Flower of the Gorse
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Monsieur Gu?ho, who spoke English, assured Madame that his firm's resources were entirely at her command.
Then Yvonne hurried to her mother's suite to divest herself of furs and toque. For the time she had abandoned the Breton dress, and wore her tweed costume. She met Mrs. Carmac, Bennett, and Raymond on the steps. Tollemache was assisting Jackson to his room.
"I really must run home," she explained. "Dad will be wondering what has become of me; though I sent a message by one of Julia's maids to tell him that Lorry and I were being whisked off to Lorient in an automobile."
"Yet you have been nowhere near Lorient," said her mother.
"A pleasure deferred, Mrs. Carmac," said Raymond. "You ought to take a spin in that car every day while in Pont Aven. It will do you a world of good. Don't you agree, Mr. Bennett?"
"Most certainly," said the lawyer; "that is, if Mrs. Carmac doesn't return to England with me tomorrow."
Bennett spoke as though he were giving indirect advice; but Yvonne gathered that her mother explained her decision to remain a few days longer because of anxiety with regard to the salvage work. Lorry reappeared on the terrace, and the girl hailed him.
"Come to supper," she cried. "Call in at Madeleine's on the way, and tell her to come too."
"Right-o!" he said.
But Madeleine failed to join the supper party at Madame Pitou's that night. She excused herself to Tollemache on account of a headache.
"She looked rather ill," said Lorry pityingly. "Her aunt was boiling some decoction of herbs. Madeleine is to be dosed."
"If I was her aunt, I'd set her to scrub the stairs," commented M?re Pitou emphatically. "Work is the only tonic Madeleine needs. When the hands are busy the wits don't stray."
"Is she up in the air about Peridot?" inquired Tollemache. "Before he went away he told me she wouldn't speak to him; but he shouldn't have taken it so seriously."
Madame shook her head and kept tight lips, – an ominous sign. Yvonne strove at once to change this ticklish topic.
"Didn't Captain Popple say something about bringing Peridot here tomorrow?" she said. "If he comes, he and Madeleine will soon bury the hatchet, especially when they know that Mrs. Carmac means to present Peridot with a fully equipped vague [sardine boat]."
"Good!" cried Tollemache. "M?re Pitou and I will foot it together at the wedding. I'm stuck on Breton weddings. There's no nonsense about them. Everybody enjoys life to the limit."
He had answered in English; but Madame evidently gathered the drift of his words, because she laughed dryly, and herself turned the talk to the day's outing. Yvonne, finding her father's eye on her, was just able to repress a sigh. M?re Pitou knew of her friend's folly, and, if she knew, there must have been gossip in the village. There was a chance, the barest chance, that Peridot's arrival might still scandalous tongues, if only Madeleine could be persuaded to receive him graciously and fix an early date for their marriage.The girl had already ruined any prospects she might have possessed of being elected Queen for the next Feast of the Gorse Flowers. The Pont Aven maid who aspires to this must display not only a pretty face but a spotless escutcheon. It might be that Madeleine would see this for herself. If not, she must be told.
Next morning, then, Yvonne called at Madeleine's cottage in order to make a later appointment. Madame Brissac, who admitted her, was in tears.
"Madeleine is gone!" she explained. "She went to Quimperl? by the early train. Nothing I could say would prevail on her. I've never seen her so determined about anything."
Yvonne, sick with apprehension at first, found a crumb of solace in the aunt's statement, which apparently limited the girl's flight to a town not far removed from Pont Aven.
"But why has she gone to Quimperl??" she faltered.
"That grinning fool Peridot left her too much to herself. She has been moping about the house during the last week, saying that her lover had deserted her. This morning she was out of bed before dawn. Her box was packed when I rose at six. Then she told me she had decided to accept her cousin's offer of a place in his shop, and meant to give it a fair trial. As she might be of some use during the few days before Christmas, she was going at once. I argued and stormed; but it was useless. Off she went!"
Yvonne knew indeed that a Quimperl? draper in a small way of business had often tried to induce Madeleine to take charge of his retail trade so that he might travel in the rural districts; but the girl had always scoffed at the notion. Perhaps, dreading the weight of public opinion in Pont Aven, or finding life in the village insupportable, she had sought refuge in Quimperl? for a while, and would return when present clouds were blown over.
"You are sure she means to join Monsieur Bontot?" she asked anxiously.
"Of course. There is no one else. Marie Bontot will welcome her, because Madeleine's help will enable Jacques to double his turnover; but I'll miss her dreadfully, and I can't imagine why she should want to scurry away in such a whirl. I haven't recovered from the shock yet."
Yvonne could only endeavor to console the old woman with a prediction of the truant's early return. She herself was greatly distressed by Madeleine's action in leaving the village without giving the least hint of her intention, or uttering a word of farewell. Moreover, it was more than unkind to put the blame on Peridot. The fact that Madeleine should have stooped to positive deception in that respect brought a suspicion, an ill-defined uneasiness, which was better suppressed at the moment.
