Tollemache obeyed without demur. He was completely at a loss to understand his friend's collapse; but its undoubted seriousness called for decisive action. His vibrant, ringing tones dominated the cheers that burst forth when the Hirondelle bumped into the quay.
"Mes amis," he cried, "hear me one moment, I pray you. The people we have rescued are suffering. One is dead – others are in great danger. Unless you make way, and permit us to bring the injured ones quietly and speedily to the hotel, some may die on the road."
It sufficed. The cheers were hushed. The throng yielded place without demur. A low susurrus of talk and the sobbing of women were the only sounds that mingled now with the unceasing chant of the gale.
Ingersoll had literally forced himself to stoop into the companion hatch. "Yvonne," he said in a curiously muffled voice.
"Yes, Dad," came the girl's answer.
He could not be sure, owing to his extremely agitated state, but fancied that another voice gasped a word faintly.
"Come now, Dear! Come at once!" he appealed.
Again Yvonne's head and shoulders emerged. "Oh, Dad," she almost sobbed, "Mrs. – Mrs. Carmac is conscious now. She beseeches me to remain with her until – until – ."
Ingersoll literally pulled his daughter up the few remaining steps. "We are going straight home!" he cried, savagely impatient of the resistance his plans were encountering at every turn. "I am ill – nearly demented! You must come now!"
Still clasping her arm in a grip that left marks on her white skin for days thereafter, he forced her to the side of the boat.
"Father dear, of course I'll come; but you are hurting me," she said quietly. "Please don't hold me so tight."
He was deaf to her pleading. They raced together up the causeway. To avoid attracting attention, Yvonne did not endeavor to hold back, and bystanders wondered why the two made off at such a furious pace. Madame Pitou, Madeleine, and Barbe, drawn to the quay like the rest of the inhabitants, were divided between concern for father and daughter and desire to witness the landing of the shipwrecked crew.
But M?re Pitou could not contain her anxiety. "Tcha!" she cried, bustling through the crowd. "What's gone wrong with Monsieur Ingersoll and Yvonne? They might have seen the devil out yonder. I must hurry after them. I'll hear all the news later when Peridot comes."
The two girls went with her. For once feminine curiosity was less potent than sympathy. Moreover, Tollemache's announcement of a death among the rescued people had terrified them. They shuddered at the notion of the solemn procession of men carrying a limp and heavy body. The mere sight of such a thing would take the heart out of them for the evening's merrymaking.
Ingersoll had passed the first mill – or the last – that bridles the river, and was striding through the narrow street leading to the bridge, when he became conscious of the force he was exerting on his uncomplaining companion.
"I'm sorry, Yvonne," he said, freeing her arm immediately.
He spoke in a queer, choking voice which at any other time would have aroused his daughter's affectionate solicitude. That night, however, probably because she too was in an overwrought condition, she contented herself by a seemingly nonchalant reply.
"It doesn't matter, Dad. A bruise more or less, after all that we have gone through, is not of much account."
"I hurried you away – " he began; but, greatly to his surprise, Yvonne interrupted the labored explanation he had in mind.
"I think I understand, Dad," she said. "Wouldn't it be better for both of us if you left unsaid what you were going to say – at any rate, till the morning? We are – how shall I put it? – somewhat unhinged by today's events. You are weary and heartsick. I know I am. Let me go and see that Mrs. Carmac is being cared for. I'll not remain long, and we can retire soon after supper. Then, when we have slept perhaps, we shall wake into a new world with nerves not so exhausted, or strained, as at this moment."
Ingersoll, brooding on his own troubles, and feverishly eager to snatch his daughter from a soul-racking ordeal, was wholly unaware of the passionate tumult vibrating in every syllable of that appeal. He caught the sound, not the significance, of the words that irritated him.
"Now you are talking nonsense!" he cried. "You cannot possibly know what course I have decided on. It is this: I loathe the sensational element attached to such an event as the rescue we have taken part in. You hardly realize what it implies to you and me personally. Not only the French but the English and American newspapers will send here a horde of special correspondents and photographers. If we remain in Pont Aven, we cannot escape them. They will take the cottage by storm, or, if we bolt our door against intruders, we shall have to withstand a siege. To avoid this, you and I are going to Paris by the early train tomorrow. Lorry is coming too. He agrees with me – or, if I shouldn't say that – he is delighted at the prospect of the outing."
"Poor Lorry!" said Yvonne.
"Why 'poor Lorry'? He is only too pleased at being invited."
"But, Dad, he doesn't know what you and I know."
