Un Peu D'Amour

by Robert W. Chambers
          “I think so.” She felt in the ruffled pocket of her apron, drew out a fragment of mineral, and passed it to me. 
          I screwed a jeweler’s glass into my eye and examined it in astonished silence.  It was an emerald; a fine, large, immensely valuable stone, if my experience counted for anything.  One side of it was thickly coated with vermilion paint. 
          “Where did this come from?” I asked in an agitated voice. 
          “From the floor of the crater.  Is it really an emerald?” 
          I lifted my head and stared at the girl incredulously. 
          “It happened this way,” she said excitedly.  “Father was painting a picture up there by the edge of the crater.  He left his palette on the grass to go to the bungalow for some more tubes of colour.  While he was in the house, hunting for the colours which he wanted, I stepped out on the veranda, and I saw some crows alight near the palette and begin to stalk about in the grass.  One bird walked right over his wet palette; I stepped out and waved my sun-bonnet to frighten him off, but he had both feet in a sticky mass of Chinese vermilion, and for a moment was unable to free himself. 
          “I almost caught him, but he flapped away over the edge of the crater, high above the wall of vapour, sailed down onto the crater floor, and alighted. 
          “But his feet bothered him; he kept hopping about on the bottom of the crater, half running, half flying; and finally he took wing and rose up over the hill. 
          “As he flew above me, and while I was looking up at his vermilion feet, something dropped from his claws and nearly struck me.  It was that emerald.” 
          When I had recovered sufficient composure to speak steadily, I took her beautiful little hand in mine. 
          “This,” said I, “is the most exciting locality I have ever visited for purposes of scientific research.  Within this crater may lie millions of value in emeralds.  You are probably, today, the wealthiest heiress upon the face of the globe!” 
          I gave her a winning glance.  She smiled, shyly, and blushingly withdrew her hand. 
          For several exquisite minutes I sat there beside her in a sort of heavenly trance.  How beautiful she was! How engaging—how sweet—how modestly appreciative of the man beside her, who had little beside his scientific learning, his fame, and a kind heart to appeal to such youth and loveliness as hers! There was something about her that delicately appealed to me.  Sometimes I pondered what this might be; sometimes I wondered how many emeralds lay on that floor of sandy gravel below us. 
          Yes, I loved her.  I realised it now.  I could even endure her father for her sake.  I should make a good husband.  I was quite certain of that. 
          I turned and gazed upon her, meltingly.  But I did not wish to startle her, so I remained silent, permitting the chaste language of my eyes to interpret for her what my lips had not yet murmured.  It was a brief but beautiful moment in my life. 
          “The way to do,” said I, “is to trap several dozen crows, smear their feet with glue, tie a ball of Indian twine to the ankle of every bird, then liberate them.  Some are certain to fly into the crater and try to scrape the glue off in the sand.  Then,” I added, triumphantly, “all we have to do is to haul in our birds and detach the wealth of Midas from their sticky claws!” 
          “That is an excellent suggestion,” she said gratefully, “but I can do that after you have gone.  All I wanted you to tell me was whether the stone is a genuine emerald.” 
          I gazed at her blankly. 
          “You are here for purposes of scientific investigation,” she added, sweetly.  “I should not think of taking your time for the mere sake of accumulating wealth for my father and me.” 
          There didn’t seem to be anything for me to say at that moment.  Chilled, I gazed at the flashing ring of fire. 
          And, as I gazed, suddenly I became aware of a little, pointed muzzle, two pricked-up ears, and two ruby-red eyes gazing intently out at me from the mass of flames. 
          The girl beside me saw it, too. 
          “Don’t move!” she whispered.  “That is one of the flame creatures.  It may venture out if you keep perfectly still.” 
          Rigid with amazement, I sat like a stone image, staring at the most astonishing sight I had ever beheld. 
          For several minutes the ferret-like creature never stirred from where it crouched in the crater fire; the alert head remained pointed toward us; I could even see that its thick fur must have possessed the qualities of asbestos, because here and there a hair or two glimmered incandescent; and its eyes, nose, and whiskers glowed and glowed as the flames pulsated around it. 
          After a long while it began to move out of the fire, slowly, cautiously, cunning eyes fixed on us—a small, slim, wiry, weasel-like creature on which the sunlight fell with a vitreous glitter as it crept forward into the grass. 
          Then, from the fire behind, another creature of the same sort appeared, another, others, then dozens of eager, lithe, little animals appeared everywhere from the flames and began to frisk and play and run about in the grass and nibble the fresh, green, succulent herbage with a snipping sound quite audible to us. 
          One came so near my feet that I could examine it minutely. 
          Its fur and whiskers seemed heavy and dense and like asbestos fibre, yet so fine as to appear silky.  Its eyes, nose, and claws were scarlet, and seemed to possess a glassy surface. 
          I waited my opportunity, and when the little thing came nosing along within reach, I seized it. 
          Instantly it emitted a bewildering series of whistling shrieks, and twisted around to bite me.  Its body was icy. 
          “Don’t let it bite!” cried the girl.  “Be careful, Mr.  Smith!” 
          But its jaws were toothless; only soft, cold gums pinched me, and I held it twisting and writhing, while the icy temperature of its body began to benumb my fingers and creep up my wrist, paralyzing my arm; and its incessant and piercing shrieks deafened me. 
          In vain I transferred it to the other hand, and then passed it from one hand to the other, as one shifts a lump of ice or a hot potato, in an attempt to endure the temperature: it shrieked and squirmed and doubled, and finally wriggled out of my stiffened and useless hands, and scuttled away into the fire. 
          It was an overwhelming disappointment.  For a moment it seemed unendurable. 
          “Never mind,” I said, huskily, “if I caught one in my hands, I can surely catch another in a trap.” 
          “I am so sorry for your disappointment,” she said, pitifully. 
          “Do you care, Miss Blythe?” I asked. 
          She blushed. 
          “Of course I care,” she murmured. 
          My hands were too badly frost-nipped to become eloquent.  I merely sighed and thrust them into my pockets.  Even my arm was too stiff to encircle her shapeful waist.  Devotion to Science had temporarily crippled me.  Love must wait.  But, as we ascended the grassy slope together, I promised myself that I would make her a good husband, and that I should spend at least part of every day of my life in trapping crows and smearing their claws with glue. 
          That evening I was seated on the veranda beside Wilna—Miss Blythe’s name was Wilna—and what with gazing at her and fitting together some of the folding box-traps which I always carried with me—and what with trying to realise the pecuniary magnificence of our future existence together, I was exceedingly busy when Blythe came in to display, as I supposed, his most recent daub to me. 
          The canvas he carried presented a series of crimson speckles, out of which burst an eruption of green streaks—and it made me think of stepping on a caterpillar. 
          My instinct was to placate this impossible man.  He was her father.  I meant to honour him if I had to assault him to do it. 
          “Supremely satisfying!” I nodded, chary of naming the subject.  “It is a stride beyond the art of the future: it is a flying leap out of the Not Yet into the Possibly Perhaps! I thank you for enlightening me, Mr.  Blythe.  I am your debtor.” 
          He fairly snarled at me: 
          “What are you talking about!” he demanded. 
          I remained modestly mute. 
          To Wilna he said, pointing passionately at his canvas: 
          “The crows have been walking all over it again! I’m going to paint in the woods after this, earthquakes or no earthquakes.  Have the trees been heaved up anywhere recently?” 
          “Not since last week,” she said, soothingly.  “It usually happens after a rain.” 
          “I think I’ll risk it then—although it did rain early this morning.  I’ll do a moonlight down there this evening.” And, turning to me: “If you know as much about science as you do about art you won’t have to remain here long—I trust.” 
          “What?” said I, very red. 
          He laughed a highly disagreeable laugh, and marched into the house. 
          Presently he bawled for dinner, and Wilna went away.  For her sake I had remained calm and dignified, but presently I went out and kicked up the turf two or three times; and, having foozled my wrath, I went back to dinner, realising that I might as well begin to accustom myself to my future father-in-law. 
          It seemed that he had a mania for prunes, and that’s all he permitted anybody to have for dinner.  Disgusted, I attempted to swallow the loathly stewed fruit, watching Blythe askance as he hurriedly stuffed himself, using a tablespoon, with every symptom of relish. 
          “Now,” he cried, shoving back his chair, “I’m going to paint a moonlight by moonlight.  Wilna, if Billy arrives, make him comfortable, and tell him I’ll return by midnight.” And without taking the trouble to notice me at all, he strode away toward the veranda, chewing vigorously upon his last prune. 
          “Your father,” said I, “is eccentric.  Genius usually is.  But he is a most interesting and estimable man.  I revere him.” 
          “It is kind of you to say so,” said the girl, in a low voice. 
          I thought deeply for a few moments, then: 
          “Who is ‘Billy?’” I inquired, casually. 
          I couldn’t tell whether it was a sudden gleam of sunset light on her face, or whether she blushed. 
          “Billy,” she said softly, “is a friend of father’s.  His name is William Green.” 
          “He is coming out here to visit—father—I believe.” 
          “Oh.  An artist; and doubtless of mature years.” 
          “He is a mineralogist by profession,” she said, “—and somewhat young.” 
          “Twenty-four years old,” she added.  Upon her pretty face was an absent expression, vaguely pleasant.  Her blue eyes became dreamy and exquisitely remote. 
          I pondered deeply for a while: 
          “Wilna?” I said. 
          “Yes, Mr.  Smith?” as though aroused from agreeable meditation. 
          But I didn’t know exactly what to say, and I remained uneasily silent, thinking about that man Green and his twenty-four years, and his profession, and the bottom of the crater, and Wilna—and striving to satisfy myself that there was no logical connection between any of these. 
          “I think,” said I, “that I’ll take a bucket of salad to your father.” 
          Why I should have so suddenly determined to ingratiate myself with the old grouch I scarcely understood: for the construction of a salad was my very best accomplishment. 
          Wilna looked at me in a peculiar manner, almost as though she were controlling a sudden and not unpleasant inward desire to laugh. 
          Evidently the finer and more delicate instincts of a woman were divining my motive and sympathizing with my mental and sentimental perplexity. 
          So when she said: “I don’t think you had better go near my father,” I was convinced of her gentle solicitude in my behalf. 
          “With a bucket of salad,” I whispered softly, “much may be accomplished, Wilua.” And I took her little hand and pressed it gently and respectfully.  “Trust all to me,” I murmured. 
          She stood with her head turned away from me, her slim hand resting limply in mine.  From the slight tremor of her shoulders I became aware how deeply her emotion was now swaying her.  Evidently she was nearly ready to become mine. 
          But I remained calm and alert.  The time was not yet.  Her father had had his prunes, in which he delighted.  And when pleasantly approached with a bucket of salad he could not listen otherwise than politely to what I had to say to him.  Quick action was necessary—quick but diplomatic action—in view of the imminence of this young man Green, who evidently was persona grata at the bungalow of this irritable old dodo. 
          Tenderly pressing the pretty hand which I held, and saluting the finger-tips with a gesture which was, perhaps, not wholly ungraceful, I stepped into the kitchen, washed out several heads of lettuce, deftly chopped up some youthful onions, constructed a seductive French dressing, and, stirring together the crisp ingredients, set the savoury masterpiece away in the ice-box, after tasting it.  It was delicious enough to draw sobs from any pig. 
          When I went out to the veranda, Wilna had disappeared.  So I unfolded and set up some more box-traps, determined to lose no time. 
          Sunset still lingered beyond the chain of western mountains as I went out across the grassy plateau to the cornfield. 
          Here I set and baited several dozen aluminium crow-traps, padding the jaws so that no injury could be done to the birds when the springs snapped on their legs. 
          Then I went over to the crater and descended its gentle, grassy slope.  And there, all along the borders of the vapoury wall, I set box-traps for the lithe little denizens of the fire, baiting every trap with a handful of fresh, sweet clover which I had pulled up from the pasture beyond the cornfield. 
          My task ended, I ascended the slope again, and for a while stood there immersed in pleasurable premonitions. 
          Everything had been accomplished swiftly and methodically within the few hours in which I had first set eyes upon this extraordinary place—everything!— love at first sight, the delightfully lightning-like wooing and winning of an incomparable maiden and heiress; the discovery of the fire creatures; the solving of the emerald problem. 
          And now everything was ready, crow-traps, firetraps, a bucket of irresistible salad for Blythe, a modest and tremulous avowal for Wilna as soon as her father tasted the salad and I had pleasantly notified him of my intentions concerning his lovely offspring. 
