an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: The Will-O’-The-Wisp
Author: The Baroness Orczy
eBook No.: 2100491h.html
Date first posted: 2021
Most recent update: 2021
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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The Baroness Orczy
Chapter - 1.
Chapter - 2.
Chapter - 3.
Chapter - 4.
Chapter - 5.
Chapter - 6.
Chapter - 7.
Chapter - 8.
Chapter - 9.
Chapter - 10.
Chapter - 11.
Chapter - 12.
Chapter - 13.
Chapter - 14.
Chapter - 15.
Chapter - 16.
Chapter - 17.
Chapter - 18.
Chapter - 19.
Chapter - 20.
Chapter - 21.
Chapter - 22.
Chapter - 23.
Chapter - 24.
Chapter - 25.
Chapter - 26.
Chapter - 27.
Chapter - 28.
Chapter - 29.
Chapter - 30.
Chapter - 31.
Chapter - 32.
Chapter - 33.
Chapter - 34.
Chapter - 35.
Chapter - 36.
The elements were at war with the earth. they came in full battle array. Thunderclap after thunderclap; lightning-flash after lightning-flash and a raging wind south to west. War to the death it seemed like. War tending to chaos and destruction. No pity for the poor world shivering and shaking under almighty blows. Thunder crashing. Wind howling, uprooting the weaklings among the trees, tearing at roofs and chimney-stacks, sending them crashing down to the shivering earth. It was not one storm that was raging, but three storms seemed to be raging one against the other, from over the downs, from over Romney Marsh and from over the sea. Thunder. Lightning. Wind. All combined to ravage and devastate.
Pitiless. Uproarious. Furious.
And this had been going on for nearly a week now. Five days and five nights. Nights of terror they were, without intermission. Without abatement. Tim Hookes, the owner of the grocery store, who had just celebrated his ninetieth birthday, declared that never in all his life had he witnessed anything of the sort.
Six days ago it was when the Sister Anne set out that morning for Saint-Victor. It was fairly quiet then. A storm brewing over in France, maybe, the older men said, but nothing to speak of. The lugger was sound and swift and there was no sailor on the coast to equal Jim Hardy for skill in seamanship. And Jim would surely get the lugger across to Saint-Victor before the storm broke over there. Always supposing that the wind continued from the north-east. But it did nothing of the sort. Bent on mischief, it veered just before dawn the very next day to the south-west, bringing all the stormclouds of heaven along.
“Pretty stiff over the other side, I’m thinking,” a man remarked sententiously.
The women screamed.
“Medstone church tower, maybe.”
They had made their way along with the men to the top of the cliff, whence they could see what went on far out to sea. But the Sister Anne could no longer be seen. The last time that she had been sighted in the late afternoon she did not appear to be in trouble.
“Jim Hardy knows what he is about,” the men had said, trying to comfort the women, who were anxious and tearful. “The lugger she’ll be all right. Jim’ll always know just what to do.”
She could still be seen then, the good Sister Anne, bound for Saint-Victor on the other side with a cargo of wool. Forbidden goods. But valuable. It had cost a mint of money and would bring in — what was it? — £50,000 if it were landed over the other side. Forbidden goods always fetched a high price over there, in spite of Boney’s severe laws against English wares. And money would come in very handy now that autumn and winter were on the doorstep, as it were.
That precious cargo! And it was not only the wool. There was something else besides on board proud, sturdy Sister Anne. Something so small that Jim Hardy carried it in his belt, and yet its value was three times that of all those bales of wool. Was it worth the risk? The double risk? Export of wool and that other small precious thing forbidden in England under pain of the hangman’s rope. Import of wool if it came from England. Worth the risk? Of course it was worth it.
“The lugger she is swift and sound. She’ll get there all right. Jim Hardy he knows what to do.”
That is what the men said over and over again the whole of the day after the Sister Anne had ceased to be as much as a speck out on the horizon line.
But this optimistic view did not find an echo in every anxious heart. All very well, but the wind was gathering strength and fury over on the other side and the Sister Anne was not half-way across then.
That night just after sundown the storm broke in all its tempestuous frenzy over on this side also. Soon the sea and sky were wrapped in gloom. Darkness you could have cut with a knife rent at frequent intervals by blinding vivid flashes of lightning. Thunder and lightning were almost incessant. There were hardly any intervals between one flash and another. Earth and sea and sky were in perpetual radiation of a vivid terrifying light. And this went on for hours and hours. And when the war up in the sky subsided, the south-westerly gale seemed to redouble its fury, and went on and on, tearing, devastating madly, ceaselessly, for days and days. How many? One had ceased to count the days. They and the nights were equally harrowing and pitiless. The women shivered under their shawls at which the wind tugged and tore in its uncontrolled frolic. They stayed up there with the men on the top of the cliff, straining their eyes to see. Hoping for what? A sight maybe of the Sister Anne.... Returning from her expedition to Saint-Victor... having landed her precious cargo.... Coming home... back to England... and safety....
But the Sister Anne was never seen again, though men and women, mothers, fathers, wives, sweethearts waited and waited for days and days, straining their eyes while light lasted to see what was not there... never would be there... the swift and sturdy lugger Sister Anne.
Slowly, as if reluctant to quit the battlefield, the storm presently drew away. The wind dropped. Peace reigned over the crashed and blighted earth. Nature was at rest. But nothing of the Sister Anne was ever seen again. On the other side, perhaps. Scraps of timber, bits of masts, odds and ends of broken metal would, mayhap, be washed in betimes by the tides. From time to time. There too, maybe, the sea would, after a while, give up its dead. But not here. Not on this side. Over here they were all gone; the ship, the cargo, the dead.
The women sobbed.
“All gone, Dan and Bert!”
“And Widow Toogood’s Arthur!”
And Jim Hardy, than whom there was no equal for seamanship all along the coast. —
Many long days now since Sister Anne had set out on her last voyage — never to return.... The men had gone back to work.... Work must go on now that Nature was once more at rest.... Fishing... and other things, those things which meant so much to anxious mothers and starving children.
.. Work that was more dangerous than the most fearsome gale. Work that had sent Sister Anne on her last voyage over to France.
“No good hanging about,” the men kept on saying, when at evening they turned into the Green Man for a last drink. Some of the women went with them into the tap-room. They were the younger ones. Only the mothers who had kiddies to look after made their way back to their more or less distant cottages, anxious to see that all was well at home. What was the good of hanging about when everything was gone?
Sam Fraser, the landlord, had served out mulled ale that evening. It was drunk in stony silence. There was nothing more to say, was there? So what was the use of wasting words on what was dead and gone, on what might have been or what had gone before? There had been the journey down to the coast. In blinding rain it was, and on foot the whole of the way, with the horses who stumped slowly along, overladen as they were with the precious bales now lying at the bottom of the sea. The men — the “owlers”, as the countryside called them because of the ululation resembling that of those night-birds which they gave forth during their tramps abroad — trudged beside them on foot the whole of the way, over narrow tracks on the Downs, over bridle paths and bridle bridges soggy with recent rain. They were well armed with pistols, swords and cutlasses, ready for any encounter with customs officers from Newhaven or Arundel who they knew were on the look-out for them. Riding officers these were, belonging to the regiment of the Royal Dragoons. They came up with the “owlers” at Cuckmere and did try to do their duty and seize the horses and goods and capture the men, but the “owlers” were one too many for them; they fell furiously on the officers, fired on them, knocked two of them off their horses, and after severe fighting wounded two others severely. In the end the Dragoons, overpowered by vastly superior numbers, rode away, bearing away their wounded and one dead, vowing reprisals, exulting over the thought that this encounter would mean hanging for the whole of the gang.
No! It was no use wasting words on those memories. They had continued their way down to the coast. Ernie Lander was dead. Tony Slade had a bullet in his shoulder. The dead and the wounded were severally hoisted on the top of some of those precious bales. As for hanging! Well, they all knew the risks they ran. The fate that awaited them if they were caught. But they were not going to be caught. Not they. There was not a man or woman in the whole of Sussex or Kent who would dare inform against them... who would wish to inform against them. The only trouble was the loss. The terrible loss. The cargo. The Sister Anne. The friends. All gone! And that other something that was quite small and very precious. Jim Hardy, the skipper, had it stowed away in his belt. It was more valuable than all the bales of wool put together. The exportation of it was punishable by death, quite apart from those short, fatal encounters with customs officers.
Well, that was gone too, gone to the bottom along with that fine chap Jim Hardy and all the others. No good talking about it. Everything was gone.
Le Pere Ribot’s dwelling was situated some two hundred metres inland off the rough track which in those days ran on the top of the cliff parallel with the shore between Cabourg and Arromanches. It stood on the edge of the vast sandy moorland in a thicket of larch and scrubby plantation, on a slight elevation overlooking the ever-turbulent Channel. To the right down below was the fishing village of Saint-Victor, to the left that of Saint-Lys. Immediately beyond Saint-Lys were the Rochers du Calvados, the grim guardians of these desolate shores. Further to the right of Saint-Victor was the mouth of the Seulles, the narrow river which across the moorland wound its sluggish way to the sea. Far behind to the south there was a dark line of forest trees, and on the left bank of the river just below the height on which stood Pere Ribot’s house there was a grove of larches, evergreen oak and birch which effectually hid from view the now dilapidated chateau of Lorgeril. But beyond all that there was nothing to break the monotony of the far-reaching desolate moor, save a few scrubby trees which bent their denuded heads to the prevailing wind, and the glitter of water here and there of the moorland swamps.
It was a silent place, too, of an eerie silence at times, through which the cry of the curlew and the soughing of the wind sounded ghostlike at eventide, when in the late summer the will-o’-the-wisp had its game with the timid wanderer, causing him to lose his way and to miss the ford if he wanted to get to the other side of the river. Some, more timid than most, had been known before now to lose their bearings altogether and actually to die of exposure almost within sight of the chateau and its dependencies. But that was many years ago, before le Pere Ribot came and settled down in the old farmhouse on the edge of the moor.
Le Pere Ribot’s house had once been a farm dependent on the Chateau de Lorgeril. It had outhouses around it, stables and barns all more or less dilapidated and fallen into disrepair since the seigneurs of Lorgeril, scenting the approach of the revolutionary storm, had gone to seek peace and quietude elsewhere — on their property farther south, some thought; others believed that most probably they had gone to England as so many of their kind had done. Anyway they went, and subsequently by decree of the revolutionary government their estate, with all its dependencies, its agricultural and forest land, was confiscated and became the property of the State, who for a time exercised a certain amount of control over it by endeavouring to sell such portions of it as were marketable and likely to yield some kind of profit. But the black days of the Terror, the upheaval of the country, the stormy days of civil war in the North and West, the bankruptcy of the State and the troublous times of the Directoire put a complete stop to all financial transactions. There was no money in anybody’s pocket, only scraps of paper called “assignats”, mere tokens not worth the printing of them, and even these were forged so often and so successfully that none but the unwary and the fanatical supporters of the Republic cared to touch them.
And thus did the chateau and the buildings dependent on it gradually fall into decay under the onslaught of wind and rainstorms. Only the farmhouse, a solid, stone-built irregular construction with its round tower surmounted by a tall pointed roof like a pepper-pot, withstood the ravages of time and weather. It stood as if gazing defiantly over sea and moor through its glazeless windows like sightless eyes, a perpetual memento of the days when “the Chouans” — those bands of fanatical, untrained peasants and seigneurs — fought their unequal fight for their King against the armies of the Republic. In the secret hiding-places and lurking-holes which abounded in and around the chateau and farm-buildings they used to lie in ambush waiting for the foe, and here were enacted many of those tragic incidents of treachery and of murder which have sullied the records of that heroic warfare and its deathless glory.
But in these early days of the century tragic incidents and deeds of valour were sinking into oblivion. What memory of them lingered in the minds of the fisher-folk around took the form of superstitious dread of phantoms. Tales of ghosts and apparitions quickly gathered round the ruined chateau and the farmhouse, whilst wind and storm were left free to continue their work of destruction, until one day le Pere Ribot came along from none knew whence and took-possession of the farmhouse without anyone attempting to interfere with him. He just came, a hale and hearty oldish man, stumping leisurely along by the side of a cart to which a sturdy pony was harnessed. On the cart were piled several articles of furniture, a table and an armchair, a couple of beds, and a number of cooking utensils, and perched on the top of this miscellaneous collection of goods a young girl sat munching an apple. It was mid-October. Heavy banks of clouds rolling in from the south-west held promise of the coming rainstorm. The girl, bare-headed, her unruly hair lashed by the wind, munched her apple contentedly, even though her petticoats flapped like sails uncomfortably about her knees.
The fisher-folk trudging home after beaching their boats did no more than cast a passing glance on the strange cortege. They were not curious, these people, whose whole mentality was centred on the sea and what they could get out of it. And thus le Pere Ribot, aided by the girl with the unruly hair, was left untroubled to unload the miscellaneous objects from the cart and to stow them away inside the old farmhouse.
This had occurred some five years ago in the year of grace 1805. Since then le Pere Ribot had become a well-known and well-accepted personage in the district. He seemed to be a man of substance, for he had a few workmen over from Cremieux to do necessary repairs in the house, and gradually made it not only habitable but homelike and comfortable. That was of course interesting to such incurious folk as the people of Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys, who had not so much as seen a man of substance anywhere in this department so hopelessly impoverished by civil war. And here now was a house which not only looked solid and weatherproof but had curtains to its windows, visible from the outside, and a doormat on its front step.
But there was something still more exciting in the fact that presently Pere Ribot, always accompanied by that hoydenish daughter of his, took to driving regularly either into Cremieux or as far as Cabourg on market days and thence would return with various articles of furniture piled up in the same old cart on which they had originally made their first appearance in the neighbourhood. Yes! and not only furniture did they bring along from market but ornaments, china and such-like luxuries. And on one great never-to-be-forgotten occasion, the two of them having started off for Cabourg in their old cart returned in a bran-new carriole; that is, Pere Ribot returned in the old cart to which the pony was harnessed, but the girl — her name it seems was Follette, such a name for a respectable girl, I ask you! — came back driving a good-looking bay in a bran-new carriole.
Now wasn’t that wonderful? There were not many gossips either in Saint-Victor or in Saint-Lys these days but there were some. A few old women who really could not help gossiping over these remarkable events while sitting out on the sands mending their men’s nets. No! they couldn’t help talking about such things as a new carriole and a fine horse, and about the wardrobe and all the china and the chairs that had been engulfed in Pere Ribot’s house. So many things there were that one could not help wondering how in the world there was found room for them all.
And not only did old Lisbeth and old Marianne, Maman Thibaud and Grandmere Bosseny and the other cronies talk these things over both in Saint-Victor and in Saint Lys, with many wise shakes of shrivelled heads and many sideways glances at the renovated house on the height, but there were the buvettes — no fewer than seven of them between Cabourg and Arromanches, some on the roadside and in both the villages — where the wiseacres of the sterner sex met for a drink after the day’s fishing was over and the boats beached. Here it was that the middlemen from Cremieux or Bayeux or Caen came to do business with the fisher-folk over their fish, and here was the place where, over bottles of sour wine or a drop of eau-de-vie, the events of the neighbourhood were freely discussed.
“Pere Ribot?” the strangers would ask pertinently: “and, name of a dog, who is this Pere Ribot?”
“Where does he come from?”
“He doesn’t fish. What does he do for a living?”
But to none of these questions did there appear to be a satisfactory answer. Pere Ribot came from somewhere the other end of the moor. His cart with his belongings and the girl perched on top had come along the riverside track seemingly from the south. But no one had taken particular notice of him that afternoon. Fishing had been extra good and what went on inland appeared of no account.
Since then Pere Ribot had settled down, had got his house repaired and furnished, and no one had thought of interfering with him or prying into his affairs. What he did for a living was nobody’s business. After a time he fitted up his back parlour as a small shop, where he sold fishing tackle and bootlaces, also sundry pomades and medicaments, which, however, failed to command an extensive sale seeing that their uses were not very clearly defined. Then presently old Ribot, as he was called at first, had found his way to one or other of the buvettes, where he met the neighbours and joined in their talk. He was affable and free with his money and soon became very popular. Why should anyone, queried the gossips, try to interfere with him? They all talked with him and had many a good drink at his expense. They took to calling him familiarly Pere Ribot, and the younger ones — the girls, of course — allowed him to kiss them and called him vieux papa. And Papa Ribot he was for them thereafter.
It was during the course of the second year of Pere Ribot’s residence in the old farmhouse that the great event occurred, an event so great that ordinary gossip failed to grapple with it, and even old Lisbeth and old Marianne and Grandmere Bosseny remained tongue-tied when the subject was as much as mentioned. This happened when Pere Ribot, accompanied as usual by his daughter, drove off one morning in the old cart in the direction of Cabourg. How far beyond Cabourg he actually went no one knew for certain, but it was supposed that he went over by the ferry to Le Havre. Be that as it may, certain it is that the two of them were absent for two whole days and finally returned with — what think you? An enormous crate which Pere Ribot to the satisfaction of all the neighbours proceeded to unpack outside his front door. A regular crowd collected along the track on the top of the cliff. Incurious though the inhabitants of the countryside were when fairly ordinary things happened, it was not to be supposed that they would allow the unpacking of a huge crate coming goodness knows whence to pass unnoticed and uncommented on.
And tongues had plenty of opportunity to wag, let me tell you, for when the wooden crate was finally knocked to pieces the contents proved to be a magnificent telescope, all shiny brass, on a stand fashioned of highly polished oak. Pere Ribot enlisted the services of Jacques Despois and Prosper Gerande, two hefty fishermen with whom he had already struck up a friendship over a glass — and more than one glass — of Armagnac. They readily gave him the assistance the old man required and helped him to hoist the splendid instrument in an attic on the top of the round tower. The tower on its eminence dominated the whole countryside, and the attic had a large square window which gave a grand view over the sea. Pere Ribot had, unbeknown to everyone, already arranged the place and fitted it up for the reception of his new telescope. It was most exciting to see it put into position, its long arm pointing in the direction of the English coast. When it was first perceived, showing through the window, the crowd all along the track burst into loud cheers and cries of “Vive Papa Ribot.”
There had been from time immemorial a dilapidated old telescope a little further along the track, to which children principally would glue their eyes on bright days when the white cliffs of England could, with the help of a very vivid imagination, be distinguished against the horizon line. But elder folk did not presumably indulge in flights of imagination and the old telescope remained for the most part unused and neglected. On the other hand there was a certain amount of satisfaction in the knowledge that Papa Ribot’s new telescope was there, and that it would be possible — if not very likely — that grownups would be permitted to gaze out to sea whenever something interesting occurred on either side of its smooth or turbulent bosom.
As a matter of fact no one was allowed to glue his or her eyes against the polished brass save by special permission from Papa Ribot. And though he was popular and friendly with everybody the coveted permission was only granted to a few privileged friends. Jacques Despois and Prosper Gerande were two of these, and there were others, old and young fishermen and mariners, who enjoyed the confidence of Pere Ribot. But the only woman who was allowed to touch the instrument was his daughter Follette. She was allowed to look through the telescope and to adjust it to her focus by turning a large screw whenever she chose. Women and girls and some of the younger men were permitted to stand around in the attic of the round tower while the privileged few looked out to sea and retailed what they saw. But that was all. Be it said, however, that there was no ill-feeling or envy attached to this discrimination. The telescope was such a wonderful affair altogether and must have cost such a mint of money that sensible folk thought it quite natural that Papa Ribot guarded his treasure with such jealous care.
And thus did the first five years go by of Pere Ribot’s residence in the domain of Lorgeril. Gossip as to him and his daughter, the source of his wealth and the mystery of his past life and activities was dying a natural death, for there did not appear to be any mystery about his present life. He was just a quiet member of the local community, on good terms with everyone, never quarrelling with anybody.
Most Sunday mornings he and his saucy wench walked down to church either at Saint-Victor or Saint-Lys, for Monsieur le cure said Mass in the two villages on alternate Sundays. And most Sunday afternoons the two of them would be seen together in one or other of the barns, she footing it merrily with the lads, for she was a perfect fairy for dancing and always had plenty of partners for the bourree. In church she was noticeably well-behaved, for she had a pretty voice, but the pair of them didn’t have much to do with Monsieur le cure, a worthy old man, inexperienced in the vagaries of human nature, and sadly illiterate. In spite of his exhortations the two newcomers refused to go to him for confession, and when the girl was asked whether she had done her “premiere communion” she gave one of her funny evasive replies.
The next important event that occurred in the domain of Lorgeril was the arrival of a detachment of coast-guards sent down from Le Havre by command of His Majesty the Emperor Napoleon. They came and took possession of the dilapidated old chateau very much as Pere Ribot had done of its dependent farmhouse; the only difference being that everyone knew who these smart military young men were and also that their arrival caused quite a good deal of excitement. Everyone wondered what kind of doings would be going on in the tumbledown old building. It was large and rambling. Built in the seventeenth century, it had a square facade of brick from which two rows of tall narrow windows looked out across the river. Above the facade was the tall slate roof with its long row of dormer windows. The front door was on the other side of the house. Together with its low perron it was marked by great clumps of evergreen trees and shrubberies.
The house was promptly converted into barracks and the stables given over to the horses, and nothing was done beyond that to make the place homely or even moderately comfortable.
There was much shrugging of shoulders and many sly winks exchanged when, after a time, the young revenue soldiers found their way into one or other of the local buvettes, and made no secret of the reason why His Majesty the Emperor had sent them to these desolate shores. Smuggling of goods from England was rife all over the coast and the importation of any sort or kind of goods from England was by Imperial decree a crime punishable by death. Suspicion had it seems of late been directed against the more isolated villages on the shores of Normandy. After Havre and Dieppe, there was the lonely coastline behind the Rochers, and there were the villages of Saint-Victor, Saint-Lys and a good many others.
The young revenue officers in their gaudy uniforms had much to say on the subject of smuggling, which they called a heinous crime against the State, for did it not benefit principally these abominable English who were the sworn enemies of the Emperor? In the buvettes which they frequented they talked chiefly among themselves, sitting at a separate table apart from the rest of the company, but they spoke in loud voices so that all and sundry might hear and know of the fate that was reserved for them should they ever lend a hand in flouting the Emperor’s decree and defrauding the State of its just revenues. The hangman’s rope. That was it. And a just punishment, too — at any rate such was the opinion of these handsome young men in gaudy uniforms. One of them wore epaulettes — not gold ones, it is true, but epaulettes for all that — fashioned of yellow worsted which, by the way, looked uncommonly as if it had come from England, and these epaulettes, together with a band of gold braid on his sleeve, gave him a prestige among the humble fisher-folk, who listened wide-eyed and open-mouthed to his oratory.
It was only after the glittering company had paid for their drinks and left the buvette that the tension would be relaxed. If Pere Ribot happened to be present he would order fresh drinks all round. Sly winking and shrugging of shoulders would then be freely indulged in, jokes cracked at the expense of the smart young officers, and in these jokes none was more glib or more merry than Pere Ribot.
Now the people in the district were not quite so foolish as they appeared to be. All the fisher-folk of Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys knew or guessed that it was not the “Chouans” who were concealed these days in the hiding-places and lurking-holes of the old farmhouse on the height, but rather the goods from England, the importation of which was prohibited by law and was punishable by death after the first recurrence. Stockings and shoes, woollen and cotton tissues could be bought in Papa Ribot’s back shop at one-quarter the price demanded by the shopkeepers of Havre or of Caen who only sold French goods. And they were of vastly superior quality. All one had to do was to go to the shop of an evening and tell Pere Ribot just what one wished to buy: warm clothing for the kiddies, daintily printed calico for making a new Sunday frock, a stout pair of canvas trousers or a woollen jersey, and lo and behold! these goods would appear from somewhere out of a dark corner the existence of which had not been suspected, even in broad daylight. Now was it likely that having paid one’s money and struck a really fine bargain over most excellent goods one was going to say one word about Papa Ribot’s dealings with the ships that came across from England at dead of night? The customs officers from Havre had for the past two years and more tried their best to get information that would enable them to bring such transactions home to the culprit, whoever he was; no one for miles around on this side of the river or the other would ever say a word.
But of course now, with these smart young men about the place, things were going to be different. “Mum!” was the word, far more strictly than it had been before. Even among pals, even among cronies, and certainly not in the buvettes, must the least hint be dropped of those wonderful bargains struck in Pere Ribot’s back shop. If suspicions were to fall on him, if anything untoward were to happen, then where in heaven’s name could one ever get warm clothing for the children or tobacco for one’s pipe?
The only one — or rather two — who appeared entirely unconcerned over this new move on the part of His Majesty the Emperor were Pere Ribot himself and his turbulent daughter Follette. He cracked jokes, jeered at the epauletted gentry, and returned sly wink for sly wink whenever these indulged in flamboyant dissertations on the subject of smuggling.
As for Follette... Well! She kept house for her father and spent the rest of her time running wild on the moor or pulling out to sea in a stout cockleshell which Ribot had purchased in Saint-Victor soon after his arrival. Out she would go in all weathers. Storm or rain, she cared nothing for the weather. Alone for the most part, always at dead of night, she would pull across from Saint-Victor to Cabourg or under the Rochers du Calvados, or sometimes up the river to no one knew where. None had actually caught her at it, but everyone knew it for a fact that Follette Ribot was the one who usually met the English luggers and helped their crew to unload those precious bales of goods on which the customs officers would have given anything for the chance of laying their hands. Especially the young and ambitious ones.
Thus the natural consequences came to pass. One or two of the younger revenue officers recently settled in Lorgeril set to work to make love to Follette Ribot. Not a difficult task, certainly, for Follette, with her wild harum-scarum ways, her tawny hair and laughing deep blue eyes, was very alluring. And she was, seemingly, more than willing to listen to their blandishments. But she was quite shrewd enough to know that what they wanted was to worm a word or two out of her that would put them on the track of certain illegal transactions and thereby in the way of getting their promotion. Nothing was to be got out of the fisher-folk or the older people in the district. They were sullen and silent. Then why not try the young ones, with Follette Ribot as the most likely, the most attractive, to start on?
And Follette let them make love to her to their hearts’ content. She liked being flattered and admired and have more partners for the dance in the barn on Sundays than all the pretty girls of Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys, but she knew what they were after, and when these smart young men became too pressing she gave them the edge of her sharp tongue, for she had a ready wit, but as to allowing herself to be cajoled into indiscretions, Follette Ribot was one too many for the entire corps of His Majesty’s coast-guards.
The young officers half suspected Pere Ribot of having a hand in all the illicit trading with England, but they had never succeeded in bringing anything home to him. They had even gone to the lengths one day of making a descent on his house, searching it from attic to cellar, and scouring the rough bit of land on which he grew a few decrepit onions and reared half-a-dozen chickens, but ne’er a thing did they find, not one ounce of wool or a yard of English calico. The old man just let them wander on, ferreting about, rummaging in every corner and every cupboard and perspiring copiously in their heavy, tight uniforms while he sat in a comfortable armchair placidly smoking his long clay pipe and riling their tempers by good-humoured jokes at their fruitless exertions. Some of these jokes were not at all to the taste of these young men, who fancied themselves as officers and soldiers of the Emperor’s coast-guards, and an altercation might have ensued which would not have turned altogether to the advantage of Pere Ribort, had he not at the moment when the lieutenant broke into menacing language suddenly called out at the top of his voice:
“Here, Follette, my girl! A bottle of that old Armagnac, a real product of France, for Messieurs les officiers, who will do us the honour of drinking with us to the health of His Majesty the Emperor and the destruction of all his enemies!”
And before the young officer in command could utter as much as a word of protest Follette had appeared in the doorway with a huge bottle covered with cobwebs and four glasses on a tray, all of which she set on the table in front of Papa Ribot, who continued lustily:
“A glass of Armagnac, Messieurs les officiers. I bear no malice, you know. Search my house as much as you like. You won’t find anything worthy of His Majesty’s attention. He looks upon you as a lot of ferret-eyed, razor-nosed popinjays fit only to pry into honest folks’ business. But I know that you are gallant soldiers. Don’t I? And I bear no malice.”
“Here, Follette,” he went on, with a hearty laugh directed at the young officer with the yellow epaulettes and the gold braid on his sleeve who, purple with rage, was in the act of drawing his sword to avenge the insulting language. “Follette, my girl, see to those brave soldiers who are not permitted to drink with their superiors. See that they lack nothing. Serve them over there in the corner. They will be free to drink among themselves with all the respect due to their gallant officers.”
“Monsieur Ribot,” the lieutenant protested, still fuming with rage, “I will have you know—”
“Tut, tut!” the old man broke in with a chuckle. “I am not a monsieur like you, mon lieutenant. Pere Ribot, that’s what I am, and this is my daughter whom the folk in the neighbourhood call Follette because she is such a madcap. Aren’t you a madcap, my Follette?” he went on, whilst the girl busied herself by filling the glasses. “Real Armagnac this is. French, you know. Not that poisonous English stuff they call viski, which I wouldn’t touch not if every barrel was worth its weight in gold.”
He raised his glass.
“A la France, Messieurs les officiers. We all think alike over that. What?”
The lieutenant and sub-lieutenant of H.M. coast-guards were both young. They were hot and they were thirsty. And there stood Follette with her deep blue eyes, full of life and the joy of living. Enticing. Alluring. Her glass held aloft. Challenging, promising — at least so they thought. At any rate there was the Armagnac and there were their mouths, dry as a lime-kiln, and they were human, after all. They both drank to La France! La patrie! One glass more. And another. That Armagnac was pure nectar.
Follette in the meanwhile had already served the soldiers with that same nectar in a distant corner of the room half screened by a dark curtain. Their officers being within earshot, they drank very soberly without making too much noise, and their toast to la France and la patrie was spoken scarce above a whisper.
But Pere Ribot kept an eye on them, and Follette in the intervals of making eyes at the two officers did not lose sight of the men and saw to it that they had enough — but not too much — to drink.
When presently Pere Ribot went over to a wall-cupboard so cleverly disguised that the officers of His Majesty’s coast-guards had failed to detect it, and brought out therefrom a number of small packets carefully tied with red string, the officers showed neither surprise nor — it must be admitted — reluctance.
“A young friend of Follette’s gave her these the other day,” the old man said with a sly wink. “Didn’t he, Follette? Women do not smoke of course, and I only like my good old French fag.”
He picked four packets from out of the others. These were tied up with blue silk ribbon instead of red string. He pushed them insinuatingly right under the officers’ noses.
“These are very special,” he said. “Very delicate and refined. Would you like them, Messieurs les officiers? You can have them cheap, as I did not pay for them. They may have come from England, and then again they may not, and I can’t tell you if they have paid toll to His Majesty for landing on French soil. Follette’s friend gave them to her along with these others. But he recommended them as being of very delicate aroma. I know nothing about these things, but here they are.”
He fingered the four small packets and laid them out side by side right in front of the epauletted gentlemen. Tobacco obviously. Equally obviously from England, where tobacco was good and cheap. Each packet looked as if it contained eight ounces. Ribot noted with a chuckle that the young officers’ nostrils were quivering with delight.
He fingered the other little parcels. There were eight of these, all tied up with red string. He pointed with his thumb in the direction of the dark curtain.
“What say you to these, mon lieutenant?” he continued lightly. “For your men? Thirty sous a packet. Cheap, what?”
He had raised his voice so that the men behind the curtain should hear. And they did. There came the sound of brass rings running over the curtain-pole. Half-a-dozen florid perspiring faces were thrust through the folds of the drapery, and eager hands were held out, ready to seize the packets which Follette was holding tantalizingly at arm’s length in their direction.
Without wasting words the men now shoved their hands into their pockets in search of the necessary sous. Their contents were pooled and the sound of brass money rattling on the table-top gave the required answer to old Ribot’s challenge.
“Cheap, what?” Follette sent the eight small packets flying across the room, and each man grabbed what he could get. Old Ribot chuckled half audibly to himself. The four packets tied up with blue ribbon still lay untouched upon the table. Follette picked them up and without a word — but with such a provocative smile! — held them out to Lieutenant Philippe Darieux. Their eyes met, and hers spoke to him. Eloquently. If only, thought he, one could understand all that they expressed. He had a glass of Armagnac in his hand, and he watched her closely over its rim. What eyes! Dieu du ciel, what eyes! But when they met his they took on an expression of quiet irony. They mocked him. Obviously they mocked him. Oh, that chit of a girl knew something, or she wouldn’t look as she did! Ironical. Contemptuous even. Contemptuous? That chit of a girl! A vagabond, nothing better. The lieutenant felt his temper reviving, his rage recovering its former strength. He wished to goodness he had never consented to drink and traffic with that old villain. He could of course throw that smuggled tobacco back at him — or better still into the girl’s scornful face — but that of course would have been ridiculous, not dignified, in view of these two glasses of Armagnac, and there were the men under him. No! No! It wouldn’t do. He must not allow that scrubby jade to rile him into making a fool of himself.
And with a great effort of will, Lieutenant Philippe Darieux of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards regained control over his temper. Without casting another glance either on Ribot or on Follette — or for a matter of that on the four tantalizing packets of tobacco — he turned on his heel and called peremptorily to the men. There was a quick scramble behind the curtain in the corner and a shuffling of feet. Hands closing over the precious packets were hastily thrust into pockets, before the men formed into line at a brief order from their officer. Darieux gave a sketchy salute and without another word he followed his small squadron out of the house.
The tramp of heavy boots on the rough road could be heard for some few minutes during which father and daughter remained mutely staring at one another, laughter dancing in their eyes, unbridled mirth ready to break out into a loud and prolonged guffaw.
When the heavy footsteps finally died away and nothing more was heard save the distant roll of breakers on the rocks of Calvados, Pere Ribot jumped to his feet as spry as any youngster, stretched out his arms and cried:
“Come, my Follette!” He seized both her hands in his and together the two of them stepped up and down the room swinging their arms and stamping their feet with the rhythmic cadence of a bourree, while the girl hummed the tune of the merry country dance, in the interval of joining her father in convulsive fits of laughter.
And thus ended this eventful day.
That Pére Ribot was just an old villain and a breaker of the law was after this episode more of an established fact in Lieutenant Darieux’ mind than it had been before. They were a pair of them, he and that vixenish daughter of his. A pair that would have to be unmasked and punished sooner or later.
Thus swore Philippe Darieux inside himself when he finally turned his back on the old farmhouse of Lorgeril. They would have to be closely watched, those two. Especially the girl, that waspish little Puck with the deep blue eyes and the figure of a pocket Venus. “Name of a dog!” ejaculated the gallant Lieutenant under his breath, “what an attractive bit of goods! Alluring! Maddening! Would send any man crazy who had blood in his veins!”
At this point in his reflections, however, Darieux pulled himself up with a jerk. His thoughts were running amok. “This must stop,” said he emphatically to himself.
At first, when parched with thirst, sweating inside his heavy tunic and tired out with all that rummaging in the old sinner’s premises, he had not been fully conscious of the seductiveness of Follette Ribot. It was only later, tossing restlessly on his narrow camp bed, and with the light of the moon darting in and out of the small grated window of his cubicle, that his thoughts turned back to the girl, to her mocking smile and her provocative glances. In vain did he woo the elusive god of sleep. Her face, her eyes, her mouth haunted him. There was a dimple in her left cheek, a quiver in her nostrils, a contraction of the eyelids, all of which caused his blood to throb inside his temples. And he caught himself licking his parched lips at the thought of what he would do when he caught her in the act of breaking the law. There were still means these days, thought he, of putting wholesome fear in the heart of a vixen and making a pair of laughing blue eyes swim in tears of humiliation and of pain. Philippe Darieux was not sadistic in temperament but he felt an unholy desire to make that girl wince, to take her by the throat and hear her pray to him for mercy.
Be that as it may, Darieux, after that interminable and restless night, was chiefly conscious of a frantic desire to see Follette again. There was no excuse for renewing the visit to the farmhouse when obviously the two Ribots would be on their guard, so he sent the men under him over to Havre on patrol duty with a sub-lieutenant in command, and spent the best part of the day, partly on foot and partly on horseback, roaming the countryside, over the moor, the riverside, the villages, questioning the fisher-folk and the peasantry, getting nothing but evasive answers as to the daily habits of Papa Ribot and his provocative daughter. Smuggling English goods? Was that prohibited? No one had ever heard of smuggling in these parts. One lived on the sea and what one got out of it. A woollen jersey? A cotton frock?
Such things had not been seen in Saint-Victor or Saint-Lys within memory of man. These boots? Oh yes! they were good strong boots that had stood sea-water for more than fifty years. They had belonged to Grandpapa Dutour. He had bequeathed them to his eldest son and they had gone down from generation to generation.
And so on... and so on... Philippe Darieux didn’t much care where the sea-boots came from, all he wanted to know was where Follette Ribot was most likely to be seen at fall of day or early dawn, or better still at dead of night. But no one could tell him that. Come one moment and gone the next. That was Follette Ribot. Astride on her pony or pulling out in that old cockleshell. She was just a wild sort of girl with no harm in her. Fond of dancing, fond of a kiss, but stand-offish for all that. “Sainte-Nitouche,” you understand? So far and no further with Follette. And there was Pere Ribot always in the offing when his girl was about. Oh no! Monsieur le Lieutenant would not stand much chance with Follette Ribot, the good folk declared, shaking their heads. Which statement was exasperating to a degree, for Darieux had an idea that he had given himself away to all these louts, who of course were just making game of him.
Anyway, he did not get as much as a chance word with Follette either that day or the next or the day after that. It seemed as if Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys had told the truth when they said that the girl was as elusive as a will-o’-the-wisp, come out one moment and gone the next. But Philippe Darieux was getting exasperated beyond endurance. He could not sleep o’ nights or do his duty manfully by day. Something would have to be done, he decided finally, or he would go crazy.
Then he met her one day, quite casually, on the moor, astride her pony. She passed him by with a cursory glance. He reined in his horse and called her by name, but it was too late. She had already whipped up her pony and was off and away in the direction of the farmhouse. He thought of galloping after her — did indeed start to do so but thought better of it. The prestige of an officer in the service of the Emperor prescribed restraint and the safeguarding of one’s dignity. Chance, he thought and hoped, would favour him again. And it did.
Village gossip reached his ears that Follette Ribot was a pious girl and went to Mass every Sunday. Also that she was fond of dancing and danced the bourree under the great barn at Saint-Victor or Saint-Lys on Sunday afternoons. Now it is not seemly for revenue officers of His Majesty’s coast-guard to mix with the local population. They were officers and stood therefore on a different rung of the social ladder. Their lieutenants had army rank in the Emperor’s land forces. If they did frequent the village buvettes they did so in the exercise of their duty and kept entirely to themselves. They neither offered nor accepted drinks which might have put them on an equality with the fisher-folk and the peasantry. Thus their presence at the country dances under the barn on Sundays was out of the question. And the only course left to Philippe Darieux was to waylay Follette Ribot either when she went in or came out of church. So determined was he to gain this end that in the end he succeeded — by diplomatic means and by the exercise of great ingenuity.
