Yvonne did not like to hear her friends' amiable weaknesses exposed thus ruthlessly. "If Homer nods, a poor girl who has watched ever so many love affairs since A.D. 235 may surely be forgiven an occasional mistake," she said.
"Has she been at it so long? What is the yarn?"
"Please don't speak so disrespectfully of Saint Barbara. Because she wanted to marry someone whom her father didn't approve of he imprisoned her in a tower, and when she was converted to Christianity beheaded her."
"The old rascal! Did the other fellow – the one she liked – climb the tower? Perhaps that accounts for the rings."
"It is possible. I have no doubt men were just as foolish seventeen centuries ago as they are today."
"Thanks. That personal touch helps a lot. But, supposing I asked your father to sanction – "
"If you will apply the moral, I must remind you that I am to refuse my first offer. But don't let us talk nonsense. It is time we made for the harbor."
"Crushed again!" murmured Tollemache, assuming an air of blithe indifference. He was only partly successful. Stealing a glance at Yvonne, he noted her heightened color and a curiously defiant glint in her blue eyes. Unconsciously she quickened her pace too, and Tollemache interpreted these outward and visible tokens of displeasure as hostile to the notion that had sprung into thrilling life in his mind that day at Le Faouet, when he peered down into Yvonne's agonized face when he was clinging like a fly to the wall of the tower.
"She regards me as a silly ass," he communed bitterly, "and not without good cause. What place do I fill in the world, anyhow? God created me a live-wire American, and the devil egged me on to spoil clean canvas. I'm little better than a hobo, and she knows it. Well, I'll swallow my medicine.
"I say, Kiddie," he cried aloud, "you needn't go off in a huff just because I was talking through my hat. Wait till I light a cigarette."
Though he was not sure that the bantering protest had deceived her, she pretended that it had; so the object aimed at was achieved. But Tollemache was of the tough fiber that regards no sacrifice as worth while unless it is complete.
"If you knew the facts, Yvonne, you'd never get mad with me when I talk about marrying anybody," he went on. "Why do I live in Pont Aven all the year round? Because it's cheap. Last year I earned three hundred and twenty francs for three pictures. At that rate of progress any girl who married me would jolly soon starve."
Yvonne remembered the famous three. Two were portraits of the oleograph order, in which Tollemache had shamelessly flattered his sitters. For these he received the three hundred francs. The twenty were paid for a sketch of a new villa which the builder wished to send to his mother-in-law! Still, she allowed herself to be surprised.
"Of course I knew you were only joking, Lorry," she said. "And while we are on the subject, I may as well tell you that I shall never leave my father.
"Oh, I don't," he explained, with a sudden grimness of tone that she had never heard before. "My father pays all my bills, – living expenses, tailors, and that sort of thing, you know. The moment I marry without his approval I revert to my pocket-money allowance."
The girl knew they were trenching again on a dangerous topic. She was so exquisitely sensitive that she felt the imminence of some avowal that it would be better, perhaps, not to hear.
"What does money matter if we are happy?" she cried cheerfully. "And our small community in Pont Aven is a very united and pleasant one, don't you think?"
"Top notch," said he. "There's Ingersoll, coming down from the front. Bet you fifty centimes he has washed in a little gem – something I couldn't touch if I tried every day for ten years!"
"Dad is really very clever," agreed Yvonne, momentarily deaf to the irony of the words. "I often wonder why he has remained in our village eighteen years. People say he would soon find a place in Paris or New York. Sometimes I fancy that my mother's death must have distressed him beyond measure. He never speaks of her, even to me. Perhaps he can't bear to revive sad memories."
"I can understand that," said Tollemache. "I believe I should go dotty if married to a woman I really loved, and I lost her."
Yvonne darted into a shop to buy caramels. She had to escape somehow. When she emerged one side of her face was bulging, and she held out a cardboard box.
"Take one," she gurgled. Not yet twenty, she was sufficient of a woman to play a part when it suited her. By the time the two had joined Ingersoll they were boy and girl again, and the curtain, lifted for an instant on a tragedy, had fallen.
Tollemache, searching for some commonplace remark to relieve the tension of his own feelings, noticed the drift of smoke curling from a cottage chimney.
"What has happened to the wind?" he said.
"It has veered to the southeast, Monsieur," answered Peridot.
"I thought something of the sort had taken place, but was so busy that I did not pay any heed," said Ingersoll. Then his forehead wrinkled reflectively. "Southeast from southwest," he muttered. "On a rising tide that change should kick up a nasty sea. Is the return trip quite safe, Peridot?"