But when she learned that Mrs. Carmac intended to take another run in the car she asked as a favor that they should proceed direct to Quimperl? in the first instance, as she wished to pay a call there. Moreover, if Mrs. Carmac didn't particularly want the big car, it would be more convenient if they used a smaller vehicle that day. Her mother was only too glad to agree; so a servant was sent off post haste with orders to hire the limousine.
Raymond was annoyed, but dared not show it. He heard the girl's request, and marked her agitated air, and searched for some explanation of an arrangement that he interpreted as aimed against himself. Puzzled and irritated, he seized an opportunity to put a daring question.
"Miss Ingersoll," he said, "I hope you have not forgotten your promise to introduce me to your father?"
"No. How could I forget?" she cried. "Will you come to M?re Pitou's this evening about five o'clock? Mrs. Carmac and I will be home long before that hour. I – I'm afraid, Mr. Raymond, I may have cost you an agreeable outing today; but I want to find Madeleine Demoret, and have a long talk with her. It might be rather awkward if there were men in the party. She would not discuss matters freely."
Raymond was so profoundly relieved that he nearly blurted out, "Oh, is that it?" He contrived, however, to murmur something about his complete agreement with any course suggested by Miss Ingersoll, when Mrs. Carmac intervened.
"Madeleine Demoret?" she said. "Isn't she the girl you spoke of the other evening?"
"Yes. She is definitely engaged to Peridot, and now, the very day he is expected back in Pont Aven, she has flown off to Quimperl?, vowing that she means to stay there with a married cousin. I want to see her, and coax her into meeting Peridot soon, either here or in Quimperl?."
"You seem to be very much concerned about this young lady's love affairs," smiled the older woman.
"Madeleine has been my playmate ever since I was able to walk," said Yvonne simply, quite unaware of the pang that this seemingly innocuous remark caused her mother, "and I do wish to see her happily married to Peridot, who is an excellent fellow, and thoroughly devoted to her. It would be too bad if they should separate now because of some absurd tiff. In any case," she added, "I want to know the truth."
"As to why she has gone?"
Mrs. Carmac was perplexed. She too, like Raymond, felt that there was more in Yvonne's anxiety than met the eye; but it was inadvisable to probe deeper into the problem until she and her daughter were alone.
"Ah, well," she said lightly. "Within the hour, I have no doubt, we shall be listening to a tearful denunciation of Peridot. The Perfidy of Peridot – it sounds like the alliterative title of a magazine story. Is that our car? Tell Celeste you'll wear the furs you had yesterday. They suit you admirably."
Monsieur and Madame Bontot were the most surprised people in Quimperl? when two elegant ladies alighted from an automobile outside their tiny shop, and inquired for Madeleine Demoret. They were almost astounded when they recognized Yvonne, whom they had never before seen in such guise.
"But why do you seek Madeleine here, Mademoiselle?" cried Madame Bontot, recovering her breath and her wits simultaneously. "I've not even heard from her or her aunt since Jacques was in Pont Aven two months ago. Isn't that so, Jacques?"
"Parfaitement," agreed Jacques, a rotund little man, coatless, and decorated with a tape measure slung round his neck.
Yvonne paled, but was, in a sense, sufficiently forewarned that she did not make matters worse for her unhappy friend by blurting out the true cause of her visit.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It is my fault. I have not seen Madeleine for some days, and I had a sort of idea that she meant coming to you about this time. It was discussed, I believe?"
"Yes, yes!" admitted Madame Bontot instantly. "We should be glad to have her in the shop. Then I could look after the dressmaking, and Jacques could run all over the country for orders. Isn't that so, Jacques?"
"Parfaitement," said the stout man, breathing heavily. In imagination he was running already.
"Well, I'll look her up when I return home, and tell her of my mistake. Then I'll see that she writes to you, at least," said Yvonne.
"Take us to the station," she said to the chauffeur, controlling voice and features with difficulty until safe in the seclusion of the closed car. Then she broke down, and sobbed bitterly; for she feared the worst.
Mrs. Carmac, unable to share this distress on account of some village girl's escapade, felt nevertheless that some minor tragedy was about to be added to the already heavy burden which life had imposed since the Stella was shattered against the inhospitable rocks of Brittany.
"Are you afraid she has run away – that she is making for Paris, or London?" she whispered.
Yvonne nodded. She could not speak. For the first time in her life she understood what hysteria meant.
"To join Rupert Fosdyke?" persisted her mother.
"Oh, I don't know! I am afraid – terribly afraid!" was the broken answer.
"But – it is inconceivable. A rustic of her type can have no attractions for a man like him. She would weary him in a day."