Darieux prided himself on the fact that when he wanted a thing — really wanted it badly — he always got his way in the end. And this is how he contrived to get a word or two in private with Follette Ribot. Once the ice was broken in that way it would, thought he, be up to him to fan the smouldering ashes of chance acquaintanceship into flames of, shall we say, friendship It was the turn of Saint-Victor to have Monsieur le cure say Mass in its church on the following Sunday, and Darieux persuaded the holy man to engage Pere Ribot in conversation after the service.
A generous gift thrust into the hand of the worthy priest for the benefit of his church gained his acquiescence, whilst the subject of certain repairs to the chancel would of a surety engross the attention of Pere Ribot, who liked to be generous and to stand well with the cure, and keep him talking for at least fifteen minutes.
“Good morning, Mademoiselle Follette.”
“Good morning, mon Lieutenant.”
Thus it began. Philippe Darieux had dismounted and had approached Follette. Pere Ribot, in close conversation with Monsieur le cure, was safely out of the way. Not that he would have objected to this deferential greeting to his daughter on the part of Lieutenant Darieux, but the latter preferred a tete-a-tete to the presence of a third party. His greeting had indeed been most polite, placing the girl, as it were, on an equality with himself. And her answer had been quite correct in form. It was only the laughter in her eyes and the mocking trait round her lips that exasperated Lieutenant Darieux. But he had his temper well under control, and was determined to keep it so.
He had ridden over from the chateau, since he looked well on horseback, and desired to appear at his best, socially as well as physically. Even-tempered, scrupulously polite and entirely self-restrained. The fortress of this little vixen’s hostility, or prudery, whichever it was, must, if success was to be gained, be reduced to submission by peaceful means and not at the point of the sword. He therefore continued in smooth, affable tones: “This is a beautiful autumnal morning, is it not, Mademoiselle?”
And she responded primly:
“As you say, mon Lieutenant, it is very beautiful.”
The minx! Lieutenant Darieux bit his under-lip and smacked his Hessian boot with his riding-whip. Finally, having thus given this slight vent to his irritation, he said abruptly:
“Why do you avoid me so sedulously, Mademoiselle Follette?”
“I? Avoid you, mon Lieutenant? Nothing was further from my thoughts.”
“I have been very anxious to have a word or two with you, Mademoiselle, but last week, when I met you on the moor, you turned and galloped away before I could as much as greet you.”
“I was hurrying home, mon Lieutenant,” answered she. “Father was waiting for his dinner.”
She began to move up the track in the direction of the farmhouse, and he kept pace with her, leading his horse by the bridle.
“You are fond of dancing, Mademoiselle,” he went on clumsily, for Lieutenant Darieux did not somehow feel at his ease with the minx. He had an idea that she was laughing at him. “So they tell me,” he added.
“Who told you that, mon Lieutenant, spoke the truth,” she rejoined drily.
“What a pity it is,” said he with a sigh, “that the regulations concerning an officer of the Emperor’s armed forces do not permit him to frequent the dances in the village halls.”
“A great pity, as you say, mon Lieutenant,” she agreed. Philippe Darieux was certainly not getting on. Not in the way he was accustomed to with these village girls. He decided to embark on more direct action.
“Mademoiselle Follette,” he resumed in those soft, insinuating tones which he always found were most efficacious when a wench put on stiff-necked airs, “will you not let me have a few words with you in private one day? There is so much I would like to say to you.”
Follette’s dark blue eyes met his with their habitual puckish expression.
“But are you not having a few words with me now, mon Lieutenant?” she queried.
He shrugged and gave a quick comprehensive glance at the crowd which had trooped out of church and, after the custom of the countryside, stood chattering about.
“I didn’t mean in a crowd, Mademoiselle,” he said insinuatingly. “I would like to meet you alone one day, say at eventide... on the moor... or by the river. I could talk to you then, and tell you things which I believe would please you. Do not deny me this boon, Mademoiselle,” he continued to plead with increasing earnestness. “I am a lonely man, whose whole life is spent in serving his country and his Emperor. An hour with you... as a friend... you surely are not afraid of me!”
He had very fine eyes, had Lieutenant Philippe Darieux, and knew how to make use of them. He allowed their gaze now to wander over Follette’s face, her hair, her dainty shoulders closely swathed in a spotless cambric fichu. And his eyes expressed something rather more ardent than admiration. He had never known that expression in his fine dark eyes to fail in its object. But to his chagrin all the effect that it now produced on this hoydenish, uncouth girl was apparently an irresistible desire to laugh. She threw back her head and the first sound of a loud outburst of laughter forced itself through that white throat of hers, which in the throes of a sleepless night he had desired to squeeze till she gasped for mercy. To his surprise, however, she checked the outburst, which died away, stillborn, and returning glance for glance she said more soberly:
“Afraid of you, mon Lieutenant? Why in the world should I be afraid of you?”
He gave a quick sigh of satisfaction. A softening of the voice. Less of a mocking smile round the mouth. A more serious glance in the blue eyes. The first hint at capitulation, thought he. And now let us be wary and go very gently to work.
“Why, indeed?” he echoed softly.
He would have liked to take her shapely little hand in his and to kiss it in proper, ceremonious fashion, but this wouldn’t do in face of that crowd of rustics. It would soon be all over the countryside that an officer of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards had kissed the hand of a village wench.
All that he did was to murmur with earnest appeal under his breath:
“Tomorrow, Mademoiselle Follette?”
“No, not tomorrow, mon Lieutenant. It is washing-day at home, you know.”
“The next day, then?”
“Impossible, mon Lieutenant. It is baking-day.”
“Then name your own day, Mademoiselle,” he insisted with more than a hint of exasperation, for Papa Ribot had taken leave of Monsieur le cure at the church door and was looking about him to catch sight of his daughter. “To deny me so small a boon,” he continued, once more turning the battery of his fine appealing eyes on Follette, “would be unjustifiable cruelty.”
“It is not my fault, mon Lieutenant,” she responded demurely. “It all depends on Papa. He often wants me to amuse him, to... read to him... and I must keep the house tidy, and serve him such meals as he fancies... and..
“And help him to land the prohibited goods when the ships come in from England,” he broke in curtly. “I know, Mademoiselle, I know.”
Her dark blue eyes opened very wide and gazed on him, partly with amazement and partly in mockery.
“You know what, mon Lieutenant?” she asked coolly.
“More than you think.”
She gave a short laugh and a shrug.
“There is something the matter with your brain, mon Lieutenant,” she said airily, “or you would not talk such folly. But there is Papa waving at me. He is in a hurry to get home to his dinner. Au revoir, mon Lieutenant.”
She bobbed him a little curtsy, for was he not an officer in His Majesty’s army? and gave him one of her most impish smiles. Before turning to go in the direction whence Papa Ribot was hailing her with frantic gestures, she aimed a final sarcastic shaft at him.
“I hope you did not give Monsieur le cure too much money for keeping Papa busy while you talked folly to me. Au revoir, mon Lieutenant,” she reiterated, and was gone before he could think of a suitable reply to this last piece of impertinence.
“Yes it shall be au revoir, you minx,” muttered Philippe Darieux to himself, “and sooner than you think. Washing-day? Baking-day? Papa’s dinner? Bah! I’ll get you red-handed, my beauty, make no mistake. And then we shall see.”
His subordinates down at the chateau remarked that Lieutenant Philippe Darieux was amazingly ill-tempered and irritable the whole of that day and the next, and, contrary to his usual habit, he remained indoors the whole of that time and even refused to join them when they proposed to spend a sociable evening in one of the more select cafes in Cremieux, where there was dancing on Sundays. The cafe was frequented by the elite of the town, the higher class of tradespeople and one or two of the professional gentry who there mixed freely with the officers of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards, for they were young and for the most part amusing and handsome. Good dancers too, most of them. Was it not Lieutenant Philippe Darieux and his brother officers who had lately introduced into the small provincial town the new dance from Vienna known as the waltz? A little too free and easy perhaps for the taste of the prim old-fashioned coterie which assembled in the Cafe des Aigles: but the younger ones took to it like ducks to water and soon the strains of its various inspiriting tunes could be heard issuing through the doors of every select cafe throughout the town, and even superseded, in the free and easy burettes, the more popular bourree.
Let it be said at once, however, that neither in the Cafe des Aigles nor in any other cafe of that class were the fisher-folk and villagers of the district made welcome. In the Cafe des Aigles they were actually debarred from entering. Not that any of them cared, for girls and boys of Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys and other small hamlets around were quite happy in the company of their kindred and of each other, and looked on their social betters with indifference as complete as the latter looked upon them.
The absence of Lieutenant Darieux on that particular Sunday was much commented on, and there was some talk about a certain change in him which many of his friends had noticed. He had seemed out of sorts and irritable recently. He must be in love, declared the younger folk with whom the smart officer had become very popular during his short stay in the neighbourhood. The question was with whom. One or two worshippers who had been in church at Saint-Victor that Sunday morning said something about the Lieutenant having remained a long time in conversation with Follette Ribot. But that, of course, was all nonsense. An officer in the Emperor’s army could not be making love to a village girl, except for a wicked purpose, and everyone knew that Follette with all her faults was a good girl and would never tolerate anything of that sort.
And thus the matter was allowed to rest as far as the gossips were concerned, but not so in the case of Lieutenant Darieux. His caprice for that girl with the laughing violet eyes and the pert tongue grew with every rebuff which his advance encountered on her part. Day followed day and never once did he get the chance of a few words with her. It was obvious that she avoided him purposely, for more than once when riding on the moor on a tour of inspection or up and down the rough track above the shore he had caught sight of her in the distance, on her pony, and felt pretty certain that she must have seen him too. Nevertheless, before he had the slightest chance to come up with her she had galloped away and then vanished as if the earth had swallowed her up.
And this happened more than once. So often in fact that his nerves were soon on edge. He felt his temper getting beyond his control. Nothing, indeed, seemed to ease his exasperation save endless and aimless rides over the moor at all hours of the day and half the night, ostensibly on duty bound, but actually with the firm determination of coming up with Follette Ribot and catching her red-handed in the act of breaking the law by helping English smugglers to land their prohibited goods on the coast of France.
On one occasion, when ambling along the track, he saw the girl in her dinghy out at sea. It was late afternoon and the evening was drawing in. Chance did indeed seem to have ranged itself on his side at last. The time had come, so thought the gallant Lieutenant, when she must of necessity come on shore and beach her boat. She could not evade him then for he would be on the look-out, ready for her. He dismounted, tied his horse to the stump of a tree and made his way down to the beach.
He did not lose sight of her, not for a moment, and made the descent at peril of his life. There were a good many people still about on the sands. Fisher-folk busy with their boats, women collecting the nets they had been mending, young people wandering arm in arm, for the air was soft and still. Follette in her cockleshell out at sea was paddling aimlessly. Not fishing, apparently. Then what was she up to? Was chance favouring him even more royally than he had hoped? And was that audacious little vixen on the look-out for an English ship laden with smuggled goods?
If his luck held out now, Darieux felt that the great moment of his life was at hand. A sensational capture. Promotion. Not to mention the satisfaction of his ardent desire to get even with Follette Ribot. But there she went on paddling, and he began to wonder if she had perchance caught sight of him and was playing him one of her exasperating tricks.
After a time the village folk drifted homewards. The sands were soon deserted. And suddenly Darieux realized that he had lost sight of the dinghy and its tantalizing occupant. She had vanished in the way she had whenever he tried to approach her. At first he thought that she had deliberately gone behind some jutting rocks. Anyhow, she played hide-and-seek with him for quite a while. And then she vanished. Had she come on shore? Had she beached her boat? Had she drifted out towards the Rochers de Calvados which effectually hid her from view? He never knew.
He walked up and down on the sandy beach for some little time, waiting he knew not for what, hoping against hope, irritated beyond reason, raging and crestfallen.
And presently he heard a voice calling down to him from above. A girl’s voice, clear and strong and fresh:
“Your horse, mon Lieutenant! Stop your dreaming and come and look after him. He isn’t finding life very pleasant up here.”
There she was on the rough road up above, just where he had tethered his horse, looking down over the edge of the cliff, laughing at his discomfiture. He could just see the silhouette of her, leaning over, and he could hear her voice and her laughter above the roll of the breakers by the Rochers de Calvados. How had the witch got up there, unseen and unheard by him? How had she evaded him unless she was really a witch in league with those evil sprites who, legend declares, haunt this lonely coast and the vast sandy moor?
He couldn’t know. Anyway, there she was, and was gone the next moment. He thought of wandering further up and down the beach to try and find her cockleshell. Just out of curiosity. He went some little way in the direction of the Rochers and then turned towards the mouth of the river. But the night was closing in and he felt dispirited. He wanted to get back to his quarters and think things over. They could not go on like this or he would become an imbecile. All his chances in life would soon slip away from him if he allowed his mind to drift away from duty and legitimate ambition. And that must not be. He had always been considered a very smart and promising young officer, and no girl in the world was worth weighing in the balance against a man’s career, even if she had violet eyes and a haunting personality.
Lieutenant Darieux, full of those sound resolutions, made his way up the cliff, found his horse and rode slowly, thoughtfully, back to his quarters.
But as the popular saw has it, there is a certain unpleasant place down below the path to which is paved with good intentions. Lieutenant Philippe Darieux, full of wise resolutions, had tried manfully to combat that spirit of restlessness which had taken such a firm hold on him. Not with much success, however. He found it almost impossible to dismiss from his thoughts that impish woman who had captured his fancy. He slept ill o’ nights, was distrait and abstracted by day. At all times his wits would go wool-gathering, for his mind was perpetually running on a pair of violet eyes and a girl’s mouth created for laughter and love.
When at five o’clock that afternoon, less than a week after his last adventure, Lieutenant Darieux rode across the river by the ford, a score or so kilometres above the chateau, daylight still lingered in the sky. He had no intention of staying out late. The moon was in her last quarter; and the evenings had been darksome of late. Heavy banks of clouds hung low, threatening a thunderstorm. The temperature was oppressive. Not a breath of air stirred the denuded branches of the trees and the rough scrub on the moor.
Darieux, wrapped in thought as he always was, put his horse to an amble and rode desultorily along the riverside in the direction of the sea shore. He soon lost count of time and evening closed round him before he became aware how far he had gone. A sea-fog came rolling in landwards. Its first manifestation roused him from his foolish brooding. It was time he made his way back to his quarters. He drew rein for a moment, pondering which would be his quickest means of getting back across the river before complete darkness and fog made this not only difficult but also perilous. There was the bridge lower down the stream, a safe and good enough way, but as a matter of fact he had no idea just how far he had wandered in that direction while absorbed in his day-dreams. The fog, moreover, would certainly be thickest the nearer he came to the shore.
On the other hand there was the ford upstream, some twenty kilometres or so higher up than the purlieus of the chateau. Darieux knew it well, knew every inch of the way. He had crossed the ford not much more than two or three hours ago. The outside light of the chateau, above the garden entrance, could always be seen from the opposite bank of the river and would be a sure guide to the shallow reach of the stream and to the ford.
Though there was no track along the river bank or for the matter of that across any part of the moor, there would be nothing perilous in turning back, then riding straight ahead and keeping the gurgling sound of the water close to him on his right. In all probability too the rolling mist would have spent itself before it reached thus far inland.
Anyway, there was nothing for it but to keep straight ahead and trust to luck. Darkness was gathering in more rapidly than Philippe Darieux had anticipated. Cursing himself for indulging in foolish fancies, which had landed him so far from home at this late hour, he turned his horse’s head northward and, putting him at foot-pace, proceeded cautiously up the way he had come earlier in the afternoon, trying to keep the sound of the river on his right as close to him as he could. He had passed the solitary light of the chateau much sooner than he thought. He could not have ambled very far down the edge of the stream after all, and he congratulated himself on not having continued his way in the direction of the bridge. He allowed his horse to walk on, holding the reins loosely in his hand. There was no fog up here and no wind. A kind of brooding silence hung on the autumnal air, together with the smell of decaying foliage and the putrefaction of dead fish in the salt water-pools. The call of the water-fowl no longer resounded from over the shore, the shriek of the seamew had long since been stilled. Only intermittently from far away in the west the dull rumbling of distant thunder broke this silence which seemed ominous like unto a precursor of something weird and ill-omened to come.
Unlike his usual buoyant self, Darieux felt inexpressibly weary. Why, he could not say. He had not ridden hard during the day for many hours. There was no question of physical exertion, but somehow the immensity of this unruffled atmosphere, of this kind of deathlike stillness, seemed to sit upon him like a weight of lead. It seemed such ages since he had ambled on in the gathering darkness, since he had turned his back on the solitary light in front of the chateau. He turned in the saddle, striving to pierce the gloom behind him. And then an unexplainable thing happened. The light suddenly vanished. Nothing strange in that, of course, thought he. Either someone had extinguished the light or an intervening tree had got in the way. Darieux thought no more about it, and allowed his horse to walk on quietly, until that unexplainable thing happened. The solitary light was no longer behind him. It shone distinctly higher up the stream, some hundred metres or more ahead of him.
Mystified, even a little scared, he lost control over his actions for the moment, paid no attention to his horse, who put his foot into one of the numerous puddles which abounded here and, losing ground, fell, dragging the unfortunate rider down with him. The whole mishap occurred in less than two or three minutes. Darieux was not conscious of serious injury, only of a violent headache and a general throbbing of his already overstrained nerves. He picked himself up quickly enough, though it took him a few minutes to extricate himself from under his mount and to get the horse up on its feet again. All being well and no damage done to man or beast, he prepared to mount again, when to his amazement a light suddenly appeared, not in front of the chateau, however, but on the opposite bank of the river. It appeared and vanished again, only to reappear this time at some distance straight ahead of him.
A will-o’-the-wisp of course. Darieux had never seen one before, but, obviously, that is what it was. Not an unusual occurrence probably in these marshy lands, but altogether new to him. He was not exactly frightened, but all sorts of old wives’ tales flashed through his mind, while he watched that mysterious elusive light, appearing and disappearing, flitting from one river bank to the other, now ahead of him, now behind, now mirrored in the water of a pool. Tales which had it that the will-o’-the-wisp was the manifestation of some evil spirit, whose game it was to bewilder the solitary wayfarer and to lead him willy-nilly into the deepest troughs of the river bed, there to let him perish while jeering at his plight.
No! Lieutenant Darieux of His Majesty’s corps of coastguards was not exactly frightened. A soldier of the Emperor could not really be afraid of anything. But he did feel — shall we say — apprehensive. How long did these manifestations of Nature continue? he wondered. This flitting, elusive light, darting here and there, now in front of him, now behind, anon to the right and then to the left, or coming to a halt on the edge of a pool, like a glowing butterfly duplicated in the water, had got on his nerves. It exasperated and irritated him because of that sense of apprehension which he could not combat and of which he felt ashamed.
Frankly, too, it confused him. He never knew from one moment to the other which way he ought to go in order to find the shallow reach of the river. He dared not explore the stream blindly, for fear of his horse stepping into some deep hole in the river bed with a consequent probable and extremely perilous fall. It became obvious then that the wisest thing for him to do was to wait quietly until such time as that bewildering will-o’-the-wisp departed to a more distant haunt or disappeared altogether, leaving the steady light of the chateau to be his guide to safety.
He still had his horse by the bridle, and drew him now gently and very cautiously to a spot where he felt he could wait conveniently for the moment when it would be safe for him to proceed on his way. It was pitch-dark by now, but that made no matter. He swung himself back into the saddle and... waited.
Waited, he knew not how long. The horse was quiet enough, but he himself was getting more and more weary. Weary and very cold. The night was turning chilly and he had no mantle, only his tunic made of thin cloth. A kind of torpor assailed his body; his limbs were stiff and numb. But he could not fix his thoughts. They went careering away in every direction. On his work. His difficulties. His prospects in life. The chances that might come his way to effect an important capture of smuggled goods and of breakers of the law. This train of thought naturally brought him back to the haunting personality of Follette Ribot, her deep violet eyes, her mocking laugh, her captivating smile. The hold that that girl had obtained over his senses and over his faculties was, he knew, out of all reason. It would, if he did not seriously fight against it, spell ruin to his career. Name of a name! he was an officer in His Majesty’s army, and it was well said that every soldier who served under the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, that greatest military genius the world had ever known, carried a possible marshal’s baton in his knapsack.
But not, mused Lieutenant Philippe Darieux, if he fixed his mind and his ambitions on a girl beneath him in station, mixed up, moreover (of that he felt certain), in illicit traffic, in fraudulent actions which might easily land her in gaol.
Suddenly, something — impossible at first to realize what it was — brought him back from the land of dreams to the unpleasant reality of the hour. Darkness still enveloped him and vainly did he blink his eyes, striving to fix them on some point that would be less impenetrable than this heavy mantle of gloom. One thing he did note almost immediately, and this gave him a measure of comfort: that cursed will-o’-the-wisp had vanished. But so had the light of the chateau. All that he knew about the latter was that it must be some distance behind him and on the opposite side of the river. The ford therefore must be straight ahead of him and at no very great distance.
Then all at once he knew what it was that had aroused him out of his torpor. It was a slight movement in the air, a breeze coming from the west, bringing with it a few spots of rain. A gentle rain it was at first, but soon it gathered strength, in the way it has in these parts, and suddenly following a rumble of distant thunder and a flash of lightning it came down in a veritable deluge of hail and sleet. Darieux’ clothes were soon wet through. The horse grew restive, gave a plunge when the hailstones hit him in the face, and Darieux, whose hands were numb with cold and fatigue, could only with difficulty keep a hold on the bridle. His fingers felt as if they were dead.
Indeed, he had never been in such a sorry plight before. Better be drowned in the river, thought he, than die of cold on this godforsaken moor. At any rate he came to the conclusion that he must make a desperate effort to get across the river and make his way back to his quarters somehow. According to his reckoning the ford could not be far. He was close to the low river bank, for by listening intently he could hear the murmur of the water over its stony bed. He turned his horse sharply to the right and took him over the bank into the stream. All went well for a minute or two; the water splashed up to his stirrups, then up to the top of his boots. But soon things didn’t go quite so well... the water reached up to his knees... then up to his waist... Nevertheless he urged his horse on, thinking that mayhap it had encountered a more or less deep trough, from which another step or two would get him out again. But no such thing happened. The trough was evidently both large and deep. The water was very cold and now reached well above his waist.
It would have been madness to go on, and after a moment’s reflection he turned and rode back across the stream the way he had come. He drew rein on the sandy moor. The horse was shivering with cold and terror and he himself felt anything but reassured as to his likely fate here in pitch darkness, and with Nature itself warring against him. And all because he had allowed his fancy to dwell on that impish Puck of a girl until his brain failed to function in its normal well-ordered way.
And just when he indulged in a comprehensive curse of himself and his folly, he heard quite close to him, above the splash of the rain and the gurgle of the stream, a prolonged ripple of laughter. He gave a start and an involuntary cry escaped him. Indeed he had much ado to keep his seat, for of all the eerie and grisly adventures that had befallen him this night none had seemed more petrifying than this sound of mocking laughter, coming as it did without any warning right out of the gloom.
“Not quite so proud now, are we, mon bel officier?” A woman’s voice, provocative and familiar, now came to his ear. “There is nothing like cold and darkness, rain and thunderstorm, not to mention an evil sprite named Will-o’-the-wisp, to take the arrogance out of a smart officer of His Majesty’s coastguards. What!”
It was Follette Ribot right enough. She was on her pony and had brought it to a halt quite close to him. Darieux could hear its snorting and the jingle of straps and buckles right through the sounds of warring Nature. But he was in no mood for chaff or sally. His teeth were chattering. He felt what he actually was, a pitiable object. The voice of that irritating, haunting girl, coming as it did out of impenetrable darkness, had played havoc with the last of his physical energy.
All that he could do was to murmur through his chattering teeth: “Follette, is it really you?”
“Of course it is Follette, mon Lieutenant,” was the bantering reply. “Is there anything I can do for you? You sound as if you were in a sorry plight....”
“What are you doing here?” Darieux broke in feebly. “At this unearthly hour and in this cursed weather?”
“As you see, mon Lieutenant, looking after stranded wayfarers.”
“Looking after stranded wayfarers, forsooth? Sending them to drown in the river. That is what you do with the help of your familiar.”
“My familiar?” she retorted. “What familiar? Only witches have familiars in these parts.”
“And aren’t you a witch, Follette?”
“No, mon Lieutenant.”
“And isn’t that accursed will-o’-the-wisp there to help you confound those who are mad enough to dream of you?”
“And were you dreaming of me, mon Lieutenant?”
“Yes, I was.”
“And did Feu Follet confound you? We call him Feu Follet, you know, and I am called Follette after him. He means no harm, only does mischief to those who are afraid of him. Then they lose their heads, and dream stupid dreams.”
“I was not afraid.”
“Happy am I to hear you say so, bel officier. Then I’ll wish you good night. The hour is late and poor old father will be impatient.”
“Curse your poor old father,” he muttered under his breath, then went on appealingly: “Don’t go, Follette!” for he heard her give a click of the tongue and heard the pony champing his bit. He reached out, trying with his numbed fingers to find her bridle, but already she had backed the pony, and he heard it stamping its feet into the wet sand. Now she was behind him. The next moment she would be gone, and here he would remain again in utter loneliness in this hellish gloom.
“Don’t go, Follette!” he pleaded once again, more appealingly than before.
But she did not draw rein. Not all at once as he had hoped. He could still hear the squelching of the pony’s feet in the wet sand.
“Don’t go, Follette!” he called out for the third time. “I shall be so lonely without you.”
He heard her give one of those mocking chuckles which so exasperated him.
“Then why stay here, mon Lieutenant?” she called to him in return.
“I can’t find my way home in this accursed gloom,” he murmured, his teeth still chattering. “Can you, Follette?”
“Yes, mon Lieutenant.”
“You can find your way back in the dark?”
“Yes, mon Lieutenant.”
“Then take me with you, for if you do not I shall surely perish of cold and misery in this godforsaken hole.”
One more exasperating chuckle did she indulge in before she said:
“Let me have your bridle, bel officier. Why not admit that you are afraid? Your bridle,” she commanded. “Feu Follet has gone for good, but the storm has come to stay. Come up, mon Lieutenant. The witch will take you safely to where you want to go.”
She had drawn rein at last. A flash of lightning revealed for a quarter of a second the silhouette of her astride on her pony. He urged his horse a step or two forward and brought him to a standstill. Follette took hold of his bridle. He had perforce to swallow his pride which had prompted him at first to refuse the girl’s proffered help. But he felt utterly helpless. Wet through and shivering with cold. The dawn would not break for another six hours at least, and he would be a dead man before the soldiers from the chateau set out to hunt for him.
With a sure hand Follette guided him side by side with her pony over the sands. She seemed to have eyes like a cat for not once did she hesitate or falter on her way. And he let her guide him, and allowed his mind to sink back into torpor. A happy, restful torpor this time, with no anxiety and no distraction. Even his horse was no longer shivering with cold or terror. He was dreaming. A kind of blissful dream with Follette close beside him, no longer jeering but gentle and yielding.
Soon she took a sharp turn to the right and plunged boldly over the bank into the stream. Unerringly she made the horses pick their way across the ford, and brought them at foot-pace over the sands. She kept her hand on Darieux’ bridle. Neither of them had spoken since first they started. The minutes went by. How many Darieux never knew. Half an hour, an hour, perhaps. This ride at foot-pace in what seemed impenetrable darkness had a deadening effect on his faculties. He did not feel that he was alive, but either in a dream or in unconsciousness.
At one moment he put out his hand and tried to find hers, but as soon as he touched her she drew her hand away.
When Follette drew rein, Darieux woke from his dream state. All in a moment he felt alive again. Cold and numb physically, but with mind alert once more. He felt safe out of all his troubles and difficulties. It was still pitch dark and still raining, but not quite so heavily. The thunderstorm too had drawn away further to the west. Its rumblings sounded distant and muffled. The lightning was no longer vivid.
Through the darkness Darieux could perceive one or two small lights twinkling in the windows of the chateau. Follette had halted behind the grove of trees in the front of the chateau, on the stony track which led up to her father’s house. Darieux felt a wave of real gratitude rising in his heart for this girl who had been like a benevolent genius to him in his distress. He dismounted and groped his way as near to her as he could. He took his bridle from her and in doing so succeeded in capturing her hand. She tried to draw it away but he held fast to it this time and raised it to his lips. It was wet with the rain but the skin was as smooth as satin and smelt of sweet herbs, thyme and fresh mint.
“Follette,” he mumbled almost inaudibly, for he had not yet gained full control over the muscles of his jaw, “you have saved my life.”
“Perhaps, mon Lieutenant,” she remarked drily.
Once again she made an effort to withdraw her hand, but he would not let it go. It seemed to him like an anchorage to safety and to peace, and he clung to it stubbornly, pressing his lips now upon the soft palm which smelt of sweet herbs. He couldn’t see her, of course, but raised his head in the direction whence the sound of her voice had come.
“Whatever you ask of me, Follette, to show my gratitude,” he said, speaking more steadily now, “that surely will I do.”
She gave a little laugh. It was a way she had, and it did not irritate him as it had so often done before. All she said, however, in response was:
“Words, mon Lieutenant, words! Tomorrow if the weather is fine you will have forgotten all about this night’s adventure.”
“Try me, Follette!”
“How shall I try you, mon Lieutenant?”
“Tell me what I can do for you, to prove to you that I am grateful.”
Mighty strange this talk between these two in complete darkness and with the rain beating in their faces and trickling down their necks. They couldn’t see each other. All the contact they had with one another was this handclasp, their hands interlocked, never it seemed to be riven asunder but to cleave one to the other for always.
“Tell me, Follette!” Darieux pleaded.
She gave another of her quaint, short laughs. Then she asked:
“You would like to do something, bel officier, which would please me very much?”
“On your word of honour?”
“On my word of honour.”
“Because you are grateful to me for saving you from drowning?”
“For another reason, too, Follette,” he murmured softly. “Never mind about that, but will you take me next Sunday to the Cafe des Aigles and dance the new dance there with me?” Conscious that one second — not more — elapsed before his answer came, she broke into loud laughter.
“There! You see,” she said lightly, “how you value your life and your word of honour.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Not I,” he asserted, lying boldly.
“Two seconds.. she insisted.
“I was bewailing in my mind that so many days must elapse before that happy event.”
“This is Tuesday, mon Lieutenant.”
“Four unhappy days to live through.”
For a moment or two she remained silent, and then said lightly:
“Good night, mon Lieutenant. Pleasant dreams.”
“Dreams of next Sunday.”
With a sudden jerk she had succeeded in freeing her hand, and before he was aware of what was happening she had turned her pony round, and the next instant she had gone. He could hear the clatter of the pony’s hoofs on the stony track, the voice of old Ribot calling from within, the opening and shutting of the front door. Then nothing more.
Here he was in darkness and loneliness once again. Loneliness all the greater because she had been near him but was there no longer. But he knew where he was now. He gave a loud call. Fortunately the night-watchman was close at hand with his lantern. By its light he guided Lieutenant Philippe Darieux and his horse safely to their quarters.
Lieutenant Philippe Darieux did not during the next twenty- four hours give another thought to the promise which he had made to Follette Ribot. Neither one way nor the other did he think about it because all through the day he felt so tired and so nerve-racked that the details of his unpleasant adventure faded entirely from his memory. For one thing he was really ill. He had caught a very severe chill and prescribed for himself a dose of quinine and a day in bed. By Thursday morning, however, he felt decidedly better, which was lucky, because le Commandant Jacquetot, commanding the corps of His Majesty’s coast-guards, was on a tour of inspection on the north coast of France and might turn up at Cremieux at any time now. It would not do for Lieutenant Darieux, in charge of the station of Chateau Lorgeril, to be found in bed with a cold.
Commandant Jacquetot, as luck, or ill-luck, would have it, did turn up at Cremieux on the Friday, and rode over to Chateau Lorgeril in the early part of the afternoon. He was a short, wizened little man, with a face like a ferret, and eyes that appeared to be perpetually on the move, darting here and there, to right and to left, so rapidly that you never knew what he was looking at. He was known in official circles as “le Decheneur”, because he had a way of finding out things that had been kept rigidly secret, and this he attained — so it was said — by exercising a kind of hypnotic influence over any man whom he chose to interrogate, reducing him by relentless cross-examination to moral pulp. Every man in the corps of coast-guards was afraid of him. He had a voice like a hammer striking a sheet of steel and words tumbled out of his mouth at a bewildering rate.
Ever since it was known that Commandant Jacquetot was taking the station of Chateau Lorgeril on his tour there had been much searching of conscience among the men, and even Lieutenant Darieux was not quite free from apprehension. Would le Decheneur ferret out something about his association with Follette Ribot? There had been nothing serious in it, of course, and Darieux felt quite thankful that his meetings with the girl had been so few and far between — but old Jacquetot was known to be a terrible stickler in the matter of social etiquette. Officers in His Majesty’s army were forbidden to enter into close association with the village and fisher-folk, all places of amusement frequented by these people being out of bounds. This was a disciplinary measure which was strictly enforced, because the inhabitants of these coasts were as likely as not mixed up with prohibited trading and traffic in smuggled goods.
Darieux knew this well enough and knew le Decheneur’s remarkable adroitness at ferreting out such information as he required, hence his apprehension. Not that he regretted the few rare and happy moments spent in Follette’s company, which she had granted him so grudgingly. He knew now beyond a doubt that he was in love with her. Deeply, maddeningly in love. His feelings for her were neither a caprice nor a passing fancy. She held him, heart, mind and body, by the magic of her eyes, by the sound of her voice, by her childish, petulant, irresponsible ways. She had saved his life, and he had pledged his word to her, two nights ago, in the darkness and loneliness of the moor. Darkness and loneliness had encompassed them while he pressed her perfumed hand to his lips, and realized how ardently he loved her. There had been no witness to the pact to which he had pledged his word. On Sunday he would dance with her in the Cafe des Aigles, in defiance of all social etiquette. He would hold her in his arms and would not let her go until she was completely out of breath and drooped panting and exhausted against his breast. She had willed it so. She could not deny him that great, that wonderful, happiness.
As for the elite of Cremieux society, the starchy ladies and simpering demoiselles, he relied on his popularity with them to condone this slight lapse from rigid etiquette. All would be well, thought he, so long as le Decheneur took his unpleasant person off again within the next twenty-four hours.
But le Decheneur did no such thing. He arrived on the Friday afternoon and at once announced his intention of staying in Cremieux over Sunday.
“It has come to His Majesty’s ears,” he said to Lieutenant Darieux, who was showing him over the chateau, the stables and the immediate neighbourhood, “that the coastal villages round about here are veritable hotbeds of traffic in prohibited goods. He has deigned to send me down here to make a thorough inspection of the coast. It will take me two or three days. We will pick up the revenue ketch at Havre tomorrow. I shall of course require your attendance the whole time.”
All would have been well, even so, had not Lieutenant Darieux allowed two words to escape him thoughtlessly.
“Even Sunday, mon Commandant?” he murmured.
Le Decheneur was on to him in a moment.
“Even Sunday you say?” he rasped out in his harsh metallic voice. “Why not Sunday, I should like to know? Is it a question of religious scruples? They do not count, you know, when duty calls the other way. Have you any religious scruples, Lieutenant Darieux, about doing your duty on a Sunday?” he queried with biting sarcasm.
“N — n — no, mon Commandant,” Darieux stammered.
“Then what is it? A rendezvous d’amour? What?” Jacquetot continued, his voice getting more and more harsh and more and more rasping with each challenge which he flung at the unfortunate Darieux, who could only reiterate in faltering tones:
“N — n — no, mon Commandant.”
“But... but... but... but...” the irascible Decheneur remarked in a rising aggressive cadence, followed by an unpleasant, “Oh! Ah!” which seemed to mean: “I thought so.”
Whereupon Darieux’ mild apprehension turned to real anxiety. What did the old Belial mean by that “Oh! Ah!”? Did he know anything? Had he ferreted out something about Follette Ribot, and about that nocturnal adventure? Impossible, thought Darieux. There was no one there. No one could possibly have seen him for it was pitch dark. And no one could have heard what passed between them when he bade good night to Follette. There was only the night-watchman about. And he couldn’t... No! he couldn’t... If he did and blurted out something to le Decheneur Darieux would break every bone in the sneak’s body. In the meantime he was in a cold sweat and felt a sinking feeling in the region of his heart.
The Commandant, however, appeared to have dismissed the subject from his mind. Anyway, after that ominous “Oh! Ah!” he confined himself to talks and queries on matters relating to duty. Just before returning to Cremieux, where he had his lodgings, he gave the two young soldiers his final orders:
“Well,” he said, “there are two or three days’ hard work ahead of us. I am giving up my rooms at Cremieux. It is too far from the coast. You, de Praslins, can go over to Havre in the morning and secure quarters for me and for Lieutenant Darieux in a decent hotel there. We shall require the rooms for three days certain, probably longer.”
He then turned to Darieux, who stood by, transfixed with anxiety, wondering whether he would have the chance tonight or tomorrow morning of seeing Follette and telling her of the terrible contretemps which would force him to break the promise which he had made to her.
But luck was dead against him. Commandant Jacquetot ordered him to accompany him to Cremieux and spend the night there in attendance upon him. He was, he said, expecting a courier from Paris who might turn up at any hour with orders from His Majesty which would perhaps require the attention of the lieutenant in charge of the station.
And thus it was that Follette Ribot, dressed in her best finery, spent the evening of Sunday waiting for the cavalier who never came. She waited until a late hour, when she came to the conclusion that either he had forgotten or had deliberately fooled her by making a promise which he never intended to keep. At ten o’clock she took off her finery and put on her rough outdoor clothes. Papa Ribot had watched her while she waited, all dressed up and obviously waiting for someone or something, but he had offered no remark, and offered none now when she changed into her rough outdoor clothes. He did not even go as far as the front door to see what she was up to, when she went out into the night. All that he did was to listen. A gentle smile curled round his old lips. He knew. He heard her call to her pony and saddle him. He knew where she was going. She rode off in the direction of Cremieux.
And Lieutenant Darieux was kept in attendance on Commandant Jacquetot until the small hours of the morning. The old Decheneur knew or guessed something. No doubt about that. It must have been the night-watchman who had heard something that Tuesday night and had blurted it out under the ferret’s hypnotic influence. Certain it is that at ten o’clock Jacquetot expressed the desire to spend an hour or two in the fashionable cafe. “One must have some fun, que diable!” he declared with a malicious kind of laugh. Darieux took him to the Cafe des Aigles.
Jacquetot had insisted that that was the place where he wanted to spend the evening. Friends whom he had met at Cremieux were going there too and le Commandant thought that he could have a really good time in their company. Darieux racked his brain for a plausible excuse to give the Cafe des Aigles a miss, but Jacquetot was obstinate, all the more so when he saw that Lieutenant Darieux was doing his best to deter him from having his way.
Darieux spent one of the most miserable evenings he had ever experienced in his life. He knew that le Decheneur had some vague suspicions about him, and if by any evil chance Follette took it into her head to drive out to Cremieux in search of him then indeed there would be the very devil to pay. Poor Darieux was in a fever. He tried to fix his mind on the conversation that went on around him. He tried to be gay and witty. He danced when urged on by the irascible Commandant. And all the time he kept his eyes fixed on the glazed swing doors, marvelling and dreading the moment when Follette would come prancing through into the Cafe with fury in her eyes and bitter words on her tongue.