"The sea will be a trifle worse, Monsieur; but we'll travel on an even keel."
"And be swept by an occasional wave from stem to stern?"
"I've heard of such things," grinned Peridot.
"And very uncomfortable things they are too. Yvonne, you must decide. Shall we take the rough passage, or hire the hotel auto?"
Yvonne rounded her eyes at her father, and stepped on board the Hirondelle.
He laughed. "That settles it!" he cried. "'Of Christian souls more have been wrecked on shore than ever were lost at sea.' But I warn you, my merry adventuress. Before half an hour has passed you may be ready to cry with honest old Gonzalo in 'The Tempest,' 'Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, anything,' obviously having the coast of Finist?re in his mind."
The behavior of the maritime folk of Le Pouldu showed that there was an element of risk in the voyage. Knots of fishermen watched Peridot's preparations with a professional eye, and spat approval when he cast loose a small jibsail. A few carried interest so far that they climbed the seaward cliff to watch the boat's progress across the Basse Persac and Basse an Hiss, the two nearest shallows on the homeward line across the Anse du Pouldu.
The Hirondelle passed the bar of the Laita quickly and safely. A sea that would have smothered her in churning water broke within a boat's length. After that escape she made a drier passage than her occupants expected. She was abreast of Dou?lan, and Yvonne was listening to the thunder of the Atlantic on the black reef that stretches from Kerlogal Mill to Les Cochons de Beg Morg, while her eyes were watching the changing bearings of the church spires of Mo?lan and Clohars, when a shout from Peridot recalled her wandering thoughts.
"There's a steam yacht out there, making heavy weather," he said.
Ingersoll had evidently noted the other vessel already, because he had gone into the cabin – not the cubbyhole of a sardine boat, but the hold converted into a saloon fitted with a table screwed to the deck, and four comfortable bunks – and reappeared with a pair of binoculars. From that moment all eyes were fixed on the newcomer.
At a guess she might be coming from Brest to Lorient, because it was safe to assume that her Captain was not a fool, and he must have started the day's run before the change of wind. It must remembered that the very conditions that helped the five-ton Hirondelle were the worst possible for the sixty– or seventy-ton stranger, hard driven into a head sea whipped by a fierce wind. She had shaped a course outside l'Isle Verte, and was well clear of the Ar Gazek shallow when first sighted by those on board the Hirondelle. The tidal stream was running strongly there, and Yvonne with difficulty repressed a cry of dismay when the yacht's bare masts and white funnel vanished completely in a cloud of spray.
"If that fellow has any sense, he'll turn while he is able, and make for Concarneau," said Peridot, as the spume dissipated, and the stricken vessel's spars came into view again.
"Perhaps he doesn't know this coast. Can we signal him?" inquired the girl.
"He wouldn't take any notice of a fishing boat. The skipper of a ten-centime steam yacht thinks more of himself than the commander of an Atlantic liner. Of course he should make Lorient tonight – if he understands the lights."
The self-confident Peridot seldom qualified his words: now he had twice spoken with an if. Yvonne hauled herself forward, and joined her father and Tollemache.
"Peridot thinks that the vessel out there may get into difficulties," she said. "I suggested that we should signal her; but he says she would pay no heed."
"What sort of signal?"
"To turn back – Concarneau for choice."
"Let's try, anyhow. Lorry, you'll find a codebook in the chart locker, and flags in the one beneath. Look for 'Recommend change of course' or something of the sort, and the Concarneau code letters. Get the necessary flags, and we'll run 'em up."
Peridot, who missed nothing, understood Tollemache's quick descent into the cabin. His shout reached father and daughter clearly.
"They're signaling from the Brigneau station already. It'll do no harm if we give him a tip too."
During the next ten minutes the situation remained unchanged, save that yacht and fishing boat neared each other rapidly, the Hirondelle traveling three kilometers to the yacht's one, while lines of flags, each identical – whereat Tollemache winked at Yvonne and preened himself – fluttered from signal station and mast. The yacht disregarded these warnings, and pressed on.
Ingersoll was watching her through the glasses; but Yvonne's keen vision hardly needed such aid.
"They must have seen both signals," she said. "There are two men on the bridge. What a big man one of them is! Can you make out her name, Dad?"
"No. I've been trying to; but the seas pouring over the fore part render the letters indistinct. You have a look. Mind you brace yourself tight against that stay."
He handed her the binoculars, and Yvonne lost a few seconds in adjusting the focus.
"The first letter is an S," she announced. "There are six. The last one is an A. Oh, what a blow that sea must have given her! It pitched on board just beneath the bridge. Why, what's the matter? She is swinging round!"
