Perhaps the men who attended to the pines—Dorothy had discovered that they were called gemmeurs—could not resist the desire to make gashes in wood even when there was no sap in the planks they carved. The black night was beyond the door, the night and the suffering pines that ringed the huddle of houses like a beleaguering army.
“And now,” murmured Dorothy, “now that I am here I am wondering why I picked
the landes as a place to walk in. Why did it come into my head when there are pleasant places everywhere?”
‘‘We might find out.” said I’eter, quietly. “For the moment the choice sex-ms a poor one, but the change from Paris with its million lights to a s|xit like this where there isn't a single lamp in ten kilometres is trying during the first hours. You had a longing to come, and now you arc not satisfied."
“I am afraid,” whispered Dorothy. “I would like to run away.”
"There is no train,” said Peter. “That little string of horse boxes that brought us here docs not return till tomorrow afternoon.”
THE landlady seemed to beading the part of a trade-rat.
laying down a plate and taking away a knife, putting down a spoon and running off with a fork. Her curiosity concerning the two young strangers was upsetting her. making her awkward and forgetful, spreading over her body, troubling her hands and her feet.
Three w;x>dsmen stumbled in out of the night. They stared open-mouthed at Peter and Dorothy, moved to a table farthest away from the strangers and flung themselves noisily into the chairs. The big hands of the men were stained with the sap, and. as they waited for the landlady to bring a bottle of red wine and three heavy glasses to their table, they occupied themselves by scratching dry bits of resin from their faces. As the woman bent down to serve them, the oldest put a muttered question in the patois.
The Question brought, the landlady’s curiosity to boiling point. The three men were “regulars;” they had a right to know something about the two strangers who had wandered in from the world beyond the Landes and had insolently demanded two rooms where one would have been sufficient. She laid down the wine bottle, moistened her lips, seized two police feuilles and with pen and ink marched upon Peter and Dorothy.
The two young people filled in the answers to the many questions. Name, date of birth, place of birth, profession, where from and where going; but although these details would satisfy the police, they didn’t satisfy the landlady. Dorothy answered the extra questions, Peter remaining silent. No, they were not fiancés. They were simply friends who lived in the same pension at. Paris. They had grown dissatisfied with the City of Light and had decided to take a walking trip in the Landes.
Peter s|x>ke in English. "Don’t tell the nosy old jade that I was fired and that you were turned down by that fool of a singing master,” he growled.
“I won’t.” said Dorothy. "Nosy is the word.”
The landlady looked from one to the other, trying vainly to puzzle out the interchange made in a tongue that she heard for the first time. For no tourists visit, the Landes. None at all. There is nothing there but the twenty million martyred trees and the men who tend the trees, and the women who tend to the men. and the wild brats of their union.
The meal was on now; uncooked Bayonne ham followed by a confit de canard bits of duck that had been put up months before under a layer of fat three inches thick great hunks of bread, and new red wine that bit the throat as if angry at being consumed.
The three gemmeurs crouched over their drinks, listening intently, their dirty hands clutching the ankles of the wine glasses as if afraid the glasses might spring away into the pine fqrcsts. Now and then one found an unscratched piece óf resin on his face, removed it carefully, start'd at it for a moment, then wiped it off on the underneath of the table.
The landlady bringing in the bitter coffee thought up a few more questions. It was. she asserted, a long way from Paris to the 1.andes.
Dorothy agreed; this pecking old jade amused her. "We were curious about the country,” said Dorothy.
“We had read about it in school.
The b;x)ks the sch(x)lb;x>ks said that the people walked on stilts.”
She had paused for a moment to grope for the French word for stilts, so that this word was left behind by its fellows.* "Ec basses,” she said firmly.
The three men Seemed startled at hearing the word. Dorothy’s careful French had lost them, and now they waited while the landlady turned the statement into the [ratois. Slowly and proudly the landlady performed her task. The three men were regular clients and had a right to know.