But he did not see her, although she stood with her pony outside the windows for fully five minutes gazing on the merry crowd disporting itself to the sound of a blaring orchestra, in the swinging and the swirling of the new fashionable dance. As ill luck would have it, Darieux at the moment was dancing with a pretty demoiselle, the daughter of the mayor of Cremieux. Follette did not prance into the Cafe with fury in her eyes and bitter words on her tongue. She swallowed the bitterness that struggled for expression through her quivering lips, and the fury in her eyes was melted in hot tears.
She rode home in the small hours of the morning. Papa Ribot was waiting up for her, with hot mulled wine, and sweet biscuits from England. She ate the biscuits and drank the wine and chatted with her father till it was time to go to bed. And Papa Ribot said afterwards that never in her life had he seen his little Follette so merry and so bright.
There ensued for Lieutenant Philippe Darieux days more agonizing than any he had ever experienced in his life before. Follette no longer merely avoided him, no longer showed good-natured banter when he succeeded in engaging her attention, but it was withering contempt — so he thought — that flashed out of her violet eyes when by any chance her gaze rested upon him. And she no longer avoided him. On the contrary, when she met him on moor or shore, riding or walking, she seemed almost to court his approach. And when he was near enough she threw him one of those looks of utter disdain which seemed like a dagger-thrust aimed at his heart. In her estimation — he was forced to conclude — he was the man who had broken his word, who had failed in gratitude to one who had in all probability saved his life — had at any rate rescued him from a very perilous position. He tried once or twice to speak — begged her to allow him to explain. She vouchsafed no reply, and after one contemptuous glance turned her head resolutely away.
Poor Darieux felt almost thankful when some days after the departure of le Decheneur he was summoned to Paris on urgent affairs connected with his duties. It seems that His Majesty, urged thereunto by his Minister of Police, Joseph Fouche, Duc d’Otrante, had decided to effect a radical change in the organization of his military corps of coast-guards. The feeling of the population all along the North of France had become more and more pronounced in favour of the smugglers. So much so in fact that half the time these breakers of the law were aided and abetted by the local inhabitants, not only, be it said, by the fisher-folk and villagers on the coast but also by well-to-do citizens of neighbouring towns, and — worse still — in more than one instance by municipal and even departmental bigwigs.
Fishing-boats all along the coast from Cabourg to Arromanches greatly increased in number recently, and it was pretty well known throughout the department that these put out to sea more often than not for the express purpose of meeting the English boats which came over laden with contraband goods. Serious repressive measures were devised and enforced. Every fishing-boat putting into shore was searched, and when these became so numerous that it was impossible to pull out and turn over the nets of each boat in its turn, coast-guardsmen were provided with iron prickers with which to poke the nets, beneath which they suspected forbidden English goods to have been concealed. These measures roused the indignation of the fishermen, who complained that their nets were being wilfully injured and their livelihood unjustly wrested from them, with the result that affrays between coast-guard and population became frequent and often resulted in bloodshed. Then, if serious casualties occurred among the civilians, either the police or, what was most frequent, among the fishermen and the mariners, the local magistrates, not being empowered to deal with the affair, the guilty party had, of course, to be sent before the military tribunal, whose business it was — or seemed to be — to exonerate any member of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards on the grounds that he was acting in pursuance of his duty.
Against that, if the casualties occurred among the coastguard, the local magistrates proved extraordinarily obtuse, allowing issues to be wilfully confused by the witnesses, and if the evidence proved overwhelming against a fishermen or a member of the police, their worships proved to be extraordinarily lenient in delivering judgment.
Things obviously could not be allowed to go on as they did, and the Emperor, in the intervals of fighting half Europe, let his Minister of Police understand that something must be done to check this insubordination and defiance of the law. To which Imperial command Fouche, Duc d’Otrante, gave the terse rejoinder: “Place your coast-guards under civil jurisdiction, and I will deal with the trouble.”
Thus it was that the officers of His Majesty’s coast-guards were summoned each in their turn to Paris and into the presence of the most astute, most unscrupulous, Minister of Police France had ever known. Lieutenant Philippe Darieux was one of the first thus summoned. He was not sorry to go. The fact that for a certain number of days he would be deprived of the sight of Follette appeared to him at first as an overwhelming catastrophe, but, strangely enough, as soon as a turn of the road effectively hid the coast from his view he felt slightly more at peace. His love for the girl, stronger in his heart than ever, exercised a more soothing effect on his temperament. Thoughts of her, her varying moods, her childish impertinence, no longer exasperated him. She was just a child, a beautiful adorable child of Nature, uncouth in some ways, refined and delicate in others. He no longer was fretted with the idea that she hated him. He did not believe in the inherence of her disdain, was willing, in fact, to put it down to girlish pique at his omission to keep his given word and disappointment for being deprived of an evening’s pleasure. And as the wheels of the diligence which conveyed him to Paris rumbled on hour after hour, he felt more certain of the present, more hopeful of the future.
He was already aware of the object of this summons to Paris. Rumours had been rife among the “know-alls” of Cremieux and Commandant Jacquetot had dropped a hint or two on the subject. Darieux was not apprehensive. Not at first, at any rate. He had endured the scrutiny of le Decheneur without flinching. He certainly did not think that he had anything to fear from the Minister of Police, who up to now had had no say in the conduct of the officers and men of His Majesty’s coastguards. Darieux was conscious of having always done his duty to the best of his ability, and could assert without fear of contradiction that the bad feeling among the civilian population of the coast of Calvados was not directed especially against the corps under his command, but against the whole system of military intervention. Repressive measures, he was ready to admit, were necessary, but in his opinion they were clumsy and ill-conceived, and irritating without being really effective. The use of those iron prickers, for instance! They certainly injured the nets, and so far had yielded little result for the revenue, save broken heads and other minor casualties.
Darieux had as a matter of fact ideas of his own about the best way of dealing with this business of smuggling, ideas which he had nursed all through the wearisome journey in the diligence between Caen and the capital. He had a vague hope that he would be allowed to propound these before his immediate superiors, and that they, in their turn, would then bring him under the notice of the Minister of the Interior, or even of the Chief of Police.
When on the day after his arrival in Paris he was summoned to present himself at the Ministry of Police, he felt at peace with the whole world and with himself. Dignified in bearing and serene in his demeanour, he walked from his hotel to the Louvre and passed under one of its wide portals beneath which an official in uniform, ensconced in a kind of sentry-box, bade him halt and demanded what his business was. Philippe presented the summons which he had received that morning and was directed to go straight through and across the garden, where on his right he would see a doorway with the device above it in gold letters: “Ministers de la Police Imperiale.”
At what precise moment he suddenly felt that extraordinary sense of foreboding which was destined never to leave him again until it had justified its prophecy of evil, Darieux could not have told you: certain it is that as soon as he had passed through that doorway and mounted the monumental staircase which led to the private office of the Minister he was overwhelmed by a strange sense of an incomprehensible impending doom. It seemed to him as if with every step which he took up those marble stairs he was leaving something of past joy of living and of past serenity behind him, and that never again would he be able to recapture these again. He tried very hard to combat this presentiment, feeling that it was cowardly. Somehow the sensation reminded him of that awful night on the moor, when lonely and in darkness he had watched the will-o’-the-wisp like an evil sprite having its wicked game with him. And his thoughts turned for a moment to Follette, dear, gallant, brave little Follette, who had come to his rescue in the nick of time. He longed for her presence now as he had never longed for it before. But Follette was far away. The last glance which she had flashed on him had been one of contempt, and the more hopeful thoughts which he had nursed in his heart about her during that wearisome journey in the diligence became more and more evanescent with every step which brought him nearer to the fateful interview with the powerful Minister, and further and further away from the one being who held his heart and soul in the hollow of her perfumed, tiny hand, the little girl on whom was centred his every hope of future happiness.
He had in the meantime come up on the landing, where he was immediately challenged by a sentry at the monumental door which led into the private offices of the Minister of Police. Without any warning, as if at the bidding of a magician, the great doors were suddenly flung open. An official who looked like a major-domo, clothed in unrelieved black and holding a tall ebony wand, beckoned to him to follow. Darieux obeyed, walking as if in a dream. He traversed a long antechamber something like a wide gallery, with seats set in deep window embrasures. The place was crowded with people of every sort of appearance and of class; some sitting in the recesses of the windows, others standing or walking about in groups, all talking in subdued voices and each holding a paper which presumably was their summons to an audience with the Minister.
Darieux caught sight of several men in military uniform, some of whom acknowledged his salute. There were a number of gentlemen there, too, dressed in the extravagant fashion of the day, professional men in dark cloth coats, stockings and buckled shoes; there were peasants in sabots and blouses, artists and musicians conspicuous by the absence of starch in their neckcloths and their cuffs. But Darieux was in a dazed condition by now and did not take much notice of individuals. His nerves were on the rack, for the major-domo had knocked with his wand on a door at the end of the gallery. It was opened from the inside and Darieux was ushered into the presence of Joseph Fouche, Duc d’Otrante, Minister of Police to His Imperial Majesty Napoleon I.
Fouche was at this time fifty-three years of age. He might have been seventy by the look of utter weariness in his wan, jaundiced face, by the droop of his thin-lipped mouth, his sunken cheeks and baggy wrinkles round the eyes. He sat with hunched-up shoulders, behind a magnificent Louis XIV bureau which was littered with papers. He was absorbed in writing and did not so much as look up when Philippe Darieux was ushered into the room. His hand which wielded a long crimson quill was like that of a skeleton covered with a thin layer of parchment.
Between the bones of the hand blue veins stood out like cords To Darieux, young and virile, it seemed as if senility had already laid its withering grip upon this man of action and of unbridled passions. But this impression was only momentary, because a few minutes later the great man condescended to throw down his pen and to glance up at the young soldier who still stood at attention, with his right hand to the salute, silent, dignified in bearing and serene in his demeanour. Fouche looked him up and down with one of those flashing glances which were reputed to strike dismay in any heart conscious of delinquency, with eyes that were as young and virile as those of a man on the threshold of life, eyes deep sunk, dark and restless, that were compelling as are those of a boa-constrictor when intent on drawing its prey unto itself, eyes that were haunting and seemed to probe into the innermost soul of an enemy or a friend. There was nothing senile about those eyes, and when they met Darieux’ respectful glance the thin-lipped mouth curled into a satiric smile. It was a smile which brought a shudder down Philippe’s spine, the sort of shudder that any man may experience if he is alone in the jungle and sees the head of a snake rising out of the grass, and that paralysing sense of some unknown and impending doom returned to him after a moment or two at sight of that smile.
Fouche now leaned back in his chair. He extracted from his pocket an exquisitely-wrought gold snuff-box, took a pinch of snuff, and dusted its fragments off his clothes with a lace-edged handkerchief. He then cleared his throat and, without glancing again on the young officer, addressed him without any preamble in a dry, rasping voice:
“By His Majesty’s command, the corps of his military coast-guards will in future, under certain circumstances, come under civil jurisdiction. These circumstances will arise in case of any brawling with the civilian population which should result in fatal casualties. Should such casualties occur among the civilians, officers and men of the coast-guards concerned will automatically come under the jurisdiction of the local authorities, who will be empowered to conduct the enquiry and to deal with individual cases.”
He paused after that, cleared his throat once more, took another pinch of snuff and concluded tersely:
“You may go now, Captain Philippe Darieux.”
With his claw-like fingers he tinkled a hand-bell. The door was at once opened, and the major-domo wielding his ebony wand stood waiting on the threshold. Darieux was dismissed. No word of protest or gratitude for the unexpected promotion to the rank of captain or mere request for further explanation was allowed him. His salute was acknowledged with an almost imperceptible nod of the head. He then turned on his heel and followed the major-domo out of the room.
He had enough and more than enough to think about while he stepped along the wide gallery, down the marble staircase, and so on through the portals of the Louvre and back to his hotel. In the gallery among the crowd waiting for an audience he had caught sight of several of his brother officers, most of them of lower rank than himself. He had acknowledged and returned their military salute, vaguely wondering how many of them, if any, had been conscious of the same presage of evil as he himself had been. If they had, how long did that prescience last? Did they realize, as he had done, that what the all-powerful Minister of Police was aiming at was more freedom for the breakers of the law and the threat of severe reprisals against those whose duty it was to interfere with them? Even his unexpected promotion appeared to him as a veiled threat. And instinctively his thoughts reverted to the outward appearance of the Minister; that black coat of the finest cloth, that handkerchief of delicate cambric, that lace at throat and wrist. Darieux was not an expert in such goods, but he began to wonder what their provenance had been. That fine cloth had never been manufactured with French wool, nor had the cambric been woven on a French loom. Was this new enactment which would hand over a military corps to the tender mercies of civil jurisdiction intended to facilitate the smuggling of goods which His Grace d’Otrante and his friends desired for their own adornment? Darieux was no fool. That strange presentiment which had assailed him as soon as he had passed through the portals of the Louvre had the effect of sharpening his perception and of visualizing the danger which threatened him and his brother officers.
The blow had fallen, the presentiment had justified itself.
For all time now the threat of some terrible catastrophe would be hanging over him, unless he was prepared to sacrifice duty for the sake of personal safety. Dire peril would be his daily portion. He had no illusions on that score. The most powerful man in the Empire, second only to the Emperor himself, had aimed a death-blow at the corps of coast-guards. He and his brother officers would henceforth be at the mercy of circumstances: of an accident. A careless thrust maybe in self-defence, a moment’s remissness, and their life and honour would be in the hands of men in authority, of sycophants, whose personal interests were at stake, and whose actions were dictated by prejudice.
And where would Follette be in all this? Follette, whom he had once intended to punish as a breaker of the law. Pere Ribot, the old villain, was of course in with that whole band of smugglers, for whose protection the great Minister had devised an unjust and illegal enactment. What role would Follette play if he, an officer, now a captain, in His Majesty’s army were to be brought before a civil magistrate on a charge of wounding — perhaps, God help him! deliberately killing — a harmless civilian? Would she testify against him or save him from disgrace as she had done on that unforgettable night on the moor?” Would his fate depend on her word? Somehow he felt that it would. Fate has at times such strange vagaries. Follette did not love him. Not yet. He knew that. But until now he had cherished the hope that one day his own ardour would vitalize the spark of friendship or sympathy into a living flame. But these hopes had turned to bitter anguish. His dark presentiment of evil had in very truth justified itself. The blow had fallen, and what did it mean? A life of perpetual anxiety. Constant threat to life and honour. Or abandonment of his career. A fresh start in life and definite parting from Follette.
But Captain Philippe Darieux — as he now was — knew within his innermost consciousness that this last eventuality would be more unendurable than the thought of death. Without Follette, without a glance from her violet eyes, however hostile it might be, without an occasional sight of her sturdy young figure galloping over the moor, life would be nothing but a blank and wearisome chaplet of dreary, monotonous days and hours with no respite save the longing for its end.
No man or woman on the coast of Normandy was ever likely to forget those awful days in October 1810, when one of the most terrific gales within the memory of man had raged for three or four days in the Channel. It had all along been at its worst on the English side. Here on the French coast there was a formidable swell which brought huge billows rolling in, heaving and breaking against the reefs. The south-westerly wind raged furiously and the entire battery of heavenly artillery was at work over in England, from whence came the roll of peal upon peal of thunder, whilst almost incessant lightning, the howling of the wind and the crashing of the breakers struck terror in the hearts of all save the most experienced mariners.
No fishing-boat could be put out, and since the early afternoon the fisher-folk and villagers of the countryside stood about on the shore and cliff gazing out to sea. Silent, as was their wont, and expectant. Waiting for any wreckage that the sea might yield them. Upon the rising ground a compact crowd of men and women had congregated around Pere Ribot’s house. The men in their woollen jerseys, their arms crossed over their chests, the women striving to keep their shawls tightly held against the wind over their heads and shoulders. They gazed up at the tower, through the top window of which protruded the long, glittering arm of Pere Ribot’s telescope. They strained their ears to hear the old man’s voice which shouted down to them from above what could be seen through his precious instrument.
A smaller crowd had assembled in the attic, inside the tower. Here Follette’s eyes were glued to the telescope. She imparted what she saw to her father who was close to her, and he then transmitted the news to those who were standing behind him in the attic, or to those who were waiting patiently down below. It was freely whispered among these that an English ship was expected to put into Saint-Victor. She had been sighted soon after mid-day battling against the storm when it broke out on this side in all its fury. The sky remained fairly clear on this side, but by late afternoon, way out to the north, a black canopy of thunderclouds, rent across at frequent intervals by flashes of lightning, hung like solid ebony over the sea and obliterated the view over everything that lay beyond.
Down below the local corps of His Majesty’s coast-guards were on patrol along the beach. Rumours about a certain English ship had reached the ears of their commanding officer. A ship — it was murmured — laden with English wool. Although by this time practically the whole countryside was solidly in league with the smugglers there must always be in every community a few blacklegs who for reasons of their own chose to run with the hare and follow the hounds. The movements of the English ship as far as they were known had been effectively kept a secret from those whose loyalty to popular feeling was in question. It was not till late on the previous evening that some of the rank and file of the coast-guards returning to quarters from the buvettes brought back to Chateau Lorgeril news of what was in the wind.
As usual, the appearance on the shore of mounted coastguards with their commanding officers was greeted with black looks, followed by gibes and jeers. Captain Darieux, however, had, ever since his important interview with the Minister of Police, schooled the men to let curses and sarcasm pass them unheeded. There had already been one or two skirmishes with smugglers when the whole corps behaved with marvellous self-restraint. Their captain had told them of the menace that hung over them all should any fatal casualties occur. He himself gave them the example of disciplinary self-control. There were only ten of them all told and the crowd was distinctly hostile, but they were mounted and they were armed, and the crowd, save a few villagers, had only their fists and their heavy sea-boots wherewith to launch an organized attack.
From mutterings and whisperings caught here and there, Philippe Darieux gathered that Follette and her father were on the watch in the round tower and that they transmitted what they saw to those who were close enough to hear. At moments the wind brought sounds of Papa Ribot’s voice. Vague sounds only. Words were indistinguishable. Once the sound was that of a girl’s voice. Follette’s!
It was a mere cry, an exclamation raised above the hullabaloo of rain and wind. But it was her voice for all that. Unheard by every ear save that of the lover. He would, he felt, hear that voice if he were lying fathoms deep under the sea. In a trice he dismounted and clambered up the side of the cliff, trying to get to a spot whence he could hear that beloved voice more clearly.
But at the top he was met by a crowd, three score or more of men and women, all with heads turned up to face Papa Ribot’s house. Their backs were a solid phalanx which confronted him and barred his way. He tried to push through this compact human wall. But suddenly the wall started to move against him, backwards, as if at a word of command. Men and women pushed backwards, step by step, thrust him back to the very edge of the cliff, would have pushed him over, for he was losing ground, and might easily have fallen from a height of more than two hundred feet. He was just in time to save himself by an agile jump from a cracked skull or at best a broken limb.
He scrambled down to safety, with a singing sound in his ear of loud, derisive laughter from above. Looking up he saw a number of faces peering down at him. Each face a grinning mask. Jeering. Laughing at him.
His men gathered round him. In a momentary lull of the storm some of them had heard Papa Ribot shouting vociferously from above.
“Not yet! No! Wait! Not yet!” And a little while later: “Now I can... Dieu du del!... She is done for!... The reefs!... Dieu du del!... The reefs!... She is driven on the reefs!...”
That was the substance of what the men had heard. The rest of Pere Ribot’s words was drowned in the uproar of the storm. Lieutenant Praslins confirmed what the men said.
“She’ll be a total wreck....” he added.
“I wonder what she carried,” he continued after a time.
“English wool, I suppose,” Darieux muttered.
He got back into the saddle, strained his ears to catch some more of Ribot’s stentorian shouts. What he heard after a time were a few jerky phrases.
“Saint-Lys!” And again, “Saint-Lys!” followed by a cry in a woman’s voice — her voice — like an echo of the old man’s reiterated shout of “Saint-Lys... The reefs..
The crowd, which had been silent and sullen at first, now began to mutter:
“She is lost.. ,” and, “A total wreck,” they murmured.
“Only her hull,” came from out the round tower.
“No hope for her now,” the men kept on, shaking their heads.
No, there was no hope for the English ship laden with valuable cargo, now that she was driven on the reefs of Saint-Lys. Pere Ribot had sighted her through his powerful telescope fighting her last battle against storm and sea. The crowd on the beach below and on the cliff above swayed about restlessly, swayed and then oscillated as if driven by some unseen mechanism. The women made the sign of the cross—over their breasts — repeatedly. They murmured, “Dieu du del!” and “Sainte Vierge Marie!” They prayed and they cried. Wrapped their shawls closer round their heads so as to wipe away their tears. The men continued to murmur something about wool having gone up in price. The wreck of the English ship meant a terrible loss for most of them.
Presently the whole crowd started to move in the direction of the sister village. What wreckage there remained of the gallant English craft would be thrown up by the next tide. It would be picked up — some of it at least on the beach round about Saint-Lys. Better get there first before those cursed coast-guardsmen laid their hands on whatever was washed ashore.
And so the crowd swayed and then moved westwards along the beach. Buffeted by the wind, the women hindered in their progress by the flapping of their skirts round their knees, they moved on. On towards Saint-Lys, where treasures mayhap would be picked up, English wool which had gone up in price. In advance of the rest of the crowd were the few villagers who possessed horses and had brought them out for the occasion. They might get there ahead of the coast-guardsmen who had not yet begun to move.
The latter did indeed sit unmoved in their saddles. They were waiting their Captain’s command. But there was no hurry. The tide was only just on the turn, and the ebb had left a firm surface of wet sand and rock. They could cover the ground in half the time, and less, that it would take the crowd to do the same. Neither was Darieux anxious to move away. Something seemed to hold him back. He was conscious of a great desire to hear or see something more of what went on up above in Pere Ribot’s house. He strained his ears to catch any sound that might come from up there — a word, a cry. Strained his eyes to see something. Anything. For he felt that something was going on behind the walls of that round tower. And there was always the possibility of hearing her voice. Her singing, dominating, childlike voice. Of seeing her mayhap joining in with the crowd on its way to Saint-Lys. But not another sound came now from the round tower. And over Papa Ribot’s house the shades of evening were drawing a grey filmy curtain which obliterated the outline of every building and the solid masses of the surrounding trees....
No light appeared in any of the windows. Not a sound from there except that made by the crowd tramping along the cliff track which goes on towards Saint-Lys.
But Darieux remained on the watch, nevertheless, for quite a little while, and always with the feeling that something was about to happen. That strange feeling that comes sometimes to men who are in love. A something that concerned Follette. Something that would forge a link between her fate and his. Something that had been presaged by that appalling storm and by the wreckage of the English ship.
The crowd after a time became merged in the evening mist. Moving, swaying. A compact mass of humanity which presently looked ethereal, vaporised in the nebulous air. Not a sound from there either. The wind swallowed every sound save that of the distant rolls of thunder from over the English shore. Less frequent now, for the storm was moving westwards. The clamour of thunder was less persistent. Flashes of lightning less continuous. The storm clouds were drifting; dividing; reassembling; disintegrating; uniting again. Some billowed southwards over the Channel and there emitted occasional rumblings with flashes of sheet lightning.
On the French coast twilight lingered. The sky was still fairly clear with moving, broken clouds, through which the moon, nearing its full, would appear in an hour or so.
Darieux still sat unmoved in the saddle, but the men were getting impatient and their horses restive. Nevertheless, he was disinclined to leave his point of vantage. Puzzled and vaguely alarmed by the persistent silence in and around the Ribots’ house, he felt an obstinate determination to learn what was going on up there. Something was going on, of that he was quite certain. Had Follette gone with the crowd he would of a surety have known it. He would have seen her, for twilight still lingered on when first the crowd began to move. But she had not gone with the crowd. Nor had Pere Ribot. He was quite sure. Quite, quite sure. So sure that he could not move away. Must remain on the watch. Must know what was going on in the round tower, and in the house, whence not a sound escaped and where not a single light showed through any of the windows. Let the men go, if they felt impatient, if their horses were restive under the gusts of wind. Lieutenant Praslins was with them. A capable young officer who was prudent and would know what to do. Anyway, the English ship was a total wreck. Not one survivor left on board. But bales of English wool after bobbing about on the waves would after a time be cast on shore. So he gave the order to Praslins to move on with the men on the left flank of the crowd, then to wait in Saint-Lys till he — their Captain — was able to join them. He wouldn’t be long. He must remain on the watch, he explained to Praslins, in case anything occurred in Saint-Victor. Praslins would know what to do. “Be prudent,” Darieux admonished. “Allow no kind of skirmish. Do not let the men use their pistols, except to fire in the air.”
The riders moved off, and Darieux remained on the watch. His heart was beating fast. He was so sure that something was going to happen. The evening was drawing in more rapidly now. Twilight was merged in evening gloom. Now and then a flash of sheet lightning revealed the outline of the house and of the round tower, the clumps of trees and the length of the rough track which followed the edge of the cliff till it sloped down to the mouth of the river.
And it was on this track that in one of these flashes of lightning which lasted less than a second he perceived Follette astride her sturdy pony galloping hell for leather towards the river mouth. Not towards Saint-Lys. Not with the crowd, but in the opposite direction. Follette galloping hell for leather towards the river mouth. Why? What did she expect to find there? Whom did she expect to meet?
Darieux swung his horse round. By continuing along the beach he could get to the river almost as soon as that sturdy pony with its reckless rider. Reckless indeed, thought he, for the cliff track was rough, very stony, had twists and turns, not always distinguishable in the dark. He put his horse to a gallop, too. The outgoing tide had left a good, firm surface of wet sand, not yet ruffled by the flow, and on this side of Saint-Victor the ridges of rock on the beach were few and far between. He could do it, he thought. He must intercept her. Know, at risk of anything that might lie in wait for him down by the river, why Follette had not followed the crowd to Saint-Lys where the wreckage, if any, would be thrown on shore, but was galloping, galloping away, hatless, her tawny hair flying out like a golden cloud ruffled by the wind.
Follette, breathless, and drunk with the excitement of this mad gallop, in the wake of the storm and the uproar, the tumult of the past few hours, drew rein and swung herself out of the saddle. She left the pony to look after itself as she always did, for he was a shrewd little beast and could be trusted never to stray out of earshot. She made her way along the river bank, till she came to the sea shore, where a few fishing-boats were beached. She had eyes like a cat, for it was getting dark by now. Might have been daylight for the surety with which she dragged one of the boats down into the water, clambered into it, picked up the oars and with powerful strokes pulled out to sea.
Darieux came on the scene just in time to see the small skiff tossed about like a cork on the turbulent waves. He drew rein and was out of the saddle in a trice. Blind instinct impelled him to follow the girl, to intercept her if he could. She is risking her life, thought he, on some errand that was unavowable since it required the cover of darkness for its accomplishment. But for the gathering gloom he would have been quicker. There were only a few boats on the beach and it took him some time to find one. Yet he felt that he must hurry before darkness hid that reckless child completely from view. He thought of his horse, too. What to do about it? “Oh, this infernal darkness!” he muttered with a curse. But he started dragging the boat down and had got it as far as the water’s edge, when he heard a quaint little sound which caused him to pause and reflect. The pony! Her pony! She had left it to look after itself. And it was nuzzling round. Would presently meet Darieux’ horse, and the two beasts would make friends and stick together as animals have a way of doing. That was one problem solved, thought Darieux, and made ready to get into the boat. It was getting darker and darker. The storm had drifted westwards. No longer were there any sounds of thunder or flashes of lightning. Only darkness. Darkness everywhere. He could scarcely see a couple of arms’ lengths ahead of him. And in that restricted range of vision there was no sign of Follette. How could he tell which way she had gone? Blind instinct was one thing, foolhardiness another. There was no time or occasion, thought he, when he would not have risked his life to save that beloved child from any danger known or suspected, but to attempt to find her on a turbulent sea in almost complete darkness would be just senseless folly.
And there was the pony left to stray on the shore. She meant to come back to this same spot. She must come back. So he clambered into the boat, picked up the oars and pulled round to the sea shore. There he waited, just keeping the boat moving. She meant to come back. She would come back. Now? When? Alone or...? Who could tell?
Poor Darieux was used to waiting for that wayward, capricious child. What in heaven’s name was she up to now? Darkness for a time — a long, long time — grew more and more intense. Hours flew by — two, perhaps three — Darieux lost count of time, in these palpitating hours of waiting. Then suddenly the clouds parted. The moon cast her radiance over the sea. The billowing waves came tumbling in with the ascending tide. The sky was clear, and there far away there was a tiny speck moving shorewards with the tide. Darieux strained his eyes to watch. That tiny speck grew larger and larger... it was taking shape... the shape of a boat... with someone in it... Follette!... pulling shoreward as hard as any man.... And now he perceived a second boat. It was hitched on to the first with a tow-line.... Two boats. The second one seemed unoccupied, and Follette was pulling them both shorewards... pulling with vigorous strokes. The incoming tide helped her... But what an effort for such young arms — And had she been alone when she hitched the tow-line? Darieux waited no longer.
With a few steady strokes he pulled out against the tide, trying to get near to those two boats. He had not moved far when he perceived that they no longer followed one another. The tow-line had evidently given way. Inwardly he thanked his stars that he was on the spot. He could help her. She could not refuse his help. He would see to that. Wilful though she was she could not refuse his help. A few more strokes of the oars brought him nearer to Follette’s boat. The other was drifting. It was already a short distance away. Now he was near enough to hear the splash of the oars wielded by those strong young arms. Aware of the snapping of the tow-line, Follette was bringing her boat round to pick up the other one. She perceived Darieux intent on the same manoeuvre.
“Go back, mon Capitaine!”she shouted at the top of her ringing voice.
But to this he paid no need. And again she shouted: “Go back!” But he was close to the drifting boat now. He put out his hand and pulled it to him. The broken tow-line hung fore in the water. He seized the cord and hitched it to his own boat. Follette was on the spot, too, by now. She kept on shouting: “Go back! Leave me alone! Go back!” And it must be admitted that she used several expressions of abuse against the unfortunate Darieux which it is hoped did not reach his ears. Anyway, he paid no need, kept the two boats well away from her vicinity and rowed vigorously back towards the beach, leaving her to execute any manoeuvre she chose.
Strong and determined though she was, Follette after many hours of exertion could not compete in speed with Darieux’ muscular, powerful arms. He had already beached the two boats when she finally came on shore.
“I told you to leave me alone,” was all she said as soon as she recovered her breath, for she was tired out and rather puffed. As she made her way to the boat, Darieux was still standing beside it. All he said was:
“Is the man dead?”
“No!” she replied curtly.
“What are you going to do with him?” he asked.
“Take him home with me, of course,” she retorted.
She gave a little click of the tongue, and was answered by a soft neigh, quite close to. The pony and Darieux’ horse loomed out of the darkness. Follette bent over the boat. Her two arms encircled the form of a man lying prostrate in the bottom. Darieux put his arms round her waist, trying to restrain her. She struggled against him, but he held her tightly, his two hands clasped just below her young breasts.
“Leave me alone!” she cried out, and releasing her hold on the prostrate body she fastened her grip on Darieux’ hands, clawing him with her nails. She was like a little fury, shouting: “Leave me alone! You... you... How dare you?... How dare you?...”
Darieux could not help laughing. She was so angry and so impotent, for she was tired out, almost exhausted with the exertions of the past few hours. He certainly did not let go of her, although she scratched and tore at his hands till they bled. And suddenly he did let go, causing her to lose her balance. She staggered back and would have fallen down headlong on the stony beach, had he not put out his arms just in the nick of time. He put one round her shoulders, the other round her knees, lifted her up and carried her to where the pony was standing patiently waiting, nuzzling, with Darieux’ horse close by.
He lifted her into the saddle. She was not fully conscious now. Tired out, gentle, yielding herself to his stronger will. Infinitely more lovable, more desirable, thought he, in her pathetic weakness than she had been in her pride and wilfulness. He put the reins into her hands.
“I’ll bring him along, and follow you,” was all he said.
And, somehow, she acquiesced. She had drooped in the saddle at first, but now she sat up straight. The pony was for turning homewards immediately but she kept him standing still, softly patting his neck. She did not look on Darieux at all. She just listened, straining her ears to hear him moving about. She heard him go back to the boat, and come back after a time with slow and measured steps like one carrying a heavy burden. She heard him give a click of the tongue, heard the horse moving and then standing still in obedience to repeated “Whoa! Whoa!” from its master. The rest was conjecture for she couldn’t see, but she knew what was happening. He had lifted his inanimate burden on to the horse’s back, then got in the saddle after him.
Satisfied as to that she let the pony get along. Darkness or moonlight, he knew his way and plodded along the cliff path quite quietly, since his rider kept a tight hold on the reins. Darieux followed, clasping the inert body of the shipwrecked mariner in his arms. The moon was fitful in her appearances, with the clouds heavy over her now and then. And so the small procession ambled on till the pony came to a halt in front of Ribot’s house. The door was open, letting out a streak of light over the rough ground. The old man came to the door, and Follette dismounted. He asked the same question which Darieux had put to her: “Is he dead?” Follette gave no answer. Father and daughter understood one another without the exchange of words.
The pony walked off quietly to its shed at the back of the house. Darieux had not moved. He sat on his horse with the inert body of the stranger tightly clasped, waiting for what would happen next. He didn’t have to wait long this time. A moment or two later he heard the old man’s voice raised in a peremptory command:
“Give him to me!”
He came close up to Darieux with his vigorous old arms outstretched. The young soldier lowered his burden into them. No other words passed between the three actors of this curiously silent drama. No more notice was taken of Darieux than if he had been a lay figure or a dumb animal. Not a nod, not a sign from Follette or her father. Not a word of thanks. She went into the house and the old man, carrying the inert body, followed her in. The next moment the front door was closed behind them and all was darkness round the rider and his horse.
Wrapped in thought, Darieux rode slowly back to Chateau Lorgeril.
It was difficult to know exactly where duty lay in this matter. Difficult, at any rate, to reconcile sentiment with the stern obligations of his calling. Darieux spent half the night thinking things out. He would, of course, in the early morning, receive Lieutenant Praslins’ report. The young officer would tell him what wreckage the tide had washed ashore, if any. Anyway, if, as he strongly suspected, contraband goods had come rolling in with the oncoming tide, he, Darieux, would have some facts to work upon. His suspicions would be confirmed and he would be free to act as duty demanded.
When the English ship foundered on the reefs one man had saved himself by taking to a boat and had tried to make for Saint-Victor, with such goods as he had been able to rescue from the wreck. This, of course, was mere conjecture. There certainly was nothing in the bottom of the boat which Darieux had brought inshore except the inanimate body of a man — possibly an English mariner. The question was had Follette taken over the contraband goods, if there were any, into her own boat, and in the gloom, unseen by him, had she continued to transfer them to the pony’s saddlebag? Anything was possible. Follette’s brain worked so quickly and she was nimble and always self-possessed. She could have done it, and brought the goods home — something small — possibly tobacco. Thus she would have brought herself under the ban of the law! She, Follette, whom he had once sworn to capture red-handed and to deliver over to justice! Follette, to protect whom today he would gladly have sacrificed his life!
That was where sentiment came in, ready to play its part in this grave puzzle which confronted Captain Philippe Darieux. Could he bring himself to make another requisition in Pere Ribot’s house? The first one had been anything but successful. The old villain had very obviously some hiding-place outside his house where he concealed his ill-gotten wares. Where this was the search-party had been unable to discover. But neither Darieux nor his men were likely to fail in this again. They had suffered humiliation and defeat once. The men would certainly see to it that they did not suffer the same again. And what would happen to Follette if her father was caught red-handed, in possession of prohibited goods? What would happen to her? Hot-headed and temperamental as she was, danger to her father might egg her on to commit an act of folly — a criminal act mayhap. Darieux felt his very senses reel at thought of what might happen to Follette... and through his own action.... How would he rescue her from the trap which duty demanded of him that he should set for her?
Could he but see her now. He pictured her, alone with her father, at the bedside of that foreign mariner, tending him — for he was probably hurt — looking after him, sheltering him, protecting him against any danger that might threaten. And he — the stranger — tossing about on his narrow camp-bed. Darieux tried to visualize all this. An insensate jealousy gnawed at his heart. Jealousy of whom? Of a stranger? A criminal, perhaps. One whose arrest, unless luck failed him completely, Darieux could effect within a few hours. And jealousy of what? Of Follette’s interest in him? Of her tender care of him? Of the touch of her gentle little hands on his aching brow? Folly! Folly! All that was nothing but folly. Poor Darieux! Follette had no love for him. Never would have. She hated and despised him. Looked upon him as an enemy. A mere coxcomb on the prowl, striving to win promotion and vainglory by despicable means.
Her sympathies — her whole life in fact — were bound up with a gang of malefactors, whom duty commanded him to track down till the clutches of the law closed firmly upon the lot of them. Was any man in love ever placed in such an agonizing position? Darieux felt as if a whole army of impish little devils were tearing at his heart-strings, causing him pain that was almost physical. It is easy enough to jeer at a man in love, who sees his love flouted and ridiculed. A spurned lover seldom arouses sympathy. No one jeered at himself more than Captain Darieux did. In these weary hours of the night he heaped contempt — withering contempt — on himself; tried by every means in his power to regain some of that self-respect which had once been his pride, and which he felt he had forfeited for ever that night on the marsh, when, wearied and dispirited, he suddenly heard a girl’s voice speak to him in easy, pleasant banter, and felt the touch of a gentle reassuring hand upon his arm.
Over in the old farmhouse, Pere Ribot and his daughter also spent a sleepless night, not because of sentimental reasons or worrying over where duty lay. Duty for them was plain enough. The stranger — if stranger he was — remained unconscious for several hours after he had been laid down on a couch in front of the kitchen fire, and the two of them watched unremittingly over him, plying him with brandy and hot mulled wine. The man had evidently at some time or other received a severe blow on the head which had rendered him unconscious. There was slight concussion perhaps. Pere Ribot, who knew something about such things, said emphatically that there was no danger in his condition. Rest and quiet was all that was needed, he declared, and directed Follette to bathe the patient’s forehead with vinegar and cold water.
At a whispered mention of a doctor, however, the patient, who until then had remained quiescent, almost in a state of unconsciousness, at once became restless. The expression of his face became distorted as if with acute anxiety, and he suddenly raised his arms over the blanket with a gesture as if striving to ward off a blow, then dropped them equally suddenly and pulled the blanket back slightly over them just below his breast.
“Shows he is not so bad as he appears,” Pere Ribot remarked philosophically, whilst Follette laid a fresh cold compress on the patient’s head.
