The bluff English skipper had caught the key word of the sentence, and the Breton's merry eye supplied a full translation.
"Good for you, my hearty!" said he. "Gimme one fair pull at a bottle of decent stuff now, an' I'll load you to the bung with the same once we're ashore."
Peridot had stipulated that the Hirondelle should start on her homeward run "not a minute later than three o'clock." He had cast off from the wharf at Le Pouldu slightly before that hour; but the wreck of the Stella and its attendant circumstances – not least being the necessity enforced by the change of wind to take the deep-sea course after leaving the reef – cost a good deal of time. As a consequence daylight had almost failed before the bar of the Aven was crossed.
On Pointe d'ar Vechen, within thirty feet of the Port Manech Hotel, stands a tiny lighthouse which sheds a mild beam over the entrance to the estuary. It is essentially a harbor light. A broad white band covers the safe channel extending from Les Verr?s to l'Isle Verte, a red sector forbids the former, and a green one indicates the narrow inside passage between reef and mainland.
In crossing the bar, of course, each color became visible in turn. Ingersoll had seen the light scores of times. Never a week passed in summer that he did not spend a day, or even three days, at sea with the fishermen. His studies of the sardine fleet, in particular, were greatly in request.
Yet on this night of nights, when the return to his beloved Pont Aven might well be reckoned the close of the most notable achievement of his whole life, he seemed to have collapsed physically and mentally. His eyes had a vacant look. Their wonted expression of a somewhat sarcastic yet not intolerant outlook on life had fled for the hour, and he peered at the Breton and the sailor as though he had never before seen either. His slight but usually alert and wiry frame appeared to have shrunk. He remained deaf to Peridot's suggestion as to the brandy, and became curiously interested in the red gleam of the lighthouse which came in sight just before the bar was reached.
The Breton imagined that his employer's bodily resources had been unduly taxed. Catching the eye of the yacht's skipper (whose name, by the way, was William Popple), he nodded toward the tiller, pointed straight ahead, and held up a finger. "Wan mineet," he said.
Captain Popple was not to be outdone in linguistic amenities. "Comprenny," he grinned, and took control.
Peridot thrust his head into the hatch. "Ma'mselle," he said, "these poor devils' teeth are chattering with the cold. Will you pass the cognac?"
Yvonne felt the urgency of the request. Nearly every man was wet to the skin, and the wind bit keenly. She abandoned her nurse's work for the moment, opened a locker, and produced a bottle of generous size.
"Here you are," she said. "See that a little is left. I have given some to the men, and I hope my other invalid will soon be able to take a small quantity."
The fisherman removed a plug which had replaced the ordinary cork, and handed the bottle to Captain Popple.
"Gosh!" he said, passing the bottle to Ingersoll, "that's the stuff! It warms the cockles of yer heart."
Ingersoll swallowed a mouthful. It seemed to restore his wits. The eye of the lighthouse had changed from red to green. "It is singular," he said, "how a quality of evil can be associated with certain colors. Red means danger and possible death, while green implies a jealous love perilously akin to hate."
He had not the least notion of the incongruity of such a remark just then. He might have been making conversation for some boarding-school miss whom Yvonne had brought on a summer cruise.
The other man, puzzled, stared stolidly into the gathering gloom.
"When you're plashin' at sea on a dark night you find them colored sectors mighty useful, Sir," was all he could find to say.
Ingersoll roused himself, as though from sleep, and indeed he had been wholly unconscious of his surroundings during the last few minutes. "Oh, doubtless," he said apologetically, "I was thinking aloud, a foolish habit. You were telling me about the owner of the Stella. Carmac is the name, I think? I knew a Walter H. Carmac many years ago. He was very tall, but slightly built. Surely a man cannot change his physique so markedly in the course of, say, twenty years!"
"Well, as to that, Sir, on'y the other day I was talkin' of Mr. Carmac's size to Mr. Raymond, the gentleman with the broken arm (Mr. Carmac's secretary, he is), an' he said the guv'nor used to be thin as a lath once. P'raps it was a case of laugh and grow fat. Very pleasant gentleman, Mr. Carmac was; an' his lady too – one of the best. Excuse me, Sir, but I couldn't help starin' at your girl. She's that like Mrs. Carmac it's surprising. If anyone said they was mother an' daughter, I'd agree at once – if I didn't know different."
There was a pause. Peridot had intrusted the supply of brandy to Tollemache for further distribution. He came aft now, as careful piloting would soon be needed.
"Once we're inside, Monsieur," he said, "we'll set the men at work by turns with the sweeps. That will drive the chill away."
Ingersoll explained the scheme to the skipper, who gave it his hearty approval.
"Did the yacht belong to Mr. Carmac?" went on the artist.