Each man took a gulp of wine, each wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then, with a sort of vocal creaking. the oldest uttered a question. It was, so Peter and Dorothy saw, one that the landlady herself wished to put. she springing so quickly to the task of translating it. “He wants to know what you are here for?” she cried, triumphantly.
Peter, angry, swung half around in his BBS chair and l;x>ked at the man. The fellow’s curiosity was so great that he was slobbering like a hungry dog. "A'otis nous promenons pour faire du spoil,” said Peter.
Now when the three, by the help of the landlady, clutched the full meaning of Peter’s words they appeared confused.
They were visibly upset. Peter’s statement that he and Dorothy were walking through the country for sport seemed to them so ridiculous that they thought he was trying to make fixtls of them. Walking for six>rt! They had never heard of such a thing. .
“You sell nothing?” gasped the landlady. "You have nothing in your packs?”
Peter assured her that he and l)orot hy had nothing to sell. They were walking through the Dmdes. That was all.
It was at this moment, as Peter and Dorothy decided later, that the nucleus of mystery formed about their harmless promenade. They thought, and this puzzled them greatly, that something came through the open dexjr out of the night beyond. Something that altered the faces of the three men and the landlady, smearing their features with the sweat of fear. Something that moved into the dusky corners of the room, disturbing a sleeping cat that went quickly out into kitchen, glancing behind as if puzzled about the thing that troubled it.
‘‘//.s se promènent comme Jambe d'Or!” gasped the youngest of the three men.
A glass on its way to the mouth of the second man dropped from his hand and the red wine skedaddled along the table to the floor. The third fellow made the sign of the Cross.
The landlady, nearest to the door, wheeled on her heavy sabots and stared at the opening. In the silence the spilt wine dripped with an unbelievable heaviness, suggesting congealment.
Peter glanced at Dorothy, and found that the fear had made her eyes so large that her other features had become invisible, and that angered him. “And who,” he asked, leaning toward the table at which the men sat, "who is Monsieur Jambe d'Or?”
The three men didn’t answer. Together they stood up, corralled some small coins in their jxxkets and placed them on the table, then in Chinese file they moved out into the night.
The landlady commenced to clear away the dishes, her lips gummed tight over the large tooth as if she feared that the yellow fang would answer Peter’s question. At a half trot, her head a foot in advance of the slithering sabots, she made for the kitchen, and there she stayed, talking to her husband, a cripple who had been skewered by a great splinter of pine that had leaped furiously away from the whirling saw in the near-by mill.
Later, when Peter left Dorothy before the d(x>r of her room, he made a final effort to chase away the terror that had sprung upon the girl after the man had made the remark about their walking trip having a resemblance to the promenade of a lX-rson named Jambe d'Or. or Leg of Gold. “If you are nervous in the night.” said Peter, “knock me up and we ll light a big fire in the barroom. There’s lots of pine logs there.”
“It was funny how they acted,” whisIX'red Dorothy. “Thethe man crossing himself, and and she running away like that.”
“Well ask about this old Jambe d'Or tomorrow.” said Peter. “Don’t you worry. Lots of country people are queer. Goodnight.”
Outside the auberge the wind came romping in from the Atlantic like the wraiths of sea horses. The trees began to sob softly. Dorothy, lying awake, wondered if the sap ran into the sacrificial ;x>ts beneath the long gashes in the night
as well as in the day.
TT WAS. so Peter and Dorothy thought, less frightening -*■ in the morning. They ate a breakfast of coffee with goat’s milk and thick slices of bread. The landlady, anxious, so it seemed, to speed them on their way, prepared
a lunch of the unaxîked ham, cheese, bread, and a bottle of the wine that was so new it bit like asps. A little crowd stood around the door of the auberge as Peter and Dorothy arranged their rucksacks. Four women, three old men, a number of small boys, and the crippled husband of the landlady.
