"No," he said, bending over her, and resting his left hand on her shoulder. "That is quite clear and understandable. Any man of experience should read between the lines that the undertaking is vital and imperative to the last degree. If I were in trouble, Miss Yvonne, I wish I dared think that you would display such heartfelt interest in my affairs."
"You!" she cried, rising hurriedly. "You are one of the best of men! You hardly realize yet what good you are achieving. Mrs. Carmac, I am sure, will appreciate your kind action just as greatly as I do. Shall I take the telegram to the postoffice?"
"One moment. We have plenty of time. Should a message of that direct nature be despatched locally?"
Some of the light died out of the girl's eyes. The officials in the Pont Aven postoffice were discreet as any in France, and courteous beyond the average; but they all knew Madeleine! Still, Yvonne might be trusted to fight to the last ditch in her friend's behalf.
"There is a train to Quimperl? within half an hour," she said. "Someone must go. If necessary, I'll go myself. You are not fit to travel, Mr. Raymond. If only Lorry would come – "
"You may leave the mission in my hands, Miss Yvonne," said Raymond suavely. "Indeed, rather than risk the journey over that bumping tramway, I'll hire an automobile, and reach Quimperl? more quickly."
Barbe came in with a laden tray, and Raymond swallowed a cup of tea and ate some of M?re Pitou's famous cakes.
He was bidding his hostess an impressive farewell when Ingersoll and Tollemache appeared. Yvonne's father, observing men and events with a certain detachment in these days, was not drawn to the ungainly secretary. He was puzzled, at finding the man there, and even bewildered by the warmth of Yvonne's introduction. But Raymond was master of himself now. He withdrew promptly, trusting to Yvonne's enthusiasm to make smooth the way for his next visit. And indeed his back was hardly turned before she plunged into a recital of the day's doings.
Her father listened quietly, passing no comment other than to express a brief but complete agreement with every step she had taken.
Then she hurried out, being restless until assured that her messenger had really started for Quimperl?.
Ingersoll sighed deeply, rose to reach a tobacco jar from the mantel, and threw a question sidewise, as it were, at his companion, who was smoking meditatively, and apparently in a somewhat subdued mood.
"Lorry," he said, "what do you make of this chap Raymond?"
"I've no use for him, Socrates, and that's a fact."
"He seems to be acting in perfect good faith in this affair."
"Yes; but why?"
"That is what is bothering me. There are two points about his behavior that may have escaped you. In the first place, if Madeleine has gone to Paris by arrangement with that scamp Fosdyke, he of course will meet her at Saint Lazare, so what chance will Raymond's 'friend' have of intercepting her? Again, who is this Duquesne? I have a good memory, and I happen to recollect a notorious case reported in the newspapers about a month ago, a case in which a private inquiry agent of the name figured, and his address was in the Avenue Kleber.
"I can't guess."
Ingersoll stooped, and tapped his pipe on one of the heavy iron dogs guarding the hearth. Straightening himself, he drew a labored breath, like one who braces his nerves to face a dreaded but unavoidable ordeal.
"Then I'll tell you," he said. "Mrs. Carmac is Yvonne's mother. She left me soon after Yvonne was born – went off to her people in the States. There, after some delay, she secured a divorce. Later I heard that she had married Carmac, who was immensely rich, while I could barely afford to maintain a small flat in Montmartre. Carmac was not a bad sort of fellow in his way. He was, I believe, devoted to Stella, my wife. She too was better suited to him than to me.
"But Carmac, though of Southern birth, had become a naturalized Englishman, having, I understand, some ambition toward a political career on this side. Now I doubt very much whether the divorce proceedings were valid according to British law, and a wife takes her husband's nationality. Had I been wise and dispassionate, I should have given Stella her full freedom. But I did not – may Heaven forgive me! I was so utterly crushed after leaving Paris and seeking sanctuary in Pont Aven that I disregarded her entirely. None of my associates knew where I had gone. Every sort of effort was put forth to find me, but without success. Eighteen years ago, Lorry, Pont Aven was a long way from Paris. There was no railway, and communication with the outside world was mainly by sea.
"At last, despairing of any assistance from me, Stella and Carmac risked everything on the American decree. They were married openly. The wedding was announced in all the society newspapers. Even I, buried alive here, read of it. But, if the question were raised, it might be held in England that Stella is still my wife in the eyes of British law."
Ingersoll made this astounding statement in a voice so calm and free from emotion that Tollemache stared at him in blank amazement. Of course events had given the younger man some inkling of the truth; but he had never imagined anything so disastrously far-reaching.