A sudden terror fell on Ingersoll. "What do you mean?" he murmured hoarsely, stopping short as though he had been struck by an invisible hand.
During a few fateful seconds father and daughter stood in the center of the four ways that meet as soon as the road from Paris crosses the Aven. No one was near. The eternal plaint of the river was drowned by the fierce wind whistling under the eaves of the old houses with high-pitched roofs, and singing an anthem of its own around the pierced spire of the neighboring church. Yvonne placed her hands on her father's shoulders, and her sweet lips quivered in an irresistible rush of agonized emotion.
"Dad," she said, striving vainly to keep her utterance under control, "if you – wish – to go to Paris tomorrow – I-shall not try – to dissuade you. But I – cannot come with you. I dare not! You see – I have just found my mother – and – she may be dead tomorrow. Oh, Dad, Dad! No matter how my mother may have erred – or what wrong she may have done you in the past – I cannot abandon her now!"
It was well that M?re Pitou came upon them before another syllable was uttered, since not all Ingersoll's philosophy could have withstood the earthquake that had destroyed in an instant the carefully constructed edifice of many years. His very soul was in revolt. Heart suggested and brain lent bitter and cruel form to rebellious words; but, such is the power of convention, the unexpected arrival of the sharp-tongued Breton woman silenced him.
"O, l? l?!" she cried breathlessly. "If I had known you two were making off in such a jiffy merely to stand in the Place au Beurre and look at the stars, I wouldn't have waddled after you like the fat goose that I am. What, then, is the matter? I thought you were hurrying home because you were perished with cold, and I find the pair of you stuck in the middle of the road. Monsieur Ingersoll, you at least are old enough to have more sense. Both must be soaked to the skin; yet you keep Yvonne out in this biting wind, to say nothing of a thin scarecrow like yourself!"
Yvonne had dropped her hands when she heard the approaching footsteps. Unconsciously she had raised her eyes to Heaven in agonized suppliance, and her attitude was naturally inexplicable to her Breton friends. She recovered some semblance of self control more quickly than her father.
"Madame," she said, "we were, in a sense, debating whether or not we could spare the time to change our clothes before attending to the wants of the poor people saved from Les Verr?s. I think you are right. It would be foolish to take any additional risk. Come, Father dear, let me help you now."
She took her father's arm, and drew him on. He walked unsteadily, and might have fallen if it had not been for Yvonne's support. The first mad impulse that bade him pour forth a vehement protest against the injustice of Fate had died down. He was as a man stricken dumb, and even physically maimed, by some serious accident.
M?re Pitou, imagining that he was benumbed as the outcome of prolonged exposure to the elements, was minded to rate him soundly; but happily elected instead to pour the torrent of her wrath on things in general. "A nice f?te we'll have, to be sure!" she began. "There was I, boiling beautiful white meat and roasting fat pullets when the news came that the Hirondelle was acting the lifeboat off Les Verr?s! I thought you'd all be drowned, at the very least, and I wouldn't have been a bit surprised, because anything might happen to that light-headed Monsieur Tollemache and that grinning, good-for-nothing Peridot. Cr? nom! I wouldn't have crossed the street if you two weren't aboard! And now the bottom will be burnt out of the pan, and my four lovely fowls frizzled to a cinder! Barbe, you little minx, run ahead and see that the big kettle is put on to boil! Monsieur Ingersoll and Yvonne must have hot baths, with mustard, and I'll stand over them till they swallow a good tumblerful each of scalding wine. I'll give them Les Verr?s – see if I don't!"
Whereat Madame gurgled in momentary appreciation of her own wit, because verr?e means "a tumblerful," and she had blundered on a first-rate pun.
"Ch?re maman, we are not ill, nor likely to feel any bad effects from a wetting," said Yvonne. "My father is shaken because, although successful, we have brought one dead man to Pont Aven, and perhaps a dead woman too."
"Ah, that's sad – that's dreadful!" wheezed M?re Pitou. "Poor things! Who are they?"
"An Englishman gentleman – and his wife."
"They may be Americans. We hardly know yet." Ingersoll was striving bravely to recover his poise. Those few words told Yvonne that he wished their secret to remain hidden from all others – for the present, at any rate.
"Dieu merci! You can talk, then?" said M?re Pitou tartly. "Were they coming to Pont Aven? Are they known here?"
"No. Their name is Carmac. They have never been here, I believe. They were making for Lorient; but their yacht broke down and drove on the reef. Had it not been for Peridot we could not have saved a soul on board."