Peter paid the note, Dorothy contributing her share, then, thought of the previous evening pricking him, he turned on the woman and, in his slow French, said: "Madame, will you tell me now why everyone ran when I asked who was Monsieur Jambe d'Or?”
The woman fell back from the question, stumbling as she got behind her husband. The crippled man answered for her. “It is not wise to speak of him in the night,” he said. “The man who spoke was foolish to take his name when the darkness is on the pines.”
Peter, puzzled, put out another probe, the cripple shifting uneasily as if fearful of the questions he saw coming. “Why are we like him?” asked Peter. “We who are taking a walk through the pines without harming anyone?”
The man foraged for his words so that he could answer sparingly and give no overmeasure. "Il se promène la mil,” he said testily. “Au-dessous des sapins, sur ses grandes échasses.”
Peter stared at the man. a little chill fighting with the hot sunshine that reached into his body through his light clothing. The fellow had said that Jambe d'Or walked across the pines in the night on huge stilts !
“Where is this man?” asked Peter in English, then swinging into French, "Où est cet homme?”
“Il est mort,” snapped the cripple. “Bonjour, monsieur et mademoiselle. Bonjour.” He hobbled quickly into the auberge, and the others, fearful of questions, fell away from the two strangers as if they suspected them of plague.
Peter laughed. “Old Jambe d'Or is dead,” he said, turning to Dorothy. “Come on ! En roule! I really must compliment you on your choice of a district. It's intriguing, what?”
THE ROAD, so said the battered sign tacked to the wall of the mairie, would lead them to St. Julien-en-Born, and the two thought it might if it didn’t die of fear of the trees that pushed in on it. For it wriggled through them like a rat running the blockade of a million terriers, the trees cursing it because its bareness permitted the torturers with the sharp adzes to walk into the dark depths of the wood, bringing their mule wagons with the great casks for the crude turpentine.
There was little traffic on the road, but Peter and Dorothy, stepping out bravely, were aware that the news of their coming had swept ahead of them like the smoke from a fire. There were no houses on thé route, but here and there, seen dimly like gnomes in the bluey-green depths, were gemmeurs moving from tree to tree, and these men halted their work and called out to each other words that the two travellers did not understand. Standing immovable they watched the two pedestrians on the road, and sometimes a stabbing sunbeam hit the uplifted adze of the watching gemmeur, striking splinters of fire from it. The effect was curious.
They halted after covering two kilometres to look at the Carte Michelin which showed the seaward stretch from St. Sebastian to Bordeaux. Between them and the sea was the Forêt de Lit-et-Mixe, a vast and uncountable mass of pines in which an army might lie hidden. And beyond that again was the Forêt de Contis, and farther on the forest of Ste. Eulalie, and of Biscarrosse; miles and miles of Finns pinaster, each with the gaping wound in its trunk, each slowly shedding its tears into the hungry ixit nailed beneath the incision. Here was an arboreal gethsemane. terrible in its silent suffering.
Peter lifted his eyes from the map and stared at the emerald sea of pines running northward. “Well,” he said, making an effort to fight the silence, “old Jambe d'Or, whoever he is, has miles of free walking space.”
From a clump of young trees came a soft cry of astonishment, and Peter, turning swiftly, found himself face to face with a young woodsman who had approached noiselessly on the thick carpet of pine needles. A slim, Panlike person with a thin eager face, the soft golden beard of early manhood still untouched by razor. He might have been a young tree that had taken human form. So close he was to his setting he might have been green and leafy, except for the adze, its head tucked close under his arm, the wooden handle thrust out before him.
“Jambe d'Or!” he murmured, then: “Vous parlez de lui, monsieur?”
Peter, recovering from the thrust of surprise, admitted that he had mentioned the name of the mysterious one. but added that his remark, translated, simply meant that there
was plenty of tree-top space for the nocturnal promenades.
The youth was breathing hurriedly, and there was something in his manner that made Peter and Dorothy think of him as an animal that had been pursued. A nice green animal that had been chased through the massed trees.
