Mrs. Carmac rang for Celeste. "Take these articles, and give them to Mademoiselle Julia for distribution among the poor women of the village," she said. Her attitude was eloquent. The pearls were lost irretrievably. She dismissed the subject.
"Mais, Madame," cried the dismayed Celeste, "much of the linen is veritably new, and only requires washing."
"Do as I bid you. I shall never wear any of those garments again. Captain Popple, here is the key you want. I leave you to deal with the customs people. Will you help Celeste to remove the box? Thank you. Well, Mr. Raymond, you have just returned from Quimperl?, I suppose? Did you have a cold journey?"
Raymond took the cue, and said nothing more of the theft. When Popple and the maid had gone he explained that during the run to Quimperl? he decided that it would be more discreet to telephone Duquesne than send Yvonne's telegram. He was lucky in reaching his friend without delay, and was thus able to give him detailed instructions, including a full description of Madeleine's appearance. Duquesne had promised to meet the train at the Gare St. Lazare. In fact, he was so eager to serve that, failing Madeleine's arrival at the expected hour, he would meet the next train, and the next. In any case he would telegraph the result early in the morning.
In a word, Raymond had acquitted himself admirably. He had forgotten nothing, left no stone unturned. Yvonne was more than ever grateful.
Mrs. Carmac was tired, almost peevish; so the girl did not remain much longer.
She agreed readily when Raymond asked to be allowed to see her home, and did not demur on reaching the bridge at an unexpected request that she should walk with him a little way down the road to the harbor.
"The hour is not so late," he said deferentially, "and I wish to lay before you a very serious matter. I may surprise you greatly. I may even distress you. But I do want you to believe, Miss Yvonne, that in baring my heart to you I am not swayed by unworthy motives."
The girl was certainly astonished by this portentous opening; but the secretary's action with regard to Madeleine had completely dissipated a sense of restraint and dislike that she was usually aware of when in his company. Thinking he had some news from Paris that he did not wish to reveal in Mrs. Carmac's presence, she hastened to assure him that he might speak with the utmost candor.
"That is good and kind of you," he said; "but it is only what I expected to hear from your lips. But I am sure you will forgive me if I tread warily. I have that to tell which may find you unprepared, and I think you will thank me afterward – no matter what view you take of what I may call an astounding revelation – if I do not blurt out what I have to say like some frightened child. My nature is a cautious one, and I shrink from even the semblance of inflicting pain. Such characteristics may be commendable in their way; but they have their drawbacks in a case like this, when a man who would willingly undergo any suffering for your sake is forced, against the grain, to utter unpleasant truths."
Yvonne was more and more bewildered.
"If you are referring, even indirectly, to Mrs. Carmac," she said frankly, "I must warn you instantly that I cannot listen to anything concerning her. Until she came to Pont Aven I was not even aware that such a relative as an aunt existed. When she leaves this place – though I shall see her often, I hope, in the future – the relations between us will be rather those of good friends than of aunt and niece. You ought to understand, then, Mr. Raymond, that if your confidences deal with her I refuse to hear them."
Raymond sighed heavily. He seemed to be at a loss for words. In reality Yvonne had said exactly what he anticipated, and he counted on a well judged delay as calculated to increase her agitation and weaken her defenses.
"Please don't render an ungracious task harder," he said, as though nerving himself to a supreme effort, when Yvonne, after walking a few paces in silence, was about to tell him that she would go no farther. "I meant to prepare you by some vague comments that would clear the air. But your highly strung and generous temperament will not permit any display of what I have described as my methods of caution. Well, then, if it must be so, let us get to the crux of the matter at once. Mrs. Carmac is not your aunt, Miss Yvonne. She is your mother! She was your father's lawful wife! She deserted him and you, got an American divorce, and was married to Walter Carmac in England. I believe that the second marriage was not a valid one. It is terrible to have to say these things; but they are true, and it rests with you to save her from exposure and ignominy. I beseech you to credit my good faith in this matter. To whom can I appeal if not to you, her daughter? It is manifestly impossible that I should go to your father. He could not help her if he would. Her future happiness, her very means of existence, are in your hands. Can you then reproach me if I ask you to bear with me while I endeavor to show a way out of a situation bristling with difficulties for all of us, alive with real danger for your own mother?"
