A second later he heard the familiar creak of the garden gate. So she was coming in! He was utterly at a loss to account for this amazing intrusion. He had counted implicitly on his wife's sense of good breeding and fairness restraining her from any frenzied effort to undo the havoc of the past, and a spasm of anger shook him now because of this threatened invasion of his small domain. At any rate she should not have the hysterical satisfaction of placing him in a false position before M?re Pitou and her guests, to say nothing of Yvonne and Tollemache.
He retreated into the deep shadow of a lofty retaining wall, whence he could see without being seen. If, as he expected, there was a commotion among the dancers when the unexpected visitor was announced, he would escape by way of the open hillside, and remain away during some hours. Then, in the morning, Yvonne and he would end an intolerable state of things by leaving Pont Aven for some unknown refuge until Lorry told them that the coast was clear.
Thus do some men plan when beset by some unforeseen difficulty. Be they wise or foolish, they seldom learn that in those crucial moments of life when events of real importance take place they are as straws caught in a whirlpool, and no more capable than straws of predetermined governance of their deeds and movements.
Ingersoll was barely hidden before he received a fresh surprise. His wife had not gone to the door. She was in the garden, and coming round to the back evidently meaning to look in on the revelers and remain unseen. She halted but a few paces short of the place where Ingersoll was standing, and soon he knew that she was crying in a heartbroken way. Her very attitude, the care she took to restrain the sounds of her grief, and not become visible to any eye that chanced to look out through the open window, showed that she was in the depths of despair. By a rapid revulsion of feeling the man's heart ached for her. Strive as he might, and strong as were the dictates of the social laws that closed and bolted the door of reconciliation, he was tempted, or it may be divinely inspired, to make known his presence, and utter words of healing and forgiveness.
But the opportunity, no less than the impulse, passed as quickly as it had risen.
The dancing had stopped. Evidently in response to some question of Yvonne's, Tollemache came to the window, and peered out.
"Ingersoll!" he cried.
There was no answer. The artist could not be detected in any event, and the change from a well lighted room to the external darkness temporarily blinded Lorry's sharp eyes, or he might have noted the slight, shrinking figure beneath one of the apple trees.
"He's not there," he said, speaking over his shoulder to Yvonne.
The girl came nearer. "I saw him go out," she persisted.
"Yes, of course. I saw him too. He stopped to light a cigar. Bet you he's gone for a stroll. You remember last year at this time he went to Julia's for half an hour."
That was an unfortunate recollection on Lorry's part.
Mrs. Carmac clearly meant to take no further risk of discovery. She hurried away. After a momentary indecision Ingersoll followed. His action was inexplicable, even to himself. It arose, perhaps, from a desire to make certain that his wife reached the hotel. Such a motive was at least comprehensible. It came within the bounds of that intelligence which regulates ordinary human affairs. But there is another subtler spirit essence which sends out through space its impalpable, invisible, yet compelling influences. Sometimes the storm-tossed soul makes silent appeal for help, and finds response in some other heart whence aid is unsought and unsuspected.
Howsoever that may be, John Ingersoll followed his wife, and Pont Aven was soon in an uproar, when the news spread that while Monsieur Ingersoll was rescuing l'Am?ricaine, Madame Carmac, from the waters of the harbor, Peridot, easygoing, devil-may-care Peridot, was battering Rupert Fosdyke into a hardly recognizable corpse on the open road near the hotel.
In a village rumor of that sort seldom lies. Both these sensational statements were true; though the one became widely known far more speedily than the other. In fact, Peridot's crime had witnesses. A party of villagers, coming down the Toulifot, heard voices raised in altercation. Then there were sounds of a scuffle, and a tall man was seen to fall, while a shorter man stooped over the prostrate body and struck blow after blow with an iron belaying pin.
The women screamed; the men ran forward to seize the would-be murderer. He offered no resistance, but said calmly:
"When one meets a viper one batters its head. It is the only safe thing to do, eh?"
He seemed to find comfort in the thought. He repeated it many times, in one form or another. When the police came, and a sergeant who happened to be a great friend of his had the miserable task of arresting him and charging him with murder, – for Rupert Fosdyke was dead; would have died under any one of those half-dozen fiercely vindictive blows, – Peridot was quite cheerful.
