The Frontier - Maurice Leblanc - ebook

The Frontier ebook

Leblanc Maurice

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If you think Maurice Leblanc’s literary output begins and ends with his series of mysteries featuring criminal mastermind Arsene Lupin, check out this tense thriller set in the years leading up to World War I. „The Frontier” is a classic war story and is that old idea of the conflict between the old and the new, between fathers and sons, and between the intense convictions of yesterday and tomorrow. The father is a rugged old French patriot who fought in the war with Germany, whose heart is still bitter, and whose hate flames quickly at the thought of Alsace and Lorraine. The son is a professor of history whose studies have taught him how vain are bloodshed and violence. Probing questions of patriotism and nationalism, it’s a treat for lovers of well-wrought historical fiction.

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Liczba stron: 289

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Contents

PART I

CHAPTER I. A HEAD BETWEEN THE BUSHES

CHAPTER II. THE GIRL WITH THE BARE ARMS

CHAPTER III. THE VIOLET PAMPHLET

CHAPTER IV. PHILIPPE AND HIS WIFE

CHAPTER V. THE SHEET OF NOTE-PAPER

CHAPTER VI. THE PLASTER STATUE

CHAPTER VII. EVE TRIUMPHANT

CHAPTER VIII. THE TRAP

PART II

CHAPTER I. THE TWO WOMEN

CHAPTER II. PHILIPPE TELLS A LIE

CHAPTER III. FATHER AND SON

CHAPTER IV. THE ENQUIRIES

CHAPTER V. THE THUNDERCLAP

CHAPTER VI. THE BUTTE-AUX-LOUPS

CHAPTER VII. MARTHE ASKS A QUESTION

CHAPTER VIII. THE STAGES TO CALVARY

PART III

CHAPTER I. THE ARMED VIGIL

CHAPTER II. THEY WHO GO TO THEIR DEATH

CHAPTER III. IDEAS AND FACTS

CHAPTER IV. THE SACRED SOIL

PART I

CHAPTER I

A HEAD BETWEEN THE BUSHES

“They’ve done it!”

“What?”

“The German frontier-post ... at the circus of the Butte-aux-Loups.”

“What about it?”

“Knocked down.”

“Nonsense!”

“See for yourself.”

Old Morestal stepped aside. His wife came out of the drawing-room and went and stood by the telescope, on its tripod, at the end of the terrace.

“I can see nothing,” she said, presently.

“Don’t you see a tree standing out above the others, with lighter foliage?”

“Yes.”

“And, to the right of that tree, a little lower down, an empty space surrounded by fir-trees?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the circus of the Butte-aux-Loups and it marks the frontier at that spot.”

“Ah, I’ve got it!... There it is!... You mean on the ground, don’t you? Lying flat on the grass, exactly as if it had been rooted up by last night’s storm...”

“What are you talking about? It has been fairly felled with an axe: you can see the gash from here.”

“So I can ... so I can...”

She stood up and shook her head:

“That makes the third time this year... It will mean more unpleasantness.”

“Fiddle-de-dee!” he exclaimed. “All they’ve got to do is to put up a solid post, instead of their old bit of wood.” And he added, in a tone of pride, “The French post, two yards off, doesn’t budge, you know!”

“Well, of course not! It’s made of cast-iron and cemented into the stone.”

“Let them do as much then! It’s not money they’re wanting ... when you think of the five thousand millions they robbed us of!... No, but, I say ... three of them in eight months!... How will the people take it, on the other side of the Vosges?”

He could not hide the sort of gay and sarcastic feeling of content that filled his whole being and he walked up and down the terrace, stamping his feet as hard as he could on the ground.

But, suddenly going to his wife, he seized her by the arm and said, in a hollow voice:

“Would you like to know what I really think?”

“Yes.”

“Well, all this will lead to trouble.”

“No,” said the old lady, quietly.

“How do you mean, no?”

“We’ve been married five-and-thirty years; and, for five-and-thirty years, you’ve told me, week after week, that we shall have trouble. So, you see...”

She turned away from him and went back to the drawing-room again, where she began to dust the furniture with a feather-broom.

He shrugged his shoulders, as he followed her indoors:

“Oh, yes, you’re the placid mother, of course! Nothing excites you. As long as your cupboards are tidy, your linen all complete and your jams potted, you don’t care!... Still, you ought not to forget that they killed your poor father.”

“I don’t forget it ... only, what’s the good? It’s more than forty years ago...”

“It was yesterday,” he said, sinking his voice, “yesterday, no longer ago than yesterday...”

“Ah, there’s the postman!” she said, hurrying to change the conversation.

She heard a heavy footstep outside the windows opening on the garden. There was a rap at the knocker on the front-door. A minute later, Victor, the man-servant, brought in the letters.

“Oh!” said Mme. Morestal. “A letter from the boy... Open it, will you? I haven’t my spectacles... I expect it’s to say that he will arrive this evening: he was to have left Paris this morning.”

“Not at all!” cried M. Morestal, glancing over the letter. “Philippe and his wife have taken their two boys to some friends at Versailles and started with the intention of sleeping last night at the Ballon de Colnard, seeing the sunrise and doing the rest of the journey on foot, with their knapsacks on their backs. They will be here by twelve.”

She at once lost her head:

“And the storm! What about last night’s storm?”

“My son doesn’t care about the storm! It won’t be the first that the fellow’s been through. It’s eleven o’clock. He will be with us in an hour.”

“But that will never do! There’s nothing ready for them!”

She at once went to work, like the active little old woman that she was, a little too fat, a little tired, but wide-awake still and so methodical, so orderly in her ways that she never made a superfluous movement or one that was not calculated to bring her an immediate advantage.