"Oh, he's a good sailor – I'll say that for him. His poor old mother was there on the quay, screeching like an owl. She lost her man at sea, you know. I hate the sea. I'll skin Barbe if she ever so much as looks at a fisherman. Do you hear that, Madeleine?"
"Yes, Madame. But you can't skin every fisherman who looks at Barbe."
"Wait till I catch one at it! He'll find a shark in his nets that day. Hurry now, you, and help Barbe to get those baths ready! I filled the kettle before I came out, and lifted the wheat off, and as I shoved in the damper of the oven the fowls shouldn't have taken much harm."
"Peridot will surely come soon," Madeleine ventured to say.
M?re Pitou, having made sufficient concession to her guests' feelings by that revised estimate of the condition of the eatables, was moved to withering sarcasm.
"Why do you think that matters to me?" she cried.
Madeleine was silenced; so Madame answered her own question.
"No man with eyes like a tomcat could ever turn my head!" she snorted.
For once her gift of biting repartee served a good purpose. It effectually distracted attention from Ingersoll's half-demented state, while father and daughter were given a breathing space before plunging into an explanation that might affect the future in such wise that the stream of life would never again flow on the placid course it had followed during many happy and uneventful years.
Within the cottage, too, M?re Pitou's bustling ways interposed a further barrier. She drove the artist to his room, set Madeleine to help Yvonne undress, "and rub her till she's as red as a boiled lobster," prepared two steaming glasses of mulled wine, scolded each unwilling patient until the decoction was taken, and wanted to massage Ingersoll; an attention that he avoided only by declaring positively that he would not indulge in a hot bath at all unless she cleared out.
Luckily a wetting from salt water is seldom harmful if accompanied by exercise, and Ingersoll had never been really chilled; while Yvonne had not only kept comparatively dry, but had been shielded from the wind during the homeward voyage. When the two met in the studio, a large room that Ingersoll had built on the north side of the house, the frenzy and tumult of a tremendous discovery had died down, and each was ready to make due allowance for the other's suffering.
Yvonne wore her Breton dress, and her father had discarded his artist's clothes for a suit of blue serge. Seldom, perhaps not twice in a year, did he appear in evening dress. He shunned society, and disliked its livery. For that reason he had removed from the Hotel Julia soon after arriving at Pont Aven with Yvonne, then an engaging mite hardly a year old. Ostensibly he wanted a spacious studio; in reality he sought seclusion.
As for Yvonne, she did not even possess a dinner gown; though she and her father were often welcome guests at the houses of the small artistic coterie that makes the village its abiding place. But pictures, not fashion plates, ruled the roost therein, and no grande dame whom chance brought to these friendly gatherings could plume herself that her "Paris model" frock eclipsed the quaint charm of Yvonne's peasant costume.
The girl had grown quite accustomed to the demand invariably put forward by Ingersoll before accepting an invitation that he should be told the names of any strangers who would be present. If she gave a passing thought to the matter, she fancied that her father had early in life quarreled with his relatives, and wished to avoid a haphazard meeting with certain members of his family. Singularly enough, Tollemache, her greatest friend among the men of Pont Aven, did not conceal the fact that he too was at loggerheads with his own people. Only that day had he been on the verge of some explanation of this unfortunate state of affairs. How little did she dream then that the carefully hidden secret which led her own father to bury his talents in a Brittany fishing village soon after she was born would be dragged into light before the sun went down!
When she entered the studio she found her father seated in a roomy wickerwork chair, and gazing disconsolately into the flames of a roaring log fire. He had aged within the hour; his already slight figure seemed to have shrunk; he did not even turn his head when the door opened.
Her heart went out to him in a wave of tenderness. She dropped on her knees by his side and put her arms round his neck.
"Dad dear," she murmured, "don't dwell on our troubles tonight, great as they are. Let us rather be thankful that we were able to render some service to our fellow creatures, and that our own lives were preserved in a time of real danger. God works in His own wonderful way, doesn't He, Dear? It was His will that we should have gone to Le Pouldu today. It was surely by providential contriving that we should happen to be near the reef when the Stella struck. Something more than idle chance brought us there."
"Yes," he said, gazing into her eyes with the sorrow-laden expression of a man who sees naught but misery before him, "it was not chance, Yvonne, but the operation of a law as certain as death. The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. I had almost forgotten that your mother lived. After eighteen years she was dead to me. So far as you are concerned she might as well have died in giving you birth. Then her memory would have been a blessing rather than a curse."