Now he circled them, stepping lightly, his sabots making no sound, then he squatted down beside Dorothy, balancing himself cleverly on the heels of his wooden shoes. He looked at the girl and smiled, and Dorothy smiled back at him, pleased with the nice newness about him, the bodily freshness that was akin to that of the trees.
He commenced to talk, not in the patois but in the fine French of Provence. He was not of the Landes, not by birth, but he had come to the Landes to help an uncle who was ill. and this uncle had told him the story of Jambe d'Or. But one week ago only; the words of it were still in his slightly pointed ears.
“Here,” said Peter in an undertone to the girl, “is the fount of knowledge undefiled,” then, as the brown, animal-like eyes of the youth looked from one to the other, Peter swiftly explained the happening of the previous evening at the auberge and the curiosity that rode with them, heavier than their knapsacks.
The face of the youth flushed with the fine joy of the narrator, and of that joy there is none greater in the world. They didn’t know of Jambe d'Or? They hadn’t heard the story? I lis slim back arched with pride as he bent forward to hear their denials, disbelieving his own good fortune to lx* picked as the teller.
Softly, with words dipped in the chrism of wonder, he told the story. In the tense silence it crept into the ears of Peter and Dorothy, the little colorfilled idioms bringing spinal chills to the listeners . .
Jambe d'Or was a Basque to whom the world had called. He went to America. There he worked, and Notre Seigneur alone knows what at, but he came back with gold. Avec des pieces d'or américaines. Ah, beaucoup! beaucoup!
This was twenty-five years ago. Perhaps more. Time is lost in the Landes. It goes unrecorded. Everyone knew of the gold. Every person from the Bassin d'Arcachon to the mouth of the Adour. For the pines whisixr to each other like old women. In their pain they talk. And to man, woman and child in the Landes this man, whose real name was Jules Dupré, was known as Jambe d'Or.
Did Peter and Dorothy know why? No? Then they would lx told. This man, Dupré, had taken a great wooden stilt and had hollowed it out carefully and cunningly, for he was clever with tools, hollowed it so that only the shell remained, and into this stilt he ¡xmred the gold pieces that he had brought from America. And he thought no one knew. The idiot! 'Hie imbecile! All day long he sat with the big stilt Ixside him, not knowing that the Landes was whispering about him. The Landes that knew him as Jambe d'Or.
The youth paused, his eyes glistening with the joy of the storyteller. The silence was a mouth that waited to consume his words. Waited for the words of the tragedy of which the pines knew.
One night, and the voice of the youth was lowered, someone entered the cabin of Jambe d'Or and hacked him with an adze such as the gemmeurs use. then with the same tool smashed the wooden stilt that carried the fat gold coins that had come from across the sea. And these coins the murderer gathered up and fled the place.
Jambe d'Or was still conscious when they found him in
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the morning. The curé came from Uza, but he would have none of the curé. A fierce wild man this Jules Dupré. Just before he drew his last breath he sat up in bed, lifted his right hand and swore a great oath. He would walk the Landes at night on great stilts—stilts higher than the tree topslooking for his murderer. It would be his pleasure, and swearing thus he died.
Not one of the coins of Jambe d’Or was seen in the Landes. And the murderer was never traced. But Jambe d’Or is forever hunting. In the dark nights he is heard crashing over the high tops of the pines, his great stilts black against the moon.
IDETER and Dorothy sal breathless when the youth had finished his story, and the silence carne and licked their ears and stole up their sleeves and down their necks.
The youth put a question in a whisper. Was it easy to get gold in America? Were coins such as Jambe d’Or brought back lying on the broad streets of the big cities?
Dorothy smiled. Softly she told him that they were very rare. They were seldom seen. She herself had one that an uncle had given to her at graduation. She carried it as a good luck piece.