"Yes, Sir. He bought her a fortnight ago. She used to be Lord Aveling's Nigger; but Mr. Carmac didn't like that name, and changed it to the Stella, after his wife's Christian name."
"He didn't care to sail in a yacht called the Nigger, eh?"
A bitterness of aloes was in the words. Apparently they suggested some unpleasing notion to Popple, who branched off to another topic.
"I've a sort of idea his heart was affected," he said. "I know that some bigwig of a London doctor recommended a long voyage, and Mr. Carmac bein' several times a millionaire he just up and grabbed the first suitable craft that offered. Wouldn't wait for a survey. Took everything for granted; though I warned him that white paint may cover a lot of black sins. He an' the missis had planned a regular tour in the Mediterranean, goin' from Gib to the Balearics, and dodgin' in and out of ports all along the north coast until we brought up at Constantinople sometime in April. I advised him to let me meet him at Gib or Marseilles; but he was one of the men who will have their own way, and nothin' would suit but that he should come straight aboard. We left Southampton Tuesday evenin', and made Brest yesterday afternoon. Today we were for callin' at Belle Isle and berthin' at Lorient; but the foul weather met us, an' he was half inclined to put in at this very place we're headin' for, – Pont Aven is the name, isn't it? – on'y poor Mrs. Carmac wouldn't hear of it. She said Belle Isle was no distance, an' made out she was a good sailor – which was hardly correct, because she was ill as could be for the last two hours."
"Why didn't you turn back?"
"There was no turnin' back about Mr. Carmac, Sir. He wasn't built that way, bein' a sure enough American. Though I've never known anybody more devoted to his wife than he was, he ought to have let a younger man take her across to your boat. Not as I mean to argy that anyone could have held up against that sea. Lord love a duck! it was a oner an' no mistake! But there, what has to be will be. Poor Mr. Carmac was fated to hand in his checks on the coast of Finist?re, an' we others weren't, and that's all there is to it; though I'd be flyin' in the face of Providence if I didn't say in the same breath that if four of the pluckiest and best hadn't been aboard this 'ere craft, none of our little lot would ever have seen daylight again."
Tollemache joined them. He had just exchanged a word with Yvonne, who had evidently placed her guest in a bunk, because the gleam of an oil lantern came through the open hatch, and, like the good yachtswoman she was, she had passed out the side lights trimmed and ready for use.
"Well, Ingersoll," he said cheerily, "how are you feeling now?"
"Rather tired," was the unexpected answer.
"I'm not surprised at that. You've had a pretty strenuous time."
"Of course you, Lorry, have had the day of your life!"
"Y-yes. I wouldn't go through it again, though, for a small fortune; that is, with Yvonne on board. It was nip and tuck when we were jammed up against the reef."
"It didn't take you long, Sir, for all that, to jump in after Mrs. Carmac," said Popple.
"Oh, is that the lady's name? What a weird specimen one of your sailormen must be! I asked him the name of the yacht's owner, and he didn't know it."
"If it's the beauty I saw you talkin' to, the swine didn't know his own name when he kem aboard at Southampton," snorted Popple indignantly. "Sink me! I've never seen a man so loaded. Took me for his long-lost uncle. Me, mind you! If I hadn't been rather short-handed, I'd have run him ashore to find an uncle in a policeman."
"He is sober enough now," laughed Tollemache. "I had some difficulty in persuading him to take a sip of brandy. He said he was a teetotaler."
"He what? Which one?"
"That fellow there, leaning against the mast."
"Of all the swabs! Look here, Sir, you come with me an' listen!"
"But I don't want to get the poor chap into a row."
"There'll be no row. Just language! It'll be a treat."
Tollemache, an overgrown schoolboy in some respects, accompanied Popple gleefully. Broken scraps of the skipper's comments boomed back to Ingersoll's unheeding ears.
"Guess you signed the pledge when the shaft snapped… Coughin' up stale beer all Tuesday night, an' all nex' day made you feel you weren't fit to die on a Thursday… You can't run a bluff of that sort on Saint Peter. He'd smell your breath a mile off, an' say, 'To the devil with any Jack who can't take his liquor decent-like when he's paid off without fillin' up when he's signed on!'…You struck a wrong job in goin' to sea. You ought to be a brewer's drayman."
"Peridot," said Ingersoll suddenly, "you saw something of the lady's state of collapse when you pulled her on board. She is not likely to recover her senses before we reach Pont Aven?"