"Good Lord!" he gasped. "That is terrible – that means all sorts of beastly complications!"
Ingersoll threw out a hand in a gesture of sheer hopelessness. "It means this, – if Raymond suspects that the marriage was invalid, and Carmac left his money to his 'wife,' the will can be upset, Mrs. Carmac will be stripped of every penny except her personal belongings, and Rupert Fosdyke and his sisters will inherit the estate. Naturally I know nothing of the exact position of affairs beyond the hints I pick up from Yvonne.
"She, poor girl, hasn't the remotest notion of the tragedy that I see looming darkly above the horizon – because it is the very essence of tragedy that a woman who sold her happiness for gold should be despoiled in the hour when the bribe might be regarded as most surely within her grasp. Lorry, I pity her! She is well aware that she is clinging to the edge of a precipice.
"Raymond's inquiries concerning Yvonne and myself, which you overheard, and which were confirmed by Peridot, warned me of her danger. When you carried that maimed scoundrel into the cabin of the Hirondelle he retained his senses sufficiently to understand the tremendous significance of Mrs. Carmac's ravings. To the ordinary ear they would sound like the gabble of dementia; to Raymond, already disliked by his mistress, and retained only as a useful slave by his master, they conveyed immense potentialities. But at first he must have felt like a traveler in the desert tantalized by a mirage. Investigation in Pont Aven might strengthen his suspicions; but he could never obtain proof. He dared not appeal to me. Rogues of his class have a tolerably clear notion of the sort of man they must not meddle with: probably he summed up the father through the daughter. Now, perhaps, you see where this Parisian inquiry agent comes in?"
"No, I'm dashed if I do!"
"There isn't much guile in your composition, Lorry," and Ingersoll smiled forlornly. "I gather from Yvonne's story that during the talk on board the cutter her mother spoke of having deserted her in Paris. Unhappily she thereby supplied Raymond with the most important clue. The very next day he had the impudence to remind Mrs. Carmac that she had claimed her 'niece' as a daughter. He drew in his horns when checked; but set about unveiling her early life without delay. Paris is a city of records. It was a simple matter for anyone to discover the date of my marriage, which took place nearly four years before the American ceremony between Carmac and my wife.
"Good God, Man! that poor woman is in a damnable position. Not only can she be robbed of the wealth given her by Carmac, but in England she is likely to be prosecuted on a charge of bigamy! And I shall be responsible! My pride and futile anger deprived her of the only means whereby she could have married Carmac without fear of consequences. I left her no alternative. Oh, Lorry, Lorry, if only I could have foreseen something, howsoever shadowy, of the evils that were impending when we brought those people on board! Had I even known the name of the yacht, I might have been vouchsafed some glimpse of the peril. One glance at Stella herself, or at Carmac, would have revealed an abyss from which I should have recoiled with horror. I might have contrived some subterfuge, some wild scheme, to keep Yvonne and her mother apart. But it is too late! The mischief is done. I am bound hand and foot, – a man delivered over to the torturers!"
Ingersoll's voice trailed off into silence. He sank into a chair, threw aside the pipe which he had filled automatically but not lighted, and buried his face in his hands.
But Tollemache sat bolt upright, his shoulders squared, his strong features frowning in thought. Thus had he looked when swinging precariously above the precipice at Le Faouet, and thus when the Hirondelle was backing into the hell's broth of the reef.
"Tell you what, old sport, we must act, and quickly at that," he said at last, springing to his feet as though some valiant deed was called for straight away.
"But what can I do?" came the despairing answer, and Ingersoll, the leader, the master, the kindly cynic, lifted woebegone eyes to the lithe and stalwart figure towering above him.
"Lots!" cried Tollemache. "First, let's get down to bedrock – then we can talk plainly. I've never said a word to you, Ingersoll, and mighty little to your daughter; but I love Yvonne, and if she will marry me, our wedding day will be the proudest day of my life. I'm not a poor man. I've a heap more money than ever I've owned up to, because I like the life here, and I like you, and I worship the ground Yvonne walks on, and I was afraid that if you knew I was fairly well fixed in a financial sense you'd regard me as a poseur, and cut me out. Why, I've saved nearly ten thousand dollars a year since I came to Pont Aven! I can lay my hands tomorrow on a hundred thousand, and still have enough left to keep Yvonne in pretty good shape.