She opened her pocket book and took out a ten-dollar gold piece and handed it to the youth. His brown clever fingers turned it over and over. So, it was a pile of those that the murderer had taken from Jambe d'Or? If he saw a man with many of them, he, the youth, would know that the man was the murderer. He would denounce him to the police and get the reward.
“Is there a reward?” asked Peter.
The youth explained. The old Marquis de Lestrelle who lived at Sainte Eulalie, was lord of the district at the time of the murder, and he had left a codicil in his will. Five thousand gold francs would be paid to anyone who could supply a clue that would lead to the arrest of the murderer. The offer still stood. The notary public at Sainte Eulalie held the money.
A breath from the Atlantic struck the pine-tops. They wagged like the heads of old women. They knew who had murdered Jambe d’Or, but what good was the reward to them? No good at all. They wanted only sunshine and rain and a release from the wretched pots slung beneath their gaping wounds.
“Let us go on !” gasped Dorothy. “I—I am nervous.”
They said good-by to the youth, and went forward, the trees that lined the road watching them as peering peasants would watch a procession, for those trees, on account of their suffering, had acquired, so it seemed, a knowledge of life. Dorothy was certain that they knew about Peter and herself. Knew that Peter loved her and that she loved Peter, and that matrimony was out of the question because they were poor, so all they could have for the moment was the clean good fellowship that permitted them to make walking excursions together. Oh, the trees knew! The boy had said they whispered in their pain. Their never-ending pain.
“DETER and Dorothy lunched by a little stream that joined the Courant de Contis making its shiftless way into the Atlantic.
Their thoughts were of the youth and the story that he had related to them.
“If you,” said Peter, after a long silence, “could find the clue as to who killed this old joker, you could get the reward and could go to Munich and study for a year. They’re gold francs, each one worth five of what we’re carrying. It’s a matter of a thousand dollars for information that every pine tree in these forests knows.”
Dorothy agreed that the trees knew who had committed the murder, but she could not believe that she had any chance of collecting the reward.
“One never knows,” said Peter. “It seems awfully strange to me that you picked this part of the world to walk in. And then there’s this funny feeling among the people that we have something akin to this old Leg-of-Gold fellow*. It puzzles me.”
They went on, and as night was falling they came to the little village. The landlady of the small hotel had a wall eye and large mole on her cheek that grew hairs as if specially fertilized in contrast with the rest of her sallow face. They were expected. They had been seen on the road. They were, so she asserted, already known to her as two persons who desired separate rooms and who were walking through the Landes for no reason at all.
“Pour le sport," suggested Peter.
The landlady laughed loudly. She thought it a great joke.
“You may have heard,” said Peter, addressing Dorothy, “that travel improves the mind. It doesn’t. It makes the traveller a victim of belief. Here is an old
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jade so full of the fine cynicism that goes with the untravelled that she'd look with suspicion on the twelve apostles if she saw them coming down the road.”
Again they sat in the barrenan and waited for their dinner. Out of the night came the lumbering woodsmen. They also knew of the peculiarities of the two visitors. Behind their resin-stained paws they whispered, eyeing Peter and Dorothy.
“A year in Munich would be swell for you,” said Peter. “Do you know l have a hunch that something will come out of this
walk. I think..... monsieur?”
A gendarme had walked across the room to their table, touched his cap politely and asked if he might see their papers. The gossip had pricked him into action.
f i 'HE OFFICER could make little of the passports, but he was quite at home when wrestling with the Carles d’identité. For the benefit of the listeners he read
aloud the descriptions of the [>air. beginning with Peter. Names, ages, birthplaces, parents—he omitted no details, not even the "sans profession” inscribed on both cards.
Solemnly he handed the papers back to the two young people. Peter spoke to the girl. “Now that we’re fully introduced to the high society of this place, and the names of our fathers and mothers are known, we might go on with our dinner.” he said.
"Comment?” demanded the gendarme.