Until early dawn the wind continued to howl down the chimney. At one time Pere Ribot, ensconced in an armchair the other side of the fireplace, dropped off to sleep. His stertorous breathing coupled with the howling of the wind created in the darkened room an atmosphere of gloom, almost of eeriness. But Follette carried on — serenely — her task of attending on the sick man’s wants. Only now and then did she remain quite still, gazing down on him with a puzzled expression in her eyes. She did not altogether understand his attitude. As a matter of fact, when she came up with him on the turbulent sea he was already lying unconscious in the boat, and there was nothing in the way of smuggled wares beside him. Nevertheless there was something that was troubling him. When a doctor was mentioned he had put out his arms as if he wanted to ward something off, and then folded them across his breast, holding the blanket in a tight grip over them. Was that where he had been hurt? she wondered. After that he had always kept one arm lying over that part of his body. To protect it, as it were. Once she tried to pull away the blanket and to take hold of his arm, and immediately the look of anxiety returned to his face. He opened his eyes, just for a few seconds, and she caught the look that was in them. It was one of appeal.
Most of the night, however, passed off quietly enough, and Follette never left the patient’s side except to attend to the kitchen fire. Although she must have been very weary after her exertions of the evening she never relaxed in her attentions to him. Her nerves seemed made of steel and her will-power appeared stupendous in one so young. Her patience was inexhaustible. Always vaguely puzzled, she tried to read his face by the flickering light of the fire. It was difficult to distinguish the features clearly. The eyes were closed. The mouth and chin were hidden by a heavy growth of black beard and moustache. The cheeks were sunken and pale. One thing the girl noticed was that he wore a gold circle in his left ear. And once — it was in early dawn — he yawned and she noticed that two teeth were missing in his upper jaw. It was a strong face, and not prepossessing. Follette, who had a good deal to do with English mariners, did not think that he was English. Italian perhaps, she thought, or Provencal from the shores of the Mediterranean.
Towards early dawn the sick man rallied, quite markedly. He drew a deep sigh and opened his eyes. He put out a hand, seized hold of Follette’s wrist, and drew her gently towards him. She leaned over to him and put her ear close to his mouth, for he was trying to speak. At first it was a mere whisper but presently she caught the words, “My belt.. and then, “Take care that.. He spoke in French, the French of Provence. So that was it, thought she. The belt. Looking down, she noticed for the first time that he was wearing a wide leather belt, which appeared to be very heavy and strong. She had not noticed this before. It had been too dark in the room until the feeble rays of dawn crept in through the curtained window, and he had always kept a tight hold on the blanket even while he was unconscious.
The few whispered words appeared to have tired him. He gasped for breath. He surely was too weak, thought she, to endure the pressure of that heavy belt. But she made no attempt to touch it. Rather did she try to encourage him.
“Yes, yes.” she murmured. “The belt?... I can hear you.”
He made an effort and spoke again.
“They will come... the coast-guards... you know...” and then went on: “They are in my belt.”
Follette thought that mayhap he was feverish and that his mind was wandering. She murmured foolishly:
“The coast-guards?... In your belt?...”
“No, no!” he interjected with impatience. “Don’t let them touch it... hide it... hide it... take care...”
And in his agitation, his voice rose louder and more shrill. The sound roused Pere Ribot out of his sleep. He gave a jump and muttered thickly:
“What... what is it...?”
Follette couldn’t say. She did not understand. She still thought that the patient was feverish. What, thought she, had a belt to do with coast-guards? There could not be any English wool stowed inside a belt, nor enough tobacco to matter very much even if it was discovered. But apparently Pere Ribot understood, for the next moment he was on his feet, and pushing his daughter gently aside he came near to the couch where the sick man had with an effort raised himself to a sitting position, and, gasping feebly for breath, continued to murmur:
“Quick... can’t you hear them?... Inside the belt... Quick...”
Follette heard and so did Ribot. From a distance on the rough track there came the sound of heavy footsteps treading the stony road, and drawing nearer every moment to the house. “Quick!...” the sick man murmured again.
Follette’s deft fingers sought instinctively the fastenings of the belt. There was some secret here which had been kept from her. Why? She did not care to know. Enough that her father knew. He gave her a hint which she was quick enough to take. She propped up the sick man in her vigorous young arms, thus enabling him to undo the clasps of the belt. Her father fumbled inside it and extracted a small packet done up in a piece of cloth. With this in his hand he went out of the room, and Follette was left alone with her patient, who, with a sigh of relief, lay back contentedly on the pillow. She, serene and calm, as she always was when anything serious had to be done, continued to busy herself with compresses and warm drinks, whilst straining her ears to listen to the rapid approach of the coast-guards.
Two or three minutes later there came the expected knock at the door and the habitual peremptory call: “In the name of the law.”
Pere Ribot came shuffling back out of the inner room. He treated his daughter and his sick guest to a wink and a chuckle before he went through the kitchen into the outer hall and there opened the front door to the representatives of the law.
“Enter!” he said loudly in the dry, sarcastic tones he affected under like circumstances. “Enter, I pray you, in the name of the law.”
Captain Philippe Darieux, in full uniform, with sword unsheathed and two pistols in his belt, entered, followed by Lieutenant Praslins and four members of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards.
“To what happy circumstance do I owe the honour of this early morning visit, Monsieur le Capitaine?” Pere Ribot queried derisively. And as Darieux gave no immediate answer, but just stood by while the men marched in and mustered two on each side of the door, awaiting further orders: “A glass of Armagnac, Messieurs les Officiers,” he went on lightly. “The same which you delighted in the last time you honoured my poor house with your visit?”
And in the interval of prattling on he clapped his hands and called loudly to Follette. She came in almost immediately, carrying a large bottle, plentifully covered in dust and cobwebs. She acknowledged the two officers’ salute with a nod, but without a glance at either of them, deposited the bottle on the table and turned to the dresser to fetch the glasses.
But Captain Darieux made haste to interpose.
“I pray you do not trouble, Mademoiselle Follette,” he said gravely. “Neither Lieutenant Praslins nor I, nor my men, are prepared to accept Monsieur Ribot’s hospitality. We have ventured to intrude on your privacy in the exercise of our official duty, and the men have orders to satisfy themselves that none of the wreckage from the English ship was of a prohibited nature and that none of it has found its way in Monsieur Ribot’s house.”
At this oration, spoken stiffly and courteously, old Ribot broke into loud laughter.
“He calls me Monsieur Ribot,” he said with a chuckle, and smacked his knees with his fists. “Me! Monsieur? He, he, he! Do you hear that, Follette, my girl? Nay! but you’ll make me die of laughter, mon Capitaine. You are so humorous... so... so..
And his shoulders shook. And he had to wipe his eyes, which were streaming, and his nose, which was dribbling, so highly did that courteous appellation of Monsieur tickle his fancy. He kept on calling to Follette to join in his mirth, which she did with a shrug and a mocking smile. She had taken down three glasses from the dresser and put these down on the table, without directing a single glance at either of the two young officers, or taking any notice of their protest when Papa Ribot started to fill the glasses with his favourite liqueur. Nor did Darieux pay any attention to either of them. All he now did was to stand at attention. He gave a sketchy salute, and said as if addressing no one in particular:
“By your leave—”
He gave a sign to the men, who under the guidance of Lieutenant Praslins at once began silently and methodically a search of the place. They opened every door and every drawer of every table, dresser and cupboard that was in the room. They hammered against the walls and stamped their feet on the wooden floor. Papa Ribot chuckled as was his wont and went on chuckling and laughing to himself. He then helped himself to a glass of Armagnac and drained it down at one gulp.
“Please yourself, my friend,” he said drily, and smacked his lips and wiped them with the back of his hand. “Make a fool of yourself and your miserable soldiers as you did before. You need not be afraid. I shall not interfere with you in the exercise of your duty. But remember,” he added, “that it is not part of your duty to damage any of my furniture or other appurtenances of my house. For this you would have to pay in accordance with our civil laws, under whose jurisdiction our benevolent Minister of Police has recently placed you in spite of all your gold lace and your murderous-looking sword.”
Again he chuckled and helped himself to a second glass of liqueur, fixing his shrewd eyes on Captain Darieux, who was making obvious efforts to control his temper. When he had taken a sip and had smacked his lips he said pleasantly:
“Wonderful old Armagnac this. You are sure you won’t have a glass?”
Darieux vouchsafed no reply. He directed Lieutenant Praslins to take two of the men with him to the upper floor. Ribot went on sipping his Armagnac placidly while the soldiers were heard tramping up the stairs and turning things upside down in the rooms above as they had done here below. Drawers and cupboards were dragged open and chairs overturned. There was much banging against the walls and stamping and hammering against the floorboards. What happened to the beds could only be conjectured. The bedding was turned over, no doubt. Mattresses were pounded on with fists. Praslins’ voice could be heard from time to time giving orders, loudly calling to the men.
And all the while Follette kept on busying herself in the room. Now and again she gave a quick glance at Darieux. Her deep blue eyes were dancing with mirth, and he cursed himself under his breath — cursed himself for his folly in allowing that girl who despised him to have such a devastating effect on his peace of mind. Praslins and the men were coming back down the stairs. One glance at the young Lieutenant revealed the failure which had attended the search in the rooms above.
Ribot chuckled, and Follette made a movement in the direction of the kitchen door. Darieux interposed at once, barring her way.
“Mademoiselle... I must ask you to remain here for the present.”
She gave a shrug.
“Why?” she demanded curtly.
“I have a few questions to put to you.”
“At your service, mon Capitaine,” she responded.
She strolled over to the table, sat down and quite unconcernedly took the glass of Armagnac which her father had poured out for her. She twisted the stem between her fingers, and sipped the liqueur, glancing over the brim with those mocking violet eyes of hers on her discomfited adorer. What he suffered at that moment was indescribable. She tortured and tormented him with her mockery and her tantalizing glance. He had to pull himself sternly together and to swallow hard before he was able to speak coherently. Follette, on the other hand, appeared perfectly calm. She was drumming her fingers on the table-top. “I am waiting, mon Capitaine,” she said lightly.
“You have a stranger under your roof, Mademoiselle,” Darieux responded, in a voice that was not quite as steady as he would have wished, though his glance which rested on his fascinating tormentor was, as he hoped, both stern and uncompromising. But Follette was entirely unperturbed. She queried:
“Who should know that better than you, mon Capitaine, since you helped to bring him here?”
“I would wish to speak with him,” Darieux went on more steadily.
“He is sick and can hardly talk.”
“I will do the talking. He need only nod in reply.”
“You’d best leave him alone,” Follette retorted. “I can tell you everything you would like to know.”
“I doubt that,” he rejoined. “And by your leave...”
He gave a sign to Praslins to follow him and made a step in the direction of the inner door. But Follette was too quick for him. With a cat-like spring she intercepted him.
“Leave him alone, mon Capitaine,” she insisted. “I tell you he is a sick man. If you worry him he will get feverish, and I shall have him on my hands for goodness knows how long. He was on the English ship,” she prattled on rather breathlessly, “and saved himself by a miracle when she foundered. I was looking through Father’s telescope and saw a boat with one man in it. I saw him drop his oars and fall back in the boat, and I was not going to allow any man to die like that. He could not have brought the boat to shore in that sea. So I went out to help him, as I helped you when you were stranded and helpless on the marsh, Monsieur le Capitaine Darieux,” she concluded with withering sarcasm, “and I am sure that he will prove more grateful and more of a man of his word, even though he is only a humble mariner, and not an officer of His Majesty’s coastguards.”
It was a cruel thrust, which helped to throw poor Darieux almost off his mental balance. The effort to control himself was almost beyond his strength. What he longed for with overpowering intensity was to have this exquisite impudent minx all to himself, to seize her in his arms and to break her spirit by the violence of his passionate love. He felt his helplessness with an intolerable physical ache. He would not have heeded that old villain Ribot — but there were the men and Praslins... and he was helpless... and in misery.... Her eyes continued to challenge him... her lips were parted in that exasperating smile which sent the blood rushing to his temples and turned his will-power to putty.
“Philippe Darieux,” his better self admonished, “pull yourself together. Be a man and not a puppet. Don’t let her see that you care and that she is making a miserable fool of you.”
He clenched his fists, digging his nails into the palms of his hands. His knuckles stood out white and shiny like ivory. A cold sweat ran down his spine. His temples throbbed. Beads of perspiration stood out upon his forehead. Whether a look of appeal — appeal for mercy — crept into his eyes in the midst of this mental conflict or whether the girl realized that she had perhaps gone a little too far and was running a certain amount of danger by irritating a man beyond endurance, Darieux didn’t know. Certain it is that all of a sudden her manner changed. She gave a light shrug, got out of the way of the door and, pointing to it, said lightly:
“The shipwrecked mariner is in there, mon Capitaine, if you wish to speak with him.”
And she strolled back to the table, sat down again and drank another glass of Armagnac. Papa Ribot said nothing. His shrewd eyes under busy eyebrows had watched with obvious delight his daughter’s wordy duel with the young officer. He was still laughing inwardly to himself when, having drained her glass, she gave him a knowing wink. Darieux by now had regained his calm. Followed by Praslins, he stepped to the kitchen door and, without waiting for permission to enter, threw it open and went in. Another wink of understanding passed between Ribot and his daughter. She was sitting with her back to the door, but she knew quite well what was going on behind her, even if her father’s habitual chuckle had not given her the cue. He always chuckled in that way when anything tickled his fancy. “Cluck! Cluck! Cluck!” was something like the sound which he emitted on those occasions. And “Cluck! Cluck! Cluck!” now warned Follette that something very amusing was going on over there.
And something very amusing was certainly going on. Captain Philippe Darieux had come to a halt on the threshold of the kitchen. He did not say anything. He did not swear. But Lieutenant Praslins did all the swearing that the situation demanded.
The shipwrecked mariner, who was supposedly in a high fever and unable so much as to talk without danger of physical collapse, who should have been lying in semi-consciousness on the couch wrapped up in blankets, with compresses on his brow and medicaments beside him, was not in the room at all. The kitchen fire was alight. The kitchen cat was asleep on the hearth. The large window which gave on the shrubbery at the back of the house was wide open, and there was no sign of a shipwrecked stranger whether hale or sick.
Darieux swung round to face the two Ribots.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded sternly.
“Meaning of what, mon Capitaine?” Follette rejoined quietly.
“You told me a few moments ago that the man whom you brought inshore yesterday evening was in this room. Why did you tell a lie?”
“I did not tell a lie, mon Capitaine,” Follette gave answer, wholly unperturbed. “The stranger whom I rescued last night from certain death was in that room when I told you that he was. I never take the trouble to lie, mon Capitaine. Why should I?”
“After him, my men,” Darieux commanded. “Bring the man back — alive. Do not shoot, but in God’s name bring him back.”
And while Ribot continued to chuckle and peacefully drank his Armagnac, and while Follette, seemingly convulsed with laughter, threw her arms over the table and buried her face in the crook of her elbow, Darieux muttered a few quick words to his Lieutenant.
“Black hair and beard, a gold ring in his ear... but seize any man you see lurking about and bring him here.”
The men were over the window-sill in a trice and Praslins after them. Darieux followed and went over to the open window, trying hard to shut his ears to Follette’s gusts of laughter and to Ribot’s infernal chuckling, which came to his ears from the hall. Leaning against the window-frame he strove to hear something of what was going on outside, the men making their way through the scrubby undergrowth, searching for the fugitive. He vainly strained his ears to hear a shout of triumph, or a scuffle, or something that would reassure him that the pursuit was not in vain or at least that, in the search for the runaway, some mysterious hiding-place had come to fight.
Time went on. He knew not how long. His exasperation against Follette gradually died down. His blood had slowly cooled to normal. In the silence that had succeeded so much turbulent emotion and wordy warfare, his love for the girl who hated and tormented him had overweighed his irritation and killed in him that well-nigh sadistic desire to be even with her, to give torment for torment and injury for injury. So much so in fact that when after a time the girl came into the kitchen, and without paying any attention to him set about performing her household duties, he remained quiescent, still leaning against the open window, following with hungry eyes her movements as she busied herself with saucepans and casseroles, all the while humming softly to herself:
“Au clair de la lune
Mon ami Pierrot...”
This sort of thing went on for some considerable time, he contemplative and silent and she fussing about the place humming one little tune after another to the accompaniment of clattering saucepans and the rattling of china. The men had not come back, no sound of their doings, their searchings or of any scuffle came through the open window. Darieux at last could not stand the strain any longer.
“Mademoiselle Follette,” he said at last, so softly that he did not think she could possibly have heard. At the moment she had been in the act of opening a drawer of the kitchen dresser and this made a lot of noise. So he called out again, more loudly this time:
She was still busy with her kitchen appurtenances, and had a bunch of knives and forks in her hand which she disposed about the table. When she had finished with that she raised her head and returned his glance. Her eyes expressed nothing but astonishment, as if she had only this very moment become conscious of his presence.
“Yes, mon Capitaine,” she responded coolly; “what is it you want?”
“For the moment,” he replied, “I want nothing but to go on looking at you. You are so beautiful, so gentle, so lovable...”
She gave her usual quick mocking laugh.
“Beautiful,” she mimicked him, “gentle, lovable? You did not always think like that of me, Monsieur le Capitaine Darieux.”
“I always thought it, Mademoiselle Follette,” he rejoined earnestly, “but always I have wondered why you hate me so.”
“Hate you, mon Capitaine?” she countered with a shrug. “I do not hate anyone. Why should I hate you? We hardly ever meet... And,” she added slowly, “our lives lie so very much apart.”
“Is that why you take every opportunity to show what contempt you have for me?”
She did not answer him immediately, but went over to the dresser, thus turning her back on him. She pulled open one of the heavy drawers, and banged it to again with a great clatter. After which she faced him once more, looked him squarely in the face and said drily:
“I do not like a man who breaks his word of honour.”
That was hitting below the belt. It gave him a horrid sinking of the heart, because it made him feel more than ever before the hopelessness of his position with regard to her. There was something unforgiving in her glance while she said this. An angry glitter which caused her blue eyes to appear dark as a midnight sky, of a deep unfathomable violet. What chance would he ever have of putting himself right with her? She was a child, wilful and untutored. She could never be made to understand the difficulties that often beset a man in the exercise of his duty. The very word “duty” had no meaning for her.
The great question was would love — love as great as his — penetrate to the innermost recesses of her heart, and, storming that impregnable citadel, would it shatter at one swoop her resentment, her wilfulness and her childish prejudice? May the little god of love aid him with his bow and arrow, teach him to aim straight and to find the right words wherewith to move her stubborn heart — the right words spoken at the right moment.
He made a movement towards her, but at once she checked him with a hard, unyielding look, and in her turn moved towards the door.
“Mademoiselle Follette,” he entreated. Right moment or wrong, he didn’t care. With a quick stride he put himself between her and the door, and before she was able to stop him he had seized her two wrists, one in each of his hands, and drew her to him until he felt her hot breath upon his face and her young breasts were pressed against his body. She tried hard to free her wrists, but he held them in a tight grip. She looked like a little fury, muttering between her teeth: “Let me go! Let me go! I hate you!” He expected every moment to hear her scream, to call to her father who was in the next room. But he wouldn’t care if she did. Old Ribot’s presence would be of no importance. He was going to have his say, he would unburden his heart to this untamed creature and hang the consequences.
She continued to struggle, panting for breath, and once she bent over and seized his hand with her teeth, bit into it like some young animal at bay. And all of a sudden a great wave of compassion surged up in his heart. How young she was! How foolish! How infinitely dear! Tears gathered in his eyes and words came tumbling from his lips — words he had never meant to speak, but now could no longer check.
“You dear, foolish little thing,” he murmured at first under his breath. “I am not going to hurt you. Don’t you know that I would sooner be dead than hurt one finger of your darling hand? Don’t you really know that? Don’t you know that I love you with all my heart, with my soul and with all my might, that I have loved you since the day when first those beautiful eyes of yours flashed anger and contempt on me? And that I shall continue to love you while there is breath left in my body? The greatest happiness in my life would be to make you happy, and as it is not in my power to do that, all I ask is to see you happy, to see you smile, to feel that you look upon me as a friend, a comrade who would do anything in the world for you. I love you so, my little one, cannot you give me one little crumb of comfort? Now and again one gentle word of affection?”
He had said a great deal more than he meant to, but the words forced themselves up to his mouth right out of his heart and would not be restrained. After a time his voice grew more steady, but never rose louder than a murmur. He released her wrists, her arms dropped to her sides, and turning her head she looked him straight in the face. Her eyes had taken on their deep violet hue and were fixed on him with a curious and puzzled stare. She looked more like a child than ever. A child that is listening to a strange and wonderful story which it does not quite understand, but which vaguely frightens it. Love meant nothing to her, that was obvious. She had flirted and dallied and listened to passionate avowals probably many a time, but Darieux could see by the expression in her face, by her great puzzled eyes fixed upon him while he spoke, that love such as he tried to express to her held no meaning for her as yet. He tried to hold her glance for a time, but after a few moments she averted her gaze and with a funny kind of expression she looked down on her hands, or rather on her wrists, which bore a faint red mark right round them where he had held them tight. She was certainly a little bit dazed, for when he seized her hands once more — which he did very, very gently — she made no attempt to snatch them away, and remained quite quiescent while he raised them, first one and then the other, to his lips.
It was just at this tense moment that the first sounds of what was going on outside came through the open window. One could hear the men treading the rough scrub and the crackling of dead twigs under their feet. They were making for the back door of the house, and Darieux, releasing the girl’s hands and pulling himself together, prepared to go and meet them there. The door was at right angles to the open window. Before he turned that way, he cast a final beseeching look on Follette. But she had her back to him now and a moment later had gone out into the hall, whence he could hear old Ribot calling querulously:
“Why, Follette, what have you been up to?...”
Darieux heard no more. Follette had shut the door behind her. He was conscious of an agonizing sense of disappointment. His heart had spoken to her, and his gentle, passionate appeal had failed to touch her. She was a child and did not understand. Would she ever? he wondered. And when she did would it be his words, his ardent, unselfish love that would break down the defences of indifference and prejudice which still held her heart in bondage? God alone knew! Darieux drew a deep sigh of unsatisfied longing. His entire life, every hope of happiness for him now and in the future, hung on the answer to that riddle.
He was met at the back door by Praslins, who had the four coast-guardsmen with him. In response to an impatient “Well?” from Darieux, he replied:
“We found him at last.”
Darieux went out and closed the door behind him. He asked no more questions, but made his way round to the front of the house in the direction of the cliff track. Praslins walked beside him, and the men followed. As soon as they were well away from the house, Praslins continued:
“While we turned every likely hiding-place inside out and investigated every possible cache he was sitting quietly at the Pot d’Etain — less than a kilometre along here — having a drink. Two of the men went down on the beach. There are a good many shallow caves along there; we know most of them by now of course, but there was no sign of anyone lurking about there. The two others scoured the scrub with me. In the end I went down the cliff too. I was very thirsty and so were the men. So we turned into the Pot d’Etain for a drink, and there was the fellow you described — black hair and beard, a gold ring in his ear. I wished him good morning. He was eating bread and cheese and went on eating while he returned my greeting. I had a word or two with him. He certainly seemed quite unconcerned. The place was very hot and he took his coat off and unbuttoned his waistcoat while we talked, and after a time he put his hands in his breeches pockets and turned them inside out as if he were looking for money. As a matter of fact I imagine that he did all that rather ostentatiously, just to show me that he had no contraband about his person. Anyhow, it could not have been more than a small packet or two of tobacco. He spoke to the landlord, told him that he had escaped by a miracle from the wrecked English ship and had found shelter in that red house over there — he pointed of course to Ribot’s house. He had no money, but the owner of the house, who had been very kind to him, would certainly pay his debts for him. The landlord seemed quite satisfied. He even went the length of bringing another bottle of wine and some more bread and cheese for our man, sat down at the table with him, and the two of them then started a conversation about the wreck, the gale and so on. We left them at it. And I came back to report to you.”
Praslins made his long report in short jerky sentences, and after the manner of his compatriots — with the aid of copious and irrelevant gestures and several halts in the middle of the road. Thus the narrative took a long time before it drew to its end, and by the time it was finished he and Captain Darieux had reached the confines of the Chateau Lorgeril. Darieux had only listened with half an ear to the long story. He did not interrupt, nor did he ask any questions when it was all over. He did get a vague purport of what it was all about — Praslins could have told him the whole thing in less than five minutes — but as a matter of fact he was only too thankful to be able to saunter along and to let his thoughts run their course. They lingered for a while it is true on the stranger whose personality seemed all of a sudden to have thrust itself to the fore in the Ribot household. Was the man an utter stranger to the old man and to Follette, or had the three of them been associated, before the dramatic episode of the previous night, in some of those unavowable transactions which Darieux suspected as much as he dreaded the certainty of them?
Life had all of a sudden become more complicated than ever before for Captain Philippe Darieux of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards. His love for Follette — now that he had given it expression — would make intercourse more difficult than before. The presence of the stranger in the neighbourhood, if not in the house itself, foreshadowed a danger which Darieux instinctively associated with the sinister personality of the Minister of Police.
The landlord of the Pot d ’Etain, the small buvette down the lower road, told a story which did not vary in substance from the report given by Lieutenant Praslins to his Captain. A stranger came strolling, or rather slouching, in, the morning after the storm, with that rolling gait peculiar to most seafaring men. He did not seem to be either hurried or in any way furtive in his manner. The landlord only heard subsequently that a posse of coast-guardsmen was after him. There were a few customers in the tap-room at the time, fishermen who were sipping their morning hot ale. They took little notice of the newcomer, who sat down at a corner table, ordered bread and cheese and a bottle of wine which the landlord set before him, and — as is the way with most landlords of wayside inns — at once entered into conversation with him.
The stranger did not appear to be reticent exactly, but he was obviously a man of few words, and somewhat haltingly and only in answer to direct questions said that he was a mariner from Provence, and had been a member of the crew of the English ship which had foundered on the reefs during the storm. He himself had escaped as by a miracle in one of the ship’s boats and had been washed ashore by the tide. He had found shelter in a red house on the top of the cliff, where the people had looked after him, for he was half dead with cold and exhaustion.
The other folk in the tap-room did not at first show great interest in the stranger and his night’s adventure. The local people on this coast are notoriously incurious and a seaman from foreign parts — any stranger in fact — had ceased to be the rara avis he would have been before the illicit trade with England had brought so many of them drifting shorewards here. So they only listened with half an ear, caught a word here and there, and were soon satisfied that the man was indeed what they had put him down to be, one of the crew of the English lugger, engaged in contraband trade.
The stranger, in the interval of eating his bread and cheese and finishing his bottle of wine, drew a small screw of tobacco from one pocket of his breeches, a short clay pipe from another, and was proceeding to stuff in the tobacco when the door of the tap-room was thrown open from the outside and Lieutenant Praslins, followed by four coast-guardsmen, stepped in. The Lieutenant gave a quick glance round the room. The men who a moment ago had taken little notice of the stranger hastened to empty their mugs of ale, put their money down on the table, and with seeming unconcern shambled out of the room, eager to get away. Coast-guardsmen headed by an officer might mean something uncomfortable for everybody. One never knew. Anyway, one was best out of the way. So off they went, one by one, while the Lieutenant engaged the landlord in a whispered conversation, all the while keeping an eye on that fellow with the dark hair and beard and the gold ring in his ear.
As a matter of fact the latter was the only man in the room who appeared entirely unconcerned at the entry of the soldiers and their young officer. He took his tinder-box out of his waistcoat pocket and proceeded to light his pipe; puffed away at it contentedly. The room had got very hot. He took off his coat and unbuttoned his waistcoat, called to the landlord and explained to him in a few words that he had no money wherewith to pay for wine and food consumed but that his friend Ribot over at the red house who had been so kind to him would settle the account. So as to show that he was indeed penniless he thrust his hands into the pockets of his breeches and turned them inside out, in the way that Lieutenant Praslins reported to Captain Darieux later on.
The landlord appeared quite satisfied; he even went to the length of bringing his customer a second bottle of wine, and sat down to share it with him at the table. The Lieutenant appeared undecided for a time as to what to do, but eventually made up his mind that nothing would be gained by interfering with the stranger till after he had received instructions from his superior officer. He gave a nod to the landlord and a sign to his men and the small posse then marched out of the room. The sound of their footsteps soon died away in the distance.
How the cronies and the gossips would have held their breath and gasped in astonishment could they have glued their eyes to the keyhole of the door which gave access to the room at the top of the tower, the room where Papa Ribot had housed his superb telescope. But the only way to get at that door was up the winding stairs, which in its turn could only be reached through the living-room down below. The living-room was also the kitchen. Here the stranger had lain in semi-consciousness throughout that stormy night, after his rescue by Follette Ribot from the wreck of the English ship. The window through which he had subsequently made his way out into the open was on the right of the fireplace, and facing the window was the door which gave on to the winding stairs.
It was in the attic-room under the pointed roof of the tower that a conference took place between Papa Ribot and his new friend in the forenoon following the latter’s advent in the old farmhouse. The two of them sat at a table in the middle of the room, and on the table were scattered a number of dazzlingly bright stones that shone against the old wood like stars against a midnight sky. Papa Ribot had emptied the contents of the small bag which he had extracted from the shipwrecked mariner’s belt. It was his first sight of them. He caught his breath, for he was choking. He couldn’t speak. He could only gasp. The Provencal passed his hand over the stones, picked them up and let them fall through his outspread fingers back upon the table. He gave a short, harsh laugh.
“Well, here they are!” he said.
Papa Ribot was still gasping and swallowing hard. At last he contrived to murmur feebly:
“Name of a dog! Name of a dog!”
He was gazing down on the stones with a kind of vacant fascinated stare.
“It wasn’t easy,” the other man said. “Especially with that damnable storm.”
“Did the others know?” Papa Ribot asked in a hoarse whisper.
“They did. That was partly my trouble. We were all going under. They knew that. But they tried to fight me for them.”
“You had them in your belt all the time?”
“Not I. The fool of a skipper had them. I had to crack him on the head before I could get the belt.”
Again he laughed. It was a weird diabolical kind of laugh, and then he added:
“He went down like a log. They all went down, except me. They fought the skipper, and I left them at it, for the skipper had his pistols out and shot wildly at them, while the lugger heeled over and went down.,. down... with the lot of them. The skipper thought that he could get away. He had the pistols and he had the boat. He hadn’t seen me then. I was on the rocks — squatting out of sight. He jumped into the boat and I was after him. A crack on the head and down he went... but not before I had got the belt — and these little pebbles.”
Once again he played with the stones, handled them, let them run through his fingers as if they were drops of living water.
“They are worth some money,” he muttered after a time.
“How much?” the old man asked.
“You will find that out, my friend, when you offer them for sale,” the other responded drily.
His firm, decisive tone when he said this shook Papa Ribot’s composure a little.
“When I offer them for sale?” he echoed dully.
“Why, of course. What did you imagine?”
“I thought that you would know...”
- “I am a stranger here. How should I know...?”
“I thought...” the old man reiterated vaguely.
“You thought, did you, my friend,” the stranger broke in with his unpleasant laugh, “that I was going to risk my life for you on land as I did on the sea? No, no!” he went on and banged his clenched fist on the table till all the precious stones rattled, and some threatened to roll off on to the floor. “You sent us word over to England that wool was no longer a good proposition. Something about military interference... I don’t remember.... Anyway, you didn’t want wool any more... and we didn’t care to meddle with it either, too bulky and too difficult with these new coast blockades. We suggested diamonds.... You jumped at the idea.... I’ve brought the stones.... You are going to turn them into money or I’ll take them back to England... and you can whistle for them another time... because you won’t see any more of them, and you can take that from me.... See?”
And with a rapid gesture he swept up the stones with one hand into the other and was on the point of thrusting them into his pocket, when Ribot interposed suddenly and forcefully.
“Don’t be a fool!” he said, and his long, lean fingers closed like a vice over the other’s wrist. “You don’t want to take these things back to England. You know that very well or you wouldn’t have brought them here, as you say, at risk of your life, nor committed a murder in order to secure them. No, my friend,” he went on, with one of his dry chuckles, “you want my help now as much as I have wanted yours.... And you are going to get it, let me tell you, so what’s the use of quarrelling? I was only thinking..
“The fellows in England who sold you these stones... did they steal them, or did you?... Anyway, they must have had some idea of how to dispose of them over here... they must have given you some idea...”
“Not me... that d — d skipper...!”
“All right, then, the skipper.... Anyway, you and the others were in it too... you knew before you signed on what was going to be done with these stones.... I only want a hint... I shall know what to do... you may be sure....”
So tight was the old man’s vice-like grip on the Provencal’s wrist that the latter’s fingers unbent and the precious stones dropped back one by one on to the table. Ribot picked them up and replaced them in the leather bag which had originally contained them. He then transferred the bag to his own pocket.
The Provencal remained silent and looked glowering and surly for a time. Then he burst out laughing all of a sudden. The humour of the situation — a couple of thieves quarrelling over their spoils — struck him pleasantly apparently, for presently he said with obvious good humour:
“There was a good deal of talk in Hastings about Caen.... Some of the men said...”
“And quite right too,” Ribot broke in briskly. “I have heard a lot about the Jewish quarter at Caen, where good business could at one time be picked up.... I myself...”
He broke off abruptly and appeared wrapped in thought, the other watching him, his lips curled in a sarcastic grin.
“But after this blockade business,” Ribot resumed after a time, “the Jews were inclined to cry off..
Once again he paused, passed his lean hand over his mouth and chin, a deep frown between his grizzled brows.
“I did hear of a man.. he murmured reflectively.
“But I don’t remember his name... or where he could be found—”
“Yes, yes?” the other broke in impatiently.
“Wait a bit... it was i... let me think — —”
“Abraham? Isaac? Reuben?”
“No, no! Nothing like that... I don’t remember... but Follette may know...”
“My girl. She is clever... has a head on her.... She’ll very likely remember.... We were together in Cremieux selling a consignment of leather goods when the name of that Jew trader was mentioned.”
The Provencal had suddenly jumped to his feet. Once again his fist came crashing down on the table. His eyes glared, his cheeks were aflame, his blood was boiling and beating against his temples.
“Send for her, man, in the devil’s name!” he shouted hoarsely. “Send for her... where is she? I’ll soon jog her memory... and drag that accursed Jew’s name out of her lips... where is she? Stop arguing and send for her.”
But Pere Ribot remained unruffled in face of the younger man’s fury. He sat unmoved, his elbow resting on the table, his chin cupped in his hand.
“In the kitchen, cooking your dinner and mine,” he said placidly.
“Call her, then,” the other insisted. “I’ll call her.... What did you say her name was? I’ll call her... and he strode towards the door.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” the old man interposed placidly. “She wouldn’t come. She is very wilful, is my Follette, and she knows that she must remain down there so as to see that no quidnunc comes sneaking into the house, and maybe starts nosing up the stairs as far as the keyhole. What?... You sit still, my friend,” he concluded, “and abide your time. We couldn’t start for Caen all in a moment anyway.”
The man had come to a halt at the door as if in obedience to Pere Ribot’s quiet command. He swung round on his heel, strode back to the table, and sat down, still looking surly and obstinate.
“I don’t like those stones knocking about the place too long,” he said. “I didn’t like the look of that dolled-up coast-guards officer and his men.”
Ribot shook his head.
“They won’t worry us today,” he said. “And even if they did,” he added, with almost sinister significance, “there is no man living who can find the place where Pere Ribot keeps his treasures.”
He looked so decisive and so sure of himself when he said this that the Provencal looked up at him with wonder, not unmixed with admiration, feeling instinctively that here was a man who would not fail him in the difficult and dangerous business they had in hand together. He watched him silently for a few moments. Good-humour gradually got the better of his excitable temper. It was no longer impatience now that glowed out of his dark eyes, only greed, the overpowering greed for gold. His lips were moist. He passed his tongue over them, like a dog who scents the nearness of food.
Papa Ribot sat back in his chair, took his pipe out of his pocket and proceeded to fill it. The other did likewise and took his tinder-box out of his pocket. He lit his own pipe and that of his accomplice.
And the two men then smoked quietly the pipe of peace.
There was much talk during those winter evenings, when the gossips and the cronies met together to compare notes, as to what one of them had seen, another overheard, a third merely guessed. But it all amounted to this: great changes, wonderful changes, had taken place and were still taking place in Pere Ribot’s abode. Ever since the advent of the shipwrecked mariner in the old farmhouse things were different there. And they got more and more different as time went on.
It all began with the farmer from Cabourg coming to Papa Ribot’s one day and bringing a cow along with him. Yes, a cow! And a fine-looking one at that. And the farmer went away without the cow, but his boy who had come with him stayed behind at the farmhouse and the cow was stabled in the shed close to where Follette’s pony and the bay mare were also housed.
And Pierre, the farmer’s boy, looked after the cow and after the milking of her, and Follette made butter thereafter twice a week, as anyone could ascertain by questioning Pierre about the cream. Follette was a clever girl, as everyone admitted, and could turn her hand to anything. But the events in the old farmhouse did not end with the advent of the cow.
There were more exciting ones yet to come.
On one occasion — it was horse-fair day at Cremieux — the stranger set off on foot in that direction. A matter of nearly fifty kilometres, mind you, and the road of the roughest the whole way. Snow on the ground, pools and ditches frozen over, making every unguarded step perilous and slippery. But he was a sturdy fellow with powerful legs and feet that could tackle fifty kilometres of the roughest tracks without turning a hair. He did not so much as carry a stout stick, only a small, light switch, which he swung about gaily as he walked.
And he came back from Cremieux by moonlight, if you please, riding a spanking grey. Now Pere Ribot already possessed a very good horse — that nice bay mare — which he had purchased when first he settled down in Saint-Victor, and what in the world should he or anyone in the house want with another?
There was no getting away from it. With the arrival of that shipwrecked mariner money, and plenty of it, had found its way into the old farmhouse. No longer was Follette Ribot content to do her marketing in the village as everyone did, no longer would she look at the proceeds of Jacques Despois’ or Prosper Gerande’s fishing (though, mind you Jacques and Prosper were the finest fishermen on the coast). But Follette would not look at their fish. She would drive into Arromanches or Cabourg in her carriole and come back, if you please, laden not only with fish but with all sorts of expensive food from the butcher or the grocer in the towns.
What with all that, and the butter and the cream and other things as well no doubt, Papa Ribot and the stranger lived on the fat of the land. Now how was that done? Not by trading with England for sure. There was not a man in Saint-Victor or Saint-Lys who could assert nowadays that Follette Ribot kept watch o’ nights as she used to do for the English ships that put in anywhere on this coast with contraband goods. Nor could anyone be certain whether prohibited English wares could still be bought in Papa Ribot’s little shop.
Seemingly not. Certain it is that when customers — old customers who knew all about the jerseys and the shoes and the stockings that could be bought there in the olden days — ventured into the place to ask for such things as they had been accustomed to buy, Papa Ribot would meet them with a benevolent smile, raise his shoulders and spread out his hands with a gesture of regret and murmur:
“Pas aujourd’hui, my friend. Not today. I am grieved, but I have nothing left. Nothing. I sold out all my stock some days ago. So grieved. So grieved.”