In the first shock of this disclosure Yvonne was minded to rend the man with a few quiet words of scorn and disdain, and then leave him. Twice she essayed to break in on his measured utterances, and twice she held back. She could not know that Raymond had forged his thunderbolt with no slight skill. He could not hope to achieve the final effect he aimed at by merely revealing a secret that was no secret. Close observation had shown that the girl was well aware of the relationship she bore to Mrs. Carmac, and, although she might be a prey to terror and dismay at finding the knowledge in possession of a comparative stranger, she would hardly do other than resent his interference, resent it too with a good deal of spirit and hot indignation.
He contrived therefore to combine innuendo with fact. He had counted the cost. He was playing a desperate game. During the next five minutes he must have in Yvonne either a determined opponent or a subservient if unwilling ally. There could be no half measures. If his suit was spurned, he must attach himself forthwith to Rupert Fosdyke's fortunes. If Yvonne wavered, or was cowed, he would strike a telling blow through her mother. No matter how the issue tended, he was secure of a thumping reward.
Once again the hazard of the hour seemed to be with him. Yvonne, almost tongue-tied and wholly bewildered, could only falter brokenly, "Having said so much, you cannot stop now. What do you mean when you say that Mrs. Carmac is in danger?"
He almost chuckled. Things were going well, exceedingly well. She was ready to listen. But he managed to throw an emotional vibration into his voice. For the moment the man was a consummate actor; though indeed he had so much at stake that no extraordinary effort was called for.
"Thank you," he said, apparently groping in a fog of doubt, and forcing an unwilling parade of unpalatable and distressing facts. "It is something gained to feel that you have suspended judgment. You may or may not know already that Mrs. Carmac is your mother. I ask you to admit nothing: only to hear and weigh my statements dispassionately. Eighteen years ago your mother deserted you and your father in Paris. For some reason Mrs. Ingersoll married Carmac in her maiden name two years later. None of her associates ever guessed that the beautiful and distinguished Stella Fordyce had been the wife of an unknown artist. Her secret was safe with your father. It would have gone to the grave with her but for the wreck of the yacht on a Breton reef, and the really phenomenal chance that brought her first husband and her child to her rescue. Even then nothing might have been revealed had not Carmac lost his life. Really, if one were superstitious, one would see the action of Providence in – "
"Please spare me any references of that sort," broke in Yvonne. She could endure much; but she was not compelled to suffer this hypocritical scoundrel's blasphemy.
Raymond started. There was a new quality in her voice. She was regaining her self control, and at all costs he must prevent that. If he would win, he must adopt tactics of the whirlwind order.
"Forgive me," he said. "The thought has been so constantly in my mind of late that it came unbidden. But you leave me no choice. I must speak plainly, almost brutally. Let Rupert Fosdyke obtain the faintest shadow of the unquestionable facts, and he will not only drive your mother forth a pauper, but put such a complexion on the facts that she will be disgraced forever among her equals."
"Disgraced! Why? People are not disgraced because they obtain a divorce according to the laws of their own country."
"No; but they are punished severely if they offend against the social code. Mrs. Carmac's offense is against British law. She cannot deny it. The first person who lodges an information can upset her husband's will. Deprived of his money and its influence, what becomes of her?"
Yvonne stood in the road as though she had been turned to stone, and perforce Raymond halted and faced her. There was not a strong light in that place. Some fifty yards away shone a lamp that marked a footbridge across the top of the harbor. Just beneath the Aven took its last plunge as a mountain stream and mingled its sweet waters with the tides. On the rocks, high above the river, a Calvary was silhouetted against the cold, clear blue of a starlit sky, and it needed no highly imaginative mind to picture the stark figure of the Christ gazing down compassionately on one of His creatures who was disobeying His ordinances.
Not far distant was the cheerful caf? frequented by artists and writers on summer evenings, where Madame Mar?chale, Julia Guillou's sister, dispensed cups of black coffee, and tiny glasses of liqueur cider, and epigrams – each excellent in their way. In a flash the notion presented itself to Yvonne's overburdened mind that the pleasant intimacy of those mild revels was being banned by some malign influence which had its living agent in the diminutive creature now confronting her. The empty right sleeve of Raymond's overcoat added to his lop-sided appearance. The black figure, sharply outlined against the white road and the luminous mist rising from the river, was almost ghoul-like in its ungainliness. She could see the Calvary. Raymond had turned his back on it. Instantly she found in him the personification of the impenitent thief.