"Cr? nom!" he cried. "It is not often one finds a snake hereabouts at Christmastime. This one made a mistake. It shouldn't have come to Pont Aven, where we wear stout sabots!"
Then he broke gaily into one of Albert Larrieu's Breton songs:
"Toc! toc! toc! toc!
C'est ? Concarneau
Qu'on voit de belles filles,
Prestes et gentilles,
Dans leur petits sabots!"
"Shut up, Peridot, for the sake of the good God!" muttered his friend. "Come, Man! There's your mother looking out. She heard your voice!"
"Is that you, Jean Jacques?" came a shrill cry from a bent figure etched in the lighted rectangle of an open door in a cottage higher up the hill. "Time you were home and in bed!"
"Don't worry, Mother, I'm in good company," he shouted. "Here is the law on one side of me, and a dead viper on the other! I'll go straight tonight, never fear!"
M?re Larraidou saw her son walk off down the hill with his friend the sergeant. In pity the men who were lifting a corpse desisted from their gruesome labor till the door was closed again.
When Ingersoll carried the body of an insensible and half-drowned woman into M?re Pitou's there was a rare stir.
By chance the lesser tragedy which took place in the river beneath the line of dwarfed oaks had passed unnoticed by the villagers. Greatly wondering, and wholly at a loss to account for his wife's behavior, the artist had followed her into the main road, and kept her under close observation when she failed to cross the bridge and hurried along the narrow street leading to the harbor.
Once clear of the last mill, he could watch her from a greater distance, because the valley widens with the stream, and the hills are neither so high nor so precipitous. On and on she went, past Madame Mar?chale's caf?, past the triangular grass plot where roundabouts and swings and canvas theaters stand in the summer, past the jolly little Hotel Terminus, and along the picturesque Chemin du Hallage; which is not a carriage road, but a pleasant footpath, bordered on the one hand by pretty villas and on the other by the tidal stream, with here and there beneath the stunted trees a rustic seat overlooking the water.
At such an hour, long after midnight, the last pollard oak marks the Ultima Thule of Pont Aven. The nearest house in front is nearly a mile away, and reached only by a narrow track through the gorse.
Some vague terror caused Ingersoll to quicken his pace, and a few seconds later to break into a run. Perhaps his wife heard him, and, fearing interference, made up her mind to delay the great adventure not a moment longer. Uttering a wailing cry, she threw herself into the water. The tide was falling, and as the main stream travels close to the right bank at that point she was swept away as though some giant hand were waiting to clutch her.
Commending his soul to Heaven, Ingersoll raced ahead to a rocky plateau which, although submerged now, drove a broad and fairly level causeway far into the center of the river. He was just in time. He saw a white face, a hand, whirling in the current. Plunging in, he grasped desperately at the place where he judged the body might be. Then began a fight, a life and death struggle against a relentless, overwhelming force. Yet somehow he conquered, and found himself with a limp body in his arms, wading knee deep in a tract of mud and slime.
Though slightly built and frail looking, and, owing to the worry and confinement of his recent life, rather out of condition, once he had regained his breath he made light of carrying his wife to the cottage.
He could not tell why he brought her there, rather than to the hotel. He remembered afterward giving the matter some thought; but he was either deterred by the sight of so many people in the Place, – brought thither by the affrighting news of murder, – or by the notion that a further scandal might be averted if the unhappy woman were tended by those whom he and she could trust. None of M?re Pitou's guests knew that Mrs. Carmac had been rescued from the estuary. They thought she had mistaken some byway, and fallen into the Aven, a quite possible accident to a stranger on a dark night.
So a second time Yvonne stripped her mother's slender form of its water-soaked garments, while M?re Pitou loudly invoked the aid and commiseration of various saints – but did not forget to fill hot-water bottles and wrap them in flannel before applying them to the unconscious woman's benumbed body and feet. Dr. Garnier came, and shook his head, muttering of "shock," and "derangement of the nervous system," and in the midst of all this turmoil and furtive fear of the worst consequences arrived Celeste, searching for her mistress, and almost incoherent with her story of Rupert Fosdyke's fate. He had arrived in the village by the half-past four train that afternoon, and after a long talk with Madame had dined alone. She was told that he went out shortly before midnight, and met Peridot, and was straightway beaten to death.