He would almost cry with sorrow at being thus forced to deny customers who had endeared themselves to him. And when they asked him tentatively if and when he would again be expecting nice warm things, for the children, now that winter was coming on, he only shrugged his shoulders and said:
“I do not know, my dear friend. Things have become very, very difficult. Since this coast blockade in England... you see?... And they talk of having the same thing over here.... Ships from the Emperor’s navy, you understand?... One could get round these dolled-up coast-guardsmen... but the Emperor’s navy!... You understand, do you not?...” No one did understand exactly. Only the experienced mariners and some of the fisherfolk knew that ships of the Emperor’s navy patrolled the coasts of France nowadays and that it was very difficult for any English craft to slip across without being fired on and risking either capture or being sent to the bottom. This stern measure of repression against smuggling was taken in imitation of what the English were themselves doing on the other side. Making things difficult. Very difficult indeed. Smuggling and trading in illicit goods had become more than ever a matter of life and death. The laws in England against the export of wool were as stringent there as were those against its import over here, and kegs of brandy from France were often thrown overboard to avoid chase and capture by English revenue cutters. Tobacco was about the only thing poor mariners of France could venture to purchase from their English friends. This could be done sometimes on moonless nights, when fishing-boats from both sides were out and could run the blockade under cover of darkness. But it could only be done in a small way, packets that could be hidden under the baskets of fish, or under the nets. And even these were not secure against those abominable “prickers”, surely the most poisonous weapons ever invented for stopping honest fishermen from earning their livelihood.
Difficult? I should think it was difficult!
No wonder that old Lisbeth and old Marianne, Maman Thibaud and Grandmere Bosseny and all the other cronies had so much to talk about when they sat on the beach mending and spreading out the nets. For the most extraordinary fact about the whole thing was that though the Ribots had evidently given up all attempts at illicit trading with England, prosperity of an altogether unexpected and almost abnormal kind had entered the old farmhouse in the wake of that mysterious stranger.
How was it done? What was there about the personality of that stranger and his activities that enabled Papa Ribot to buy a cow, and a horse that he could not possibly want, and to stock his cellar with some of the choicest wines from Macon and from Beaune, and to lead a life of revelry and good cheer which not only astonished but presently scandalized the respectable folk of the neighbourhood? It was a case of regular carousals, of the frequent gathering under the once peaceable roof of the old farmhouse of some of the liveliest characters in the district. The young men from Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys, fisher-folk and villagers — aye, and smart young men from the neighbouring towns also, Cremieux or Cabourg — would meet there of an evening, and right through closed doors and windows sounds of revelry would float out into the night, and could be heard above the soughing of the wind or the patter of rain. Shouting. Laughing. Singing. Stamping of feet till the small hours of the morning. Oh, there was much gaiety in Papa Ribot’s house these days!
At first Follette appeared unaffected by these changes in her home life. In some ways, so the gossips asserted, you would have thought that she was still the same. A good girl at home apparently. Keeping house, churning, cooking, and washing. Looking after her father more as a mother would than as a child. She still went regularly to church either to Saint-Victor or to Saint-Lys, and always put a silver coin into the collection plate. Papa Ribot was not always there on a Sunday, but when he did go you could hear the chink of several coins as he dropped them into the plate. And on one occasion, when Monsieur le Cure appealed to him on behalf of a family in Saint-Lys who had fallen on evil days, it became generally known that he gave fifty livres to the cure on its behalf.
All this did as a matter of course put a stop to those wagging tongues who would have it that since the source of the wealth in the farmhouse was so completely wrapped in mystery — since no one could ascertain whence it came or how — the devil must, of a certainty, have something to do with this unnatural influx of gold into Pere Ribot’s hands. Grandmere Bosseny went even so far as to put the whole matter before Monsieur le Cure, adjuring him to say the special prayers that would scare away the devil and drive him out of the hitherto peaceable and God-fearing village. Many there were who begged Monsieur le Cure to say those special prayers over the stranger from Provence who was really and truly possessed of the devil. Men had been known before now to have sold their souls to Satan for wealth. And of a certainty the stranger had done that, or where did all that gold come from which — so the old cronies declared — he threw about with so lavish a hand? They suggested that Monsieur le Cure should go in solemn procession to the old farmhouse and sprinkle the whole place inside and out with holy water, and summon Satan to depart in the name of the Holy Trinity. Of a certainty every one present would then see the stranger writhe in convulsions while the devil would visibly depart from him through his mouth.
Monsieur le Cure, however, did not fall in with this proposal as wholeheartedly as had been expected. Not that he disbelieved, in his humble, uneducated way, in the devil and all his evil works, but as he was benefiting largely for his church and his poor people by the Ribots’ liberality, he had no desire to offend them. So on the following Sunday he preached a rousing sermon, firstly on the subject of superstition, which he denounced as contrary to the commandments of God and the teaching of Holy Church, and secondly on the spirit of good-will which should make every Christian love his neighbour as himself and look upon him as his friend and brother.
The cronies in the back pews listened to him with reverence and with pursed lips, which meant that Monsieur le Cure might be right in his own way but that no one could help thinking things for himself, and that anyway one could not force oneself to love as one would a brother so queer a creature as that mysterious stranger from down South.
And who was the man anyway? This remained the perpetual puzzle that agitated the curious and the pig-headed. The women especially were agog to know. Even the men talked the matter over between themselves over their mugs of mulled ale. All that was known of him was what he had chosen to tell the landlord of the Pot d’Etain, and that was not much in reality; not more than what could easily have been guessed, namely, that he was a Provencal from the South and that he had escaped from the wreck of the English ship which had foundered on the reefs of Saint-Lys the night of that terrific storm. Also that aided by the tide he had drifted shorewards and been thrown on the beach, whence he had made his way inland and somehow or other got as far as the old farmhouse.
That being so, and no one doubted it, it was only natural that Papa Ribot and his daughter — both of them being notoriously kind-hearted — should have taken the stranger in that night, and looked after him for a few days until he had got over the nerve-racking experience of that awful wreck and perilous escape.
But day followed day, several weeks went by, and the stranger still remained at the farmhouse, apparently a welcome and an honoured guest. Everyone on the coast was well aware that English ships engaged in contraband trade had usually very mixed crews on board. Spaniards, Portuguese some of them, even Mexicans sometimes. Almost invariably there would be a Negro cook on board. But seldom a Frenchman. As a matter of fact, apart from the little that the landlord of the Pot d’Etain had got out of this man that morning, no one knew anything at all about his antecedents. For a Provencal and a seaman he was singularly reticent about himself and about his past. Not one man on the coast, old or young, could boast of having heard him tell a single sea yarn such as sailors love to recall or to invent. Against that his tongue was glib enough on the subject of his sentimental adventures both past and present, especially when he was in his cups, which happened more often when he spent a night or two in Cabourg or Cremieux than in the local buvettes. Here he was rather more circumspect, as if anxious to establish a reputation for respectability among the village folk.
It was also a curious fact that no one had ever heard his name mentioned. He and Papa Ribot used to drop in sometimes at one of the buvettes for a drink. They would talk together or chat with the other customers, but never once did Papa Ribot address the stranger by name. On one occasion, one of the customers asked him a direct question. He gave no immediate answer, but looked on the quidnunc with such a curious expression in his eyes that the latter felt quite abashed, and after mumbling something that sounded like an apology turned away to speak to a more communicative member of the company.
Whereupon Papa Ribot, who had watched the little incident with mischief dancing in his eyes, burst out in one of his habitual chuckles and went on chuckling and laughing till the tears ran down his old cheeks. After which, as soon as he had mastered his paroxysm of mirth, he slapped the stranger vigorously on the back and said, still spluttering and clucking like a hen:
“Why don’t you tell them, my friend, that your name is Gigot de Morieton, one of the oldest and most respected families of France? You are not ashamed of it, are you? I wouldn’t be if I had a distinguished name like that. Why, there is not another like it in the whole book of the French aristocracy. No Duke or Marquis of that name. What?”
A rather feeble laugh went the round at this sally of Pere Ribot’s but no one knew exactly how to take it. He was always one for aiming shafts of sarcasm, especially at another’s expense. The stranger’s name may have been Gigot de Morieton, but then again it may not. There were queer names down under in Provence, and if he really owned so extraordinary a name, and fun was made of it, he might very likely turn nasty. He looked as if he might have a nasty temper. A real Southerner he was. Short and stocky in figure, no taller than a well-set-up girl from these parts. Handsome in a way, with his curly black hair and beard, his swarthy skin, and dark eyes that glared at one like the very devil if he was riled. And Gigot de Morieton he was called henceforth, and Gigot de Morieton he remained — sometimes shortened to Gigot or to Morieton, according to the speaker’s fancy.
On the whole it must be admitted that Gigot de Morieton was popular in the district. Anyway, he became so after a time. His cheeriness when he was in his cups belied his glowering looks and would often get the better of his rising temper. For one thing he was open-handed, had plenty of money seemingly and spent it freely. He was always ready to pay for drinks when sitting with other men in the buvettes, and he never seemed to expect any return for his prodigality.
It was the origin of his wealth which, remaining a complete mystery, kept the evil-minded and the malevolent gossiping and drew to himself black looks from those who had tried to get out of him more than he was prepared to give — and had failed in the attempt. Though Monsieur le Cure had done his best, both from the pulpit and in the confessional, to put an end to all the talk about Satan and the stranger being possessed of the devil, he could not stop Grandmere Bosseny and Maman Thibaud’s tongues altogether, and in certain cottages on stormy winter evenings strange intercessions and incantations took place of which the worthy priest would have hotly disapproved. Heads were fashioned of candle-grease to the likeness — as near as possible — of the stranger. And into the head Grandmere Bosseny would stick long pins, muttering under her breath orders to the devil to quit his abode inside the body of this unfortunate mariner. The holes made by the pins when they were withdrawn were to be used by Satan for his forced exit. And the cronies sitting around the waxen image would rock themselves to and fro, hands on knees, heads nodding, eyes closed, and would chant and croon and mutter cabalistic words. These meetings would almost invariably take place when the stranger was absent from Saint-Victor. And they took place because as a matter of fact, though one knew he was absent, no one knew when he had gone or how he had left the village, or whither he had gone. He had come with the tide, so it was said, and had gone with the wind. It was always doubtful whether he would come back. Perhaps the cabalistic mutterings of the old cronies and the spell of the wax image stuck all over with pins were or were not directed towards those unseen powers who might — if they were propitiated — keep the mysterious stranger away from Saint-Victor for good. Certain it is that he did come back from wherever he had been, and he came back as mysteriously as he had gone. Nobody ever saw him return. One knew he was gone because Pierre, who looked after the cow, said so. Apparently there was no secret in so far as the absence of the stranger was concerned, only in the manner of his going and returning.
A band of young idlers from the village volunteered to keep watch on the coast o’ nights, in the hope of finding profit or at least adventure in anything connected with the local mystery which they might bring to light. Effectively one night they did see a sailing-vessel standing by, off the Rochers de Calvados, while a light was flashed from the cliff just above the haunted cave of Calvador — so called from a Spanish ship of the Invincible Armada which was wrecked on this spot two hundred and fifty years ago. The night on that occasion was dark and rainy. Heavy banks of cloud hid the face of the moon, then in her second quarter. But towards midnight there was a sudden rent in the clouds, the moon emerged triumphant and revealed the picture of the sailing-vessel out some three miles off the Rochers, a picture which sent the young volunteers into a frenzy of excitement. Unfortunately, however, the moon was shy, as she often is on this coast at this time of year. She veiled her light once more, down came the rain more torrential than before, and sea and land were again plunged in impenetrable darkness. The light up on the rocks ceased to flash and the sailing-vessel was completely lost to sight in the surrounding gloom.
The young watchers had certainly seen something which justified their excitement and encouraged their hopes that the same picture of sailing-vessel and flashing light would be seen by them again. But it never was. Nor did anyone else ever see that sailing-vessel lying off the grim bastion of rocks, or catch sight of the flashes of light destined to guide the vessel into the safest creek. The haunted cave was explored to its outermost end, but nothing was found there save the carcase of a goat and a number of broken kegs which had once contained brandy.
Come with the tide and gone with the wind. Such was the stranger from the South. Always in darkness, often in the teeth of a gale. The Rocks of Calvados kept a jealous guard over the secret entrusted to their care.
And life in the old farmhouse went on following the natural course of time. Christmas came and went and so did the New Year. The days shortened. Then they lengthened, bringing hard frost and heavy falls of snow. Summer. Autumn. Winter again. And presently the first days of spring once more. Pale gleams of sunshine. Heavy rains. March gales. April showers.
But life in the old farmhouse was never the same as it had been before the advent of the stranger from Provence.
Slowly, gradually but unmistakably, things underwent A change more complete than before in the farmhouse on the cliff. The house was changed, so was its atmosphere of humdrum, quiet content. Papa Ribot, too, was a changed man. He drank more than he was wont to do. Though he was seldom seen in the buvettes these days, he was often met with on the cliff track, or down on the beach quite early in the day, having already, and very obviously, drunk more than was good for him. He reeled now when he walked. Sang ribald songs in his shaky, cracked voice. He was either by himself or staggered along on the arm of one of his boon companions, chuckling to himself like a wheezy old hen if he happened to come face to face on the road with one of his former friends. They shook their heads and sighed. The women often murmured:
“Papa Ribot is going down-hill.”
And he had become quarrelsome, too. His good-humour seemed to have deserted him altogether. His old friends said: “One daren’t say anything now to contradict Papa Ribot. He is always ready to snap your head off if you do.” On more than one occasion he was overheard outside his house speaking quite roughly to Follette — a thing he never used to do before. She didn’t seem to resent it, however, but met his ill-humour with an indifferent shrug and immediately burst into one of the popular songs which were the present rage in the cafes or the bars.
But the worst of the old man’s spleen was apparently reserved for Gigot de Morieton. Inside the house as well as out his cracked voice could be heard, sharp and strident, using words and expressions which caused the women who overheard them to put their fingers to their ears and to hurry away out of hearing. This, as a matter of fact, rather pleased the neighbours than otherwise. “For surely,” so they argued, “it will end with Pere Ribot turning that fellow out of the house.”
At which fervently expressed hope a good many shook their heads. Those at least who were incredulous.
“Follette wouldn’t like that,” they argued.
“And she has her father under her thumb.”
“He knows he could not do without her,” was the unanswerable argument. And: “He cannot afford to quarrel with her.”
“Or with Gigot de Morieton.”
The women also had their say:
“The girl is a fool... or worse,” was their verdict, “to take up with that ruffian.”
“He has the money-bags,” the men retorted cynically.
“And the devil’s own power to get his own way.”
To Philippe Darieux, the changes which were constantly taking place in the old farmhouse meant an agony of mind and heart. His small world — but all the world to him — was tumbling about his ears. He was still, of course, an officer in the Emperor’s army and as such a man of importance and consideration. But the coast blockade carried on by His Majesty’s navy had in a great measure superseded the activities of the corps of coast-guards, and Captain Darieux, who was a young man under thirty, felt that his life was becoming more and more futile and more and more inglorious, with nothing to look forward to in the future, either in the way of a career or of individual happiness. He longed to send in his papers and ask for a transfer either into the Imperial Navy or the regular army. But the Emperor and his General Staff were in Russia and the civil authorities under which the corps of coast-guards had been so unjustifiably placed by the all-powerful Minister of Police now declared that they were not competent to effect transfers during the absence of the Emperor and his Minister for War.
And Philippe Darieux was left to eat out his heart in sorrow and loneliness. He had lost all hope of advancement in life and he had lost Follette. Lost her as completely and as irretrievably as if she were dead. He had seen it come gradually, this change in her, ever since the advent of that accursed stranger. Others hadn’t seen it. Not at first. But he had. “Oh, Follette? — she is just the same,” the others said, the girls and boys who walked with her arm in arm along the beach and danced with her in the barn. “Always gay and full of life, and not proud in spite of all that money that has come no one knows whence.” And the older women said: “A good girl really, keeping house for her father and looking after him, though the silly old man is drinking himself into an imbecile. One cannot help wishing that she was not so friendly with that stranger, whoever he is.... But there! she is young and likes her bit of fun.”
No, no, they had not seen any change in Follette. Not at first. But Darieux had felt it from the very beginning, coming like a great invisible monster, a creeping, crawling, insinuating serpent of evil, slowly destroying his last vestige of hope of future happiness. She had always avoided him in the past — or pretended to. Going past him with her pretty little nose in the air when he tried to get a word with her. Giving him the edge of her sharp tongue when he attempted to talk seriously. But that had been out of a childish spirit of mischief, a girl’s coquetry and love to tease. But since that unfortunate episode at Cremieux, when she looked upon him as an ungrateful skunk, a coward who broke his word, her attitude towards him had become coldly hostile. Bitterly contemptuous. She had never given him a chance of explaining. And when he poured out his heart in a declaration of the love that consumed him, she fought against him like a tigress and did her best to wound him with the poisoned arrows of her contempt.
Since then she no longer avoided him, but she had a way of making him feel that he was less than nothing to her, just a casual passer-by whose acquaintance she did not particularly care to cultivate. Sometimes down on the beach or up on the cliff track he would meet her walking arm in arm with the new inmate of the farmhouse, and as she passed him by she would markedly turn her head towards her companion and look him in the eyes. And her face would be wreathed in smiles while she gave his arm an additional pressure of her hand.
Oh, that stranger! How Darieux hated him! It was hate made up of an unconquerable jealousy. It was that accursed black-browed mariner who had transformed Follette from a light-hearted child of the sea into a flirtatious minx, eager for admiration, ready to join in with that crowd who frequented the old farmhouse now, drinking with Papa Ribot and his new friend, singing ribald songs with them, sitting up with them till far into the night. And she would emerge in the small hours of the morning in company with some of the revellers — a heterogeneous lot of youngsters who obviously were none too steady on their feet, and who blinked their bleary eyes when they met the magnificent panorama of the sea and sky and approaching dawn. The stranger from Provence was usually of the party, as gay, as noisy as any of them, and Follette appeared the gayest of the lot, laughing, chattering away, tramping along the beach perfectly happy seemingly in this company at which she would have turned up her nose in disdain a very little while ago.
To Darieux, who spent morning after morning in solitude on the beach, hoping yet dreading to see her and have a word with her, she would give a mocking glance and call out: “Bonjour, mon Capitaine! Cela va bien ce beau matin?” After which ironic greeting she would throw back her head and laugh. And Darieux, God help him, put his fingers to his ears trying to shut out the sound of that laughter which was wont to be the sweetest music to his soul; the voice not of his Follette, the sweet, gay, naughty child of old, but a strange voice, thick and hoarse as if it had been strained with shouting and with drinking. And he would close his eyes so as not to see that tawny hair of hers whipped up all over her face by the wind and her soft rosy cheeks ablaze like those of a bacchante.
He took to following her about, to spy upon her o’ nights, peeping through the uncurtained windows of the old farmhouse when sounds of revelry proclaimed the fact that gay carousals were taking place within. He could see her in the outer hall, moving amongst a group of young men who sat round the table drinking Papa Ribot’s excellent wine which Follette dispensed untiringly like a veritable Hebe, the cup-bearer of the gods. He watched her, ashamed of himself for acting the spy yet unable to control the wild desire to see her and to know. To know what? Just the extent of his own misery? Well, he soon realized that! Not that she allowed any of those merry youngsters flushed with wine to go too far in their attentions to her. In that one respect she was still the old Follette, as ready to administer a slap with the palm of her little hand, or a scratch with her sharp nails, as she had always been.
Papa Ribot was mostly too far gone to be of any use as a chaperone, and apparently no one was afraid of him, but the Provencal was always on the spot with his heavy boot and his hard fist. And on the whole the youngsters were well behaved. They drank freely. They sang lustily. They apparently took it in turn to tell tales that caused hearty laughter to go the round. They made sporadic attempts to put an arm round Follette’s waist, with the above-named unpleasant results to themselves. But this they didn’t seem to mind. Good-humour was the order of the night.
At about midnight Papa Ribot would toddle off to bed escorted by Follette, who looked after him as a mother would look after a naughty child. On one occasion when the unfortunate Darieux was on the watch, he noticed that Follette, after she had taken her father to his room, came back with her eyes swimming in tears. He saw that quite plainly because she came straight to the window beneath which he crouched hidden in the shrubbery and threw it open. She leaned out far over the sill and took deep breaths of the moist sea air. Whether she saw him or not he did not know. He had only just had time to hide behind the scrub. After a moment or two she closed the window again, and he made his way back to his quarters with yet an additional sorrow in his heart caused by those tears in Follette’s eyes.
There were evenings when Darieux wandered out upon the moor seeking out the place where first he had become conscious of his love for Follette. It had been autumn then. It was spring now. He remembered that night of horror. The darkness. The loneliness. That maddening will-o’-the-wisp. His own feeling of bewilderment not altogether unmixed with fear. He located the exact spot where he had waited for the coming of dawn, certain after a time that he would never live to see the sunrise. And when despair had almost conquered him, when he felt that exposure, cold and misery would of a surety make an end of him, he had suddenly heard Follette’s voice come to him out of the darkness, like that of a spirit come to comfort him in his loneliness.
That autumn night had been the turning point of his life. Follette had come into it then, and since that hour had absorbed his most intimate thoughts, had gradually become possessed not only of his heart but of his very soul. Since then he had had periods of wild exultation, when pride and indomitable will assured him that love such as he felt for Follette must triumph over every obstacle and over every rebuff. But these periods were not of long duration: a casual meeting with Follette, a glance of mockery or disdain from her eyes, a toss of her head and he would find himself plunged into doubt, and out of doubt into despair.
But now both doubt and hope appeared what they actually were: fatuous and futile. What a fool he was, had always been, to think for a moment that a beautiful and wayward child like Follette, courted by many and admired by all, would ever look upon him as a likely aspirant for her hand in marriage. He had had his opportunity — at least he thought so — when she had asked him to flout convention for her sake and to take her to dance at the Cafe des Aigles. Fate, then, in the person of the “Decheneur”, his superior officer, had intervened and placed its veto on that one chance, destined never to recur again. If he could have danced with her that night, held her in his arms, cheek to cheek, with her tawny hair caressing his lips, her breath coming and going more and more rapidly with the exertion of the dance — then, oh then he might have been granted the inestimable guerdon of infusing something of his own ardent love into that ignorant, wayward child.
But now all that was a thing of the past. All that was left to him of those doubts and hopes was memory, and the bitter thought of the “might have been”. And even memory failed him now. Sitting solitary and broken-hearted beside the murmuring river on the very spot where he had heard her dear mocking voice chaff him out of his state of depression, he tried in vain to recapture the vision of her as she was when first she had enchanted him, when first she had enslaved his soul. In vain did he try to call back into reality all those quaint little tricks of hers, the way she had of tossing back her always untidy hair, her way when she talked excitedly, of clenching and unclenching her small fist, and the tap-tap of her wooden heels on the stony tracks. He tried to visualize her, riding like a reckless madcap on her pony, rowing with almost masculine strength over a turbulent sea. He tried to recapture the sound of her voice saying “Oui, mon Capitaine!” and “A votre service, mon Capitaine!” In vain! In vain! Memory ranged itself on the side of some demon of malignity and played him false. Nothing could he visualize of the past, only of the present, the ugly, maddening present and the cruel, torturing future.
If only he could have rid himself of that unbearable jealousy. It was vile and humiliating. He despised himself, for it lowered the sublimity of his love. It made him feel unworthy to consecrate himself the protector of Follette, the self-appointed watcher over her security and her happiness. But that insane jealousy martyrized him. His hatred of its object amounted at times to murderous intent: the lust to kill, which is very difficult for a violent nature to combat.
Darieux had never been of a placid disposition. Even as a child his likes and dislikes were always vehement. An invalid, always ailing father and an indulgent mother had allowed him to run wild in the woods and forest of the old home in Anjou. His pretty face and engaging childish ways, despite outbursts of temper, had endeared him to the subordinates on the small estate. He never thought when the time came to contradict — let alone to disobey — his father when the question of his career in the army came on the tapis. Like so many boys at this period, the tales and legends of smugglers and of coast-guards, of seafaring and hard fighting, of requisitions and ambuscades, roused his adventurous spirit. There was also the question of money. The estate, impoverished during the stormy days of the revolution, was not yielding one third of the income it had done in the past. There were straits now where there had been prosperity before. Debts. Creditors. Not many, certainly, and nothing very serious, but Philippe, then aged eighteen, felt that it was incumbent upon him to be a help to his parents and not an incubus. And pay in the corps of coast-guards was high. There were perquisites too for the officers of the corps when an important capture of smuggled goods was effected.
Philippe’s godfather was General in Command of the Emperor’s corps of coast-guards. The boy’s nomination to a lieutenancy came as a matter of course. Discipline in every branch of the Emperor’s army was very strict. Submission and dutifulness had a salutary effect on Philippe’s disposition. He did his duty as a soldier should, without question or argument. He liked the work and was proud of his status as officer in the great Emperor’s army, even though the corps to which he belonged could not share in the glories of Austerlitz or Jena. He learned to subdue his temper and to keep his turbulent passions in check, until Follette with the violet eyes and the tawny hair, the mocking smile and biting tongue, played havoc with his restraint and reawakened all that was vehement in his blood. The early phase of his love had been halcyon. Thoughts of her were reposeful and happy. He was in love as he had never in his life thought it possible that he could be: and even his firm conviction that he would conquer her love in return was soothing to his heart and a balm unto his soul. His love at first had been tender and protective. The love of a strong man for a weak and childlike little girl, whose caprices were not the least attractive part of her. She did not understand what love meant. Love such as his. But she would learn in time. Does not love conquer all? Even hatred? Even contempt?
And Philippe Darieux continued to live in hope... until the advent of that shipwrecked mariner changed the simple-minded child into a hard and reckless woman.
Was it his love for Follette or his hatred of the provencal that induced Philippe Darieux to keep a watch on them both that afternoon in Cremieux? They had driven into the town together in the early afternoon. Darieux had seen them arrive on the Grand Place when he was leaving the hotel where Colonel Leblanc lodged, whom he had been interviewing on a matter of business connected with the corps. Follette had been driving the bay mare in her carriole with the Provencal by her side. She drew up outside a livery-stables on the Place, he jumped down, helped her to alight and, having left horse and carriole in charge of the ostler, they strolled off together in the direction of what was known in Cremieux as the Jewish quarter.
Darieux followed them, keeping at a cautious distance the while. At the corner of a narrow street little more than a lane which ended in a cul-de-sac the two of them halted, exchanged a few words, after which the Provencal retraced his steps in the direction of the Grand Place, whilst Follette went on up the street. Ensconced in a doorway, Darieux bided his time. Gigot came down the street and passed so close to him that he was forced to beat a hasty retreat up a dark stone staircase behind him, lest he should be seen. Gigot passed on and Darieux peeped out, up and down the cul-de-sac, but there was no sign of Follette by then. She must have entered one of the mean-looking houses to right or left of the street. These houses were of the humblest and most squalid kind, with their windows so caked with dirt that they concealed everything that lay on their other side. Those on the ground floor were for the most part tightly shuttered, but even while Darieux’ anxious gaze roamed up and down the street, he noticed that a light suddenly appeared behind the ground-floor shutter of one of the houses opposite. It seemed as if someone carrying a lighted lamp had entered the room, and had then set it down somewhere, for the light continued to burn steadily.
Darieux approached the house. The front door was hermetically closed. There were two stories above the ground floor, each with a couple of windows. None of these showed a light except the one next to the front door. Darieux tried to peep through the shutter, but could see nothing beyond the very narrow streaks of light through the loose slats. Somehow he had the feeling that Follette was there within, not more than a few paces from where he stood burning with anxiety and impatience to get to her, to drag her out of that sordid house where, of a certainty, unavowable transactions were being carried on behind those close shutters and those windows heavily veiled in dirt. He knew enough of Cremieux and of Caen to guess what those transactions were. The Jewish quarters of both those towns and of others too of the coastal departments were almost exclusively inhabited by receivers of prohibited goods. He himself had before now hunted down some of that gentry in its burrows and brought to light illegal spoils which had escaped his vigilance when they were first landed from English ships. To think of Follette — dainty, joyous, innocent Follette — mixed up in these sordid operations was to him revolting. He went up to the front door. It was closed. He knocked and knocked. No answer came. He thought of going to the police and by virtue of his uniform demanding that the door of that particular house be broken open in the name of the Law, the premises searched, and the owner arrested. But what of Follette, if she were found on those lawless premises? What of Follette? God in Heaven, say what of Follette? Where was duty? How far could it drive a man to deal a mortal injury to one whom he holds more precious than his life, dearer than all the world?
Then what could he do? Nothing. Nothing but wait for her exit from this house of evil, and make an appeal to her reason as well as to her finer feelings. She could not know what she was doing. Could not know to what depth of degradation her association with that sinister stranger might insensibly lead her. She was doing his dirty work for him. That was obvious. His work and her father’s. The two men were using her as their tool. Hiding behind her disingenuousness and her innocence. It was no longer jealousy that tortured Darieux now, but a ferocious hate. Standing outside that locked door, beneath the shuttered window of the room where Follette was jeopardizing her honour and her young life, he was seeing the tempter, the shipwrecked stranger through a crimson veil. Oh to see him now, at this hour, striding down the street, to feel his approach, his nearness, until he, Darieux, could, like a wild feline of the desert, spring upon him, seize him by the throat and squeeze the breath out of him! Murder? Yes! Why not? If he came face to face with a serpent would he not be justified in wringing the life out of it?
But time went on and the stranger did not come back. And Follette did not return. And presently a dark foreboding entered Darieux’ consciousness. The house now was wrapped in darkness. There were the five windows, one on the ground floor, two on each of the floors above, not one of them showed a light. The dark foreboding took on a definite shape. Follette had gone. These houses of evil had secret intercommunications and secret back ways. Follette had gone, had escaped unseen by her unfortunate love, while his nerves were being torn to shreds by the horror of her perilous position. Again he thought of going to the police. If Follette had left the house, then why not? The rat in there would be caught in a trap. But how to make sure that she was no longer there? Darieux waited a little while longer so as to make sure; quite, quite sure.
A quarter of an hour went by, half an hour, after which time Darieux made his way back to the Grand Place where Follette’s horse and carriole had been left in the livery stables. His foreboding was certainly justified. Horse and carriage were gone. Mademoiselle had driven away over an hour ago, the ostler said.
“Yes, alone, mon Capitaine. Monsieur said something about walking home late. They belong to Saint-Victor,” the man went on. “A walk of fifty kilometres at the very least. But there, ‘ce particulier’ is as strong as a horse, with legs like a bullock. I have known him come walking into Cremieux from Saint-Victor and walking back again all in one afternoon.”
“You don’t know his name, do you?” Darieux asked on impulse.
The man laughed.
“I don’t really. But folk from the coast who know him speak of him as Gigot de Morieton. What kind of a name is that? I ask you. And he is as queer as his name, if that is his name, which I doubt.”
“Queer, is he? In what way?”
“Wild, you know, mon Capitaine. And drink! I have seen some soakers in my day, but never a one like him. The landlord of the Chat Gris makes a fortune out of him. He has plenty of money, you see, and is free-handed with drinks all round. And he’ll go on drinking by the hour. And wild! And after the women all the time! None but the Chat Gris will tolerate him inside its doors. And if the landlord refuses to serve him, he just smashes everything he can lay his hands on. Plates, glasses, mirrors, windows. Everything. Wild, I tell you, mon Capitaine! Wild, that’s what he is!”
The man would have gone on expatiating on the stranger’s unrestrained violence, which appeared to afford him amusement rather than horror, but Darieux had heard enough. His blood was hot with the desire to find his enemy in the Chat Gris, to see him in that state of degradation which the ostler had described, and, mayhap, to witness one of those orgies of drunkenness which would call for the interference of the police and cause the arrest of that villainous reptile, thus putting him out of the way of wreaking further mischief against Follette and her drivelling old father.
He found his way to the Chat Gris, a low-down estaminet in a scrubby quarter of the city. It stood at an angle of a narrow street that reeked of sour wine, boiled cabbage and unwashed humanity. One window faced the street, the other gave on a patch of waste land whereon were dumped in an evil-smelling heap every kind of refuse and garbage that could defile the pure air of Heaven. Darieux hesitated before he ventured to turn into that squalid street, but only for a moment. The longing to see, to know the worst, conquered his repulsion. Luckily he had his military cape with him. Wrapped around his shoulders it effectively concealed his uniform. His kepi was dark. He pulled it well down over his brow and quickly strode up as far as the window of the estaminet. As everything else in this squalid part of the town, the window was thick with dirt, so much so that he only saw the interior of the bar-room as through a veil. But what he did see and hear gave him a very shrewd idea of the company that held its revels in the Chat Gris. Darieux was a young soldier. There was nothing squeamish in his character. He had seen and heard much in his day in camp and in barrack-rooms. But strict discipline had always put a certain class of drinking-bar out of bounds for officers and men of the Emperor’s army, and he had a natural aversion to drunkenness and vulgarity, and to every kind of filth whether of action or of speech. What he did see and hear now through that grimy window revolted him. A well-known ribald song was being bellowed by a number of men who sat at tables dotted about the room, while others stood leaning against the bar behind which a buxom wench with yellow tousled hair was busy dispensing the drinks of which most of the company had obviously had more than enough. Over her head a tattered and grimy Tricolour flag hung limp. There was a terrific clatter of mugs banged against the tables, of hands clapped and feet stamped against the floorboards to the rhythm of the song. A din of hoarse shouts and bursts of immoderate laughter through which Gigot’s throaty gusts and his shouting and singing rose above the rest.
The whole aspect of the place was horrible. Coarse and squalid, a fitting frame to the central figure in that group of besotted rakes: Gigot de Morieton, the Provencal, the associate of his darling Follette. The ostler’s vulgar pleasantry when speaking of him still rang in his ears: “Wild, you know, mon Capitaine. And after the women all the time.” And there he was, the other side of the grimy window, not twenty paces distant from the man who was burning with hatred, who was longing to squeeze the breath out of him. More than half seas over already, he was sitting with a bedizened harlot on his knee. With a mighty effort Darieux smothered the cry of rage, like unto a tiger in fury, that tried to force its way through his throat.
Quickly he turned, wrapped his cloak closely round him, and strode rapidly back up the street.
The door of the Commissariat of Police stood invitingly open. An oil lamp hanging from a chain swung down from above. Darieux stepped into the narrow hall. There was a door on his right. He knocked twice. Receiving no answer he went in. Four or five men were sitting round a table playing cards. On the table were wine bottles, two of them empty, and five mugs. Also money. The atmosphere was thick with tobacco smoke. The men looked up at the intruder. One of them questioned:
“What do you want?”
Darieux without a word loosened his coat, displaying his uniform and army rank.
One of the players had just spoken, “I mark the King,” when he looked up at Darieux. His eye ran quickly over the uniform and insignia of rank. He struggled to his feet. The others followed suit and made haste to square their shoulders and readjust their loosened tunics.
“What is it you wish, mon Capitaine?” the player asked somewhat gruffly.
“Which of you is in command here?” Darieux countered.
“I am,” the other replied: “Leon Carnot, at your service.”
“I wish to inform you,” Darieux went on, turning deliberately to him, “that an orgy of drinking and rowdyism is going on in the estaminet known as the Chat Gris, this being an offence against public morality and a disturbance of the peace and orderliness of the city.”
Carnot gave no immediate answer to this: he dived into the pocket of his tunic and brought out a note-book and pencil.
“You will permit me, mon Capitaine?” he put in before he sat down on the edge of a chair. He then put the pencil to his mouth and prepared to write.
“May I be permitted to ask your name, mon Capitaine?”he asked in a suave tone through which Darieux could not fail to note this time a suspicion of insolence.
“Capitaine Philippe Darieux, of His Majesty’s corps of coastguards.”
“Capitaine Philippe Darieux,” Carnot uttered slowly, spelling out the letters and the word, “of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards. A serious case of smuggling, did you say, mon Capitaine?” he went on, preparing to write again.
“I did not say that.”
“Oh!... I thought... seeing your uniform, mon Capitaine... you understand?”
“No, I do not.”
“Then I don’t quite see..
“What don’t you see?”
“I don’t see that the matter in question concerns His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards.”
“An offence against public morality concerns every law-abiding citizen...”
“And you, mon Capitaine, are a citizen of Cremieux?”
“No, I am not.”
“Then again I do not see,” Leon Carnot put in, still keeping up a pretence of deference in face of an officer of His Majesty’s army.
“You seem to be singularly obtuse for a Commissary of Police, my friend,” Darieux retorted with growing irritation. “It is so obviously your duty to act on information received—”
“Pardon me, mon Capitaine,” Carnot broke in, without any attempt this time at cloaking his insolent attitude, “denunciation. Not information. And we of the police know where our duty lies, and require no admonition from any member of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards. Had it been a case of smuggling or receiving prohibited goods I don’t say. But allow me to remark, mon Capitaine, that we of the police do not take orders from anyone save from our own superiors. Sorry to disappoint you, but I know my duty just as well as you do. And better. Good evening, mon Capitaine. At your service.”
A further sharp retort hovered on Darieux’ lips, but sound sense prevailed and the desire to preserve the dignity of his uniform. Alas! it had lost so much of its prestige since the Minister of Police had placed the once highly esteemed corps under civil jurisdiction. These men knew this well enough. Their thinly veiled insolence proved it. To have insisted now would only have resulted in a complete loss of dignity. The men still stood at attention, their right hand up to the salute. Silent. Motionless. Their faces stolid, their eyes following every movement of Captain Darieux while, for less than a minute, he appeared to hesitate, then pulled his cloak once more round his shoulders, returned the salute and strode out of the room.
He hadn’t been in the place five minutes. Curbing his exasperation as best he could he made his way back to the Grand Place, to the hotel where Colonel Leblanc was lodging. The only thing he could do was to put the whole matter before his own commanding officer, and then act under instructions. Unfortunately Colonel Leblanc was not in. The woman in the bureau, wife of the proprietor, said that the Colonel had gone out over half an hour ago, giving no indication as to where he was going or at what hour he might be expected to return. There was nothing for it. Darieux was obliged to go back to his quarters in Lorgeril, having failed in his set purpose. Failure had indeed met him at every turn.
He asked for his horse to be brought round, refusing the landlord’s polite request that he should take supper in the public room of the hotel.
And he rode out into the night, a prey to darkly brooding thoughts, haunted by fears for Follette, martyred by visions of what her future might be when her dotard of a father joined the majority and left her lonely and unprotected. What to do? Heavens above, what to do? “Tell me what to do, how to protect her, how to save her from the toils of that son of Satan, how to guard her innocence against that ghoulish tempter!” So did the unfortunate man pray in his heart, while he rode through the darkness, past the old farmhouse now wrapped in gloom. All lights were out and not a sound issued beyond its doors.
“God have pity on little Follette, on her ignorance, on her innocence. God have mercy on me and tell me what to do.”
