"Yes – Raymond," her father was saying. "I have no absolute proof; but I am convinced that he overheard your mother's frantic words of self reproach when the Hirondelle was coming up the river. The very agent he is employing in Paris, ostensibly in aid of your quest for poor Madeleine, is really engaged in a search into the early records of our lives, your mother's and mine. The inquiry is a simple thing. If Raymond has not secured the necessary evidence already, it is only a matter of hours before it is in his hands. Then, unless a miracle happens, he can dictate his own terms. Worst of all, your mother will be in his power as long as she lives, and an unscrupulous scoundrel, such as I believe Raymond to be, could cause untold mischief after her death."
Yvonne rose to her feet, and straightened her lithe, slim body. With a determined gesture she brushed away a mist from before her eyes. "I want to ask a few questions," she said. "You will be quite open and candid with me, I know, because it is necessary that we should meet the trials of the next few days with the clearest knowledge of each other's aims. Do you think it possible to make any arrangement with Raymond that would be binding?"
"The blackmailer's appetite only grows by feeding. Pay him a very large sum today, and he will demand four or five times the amount within a month or a year. There is no finality. The wolf may eat to repletion; but it will continue to slay in mere lust of killing.
"Is there no way of defeating him?"
"Lorry, as I hinted, hit on a notion. I have no means of knowing exactly what legal steps Carmac and Stella took to make their marriage valid. Carmac might have been advised to establish, or secure, American citizenship. Moreover, French law may adapt itself readily to American standards. Those are points for lawyers; but I want you to go into the matter thoroughly with your mother, and ascertain whether or not there exists any sort of legal barrier that may serve to keep this jackal from devouring her. That is one reason why I have opened my heart to you tonight."
Yvonne had Mrs. Carmac's trick of wrinkling her brows when in deep thought. Many a time had her father chaffed her on the habit, and pretended to wait in breathless suspense till the oracle announced its weighty decision. But the creasing of the smooth forehead passed unnoticed now. They were no longer light-hearted playmates, but a man and a woman pondering one of life's most harrowing problems.
"Raymond can get nothing at all unless he acts through Rupert Fosdyke," she said collectedly. "Why shouldn't an arrangement be made with him – Fosdyke, I mean? It's all a question of this wretched money. Why shouldn't Mother give it to him and his sisters? Surely they would leave her sufficient to live on?"
Youth is sanguine. Yvonne had reached the same conclusion as Tollemache; that, if money were really the root of all evil, the noxious growth that had sprung into such vigorous existence in Pont Aven since the feast of Saint Barbara might be torn out bodily.
But Ingersoll thought the discussion had gone far enough for the time.
"No more talk tonight, Mignonne," he cried cheerfully. "Now that we know the worst, we can fight in the open side by side. Hitherto I have felt that I was treating you unfairly in withholding from your ken the most damaging item in your mother's catalogue of worries. Tell her what I have said. I want you to speak without reservation. Then, if she is equally candid, we shall know just where we stand, and whence the main attack may come."
Unhappily Yvonne was aware, when kissing her father goodnight, that the enemy was attacking already; but she held steadfast to the resolve not to disclose Raymond's brazen scheme at present. The day had produced sufficient wretchedness of spirit already.
So the two parted, and Yvonne, when safe in the solitude of her room, knelt and prayed that some ray of sunshine should pierce the gathering clouds. Then, in more tranquil mood, she forced her thoughts into a new channel by reading some pages of a biography of John Ruskin. By curious chance she came across a passage dealing with Ruskin's ill-fated love for Rosie La Touche, and containing a poignant passage in a letter he wrote to a friend:
"I wanted my Rosie here. In heaven I mean to go and talk with Pythagoras and Socrates and Valerius Publicola. I sha'n't care a bit for Rosie there; she needn't think it. What will grey eyes and red cheeks be good for there?"
Yvonne closed the book with a snap. That shaft from the bow so deftly wielded by a master archer had pierced her very heart. She loved Tollemache. She wanted her Lorry here. If any maleficent influence drove him from her, all the brightness and color would depart out of her life, a pleasant world grow cold and gray for evermore.
Then, being weary yet eminently healthy, she went to bed and slept dreamlessly, and was up betimes in the morning. It was pleasant to see the sun rising into a clear sky above the stunted trees crowning the Toulifot hill. The frosty weather, coming unusually early that year, had lasted far beyond the prescribed brief period of such cold snaps in December. There was little or no wind. It was an ideal day for a walk. Meaning to excuse herself from motoring, and wheedle her father into a long tramp after luncheon, – with Lorry, perchance, to disprove the infallibility of the adage that two is company and three is none, – she warned M?re Pitou that she would return for the midday meal.
"Ah, tcha!" said Madame testily. "What between one thing and another, I'm thinking of taking a holiday. Little Barbe could have done all the cooking needed in this house during the past week. Look at your father! Anyone would say I starved him. As for you, flying about and eating scraps and hashes in strange hotels, I'm surprised at you!"
Yvonne assured her irate landlady that the best ragout in Brittany would not lack appreciation that day, and went to visit her mother in more cheerful mood than she would have deemed possible overnight. It was market day, and the Place au Beurre, beside whose old houses the parish church of Saint Guenol? reared its modest spire, was alive already with country carts, smart coifs, and velvet jackets. In the larger square across the bridge traders from neighboring towns were erecting stalls for the display of their merchandise, mostly wearing apparel and articles of household use.
Yvonne knew everybody, and everybody knew her. She had a smile and a nod for the Widow Limbour, whose confectionery and sweets had won her heart years ago, for Marrec the barber, Daoudal the baker, Madame Le Naour, purveyor of a strange blend in hats and liqueurs, and Madame Le Garrec, seller of newspapers and picture postcards. Monsieur le Courronc, whose little gallery had held many of her father's pictures, had spared a moment from his artistic wood carving, and was looking out at the crowded marketplace. The Morvans, Monsieur et Madame, whose Breton costumes and laces excite the desire and empty the purses of fair visitors in the summer, were in Pont Aven that day, and Canivet the coach builder was standing at the entrance to the yard that houses his industry. Each and all greeted Yvonne. For a few happy minutes she forgot her worries, until a girl met her, and asked shyly:
"Is there any news of Madeleine?"
That took some of the blue out of the sky. Yvonne had to confess that nothing was known of Madeleine except that she had gone to Quimperl? the previous day. Her questioner simpered, and passed on. Madeleine's story was already discredited. Much water would flow under the bridge before she was reinstated in the good opinion of Pont Aven.
Yvonne caught sight of Tollemache, standing, with a pipe in his mouth and his hands in his pockets, outside Julia's. (And, by the way, there is no disrespect in this curt allusion to the name of the chief hotel in the village. It is never spoken of locally otherwise than as "Julia's" in English and "Chez Julia" in French. The excellent lady who to a large extent built, and in every other way owns, the property would think her popularity was fading if any more ceremonious description was used.)
Near Lorry were Captain Popple and Jackson, the latter now promoted to a stick and a slow limp. Yvonne would have passed with a smiling "Goodmorning," but Tollemache pocketed his pipe and hailed her. She realized instantly that he was excited about something quite out of the common run, though his air was studiously composed.
"You're going to Mrs. Carmac, I suppose?" he said.
"Yes," she answered, coloring slightly under the intensity of his gaze, for Lorry had fine eyes, and now they seemed to be looking into her heart; which was so absurd a notion that her cheeks grew redder and redder.
"You won't be there long before Raymond comes in," he went on earnestly. "When he turns up I want you to look out through the window, and touch your chin with your right hand. That's all."
She laughed quite merrily, for sheer relief at the discovery that he was thinking of anything but the fantasy that had caused that riot in her veins.
"Dear me!" she cried. "What does that signify in the code? Is he to be garroted straight off?"
Tollemache laughed too. "Don't ask any questions, little girl, and you won't be told any fibs," he said. "Captain Popple and Jackson and I have some business on hand, and we want Mrs. Carmac and you to be present when we drive a bargain with the wily Raymond. Now, I sha'n't tell you any more; so you needn't pout."
"I'm not pouting."
"Oh, by the way, if there's any news of Madeleine, get it while the deputation is approaching."
She courtesied, with a demure "Oui, M'sieur." Somehow, that morning, despite the unpleasing tidings that might have arrived from Paris, she felt oddly light-hearted.
But the smile froze on her lips when she met Raymond on the steps of the annex, where he had evidently stationed himself in order to waylay her. His slight figure was tightly buttoned up in a heavy overcoat, and he carried another coat over his left arm; so he raised his hat more awkwardly even than usual. Then she remembered that he was going down the river with the salvors, and summoned all her woman's guile to the task of bringing him back to her mother's apartments, in case he had been there already and taken leave. She could hardly have explained her motive. It sufficed that Lorry had made a point of Raymond's attendance under given conditions, and she was determined that his wish should be obeyed.