Yvonne did not reply; and in her heart Mrs. Carmac knew why. Rupert Fosdyke might share her half-veiled contempt for one of the "lower orders"; but he would have no scruples in using poor Madeleine's infatuation as a whip to scourge certain folk in Pont Aven.
Inquiry at the station was almost fruitless. Yvonne dared not appeal to the conductor of the tramway service, because any hue and cry raised for the missing girl must reach Pont Aven in the course of a few hours. She ascertained that no young woman in Breton costume had bought a ticket to Paris or St. Malo that day. This signified little. The very fact that the coif identifies the Bretonne would induce Madeleine to travel in an empty first-class carriage and change her outer garments.
"Was any ticket issued for a long journey to a girl of twenty after the arrival of the first train from Pont Aven?" said Yvonne as a last resource.
The booking clerk was inclined to be helpful. Not often did young American ladies speak French with such an accent. Usually they misunderstood him, or blandly assumed that he spoke English.
"Tiens!" he said, tickling his scalp with a pen-holder. "Such a one booked to Nantes. I remember thinking that she had a lot of money, because she picked a hundred-franc note out of a fair-sized packet."
"Was she a Bretonne?"
"Yes, Madame. Wait one moment." He called a porter. "Pierre," he cried, "you had charge of a lady's baggage by the nine o'clock train to Nantes. Did she come from Pont Aven?"
Pierre thought she did, but could not be sure. If so, the local conductor had brought her box across to the departure platform. At any rate, she was not a known resident in Quimperl?. And she possessed one trunk, a black one, iron-clamped, and studded with brass nails. Madeleine owned a similar box: but so did half the inhabitants of Brittany.
With that Yvonne had to be satisfied. Madeleine might or might not have gone to Nantes; whence, if so minded, she could travel on to Paris in the same train. It was difficult to account for her possession of the amount of money spoken of by the observer behind the wicket; but Mrs. Carmac solved the riddle at once.
"Until I am convinced to the contrary," she declared, "I shall believe that your friend is on her way to meet Rupert Fosdyke somewhere. Of course he would provide her with ample means. Gold is the most potent of all lures."
Yvonne shuddered. Her mother was least lovable when she became cynical. The girl felt unutterably sad and depressed.
It was a relief, in a sense, when the car sped down the hill into Pont Aven, and she could make some excuse to hurry home. Her father and Lorry, thinking she would be absent till a much later hour, had gone out, tempted by the continued fine weather.
But she was given no respite from her misery. Madame Brissac had posted an urchin to watch for the return of the motorists. She came now to gather tidings of her wayward niece, and Yvonne was obliged to confess that Madeleine was not at her cousin's house.
Then the storm broke. Madame Brissac had probably been made aware in the meantime that Madeleine had outraged local conventions by "walking out" with a stranger, and she poured her wrath on Yvonne.
"This is your doing!" she screamed, her black eyes flashing fire, and her swarthy skin bleaching yellow with fury. "You turned her head with your fine friends and their fairy tales. What could I expect but that my girl would be led astray? But her character is not the only one at stake. When we know the truth we'll hear more about that precious aunt of yours. Aunt, indeed! Who ever heard of an aunt screaming for her daughter and meaning her niece?"
M?re Pitou bustled out, breathing the flame of battle. "Marie Brissac," she cried, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself! Isn't this a case of what's bred in the bone coming out in the flesh? Have you forgotten why Jean Brissac married you? Because, if your memory is failing, mine isn't. I can tell you now that Madeleine simply flung herself at that young Englishman's head, and, if that's news to you, it's the talk of everybody else in Pont Aven. Don't you dare come here insulting my friends, or you'll get more than you bargain for!"
"Oh, please, please, don't quarrel with Madame Brissac on my account," wailed Yvonne, daring all, even a blow, and putting her arms round the half-demented woman's shoulders. "You poor dear," she went on in a voice choked with sobbing, "blame me if you wish, but don't condemn Madeleine unheard. It may not be true. Let us pray the good God that it is not true! I love Madeleine as my sister, and I shall never believe that she has fled with any man until I hear it from her own lips."
Anger melted in tears. Madame Brissac suffered Yvonne to lead her back to the deserted cottage. There the two talked for a long time, and the girl got the old woman to agree that, in Madeleine's interests, the fiction of transference to the drapery establishment in Quimperl? should be maintained until something really definite became known. Not that any such, pretense could avail to shield the lost one. The village was already agog with the sensation of Madeleine's flight, and not a soul credited Madame Brissac's story of the Quimperl? cousins. The shy, rabbit-eyed glances of every village girl met in the street told Yvonne that Madeleine could never again raise her head in her native place. The maid of honor was dishonored – the Gorse Flower crushed into the mire!
And all this wretched hotchpotch of suffering and contumely was directly attributable to the presence of her mother in the community! Truly, Yvonne was sorrow-laden and oppressed when she reached the cottage again, and found Harvey Raymond awaiting her.