"No, Monsieur, I think not. Women are marvels at times; but this one may not even live. Mademoiselle Yvonne is doing what she can – "
"I know, I know! Now do me a great favor. When we berth at the quay Mademoiselle and I will slip away quietly in the confusion and darkness. See to it that none of the strangers learns our name. I'll warn Monsieur Tollemache myself. Get all these people to Julia's. Tell her that the lady, Madame Carmac, is very wealthy, and that the man with the broken arm is Mr. Carmac's secretary; so every sort of expenditure will be met, though Julia's kind heart would leave nothing undone for a shipwrecked crew if they were paupers. There may be some inquiry about Mademoiselle Yvonne; but refer to her only by her Christian name, and say she lives at Madame Pitou's."
"Oui, M'sieu'." Peridot promised willingly enough. Nevertheless he was obviously bewildered.
"I ask this," explained Ingersoll, "because my daughter and I will depart for Paris by the first train tomorrow. You see, by extraordinary mischance, this Mr. and Mrs. Carmac and I were not on good terms years ago, and I don't wish old scores to be reopened."
"Gars!" spat Peridot. "You're not leaving Pont Aven because we pulled these fools off Les Verr?s?"
"No, no. I need a little holiday, and I'm taking it now. That is all. We shall come back to the old life – never fear."
"You mean that, M'sieu'?"
"I swear it."
"Of course, M'sieu', you understand that I cannot silence the tongues of the whole town?"
"I don't care what anybody hears tomorrow. Remember, if poor Madame Carmac dies, no other person will have the slightest interest in my whereabouts. If she lives, and is able to travel, she will certainly endeavor to get away from Pont Aven as speedily as possible. Peridot, it is Yvonne I am thinking of, not of myself."
"Monsieur, you can count on me absolutely."
"And not a word of this to a soul?"
"Cr? nom! I'll lie like a gendarme, even to Madeleine."
"But you need not lie at all. Simply forget what I have told you – as to my reason for tomorrow's journey, I mean."
"Monsieur, it is forgotten already."
Tollemache came, chuckling. "Sorry you missed the skipper's homily, Ingersoll," he said. "I laughed like a hyena. I hope the people in the cabin couldn't overhear me. By Jove! to tell you the truth, I didn't even remember that there was a dead man aboard."
"The best tragedies indulge in a what is called 'comic relief'," said Ingersoll dryly. "Give Yvonne a hail, will you? I want a word with her."
Tollemache stooped to the hatch. "Yvonne!" he said.
"Yes," came the girl's voice.
Her father, intent on its slightest cadence, deemed it placid and self-possessed.
"Socrates wants you."
Socrates was a title conferred on Ingersoll by his artist friends owing to his philosophic habit of mind. Nothing disturbed him, they vowed. Once, when the queer little steam tram that jingles into and out of Pont Aven four times daily was derailed, some alarm was created by the fact that Ingersoll, though known to be a passenger, was missing. When found he was perched on the side of the overturned carriage in which he had been seated. On climbing out through a window he discovered that from this precise locality and elevation he obtained a capital view of a wayside chapel; so he sketched it without delay. The chance, no less than the point of view, might not offer again!
Yvonne appeared, her head and shoulders dimly visible in the frame of the hatch. "What is it, Dad?" she inquired.
"We're in the river now, Dearest, and I thought you might join us on deck. You have done all that is possible, I'm sure."
"I simply cannot desert that poor woman until she shows some signs of returning consciousness."
"Oh, is she still insensible?"
"Yes. If only I could get her to swallow a little brandy."
"Well, she will be in the doctor's hands soon. Better leave matters to him."
"But one must try."
"Of course. If you prefer remaining below – "
"Father dear, what else can I do?" She vanished again.
Ingersoll, having ascertained exactly what he wished to know, sighed in sheer relief, and turned to Tollemache. "Lorry," he said, "have you a dry cigar in your pocket? How stupid of me! You're soaked through and through. I hope none of us picks up a stiff dose of pneumonia as the sequel to today's excitement. Now a quiet word in your ear. Yvonne and I are going away tomorrow for a week or so."
"Going away – from Pont Aven?"
Tollemache's voice executed a crescendo of dismay; but Ingersoll only laughed, and, for the first time since that disastrous reef was left behind, his manner reverted to its normal air of good-humored cynicism.
"Why select two words from a sentence and invest them with a significance they don't possess? I put in a saving clause. A week, or even two, can hardly be twisted into a lifetime."
"Does Yvonne know?"
"No. I have decided on the journey only within the last ten minutes. We're taking a little trip to Paris solely to avoid the gush and sentiment that will flow in Pont Aven during the next few days like a river in flood. Moreover, Lorry, if you're wise, you'll come with us."
Tollemache little realized how truly spontaneous was his friend's invitation. "D'ye mean that, Ingersoll?" he said elatedly.
"Why not? Don't let any question of expense stop you. This outing will be my Christmas treat."
"Expense! Dash it all! I've money to burn. Er – that is – enough, at any rate, to afford a jaunt to Paris. When do we start?"
"Soon after seven o'clock."