Dawn was breaking when Darieux reached his quarters in Chateau Lorgeril. Lieutenant Praslins was waiting up for him. He had been anxious about him the whole of the day, and, in fact, some days before that. Anxiety and heartache were telling on Darieux’ physical health. His buoyant temperament seemed to have deserted him. Often he brooded and appeared lost in gloomy thoughts. When he talked confidentially with his friend he would nearly always revert to his foreboding — born on that day in Paris during his interview with the Minister of Police — a foreboding of something that menaced his entire future. Praslins, who was not troubled in the same way, who had not been interviewed by the sinister Fouche, did his best to talk him out of these forebodings. Though Darieux had never mentioned Follette to him he had guessed — no intimate friend could have helped guessing — what the trouble was that had changed the lively and buoyant young soldier, full of the joy of living, devoted to his work, ambitious and hopeful, into a moody hypochondriac. For the last few days Darieux had indeed appeared more than usually self-absorbed. His brain had been at work rehearsing over and over again the appeal with which he meant to turn Follette’s heart away from her evil genius back to her childish little ways and her natural gaiety.
All day yesterday and also this morning he had been like a man tortured with anxiety, and Praslins, who respected him as his superior officer and loved him as a friend, had in his turn been anxious about him. A letter had come early in the day, addressed to le Capitaine Philippe Darieux. It had come from Angers by post as far as Alencon, and thence by the mounted courier, who had taken it to Chateau Lorgeril. Praslins knew that Darieux’ home was in Anjou, and that his mother and father lived there, also a young sister. He paid for the delivery of the letter and kept it by him, not liking to leave it lying in his friend’s room. Letters so often contained money these days and this one might have proved a temptation to one of the men.
Darieux thanked him warmly for his solicitude. His manner brightened when he took the letter and saw whence it had come.
“From my mother,” he said, and bade his friend a hearty good night.
As soon as he was alone he broke the seal. The first words written by his mother with an unsteady hand seemed like an additional blow dealt to him by a merciless fate.
[Madame Darieux had written]
My beloved son,
It is with a soul bowed down to the earth by grief that I inform you by this present of the death of your dear father. It occurred last night, which was the sixteenth of this month, at one o’clock after midnight. He died in his sleep. I heard him give three hiccoughs and frightened to death, I jumped out of bed, sent for Antoine and at once despatched him to Volette for Doctor Duverney. Your dear father was lying on his side, motionless. I feared the worst. I tried to force brandy through his lips but he did not swallow it. The hour which I spent by his side, alone but for old Marie who was in tears and in no way helpful, was the most terrible one I have ever spent in all my life. The doctor came at last. There was nothing whatever to be done. My husband was already dead, he said, when I heard the third hiccough. And now, my beloved son, I am not writing for the sole purpose of telling you of my grief and suffering, though these are greater than I can possibly express, but because I want you to come to me immediately. I am all alone and need your presence and your help. Your sister is too young to be of any help to me, and there are many official and legal matters to which it is your duty to attend. So come, I pray you, at once. The diligence will bring you to Angers, where Antoine and Joseph will meet you with horses and a carriole for your luggage. We shall know tomorrow on what day and at what hour the next diligence wilt reach Angers, also the next one after that, and we will be on the watch unceasingly, waiting for your arrival.
I send you my blessing, my beloved son, and await the consolation of your presence near me.
Your loving Mother, Emmeline Darieux.
The letter dropped out of Philippe’s hand and fell unheeded by him on to the floor. Thus had Fate taken a hand in the ordering of his future, and dealt a final blow to his ardent hopes that he might yet save Follette from the disaster which her association with the Provencal would certainly bring down upon her. No — he could do nothing now. A last farewell? A final entreaty? She would not listen, whatever he said, however impassioned his appeal. He had never been a very religious man. Always respectful and earnest in the matter of religion and a believer to a certain extent, at this moment of supreme anxiety he felt that all he could do was to leave his beloved in God’s hands, to put his trust in divine Providence, who surely would intervene to save an innocent child from abasement and a moral catastrophe.
He would get a couple of months’ leave now. If refused he would send in his papers. There was talk of the Emperor’s return from Russia. What happened there was not known. News of that awful cataclysm had not yet penetrated to the distant corners of rural France. Anyway, the next few months would have to be spent over straightening out family affairs. His mother claimed him, and as far as duty to his Emperor allowed, he must answer her call. What would happen after that it was impossible to say. Whether subsequently it would be possible for him to take up a career in the service of his country, or whether he would be obliged to spend the rest of his life in looking after the Anjou property and taking up his position as head of the family, was on the knees of the gods.
He wrote to the Minister of War asking for two months’ leave for reasons of urgent family affairs, sent the letter with the required fees by courier to the Recevoir des Postes in Alencon, who would then forward it to its destination. He did not wait for the reply, certain that the leave would not be refused. His mother was waiting for him. Her call was urgent, his first duty was to her. A hired chaise took him as far as Caen, where he picked up the diligence for Angers.
He made no attempt to see Follette again.
Darieux was absent four months. urged on by his mother, he asked and obtained extension of leave. Affaires de famille always make a strong appeal to French officialdom, and so does a widow’s call to her only son. Madame Darieux pleaded both and Philippe was granted an additional two months’ leave to straighten financial matters at home. This had been an arduous but not too difficult a task. Though impoverished by the many turmoils which had hampered the productive capacity of the countryside, General Darieux had managed to keep the bulk of his property free from burdensome mortgage. He had consistently led a quiet life, cutting down expenses wherever possible and denying himself those luxuries to which he and his family were accustomed by virtue of their rank and position in the province. In this life of self-sacrifice he was nobly aided and abetted by his devoted wife, whose one idea in life — as soon as political troubles began to set in — was to secure for their only son a tidy remnant of the fortune which his forbears had accumulated in the past two centuries.
Captain Philippe Darieux therefore — still an officer in the Emperor’s army — found himself at this hour in possession of what was a good deal more than a mere competence and presumably free to lead the life which appealed more strongly to his temperament and to his tastes: either to continue his career in the army, in which case a transfer into a more distinguished fighting corps was indicated, or to devote himself solely to the administration of his estates, gradually exerting himself to increase their productive capacities, and to restore in a great measure the affluence to which his mother had been accustomed in the past. The first few weeks of his leave were entirely taken up with matters of business, always very complicated in France at this time when new legislation anent succession dues and decrees brought on first by the Republic and then by the Emperor was still at war with ancient monarchical customs and institutions.
It was only when there came a kind of lull in the multiplicity of interviews and legal consultations that serious reflection took possession of his mind. Was he really free to shape the path in life which appealed to his temperament and to his tastes? And here serious reflection came at once to a deadlock, with the eternally unanswerable query: What of Follette? What of his love for that child who had wormed herself into his heart, and to the innermost recesses of his brain, scattering to the four winds of Fate every other thought, every other aspiration of his soul?
What of Follette? What of his love? What kind of a life would be endurable without that insistent hope of winning her love in return one day... when she was older... more mature in heart and sentiment... when...? Ah! When?
And here arose a problem more profound, less solvable than any other problem of life. What would be his mother’s attitude towards the likelihood of a marriage between her son, head of the house of Darieux, one of the oldest and most respected families of Anjou, and the child of a nameless vagabond, a “Pere Ribot”, connected with every kind of law-breaking runagates?... She herself... But here Philippe’s reflections came to a dead halt. A deadlock in very truth. A problem with all its hideous eventualities, its impossible solutions. An open breach with his mother? A defiance of every family connection, of family traditions centuries old. The endless complications to make the marriage legal by the laws of France, without the consent of the parents on either side, even in the case of a man long past his first youth. Free to choose his own path in life? No, he could not be free while his love for Follette held him in bondage — bondage from which death alone would have the power to release him.
What of Follette, indeed? The dear, sweet owner of his heart whom he had last seen consorting with knaves and vulgar breakers of the law, what of her? He had enjoined his friend Lieutenant Praslins to write and tell him any news or gossip that might be current in the district during his absence. And this without hinting to him that it was news of Follette that he wanted more than anything else. But five weeks went by before there came a letter from Praslins, and in it there was no mention either of Follette or of Pere Ribot, but the news the letter did contain was in itself sufficiently startling to cause a great deal of perturbation in Philippe Darieux’ mind. Praslins reported that the whole countryside was in a state of excitement because it seemed that the State, who had sequestered the Lorgeril property after the departure of its owner, had suddenly decided on putting it up for sale by public auction. This, Praslins went on to say, meant the chateau and its dependencies, which comprised not only the moor but extensive forests and agricultural land south of the moor, higher up the river. But not the farmhouse. Papa Ribot having been in undisputed possession of it for over ten years, the law apparently gave him a prescriptive right so to remain for the rest of his life.
The news in itself was startling enough. To Darieux it was thrice welcome, for it gave him the excuse which he had wished for all along to return to Lorgeril as soon as his two months’ leave was up. To Lorgeril and to Follette. The sale of the chateau would entail the move to other quarters of his detachment of coast-guards. His presence on the spot would be imperative. Praslins in his letter did say that the Colonel Commandant had already enquired of him when he could expect Captain Darieux to return, and even Madame Darieux, who was exerting all her maternal authority to keep her only son at home, could not help but bow to military orders. The time of leave-taking came all too soon, and Philippe started for the journey north with a heart full of longing and of joyful anticipation, but with a mind racked with foreboding, a prescience of evil to which he could not give a name.
The news had in very truth been startling in the extreme. The whole department was in a turmoil. Not only the villages, not only Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys, but the entire countryside between Cabourg and Arromanches, but also Cremieux and as far as Caen. —
There was no doubt about it. The chateau of Lorgeril with its dependencies would be put up for auction in the Town Hall of Caen on Tuesday the twelfth of May at 2.30 precisely.
Thus it was announced officially in the Moniteur, and the flutter among the cronies on the beach and the folk in the burettes reached its height when other matters deriving from that unexpected sale came one by one to light. Then indeed did all these worthies, old and young, fail to find words to express their amazement. The whole thing had been like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky. A regular thunderbolt which left one blinking, dazed, not knowing what to think, what to believe and what not.
But there it was.
The final and most convincing proof had come to light after that announcement in the Moniteur that Pere Ribot, far from being a humdrum old fellow with a thriving little business in prohibited English goods, as everyone had believed him to be for the past decade, was not only a very rich man — some said a millionaire — but also a personage of rank and distinction.
Yes, Pere Ribot was a millionaire — there had been no doubt about that for some time now — but the attitude which he had adopted since the sale of Chateau Lorgeril had been officially announced pointed to the fact that his antecedents were very different to what had been surmised since first he came tramping up from the South with his rickety cart and skinny nag, and with his daughter Follette munching an apple and perched on the top of what had seemed to be the sum total of all Pere Ribot’s belongings.
“Dieu des dieux, who would have thought it?” Grandmere Bosseny sighed ruefully. Had she but guessed that here was a millionaire come to reside in the village she would have known how to make him share his wealth with the whole village, especially with poor old women who were too decrepit to do any hard work and who had lost their breadwinners — sons, brothers, husbands — in the pitiless sea.
“But you don’t really believe it, do you, Grandmere?” one of the younger women asked.
“Believe what?” Grandmere retorted.
“That Pere Ribot is a real aristo who once owned the Chateau Lorgeril?”
Grandmere gave a shrug, sniffed, and remarked curtly:
“I know what I know. And,” she added after a dramatic pause, “I know what I heard.”
And they all gathered together, old heads and young heads, grey hair and blonde hair all tangled up together by the boisterous wind. The women were standing head to head and shoulder to shoulder in an angle of the village street in front of the group of cottages which lay behind the cliff track. On the height the old farmhouse with its round tower and pepper-pot roof seemed from its eminence up there to dominate the surrounding landscape, whilst far down by the river bank the Chateau Lorgeril modestly hid its past grandeur and present dilapidations behind the grove of trees where the buds were already on the boughs and bursting into leaf.
They all wanted to know what it was that Grandmere knew and what it was that she had overheard. To be quite frank, this did not amount to very much more than what had already gone the round of the village.
“I and my Follette,” Pere Ribot is supposed to have declared emphatically in the course of a heated argument with Gigot de Morieton, “are going to live in the place, which is ours by right.”
“What do you make of that?” the old woman concluded triumphantly.
So the little crowd of women continued to chatter whilst they threw occasional glances up at the farmhouse — glances that would have wrested, if they could, the secrets that remained hidden under that pepper-pot roof. Presently they perceived Pere Ribot come out of the house in company with Gigot de Morieton. And the women readjusted their shawls and smoothed down their aprons in anticipation of a spot of conversation with the two men. But in this they were disappointed. They went round the back of the house, and were perceived a moment or two later over on the moor wending their way towards the river in the direction of the chateau.
“Dieu des dieux,” murmured Maman Thibaud, “can you understand it? If they wanted to go down to the chateau why in the world did they choose the longest way round?”
Why, indeed? If only one could overhear what that old scamp and his familiar were saying to one another there would have been food for gossip for many days to come.
In the meantime the two men had come to the gate of the chateau. A sentry stationed there allowed them to pass through into the thicket of trees which was all that was left of the former park and garden.
“It will take some doing,” Ribot remarked, casting his eyes over the overgrown shrubbery, the stunted trees and weed-covered lawns, “to get all this in order”.
“And some money,” the other put in curtly.
“You will have to bring that along on your next journey,” was the old man’s comment with a dry cackle.
Gigot de Morieton made no reply to this, but his glance of contempt swept over his companion’s shrunken form and tottering gait.
They had rounded the corner of what had once been an avenue of silver birch and larches, and came in sight of the chateau, with its tumbledown portico, its cracked perron steps and general air of neglect and dilapidation. The windows were broken for the most part, the shutters hung loose on their rusty hinges. The wall was plastered all over with announcements of the forthcoming sale.
“Fancy wanting to live in this hideous old barrack of a place,” Gigot de Morieton remarked with a sarcastic laugh.
The old man gave a shrug, but said nothing for a moment while he led the way round the house. Here, the facade which faced the river and beyond it the vast, desolate moorland, presented an equally neglected and weather-beaten aspect. The wind had played about with the paper placards on the wall, had torn them to shreds, and these flapped about like strips of dirty ribbon. The shutters creaked on their hinges, and an overhanging bough of larch played on a few loose tiles on the roof, sending an occasional one crashing down on the stones below.
There had been a garden here at one time leading to the river bank and traces of it could still be perceived: a broken urn, a chipped piece of statuary, part of a balustrade round which a climbing rose now shrivelled and blighted had once wound its sweet-scented flower-laden branches. The door on this side of the house was small and mean in construction, but must have been pretty once, shaded by an arbour of luxuriant vine. The trellis-work was broken to pieces now, the vine withered, its branches and tendrils decayed.
Pere Ribot turned his footsteps towards the door.
“I am going inside,” he said to Gigot over his shoulder, “will you come?”
“Not I!” the other replied curtly. “I don’t want to see a lot of mouldering rubbish....”
“You keep an amiable tongue in your mouth,” Ribot snarled in return, “do you hear? I’ll have no more talk of ‘old barrack’ and ‘mouldering rubbish’ from you. What is your hovel in England like I would like to know. As for your father and grandfather — not to mention your mother... a dirty lot of vagabonds I’ll be bound.”
But the Provencal apparently turned a deaf ear to Ribot’s invectives. After a shrug of indifference or irony, he turned on his heel and strode down to the end of the garden above the river bank. He threw one powerful leg over the stone balustrade and remained astride there surveying the landscape, the lorn, far-reaching moor, the distant forest land, the precipitous cliffs rising sheer above the grey, turbulent sea. The old man, garrulous and spiteful in his cups, followed him, continuing to vent his spleen on his whilom friend by abuse and personal insults. Gigot took no notice, however. He fished his pipe out of his pocket, set a light to it and proceeded to smoke placidly, only indulging from time to time in a sneer or in sardonic laughter when Ribot’s bibulous tongue got entangled in some long, acrimonious word. It was only when Follette’s name was mentioned that he swung round and faced the old man with a glowering look and a muttered curse.
“My father and my grandfather and great-grandfather before me lived in this chateau,” Ribot had said with overweening conceit, “and you may talk till you are black in the face and try to command and to forbid, but you can take it from me that my Follette will live and die in her ancestral home — aye, and her children after her.”
“My children, you mean,” the other retorted harshly.
“If you marry my daughter, that is...”
“Of course I’ll marry your daughter, you old fool.”
“If she consents.... She hasn’t done that yet, remember.”
“And if she doesn’t,” quoth Gigot de Morieton with a scowl, “what are you going to live on, the two of you? You don’t suppose that I would go on risking my life time after time to keep you in luxury, and get nothing for it, do you?”
He paused for a moment or two, puffed away at his pipe, looked the old man up and down with an expression of utter contempt and after another shrug and another laugh said with calm finality:
“What’s the good of arguing? And what’s the good of quarrelling? You can’t do without me, Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril, or whatever ridiculous name you choose to call yourself.”
“And you can’t do without me, either,” Ribot growled sulkily. “If it were not for Follette—” —
“There you have it,” the other broke in forcefully. “If it were not for Follette wouldn’t I let you starve in your old barrack, while you tried to lord it there as an aristo? You have saved enough money, I dare say, money which I have got for you at risk of my life, in order to buy your tumbledown chateau, but that money won’t last for ever and what will you do then? You can’t restart smuggling prohibited goods from England and sell them to the village folk in your back drawing-room. Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril could not do such a thing. It would bemean him. Humiliate him. The fine aristo. What?”
Ribot would have liked to find an answer to this spiteful gibe, but rage was bubbling inside him and stifled the words in his throat before he could utter them. All he could do was to gasp and to swallow his breath, while the Provencal went on placidly:
“But there is Follette, luckily for you my friend. And I love Follette in a way I have never loved a woman in my life before. I love Follette. And I want Follette. And I want her for my wife. Not to live in this old barrack with you but in a beautiful house built of marble, with, palm trees and flowers all round and the blue, blue sea to gaze on, instead of this dirty miserable marsh. That is what I want, you old dotard. A marble palace in the South where I belong. And Follette for my wife. And I have never wanted anything — never, do you hear? — that I didn’t get in the end.”
“She will never consent,” Ribot mumbled obstinately.
“Oh yes, she will, when she understands what it will mean to you if she refuses. Nothing short of starvation in your ancestral home, my friend... But a good competence for you if you keep out of the way, when she comes and dwells with me in a marble palace in my native Provence..
He swung himself off the balustrade and started to walk down towards the river.
“And with that competence,” he concluded, throwing a last glance over his shoulder on Pere Ribot, “you can go to the devil your own way. I’ll not hinder you.”
The old man watched him for a while, walking with head erect and head thrown back with the step and manner of a man accustomed to command and to be obeyed. “I have never wanted anything that I didn’t get in the end,” the Provencal had asserted vaingloriously. And he wanted Follette because he loved her. “Ah, well,” thought Papa Ribot with the philosophy peculiar to the habitual tippler, “that would certainly be the easiest way out of every difficulty.” He and Gigot were chained to one another by the strong fetters of crime committed in complete accord. The snapping of one link of that chain must mean ruin and death to both. As matters stood, neither could do without the other. They were dependent on each other. Gigot the breadwinner and he, Ribot, with his clever daughter whom the Provencal had marked down as his future wife.
“Ah, well,” he murmured with calm philosophy, and turned his footsteps back to the chateau.
Ribot pushed open the narrow door which gave access to the rear premises of the house. An icy cold draught coming from the cellars below hit him in the face. Shivering, he gave himself a shake and buried his hands in his breeches pockets. He gave only a cursory glance to right and left, then went up the stone steps in front of him and through the archway which gave on to the central pillared hall. Here he came to a halt. His bleary eyes swept over the once familiar scene, now given over to the cruel onslaught of time and neglect. He saw the marble pillars with their curved capitals of acanthus leaves chipped and smothered in the grime of years; the flooring cracked, with several squares broken away displaying the rubble and dirt beneath; the consols smashed as if with a sledge-hammer, and on the right the monumental marble mantelpiece, with its delicate tracery and carvings blackened by the smoke of the past thirty years.
Ribot noted it all, the grey silk brocade hanging in strips from the walls, the doors with the paint all worn off, the ormolu of curtains and picture-hangers black with age. Tears gathered in his eyes. Every corner of this deserted house meant a happy memory for him.
There above the mantelpiece the portrait of Amede Comte de Lorgeril, who had fought so gallantly under the Duc de Guise in the defence of Metz, was wont to hang: to the right and left of him above the two great folding doors were the panels painted by Boucher, and facing the mantel was the case of trophies containing arms captured by Henri de Lorgeril during the course of the Seven Years War. There had been portraits of gracious and fair ladies who had graced the courts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. All these were gone, frames and all, nothing of them was left save the brass hangers and nails rusty and discoloured, showing their former positions on the brocaded panels of the walls. The case of trophies had gone too, smashed and pillaged probably during the early days of the revolution, when agitators went round the country inciting the mob to raid the deserted chateaux and to destroy the valuable furniture and priceless works of art that the hasty flight of their owners had failed to place in security. Memories sad and gay. Memories of childhood, of running up and down the grand staircase which faced the great archway, sliding down the marble banisters, only to land at the bottom of them, with little legs astride around the sculptured Eros holding aloft the candelabra which served to illumine the hall. Memories of boyhood, when he would love to sit on the stairs over there with an open book on his knees, his chin cupped in his hands, immersed in the adventures and exploits of heroes of old, the great Conde, the legendary Cid, the glories of Louis XIV the Sun King and of Jeanne d’Arc the saintly virgin. But it was not only of heroes’ deeds that he loved to read. Pirates and smugglers thrilled him far more than those pompous patriots who risked their lives for their country and often received for reward nothing but disgrace, imprisonment and sometimes death. They were the fellows whose adventures he longed to emulate. Captain Daniel, Cook the Englishman, Dansk the Dutch pirate. They also were hanged — most of them — because they were law-breakers, but oh! what an exciting life they led, and Maurice de Lorgeril, destined one day to become Comte de Lorgeril, was conscious of the first longing to break the autocratic laws of his country, to sail over the seven seas in search of fortune and to bring into France goods which she lacked and which the officiousness of a tyrranical government forbade her to import. Already then did the young mind dwell on the possibilities of thrilling adventures by sea and land, of mysterious cargo brought to shore at dead of night, with the myrmidons of the law waiting to capture the bold corsair and seize the precious spoils.
And Maurice Comte de Lorgeril — now just Papa Ribot to all and sundry — sat squatting on the base of a marble pillar in the hall of his ancestral home overcome with emotion at thought of those poignant memories. The last days which he had spent in the old chateau came to his mind as vivid and as real as if they had occurred yesterday. He was fifteen years old when his mother died. The mother whom he had scarcely known. She was always either ailing or absent. He was seldom allowed to see her, or to enter her room where she lay stretched out on the sofa with a white rug spread over her. He remembered the rug: it was the skin of a polar bear, head and all, with great bulging eyes, huge open jaws and immense pointed teeth. Even when he was quite small, the open jaws and big eyes of the bear did not frighten him, but he was never allowed to touch them.
Her death made little or no impression upon his callow mind. She was gone and that was all there was to it. She had so often been absent before, and had meant so very little in his young life. But his father felt his wife’s loss terribly. It almost broke him up, physically as well as mentally. He had been a vigorous, healthy country gentleman before, proud of his name, of his possessions, of the consideration which was accorded him wherever he went. After his ailing wife’s death he became a changed man: morose, irritable, a prey to black melancholy. He accompanied her to her last resting-place: the family vault of the Lorgerils which his grandfather had had constructed years ago in the churchyard of Les Lucques, a property which he owned in the Orleanais. He took Maurice with him and Allain Negro, the faithful valet who had been in his service ever since Maurice was born. And here he remained for a couple of years until he himself was laid to rest by the side of his wife whom he had idolized. He left Maurice under the guardianship of a middle-aged relative: an uncle who, foreseeing the cataclysm which was already threatening France with revolution, soon packed up his belongings and fled to England before the storm broke.
Maurice was left in the care of Allain Negro, who loved him as he would a son, who would have given his life for him, but who was unable to contribute one iota to the somewhat meagre stock of learning the boy had assimilated under the guidance of a saintly man, the parish priest of Les Lucques, whose intellectual attainments were not quite on a level with the requirements of successful tutorship. And Maurice grew from boyhood to maturity ignorant and uncultured where book-learning was concerned, but past-master in every kind of physical accomplishment. He grew up like a young animal, knowing no law save his own desires, letting the years pass him by while Revolution and Reign of Terror came and went. He never hankered after Lorgeril and the old chateau. Rumour reached Les Lucques that a mob from the neighbouring towns, egged on by paid agitators, had sacked and pillaged the chateau and devastated the gardens and the park. Maurice didn’t care. He was quite happy at Les Lucques, in the company of Allain, who taught him how to ride and to swim, to shoot and to use his fists. Even though the death of Robespierre, the rise of the Directoire, and of the Consulate, and dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte had made it possible for the Comte de Lorgeril to return to his ancestral home and to take up once more the position in the world which was his by right, Maurice would have none of it. He chose to remain what the downfall of the monarchy had made of him, a fugitive and an outlaw. One great principle above all others had the worthy priest of Les Lucques inculcated into his soul, the divine right of Kings. Abhorrence of the regicides who had laid their impious hands on their King and Queen and sent them to an ignominious death had for Maurice de Lorgeril become part of his religion. Coupled with this fanatacism was the wild spirit of adventure, born and bred in him since the days of boyhood, when he sat on the marble steps of his old home with the Book of Heroes on his knees, drinking in tales of the great adventurers, the seafaring men, the free-lances, the smugglers and explorers. That spirit still had possession of him body and soul. It had developed in him during those years spent in loneliness in the thickets and on the downs of the Orleanais. It sent him into the ranks of the Chouans, those irregular bands of peasants and seigneurs, fanatical as himself, who fought a desperate fight for their King against the trained armies of the Republic.
Maurice de Lorgeril threw himself wholeheartedly into the life of which he had dreamed as a boy, which he had longed for as a man. The guerilla warfare, the plots and counterplots, the constant risk of death, appealed to his every instinct of manliness and of recklessness. He joined the Chouan forces with the ardour of a hotspur. Side by side with those heroic fighters he affronted with rapture every danger, endured every kind of hardship. He tramped with them through forest and scrub, forded rivers, slept under hedgerows in storms of rain and snow, starved with them, lay crouching in secret vaults and hiding-places, hearing the soldiers of the Republic tramping overhead in search of fugitives and the clash of arms detonating all around. He revelled in the heroic deeds of these ignorant peasants whose loyalty to their King never faltered, whose courage and endurance never failed. And he revelled in those happy hours when at risk of a stray bullet he made his way back to Les Lucques. For here it was that he had found the great happiness of his stormy life. Here he had met and fallen in love with Eulalie de Frontasse, a girl of gentle birth and wonderful beauty whom he married and who gave him all the felicity of requited love.
That felicity, alas! lasted only two years. Eulalie died after giving birth to the child who in her turn was destined to bring unalloyed joy into Maurice de Lorgeril’s maturer years. He adored his little Follette from the very first, watched with delight her growth and development like a lovely flower of the fields. And when in the intervals of desperate fighting he lay under the ground burrowing like a mole, it was of his little Follette that he dreamed, for her that he longed with every aspiration of his soul. It was to her that his footsteps tended when, tracked and hunted by the Republicans, he made his way through the scrub and to Les Lucques in order to spend a few hours in what he rightly called paradise.
Follette’s charm, her childish ways, her adorable laughter and delicious prattle warmed his heart. A few hours of boundless rapture with her little arms round his neck or clinging to his knees, the scent of her tawny hair in his nostrils, her sweet, dewy mouth pressed against his cheeks, then back he would tramp at dead of night and take part, mayhap, in one of those cruel acts of reprisal which have made of the civil wars of the Chouannerie one of the most thrilling episodes in the history of France.
Then when the wars were over and a patched-up peace sent fighters back to their devastated homes, Maurice Comte de Lorgeril soon became conscious of a vague but insistent feeling of restlessness. For a little while he enjoyed the peace and security of the old manor house of Les Lucques, the presence of his adored little Follette, the devotion of faithful Allain Negro, but soon things began to stir in his brain. Ideas. Schemes. Discontent. He knew that he could not go on living the rest of his life in idleness and domesticity. He was still a comparatively young man, healthy and vigorous in spite of the arduousness of the campaign and a wound or two that still were troublesome at times, a man with a keen brain and an abundance of energy. He didn’t want to sit still. He wanted to be up and doing. Though the aims of the Chouannerie had been high, their loyalty and disinterestedness beyond question, there was no reason why, while one was fighting for one’s King, one did not take advantage of what the fortunes of war placed within one’s reach. There had been pillaging and looting of enemy property, when the Republicans after hard combat were driven out of some position occupied by them in a deserted chateau. And whilst seeking safety in underground vaults and burrows, treasures had been discovered which the former owners had been forced to abandon or mayhap failed to conceal adequately. All in a spirit of reprisal, of course. First come first served in cases of that sort, and Maurice de Lorgeril, whose mind worked quicker than that of the brave but slow-witted peasants, had contrived during thirteen years’ campaigning to put together by such means as came to his hand a fair competence for his future and that of Follette.
With money in his pocket, with active brain and virile energy, Maurice’s mind soon tended towards planning out the life which he intended to lead. There were no more battles which he could fight, no more bands of fanatical warriors which he could join, but during those times of tramping and marching, of crawling beneath the surface of the earth like a mole, his thoughts had oft reverted to his boyhood’s dreams, when he had thrilled at the story of the smugglers (those daring breakers of tyrranical laws, he called them), who also risked death for the mere sake of adventure, for excitement and love of recklessness. Some of the peasants with whom he fought came from the coast of Brittany and Normandy, from Cabourg and Havre, even from Saint-Victor or Saint-Lys, the small fishing villages situated close to Lorgeril — close to Maurice’s ancestral home. With them he talked, listened to their tales of English ships putting in at dead of night in secret creeks round about the river mouth or under the Rochers de Calvados, landing cargoes of English goods which paid no toll to the Government treasury, but brought good money into the pockets of those who were bold enough to receive them and gave French brandy in exchange for English wool.
They talked of the caves under the inaccessible cliffs, of the creeks in and around the Rochers de Calvados. In fact, it seemed as if the whole lay of land and sea had been created by Almighty God for the benefit of those benevolent smugglers whose aim was the providing of cheap clothing, cheap drink and cheap tobacco to the deserving poor.
Fired by enthusiasm, Maurice de Lorgeril went north to explore the coast for himself. It was a ten days’ tramp from Les Lucques to Le Havre. He undertook it without hesitation. He had money in plenty to pay for bed and board in wayside hostelries, also for the hire of a horse or a vehicle to help him on the way if he so desired. He was absent one month and learned all that he wished to know: it satisfied him that the new life which he had planned for himself, though not so exciting as the old, would nevertheless give him thrills and risks in plenty.
He came back to Les Lucques just in time to see the last of his faithful friend Allain, who seemed to have kept alive until the day of Maurice’s return by sheer force of will. Just before he closed his eyes in his last long sleep he slipped a bag of money into Maurice’s hand. It contained the savings of a lifetime, for like a true French peasant he had never spent a sou on himself, but had carefully put by every centime he had earned during his years of service.
“Follette’s dowry,” he murmured feebly, and died with a smile of content on his lips. His last look was for Follette, his last prayer for her happiness.
And so the time came for the trek to the north. Follette was just thirteen, a magnificently-set-up, outdoor, able-bodied girl: a veritable Amazon on horseback. Allain had taught her to ride and had procured a pony for her. And she was as much at home on the sea as she was on land, fearless in storms and gales, inured to scorching heat and icy blasts, and as keen on adventure as her father was himself.
Maurice bought a cart, harnessed the pony to it, piled all his belongings on its floor, perched Follette on the top of the furniture and made his way northwards to Lorgeril.
And now here he was — he, Maurice Comte De Lorgeril — inside the old chateau which would very soon be his once more, in spite of what that reptile Gigot de Morieton might say. He had the money and he would purchase it. Here he was born and here he would end his days. Follette would marry whom she pleased, or not marry at all and remain with him, look after him, be the light of his eyes and the joy of his heart.
Of course he was not the man he was. Not even the man he was when he came to Lorgeril seven years ago. He was old now, very old, and so weary. So very weary. His heart ached when he remembered the man he had once been: the Chouan, the fighter for his King, and then the smuggler, the frequenter of the buvettes of Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys, the benefactor of Monsieur le Cure and of the fisher-folk and villagers on the coast. The zest of life had gradually gone out of him. He had lived too well since money flowed into his hands without any work on his part, without any trouble or any exciting adventures. Follette and Gigot had done everything. Gigot ran the gauntlet of the English blockade, risked his life to get the precious stones. And Follette, clever, plucky Follette, took them to Caen or Cremieux, visited the receivers of stolen goods, made friends with those abominable Jews who took advantage at first of her ignorance, argued with her and beat her down over the price of the diamonds which she had for sale. At first, but not of late, for Follette had become shrewd and skilful at bargaining. She had learned the value of what she wished to sell, and they, the Jew merchants, desired to buy. Thus money accumulated in Maurice de Lorgeril’s secret hiding-place. If only his health would hold out until there was a sufficiency put by to keep Follette in luxury for the rest of her life, without constant recourse to that accursed Provencal.
No, no! a thousand times no! His beautiful Follette should never be forced into marriage with that worker of iniquity, that snake in the grass, who had come with scurvy tongue and suave words to ingratiate himself with Follette and her doting father. He had used Follette as a tool, for of a certainty he had also a secret hoard hidden away somewhere — in England, maybe, or in a cache on the Rochers de Calvados. And he had made use of him, Maurice Comte de Lorgeril, as the devil makes use of a human soul, moulding him to his sinister will, bringing him down from manhood and independence to a state of slavery. For his own ends. His desire for Follette.
For he, Maurice, had no opposition left in him. No willpower. He knew it. He was too old and too weary to combat a will stronger than his own. He might say to himself a thousand times: “No, no! my Follette shall never be the wife of that viper!” yet when the time came and Gigot put forward his demand, with that power which surely came to him from the Prince of Darkness, he would not have the strength to refuse. He would give in because he was so old, and because the line of least resistance was the easiest to pursue, and because the desire to end his days in his ancestral home had become the dominant passion of his life.
Because of all this, Maurice Comte de Lorgeril sat weeping at this hour in the pillared hall of the old chateau where he was born. He was happy to be here, happy in the thought that this was his home and that here he would end his days, loved and cared for by his little Follette. Tears flowed down his cheeks, but they were not tears of happiness nor did he attempt to wipe them or to stay their flow.
After a time he rose and roamed around the hall, trying to visualize it as it had been when he was a boy, with the many beautiful pictures and ornaments and the case of trophies and arms from the Seven Years War. But it was difficult. He could not quite remember it all. It was such a long time ago. So very, very long ago.
He pushed open one of the tall double doors and wandered into the adjoining rooms: the reception room, the dining-hall, the library with its rows and rows of shelves once filled with books, all in a state of dilapidation now, of dirt and of neglect, all so full of memories which caused his tears to flow. He made his way up the grand staircase and strolled into the rooms of the upper floor. His mother’s room into which he as a child had always entered with a sinking in his heart. The nursery where he had played with his toys. The small bedroom which he had occupied as a boy, the window of which gave on to the river, and across the river on to the great lonely moor. Here the memories were too poignant for his tired heart to bear. A great sob came from out his breast and he fled incontinently down the stairs again.
The house had been empty when he entered it. The coast-guardsmen had vacated it when the chateau was put up for sale by the State. They had gone and taken with them every stick of wood, every scrap of metal, that could with luck be turned into a few centimes. The men’s quarters were inexpressibly dirty, would have been stuffy but for the fact that every window was cracked and every volet broken, letting in some pure air from over the river. Back in the hall, Maurice strolled along a passage which led to what were known at one time as guest-rooms. He remembered those because during holiday time those rooms were often occupied by young friends — a privileged few whom he had been permitted to invite to the house. There were a number of doors on the right of the passage and Maurice was astonished now to hear voices issuing from one of these. Men’s voices, one of which sounded familiar. He pushed the door open and found himself in a room, in which there was some furniture, an iron bedstead which had recently been slept in, an empty wardrobe, the doors of which were open and the drawers pulled out. There was a washstand in one corner and a deal table with a couple of wooden chairs in the middle of the room. Maurice could still hear the voice which sounded familiar. It came through an open door on his left. He turned in that direction and in so doing attracted the attention of the two men who were talking. One of them came to the door. It was Captain Philippe Darieux. For some unexplainable reason, Maurice was delighted to see him. Something about this good-looking young man, with the fair colouring of the North, pleased him, and brought back to his mind the happy adventures of his smuggling days, the raids on the old farmhouse conducted by this gallant Lieutenant as he then was, raids that always ended in failure and sometimes in conviviality over a glass of old Armagnac to the delight of Papa Ribot and the hilarity of Follette.
“Tiens, mon beau Capitaine,” Maurice said jovially, “who would have thought of seeing you here?”
Darieux appeared slightly ill at ease, nevertheless he came forward with outstretched hand and a word of greeting.
“It is a pleasure to see you, Papa RI” He checked himself abruptly and then resumed with an apologetic smile: “I must not say that, must I? If rumour has not lied, it is Monsieur le Comte, is it not?”
Maurice grasped the outstretched hand and gave it a friendly shake.
“Papa Ribot to you always, mon Capitaine,” he said. “Is there anything I can do to be of service to you in your old quarters?”
He still felt rather muzzy after his morning’s bout and his altercation with the Provencal. His speech was thick and his eyes bleary. But he did his best to steady his voice. He reiterated slowly, blinking at Philippe Darieux:
“Is there anything I can do?” Then went on: “I had no thought of seeing you here. They told me you had gone away... gone for good... from here... you understand?”
“I have been away. I had the misfortune to lose my father. My mother needed me. I had four months’ leave to settle family affairs....”
“Oh! Ah, yes!” the old man commented, and with uncertain gait went up closer to Darieux and looked keenly into his face. He gave a short laugh. “Do you know,” he remarked, “that I hardly knew you... not at first, you know.. you have changed... haven’t you?... Is it really only four months... what?... since you...?” He sighed and continued dolefully: “Many things can happen in four months, my friend. One gets older, you know. Much, much older... and many things happen...
“Many things, as you say, Monsieur le Comte,” Darieux broke in somewhat impatiently. “If you will excuse me... I was putting the last of my belongings together... I had to leave in a hurry... and only heard on my arrival yesterday that all my men had to go to new quarters in Cabourg.... I have a man here who will clean and tidy up...
Maurice gave a chuckle and a short laugh.
“No necessity,” he said thickly, “to clean and tidy two rooms when the whole place is so beastly grimy. I shall want... not one man, but twenty to make it all habit... habit... habitable.”
He stumbled over the long word, took hold of a chair, straddled it and rested his arms over the back. He looked up at Darieux from this point of vantage with a mocking smile.
“You were going to say something, mon beau Capitaine,”he went on with a titter. “What is it?”
Philippe remained silent for a moment or two. He avoided looking Maurice straight in the face. It was fairly obvious that something was hovering on the tip of his tongue. A remark or a query, perhaps, which he did not quite like to formulate.
The old man’s persistent titter began to exasperate him.
“I was only wondering...” he blurted out as if suddenly making up his mind to speak. Then immediately he checked himself.
“What were you wondering, mon beau Capilaine?” Maurice insisted.
“I was only wondering if rumour for once did not lie.”
“That you are purchasing this dilapidated old chateau.”