"Now I'm not making any bargain with you. That isn't our way. But if I am given a free hand with Raymond, I'll settle his hash in double quick time. Swine of his variety are always blackmailers. Very well! I'll pay his price. He must clear out, bag and baggage, giving me the promise of his silence, over and above an acknowledgment that he obtained the money by threatening to expose Mrs. Carmac. Don't imagine he won't go! I'll make him! It's rather rotten even to talk of using violence to a fellow with a broken arm; but he must be got rid of, and I'll frighten him into a deal – see if I don't!"
Ingersoll rose, and caught the younger man's hand in an impulsive grip. "Lorry," he said, "if it pleases Providence to ordain that Yvonne shall marry you, I'll offer thanks on my knees. You are honest as the sun, and transparent as the Aven beneath the trees of the Bois d'Amour in summer. I have known your story for years. I had hardly learned your name before a man told me of the quarrel with your father because you refused to fall in with some marriage brokerage arranged between him and the father of a girl whose business interests marched with his. I knew too that you bought ten of my pictures during the first six months of our acquaintance. I didn't interfere with your well meaning subterfuge. You have lost nothing on that speculation, at any rate, because you acquired my work at its best period, and your investment would yield two hundred per cent. if you sold now.
"But let that pass. Do you believe I would ever have encouraged you to waste your time in pursuing the fickle goddess of art but for the knowledge that you were happy, and content, and far removed from the temptations that beset youngsters of means but of no occupation? No, you know well that I should have driven you forth with hard words. Yet I have never deceived you. How often have I said that Art is a cruel mistress, a wanton who refuses her favors to some most ardent wooers, yet flings them with prodigal hands at others who, though worthy of her utmost passion, despise it? But you have a quality that ranks you far above the painter who, while fitted to see divine things, wallows in the mud of mediocrity. You are a loyal friend and good comrade, a man of clean soul and single thought.
"Would to Heaven I might leave you now to deal with this prying hound, Raymond! But the plan you suggest is useless. He would laugh at you, disregard your threats, and taunt you with personal designs on Mrs. Carmac's millions. You have forgotten, Lorry, that Yvonne is her daughter. I know my wife's nature to the depths. She has drunk to nausea of the nectar of wealth. What has it given her? Happiness? Good health? A contented mind? No; she is scourged with scorpions, torn by a thousand regrets. She would give all her money now if some magician would wipe out from her life the record of the last eighteen years. Very gladly, very humbly, would she dwell in this cottage, provided that no cloud existed between her and Yvonne. But that cannot be. As offering a middle way, I have agreed that Yvonne shall visit her at intervals, and even that small concession has delighted her beyond measure. And what will be the outcome? No matter what I may say, she will try to capture my girl's heart with a shower of gold.
"No; I don't believe for one moment that she will ever estrange Yvonne from me. I do not even commit the injustice of attributing any such design to her. But that Yvonne will inherit Carmac's millions if they are left undisturbed in her mother's possession is almost as certain as death, – the one certainty life holds for us poor mortals. And, above all, don't hug the delusion that the man who has discovered my wife's pitiful secret is not alive to this phase of a problem which is in my mind night and day to the exclusion of all else. He will exact a price which you cannot pay. Each hour his ambitions mount higher. That unhappy woman is as powerless as a fawn caught in the coils of a python."
"One can free the fawn by dislocating the python's vertebr?. Is there any harm in my trying?"
"You may not kill the man. If you tackle him openly, you admit the very contention that he may never be able to establish in a court of law; because, although he may have ferreted out the prior marriage, he cannot yet be sure that there the divorce may not hold good. Even I myself am doubtful in that respect. It is a difficult legal point. Obviously Stella fears something. The fact that she has retained Raymond when she meant to dismiss him seems to indicate a weak spot in her armor. No, Lorry. I've looked at this thing from every point of view, and I see no loophole of escape. She is trapped, and Raymond alone can set her free. We must await his pleasure, act when he acts, and strive to assist her when the crisis arrives. Meanwhile, for her sake, we must endeavor to tolerate him."
Tollemache sat down again. "I feel like my namesake, Saint Lawrence the Martyr," he said gloomily. "You remember that when he was put on a gridiron, and done to a crisp golden brown on one side, he suggested that by way of a change his executioners should grill him a little on the other. Gee whizz! That reminds me, Socrates – if Sainte Barbe can't arrange matters better for pilgrims to her shrine, she ought to go out of the business. Here are Madeleine, Yvonne, you, and myself mixed up in fifty-seven varieties of trouble! And I suppose M?re Pitou and little Barbe will receive attention in turn. If ever I meet Sainte Barbe in Kingdom Come, I'll tell her her real name. It strikes me that whoever invented the pin-dropping scheme knew what he was doing."
