Flower of the Gorse
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The girl's tremulous voice ceased, and there was no sound in the room save the crackling of elm logs and the pleasant babble of flames in the big open fireplace. At last, fearing lest he should break down completely, Ingersoll gently untwined his daughter's clasp, rose, and fumbled with a pipe, – man's sole harbor of refuge in emotional storms.
"Don't cry, Yvonne," he said brokenly. "It – it hurts. From what you tell me I gather that your – mother – is in a more critical condition than I imagined. Do you want to go to her – now?"
Yvonne too stood up. She brushed away the mist of tears, and looked at him with shining eyes. "Dad," she said, and a vibration rang in her voice that carried her father's memory back half a lifetime, back to the days when youth was golden and love was deemed everlasting, "when my mother was muttering in delirium, my own poor wits wandered. I asked myself what it all meant, and I could not escape the bitter understanding that came to me. Then I remembered what you said one day when a wretched girl had been hounded out of the village because of her transgression."
"What I said?" repeated Ingersoll, baffled in the effort to follow her train of thought.
"Yes. You were speaking to some man who was angered by the merciless attitude of the peasant women to one of their own sex. You blamed the misleading teachings of narrow-minded theologians, and reminded him of Christ's words to the Pharisees who brought before Him some poor creature who had fallen. They taunted Him with the Mosaic law, which ordered that she and her like should be pelted with stones; but He only said that the man who was without sin among them should cast the first stone. And the crowd melted, and Christ was left alone with the sinner, whom He forgave. I did not know then just what you meant. I did not know until I heard my mother confessing her fault, and asking me, her daughter, for forgiveness."
"Unhappily our everyday world is not ruled by the maxims of Christ. The girl you speak of went to Brest, and her body was found in the harbor a fortnight later."
"I remembered that too."
"If you go to your mother now, you may set in motion influences that may darken your whole life."
"If I did not go, I would never forgive myself – never!"
"Prudence, the merest sort of commonsense, warns me that we ought to get away from Pont Aven by the first possible train."
"Father dear, what did Peridot say to you before he brought the Hirondelle round into the wind off Les Verr?s? I couldn't hear, of course. But do you think I could not read your face? Had you not to decide whether or not you would risk my life as well as your own? You were sure of Lorry – who wouldn't be? But it came hard to sacrifice me as well. Did you obey commonsense then? Did you even hesitate?"
Ingersoll threw up a hand in a gesture of sheer hopelessness, and pretended to search for a box of matches on the mantelpiece. "So be it!" he said wearily."Don't think I am afraid of any rival in your affection, Yvonne. Perhaps your woman's heart is wiser than my gray head. But, mark you, I make two stipulations! No matter what transpires, you must come home before eleven o'clock; and it is impossible, absolutely impossible, that your mother and I should ever meet!"
He was choosing his words carelessly that night. How "impossible" it would have seemed that morning had some wizard foretold the events of the succeeding hours! But Yvonne also was deaf to all but his yielding. She ran to him, and drew his face close to hers.
"Dad," she said, kissing him, "you are the best and dearest man in the world. How could your wife ever have left you? If I live a hundred years, I shall never understand that."
She was going; but he stayed her.
"Yvonne, be governed by one vital consideration. Those two men in the cabin must have caught some glimmer of the truth from your mother's ravings. But they are strangers, and their own troubles may have preoccupied their minds to the exclusion of the affairs of others. The only person in Pont Aven who knows something of my sad history is Madame Pitou. She has been aware all these years that my wife was alive, or at any rate that she was living after I came here. She is certainly to be trusted. Take care that none other learns your mother's identity. I ask this for her own sake."
The girl smiled wistfully. "Yet you would have me believe you an ogre!" she said.
A few minutes later Tollemache arrived. He found his friend sitting by the fire, with a pipe that had gone out between his lips.
"Hello, Socrates!" he cried. "You're togged for the party, I see. Where's Yvonne?"
"She was unhappy because of that poor woman who lost her husband; so I let her hurry off to Julia's. They've been taken there, I suppose?"
"Yes. It was awfully distressing. Peridot carried Mrs. Carmac off the boat, and by some mismanagement the light from a lantern fell on her husband's face. Ill as she was, she realized that he was dead. She screamed something I couldn't attach any meaning to, and her cries as she was being put into the hotel auto were heartrending. By gad! a beastly experience!"
"What did she say, Lorry?"
"I hardly know. It sounded like a cry for Yvonne, and a protest against Heaven that her husband should be taken and she left. 'I am the real offender!' she said. 'The punishment should be mine, not his!' Somehow, not the sort of thing you'd expect from a distracted wife. I guess she's nearly out of her mind."