“I was born in this dilapidated old chateau,” the other rejoined, and banged his fist against the back of the chair, as if to give force to what he meant to say. “So was my father, my grandfather, and all the Lorgerils before me. And here I mean to live and to die.”
He had made a big effort to steady his voice and had in part succeeded. Then as Darieux remained obstinately silent he went on with one of his habitual chuckles:
“You don’t believe me, perhaps?”
“It is all so strange... so unexpected..”
“Well... your title... and... and everything.”
The old man threw back his head at this and laughed long and heartily.
“So that’s it, is it?” he countered airily. “You think I am an old fraud, do you? Grabbing a title that is not my own. I am not an old fool, you know, mon Capitaine. Let me tell you this,” he went on after a slight pause: “You may think I am drunk, but I am not, and I’ll tell you this... though I need not trouble my head what you or the whole d — d neighbourhood think of me... I have all my papers, you know. My baptism, my birth certi... certi...”
“Certificates,” Darieux put in with a smile.
“I was going to say... I have my father’s and my mother’s papers... aye! and all the family papers of all the Lorgerils. Monsieur le Prefet here has seen them. The bigwigs in Paris who have to do with these things have seen them. They all know and they have declared that I am really and truly Comte de Lorgeril in direct de... de... shent from Amede de Lorgeril who got his title and his lands from King Henri IV in reward for gal... gal... gallantry at the battle of Ivry.”
He paused for want of breath. The effort of steadying his voice and keeping his throat clear had been great and tired him out. He dived his hand inside his shirt, drew out a parchment, which was covered with writing and adorned with a number of large official seals. This he held out to Darieux with a shaking hand.
“Read it, mon Capitaine,” he shrieked with a kind of triumphant note in his cracked voice. “Read it, I say... so that you can tell all those who think me an old fool that Papa Ribot is really and truly Maurice Comte de Lorgeril, the only son of the Comte de Lorgeril whom they all knew here on this land before a band of brute beasts and regicides destroyed the chateau first and stole it and the land afterwards.
“Read it! Read it!” he kept on, always holding the parchment out to Darieux at arm’s length.
Out of sheer curiosity, or mere exasperation (for the parchment in Maurice’s shaking hand produced an irritating, grating sound which got on his nerves), Darieux took it and glanced at it: saw the signature of the Emperor, of the Grand Chamberlain and of the Minister of Police, fingered the huge seals which dangled on Tricolour ribbons. He handed the parchment back to Maurice, who thrust it once more inside his shirt.
“It is all staggering.” Darieux contrived to say, for he was absolutely flabbergasted. His glance swept rapidly over the old man — the ill-fitting, shabby coat, the unkempt hair and beard, the face rugged and blotched, the red nose, the loose lips, the bleary eyes. Pere Ribot, yes! the genial smuggler, the frequenter of low-class burettes, yes! but not the Comte de Lorgeril, the descendant of a long line of aristocratic ancestry, of distinguished men-at-arms and noble courtiers.
“Not such a fool as they think me, what?” Maurice put in with a titter.
“I can assure you, Monsieur le Comte....” Darieux faltered.
“Bah! don’t ‘Monsieur le Comte’ me. To my old friends I shall always remain Papa Ribot. And it’s many a glass of good old Armagnac that you will be drinking with me and my Follette in our ancestral chateau... once it is all clean and tidy all clean and tidy... yes... all clean...”
His words died down in an incoherent murmur. His head fell forward on his arms. The effort to pull himself together, to speak clearly and to hold himself with dignity, had been too much for him.
For the first time since this talk between the two men Follette’s name cropped up. Darieux at sound of it felt as if he had received a blow between the eyes. Follette! How long ago did the days seem since he had heard a word from her lips, since he had held her soft perfumed little hand in his! Follette! Had there really been a time when in his folly he had dreamed that the day would come when she would listen to his words of love, when she would allow his arm to steal round her waist, when she would lay her head upon his shoulder, turn her sweet face up to his, and her dewy lips would cling to his in one long kiss? How long ago that seemed! How very long ago!
Maurice de Lorgeril struggled up from his chair — knocked it over as he did so, and nearly fell headlong with it. The noise drew Philippe Darieux out of the reverie into which he had fallen. He hastened to aid the old man to regain his balance.
“Thank you! Thank you!” the latter murmured. “I was nearly over that time, wasn’t I?” He seemed dazed, looked up at Darieux with eyes that were dim. He gave a short, timid kind of cackle. “He! he! he! She mustn’t see me like this, must she, my little Follette?” And he winked knowingly at Darieux.
“Mademoiselle Follette? She isn’t here, is she?”
“No, but she soon will be. That devil Gigot ordered her to be here — so she will have to come.”
“How do you mean? Ordered her to be here? She will have to come?... Who would dare...?”
Maurice staggered forward a step or two, let his hand fall heavily on the young man’s shoulder, and looked up into his face. Darieux was frowning, his eyes were blazing with wrath and indignation.
“Who would dare?” he reiterated savagely.
The old man shook his head dolefully. Tears gathered in his eyes and ran down his cheeks. He did not attempt to check them.
“Don’t be angry with me, my friend,” he faltered. “No, no! you must not be angry. There is nothing that I can do. I am just a poor old man... old and sick.... I have not long to live... and Follette... my Follette... what can she do?... That devil holds us both... in his hands... like this...” and he opened and closed his fists. Then, as his nose was dribbling, he sniffed, and passed his hand across it.
“We’ve got to live... my Follette and I... live here... in this chateau... you understand?... where my father. — ... and my grandfather... and...”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Darieux broke in impatiently.
“No, you don’t know,” Maurice protested, with the obstinacy peculiar to the inebriated. “You don’t know. We are here in his power.... He can get the diamonds, you see.... We can’t do it without him... and he wants Follette.... He says he wants Follette for his wife.,. because he loves her.... Loves her! He! he! he!... Can Satan love? I ask you.... And he says that what he wants he always gets in the end....”
“My God!” Darieux ejaculated. He paused a moment, then went on: “But Follette? Papa Ribot,” he insisted, “you are not a coward, are you? You are not going to force her...?”
“I am not forcing her...”
“Surely she is not willing...”
A sly look, almost a leer, crept into Maurice’s eyes.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” he muttered. “Women, you know, mon Capitaine, are a queer kind of fish....”
“Heavens above, but this is an outrage! An abominable crime! You must go away from here, do you hear me?...” and he seized hold of the old man’s arm, gripping it so tightly that Maurice gave a grunt of pain. “Take her away at once... away from the influence of that blackguard... that limb of Satan....”
Words failed him. He felt that they would choke him, that the next moment he would be taking the old man by the throat and squeezing the breath out of him till he had sworn to take Follette away from the baleful influence of that devilish ghoul. He had to make a gigantic effort to keep himself in check, for there was something very like murder in his blood. Maurice kept on shaking his fuddled head, murmuring incoherent words the while.
“Follette?... she’ll do as she likes.... She’ll do it for my sake, for my sake... he is very rich... but I don’t want to live in a marble palace.... Follette and I will live and die in this chateau... where my father and my grandfather... and...”
With a savage oath Darieux turned abruptly on his heel and fled from the room, out of the place, out of this chateau of evil... out of this hell upon earth where the Prince of Darkness ruled and tempted feeble mortals, this besotted old man, that weak and tender-hearted girl, to give themselves over to him, body and soul.
Darieux fled from the chateau as he would from the habitation of fallen angels. He could not trust himself to think clearly. Not just yet, when the blow which had been dealt him had stunned him and numbed his brain. Of course the thing could not be. It was impossible.... Something could and must be done to avert the greatest crime that had ever darkened this peaceful corner of God’s earth.
Something. But what?
It seemed at first as if fate meant at last to be kind to Philippe Darieux, because, while he was eating out his heart in an agony of anxiety for Follette and in a paroxysm of rage against her dotard of a father, while he turned over in his fevered mind one scheme after another for counteracting the outrageous project of Gigot de Morieton and his slave Ribot — (or de Lorgeril or whatever he called himself) — the former chose one of the next few days to effect one of his mysterious exits from the neighbourhood.
Come with the tide, he was once again gone with the wind as he had invariably been all these past months. It was pouring with rain the whole of that Sunday which followed Darieux talk with the old man, and, as usual, nothing was known in the villages of Gigot’s intentions. He was seen out and about during the course of the day, strolling along the beach in spite of the rain — most of the time with Follette hanging on his arm. People who came across them remarked that the Provencal looked glowering and Follette sulky.
Darieux passed them by at one time. Follette saw him and turned her head deliberately away when he attempted to salute her. The usual company of merrymakers was gathered together that evening in the old farmhouse. There was music and gaiety, much laughter and singing, and probably plenty of drinking, until the small hours of the morning, when the lively crowd tumbled out of the house, for the most part in a fuddled condition.
Darieux had been on the watch most of the time. Spying on Follette, as he termed it bitterly to himself. Often before now he had stood throughout the evening in the shadow of tall shrubbery waiting for the moment when the usual exodus of inebriated youngsters would bring kindhearted Follette out of doors in their wake, ready to steady on their feet those who were too far gone to stand alone, much less make their way back to their distant homes. Often during that winter he had waited for hours in wind or rain or snow hoping for a word or perhaps only a glance from the woman he loved with such pathetic hopelessness. Once or twice she had spoken to him, given him, when rain was coming down in torrents, a sarcastic, “Belle soiree, mon Capitaine!” or with mock solicitude when an icy wind from the north drove the snow in drifts against the scrub where he stood ensconced: “Hadn’t you better go home and get warm, mon Capitaine?”
And yet such is the nature of a man so earnestly in love as was Philippe Darieux, even those few mocking words were wont to be a joy to his ear, because the voice was Follette’s voice, and because her glance had caught his through the darkness and had rested for a few seconds upon him.
“Poor fool!” he used to murmur to himself then. “Poor drivelling, miserable fool!”
And it was “Poor fool! Poor drivelling fool!” also tonight.
In those days the Provencal was usually in attendance on Follette when she performed her errand of mercy. He would give her a helping hand with those besotted youths, and accompany her whithersoever her kind heart prompted her to go, supporting those who were too muzzy to see the road clearly before them. On this night, however, he remained indoors. Darieux heard Follette calling to him at the door, but he did not come out, and for a moment Darieux had the wild hope that she would go on alone with Henri, or Gilbert, or whichever of them was the most fuddled, and that he would have the chance of speaking to her when she came back alone.
But nothing of the sort happened on this night. Follette stood for some time in the doorway, laughing and chatting with the men. She bade them good night and sent them on their way with an admonition to mind their step, and a command to those who were sober to look after those who were drunk. After which she went inside and the door was slammed to after her. It looked as if a maleficent fate was balking poor Darieux at every turn. There was a light in Pere Ribot’s room on the top floor. The old man had apparently gone or was going to bed. Edging as close to the window of the hall as he dared, Darieux peeped in there. The casement was ajar, the place in semi-darkness. The oil lamp in the centre of the table had its chimney cracked. It emitted a stream of evil-smelling smoke which, fanned by the draught, spread itself into the room and up to the ceiling. On the table around which the company had held its revels the remains of the feast were still visible. Empty bottles turned over on their sides, with liquid oozing out in narrow sticky rivulets from their broken necks, greasy crockery, hunks of bread, mugs and broken glasses.
The Provencal was pacing up and down the room, his pipe in his mouth, his hands in his breeches pockets. Every now and again he came to a halt at the foot of the stairs which led to the floor above. The door to it was open and he turned his head upwards and called loudly for Follette. She gave no answer at first, but at the third call uttered by Gigot in a harsh, arrogant tone, she responded impatiently: “Taisez-vous, voyons! You upset Papa with your noise. I’ll come when he is safely tucked up in bed.”
Gigot was apparently forced to curb his temper. Anyway, he resumed his restless pacing of the room. Ten minutes later Follette’s light footsteps could be heard running down the stairs. The Provencal strode to meet her at the bottom. He stretched out his arms for her, but quick as a bird she evaded him, slipped by under his arm, and immediately began clearing away the debris on the table. She moved rapidly across the hall between the table and the kitchen, always laden with glasses or crockery. Whenever he tried to intercept her she uttered a hasty: “Look out! You’ll make me drop these things. And it will wake Papa.”
The obvious retort to that was, “Damn Papa!” but it was muttered so low — or else inaudibly — that Darieux didn’t hear it.
“I am going now,” Gigot said abruptly, “so if you want to come...”
Follette had just put down a handful of dirty plates on the kitchen table. She came back into the hall, wiping her hands against her apron.
“I must clear up this mess,” she said curtly. “As it is, the place stinks like poison.” She turned down the lamp. The hall would then have been in total darkness but that the kitchen door was left open. A wide shaft of light was thrown across the room, leaving dense shadows in every corner. Gigot took advantage of these deep shadows, into which Darieux tried in vain to peer. He could see nothing. His heart beat fast, for he was straining his ears for the sound of a scuffle or of Follette’s ever-ready little hand coming in sharp contact with the Provencal’s cheek. But nothing of the sort happened and after a minute or two he heard Follette’s voice saying in something of her usual mocking way:
“There, that will do now. You had better go or you’ll miss the tide.”
She paused a moment and then went on lightly:
“Don’t stay away too long. Papa gets fidgety, you know... and...”
Once again she paused. Gigot had seized her by the wrist. Darieux could see her faintly in the partial shadow between the lamplight and the gloom. She did not struggle. Allowed him to draw her close to him. Darieux shut his eyes. He dared not look on what of a certainty would have torn at his heartstrings and brought his flaming resentment to a murderous pitch. When he opened them again a few seconds later, Follette and the Provencal were just inside the front door. He raised her hand to his lips, adjusted his beret on his tousled black hair and strode out into the open.
Follette remained standing in the doorway. She waved her hand to her departing friend, but he was striding away rapidly along the cliff track and did not turn round, nor did he send her a last “Farewell.”
Follette turned back into the house, went straight through into the kitchen, from whence presently came the sound of water running and of crockery being knocked about. She had left the front door open. This was Darieux’ opportunity. He was quick enough to note it and slipped into the hall. Follette heard nothing apparently, for she went on with her kitchen work. She was humming a little song, a childish ditty which Darieux so loved to hear in the days gone by when she had not yet torn herself completely away from him. It was a funny little old rhyme, which had reference to food and to supper.
“Puis pour relevé On a donne
Un succulent potage
Du macaroni dans du fromage
Et puis un bon roti.”
She hummed and she sang, with quaint short pauses here and there when her work required her full attention. Darieux remained motionless. He had crept into the darkest corner and there waited. How often had he waited for her, on the cliff track, on the beach, on the wide, wide moor, waited to steal a word from her, or only a glance, both of which were most times denied him, leaving him abashed and ashamed of his folly. But he was ready for her this time. She must come out here presently in order to shut and bolt the door, and he was ready. The door was quite close and he would stand between it and her and compel her to listen to him. What he would say he did not yet know. He certainly would not speak again of his love, he would not tear, as it were, a fragment of his heart and throw it for her feet to trample on, but with the help of that ardent and selfless love he would find the words that would deter her from sacrificing her young life to some false ideal of filial affection, to which old Ribot in his dotage had obviously appealed.
“Quant au dessert
Il est ouvert
Par une creme a la vani... Ille.”
Follette sang, and the next moment came into the hall. She brought in the lamp from the kitchen and set it down upon the table. After which she made a movement towards the front door.
Darieux intercepted her. She had not perceived him yet, not before he emerged out of the darkness and stood there facing her.
No one had ever seen Follette the least bit disconcerted. She certainly was not disconcerted now. Not even surprised. All she did was to go back to the table and turn down the flame of the lamp which was too high and had begun to smoke. She then looked across at Darieux and smiled. It was an enigmatic smile this time, but she did not speak. He murmured her name: “Mademoiselle Follette!” His voice was low and pleading. She returned lightly: “Ah, mon beau Capitaine! I thought you were dumb as well as invisible in that dark corner. Have you been here long?”
“I don’t know. I was waiting to speak to you.”
“Spying on me? Were you?”
“Or on my friend?”
“I was not spying on Mademoiselle. I only waited for the chance of speaking to you.”
“Looking through the window?”
“Wasn’t it very cold out there?” she queried, still smiling, evidently wanting to exasperate him.
“Eh, what?” she rejoined, impatiently this time. “You have spoken to me, haven’t you? You have had your wish. So now will you please go? I must bolt the door. Papa will be listening for that upstairs. And,” she concluded drily, “I am tired and I want to go to bed. So please go. Good night.”
He was still standing with his back to the door, and he never moved.
“I will go, Mademoiselle. Nor would I have intruded upon you for the world. But there is something,” he added earnestly, “which I must say to you and to which you must listen, because if you do not....”
She gave a shrug of studied indifference and queried, unconcerned:
“Well, mon Capitaine, what will happen if I do not choose to listen to your... jeremiads?”
“One of the greatest crimes,” he replied, “that has ever darkened this countryside, Mademoiselle, will be committed. An outrage that will cry to God for vengeance..
She gave a harsh little laugh.
“Oh, la, la, what heroics!” she mocked. “Are you contemplating such a crime, my gallant Captain?”
“Not I, Mademoiselle. I can only pray to God to aid me to avert it.”
“Who then will be the criminal?” she asked.
“You yourself, Mademoiselle.”
“I? You flatter me, mon Capitaine. What crime do you suppose I am going to commit? Murder? Or some wonderful daring act of breaking the law against smuggling?”
“Your surrender to a man who is a liar and a blackguard, a ruffian and a bully...”
Follette opened wide her eyes.
“Whom in the world are you talking about?” she demanded “Surrendering? To whom?”
“To a nameless vagabond whose life you saved at risk of your own, and who has repaid you by worming himself into your confidence and that of your father—”
Follette turned on him like a little fury.
“How dare you talk to me like that? What right have you to insult a man who is my father’s friend...” She paused a moment and then added as if in afterthought: “And mine?”
“Your friend?” he cried out bitterly.
“What right have you?” she reiterated.
“That of my love for you...” he retorted. “Oh, yes! I know, I know you despise me and ridicule my love, but you cannot tear it out of my heart. It is there and will always remain there as long as I have breath in my body. And it gives me the right to appeal to you in the name of everything that I hold most sacred and most dear, your happiness....”
“My happiness!” she scoffed.
“Your happiness,” he insisted, “and your young life.”
He paused for a moment, for she had shrugged and now turned deliberately away from him, busied herself with something or other in a distant corner of the room. But she did not speak.
“You don’t know what you are doing,” Darieux now resumed, and his voice had in it a tone of earnestness, infinitely gentle. “You are only a child and you love your father. For his sake, because he wants to live in his old chateau and lord it over the countryside, you are going to sell yourself to a man about whom you know absolutely nothing, except that he is a breaker of his country’s law. Beyond that you know nothing. He may have a wife over in England or down in Provence. He may have committed a crime that deserves the hangman’s rope. How do you know? You don’t know. Your father doesn’t know. Has he ever tried to find out something about a man to whom he proposes to entrust the dearest treasure he possesses, his only child? Has he ever followed him to Cremieux or to Caen? Has he ever questioned those who might know something about that man’s past? Has he? Has he?” Darieux reiterated with increasing force till it amounted almost to ferocity. “But I have seen and I have questioned, and I know that man to be a libertine and a drunkard. I have seen him, I tell you, holding court over a swarm of blackguards like himself in one of the lowest haunts of the city—”
“Oh, please go now!” Follette broke in roughly. “I have had enough of this. Go! Go, I tell you. Go at once!” she commanded, “or I’ll call my father down to turn you out of the house.”
She strode back to the door. Her eyes were aflame. She looked Darieux up and down with a glance of hatred.
“Who are you,” she queried, her voice quivering with anger and contempt, “to cast aspersions on another man who at any rate is not false to his word of honour? Who are you but a coward and a fortune-hunter who, after playing fast and loose with a vulgar and ignorant girl, and making a fool of her, now hopes to find in the love of Mademoiselle de Lorgeril a stepping-stone to his career?”
“Follette!” he cried, cut to the heart by this cold and almost savage cruelty. Cruelty, indeed, could go no farther. He did not say another word after that one cry of tender reproach, but stepped away from the door, leaving her free to close it. She held it open with one hand, the other hanging down close to her side. Her head was thrown back, her glance, hard as steel, rested upon him. Slowly he bent the knee before her, raised her limp hand to his lips, then rose quickly and strode, without another backward glance, out into the open.
Follette closed and bolted the door. Her face was hard and set, her eyes dry, her lips tightly compressed. She reached over for the lamp, ready to turn out the light, when a sound coming from the stairs caused her to look up. Her father was half-way down. He was leaning over the banisters, holding on to them with one hand. He had a lighted candle in the other. He gave a curious, mirthless chuckle.
“He! he! he! But you did give it to him, didn’t you, my brave little Follette? You were not afraid of him, were you?
I was here, and wide awake, you know. I heard you, and I was quite ready to come down.”
Follette took no notice of his questioning. She had turned her attention back to the lamp.
“Go to bed, Papa,” was all she said, “you shouldn’t have got up. You will catch cold. Go back. Go back at once.”
She ordered him about as if he were a naughty child. He didn’t obey at once, and she turned out the lamp. The place was now in darkness save for the flicker of the tallow candle held in the old man’s unsteady hand. Its light played upon his furrowed cheeks, his wrinkled forehead, his long hooked nose, casting deep lines of shadow on his face, giving it a grotesque, gnome-like appearance.
Follette did not repeat her command. She just walked across the hall and started going up the stairs. Maurice de Lorgeril in the flickering candlelight, clad in flowered dressing-gown and tasselled nightcap, did look indeed a figure of fun. Follette at sight of him burst out laughing. Her sense of humour got the better of her emotions. She laughed quite gaily and without affectation, and when she arrived on a level with him she took the candle from him and pushed him up the stairs in front of her.
“Go back to bed, Papa,” she reiterated, “and don’t go dropping candle-grease over your new dressing-gown.”
He yielded to force majeure, turned on his heel and walked obediently up the stairs and into his room. Follette followed him, pushed him with gentle force on to his bed, took off his slippers and his dressing-gown, and never left his side till she had him lying as still as a baby with his old head on his pillow, the blanket up to his chin and the huge feather bolster well over his legs.
Then only did she pick up the candle and go to her own room. She put the candle down, and stood for a moment quite still, like a statue, her face totally void of expression, her eyes staring unseeing before her. She was fond of fresh air and her bedroom window was always kept open. She pushed the casements right back and resting her hands against the wall gazed out into the darkness. The air was very still, only the gentle swishing sound of the breakers on the beach disturbed the silence of the night. Familiar though the sound was, its monotony was soothing to Follette’s overstrung nerves. She listened to it for a while, heard the melancholy call of the curlew seeking the shelter of its craggy home and the proximity of its mate. On the cliff track two tiny luminous circles shone out of the gloom: cat’s eyes! Another pair of luminous eyes glittered some few paces further on, glittered for a few seconds, vanished and reappeared quite close this time to the other two. Then suddenly all four lights vanished. There was a scramble first, then yowls and snarls and ear-piercing caterwauls and the two cats tore away, one in pursuit of the other, and were soon swallowed up in the gloom.
Concealed behind the tangled shrubbery below, Darieux gazed upon the picture of Follette framed in by the window and silhouetted against the candlelight. Her face, her arms, her breast were in shadow, only her hair gently fanned by the soft night air encircled her head like a golden halo. A narrow fillet of light outlined the shape of her shoulders. She leaned against the window-sill without other movement than the gently intaking of her breath. Darieux gazed on her, drawing into his heart that picture of her, so still, so appealing, so beautiful. It was a picture on which he felt that he would never look again. He had failed. Failed miserably and irretrievably. Despite the intensity, the selflessness of his love, despite his earnestness and heartfelt appeal, she would not listen. She mocked him and scorned his love, despised and reviled him, and he fell to wondering what there was in him that crippled the almighty power which humanity attributed to love. He had failed. Never again would Chance give him a hand in his desperate endeavours to see her and to speak to her alone. Never again would he be allowed to hold her little hand in friendship, since love had been denied, never would he be allowed to scheme and work for her welfare and her happiness. She had cast him out, not only of her heart, but of her life. He was nothing to her. Nothing. The time would come when he would see her chained to a man whom he knew to be a drunken brute and a bully, who would break her spirit and break her heart, and he, Darieux would have to go on living and be doomed to watch the light-hearted, frolicsome child turn with the years into a taciturn, cowed and brooding woman.
And he fell to wondering whether God in Heaven would permit such an outrage. Was it really only childish attachment to a maudlin old father that pushed her into sacrificing her young life in order to pander to his Scottish caprice? Or had she really fallen an innocent victim to the persuasive tongue of a friend? At thought of that, Darieux became a prey to jealousy so dark and so devastating that he felt his very brain tottering. That way lay madness indeed.
The big barn which lay off the back premises of the buvette du Pot d’Etain — a hundred metres or so to the west of it — was known as La Grande. It was a huge rectangular construction of tarred beams, had a high thatched roof and all round its inside walls could be seen the remnants of ancient stable fittings, of loose boxes and stalls, racks, mangers and so on, showing what indeed was the case, that le Pot d’Etain did, in far-off times, style itself an auberge, and supplied accommodation for horse as well as man. It stood at the base of the cliff, which was neither high nor precipitous at this point, and had an easy, natural gradient leading up from the foreshore to the rough cliff track above.
More than one generation had come and gone since the days of the Seven Years War, when companies of troopers with their equipment, their horses and supplies were accommodated in La Grande on their way to and from the fighting lines. Now it had fallen from that high estate. It was just a village barn where girls and boys met and danced on Sunday afternoons or where, very occasionally, meetings were held and affairs of local interest discussed over mugs of ale supplied by the landlord of the adjacent buvette. But on this Saturday in mid-August the interest was more than local which had caused La Grande to be crowded to overflowing. Never indeed had it been so full of people as it was on that afternoon. Folk had come from far and near to make merry because this was a special occasion. A very special occasion to which young and old had looked forward for days and days — ever since it was known that Pere Ribot — beg pardon! Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeri! — had invited all and sundry from Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys and even a number of friends from Cremieux and Cabourg to a gargantuan feast with wine and beer and cider galore, with wonderful pasties and cold meats, with cakes, and fruit and everything that was good to eat — and drink. What it was all going to cost was simply staggering.
The fact was that Monsieur le Comte’s daughter — his only child — the happy-go-lucky and hoydenish girl whom everyone had known as Follette Ribot, but who it seems was really and truly now Mademoiselle de Lorgeril, was getting married to Gigot de Morieton...! No, that was not his name either, so it seemed! Such a muddle and confusion with-all these names! One didn’t know where one was and whom to address and how. Well, anyway the stranger from Provence, the shipwrecked mariner who had been “Gigot” or “Morieton” in every buvette along the coast, was, so it was averred, legally and actually Messire Gerard Morieton... whatever “Messire” might mean, which was not clear to anyone. And he was marrying Mademoiselle de Lorgeril.
Today, the 21st of August, had been appointed some time ago for the official betrothal. And on the 28th, which also fell on a Saturday, the marriage would take place. First, as the law prescribed these days, before Monsieur le Maire of Cremieux and after that would come the religious ceremony in the little church of Saint-Victor. Here Monsieur le Cure would officiate and pronounce the blessing on the young couple.
There were to be wonderful doings in Saint-Victor on both those great days. And not only in Saint-Victor but throughout the whole countryside, for Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril had sent his invitations broadcast for the festivities which he was providing at enormous expense and with whole-hearted hospitality. There were to be two long afternoons of merriment and of feasting. Both on this day and on the 28th, after the marriage ceremonies, there was to be a general holiday for everybody, with dancing on the foreshore, music by a band of musicians specially imported by Monsieur le Comte from Cabourg at great expense, and eating and drinking in the great barn while daylight lasted, and later, too, if the weather was kind and the sky unclouded. On the 28th, in the small hours of the morning, the young couple were to start off in a bran-new chaise, drawn by four spanking horses, for their new home in the South. And wouldn’t that be a sight? I can tell you that no one had ever seen the like. Francois Gatti from the livery stables in Cremieux was to drive the chaise. He had been measured for a gorgeous livery at the principal tailor’s in Cremieux, and if you were to listen to him you would soon become convinced that not even the Emperor’s coachman up in Versailles had ever been clothed in such rich apparel.
Oh yes, indeed! These were going to be a couple of red-letter days and no mistake. Days to remember and to talk over round the fireside for many winters to come. Something for the young ones to retail to their children and to their children’s children: the great event of the commune of Saint-Victor in the department of Calvados in Normandy: the betrothal and marriage of Mademoiselle Follette de Lorgeril, only daughter of Monsieur le Comte, to that nameless vagabond, come no one knew whence, whom everyone still persisted in calling Gigot de Morieton.
On that never-to-be-forgotten 21st day of August.
Dinner was laid inside La Grande for one hundred and twenty privileged guests. But there would be food for everyone out on the foreshore, where tables were groaning under the weight of dishes laden with roasted meats and fishes cooked in spiced wines, with quarters of venison and capons and ducklings. In La Grande the guests were seated at a horseshoe table disposed around three sides of the barn, the centre facing the foreshore and the sea. The future bride sat in the place of honour, having her fiance on her right and her father on her left. Dressed in a simple frock fashioned of white silk muslin, high-waisted and low-necked, she looked a perfect picture with her tawny hair curling about her head, all loose, save where a narrow chaplet of pink artificial roses held its unruly waves confined. Her cheeks were aflame, her lips cherry red. And her eyes appeared darker, much darker, than they had ever seemed before. She was gay — very gay. Her laughter at times rang out above the constant hubbub of talk and clatter of crockery. But there were those among the company, women who had known Follette Ribot as a lighthearted, irrepressible child, and had loved her wayward ways, who thought that this noisy gaiety was not altogether natural, that there was a forced note in those outbursts of rather shrill laughter. Nevertheless, these thoughts were not put into words. Nothing was hinted at that might perhaps mar the joyfulness of this festive day.
Gerard de Morieton, on the other hand, did not in the least seem to join in the spirit of gaiety prevalent. In fact he looked decidedly surly. There was a kind of glowering look in his eyes, as if he was thoroughly disgruntled and dissatisfied with everything. Everyone noticed that he had not even donned his Sunday best, but sat there by the side of his promised bride in his jersey and big boots. Never once did he join in the laughter which usually followed one of Follette’s lively sallies. Nor did he indulge in those many little attentions towards his pretty fiancee which everyone expected to see and to smile over. He never once squeezed her hand, or pinched her arm, or imprinted a furtive kiss on her pretty shoulder. The only time that he opened his mouth at all was to cap a jolly little story of village courtship and love-making, retailed, with her usual verve, by Follette, with another which was anything but jolly, and was, in fact, so broad, not to say shameless, that it was received in stolid silence by the matrons, with affected giggles by the girls and a general clearing of throats by the men.
Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril looked daggers across at his future son-in-law; Monsieur le Maire of Cremieux, who sat close by, wrinkled his brow in a disapproving frown, while Monsieur le Cure put on an air of innocence, as if he had failed to grasp the point of the story, and suddenly made an irrelevant remark about the weather to his neighbour in a loud tone of voice.
The women whispered to one another:
“What’s the matter with the man?”
“A stroke of the sun, most like.”
“Drunk, I should say.”
And epithets, most uncomplimentary, were showered sotto voce by the men on Gigot de Morieton, whose loud outbursts of laughter at his own wit rang from end to end of the great barn. Of these, “noodle” and “driveller” were the least offensive. There was nothing squeamish or mawkish about these village folk and seafaring people, men or women. Far from it. Tales far broader than the one retailed by Gigot de Morieton had often and often gone the round over mugs of ale, not only in the buvettes but in cottage parlours also. But this was not the place or time for that sort of talk. They were assembled here for a special occasion. A gay and festive occasion. Not a rowdy one. They were the guests of Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril who presided over the feast. Monsieur le Maire was here and Monsieur le Cure. They had all donned their Sunday best — all except the bridegroom — and they felt, in their humble, uneducated minds, that the presence of a young girl soon to become a bride should have put a curb on lewd words and ribald tongues, and somehow they felt lowered in their own estimation thus to have been forced to listen to what caused their own womenfolk to blush with shame.
But Gigot appeared quite unconcerned at the disapproval which his general conduct had aroused. He laughed and shrugged, muttered between set teeth: “Let the old hens cackle.”
And they did continue to cackle.
“What is the matter with the man?” the women reiterated to one another.
As usual, Grandmere Bosseny was full of information.
“I know,” she said, nodding her wizened grey head.
Those who sat nearest to her leaned right over to hear what the village oracle had to say.
“Do tell us, Grandmere,” they begged with eager curiosity.
“I was talking to Pierre this morning...”
“Yes, yes! What did he say?”
Pierre, who still worked regularly in the old farmhouse, must know something, of course.
“What did Pierre say, Grandmere?”
Conscious of being the centre of interest, the old gossip was not going to give her piece of information away too quickly. She liked to keep them all on tenterhooks. They had all congregated round her, as close as possible, some leaning right over the table, others in a bunch behind her pressing against her shoulders. She gave them a wink all round. Then only did she start on her story with due solemnity.
“Pierre told me,” she said, “that there was a terrible dispute yesterday in the farmhouse. Monsieur le Comte and Gigot de Morieton went at one another hammer and tongs....”
“What about?” came in an excited gasp in unison.
“Wait a bit.... The dispute went on till late into the night.... Pierre was up with the cow who had been sick the day before, but was then better, so she did not take up all his time, and he was able to go out into the yard and from there he could hear the two men in the house cursing and swearing at one another like anything.”
“But what did they say?”
“What was it all about?”
“Something to do with Follette’s marriage... the legal marriage before Monsieur le Maire and the blessing of Monsieur le Cure.”
Another gasp of excitement. The story was getting very thrilling.
“But what did they quarrel about?”
It was Maman Despois, Jacques’ mother, who asked questions. She seemed to have become spokesman for the others.
“That’s just it,” the old woman said sententiously. “Pierre could not make out exactly.”
This time there was quite a wail of disappointment, a long-drawn-out “Oh!” of reproach.
“But,” Grandmere put in quickly, for she scented the threat to her popularity if she owned to ignorance on this great point, “I put two and two together.”
“And did they make four?” was said with something of a sneer.
“They did, my friend. They made me come to a definite conclusion.”
“What was it?”
“That Gigot was satisfied with the legal marriage before Monsieur le Maire, and wanted to take his wife to their new home right away after it without any blessing from Monsieur le Cure.”
A prolonged “Oh!” of horror, and Maman Despois queried:
“What makes you think that, Grandmere?”
“I put two and two together,” the old woman reiterated doggedly. “What else should they be quarrelling about?”
Well, of course, that was the question. What could Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril be quarrelling about with his future son-in-law? Everyone in the district knew well enough that Monsieur le Comte’s temper had been getting more and more irascible of late, but he had approved of the marriage. Presumably, at any rate, or it could not have taken place without the paraphernalia of “sommations respectueuses” demanded by the law if parents or guardians were obdurate and lovers were of age. Then why quarrel and make it uncomfortable for the young couple?
“Where was Follette,” Maman Despois asked, “while all this row was going on? Did Pierre say anything about her, Grandmere?”
“Not much,” she answered. “He did say that Follette was in the house while it all went on, both last night and this morning, but Pierre says that she did not take part in the quarrel... just went on with what she had to do, in the kitchen and in the hall.”
That apparently was the sum total of Grandmere’s knowledge of the events which had led to the bridegroom looking as savage as a bear and appearing on this festive occasion in his working-jersey and heavy boots. The small crowd which had gathered round the old gossip indulged in a few more exclamations of disappointment and in some muttered comments on the situation which had arisen through the mysterious quarrel, only partly witnessed by Pierre the cowman. Perhaps Grandmere was right in her conclusion. It was well known that the two men held widely divergent views on the question of religion. Monsieur le Comte would certainly back Follette up in her desire to have her marriage blessed by Monsieur le Cure in accordance with the rites of the Church, before she acknowledged Gigot de Morieton as her lord and master. He had always been good friends with Monsieur le Cure, had, until recently, attended Mass regularly and given alms to the poor and to the Church, whilst Gigot had sneered at the old priest, had never been to Mass either at Saint-Victor or Saint-Lys, had often used blasphemous words which had horrified the community and caused great grief to Monsieur le Cure. Indeed, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Grandmere Bosseny had put her finger on the right spot, and that her two and two put together had actually made four.
Thus did the small audience disperse, all returning to their places at the horseshoe table and resuming their extremely pleasant duty of doing justice to Monsieur le Comte’s lavish hospitality. And there ensued a general silence in the great barn: one of those which often fall all of a sudden over the liveliest company. It lasted only a very little while but just long enough to threaten to cast a damper over the festivity, until Follette, with her own lighthearted unconcern, leaned over the table to where Monsieur le Maire was sitting and called out to him:
“Eh bien, Monsieur le Maire, and when are you and the company going to drink my health?”
And at sight so close to him of that bright little face, the frown on Monsieur le Maire’s brow vanished as if by magic and his own face was wreathed in smiles while he responded gaily:
“But now, at once, Mademoiselle.”
And casting a comprehensive look around the assembly he called to them at the top of his voice:
“We will now drink to the health and happiness of Mademoiselle Follette de Lorgeril. May the years that are to come bring her endless joys and unfailing prosperity and the loyal affection of the man whom she has highly honoured by accepting him for her future mate.”
Monsieur le Maire here paused a moment and everyone remarked that he fixed Gigot de Morieton with a stern and reproving eye. He then went on:
“Before we raise our mugs for the welfare of the young couple, we will ask Monsieur le Cure to pronounce a blessing on them and on us all.”
The whole company, with the exception of the bridegroom, rose and stood with bowed heads while Monsieur le Cure murmured a short prayer. After a unanimous and hearty “Amen”, arms were stretched out to grasp the jug of foaming ale or cider closest to hand — there was one large jug between every two guests. Mugs were filled to the brim. Monsieur le Maire called out once again, raising his mug aloft:
“To the health of Mademoiselle Follette, and to her future happiness!”
He drained the mug to the last drop. “Mademoiselle Follette!” was echoed from one end of the barn to the other. After which not another word was spoken inside La Grande while one hundred and twenty mugs were drained to the last drop. Nor was another sound raised save a prolonged gurgitation, then a smacking of lips and finally a deep, long-drawn-out sigh of beatitude.
The same ceremony had also taken place at the several tables set out on the foreshore. Prosper Gerard, who was the village mayor, stood out where everybody could see and hear him. He proposed the bride’s health, and coupled it with the name of the bridegroom. Prosper and Gigot de Morieton had always been friends and boon companions in every buvette along the coast. Inside La Grande it had been remarked and commented on that Monsieur le Maire had omitted to mention the bridegroom in his toast. Not that Gigot cared. While Monsieur le Cure spoke the short blessing and everyone had received it standing with hands clasped and head bowed reverently, he had remained seated with an ugly sneer on his face, and looking as sulky as a bear with a sore head.