“The same to you,” said Peter, still keeping to English. “It’s a fine hospitable place that you’re running down here and my eyes are tired with reading ’Welcome’ on every doormat in the countryside.”
"Je ne comprends pas l'anglais,” snapped the gendarme.
“It’s a good job that you don’t,” said Peter. “It’s a rotten language for making love but it’s fine when you’re in a temper.” After a pause he added: “1 could get rid of a wonderful lot of spleen just now if you could understand what I said. I’m madder than old Jambe d’Or when he got the adze on his head,”
The listening room only understood the words Jambe d'Or. The rest was Greek to them. They moved uneasily, their gaze shifting from the two strangers to the puzzled gendarme and then to the open door through which the night peered in at them.
Again, SÍ) thought Peter and Dorothy, there came out of that night the strange impalpable fear that they had been conscious of on the previous evening. If nestled in the dark corners far from the petrol lamp: it pushed the gendarme back into his chair; it dosed the mouths of the whispering woodsmen.
In silence Peter and Dorothy rose when they had finished their repast. Their “Bonsoirs” to the room went unanswered.
TN THE morning they debated their movements. A wind brought a cold rain in from the Atlantic, and the two stared at the dripping pines, now more martyrlike than ever.
Peter examined the map. “We could walk to Bias,” he said, “sleep the night there, and catch a train back to civilization in the morning.”
“Let’s do it,” cried the girl. “If old Jambe d'Or likes the countryside for walking excursions, I don’t.”
They shouldered their packs, and under the silent gaze of a small crowd they struck off down the wet road. They were a little sad, a little annoyed that the excursion had not been what they thought it would be when they had planned it. The damp mystery puzzled them, the evident suspicion with which the country folk regarded
them was irritating. The promenade, they agreed, was a washout.
In the early afternoon the rain became more troublesome. They took shelter under a thick pine clump, and while standing there, wet and dispirited, they were joined by a gemmeur, an elderly man with a cold stern face.
Dorothy tried to start a conversation with him. She asked if he had any idea how many pines were in the Forêt de Contis that ran for five unbroken miles between the road and the Atlantic. The man shook his head. With a certain solemnity he informed the girl that only Notre Seigneur could answer such a question.
Peter and Dorothy thought him queer, possibly a little deranged. With his fierce shining eyes he stared at them, looking at the sports costume of the girl with such intentness that she thought it dissolved under his gaze, leaving her naked, such j was the prying capacity of his eyes.
Suddenly he turned from them and moved toward a lusty young pine that had ; not been tapped. He lifted his shining adze, then, with the weapon poised for a I stroke, he began to speak in a low voice. A deep, hollow voice that, in the surroundings. was a little frightening.
“What is lie saying?” asked Dorothy.
Peter seemed puzzled. “Sort of an invocation; I think,” he whispered.
The adze came down in a circle of light, the tree shuddered. Again and again the biting blade struck, and white slivers of wood curled away in terror before its edge. With the fine precision that a dissector might show, the man smoothed the incision, then he took an earthenware pot from a near-by pile and placed it in position beneath the wound.
Stepping back from the tree, he ex-
plained his speech; and his words, awkward and clumsy, brought hot terror to the heart of Dorothy. He said it was his custom, before tapping a young tree, to ask its pardon. The words lie had uttered were a prayer for forgiveness.
Dorothy’s face blanched, her heart snatching the blood from her cheeks and lips with the cold fingers of fear. This gnome of the green fastnesses, the globules of white sap from the freshlv-cut tree clinging to the adze, made her a little hysterical.
“Let us go on !” she gasped.
“The rain is worse than ever,” said Peter.
“I don't care! I'm afraid!” cried the girl.
They plunged out into the road with hardly a gesture of farewell. Dorothy glanced back. He was there, his adze raised, looking after them.
T\7HEN they reached the auberge they
’ * were very wet. and they dried themselves as best they could, the landlady doing little to help. And big clumsy men. dripping water from their clothes, stumbled into the barroom and stared at them.