"Naturally. Think what it meant to a delicate woman to be imprisoned in that deck saloon when the yacht keeled over. You see, Lorry, we were buoyed up with the hope of being able to effect a rescue. She, on the other hand, must have gazed into the opening doors of eternity. Pull up a chair. There's time for a cigarette. Seven o'clock is the supper hour."
Tollemache obeyed. Ingersoll relighted his pipe, and the two smoked in silence for a while. Then the younger man glanced at his companion with a quizzical scrutiny that was altogether approving.
"Glad to see you've bucked up, old sport," he said. "You were thoroughly knocked out by the time we reached the quay. I know why, of course."
Ingersoll stooped to throw back into the fire a half-burnt log that had fallen out on to the hearth. "Do you?" he said calmly.
"Great Scott! I should think so, indeed! It was one thing that we three men should go into that death trap, but quite another that you should bring Yvonne into it. Bless your heart, Yvonne was watching Peridot and you, and told me what you were saying. 'Dear old Dad,' she said, 'he feels like Jephthah when he had to sacrifice his daughter.' Made me go cold all over. Gee whizz! I was pleased it wasn't I who had to make the choice between turning back and running into safety – where my sister – or my wife – was concerned."
Tollemache stammered and reddened as his tongue tripped on the concluding words; but the older man paid no heed. He was too profoundly relieved by an explanation that differed so materially from the avowal he dreaded.
"By the way, Lorry, that journey to Paris is postponed," he said after a pause.
"Good! It was hardly like you to bolt out of the place when you were most needed. Those sailormen would be at sixes and sevens tomorrow if we didn't show up."
"I must leave that part of the business to you," said Ingersoll slowly. "I mean to efface myself entirely. Indeed, I'm thinking of paying a long-deferred visit to Forbes, at Concarneau. Yvonne and you can manage splendidly in my absence. Now, don't argue, there's a good chap. I rather lost my head on being brought into contact with two people with whom I quarreled years ago; or, to be precise, my animus was not against the poor fellow who is dead. Of course his wife is bound to recall the facts, and it would place her in a difficult position when she discovered that I was one of her rescuers. Women are apt to form curious notions about such matters. It was an extraordinary misfortune, to say the least, that her husband should be the one man whom we failed to save. I think you follow me?"
"Oh, yes – the irony of Fate, and that sort of thing," said Tollemache with an air of wisdom. He was convinced that he understood the position exactly.
Ingersoll stood upright, drew in a deep breath that was curiously like a sigh, and tapped his pipe against the stone pillars of the fireplace. "I hear sounds of revelry by night," he said. "Herri has arrived with the bagpipes."
"Dash it all!" growled Tollemache. "I don't feel a scrap like dancing this evening. That unhappy woman's shrieks are still ringing in my ears."
"We must adjust ourselves to the conditions," said Ingersoll quietly. "Life, like art, is a matter of light and shade. Each of us sails a tiny craft through an unknown sea, and if we can give a brother or sister a cheery hail – why, let us do it, though our own vessel be sinking steadily. I'm in no mood for revel, – goodness knows! – but, with Yvonne absent, you and I must help M?re Pitou to entertain her guests. Some excellent folk are coming here from Nizon and Nevez. Her sister is driving in from Riec. You'll hear some real old Breton ballads tonight. Pity Yvonne isn't here to translate them. My acquaintance with the language is limited; but Madeleine or Barbe will tell you the drift of the words."
"Won't Yvonne be here later?" inquired Tollemache, striving to cloak his disappointment.
"I'm inclined to think she will remain with Mrs. Carmac till eleven or thereabouts."
"But the doctor is there – and a nurse."
"Unless I am greatly mistaken, Mrs. Carmac will prefer Yvonne to any nurse. There is a cousinship of nationality, you know. Now, Lorry, no grumbling. Let's make the best of things."
A knock at the door heralded the entrance of a dozen or more smiling and self-possessed Bretons. The studio was the only room in the house large enough to hold the company that would gather within the next few minutes. The living room was packed with tables and chairs; hence, on f?te days, Ingersoll's quarters were invaded.
The artist was acquainted with everyone present, and Tollemache was no stranger to the majority. Nearly all were of the well-to-do yeoman class; for M?re Pitou belonged to an old family, and her husband, a farrier, had been well thought of in Pont Aven. Men and women wore the national costume, and appeared that evening in grand state. The women's full-skirted dresses were of black cashmere, trimmed and slashed with deep bands of black velvet; but this somber setting was merely a foil to aprons and overbodices wrought in gold, silver, and bright-hued silk threads, the whole blended in pretty designs with an oriental lavishness of color and sheen.