As for him, he resumed his walk between the terrace and the drawing-room. He strode with long, even steps, holding his body erect, his chest flung out and his hands in the pockets of his jacket, a blue-drill gardening-jacket, with the point of a pruning-shears and the stem of a pipe sticking out of it. He was tall and broad-shouldered; and his fresh-coloured face seemed young still, in spite of the fringe of white beard in which it was framed.

“Ah,” he exclaimed, “what a treat to set eyes upon our dear Philippe again! It must be three years since we saw him last. Yes, of course, not since his appointment as professor of history in Paris. By Jove, the chap has made his way in the world! What a time we shall give him during the fortnight that he’s with us! Walking ... exercise... He’s all for the open-air life, like old Morestal!”

He began to laugh:

“Shall I tell you what would be the thing for him? Six months in camp between this and Berlin!”

“I’m not afraid,” she declared. “He’s been through the Normal School. The professors keep to their garrisons in time of war.”

“What nonsense are you talking now?”

“The school-master told me so.”

He gave a start:

“What! Do you mean to say you still speak to that dastard?”

“He’s quite a decent man,” she replied.

“He! A decent man! With theories like his!”

She hurried from the room, to escape the explosion. But Morestal was fairly started:

“Yes, yes, theories! I insist upon the word: theories! As a district-councillor, as Mayor of Saint-Élophe, I have the right to be present at his lessons. Oh, you have no idea of his way of teaching the history of France!... In my time, the heroes were the Chevalier d’Assas, Bayard, La Tour d’Auvergne, all those beggars who shed lustre on our country. Nowadays, it’s Mossieu Étienne Marcel, Mossieu Dolet... Oh, a nice set of theories, theirs!”

He barred the way to his wife, as she entered the room again, and roared in her face:

“Do you know why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo?”

“I can’t find that large breakfast-cup anywhere,” said Mme. Morestal, engrossed in her occupation.

“Well, just ask your school-master; he’ll give you the latest up-to-date theories about Napoleon.”

“I put it down here, on this chest, with my own hand.”

“But there, they’re doing all they can to distort the children’s minds.”

“It spoils my set.”

“Oh, I swear to you, in the old days, we’d have ducked our school-master in the horse-pond, if he had dared... But, by Jove, France had a place of her own in the world then! And such a place!

... That was the time of Solferino!... Of Magenta!... We weren’t satisfied with chucking down frontier-posts in those days: we crossed the frontiers ... and at the double, believe me...”

He stopped, hesitating, pricking up his ears. Trumpet-blasts sounded in the distance, ringing from valley to valley, echoing and re-echoing against the obstacles formed by the great granite rocks and dying away to right and left, as though stifled by the shadow of the forests.

He whispered, excitedly:

“The French bugle...”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, there are troops of Alpines manoeuvring ... a company from Noirmont... Listen ... listen... What gaiety!... What swagger!... I tell you, close to the frontier like this, it takes such an air...”

She listened too, seized with the same excitement, and asked, anxiously:

“Do you really think that war is possible?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I do.”

They were silent for a moment. And Morestal continued:

“It’s a presentiment with me... We shall have it all over again, as in 1870... And, mark you, I hope that this time ...”

She put down her breakfast-cup, which she had found in a cupboard, and, leaning on her husband’s arm:

“I say, the boy’s coming ... with his wife. She’s a dear girl and we’re very fond of her... I want the house to look nice for them, bright and full of flowers... Go and pick the best you have in your garden.”

He smiled:

“That’s another way of saying that I’m boring you, eh? I can’t help it. I shall be just the same to my dying day. The wound is too deep ever to heal.”

They looked at each other for a while with a great gentleness, like two old travelling-companions, who, from time to time, for no particular reason, stop, exchange glances or thoughts and then resume their journey.

He asked:

“Must I cut my roses? My Gloires de Dijon?”

“Yes.”

“Come along then! I’ll be a hero!”

***

Morestal, the son and grandson of well-to-do farmers, had increased his fathers’ fortune tenfold by setting up a mechanical saw-yard at Saint-Élophe, the big neighbouring village. He was a plain, blunt man, as he himself used to say, “with no false bottom, nothing in my hands, nothing up my sleeves;” just a few moral ideas to guide his course through life, ideas as old and simple as could be. And those few ideas themselves were subject to a principle that governed his whole existence and ruled all his actions, the love of his country, which, in Morestal, stood for regret for the past, hatred of the present and, especially, the bitter recollection of defeat.

Elected Mayor of Saint-Élophe and a district-councillor, he sold his works and built, within view of the frontier, on the site of a ruined mill, a large house designed after his own plans and constructed, so to speak, under his own eyes. The Morestals had lived here for the last ten years, with their two servants: Victor, a decent, stout, jolly-faced man, and Catherine, a Breton woman who had nursed Philippe as a baby.

They saw but few people, outside a small number of friends, of whom the most frequent visitors were the special commissary of the government, Jorancé, and his daughter Suzanne.

The Old Mill occupied the round summit of a hill with slopes shelving down in a series of fairly large gardens, which Morestal cultivated with genuine enthusiasm. The property was surrounded by a high wall, the top of which was finished off with an iron trellis bristling with spikes. A spring leapt from place to place and fell in cascades to the bottom of the rocks decked with wild flowers, moss, lichen and maiden-hair ferns.

***

Morestal picked a great armful of flowers, laid waste his rose-garden, sacrificed all the Gloires de Dijon of which he was so proud and returned to the drawing-room, where he himself arranged the bunches in large glass vases.

The room, a sort of hall occupying the centre of the house, with beams of timber showing and a huge chimney covered with gleaming brasses, the room was bright and cheerful and open at both fronts: to the east, on the terrace, by a long bay; to the west, by two windows, on the garden, which it overlooked from the height of a first floor.

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