“I have read,” said Peter, “many magazine stories of young fellows and their girls who have gone on walking tours and who have had the time of their lives, the weather being so good that they didn't bother with hotels but just slept in hayricks or in the open fields.”
Dorothy didn’t answer, for, as Peter was speaking, the door was lashed open by the wind and three more men came in on the blast. And one of the three was the man who had addressed the prayer to the young pine before he made the wound in its trank !
The storm was at its height now, and the barroom was a place of refuge. One after another men from the pine forest rushed in, the lightning like a whip on their heels. The gendarme of the previous evening arrived, pulling his bicycle through the door, and the men around the fire made room for him. he being the Law; and the steam from their damp clothes went up and curled in strange spirals over their heads till Dorothy thought of a picture called “The Witches’ Sabbath” that she had once viewed with terror.
The day had upset her. Here, so she thought, in this land of tortured pines where clumsy Torquemadas with keen axes walked from tree to tree, lived the spirits of evil. She was aware of the eyes of the man they had met on the road. The eyes that undressed her, that looked at her as if he believed that she, in some strange way, affected him.
“If I cry,” she whispered to Peter, “please don’t take any notice. My— my nerves are upset.”
Hands beneath the table, she foraged in her pocketbook for her handkerchief. She knew that she was going to cry, worse perhaps, she thought that she might faint there in that gaunt room with all the moist steaming woodsmen staring at her.
There came a vicious flash of lightning, a long drum roll of thunder, then in the frightful silence that followed the faint tinkle of a coin rolling across the floor.
It rolled into the circle of light thrown by the petrol lamp, wobbled a little, then fell on its face, looking like a golden crocus. Dorothy rose to retrieve it. It was her lucky ten-dollar piece that she had shown the youth and which she had now pulled out with her handkerchief.
But another claimant was before the girl. The man with the staring eyes had sprang forward with a strange grant of amazement. Fiercely he grabbed at the coin, his great paw smashing down on it, the knobby fingers gathering it into the palm. Now erect he stood and stared around him wildly.
Peter, on his feet, addressed him. “The coin belongs to mademoiselle,” he said. “Please give it to her.”
The man screamed his contradiction. Screamed it so that his words were heard
above the thunder. The coin was his. It had dropped from his pocket!
HE STOOD now in the centre of the room. Around him were eleven men and the gendarme. They were staring at him with wide eyes. He looked a little fey; a sweat of fear glistened on his tanned face, his jaw chewed nothingness.
Suddenly he made an effort to smile. He had been wrong perhaps. The coin might have been dropped by the young lady. Clumsily he moved across the room and dropped the ten-dollar piece on the table before Dorothy.
In silence he turned for the door, but the gendarme was there blocking his way. And Peter and Dorothy sensed again the damp unexplainable fear thing that they knew before. It was there in the room. It had come in out of the night. It was the wraith of Jambe d'Or.
“Why,” asked the gendarme., “did you think you had dropped an American gold coin from your pocket?”
The man made a rush for the door, but the Law sprang like a bulldog. They crashed to the floor, the gendarme on top. They rolled across the room, knocking over the wooden chairs, upsetting the bicycle, their big boots beating a tattoo out of the boards. Beneath the table the gendarme managed to put the handcuffs on. then while a man held the petrol lamp the Law raided his pockets.
There was a small bag of goatskin tied with a thong. Squatting on the floor, the gendarme untied the knot and tipped the contents out on the boards. A golden sunflower now in comparison with the little crocus made by Dorothy’s piece. A golden sunflower made of gold coins.
Peter, clawing his way back to Dorothy, tried to tell her the news. “You’ll get the reward!” he gasped. “If was you who furnished the clue! You’ll have—Dorothy! What’s up? Speak to me !”
But Dorothy had fainted. The discovery of the murderer of old Jambe d’Or had been too much for her.