Ingersoll needed no explanation of his friend's outburst against the gentle lady whose love story has descended through the centuries. It was a confession of sheer impotence. He was forcing himself to admit that he could no more stay the course of events than stem the next tide rushing in from the Atlantic.
Feeling that he wanted to bite something, Tollemache lit his pipe and clenched the stem viciously between his strong teeth. Aroused by the striking of the match, Ingersoll began to smoke too. The attitude of the two bespoke their sense of utter helplessness. Thus might men imprisoned on some volcanic island sit and await in dumb misery the next upheaval of the trembling earth.
At last Tollemache, whose lively and strenuous temperament rebelled against indecision, even in circumstances such as these, where one false move might precipitate the very crisis he wished to avoid, put a question which Ingersoll had been expecting, and fearing, since their talk began.
"I take it you haven't told Yvonne what you have told me?" he said. "I can't recall your exact words, but you implied that she is ignorant of the true nature of the dilemma her mother is in?"
"Yes, that's the worst of it," muttered Ingersoll. "It comes hard, Lorry, to parade the wretchedness of forgotten years before one's own daughter, – a girl like Yvonne, whose mind is an unblemished mirror. Before this blight fell on our lives I don't believe she really understood why sin and wrongdoing should exist. We dwelt apart. We moved and breathed in a gracious world of our own contriving. She read of evil in books and newspapers; but it passed her by, leaving her unruffled as our earth when astronomers report some clash of suns in the outer universe. Now, although her mother's callousness is patent to her, and this mad escapade of Madeleine's has stabbed her as with a dagger, she is wholly unaware of the chief offense, my neglect to facilitate the divorce proceedings."
"For the first time in our acquaintance, Socrates, I've got to say that you're talking nonsense," blurted out Tollemache excitedly. "It's bad enough that Mrs. Carmac – I suppose I'd better stick to that name for her – should be in such a hole, and we be unable at present to pull her out. But it's absolute rot that you should blame yourself for her mismanagement of her own affairs. Dash it all! Where is the man or woman who can act tomorrow in face of such an experience as yours as they might, twenty years hence, wish they had acted? That's no way to look at things. Tell Yvonne, I say. Tell her tonight. Then she can discuss the situation fairly and squarely with her mother. Don't you see, heaps of things may have occurred which, if you knew of them, might modify your judgment? This American divorce may be bad law in England, but good law in France. That lawyer fellow, Mr. Bennett, struck me as a wise old codger. He, or someone like him, might put Mrs. Carmac up to all sorts of dodges to do Raymond in the eye. And, in any event, don't start accusing yourself to Yvonne. If you do, d'ye know what the upshot will be? She'll take your side against her mother, and where will Mrs. Carmac be then?"
"Probably you are right, Lorry. I have learned to distrust my own thoughts. Yes, I'll tell Yvonne the whole truth."
Ingersoll spoke in the accents of stoic despair; but Tollemache was in fighting mood, and eager to close with the enemy.
"It's sound policy to defend by attacking," he went on, with an air of profundity that, at any other time, the older man would have found intensely amusing. "That's what we were taught in college football, and it's true of every other kind of rough and tumble. Why shouldn't Mrs. Carmac blow Raymond and his blackmailing schemes sky high by making a deal with Fosdyke and the other relatives? The cake is big enough, you say, that each should get a good slice and be satisfied. As for legal proceedings in England, who's going to prosecute? Not you. And who else can act? The more I look at this affair the more I'm convinced it's a bogy that will fall to bits at the first straight punch."
Certainly the enthusiastic advocate of strong measures seemed to have hit on a project that, though difficult, was not wholly impracticable. If Fosdyke had only kept clear of that stupid intrigue with Madeleine Demoret, a settlement by consent might come well within the bounds of reason.
For the first time in many days Ingersoll saw a gleam of light in a choking fog. He brightened perceptibly, and talked with some of his wonted animation.
Neither man noticed how the time was slipping by until M?re Pitou summoned them to supper. Yvonne had not arrived; so they assumed that she had remained with Mrs. Carmac. About ten o'clock Ingersoll – probably in a state of subdued nervousness as to the outcome of the projected disclosure – asked Tollemache to convey a message to Yvonne that she was wanted at home.