The girl was sufficiently versed in the ways of the sea to realize that no shipmaster would change course in that manner, nor attempt such a maneuver at the instant his craft was battling against hundreds of tons of water in motion.
"Gars!" yelled Peridot excitedly. "She's broken down – shaft snapped, or propeller gone!"
At once the fierce and thrilling struggle had become a disaster. The yacht was drifting broadside on, utterly at the mercy of wind and tide. Unless a miracle happened, she would be ground to matchwood on that rock-bound coast within a few minutes. Unhappily she had gained considerable speed in the direction where destruction awaited her before her crew could let go the anchor. The agonized watchers from shore and boat knew when a fluke caught in some crevice of the rocks buried twelve fathoms deep, because the vessel's bows were brought up against the sea with a jerk. Then she fell away again. The cable couldn't stand the strain. It had parted.
"Good God!" groaned Ingersoll. "Every soul on board will be drowned before our eyes!"
Yvonne could not speak. Neither could she see. She was blinded with tears. The suddenness of the affair was appalling. At one instant she had been following a fascinating fight between man and the elements, a fight in which man was gaining ground yard by yard. Now by some trick of Fate man was delivered, bound and crippled, to become the sport of savage and relentless enemies. She heard her father shouting to Peridot:
"Bear a couple of points to port. They may lower a boat."
"No use," came the answer. "Better crack on. They'll strike on Les Verr?s. We may pick up one or two in the channel if they wear life belts."
Tollemache had leaped down into the cabin. He was out on deck again now, bareheaded, having discarded oilskin coat and sou'wester. A cork jacket was strapped round his tall, alert body. If any life could be snatched back from the abyss, Tollemache might be trusted not to spare himself in the effort. In that moment of stress the cheery, devil-may-care American artist had become a calm, clear-headed man of action. He looked almost heroic, standing on the sloping deck forward, with one sinewy, brown-skinned hand clasping a mast-hoop, and the other thrust into a pocket of his Norfolk jacket. By a queer trick of memory Yvonne was reminded of her fright when she saw Lorry clinging to the rings of Sainte Barbe's tower. He had come through that ordeal unscathed.
Would he conquer in this far more dreadful test? There he could depend on his own taut muscles and iron nerve. Here he was at the mercy of circumstances. Still, it was helpful to see Lorry's fingers clenched on a ring. Somehow it seemed to offer good augury.
There were brave hearts, too, on board the vessel now seemingly doomed to utter destruction. Each of her two masts carried canvas, and when the cable parted a ready command had evidently sent the crew racing to cast loose both sails from their lashings. But the very trimness and tautness of everything on board proved the yacht's final undoing. Knives were brought into play, and the foresail was hoisted within a few seconds. The yacht answered her helm promptly. There seemed to be a real chance that she might haul into the wind and clear the black fangs of Les Verr?s, in which case she would either run into the small estuary at Brigneau, or at the worst beach herself on the strip of sand there.
At that moment the occupants of the Hirondelle saw her name, the Stella, and they were on the point of breaking into a frantic cheer of relief when the unlucky craft crashed into a submerged rock, swung broadside on, and was saved from turning turtle only by another rock which stove her in amidships.
"Ah, Les Verr?s have caught her! I thought they would. God help those poor fellows!"
It was Peridot who spoke, and the mere fact that he had abandoned hope sounded the requiem of the Stella and all her company.
Then indeed her plight was like to have passed beyond human aid. She was lodged on the outer fringe of an unapproachable reef, whence a rapidly rising tide would lift her at any minute. Being built of steel, she would sink forthwith, because her bows were crushed and plates started below the load line. She carried four boats; but, with the ingenuity of malice that the sea often displays in its unbridled fury, the two to port were crushed to splinters when she heeled over, and those to starboard, swinging inward on their davits, filled instantly, since the waves poured in cascades over the hull, as though the mighty Atlantic was concentrating all its venom on that one tiny adversary.
The marvel was that no one was swept overboard. Nothing could have saved the men on deck had the Stella lurched on to her beam ends without warning; but the fleeting interval while she was being carried round on the pivot of her fore part enabled them to guard against the expected shock. Nine figures were visible, two standing on the port rails of the bridge, and the others on the deck rails, every man having braced his shoulders against the deck itself. Masts, funnel, and upper saloon were practically vertical with the plane of the sea, and the hull quivered and moved under the assault of each wave. Yet the very injuries that would swamp the vessel instantly when she rolled into deep water now gave her a brief lease of life. The rocks that pierced the hull held her fast. Her plight resembled that of some poor wretch stabbed mortally who breathes and groans in agony, only to die when the knife that causes his distress is withdrawn.