          Daylight faded from rose to lilac; already the mountains were growing fairy-like under that vague, diffuse lustre which heralds the rise of the full moon.  It rose, enormous, yellow, unreal, becoming imperceptibly silvery as it climbed the sky and hung aloft like a stupendous arc-light flooding the world with a radiance so white and clear that I could very easily have written verses by it, if I wrote verses. 
          Down on the edge of the forest I could see Blythe on his camp-stool, madly besmearing his moonlit canvas, but I could not see Wilna anywhere.  Maybe she had shyly retired somewhere by herself to think of me. 
          So I went back to the house, filled a bucket with my salad, and started toward the edge of the woods, singing happily as I sped on feet so light and frolicsome that they seemed to skim the ground.  How wonderful is the power of love! 
          When I approached Blythe he heard me coming and turned around. 
          “What the devil do you want?” he asked with characteristic civility. 
          “I have brought you,” said I gaily, “a bucket of salad.” 
          “I don’t want any salad!” 
          “I never eat it at night.” 
          I said confidently: 
          “Mr.  Blythe, if you will taste this salad I am sure you will not regret it.” And with hideous cunning I set the bucket beside him on the grass and seated myself near it.  The old dodo grunted and continued to daub the canvas; but presently, as though forgetfully, and from sheer instinct, he reached down into the bucket, pulled out a leaf of lettuce, and shoved it into his mouth.  My heart leaped exultantly.  I had him! 
          “Mr.  Blythe,” I began in a winningly modulated voice, and, at the same instant, he sprang from his camp-chair, his face distorted. 
          “There are onions in this salad!” he yelled.  “What the devil do you mean! Are you trying to poison me! What are you following me about for, anyway? Why are you running about under foot every minute!” 
          “My dear Mr.  Blythe,” I protested—but he barked at me, kicked over the bucket of salad, and began to dance with rage. 
          “What’s the matter with you, anyway!” he bawled.  “Why are you trying to feed me? What do you mean by trying to be attentive to me!” 
          “I—I admire and revere you—” 
          “No you don’t!” he shouted.  “I don’t want you to admire me! I don’t desire to be revered! I don’t like attention and politeness! Do you hear! It’s artificial— out of date—ridiculous! The only thing that recommends a man to me is his bad manners, bad temper, and violent habits.  There’s some meaning to such a man, none at all to men like you!” 
          He ran at the salad bucket and kicked it again. 
          “They all fawned on me in Boston!” he panted.  “They ran about under foot! They bought my pictures! And they made me sick! I came out here to be rid of ‘em!” 
          I rose from the grass, pale and determined. 
          “You listen to me, you old grouch!” I hissed.  “I’ll go.  But before I go I’ll tell you why I’ve been civil to you.  There’s only one reason in the world: I want to marry your daughter! And I’m going to do it!” 
          I stepped nearer him, menacing him with outstretched hand: 
          “As for you, you pitiable old dodo, with your bad manners and your worse pictures, and your degraded mania for prunes, you are a necessary evil that’s all, and I haven’t the slightest respect for either you or your art!” 
          “Is that true?” he said in an altered voice. 
          “True?” I laughed bitterly.  “Of course it’s true, you miserable dauber!” 
          “D-dauber !” he stammered. 
          “Certainly! I said ‘dauber,’ and I mean it.  Why, your work would shame the pictures on a child’s slate!” 
          “Smith,” he said unsteadily, “I believe I have utterly misjudged you.  I believe you are a good deal of a man, after all—” 
          “I’m man enough,” said I, fiercely, “to go back, saddle my mule, kidnap your daughter, and start for home.  And I’m going to do it!” 
          “Wait!” he cried.  “I don’t want you to go.  If you’ll remain I’ll be very glad.  I’ll do anything you like.  I’ll quarrel with you, and you can insult my pictures.  It will agreeably stimulate us both.  Don’t go, Smith—” 
          “If I stay, may I marry Wilna?” 
          “If you ask me I won’t let you!” 
          “Very well!” I retorted, angrily.  “Then I’ll marry her anyway!” 
          “That’s the way to talk! Don’t go, Smith.  I’m really beginning to like you.  And when Billy Green arrives you and he will have a delightfully violent scene—” 
          He rubbed his hands gleefully. 