"By jing! Sharp work."
"If we really intend to escape, why stand on the order of our going?"
"I'm not saying a word. You rather took my breath away at first, you know."
"You should allow for the kinks in the artistic temperament, Lorry. Enthusiasm is too often the herald of despair."
"What sort of job do you really recommend me to take up, Socrates?"
Ingersoll smiled. "I am not in the habit of dealing my friends such shrewd blows," he said. "I was talking of myself – and Yvonne. Make no mistake about her. She has a sane mind in a sound body; but the artist's nature will triumph some day, and she will surprise all of us. By the way – nothing of this project to her till I have explained it. We shall see you at M?re Pitou's, of course?"
"I've promised to shake a leg with Madame herself in a gavotte. You don't suppose that Carmac's death will interfere with the feast?"
"Why should it?" said Ingersoll coldly. "The man is an utter stranger."
Tollemache did not strive to interpret his friend's mood. In so far as it mystified him, and he gave it any thought, he assumed that the tremendous physical exertion and nervous strain of those few minutes when life or death was uncertain as the spin of a coin had affected an ordinarily even-minded disposition.
Peridot interrupted their talk by asking Tollemache to lower the sail. Coming in with wind and tide, the Hirondelle had scudded across the bar without effort. Hardly a whiff of spray had touched her deck, and pursuing waves lagged defeated in her wake.
The sweeps were manned by willing volunteers, and the wet and shivering sailors soon restored vitality by tackling the work in relays. Usually sardine boats are content to drift up the estuary on a remarkably rapid tidal stream; so the Hirondelle made a fast trip that evening. The change in the wind had blown away the clouds brought inland by the first phase of the gale. The sky was clear, and stars were twinkling through the violet haze that followed the sun's disappearance. Pinpoints of light from the shores of the narrowing inlet scintillated from Port Manech, the Ch?teau of Poulguin, and the few tiny hamlets that border the Aven. Ever the opposing cliffs grew loftier, more abrupt, more wooded, until a cluster of lighted windows and street lamps on the water's edge at the end of one of the interminable bends showed that Pont Aven was drawing near. Thereabouts the valley opened out again; though the little town itself has been compelled to lodge its "Place" and half its houses on the first easy slopes of the steepest hill in the district.
Ingersoll, who had taken his turn at the oars with the others, contrived to choke his impatience until the pollard oaks on the Chemin du Hallage silhouetted their gnarled branches against the sky. That night the weird arms, swaying and creaking in a wind that was, if anything, increasing in force, had a sinister aspect in his troubled eyes. Each oak looked like some dreadful octopus, whose innumerable suckers were searching vindictively for an unwary victim. With an effort he brushed aside the evil fantasy, and was about to summon Yvonne when a weird, uncanny, elfin shriek came from the shadow of the largest and blackest tree.
"O, ma Doue!" [Breton for "O, mon Dieu!"] was the cry. "There he is! See him, then, my brave Jean!" Peridot's mother was greeting her son in a voice rendered eldritch by hysteria.
"Eh, b'en Maman!" the Breton shouted back. "What are thou doing there at this time of night?"
A number of running black figures appeared on the quay, an unprecedented thing, except in the conditions that actually obtained.
"Que diable!" growled Peridot, who had not bargained for a popular ovation. "They know all about us. Someone must have telephoned from the signal station at Brigneau."
He had summed up the position of affairs to a nicety. Brigneau had told the whole story to Pont Aven, and assuredly it had lost nothing in the telling. The signalers had seen every detail of the rescue through their telescopes, and were of course keenly alive to the peril into which the Hirondelle had plunged so gallantly and effectively.
The news had not long arrived; but sufficient time had elapsed that Pont Aven was stirred to its depths. Even old Madame Larraidou, crippled with rheumatism and sixty years of unremitting toil, had hobbled down to the quay to welcome her own special hero.
A dense crowd of Bretons, with a sprinkling of the Anglo-American community that remains faithful to Pont Aven in all seasons, had gathered on the broad, low, stone wharf, and surged down to the river itself on the sloping causeway provided for boats carrying passengers. Nevertheless, if the signalmen had brought about this gathering, they had also reported the presence on board the Hirondelle of three men and a woman who were badly injured; so the local gendarmes had procured stretchers, and three automobiles were in waiting.
Ingersoll, whose nerves were already on a raw edge, nearly abandoned the struggle against Fate when he saw the dense concourse of people. "Lorry," he said in an agonized tone that the younger man had never before heard on his lips, "Lorry, help me now, or I'll crack up! Jump ashore and ask those good folk to clear a path. You know what it means if we get among them. I can't stand it. I can't! Bid them let us pass, for the love of Heaven. Tell them we have to deal with death and broken limbs. You go first. They'll listen to you."