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The Temptress

William Le Queux

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Temptress, by William Le Queux.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE TEMPTRESS, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.



  "May she ever imitate the holy women of former times, and may the EvilOne have no share in her actions."

  The nuptial blessing was droned monotonously in French by a stoutrubicund priest, who wore soiled and crumpled vestments.

  The scene was strange and impressive.

  Upon a tawdry altar, in a small bare chapel, two candles flickeredunsteadily. The gloomy place was utterly devoid of embellishment, withdamp-stained, white-washed walls, a stone floor, dirty and uneven, andbroken windows patched with paper.

  Over the man and woman kneeling at the steps the priest outstretched hishands, and pronounced the benediction.

  When he had concluded a gabbled exhortation and premonishment, theyrose. The weary-eyed man regained his feet quickly, gazing a triflesadly at his companion, while the latter, with a scarcely perceptiblesigh, got up slowly, and affectionately embraced her newly-weddedhusband.

  As the bride placed her arms about her husband's neck, he bent, and,lifting her black veil slightly, gave her a fond, passionate caress.

  Turning from the altar, the priest grasped their hands, wishing themhealth and happiness. What bitter irony! what a canting pretence ofhumanity! As if either could be obtained in New Caledonia, the malarialisland to which the French transport their criminals. The ill-timedsarcasm caused the statuesque warders to grin, but a tear stood in theeye of more than one of the bridegroom's comrades in adversity, eventhough they were desperate characters, hardened by crime.

  "We thank you heartily for your kind wishes," he replied, "and trustthat your blessing will render our lot less wearisome."

  The convict's bride remained silent, gazing about her unconcernedly.

  "Come," exclaimed the officer, rising abruptly, "we must not linger;already we have lost too much time."

  After the register had been signed, the husband again kissed his wife.As she raised her lips to his, he whispered a few words, as if toreassure her, then said aloud--

  "Farewell, dearest. In seven years I shall be free. Till then, _aurevoir, sans adieu_!"

  "_Sans adieu_!" she echoed in a low voice, apparently unmoved.

  He shrugged his shoulders, and turned towards his stern guards.

  "I must apologise for detaining you, gentlemen," he said. "Let us go; Iam ready."

  The bride, who was young, was dressed very plainly in black, yet withParisian taste. Perhaps she was handsome, but the thick veil concealedher features. The husband's appearance, however, was decidedlyunprepossessing. He was undergoing a term of ten years' hard labour andlifelong banishment.

  Tall, bronzed, and bearded, with a thin face wrinkled by toil, althoughstill retaining traces of good looks, he remained for a momentmotionless, contemplating with loving eyes the woman who was now hiswife. His attire was scarcely befitting a bridegroom, for he had nocoat, and wore the soiled and ragged grey shirt and trousers of a miner,while the chains that bound his wrists seemed strangely out of place.

  Yet the spectators of this odd ceremony were as strikingly incongruousas the principals themselves.

  There were but eight persons. Five were fellow-prisoners of thehusband, comprising the labour gang in which he worked, while closebehind them sat an officer and two sinister-looking warders in fadedmilitary uniforms, the butts of their loaded rifles resting on thefloor. The convicts were watching the ceremony interestedly, frequentlywhispering among themselves, and ever and anon, as either stirred, theclanking of their chains formed an ominous accompaniment to thehastily-gabbled formula, as if reminding them of the dismal hopelessnessof their situation.

  Neither replied. The warder who held the chain to which the fiveprisoners were manacled stepped forward, and locked it to thebridegroom's fetters.

  For a few minutes, while before the altar, the latter had been allowedcomparative freedom, but now, the ceremony over, he was compelled toreturn with his gang to the atrocious tortures and dispiriting gloom ofthe copper mines--that monotonous, toilsome existence of Frenchconvicts; a life without rest, without hope, with naught else beyondhard labour, brutal taskmasters, and the whining homilies of drunkenpriests.