After some hours of horrible uncertainty Mrs. Carmac recovered sufficiently to speak.
"Where am I?" she muttered, staring about wildly.
"At home, Dear, with me," whispered Yvonne.
The dazed eyes slowly gathered consciousness of Yvonne's presence. "Who took me out of the river?" she went on.
"The man who has loved you all his life, Dear," said the girl softly. She had the fixed belief now that her mother would surely die, and was resolved that her last hours should be made happy by knowledge of her husband's devotion.
"What! John saved me! Was it he who followed me?"
"Yes, Dear. He risked his life for your sake, and carried you here unaided."
"A good man," came the low murmur. "I was not worthy of him."
"Mother, you are to try and sleep now. The doctor's orders must be obeyed. Otherwise you will be very, very ill."
"I am sick unto death already, dear one. But I shall do as you bid – to please you – and John. One word! Tell him – tell him – that I am poorer than when I left him. Rupert is here. He gloated over my downfall. He knows everything, and would hear of no terms. No, it is not Raymond's doing. I asked that. He met some man, who knew us in the old days, and who had read the account of the wreck. I am a pauper of sorts, Yvonne. Please ask your father not to turn me out."
"Mother!" wailed the girl in a voice strangled with grief. "You must not talk like that! You'll break my heart!"
"Ah, tout passe, Yvonne, even broken hearts! You will be far happier in your cottage than ever I was in a mansion. Yes, I'll sleep – if only to please you – and John. Tell him I said that, will you?"
Next morning Ingersoll, who, thanks to the exertion demanded after the plunge into the river, was not one whit the worse for the wetting, sent the following telegram to Bennett:
"Rupert Fosdyke met his death here last night, and Mrs. Carmac was nearly drowned. Both events closely bound up with succession to Carmac estate. Probably you will understand. Can you come at once? – Ingersoll."
That afternoon came the reply:
"Profoundly distressed. Crossing tonight. Wire reports concerning Mrs. Carmac's health Southampton and St. Malo."Bennett."
Yvonne wept with sheer gratitude when her father said that, with Dr. Garnier's permission, he would visit her mother. She had not dared to suggest it; but Ingersoll knew that his action had added one more link to the chain of love that bound his daughter and himself. Dr. Garnier, of course, was aware of no reason why the woman should not meet her rescuer; though he might have been startled had he seen the look of terror that darkened her eyes when she found her husband bending over her.
"Don't be afraid, Stella," said he. "I am not here to reproach you. Be content, and live! We want you to live, Yvonne and I."
"John, forgive!" she murmured.
"I do forgive, Stella, as I hope to be forgiven!"
"John, how could I have left you?"
"That is all passed now – merged in the mists of long years. You will be made happy here. I mean what I say. You are in Yvonne's care, and in mine, and always in God's. Believe that, and you will soon be restored to health and to such happiness as life can bring."
She sobbed convulsively, and he called Yvonne in haste, thinking that perhaps he had done more harm than good. However, the invalid rallied after he had gone, and seemed to gain strength, though slowly. Next day she was wracked by the first symptoms of pneumonia.
When Bennett arrived she was conscious and free from pain. He had not been seated by the bedside many minutes before he put a curious question.
"Do you feel able to sign a will?" he said.
She smiled wistfully. "Have you not been told?" she said. "I shall lose everything. My second marriage can be proved illegal."
"I am not quite sure of that. I only want you to pull through this present illness. But it is well to prepare against all eventualities. Would you wish to constitute your daughter your sole heiress?"
She was beyond the reach of surprise, and contented herself with a fervent yes.
"I have prepared the necessary documents. Listen now, while I read," and the woman's weary, puzzled eyes dwelt on the lawyer's grave face as he recited the testamentary clauses by which "Stella Ingersoll, otherwise known as Stella Carmac," left all her real and personal estate to "her daughter, Yvonne Ingersoll."
"Now we'll get witnesses, and remember that you sign your name Stella Ingersoll," said the lawyer, with a cheerful and businesslike air. "Mr. Tollemache will be one witness, my clerk another, and little Barbe Pitou a third; so you need not worry at all because of the change of signature."