The horror of the sight brought a despairing cry to Yvonne's lips. "Peridot, Peridot, can nothing be done?" she shrieked, turning to the Breton sailor as though, at his prayer, the sky might open and Providence send relief.
The boat was now nearly abreast of the wreck, and running free before the wind. The girl's frantic appeal seemed to arouse the three men from a stupor of helplessness.
"Look out, everybody!" shouted Peridot. "We're going head on."
It was a dangerous maneuver in a heavy sea; but fortune favored the Hirondelle in so far that no mountainous wave struck her quarter as she veered round. All were equally alive to the possibility of disaster. Ingersoll, though he uttered no word till the boat had reversed her course, was almost moved to protest.
"We are powerless," he said, coming aft to make his voice audible. "Even if some of the yacht's people are swept clear of the reef, they will be smothered long before they drift in this direction. The thing was so unexpected that none of them has secured a cork jacket, or even a life belt."
"There is one chance in a hundred, Monsieur," said Peridot, speaking so that Ingersoll alone could hear. "The point is – will you take it? You and Monsieur Tollemache would agree, of course. Will you risk Mademoiselle's life as well?"
"A chance? What sort of chance?"
"I know every inch of Les Verr?s. A little inlet, not much longer than the yacht, and perhaps forty feet wide, runs in from the south just where she lies. Her hull and the reef itself form a breakwater. We can make it, and get a line aboard."
"Then for the love of Heaven why wait?"
"One moment, Monsieur. We have yet a second or two for decision. You see how the wreck lifts each time a sea hits her. The tide is rising. If she shifts when we are in there, goodby to the Hirondelle!"
The eyes of the two met, and Ingersoll wavered, but only as a brave man takes breath before essaying some supreme test of hardihood.
"My daughter would never forgive me if she knew I chose the coward's path," he said. "Go ahead, Peridot! Tell us what we have to do, and it shall be done."
A cheerful chuckle was the Breton's answer as he thrust the tiller over to port and sent the boat reeling on the starboard tack. Once she was fairly balanced, he began to bellow instruction.
"Within a couple of minutes I'll put her head on again, and we'll drift alongside the ship yonder. Monsieur Ingersoll and Monsieur Tollemache will each take a sweep, and fend the after part off the rocks. Mademoiselle will remain for'ard, and be ready to drop the anchor as a last resource if I find the tide running too strong for the sweeps to hold us back. Leave the rest to me!"
It is a glorious heritage of the English-speaking race that the men of other nations regard sea valor as the birthright of its sons and daughters. Peridot had stated the case for and against the attempted rescue to Ingersoll as a father. When the die was cast, the decision made, he counted on ces Am?ricains acting with the same cool heroism he would himself display.
The Hirondelle quickly reached the position from which the Breton judged it possible to drop into a natural dock, the existence of which he had learned when catching lobsters and crabs. Wind and tide carried the boat swiftly backward. At first it seemed that she was simply rushing to destruction, and every eye was bent on the swirling maelstrom toward which she was speeding rather than on the stricken yacht. Even Peridot's face paled beneath its bronze, and he had a hand uplifted as a warning to Yvonne to be ready instantly with the anchor, while Ingersoll and Tollemache were standing, each with a long oar couched like a knight's lance, when the Hirondelle swept past the bows of the wreck; only to be checked immediately by a backwash from the higher part of the reef.
"Dieu merci!" sighed Peridot, jubilant because his faith was justified. "Keep her steady now, mes amis, and with God's help we'll succeed!"
A tremendous sea dashed over the Stella, and for one appalling moment it appeared that she must roll bodily into deep water, and involve the Hirondelle in her own ruin. But she settled again, with a rending of her framework and inner fittings that was sweetest music in Peridot's ears, since it meant that she was becoming wedged more firmly on the teeth of the rock, and, owing to her construction, possessed no natural buoyancy to be affected by the rising tide.
Already he had a coil of rope in his right hand, and was yelling orders to the crew of the Stella. The noise of the seas pounding on Les Verr?s was deafening; but a hoarse cry from one of the men on the bridge penetrated the din:
"No comprenez! Heave away!"
So they were English or Americans – which, none could tell. Even at a distance of fifteen feet or thereabouts it was hardly possible to distinguish nationality by facial traits owing to the torrents falling continuously over the rounded hull, the smoke pouring from the funnel, the flapping of the loosened sails, and the clouds of spray that lashed the Hirondelle. At any rate, Tollemache, deciding instantly, as was his way, sent back an answering shout: