P?re Jean gazed up with bulging eyes, and himself nearly fell over the precipice. "Ah, Dieu merci!" he quavered. "But, M'sieu', didn't you hear me telling you that the prefect – "
"What's the matter?" broke in Ingersoll's quiet tones. "You all look as if you had seen a daylight ghost."
"I behaved like a vain idiot," explained Tollemache, seeing that none of the girls was minded to answer. "I tried to climb round the tower by those rings, and scared Yvonne and the others rather badly."
"How far did you go?"
"Oh, I was on the last lap; but a ring gave way."
Ingersoll knew the place of old, and needed no elaborate essay on the danger Tollemache had escaped. His grave manner betokened the depth of his annoyance.
"What happened then?" he said. "I went back, of course."
"Where did the ring break?"
"It didn't break. I pulled the staple out. That one – you see where the gap is."
Ingersoll leaned over the parapet. A glance sufficed.
"You crossed the valley face of the tower twice?" he said.
"Couldn't help myself, old sport."
"Then you described yourself with marvelous accuracy, – a vain idiot, indeed!"
"Dash it all!" protested Tollemache. "I've only done the same as scores of Frenchmen."
"Many of whom lost their lives. You had a pretty close call. Lorry, I'm ashamed of you!"
M?re Pitou added to Tollemache's discomfiture by the biting comment that her man had got round the tower, whereas he had failed.
Altogether it was a somewhat depressed party that was shown round the quaint old chapel of the patroness of armorers and artillerists by P?re Jean, who had lost a good deal of his smiling bonhomie, and eyed Tollemache fearfully, evidently suspecting him of harboring some fantastic design of dropping from the gallery to the floor, or leaping from the chapel roof to the cliff.
Their spirits revived, however, as they descended a steep path to Sainte Barbe's well. Every chapel of Saint Barbara has, or ought to have, a well, and that at Le Faouet (three syllables, please, and sound the final T when you are in Brittany) is specially famous for its prophetic properties in affairs of the heart. Thus, a spring bubbles into a trough surmounted by a canopy and image of the saint. In the center of the trough, beneath two feet of limpid water, the spring rises through an irregular orifice, roughly four inches square, and all unmarried young people who visit the shrine try to drop pins into the hole. Success at the first effort means that the fortunate aspirant for matrimony will either be married within a year or receive a favorable offer.
So, after luncheon, which had been carried by a boy from the village on the hill opposite the Pilgrims' Way, the girls produced a supply of pins. Barbe was the first to try her luck. Three pins wriggled to the floor of the well; but a fourth disappeared, and M?re Pitou took the omen seriously.
"You will be married when you are twenty-one, ma petite," she said, "and quite soon enough, too.
Madeleine failed six times, and gave up in a huff. Yvonne's second pin vanished.
"O, l?, l?!" cried M?re Pitou, still deeply interested in this consultation of the fates. "Mark my words, you'll refuse the first and take the second!"
The old lady darted a quick look at Ingersoll; but he was smiling. He had schooled himself for an ordeal, and his expression did not change. Tollemache, too, created a diversion by seizing a pin, holding it high above the surface of the water, whereas each of the girls had sought apparently to lessen the distance as much as possible, and dropping it out of sight straight away.
"Look at that!" he crowed. "My girl will say snap as soon as I say snip. Here's her engagement ring!"
Plunging his left hand into a pocket, he brought to light the ring and staple torn from Sainte Barbe's tower. When hanging with one hand to the last hold-fast, on the wall overlooking sixty feet of sheer precipice, he had calmly pocketed the ring that proved treacherous.
Evidently Laurence Tollemache was a young man who might be trusted not to lose his head in an emergency.
M?re Pitou was not to be persuaded to tempt fortune, and Ingersoll, who was sketching the well rapidly and most effectively, was left alone, because Barbe, who would have called him to come in his turn, was bidden sharply by her mother to mind her own business.
Tollemache and Yvonne climbed the rocky path together when they began the return journey to Le Faouet. In the rays of the afternoon sun the rough granite boulders sparkled as though they were studded with innumerable small diamonds.
"Haven't you forgiven me yet, Yvonne?" he said, noticing her distrait air.
She almost started, so far away were her thoughts. "Oh, let us forget that stupidity," she replied. "I was thinking of something very different. Tell me, Lorry, has my father ever spoken to you of my mother?"
"No," he said.
"Do you know where she is buried?"
She sighed. Her light-hearted companion's sudden taciturnity was not lost on her. Neither Madame Pitou, Ingersoll's friend and landlady during eighteen years, nor Tollemache, who worked with him daily, could read his eyes like Yvonne, and she knew he was acting a part when he smiled because Sainte Barbe's well announced that she would be married at the second asking. And the odd thing was that she had endeavored to drop the first pin so that it would not fall into the fateful space. None but she herself had noted how it plunged slantwise through the water as though drawn by a lodestone.
Even Tollemache nursed a grievance against the well's divination. "I say," he broke in, "that pin proposition is all nonsense, don't you think?"
For some occult reason she refused to answer as he hoped she would. "You never can tell," she said. "M?re Pitou believes in it, and she has had a long experience of life's vagaries."
From some distance came Madeleine's plaint. "Just imagine! Six times! In six years I shall be twenty-five. I don't credit a word of it – so there! At the last pardon Peridot danced with me all the afternoon."
Even little Barbe was not satisfied. "Mama said the other day," she confided, "that I might be married before I was twenty."
Ingersoll and M?re Pitou, bringing up the rear, were silent; Madame because this hill also was steep, and Ingersoll because of thoughts that came unbidden. In fact, Sainte Barbe had perplexed some of her pilgrims.
On the morning of December 4 in that same year a postman walked up the narrow path leading to the front door of M?re Pitou's house in the Rue Mathias, Pont Aven, and handed in a bundle of letters. The family was at breakfast, the petit d?jeuner of coffee and rolls that stays the appetite in every French household until a more substantial meal is prepared at noon. The weather was mild and bright, though a gusty sou'westerly wind was blowing; so door and windows were open.
Barbe saw the postman ere he unlatched the garden gate, and rose excitedly, nearly upsetting a cup in her haste.
"Why, what's the rush?" cried Ingersoll. "And who in the world are all these letters for?"
"Father dear, have you forgotten the date? This is Barbe's name day," said Yvonne.
"Oh, that's the explanation of tonight's festivity," laughed Ingersoll. "Sorry. It quite slipped my mind. Of course she has wagonloads of friends who make a point of remembering these things. Lucky Barbe! And, by the way, Madame, what about those pictures which the Lady of Le Faouet was to dispose of? It's high time she was getting busy. Here are three months sped and – if anything rather a slump in Ingersolls. Actually, my best commission thus far is a series of picture postcards of Le Pouldu – with benefits deferred till next season."
"Perhaps the good saint knew that you kept your tongue in your cheek while you were seeking her help," retorted Madame.
"Impossible. It was lolling out. You ungrateful one, didn't I climb the hill twice for your sake?"
Barbe exchanged a friendly word with the postman, who was well aware of the cause of this sudden increase in the mail delivery at the cottage. Then she ran in.
"One for you, M'sieu' – all the rest for me," she announced gleefully.
Ingersoll took his letter. It bore the Pouldu postmark and the printed name of a hotel. Usually such missives came from brother artists; but the handwriting on the envelop was essentially of the type that French hotelkeepers cultivate for the utter bamboozling of their foreign patrons. Yvonne glanced at it with some curiosity, and was still more surprised to see the look of humorous bewilderment on her father's face when he had mastered its contents.
"I take back everything I said, or even thought, about Sainte Barbe," he cried. "Learn how she has squelched me! The proprietor of the chief hotel at Le Pouldu offers four hundred francs for a picture of the plage with his hotel in the center. Certainly four hundred is a heap short of a thousand, which was the sum I named to her saintship; but then, a h?telier isn't a dealer, and he promises to pay cash if the sketch is delivered in a week, because he wants it for a summer poster. Yvonne, have you finished breakfast? Run and find Peridot, there's a dear, and ask him if we can sail to Le Pouldu this morning. It'll save time to go by sea, and the tide will serve, I know. If Peridot says the weather is all right, drop in at Julia's, and invite Tollemache. We'll lunch gloriously with my hotel man, rub in the best part of the drawing afterward, and be back here in good time for the feast."
Yvonne hurried out. The hour was half-past eight, and the tide in the estuary of the Aven was already on the ebb. But she had not far to go. The Rue Mathias (nowadays glorified by a much more ambitious name) was not a minute's walk from the bridge that gives the village its name. Another minute brought her to the quay, where the brawling river escapes from its last millwheel, and tumbles joyously into tidal water. She was lucky. Peridot was there, mending a blue sardine net, – a natty, square-shouldered sailor, unusually fair for a Breton, though his blond hair was French enough in its bristliness, as a section of his scalp would have provided a first-rate clothes brush. He touched his cap with a smile when she appeared, and in answer to her query raised to the heavens those gray-green eyes which had earned him such a euphonious nickname.
"Yes, Mademoiselle Yvonne, we can make Le Pouldu by ten o'clock with this wind," he said. "We may get a wetting; but it won't be the first. Is – er – is Madeleine coming?"
"Not today. She promised to help M?re Pitou with tonight's supper. You will be there?"
"Wind and weather permitting, Ma'mselle. We go in your own boat, I suppose?"
"Yes. Can you allow fifteen minutes?"
"There will be plenty of water for the next half-hour."
Yvonne raced off again, this time to the Hotel Julia, not the huge modern annex, – that dominates the tiny marketplace of Pont Aven, – but the oldtime hostelry itself, tucked in snugly behind its four sycamores, like some sedate matron ever peering up in wonderment at its overgrown child across the street. In winter the habitu?s – the coterie of artists and writers who cluster under the wing of the famous Julia Guillou – eat in the dining room of the smaller hotel.
Crossing the terrace, a graveled part of the square shielded by the trees, Yvonne met Mademoiselle Julia herself, bustling forth to inspect eggs, poultry, and buckets of fish. This kindly, outspoken, resourceful-looking woman has tended and housed and helped at least two generations of painters. In her way she has done more for art than many academies.
"Is Monsieur Tollemache at breakfast, Mademoiselle?" inquired Yvonne.
Julia smiled broadly. Evidently it was the most natural thing imaginable that the pretty American girl, known to everyone in the village, should be asking the whereabouts of the stalwart youngster who would never be an artist, but was one of the hotel's most valued guests.
"Oui, ma ch?rie! I heard him shouting to Marie for three boiled eggs not so long ago. Out of three eggs one hatches a good meal. And how is your father? I haven't set eyes on him this week."
"He is so busy, Mademoiselle. There is so little daylight."
"Bring him to dinner on Sunday. We're roasting two of the biggest geese you ever saw!"
"He will be delighted, I'm sure."
Then Julia marched to conquer the venders of eatables. There would be a terrific argument; but the founder of modern Pont Aven would prevail.
Yvonne looked in through an open window of a delightful room, paneled in oak – on every panel a picture bearing a signature more or less eminent in the world of color. Tollemache was there, tapping his third egg.
"Lorry," she said, "Father and I are sailing to Le Pouldu. Will you come?"
"Will a duck swim?" was the prompt reply. "When do we start?"
"Soon. Be at the quay in ten minutes."
"By the clock. Plenty of oilskins in the locker?"
She sped away. A Frenchman, an artist who knew the Breton coast in all weathers, shook his head.
"Dangerous work, yachting off Finist?re in December," he said. "What sort of boat are you going in?"
"Ingersoll's own tub, a vague– a sardine boat, you know."
"First-rate craft, of course. But mind you're not caught in a change of wind. The barometer is falling."
"Oh, as for that, we'll probably have Peridot in charge, and he was born with a caul; so he'll never be drowned. Even if he's not there, Ingersoll and Yvonne are good sailors, and I'm no fresh-water amateur."
"Well – good luck! I only ask you not to despise the Atlantic. Why is Ingersoll going to Le Pouldu at this time of the year?"
"Don't know, and don't care. It's an unexpected holiday for me; so my Salon study of the Bois d'Amour in winter must miss a day."
The Frenchman sighed; whether on account of the doubtful prospect before Tollemache's Salon picture or because of his own vanished youth, it would be hard to say.
"What a charming peasant girl – and how on earth did she acquire English with that perfect accent?" said a woman, a newcomer.
"She is the daughter of a celebrated American artist," explained the Frenchman.
"But why does she wear the Breton costume?"
"Because she has good taste."
"Oh! Is that a hit at current fashions?"
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders. "Madame asked for information," he said. "To wander off into an essay on clothes would be impolite."
Before nine o'clock the Hirondelle, registered No. 415 at Concarneau, was speeding down the seven kilometers of the Aven estuary on a rapid-falling tide. Owing to the force and direction of the wind it would have been a waste of time to hoist a sail, even in those reaches of the winding river where some use might have been made of it. Tollemache and Peridot (whose real name was Jean Jacques Larraidou) rigged two long sweeps, and Yvonne took the tiller, keeping the boat in mid-stream to gain the full benefit of the current. In forty minutes they were abreast of the fortlike hotel at Port Manech, the summer offshoot of the Hotel Julia, and a steel-blue line on the horizon, widening each instant, told of the nearness of the sea. It was an uneven line too, ever and anon broken by a white-capped hillock.
Peridot, pulling his oar inboard, poised himself erect for a few seconds with an arm thrown round the foremast, and gazed steadily seaward. "She'll jump a bit out there," he said; though the fierce whistling of the wind drowned his words. He was aware of that, because he converted both hands into a megaphone when he turned and shouted to Yvonne. "We'll take the inside passage, Ma'mselle."
Before attempting to hoist the foresail he rummaged in a locker and produced oilskin coats and sou'westers. There was no delay. The four donned them quickly. Yvonne had changed her Breton dress for a short skirt and coat of heather mixture cloth, because coif and collar of fine linen were ill adapted to seagoing in rough weather.
Peridot held up three fingers. The girl nodded. Peridot and Tollemache hauled at the sail, and Yvonne kept the boat in the eye of the wind until three reefs were tied securely. Then the Hirondelle swung round to her task. She careened almost to the port gunwale under the first furious lash of the gale, and a sheet of spray beat noisily on oilskins and deck. But the stanch little craft steadied herself, and leaped into her best pace.
Ingersoll dived into the cabin, and reappeared with his pipe alight, the bowl held in a closed and gloved hand. Tollemache made play with a cigarette. Peridot clambered aft to relieve Yvonne.
"We'll make Le Pouldu in little more than the hour," he said.
"It's blowing half a gale," said the girl.
"Yes. If the wind doesn't veer, we should have a record trip. But we shouldn't start back a minute after three o'clock."
"Oh, my father will see to that. Moreover, we're due at M?re Pitou's at six."
Peridot showed all his white teeth in a smile. Madeleine would be there. He meant to marry Madeleine. There was no use in asking her to wed until after the Festival of the Gorse Flowers next August, since her heart was set on being Queen. Once that excitement was ended, Heaven willing, Madeleine Demoret would become Madame Larraidou!
In taking the rudder the man was not showing any distrust of Yvonne's nerve; but there was just a possibility that a crisis might call for instant decision, when the only warning would come from that sixth sense which coastal fishermen develop in counteracting the sea's fitful moods.
Perhaps once during the hour – perhaps not once in a year – some monstrous wave would roar in from the Atlantic, seeking to devour every small craft in its path. No one can account for these phenomena. They may arise from lunar influence, or from some peculiar action of the tides; but that they occur, and with disastrous results if unheeded, every fisherman from Stornoway to Cadiz will testify. Their size and fury are more marked in a southwesterly gale than at any other time, and the only safe maneuver for a boat sailing across the wind is to bring her sharply head on to the fast-moving ridge, and ride over it. Yvonne knew of these occasional sea dragons, but had never seen one. She knew what to do too, and for an instant was vexed with Peridot. He read her thought.
"I'd trust my own life to you, Ma'mselle," he said gallantly; "but I'd never forgive myself if anything happened to you."
She smiled in spite of her pique. To make her voice heard without screaming, she put her lips close to his ear. "This time, if anybody goes, we all go," she cried. He shook his head. "No, no, Ma'mselle. The sea will never get me," he said. "Hold tight here. This is the bar."
Certainly, even among experienced yachtsmen, there would not be lacking those who might have regarded the Hirondelle's present voyage as a piece of folly. There is no wilder coast in Europe than the barrier of shaggy rock that France opposes to the ocean from St. Malo to Biarritz. At Finist?re, in particular, each headland is not a breakwater, but a ruin. During heavy storms the seas dash in frenzy up a hundred feet of shattered cliff, the Atlantic having smashed and overthrown every sheer wall of rock ages ago.
Of course the adventurers were not facing a No. 8 gale. That, indeed, would have been rank lunacy. But the estuaries of the Aven and the Belon, joining at Port Manech, were sending down no inconsiderable volume of water to meet a strong wind, and the opposing forces were waging bitter war. A mile farther on a channel ran between the mainland and a group of rocks called Les Verr?s. There the tide and wind would not be so greatly at variance, and the partly submerged reef would lessen the force of the sea; though the only signs of its existence were a patch of high-flung spray and a small tower, with a black buoy at its easterly extremity. This was what Peridot had called the "inside passage." To the landsman it was a figure of speech. To the sailor it meant seas diminished to half their volume as compared with the "dirt" outside.
The Hirondelle raced through the turmoil at the bar as though she enjoyed it, and, once the islets were to windward, the journey became exhilarating. None of the four people on board displayed the least concern. Indeed, they reveled in the excursion. When their craft swept into the sheltered cove at Le Pouldu, not without a tossing on another bar, and was brought up alongside the small quay, their flushed faces and shining eyes showed that they looked on the outing as a thoroughly enjoyable one.
They were ready for an early luncheon too, and did full justice to the menu. Afterward, while Ingersoll planned his picture, Yvonne and Tollemache strolled along the right bank of the Laita to the hamlet of Le Pouldu.
The girl told her companion of the singular coincidence that brought her father an unexpected commission by that morning's post; but Tollemache pooh-poohed it.
"You're becoming almost as superstitious as these Bretons," he said. "It's high time your father took you to New York for a spell. Spooks can't live there since the automobile came along. They don't like the fumes of petrol, I fancy. But these silly Bretons appeal to a saint or dread a devil for every little thing. One stained-glass proposition can cure rheumatism in a man and another spavin in a horse. It's unlucky to gather and eat blackberries because the Crown of Thorns was made out of brambles. You can shoot a wretched tomtit; but you mustn't touch a magpie. If you want to marry a girl, you pray to Saint This; if you're anxious to shunt her, you go on your marrow-bones to Saint That. I'm fond of Brittany and its folk; but I can't stomach their legends. Look at that pin-dropping business at Sainte Barbe's well! Poor Madeleine couldn't get a pin home to save her life; whereas everybody knows that she and Peridot will make a match of it before this time next year."