But she had her wits about her now. Life was becoming too complex in its issues that a girl should handle them alone. No matter what the outcome, her father must take control; but before going to him she must probe this miscreant's full intent.
"Do you imply that you are the person who may lodge an information?" she said, with a calmness of tone that sounded bizarre in her own ears.
"No, no. That is the last thing I would think of," protested Raymond heatedly.
"Or that you feel compelled to acquaint Rupert Fosdyke with his rights as his uncle's heir?"
"He has no rights. His uncle has cast him off deliberately. He is an unscrupulous rou? – witness his heartless philandering with your friend Madeleine!"
"In that event, why have you made revelations to me, which, if true, cannot fail to be hurtful?"
"I want to become your loyal ally in shielding your mother from the consequences of her past mistakes."
"I am almost powerless, Mr. Raymond. Mrs. Carmac will go from Pont Aven soon. I remain with my father. What sort of alliance can you and I form that will protect or benefit her?"
Raymond's small eyes blazed with sudden fire. She had actually helped him to surmount the stiffest barrier. "The best and most enduring of all," he said thickly. "Marry me! Why not? You are free. I shall be a devoted husband. Your slightest wish will be my law. You will not be separated from your parents, with either of whom you can dwell for such periods as you think fit. Marry me, and every ill now threatening your mother will dissolve into thin air!"
At that crisis the image of Laurence Tollemache obliterated that of the little man with the grating voice, and Yvonne could have laughed aloud. But she kept her head. The na?ve habit of thought induced by close communion with her Breton friends stood her in good stead then, when a false move might precipitate she knew not what ills.
"Is that the price of your silence?" she said, and the clear, precise enunciation recalled her mother in every syllable.
"That is not a fair way to put it," was the hoarse answer; for the strain was beginning to tell, even on Raymond's nerves of steel.
"Let me hear how you put it," she went on mercilessly.
"We would be making a compact to our mutual advantage," he said. "I would gain a beautiful and accomplished wife; you would inherit your mother's millions. We would unite in protecting her and punishing Rupert Fosdyke."
"I see," she said, with an air of careful consideration. "You do not want an answer tonight, I suppose?"
"Time is pressing – horribly pressing."
"In that respect time must stand still until tomorrow. We shall meet then."
She went off without any attempt at bidding him farewell. Raymond glared after her fixedly. He was annoyed, almost discomfited, but not disheartened. He had taken the step that counts. She knew now what lay at the back of his projects, and that was a long stride toward the goal. He was so deeply absorbed in reckoning the pros and cons of every word Yvonne had spoken that he failed to see Tollemache standing outside Julia's until close on him. Even then he could not find his tongue; so he merely grinned. Thus might a fiend gloat over a soul in peril. Was there none to help? Raymond, at any rate, saw a clear road. He was most affable to the porter who was waiting to assist him in undressing. For a man with a broken arm he had struck a shrewd blow in Pont Aven that night.
Yvonne found her father hunched up in his accustomed chair. He was smoking, and brooding, his gaze centered in the pine logs crackling on the hearth. Thus had she found him each night since his return from Concarneau. He, seldom without a book after daylight failed unless some crony called in for a chat, had not opened a book during many days. He had the aspect of a man crushed by misery. It was borne in on his daughter that he was slowly yielding under an intolerable strain; yet it had become her bitter portion to add materially to a load carried so uncomplainingly.
He looked up as she entered, and essayed a welcoming smile which conveyed a ghostly reminiscence of a joyous past now utterly remote. It cut her to the quick; but she strove to emulate his seeming nonchalance.
"I thought my message would have brought you sooner," he said. "But perhaps you were helping your mother to overhaul her boxes. M?re Pitou gave me the news of the salvage, which has surprised our local experts. This is the first time in the memory of man that Les Verr?s have disgorged their prey."
"What message, Dad?"
Yvonne removed her hat and coat, and seated herself on a sheepskin rug by her father's side. She had that to say which would be hard for both, and she did not wish to see the agony in his face.
"Haven't you seen Lorry, then?" he inquired.
"But that is strange. Lorry left here quite half an hour ago, meaning to ask you to come home. I didn't think Pont Aven could hide you from Lorry if he was bent on the chase."
"Sorry, Dad. Nothing – no one – would have kept me had I known. But I understand what happened. I quitted Julia's about half an hour since. Mr. Raymond was anxious for a brief talk, and we walked to the top of the quay. Lorry would go to Julia's by the mills. That is how he missed me."
She felt her father's body quiver, as a mettlesome horse might flinch under the touch of a spur, and knew that the mere mention of Raymond's name had affected him. It was her habit, when seated at his knee, to catch his hand and draw it over her shoulder, holding it in both of hers, and using it as a sort of stay. She had done this insensibly, and her downcast eyes dwelt on the thin, nervous fingers – they seemed to have shrunk during that time of suffering. The discovery affected her strangely. She could not, she dared not, unburden her soul then. No matter what the cost to herself and others, he must be spared – at any rate till another day of wretchedness was upon them. She realized just in time that a hot tear stealing down her cheek would drop on that dear hand, and bring about an instant demand for an explanation.
With a jerk she averted her head, and the tear fell scalding on her own wrist. Her father misinterpreted the movement.
"Don't stir, Girly," he said. "I have something to say, a confession to make. Remain where you are. I shall cause you pain, and if I find my own anguish mirrored in your eyes, I may falter in my duty."
So father and daughter were animated by the same thought. Each desired only to lighten the shock for the other. Yvonne nestled closer. More than ever was she resolved to keep her woes to herself for the hour. With an effort that cost a cruel biting of her under lip, she contrived to murmur without a catch in her voice:
"You're tired, Darling. Don't tell me you're not. You ought to be in bed and asleep. Let us wait till the morning, and have a nice long chat after petit d?jeuner."
"No," said Ingersoll firmly. "I promised Lorry I would speak tonight. He – expects it of me."
"Lorry!" she gasped, in a sudden fright born of the knowledge that had come to her in the gloom down there by the whispering river, when a cold-blooded trafficker in her mother's difficulties had offered to sell his secret at the price of all she held dear. "Lorry! How is Lorry concerned in our present troubles?"
"Your troubles are his, Sweetheart. Lorry loves you. True knight-errant that he is, he wants to slay the dragon that would devour you."
"But, father dear, how could he know? How could anyone know?"
In her quick alarm the cry slipped out unaware. Happily, as it transpired, – for there is no telling what John Ingersoll might have done in his anger if Raymond's infamous suggestion had reached him in the present state of tension, – he misunderstood a second time.
"Lorry didn't know, he only guessed," he said gently. "He is a good fellow, and I ached for the sympathy of some man to whom I could talk freely. So, to remove the cloud between us, of which each has been sensible since we came ashore on that Thursday night, I told him the truth, and the whole truth. He urged that you should be told too. He is right. Oddly enough, despite my vaunted repute for wisdom, he saw into the muddle more clearly than I. Yvonne, I did not divorce your mother. I – I regret my action now, when regret comes too late. According to English law she never could have been Walter Carmac's wedded wife while I lived. Girly, forgive me! I have wronged both her and you grievously."
Yvonne whirled round and flung her arms about the stricken man's neck. There was no pretense now at hiding her tears; but her eyes shone with another light than that of grief.
"Dad," she cried fiercely, "I sha'n't have you torn and harried in this way! I refuse, do you hear? It is my turn to bear some of the suffering, some of the sacrifice. I am young and strong, and you have trained me well for the battle. My mother's story must not become known. We must save her, you and I. Isn't it by such means that our worth is tested? Do you think I'll shirk the ordeal? No, a thousand times no! We can't talk reasonably tonight. We would rend each other's hearts. But tomorrow, when we are calmer, we must look at things fearlessly, and take the road that leads to honor, no matter what the cost!"
Her father stroked her hair to still her frenzy, just as he had often done in the stress of some childish tantrum; for Yvonne had never been a demure little saint, but owned in full measure the defects of a frank and impulsive temperament.
"Don't let us give way to hysteria," he said, smiling wanly. "Of course it was my fault. I cracked up first; but I sha'n't offend again. Perhaps, as you say, we may take a more level-headed view of our difficulties in cold daylight. But, to prepare you, so to speak, I must warn you that your mother's chief enemy is that churl Raymond."
"Raymond!" Again was Yvonne almost choked with apprehension. How could her father suspect the devilish scheme the secretary had hatched? Had Lorry probed the depths of the man's evil mind? Her brain swam; but she compelled her faculties to remain alert.