"Hush, Dear! She may be dying even now. No, no, Darling, you shall not say it!" and her soft lips stifled the terrible wish that his anguish might have voiced.
For a little while neither could speak. Yvonne's head bent over her father's knees, and he knew that she was crying. With a supreme effort he strove to lessen the tension.
"Come, come, Sweetheart!" he said, stroking the mass of brown hair beneath the lace coif. "You and I must face this difficulty together, or goodness only knows what may be the outcome! Tell me now, if you are able, how you learned that Mrs. Carmac was your mother."
"Oh, Dad, she recognized me at once!" sobbed the girl. "Poor thing, the warmth of the blankets and a teaspoonful of brandy I forced between her lips brought her round slowly."
"After we crossed the bar."
"I feared as much," groaned Ingersoll.
Even in her distress Yvonne had the tact to avoid the thorny bypath opened up by her father's involuntary cry. "She sighed deeply a few times," she went on hurriedly, "and I could tell by her color that she was about to revive. At last she opened her eyes, and looked at me in a dazed way.
"'Yvonne!' she whispered.
"I was so overjoyed to find that she was not actually at the point of death that I felt no surprise. 'Yes, Dear,' I said, 'you are with friends, and that horrid wreck is a thing of the past.'
"But she continued to gaze at me as if I were a ghost. 'Yvonne Ingersoll!' she said again.
"Then it struck me as really remarkable that she should know my name. But I only asked her to drink a little more of the brandy, and rest until we reached Pont Aven.
"'Rest!' she said in quite a clear voice. 'Why should I rest when Heaven snatches me from a dreadful death and permits me to see my own daughter after eighteen years? Or is this some other world? Why am I here? Where have you come from?'
"For the moment I was sure her mind was unbalanced, and thought it best to calm her by answering truthfully. 'My mother is dead, Dear,' I said; 'but you and I are living. You hardly realize now that your yacht was wrecked on a reef near the mainland. By the mercy of Providence my father's boat was close at hand, and we rescued you.'
"'Me only?' she cried, trying to rise in the bunk, and giving me such a piercing look.
"'No,' I said, 'we took off all hands.'
"Dad dear, I simply didn't dare say that her husband alone had been killed in trying to save her; so I put it that way, hoping she would not ask me any more. But she did then succeed in lifting herself on an elbow.
"'Child,' she said, 'they must not meet! God! They must not meet!'
"'Who must not meet?' said I, feeling rather frightened, as of something unseen that threatened me in the dark.
"'Your father and Walter Carmac,' she replied.
"'If Mr. Carmac is your husband, he is still unconscious,' I assured her, catching at the first straw that offered in the whirl of things.
"'Is your father on board?' she demanded, grasping my wrist.
"'Yes,' I said.
"Then she sank back into the bunk again, as though I had struck her, and began to sob. 'Oh, it is cruel, cruel!' she wept. 'After all these years my folly has found me out! Yvonne, Yvonne, don't you understand? I am your mother! I left your father eighteen years ago. I left you, my darling little baby! I sought freedom because your father was poor, and I longed to be rich. Look at me! Look at me, I tell you! Can you deny that I am your mother?'
"Oh, Dad, I knew in my heart that she was speaking truly; but even in that moment of torture I tried to be loyal to you, and begged her to close her eyes and let me cover her with the blankets. But she only laughed, in a ghastly way that was worse than tears. Then she heard one of the men in the other bunks groaning, and started up again, asking wildly who was there. I told her that two men were badly injured, and had been brought below. Unfortunately, I added that her husband was on deck.
"'Husband!' she cried. 'I am not worthy of such a husband! I bartered my very soul for luxury, and now I am being punished as I deserve. Yvonne, one night in Paris your mother kissed you when you were lying asleep in your cot, and hurried away to what I deemed liberty. I have lulled my conscience for eighteen years into the belief that I was justified, that I had acted for the best, since my extravagant tastes were even then embittering your father's life. Yet the husband and child I abandoned have saved my miserable life, saved the man too who came into my life when I was free to marry again. Oh, why didn't you let me die? Perhaps I am dying now. Yvonne, you have my face; but a kindly Heaven must have spared you from having my nature. You, at least, will forgive. Kiss me once before the end comes. If you are merciful, an Eternal Judge may not condemn me utterly; for I have striven to atone by doing some good in the world. Unhappy myself, I have tried to make others happy.'
"Father dear, I could not refuse. I took her in my arms. I suppose she nearly fainted again, because she only spoke incoherently until she heard your voice in the hatch, when she whispered your name and buried her face in the clothes."