"I've received a telegram from Duquesne," he said, plunging at once into a topic on which they could converse freely without the inevitable constraint of a first meeting after the extraordinary disclosure of the preceding night. "It's satisfactory, in a sense. He was unable to approach Madeleine, because Fosdyke met her on arrival at the Gare St. Lazare. But he followed them. Fosdyke took Madeleine to a small hotel, and left her there. Duquesne will endeavor to see her this morning."
"Has he obtained her address?" inquired the girl eagerly, sinking her loathing of the man in the importance of his statement.
"No. I'll show you the message, if you'll hold this coat for a second or two."
"Come to Mrs. Carmac's room."
"Sorry, I've just seen Mrs. Carmac, and am making for the quay."
"I insist," she said, with a very creditable effort at a coquettish glance. "We can't stand talking here. Come. I'll not keep you more than a minute."
Raymond, veritably astounded by her manner, as well he might be, followed her without demur. He was elated, almost excited. A new and entrancing vista opened before his mind's eye. Were the difficulties that yet loomed so large about to vanish into thin air? If Yvonne proved gracious, what else was there to bother him? Each upward step on the creaking stairs seemed to be another rung in the ladder of fortune. He did not know it, but he had reached the highest point of the climb when he stood in Mrs. Carmac's room on the first floor.
Yvonne had hurried on ahead, and put a warning finger on her lips when she cried aloud, ostensibly to her mother but actually for the secretary's benefit, "Mr. Raymond is coming in. He has news of Madeleine, and I didn't want to wait outside lest Peridot should pass. I mean to avoid Peridot until, by one method or another, I get in touch with Madeleine."
The explanation was not only plausible but strictly accurate. When she crossed to the window and made the agreed signal to Tollemache she might well have been looking out to learn if Peridot was coming down the Toulifot.
Lorry and his companions were already on the way. They had seen the meeting in the doorway, and assumed that Yvonne had drawn Raymond in her wake. Nevertheless her stanch friend and devout lover was watching the window. He grinned broadly, and waved a hand. Why, she knew not; but her pulses throbbed. Some remarkable thing was going to happen. She felt it in the air.
Then she focused her thoughts on what Raymond was saying. He had produced the telegram, the text of which ran exactly as he had given it.
"As I may be absent all day," he added, "I took the liberty to tell Duquesne to wire the result of his interview with Mademoiselle Demoret to Mrs. Carmac. You have his address, and can communicate with him without waiting for me."
Mrs. Carmac nodded. She knew of the arrangement already, and meant to inform Yvonne of it herself. She was quick-witted, and her daughter's manner carried a vague consciousness of the imminence of some matter more important even than the tangle in which Madeleine Demoret was involved.
"That sounds practicable," said Yvonne, rather for the sake of detaining Raymond than by way of agreement, since her father's revelation had destroyed every shred of confidence in the man himself and his Parisian helper. "Monsieur Duquesne can at least let us know where Madeleine is staying. Then I'll risk all in a personal appeal."
"I would advise you strongly to act only through Duquesne," said Raymond. "He has wide experience, and is thoroughly trustworthy. You can depend on his discretion. He – "
There was a knock at the door. Tollemache entered. After him came Popple, red-faced and serious, and Jackson, with a bulldog expression on his Cockney features.
"I want you to give me five minutes, Mrs. Carmac," said Lorry gravely. "Certain facts have reached me – "
"I'm sure you'll forgive me," broke in Raymond, with glib assurance, "but I am accompanying the salvage party, and I'll walk slowly on to the quay."
"No, you'll remain here!" said Tollemache. "What I have to say concerns you more than any other person breathing. Just listen! I'll come to the point quickly. Mrs. Carmac, I have good reason to believe that this man Raymond stole your jewels. I believe he has them in his possession at this moment. Of course I'm fully alive to the risk I run in bringing such a charge if it is not substantiated. Now, Raymond, if you're in a hurry, hand over those pearls and diamonds. By staging the pi?ce de conviction you'll save a lot of bother. Then the court, which is now assembled, can pronounce sentence, and you'll know exactly where you are, which should be a relief."
Tollemache paid no heed to the half-repressed cry of amazement that burst simultaneously from the lips of both women. He was gazing sternly and fixedly at Raymond, whose sallow face had suddenly grown livid. During a few trying seconds it really seemed as though the rascal thus roundly accused of a dastardly crime would collapse in a faint. But he rallied, and blurted out a protest in a voice choked with fury.
"How dare you?" he cried. "You hound, to attack a defenseless man! Mrs. Carmac, I appeal to you! Do you allow me to be so grossly insulted in your presence?"
"Defenseless strikes me as the right word," said Tollemache, ignoring Mrs. Carmac's involuntary attempt at interference. "Of course you intend it as a plea on account of your injury; but unless I am mistaken – in which case I stand to be shot at in any way you choose – you got your arm broken when rifling Mrs. Carmac's trunk. However, I'll explain the whole business to your complete satisfaction. Give me those pearls and the other things. I mean to have them now! Don't think you can escape by bluff, you miserable whelp! Hand them over, or I'll take them, and use as much force as may be necessary!"
Tollemache strode forward, and grasped the lapel of Raymond's coat. Then indeed it was more than probable that the secretary would drop where he stood. He trembled like one in a palsy, and his lips twitched convulsively, but could only mouth incoherent sounds.
Tollemache did not hesitate. Unbuttoning the overcoat, and endeavoring to avoid touching the bandaged arm, he thrust a hand into the inner right-hand pocket of Raymond's jacket. At that the accused man uttered a queer squeal of mingled rage and despair, and struck wildly at his adversary with his left fist. Tollemache merely moved his head, and the blow passed harmlessly over his shoulder. In the same instant he withdrew something from Raymond's pocket, and stepped back.
"What's this?" he said coolly, exhibiting a small square case, covered with Morocco leather.
Mrs. Carmac, who had watched this trying scene with manifest distress, looked at the object that Tollemache held in full view. Her eyes dilated in sheer terror; but recognition dawned in them, and she cried excitedly:
"That is the case which contained my pearls!"
Tollemache pressed a spring, and a lid flew open. There, coiled within, reposed a string of pearls. Mrs. Carmac gave them one glance; then she turned on the man who had been so dramatically compelled to relinquish his booty.
"Oh, how could you do such a thing?" she wailed brokenly. "You knew how I prized them – the one gift of my husband's which I valued."
"Your husband's!" snarled Raymond. "Which husband? Carmac?"
She flinched as if he had dealt her the blow intended for Tollemache; but her champion was in no mind to permit a discomfited rogue to vent his spleen on a woman.
"Unless you're a bigger fool than you are unquestionably a knave, you'll hold your tongue," he said, speaking with a vehemence that silenced Raymond for the moment. "Now let us have no more humbug. I don't want to hurt you. Where are the other articles? Either give them up yourself or tell me where to find them."
Though quivering with passion, the detected thief apparently realized that he had nothing to gain by further pretense. From the left-hand outer pocket of his jacket he took two cases similar in size and material to that which held the pearls, though the color of the leather differed in each instance. He ignored Tollemache, and gave them to Mrs. Carmac. Even in that supreme instant his brazen nerve did not fail him.
"This dispute really affects you and me," he said. "I suggest that you discuss it with me privately."
"At present, Raymond, I would call your attention to the fact that you are discussing things with me," said Tollemache firmly. "Mrs. Carmac," he went on, "kindly glance through your belongings, and tell me if there is anything missing."
She obeyed, though in a pitiable state of nervousness. In the cold, clear light of a December day, diamonds and rubies, sapphires and emeralds, winked at her evilly as her trembling fingers turned over the contents of the cases, which had evidently been extracted from a larger receptacle so that they might be disposed of in Raymond's clothing without attracting attention by their bulk.
"Yes," she faltered, "I believe that every article is here."
"Now," said Tollemache, turning again to the ashen-faced Raymond, "I've proved my charge in the presence of witnesses. The stolen goods have been found in your possession. I admit that it is sheer good luck alone that swung the investigation my way. Had you been searched tonight, we might have whistled for the actual proof, because Mrs. Carmac's property would have been lying beneath the sea on the reef, unless it happened to be picked up by the diver. The facts are simple. You were with Mrs. Carmac in the deck saloon of the Stella during the gale. When Mr. Carmac shouted to his wife that the yacht had broken down, and would be dashed ashore within ten minutes, Mrs. Carmac fainted. Neither you nor anyone on board realized that the vessel would strike on Les Verr?s and not on the coast.
"Being a thief in heart, you remembered that a small fortune was lying in those two boxes, and you thought you had plenty of time to open them, secure both the money and the jewels, and trust to luck for escape when the yacht was wrecked. If either of your employers was saved, and inquiry seemed possible, you had the plausible excuse that you were safeguarding the most valuable part of their property. You might have found some difficulty in explaining how you came to be in possession of duplicate keys; but you took the chance. I must say that for a man at the very gates of death you displayed a cool nerve which might command admiration if applied to a worthy object.