          “He’s in love with Wilna.  You and he won’t get on.  It is going to be very stimulating for me—I can see that! You and he are going to behave most disagreeably to each other.  And I shall be exceedingly unpleasant to you both! Come, Smith, promise me that you’ll stay!” 
          Profoundly worried, I stood staring at him in the moonlight, gnawing my mustache. 
          “Very well,” I said, “I’ll remain if—” 
          Something checked me, I did not quite know what for a moment.  Blythe, too, was staring at me in an odd, apprehensive way.  Suddenly I realised that under my feet the ground was stirring. 
          “Look out!” I cried; but speech froze on my lips as beneath me the solid earth began to rock and crack and billow up into a high, crumbling ridge, moving continually, as the sod cracks, heaves up, and crumbles above the subterranean progress of a mole. 
          Up into the air we were slowly pushed on the evergrowing ridge; and with us were carried rocks and bushes and sod, and even forest trees.
          I could hear their tap-roots part with pistol-like reports; see great pines and hemlocks and oaks moving, slanting, settling, tilting crazily in every direction as they were heaved upward in this gigantic disturbance. 
          Blythe caught me by the arm; we clutched each other, balancing on the crest of the steadily rising mound. 
          “W-what is it?” he stammered.  “Look! It’s circular.  The woods are rising in a huge circle.  What’s happening? Do you know?” 
          Over me crept a horrible certainty that something living was moving under us through the depths of the earth—something that, as it progressed, was heaping up the surface of the world above its unseen and burrowing course— something dreadful, enormous, sinister, and alive! 
          “Look out!” screamed Blythe; and at the same instant the crumbling summit of the ridge opened under our feet and a fissure hundreds of yards long yawned ahead of us. 
          And along it, shining slimily in the moonlight, a vast, viscous, ringed surface was moving, retracting, undulating, elongating, writhing, squirming, shuddering.  “It’s a worm!” shrieked Blythe.  “Oh, God! It’s a mile long!” 
          As in a nightmare we clutched each other, struggling frantically to avoid the fissure; but the soft earth slid and gave way under us, and we fell heavily upon that ghastly, living surface. 
          Instantly a violent convulsion hurled us upward; we fell on it again, rebounding from the rubbery thing, strove to regain our feet and scramble up the edges of the fissure, strove madly while the mammoth worm slid more rapidly through the rocking; forests, carrying us forward with a speed increasing. 
          Through the forest we tore, reeling about on the slippery back of the thing, as though riding on a plowshare, while trees clashed and tilted and fell from the enormous furrow on every side; then, suddenly out of the woods into the moonlight, far ahead of us we could see the grassy upland heave up, cake, break, and crumble above the burrowing course of the monster. 
          “It’s making for the crater!” gasped Blythe; and horror spurred us on, and we scrambled and slipped and clawed the billowing sides of the furrow until we gained the heaving top of it. 
          As one runs in a bad dream, heavily, half-paralyzed, so ran Blythe and I, toiling over the undulating, tumbling upheaval until, half-fainting, we fell and rolled down the shifting slope onto solid and unvexed sod on the very edges of the crater. 
          Below us we saw, with sickened eyes, the entire circumference of the crater agitated, saw it rise and fall as avalanches of rock and earth slid into it, tons and thousands of tons rushing down the slope, blotting from our sight the flickering ring of flame, and extinguishing the last filmy jet of vapour. 
          Suddenly the entire crater caved in and filled up under my anguished eyes, quenching for all eternity the vapour wall, the fire, and burying the little denizens of the flames, and perhaps a billion dollars’ worth of emeralds under as many billion tons of earth. 
          Quieter and quieter grew the earth as the gigantic worm bored straight down into depths immeasurable.  And at last the moon shone upon a world that lay without a tremor in its milky lustre. 
          “I shall name it Verma gigantica,” said I, with a hysterical sob; “but nobody will ever believe me when I tell this story!” 
          Still terribly shaken, we turned toward the house.  And, as we approached the lamplit veranda, I saw a horse standing there and a young man hastily dismounting. 
          And then a terrible thing occurred; for, before I could even shriek, Wilna had put both arms around that young man’s neck, and both of his arms were clasping her waist. 
          Blythe was kind to me.  He took me around the back way and put me to bed.  And there I lay through the most awful night I ever experienced, listening to the piano below, where Wilna and William Green were singing, “Un Peu d’Amour.” 


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