The coifs, though bearing a general similarity of design, varied for each district. The abundant and jet-black hair of these Breton dames and demoiselles was waved over the forehead and coiled somewhat toward the back of the head. Round the twisted tresses was placed, in the first instance, the petite coiffe, a stiff white linen band three inches deep, which, pinned securely, served as the basis of a dainty superstructure. A strip of silk ribbon, cream, pink, or light blue, hid the petite coiffe, and showed its tint through the meshes of the coronet of fine lace and cambric forming the grande coiffe, with its coquettish white streamers falling below the neck.
Round the throat, and deeply cut, was the broad linen collar, highly starched, and so wide that its wings projected over the shoulders, leaving a space across the top of the breast to reveal the lace edging of an underbodice. These collars would puzzle any laundress who was not a Bretonne if she were asked to prepare them, because their graceful curves, molded to the slope of the shoulders and the straight line of the back, are obtained by a process of wrinkling, or furrowing, effected by the use of long straws when the linen has been lightly ironed when it is still damp and pliable.
Age does not affect the style of dress. The girl of eight is attired exactly like her grandmother, the only variation being seen in the shoes, the younger people mostly donning white doeskin, and the older ones black patent leather with silver buckles.
The men too, without exception, wore tight-fitting gray trousers, short jackets of black cloth, with tabliers of black velvet and ornamental buttons. Some dandies affected gold, silver, and colored silk embroidery down each side of the front of the jacket. Their hats were low-crowned, black felt wideawakes, with heavy bands of black velvet, carrying showy buckles of silver on a rosette.
A more light-hearted, jovial, and picturesque company it would be difficult to find, or, considering its nature, one more expensively dressed. (Strangers, especially of the fair sex, who decide to purchase "a Brittany costume" for the next fancy dress ball, are likely to be unpleasantly surprised when they inquire the price. The materials are invariably the best of their kind, and the lace and embroidery are handworked. Naturally one such outfit lasts several years.)
Ingersoll moved among these free-mannered, laughter-loving folk as though he had not a care in the world. Some notion of the disaster to the Stella had spread, and he was called on for particulars, which he gave in sufficient detail. The men appreciated the peril from which the Hirondelle had extricated herself, the women were prodigal of their sympathy with the American woman who had lost her husband. Tollemache, listening to his friend's easy flow of talk, wondered more than ever what sort of nervous attack it was that induced that amazing display of terror at the moment of landing.
Supper was ended when Peridot put in an appearance. His face was flushed, and his gray-green eyes had acquired a rather suspicious luster. In a word. Captain Popple had discovered the excellence of liqueur brandy, and Peridot, ordinarily an abstemious fellow, had proved himself a less seasoned vessel than his host.
Madeleine was the first to notice his condition, and it troubled her. She rather avoided him, and as a consequence he affected a loud-voiced and boisterous good-humor.
"Gars!" he cried, seizing the opportunity when the girl refused to dance the gavotte with him. "Where is Yvonne? She can foot it better than any of you."
Now he had never before alluded to Yvonne by her Christian name. While the Bretons are not toadies, they are polite, and the artist's daughter ranked as an aristocrat in the village. An awkward silence fell. Even Ingersoll shot an inquiring glance at the fisherman.
"Mademoiselle Yvonne is at the Hotel Julia," said M?re Pitou. "Pity she didn't see you as she was going."
"Why?" grinned Peridot.
"Because you might have known then how to address her. By this time you seem to have forgotten."
"Que Diable! I meant no offense, Madame. I suppose she's looking after the lady who claimed her as a daughter."
"What sayest thou, Imbecile?"
"Fact," said Peridot, with drunken gravity. "I asked a man who speaks English what the lady was screaming as I tucked her into the auto, and he told me – "
"Larraidou," broke in Ingersoll, pallid with sudden anger, "you had better go home."
Then Peridot too flared into wrath. "What have I done wrong?" he cried. "Cr? nom! they're as like as two peas in a pod! Come, now, Monsieur – is there any harm in saying that?"
Ingersoll turned to Tollemache. "Lorry," he said, "oblige me by taking our talkative friend to his house. He will be glad of it in the morning."
So, protesting loudly that some people made a lot of fuss about nothing, Peridot vanished with a shattered halo. But the mischief had been done. Next day all Pont Aven would be discussing Mrs. Carmac's strange delusion. In the view of the one man who knew the whole truth, it was the beginning of the end.