Forthwith, in the presence of Lorry and Bennett's clerk, and the scared Barbe, Mrs. Carmac signed her name in a way that was strangely familiar, though she had not seen it written that way during two decades. A precisely similar will was executed in the name of "Stella Carmac."
Bennett had not erred in his judgment. The pneumonia developed a high temperature that night, and Yvonne's mother died without recovering consciousness. She was buried at Nizon. To silence gossip, and by her husband's emphatic wish, she was described on the monument erected to her memory and to that of Walter Carmac as "Stella, wife of the above-named Walter Carmac, and formerly known as Stella Ingersoll."
The lawyer's extraordinary haste and anxiety with regard to the two wills was explained after the funeral.
"I have always had reason to believe that the validity of the marriage might be questioned," he said, when he had drawn Ingersoll, Yvonne, and Tollemache into the privacy of the studio. "When Mr. Carmac executed the will which may now, under advice, be set aside, he caused two copies to be made with blank spaces for names and dates. A few days later he lodged a sealed envelope with me and another with his bankers, and each bore the superscription:
"'This document is to be kept always in its present condition, and never opened unless my wife's succession to my estate shall be disputed. In that event the document must be produced and acted on.'
"I broke the seal yesterday, soon after Mr. Ingersoll's telegram came to hand, and was not surprised to find a will, properly filled in, signed, and attested, leaving Carmac's estate to 'Stella Ingersoll, formerly wife of John Ingersoll, artist, at one time resident in the Rue Blanche, Paris,' and dated subsequently to that already in existence. So, you see, all these tragic happenings might have been averted. Rupert Fosdyke could never have touched a penny of his uncle's money beyond the provision made for him in both wills."
But a white-faced girl looked at her father, and their eyes met, and each knew that a Power not to be controlled by any human agency had brought about the horrors that had agitated their beloved village during that memorable month.
And, when the clouds disappeared, and the sun shone on a Brittany pink with apple blossom, Yvonne herself had to ask that absurd fellow Lorry whether or not he really wanted to marry her, because he was hanging back shamefacedly, for no better reason apparently than the ridiculous one that he had no right to woo and wed a girl so rich as she. At least if she didn't exactly say "Will you marry me?" she did the next thing to it by telling him that she and her father had decided to regard themselves merely as trustees of the Carmac millions for the benefit of their fellows. They would touch little, if any, of the money for personal needs. The notion was thoroughly distasteful to both, and they would help each other to find the best and wisest means of getting rid of the incubus.
"So, you see, Lorry, with the exception of some of my mother's jewelry, which I know she would wish me to keep and wear, I shall be quite poor," said Yvonne demurely.
That settled matters completely. They were in a secluded part of the Bois d'Amour. How could locality be better named? The wedding took place before the summer, and they roamed through Switzerland in June.
Madeleine? Madeleine is a certificated nurse in a big Paris hospital, very smart in her nice uniform, and thoroughly devoted to her profession.
Peridot? What French jury would convict Peridot of murder when his story was told? His advocate almost moved the judge to righteous indignation against the iniquitous Fosdyke, and Peridot was let off with a light sentence. He came back to Pont Aven, was received with open arms by the village, and sailed away in his own vague to pursue the elusive sardine. Last year he married little Barbe. So M?re Pitou's views anent fishermen as husbands must have been modified by Peridot's ownership of a fine boat and good money invested in French rentes.
Pont Aven, save for the riotous month of August, is still unchanged. A new house springs up here and there, and rumor has it that sometime soon, maybe when the gorse is in flower next summer, a new launch will replace the old one which has to be coaxed daily to Port Manech and back during the season.
But that is all – nothing to make a song about. Mademoiselle Julia, ever busy, growing younger each year, still cracks jokes and encourages art; though, to be sure, her opinion of cubism and futurist pictures is distinctly unfavorable to both forms of excess. She is always ready with a smile and the right word. If, for instance, anyone asks her if she knew Yvonne, and Ingersoll, and Lorry, and where Mere Pitou's cottage stands, you should see the way she jerks her head on one side, and hear her rattle out, with a merry twinkle in her eyes:
"Qu'est-ce que tu veux que je te dise, moi?"
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