  At a word from the officer the men filed slowly out, a dismal, dejectedprocession. Notwithstanding the uniform grey dress and closely-croppedheads, the difference in their physiognomy came prominently out. It waseasily distinguishable that the husband belonged to a higher socialcircle than the others, who, from their ferocious, forbidding aspect,had evidently given the rein to their evil passions, and were undergoingtheir just punishment. Through the narrow door they passed in singlefile, the warders following immediately behind with their rifles upontheir shoulders.

  The officer paused at the door, and turning, lifted his cap politely tothe bride, saying--

  "Forgive me, madame, for thus taking your husband from you, but, alas!I have orders which must be obeyed."

  "No apology is needed, m'sieur," she replied, with a slight sigh. "Myhusband's honeymoon has been brief indeed, but, as one convicted of aserious crime, what can he expect? We must both wait. Nothing furtherneed be said."

  "And you have followed him here--from Paris?"


  "Ah, what devotion! Madame, truly yours is a cruel separation, and youhave my heartfelt sympathy. Adieu."

  "Thanks, m'sieur; adieu," she said brokenly; but the officer had alreadypassed out, and was beyond hearing.

  Drawing herself up suddenly, and bowing stiffly to the priest, she leftthe chapel without deigning to thank him.

  Outside the furnace heat of sunshine was intense.

  The fierce, glaring sun reflected upon the unruffled surface of thePacific Ocean, and beat down mercilessly on the white road thatstretched away for a mile or so to Noumea, the chief town of the penalsettlement, which is altogether a curious place, where society iscomposed chiefly of _recidivistes_ and warders, and where in the RueMagenta, one rubs shoulders with murderers, thieves, and notoriousconspirators, the scum of French prisons, who, having completed theirterm of hard labour, have developed into colonists, respectable andotherwise.

  Hesitating on the threshold, undecided whether to return to the town ortake the road which led up the steep hill to where the black shaft andwindlass marked the mouth of the convict's mine, she quickly resolvedupon the former course, and, strolling leisurely down to where thewaveless sea lazily lapped the shingly beach, continued her way underthe welcome shadow of some great rocks overgrown by tropical vegetation,and rendered picturesque by palms, acacias, and giant azaleas in fullbloom.

  The landscape, though arid, was beautiful.

  Away across the bay, the cluster of white houses, embowered in branches,stood out in bold relief against the more sombre background of forest,and behind rose mountains denuded of their foliage, but clothed by thesun and air with a living garment of constantly changing colours, whichsometimes hid their loss, sometimes more than atoned for it. Into thefar distance the long ranges stretched away in undulating lines ofultra-marine and rose, while in the centre the snow-capped summit ofMount Humboldt glistened like frosted silver. Not a breath of windstirred the sultry atmosphere. The very birds were silent, havingsought shelter from the terrible heat; and the calm waters, shut in bycoral reefs, seemed to reflect and even increase the intensity of thesun's rays.

  Suddenly she halted, and looked back contemplatively along the road theconvicts had taken.

  Words escaped her. They were scarcely vapid sen

  "Bah! even the warder pities me, the imbecile!" she exclaimed in French,breaking into a nervous, discordant laugh. "I have obeyed you, myelegant husband, merely because I am helpless; but my fervent wishes foryour welfare are that you will descend yonder mine and never return tothe light of day--that your taskmasters will crush the life out of youlong before the expiration of your term. You think you have ingeniouslystrengthened the tie by making me your wife, but you have yet todiscover your mistake. You have yet to discover that you are dealingwith one who can hold her own against the world!" Motionless andsilent, she stood for a few moments with fixed eyes and hands tightlyclutched. Then she continued--

  "Seven years must elapse before you return to civilisation. Meanwhilemuch can be accomplished. _Sacre_! I hope you'll die the death youdeserve, and rot in a criminal's grave before that, curse you! Yourwife--_ma foi_!--your victim!"

  Hissing the