One couldn’t help wondering what Monsieur le Comte was thinking of. When his guests arrived he had given them a comprehensive welcome with a few muttered words. But his speech then was already thick and his eyes bleary. Follette, on the other hand, had welcomed everybody with gaiety and laughter and waving of her pretty hands. Old friends were allowed to kiss her, youngsters were permitted to kiss her hand, and she had a pleasant little word for everybody, looking so pretty, too, in her white muslin and the chaplet of roses in her tawny hair. A girl any father must be proud of. But Monsieur le Comte, after he had sat down beside her, had remained silent and unresponsive, half asleep all the time, while she did her best to make him smile. At one time he had actually gone to sleep. His chin came down on his chest. His scanty hair fell straggling over his forehead. Follette gave him a friendly dig with her elbow, and he gave himself a shake, tried to rouse himself and cast a vague glance all round. He then had another pull at his mug, and relapsed into somnolence again.
Gigot threw him an ugly, contemptuous look. No doubt, Grandmere Bosseny was right. Those two men had quarrelled and there was enmity between them now. Poor little Follette! It would be hard for her anyway, for she loved her old father dearly, and loved her future husband too, presumably, or she would not have consented to marry him.
What a pity that Monsieur le Comte should have gone downhill so rapidly. He used to be so pleasant, so open-handed, so warm-hearted when he was just plain Pere Ribot to the old and Papa Ribot to the young. Neither his newly acquired wealth nor his grandiloquent title give him either good health in his old age or something of his past carefree joy of living.
The tower clock in the old church of Saint-Victor had just struck three and all at once the band of musicians struck up the opening bars of the national “bourree” — the popular country dance which went with much stamping of feet, holding of hands and swinging of arms.
Follette jumped to her feet.
“La bourree!” she called out lustily.
Hardly were the words out of her mouth than a regular stampede ensued. A number of youngsters deeming themselves worthy of the honour made a frantic rush towards her, climbing over the table and jumping over chairs in order to be the first to reach her side.
“Avec moi, Mademoiselle Follette!”
“No! Not you... Mademoiselle promised me..”
“Liar!... She promised me first..”
“Mademoiselle... La bourree... you know... that special step we tried out last Sunday...”
Red-faced, sweating at every pore, they pushed and elbowed one another out of the way, their eyes fixed appealingly on that dainty figure in the white silk muslin, on that merry little face all flushed with excitement, those deep blue eyes dancing with joy.
She had risen as soon as the first bass notes of the music came to her ears. She climbed up on her chair and took her stand there, warding off by swinging her arms those who came too near.
“A moi, Mademoiselle!”
She put up her little hand, with forefinger outstretched, commanding silence which was not forthcoming, so she clapped her two hands together and cried loudly and resolutely:
“I dance the first bourree with Messire Gerard de Morieton, my fiance...”
She paused a moment, let her twinkling eyes wander from one upturned eager face to another and added lightly:
“After that we shall see.”
There were murmurs of disappointment, but she paid no heed to these, jumped down from her chair and put her hand on the bridegroom’s shoulder.
“Come, Monsieur my fiance, did you not hear me ask you to dance?” she demanded.
Some instinct of decent behaviour must have lingered in Gerard de Morieton’s sulky temperament. At any rate, he rose now and took Follette’s little hand in his. With brusque movements of his elbows he pushed the crowd of youngsters out of his way to right and left and strode on towards the wide outlet of La Grande with Follette trotting briskly by his side.
Soon the bourree was in full swing. Pipers and fiddlers and clarionets put their best energy into the tune. They blew and they scraped and threw in an occasional shout to accentuate the measure of the dance. Not that this was necessary. Boys and girls were at their gayest. The lady’s chain. One, two, three, four. Next the feet in swing and then the ring. All holding hands. The girls inside. The men outside. Now reverse and stamp your feet again. Stamp them as hard as the soft carpet of sand will allow. Swing your arms, holding hands. Backwards, forwards, back again. Heigh-ho! What a joy! Strong home-brewed ale and foaming cider had whipped up the blood. Made one foot that bourree as it never had been before. That stretch of foreshore was just perfect for the dance. The sand yielding but nevertheless firm under one’s feet. There had been talk at one time of building a regular village hall there, which would have been welcome in the winter when Sunday afternoons came along and one wanted to dance and the weather was unfavourable for outdoor pleasures. Well, never mind. What could be better than this dance-floor tonight? Just look at Follette! Had anyone ever seen the like of her? A fairy for daintiness and lightness of foot. There was a crowd all round the foreshore and they just delighted in watching her every movement. They clapped their hands to the rhythm, encouraged the dancers to swifter and ever swifter movements.
And now the last movement. The men’s hands resting on their partners’ hips, the girls’ hands on the men’s shoulders. And round and round they spun, and swirled and twirled, the girls’ hair blown out by the wind, the men’s faces glowing crimson and shining with sweat. And the crowd yelled at them:
“Allons, Antoine! Faster, you old slowcoach!”
“Maurice! Put thy back into it!”
“Come, Paul! Hast got lead inside thy boots?”
The girls didn’t want animating. They went on whirling and twirling, would have gone on till they dropped. But the men, save the very young, were showing the first signs of exhaustion, slowing down the pace, breathing hard. Different exertion, this, to fighting storm in an open boat or struggling with a shark at the end of your line, one determined to get the better of you.
One by one, all of them reluctantly, they slowed down the pace and finally came to a standstill. They had to endure the mocking shafts aimed at them by the crowd and the reproachful glances of their disappointed partners. Well, it couldn’t be helped. They were done in, and inside La Grande there were jugs of ale and cider galore wherewith to slake the thirst engendered by that wonderful bourree. One by one they came to a halt. The men mopping their streaming foreheads, the girls vainly trying to readjust their hair and smooth down their bits of finery. One by one they came to a halt, and two by two, arm in arm, turned into La Grande for a drink.
And soon Follette and her partner had the floor all to themselves. But Gerard de Morieton too was finding the exertion decidedly too much for him. The time was long past since he had battled against the storm in an open boat, fighting his way to shore from the wreck of the English ship. He was a man then. A mariner with muscles of steel, hard as nails and the courage of a lion. Yes! that was long ago. He had become soft since then. Drink and good living had jaded his muscles and struck at the root of his physical endurance. Look at him now. The crowd egged him on, clapping their hands to the rhythm of the tune, but he heeded them not. Follette gave occasional little cries to urge him to greater speed. Her little hands gripped his shoulders to compel him to keep up. To carry on. Not to give in. But he had had enough of it. His face, never very prepossessing, was dark with anger. His cheeks and forehead were crimson, but not with heat, rather with rage, like an infuriated bull.
“Look at Follette!” the crowd shrieked excitedly.
“Look at Follette!”
Follette a fairy? Yes! perhaps! but also a witch. Wild, almost. Unrestrained, as if the winds of heaven had got her body and were tossing it about like a leaf.
“She’ll keep Gigot going till he drops.”
She would have done it too. But Gigot all at once and without any warning came to a standstill. He dug his heels into the sand, and there he remained. Rigid. His hands dropped away from Follette’s waist. He seized her hands and dragged them roughly off his shoulders.
“Look at Follette!” the crowd continued to shout, and all eyes were fixed on her. Yes! the winds of heaven had seized hold of her slim body. It looked like it, anyhow, for she did not come to a halt when her partner stood before her, glowering at her and rigid, and shook his shoulders free of her grasp. She twirled round and round, first on one toe and then on another, blown seemingly by the wind like the petal of a flower.
“A moi!” she called. Once. Twice. And the next moment three pairs of arms were stretched out towards her. Prosper and Jacques and Etienne with one accord had swung round on their heels as soon as they heard her call. Drink was forgotten. Heat and fatigue were of no account all of a sudden. The partner might pout and sulk, but the finest dancer on the coast, the lightest and prettiest, had called, “A moi!” and there were three pairs of arms ready to encircle that dainty waist, three pairs of feet ready to foot it in unison with hers.
Generous and compassionate to a fault, Follette gave them each a turn; and in the end it was the musicians who gave in: the clarionets, and the bagpipes could blow no longer, their breath was exhausted, the fiddler’s right arm dropped, bow and all, limp, to his side.
Follette, escorted by her three cavaliers, turned into La Grande. Her cheeks were crimson, her forehead and her neck were streaming, her curls clung matted to her little head, but she was not puffed, not even breathing hard. Only laughing, gaily, mockingly, teasingly, ready, so it seemed, to begin again and put yet another partner hors de combat. The crowd watched her, fascinated. Was there anybody ever like Follette? Had there ever been any girl as light-hearted, as impish, as adorable, as full of mischief and of goodness of heart?
“Vive Follette!” men and women shouted before the crowd finally broke up and, moving, swaying, all in one direction, made their way collectively into La Grande.
“What has become of old Gigot?” some of the women questioned, and looked about them, trying to set eyes on the bridegroom.
But while young and old, boys and girls and older folks crowded round the tables which were groaning under jugs of ale and cider filled to the brim, Messire Gerard de Morieton, otherwise Gigot de Morieton, was nowhere to be seen.
Nor for a matter of that was Monsieur le Comte de Lorgerii, the generous giver of this unforgettable feast.
The events which followed the closing scene of that never- to-be-forgotten bourree came one on top of the other with such rapidity that only a very few there present could have given you a detailed account of what did actually take place. Grandmere Bosseny was one of these. Cela va sans dire. She was one who always knew exactly everything that was going on, and quite a good deal of what was not. She averred that she had seen Monsieur le Capitaine Darieux come into La Grande. He was in full uniform, she said, with his sword at his side and a pistol in his belt. She was quite sure about the pistol, and equally sure that he looked very pale and troubled, that his eyes searched the crowd with a kind of eager, hungry glance, until they rested on Follette, who at the moment was drinking cider, surrounded by a bevy of chattering, admiring young men.
While dancing was going on on the foreshore and everyone had congregated round there to watch the bourrée, the tables in La Grande had been cleared of the debris of the feast by members of the staff of the various buvettes along the beach and the cliff track. The buvettes had provided the drinks to the order of Monsieur le Comte, who had requisitioned the staffs as part of his contract with the landlords. As a matter of fact it was Follette who had made all the necessary arrangements for the smooth running of this gargantuan repast. Her practical mind had been at work from its very first inception, her experience during the many festive evenings spent of late in the farmhouse stood her in good stead. She knew the eating and drinking capacities of that crowd of revellers who were wont to make merry there until the small hours of the morning, and she gave her orders accordingly. Her father had become altogether too indifferent and too spiritless to take any part in the organization of the feast, which he had neither contrived nor even desired.
“You do as you like, ma fille,” he said to Follette whenever she broached the subject. “Order whatever you want,” he went on with his habitual cackle, “and let that knave foot the bill.”
“That knave” was his habitual reference now to his future son-in-law. There certainly was no love lost between the two men, and Follette had often much ado to keep the peace between them. The gossips of the neighbourhood — neither young nor old — could make her out. Was she really in love with that beetle-browed Provencal? Who could tell? The two of them were constantly being met strolling arm-in-arm on the beach, or driving side by side to Cremieux or Cabourg behind that spanking bay mare. And there were wonderful stories current of the beautiful presents — jewellery and ornaments of all sorts — which Gigot seemed never tired of offering to his future wife.
“One wouldn’t have believed that our lively independent little Follette would make a loveless marriage like that. She used to be so romantic. So full of pretty little saws and witty sallies.” Thus spoke Maman Despois, Jacques’ mother, who, it was averred, had at one time entertained hopes that Follette Ribot, as she was then, would one day be her daughter-in-law. But since Follette Ribot became Mademoiselle de Lorgeril, such hopes did naturally vanish into thin air, and Maman Despois felt very sore at her son’s discomfiture. He, like so many others, had been in love with Follette. She had been so young, so childlike, so adorable in those days. Wealth and her association with the Provencal had spoiled her sunny disposition. “Curse all that money!” sighed more than one mother of a lovesick son. “And curse that vagabond mariner who brought money into the village.”
Nothing would do but that it was the Provencal who had by some wizardry turned Papa Ribot into Monsieur le Comte. He had, as Grandmere Bosseny had repeatedly declared, made a compact with the devil to effect this transformation, and had exacted a solemn promise from old Ribot that in return for such a priceless boon, for money, for title and estate, he would receive Follette’s hand in marriage. Hardly anyone would believe that she was in love with that rough, ugly man. The young people said of her:
“She always made fun of love and lovers.”
And the older ones declared:
“It is money she is after.”
“Greedy for money, that is what she is,” sighed the disappointed mothers, whose sons were eating out their hearts because of their love for Follette.
Putting aside Grandmere Bosseny’s garrulous accounts of the events of that direful evening, what actually did happen was this. The small band of musicians had now shifted their quarters from the foreshore to La Grande. They played three or four popular dance tunes, including another bourree, which, however, was not danced with the same riotousness as the first one had been. Follette danced if with one of her many admirers. Etienne, Jacques, Prosper, she gave them each a dance. To one a lively polka, to another a stately minuet. She was lively, full of fun and gaiety all the time. Quite impervious to fatigue, her feet were as nimble in the late afternoon as they had been earlier in the day.
It was an hour before sunset when Captain Philippe Darieux, in full uniform and wearing his sword and a pistol in his belt, entered La Grande, where dancing then was in full swing. There was such a crowd on the floor that dancing had degenerated into a kind of scientific steering in and amongst the number of gyrating couples. Captain Darieux made his way to a distant corner of the barn and there remained with his back against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, and his eyes roaming unceasingly over the whirling throng.
The gaffers and the gammers had much ado to keep them in sight. The dancers got so often in the way, which was annoying. But it did not require a great effort of the intellect to come to the conclusion that the gallant Captain had come to the barn for the purpose of watching Follette, and mayhap getting a word with her. Or even a dance if he was lucky. Earlier in the day a descent on the coast on the eastern side of the river mouth had been effected by a squad of coast-guards in search of contraband goods said to have been landed there during the night. This explained the reason why Captain Darieux was armed and in full uniform. The coast-guardsmen were probably still on duty and might require further orders from their officers later on. Anyway, there was no gainsaying the fact that the young soldier looked remarkably handsome in his rig-out, even though his face appeared pale and wan, and his eyes looked troubled and ringed with purple as if he had spent more than one sleepless night.
He certainly looked the high-born gentleman, thought the cronies who whispered among themselves, so different to that black-bearded, beetle-browed mariner with the gold ring in his ear and two teeth missing from his upper jaw. And yet Follette Ribot, or Mademoiselle de Lorgeril, had rejected the one suitor and accepted the other as her future lord and master. As everyone knows, it is an absolute impossibility to keep anything from village gossips, and all and sundry, young and old, in Saint-Victor, and further afield than that, had known for a year past that Captain Philippe Darieux of the Emperor’s corps of coast-guards was madly in love with Follette. Of course in the olden days when she was just a harum-scarum little high-flyer, a village wench with nothing of a name, marriage between her and an officer of the Emperor’s army had been out of the question. Neither his family nor his superiors would have allowed it. But now? Things were very different, and every gossip in the district knew it as a positive fact that Mademoiselle de Lorgeril had only to extend her pretty hand and it would be seized eagerly by any officer of His Majesty’s army or any gentleman from the Court of Versailles. She was rich, she was beautiful, and the gallant Captain of coast-guards loved her distractedly. He had been seen over and over again on the watch like any lovesick swain with eyes glued on the window of the old farmhouse behind which the silhouette of Follette could be seen passing to and fro.
But she would have none of him. She was giving herself up body and soul to that ugly Provencal who had not even taken the trouble to dress himself in his Sunday best on the great day of his betrothal. “Girls were queer fish and no mistake.” Thus sighed the matrons, and the gaffers added, sucking desultorily at their pipes: “They are created in order to make trouble.”
“That they certainly are,” was echoed with wholehearted conviction by most. Only the girls sniggered and giggled. They rather liked the idea that they made trouble, for they knew that trouble only arose because the men were so stupid.
It was then that the first incident occurred, the prelude to the terrible tragedy that marked the close of this eventful day. At a sign from Follette the musicians struck up the first bars of the new fashionable dance, the Viennese waltz. Why she did it no one could tell. Surely she should have been sensible enough to realize that this was like the throwing of an apple of discord into the very midst of these innocent revelries. To begin with, hardly any of the youngsters knew how to foot it. Their movements were too heavy and clumsy for the light, fantastic rhythm, the tune and the twists and turns of the dance altogether too complicated for the youths of the village. Even the girls were not any too good at it, but, women-like, they wanted to have a try. There were a few young men from Cremieux and Cabourg who had had some practice in one or other of the more select cafes in their own city to which as townsmen they had been granted access. These fellows were quickly snapped up by the girls, who were eager to show what they could do.
The musicians went on with the rousing tune and presently there were five or six couples gyrating on the floor. It was then that it all happened. The bridegroom, who had been absent from La Grande ever since the closing scene of that rollicking bourree, came lolling in, hands in the pockets of his breeches, his pipe dangling in the corner of his mouth, his hair untidy, and altogether in a disordered state not befitting the occasion or the deference due to the presence of the bride. Whether he was aware that Captain Darieux was there or not it was impossible to say. He looked more than usually surly and glowering, more so than he had been all along. His eyes under his dark, overhanging brows roamed over the dancers as they swung round and round, passing and repassing before him, bobbing up and down to the rhythm of that fascinating tune. Soon it was Follette’s turn to come swirling by. Partnered by one of the village lads, she was obviously making the best of his somewhat clumsy movements. She encouraged him, smiled at him, guided him in the mazes of the dance and — supposedly — caught sight of Gigot looking daggers at her and her unfortunate partner. Apparently without the slightest hesitation, or on the spur of the moment, she disengaged her waist from the youngster’s arms, gave him a slight push which sent him, bewildered and staggering, nearly down on the floor and threw herself in the arms of the bridegroom with an encouraging little cry.
“Alions, Gerard! Show them what you can do.”
She had him by the shoulder, took his right hand in hers and forced him to extend his arms in the proper fashion necessary for the waltz. She made him put his left arm round her waist. She pulled him round, once, twice, three times.
“Allons! Allons!” she reiterated, gaily urging him along.
“What did she do that for?” the lookers-on asked of one another, for the village lad had been clumsy, but he had been a ballet-dancer in comparison with Gigot in his heavy boots and his rough clothes. And Heavens above! how strong she was, pulling him round and round like that, first to the right, always with arm extended, then to the left, which very nearly caused a collapse. Gigot stumbled badly that time and would have measured his lumbering bulk on the floor had not Follette kept him on his feet. However she managed to do that, no one could say. She might have been a female athlete for the strength she displayed. And why, oh why, did she play the fool like that, making her future husband more and more furious and angered against her? Aye! She was half mad today. Intoxicated. Not with wine but with the heat and a kind of wild, almost savage, excitement. Look at her now! Cheeks aflame. Eyes dark as sloes and blazing! Blazing!
Why, oh why, did she act like a wild thing? Like a madcap? Provoking Gigot to fury and Captain Darieux to frenzied passion. Did she want to conciliate the one or provoke the other? Well, she did both, the young demon, the naughty, exasperating little witch.
But that was not all. She had not done with those two yet. Her desire for mischief had apparently not yet worn thin.
“Would you believe it?” the women ejaculated with one accord.
“She has the very devil in her blood tonight.”
The men grunted. They foresaw trouble. Serious trouble. And soon it came.
Following that averted collapse, Gigot, as furious as any bull provoked by a red rag, did in the next turn contrive all of a sudden to wrench his shoulder out of Follette’s grasp. He dropped his arm from her waist, disengaged his right hand from hers, let go of her altogether, and did it so unexpectedly that she in turn lost her balance, tottered backwards and narrowly escaped a nasty fall through the intervention of a pair of strong arms which clasped her round the shoulders and held her fast till she had regained a firm footing on the floor. It was Captain Darieux, whose eyes had followed Follette’s every movement since first he had taken up his stand against the wall in La Grande. He had watched her with an anxious adoring look, like a mother keeping guard over a venturesome and reckless child. He had seen her pulling her clumsy partner round and round, guiding his lumbering steps, holding him tight by the shoulder and by his right hand. He had heard her repeated little cries of “Allons! Allons!” which had provoked Gigot into a fury like that of a raging bull. Indeed, he had guessed the other’s contemplated manoeuvre even before it had been put into execution, and had stepped forward just in time to save Follette from measuring her length on the floor.
After that events followed one another in rapid succession. At first things went on quietly enough in La Grande. The musicians continued stolidly with the tune, but a few of the dancing couples dropped away. Twilight was beginning to draw in, and with it there came a change in the weather. Clouds were rolling in from the south-west, and shadows gathered in the remote corners of the big barn. Very distant rumbling of thunder had been heard once or twice from over the Collines de Normandie. The young people stood about in groups in the middle of the floor, or congregated round the walls against the tables where jugs of ale and cider were still being emptied and quickly refilled.
“Do you think the rain will come?” the girls queried anxiously, for they were in their thin cotton dresses and there would be the question presently of making a dash for home. It would be disastrous if the rain did come.
The village oracles — old mariners who knew all about weather conditions — hummed and hawed, but they would not commit themselves. They admitted that it was certainly beginning to look like rain.
Isolated groups gathered round the entrance and stood there watching the approach of the strom.
“Perhaps it will pass away,” said the optimists.
The musicians were apparently of that opinion too for they continued to play, and half a dozen couples or so went on dancing. Follette, partnered by Captain Darieux, was among these. As soon as she regained her balance he had put his arm round her waist and held her fast, with left hand holding her right and her left hand on his shoulder. And together they twirled and turned in the mazes of the waltz. A perfectly matched couple. She as nimble as a fairy, and he the perfect partner. She was enjoying every minute of this intoxicating motion. Round and round. Forward. Reverse. A glide. A flit. Reverse again. Her supple back rested against his arm: her head was thrown back, her eyes half closed, her cheeks aflame. She seemed to take in pleasure with every breath, to imbibe delight through every pore.
In one of the dark recesses of the barn Gigot de Morieton stood talking to one or two of his pot-companions. He was drinking heavily and they with him. Not mugs of cider or ale, but something out of a huge bottle, covered with cobwebs, which stood close to his hand on the corner of one of the tables. Ensconced in the recess, a small group of young men effectually concealed him and his pals from the glances of the curious.
And then it happened. All at once. Like a thunderbolt. Follette and her partner had just flitted past the secluded corner where Gigot and his pals were standing. Some declared afterwards that she gave him a mischievous glance and that she threw up her head with a great outburst of laughter. Certain it is that he gave a roar like a tiger in a rage and, mug in hand, pushed his way with shoulders and elbows through the crowd till he came to a halt right in the way of Follette and the Captain, whose step had slowed down at the moment to the rhythm of the music.
And Gigot raised his mug and threw its contents in Captain Darieux’ face.
A cry of horror went up from all those who had witnessed this unprovoked, almost sacrilegious, act. An offence against an officer of the Emperor’s army. A mortal offence! Darieux had turned as pale as death. He pushed Follette away from him. His hand went to his sword. Gigot’s friends closed in around him, while Follette, with eyes blazing and a sharp cry of “Coward!” threw herself between the two men, shielding Darieux with her body and, with an outstretched arm and clenched fist thrust out at Gigot, cried out again and again: “Coward! Coward!”
After that all was confusion. The women screamed and ran helter-skelter, like a lot of scared chickens, in the direction of the portal. They wanted to get out of the way before matters came to blows between those two, when Heaven only knew what the outcome of such a deadly quarrel might be. The men, on the other hand, divided into two camps: one lot tried to restrain Gigot, who lurched and reeled on unsteady legs and waved the empty mug about, ready to throw it at Darieux. The other — half a dozen of the younger ones — held vigorously on to Darieux, who had drawn his sword and was struggling and fighting desperately for freedom to avenge the deadly insult and to deal a Draconian blow at the rival he abhorred.
And in the midst of these agitated groups of men between those two who were threatening fire and fury at one another there stood little Follette, still panting but no longer screaming, no longer threatening Gigot with her small clenched fist. Her cheeks were still crimson and her eyes were ablaze, but no longer with wrath, nor did words of vituperation come from her mouth. Her lips indeed gradually broadened into a smile. And presently she laughed. Laughed right in Gigot’s face, made her way as close to him as his friends would let her, and, still laughing, she playfully pinched his cheek.
“You great goose,” she railed at him and gave him a flick on the nose: “there’s Papa in the house waiting to crack a bottle of his best Armagnac with you, and here you are as drunk already as an English skipper.
“And you, mon Capitaine,” she went on, speaking over her shoulder, “put up your sword. Wait until the Emperor wants it. You cannot assault a drunken man. And my future lord here is drunk, I say, as drunk,” she reiterated, hanging on to every word, “as — an — English skipper. Aren’t you, Gerard?”
The words were not out of her mouth before Darieux with a terrific effort succeeded in dragging himself free from those who were doing their best to hold on to him. Sword in hand, and with vigorous play of shoulders and elbows, he tried to get at Gigot, when the latter, with a hoarse cry of, “Drunk, am I?” suddenly threw the empty mug down on the floor, where it rolled round and about with a series of loud crashes. He made a dive head down for Follette, seized her by the thighs with both arms and lifted her bodily high above his shoulder. Little fairy! She was no weight to speak of, nevertheless Gigot staggered with the sudden effort he had made and a second or two went by before he regained a firm stance on his feet. For a moment or two Follette’s position up there looked precarious. Her slender body swayed. She put out her hand and clutched at the Provencal’s black mop of hair in order to steady herself. She did not attempt to fight, to try and get free from those powerful arms that held her. That was not Follette’s way. Never did she pit her strength against that of a man. Never did she fight with a certainty of defeat. Gigot had her tightly by the legs, and all she could do was not to lose her balance, so she clung on to that mop of black hair with one hand and waved the other about blowing kisses with her finger-tips.
A cheer went up from the onlookers. Everyone felt relieved and greeted Gigot’s display of dare-devilry and Follette’s plucky attitude with a loud “Hurrah!” The situation, which was getting dangerously tense, had taken a turn for the better. Heaven only knew what would have been the outcome of a stand-up fight between those two men, rivals for the love of a woman, hating each other and both seeing red. They all gathered closely round Gigot, who, lurching and staggering, head down, made his way to the open portal, with Follette up on his shoulder, looking for all the world as if she were enjoying her novel experience of being carted about like a bundle of goods, her body swaying, her legs imprisoned by the arms of that drunken bully.
Thus they reached the exit. The gay little throng made way for Gigot to pass, then closed round in a body behind him again: a solid mass that held Captain Darieux at bay. Strive how he might, he couldn’t get past them all; they were like a solid wall and they were not going to allow that quarrel to come to a head. Not today. Follette’s betrothal day. And there she was, kidnapped and carried off by her future husband in a romantic fashion. Pity he was drunk, for the picture would have been perfect, as he stood quite still for a moment under the wide gateway, with Follette’s head and shoulders towering above him and facing a deluge of rain, which was coming down as if the angels up there were emptying buckets of water on the thirsty shore.
A thunder-crash greeted his appearance and a vivid flash of lightning caused the women hastily to cross themselves and those who were close to the entrance to run back to shelter inside the barn. Heedless of the rain, however, of thunder or wind or lightning, Gigot plunged with his burden headlong into the open, and the last that was seen of Follette through the curtain of water that came down in a stream was her arm waving and her hand brought to her mouth, blowing kisses to them all.
The musicians with praiseworthy haste struck up the first bars of a popular song.
Sur le pont d’Avignon
On y danse, on y danse,
Sur le pont d’Avignon
On y danse tout en rond!
The girls joined hands, formed a ring, and sang, “On y danse!” and the men called out, “Hurrah for Follette! Long live Follette!” cheering at intervals.
But the girls whispered among themselves: “What a pity she is going to marry that ugly brute!”
“And drunk on this day!” they sighed.
In an angle of the barn the cronies had congregated behind a group of young people who stood around with arms linked, hoping to hear news from the wise lips of their elders. The incipient quarrel had frightened them and they wanted reassurance that the trouble was over and that they could continue to enjoy themselves as long as there was a gleam of daylight in the sky. There was also next Saturday to think of. It was also to be a half-holiday for everybody. There would be feasting in La Grande again, on the same lavish scale as today, and there would again be music and dancing. But they did want reassurance that there would be no quarrelling, because some of the boys were taking part for Captain Darieux and some for the Provencal. And if those two went for each other, as they obviously wanted to do, there was no knowing what would happen. Strife would become general. A scrimmage. Fisticuffs. Knives, even! And the holiday would be spoilt.
It was really most comforting to hear one of the older men say sententiously:
“It is all right now. It will all be forgotten by tomorrow.”
“You really think so, Pere Martin?” one of the young ones asked.
“Yes. The gallant Captain has gone back to his duty most like. At any rate, he is not here now.”
Young necks were craned, while bright eyes roamed around looking for the gallant Captain. And a sigh of relief went up from young and old lips when he was nowhere to be seen.
“By tomorrow it will all be forgotten.”
“And next Saturday the young pair will be out directly after Mass.”
It was Grandmere Bosseny who said this. And she always knew everything. Was she not the village oracle?
“You are sure, Grandmere?”
“Of course I am sure,” the old thing retorted sharply, “or I wouldn’t say it.”
“Did Pierre tell you?”
“He said something about the chaise being ordered for Saturday next, and it is to meet the wedding party at the church. But I have been sure all along that it would happen like that.”
Old heads nodded approvingly and Maman Despois said:
“Much better too. Then the two of them won’t start quarrelling again.”
“I really thought at one time that we should have trouble, didn’t you, Pere Martin?”
Pere Martin took the pipe out of his mouth and then agreed sententiously:
“Young men are only happy when they can make trouble.” The girls giggled.
“But, Pere Martin,” one of them remarked, “you said yesterday that it was the girls who always made trouble.”
“And wasn’t I right?” the old man retorted, nothing daunted. “Would there be all this trouble if it wasn’t for a woman? Who is the cause of it all? I ask you. Who set those two men against each other?”
“You mean Follette?” the girl argued. ‘But she couldn’t help it. It is the men who were stupid and jealous and quarrelsome.”
“Follette was free to choose the man she preferred,” broke in another. “For some reason or another she preferred Gigot de Morieton. Monsieur le Capitaine should have taken his chance like a man.”
And the argument between young and old would have gone on indefinitely had not the musicians changed the tune of Sur le pont d’Avignon to the opening bars of a bourree. The ever popular national tune went to the lads’ heads like wine. They plunged head down into the small crowd of young folk, and every youngster selected a dancing partner for himself, stamped his feet, clapped his hands, and grabbed her by the waist.
“Come on Maria, Josephine, Paulette, Mathilde,” they called lustily. “La bourree! La bourree! Can’t you hear? Come on!”
And thus did merriment come into its own again. The festive day was not to be allowed to go out in ill-temper and in strife. Never in all the world. Never while the strains of la bourree echoed from rafter to rafter in La Grande. Never while there was a pretty girl ready to dance and make fun. And so was dancing resumed. Stamping of feet and clapping of hands after the manner of gay, irresponsible folk. Such a noise did they kick up as drowned the sound of thunder and of wind. Outside it rained and blew great guns, lightning flashed, the waves of an angry sea broke with a deafening crash on the rocks of Saint-Lys. But no one cared now. Let the elements war against nature, make as much noise as they could; inside La Grande the noise was all joyful. Laughing and singing, clapping of hands. Cheering and screaming with delight.
“What was that?” one of the girls exclaimed, and all of a sudden came to a halt, clutching her dancing partner by the arm.
“Why, nothing,” he retorted. “What should it be?”
“A pistol-shot,” she murmured, and looked pale and scared.
“Nonsense. Only thunder. And the waves on the Rochers.... Come on...”
And he clasped his hands together round her waist and set her going once more round and round. A pistol-shot? What nonsense!
Apparently no one else had heard anything, for laughter never ceased, echoing through the rafters, nor did dancing abate.
“Did you hear anything, Grandmere?” someone asked of the village oracle.
“Only the noise you young people are making,” Grandmere Bosseny replied. “Enough to deafen us old ones. Why, you are drowning the sound of thunder, or else the storm is over.”
The storm was certainly over; glimpses of an evening sky appeared through the clouds. But it was some time before the rain ceased altogether, before the clouds were finally driven away by a north-easterly wind. It got a bit colder then — outside.
But not in La Grande, where dancing and merrymaking went on while the shades of night gradually drew in and it got darker and darker. Rushlights and tallow candles in leaden sconces were brought in, but on the whole even the young people had had about enough. They wouldn’t have admitted, any of them, that they were tired, but they were. Even la bourree was stepped in slow time.
The cronies and the middle-aged folk had certainly had enough. Two by two and in small groups they rose and made to go homewards. Mothers called to their daughters. It was fully time to go home and to bed.
And gradually the candles burned down in their sconces. Flickered and spluttered. No good waiting till the whole place was in darkness.
“Good night, Maria.”
“Good night, Paul.”
“See you tomorrow.”
“We are going to church, Maman and I.”
“At two o’clock. The first bourree. Dance it with me.”
This with variations went on between the young people while thoughtful mothers wrapped shawls round their girls’ shoulders. Or else:
“I wonder what has happened to Monsieur le Capitaine.”
“Gone back to his quarters in Cabourg, most like.”
“Anyway, it will all be forgotten by tomorrow.”
“So it will. Good night.”
Captain Darieux had not gone back to his quarters in Cabourg. The lively crowd of young people had pressed round him so closely that he could not get at the man for whose blood he was now thirsting as an animal thirsts for the prey that has evaded it. To the depths of his soul he was craving for revenge. Craving ravenously. And not for revenge only, though the insult put upon him had been deserving of the man who now held possessive rights over Follette.
She was pledged to him now! Soon she would be his wife by the law of the land. His slave, his chattel. And the devil only knew to what mental torture and humiliations he would subject that light-hearted, simple-minded child. That brute! That drunken, dissolute brute the master of Follette! The arbiter of her fate! Darieux felt that the thought was driving him mad — had already turned him into a raving maniac. People talked of seeing red. Red? He saw nothing but a crimson veil spread before his eyes. A crimson veil! The blood of that unspeakable ruffian. The master of Follette!
The crowd inside La Grande had disintegrated after the departure of Gigot, leaving Darieux free to make his way to the exit. The storm was still at its height. He went straight out into the open and rounding the great barn climbed up the side of the cliff. By the time he reached the upper track there was no sign of Gigot de Morieton. Up on the height, on ahead, the old farmhouse loomed out of the fast-gathering gloom: a solid black mass silhouetted against the stormy sky. No lights save one: up in the attic under the pepper-pot roof of the round tower there where the great telescope was installed. There were no shutters to the one window, which was slightly ajar, showing the brass fitting of the big lens. But there came no sound from there. Darieux went the round of the house to the side which faced the chateau and the river. Follette’s room was on that side. How often had he stood there ensconced in the shrubbery, waiting, longing for a sight of her. A tiny stream of light filtered through the shutters which were closed. But no sound came from there either.
Darieux stood by, waiting. What for he knew not, his mind a prey to the most hideous dread. Madness it was. A horrible fear of something awful. Unspeakable. He longed for a sound, a sign from that window up there to assure him that his fear was only a nightmare... a grisly fantasy evoked by his fevered brain. The rain was coming down in torrents. He was soaked to the skin. But he stood his ground, waiting. Waiting to make sure that she was safe and that she was alone. Had there come the slightest sound that she was not alone he was ready to make his way up there, to climb up to that window, and to wrench open those shutters. To confront that drunken bully and squeeze the life out of him if danger threatened Follette.
And all at once the window behind the shutters was opened: then the shutters were thrown back. Darieux could not see her hands, but he was conscious of her presence there, a few feet above him, up in that room whence came no other sound save the patter of her feet in her high-heeled shoes, trotting to and fro. She was alone. Thank God for this respite. The fate of his beloved was still in his hands.
He now made his way back to the front of the house and came to a halt at the foot of the tower. The light was still there up in the attic where the great telescope was installed. The window was still ajar. A moment or two later he heard voices. Two men were in that room talking, his enemy and Maurice de Lorgeril. Gigot’s voice was hoarse and thick, almost inarticulate. His share of the conversation was made up of mutterings and swear-words chiefly in response to anything de Lorgeri said. Darieux tried to picture those two sitting up there. He had made a pretty shrewd guess as to what kind of bargain had driven Follette into agreeing to this monstrous union of herself with that unspeakable ruffian. She did not love him. She could not. Pure and sweet and light-hearted as she was, she could never have given her dear little hand to that brute save in a spirit of self-sacrifice. She was giving up her whole future life out of an exaggerated sense of duty to her father. That was how Darieux had figured out to himself this outrageous situation. And in his wrath he lumped those two men together in his execration of them and their deeds. Gigot, of course, was the unspeakable, the limb and servant of Satan. But there was the father who should never have allowed his child to sacrifice herself for his sake, for the sake of his selfish desire for wealth and the possession of his title and domain.
Yes, in Darieux’ mind they were both traitors, both were equally guilty of an unforgivable crime.
From down below there rose from time to time the strains of dance music in La Grande, the merry sound of laughter and chattering and clapping of hands. Darieux, lurking in the shrubbery, paid no heed to them. His ears were only strained to hear the sounds that came through that attic window up there. The storm was still at its worst. The angry sea dashed its waves against the rocks of Saint-Lys with detonations like gunfire. And suddenly, without any warning, Darieux became aware that the front door was open, and the next moment he perceived Gigot, very unsteady on his legs, standing under the lintel holding on to the jambs with both hands. One minute went by and then he lurched forward and went floundering out into the open.
A brainstorm swept over Philippe Darieux’ entire consciousness. The veil of moisture from the sky turned red before his eyes. Seeing that drunken brute come out into the open, delivered, as it were, into his hands, besotted and helpless, he became like a wild animal scenting the approach of its prey. The lust to kill. Gigot staggered forward, arms thrust out before him as if to ward off some suspected and as yet unseen danger. Darieux stepped out from the shrubbery and Gigot, raising his head, saw him. A raucous cry came out of his constricted throat. Head down, he rushed at Darieux and made to grip him with both hands by the throat. But stupefied by drink as he was, his own rebound and Darieux’ quick defence played havoc with what steadiness he had got, and all he succeeded in doing was to throw his heavy bulk on his adversary and to roll over with him down on the sodden ground.
The fall brought the back of Darieux’ head in sharp contact with the jutting stump of a tree. He did not lose consciousness immediately, but myriads of stars glimmered and danced before his eyes at first. Then these were slowly blotted out by a kind of veil which spread itself between them and his conscious vision. A veil luminous and translucent. Through it he could still perceive the stars — no longer bright. Growing more and more dim... most of them vaporous now.... All except one... the brightest of all... a halo as of a mass of golden hair... and the halo was around a face that had clear, dark eyes... in colour like the evening sky.... A face with red lips that smiled... eyes that beckoned... a face... Follette’s.... What did she want from him? Why did she smile?... and why beckon?
And to his ears there came a murmur. A voice that seemed to come from far, very far away... a voice he had heard years and years and years ago, when he was a boy and knew nothing either of love or of hate.... His mother’s voice perhaps... or that of the old cure of Anjou who had shown him how to pray and taught him the commandments of God... Thou shah not kill. The voice rose and died away, then rose again in a whisper which he could hardly hear.
The veil lost its radiance. It became sombrous and grey. His eyesight grew more and more dim. But through the veil he still could vaguely distinguish the face of his enemy distorted by fury, with murder in his eyes. Darieux, hardly able to breathe under the dead weight of that huge bulk on the top of him, had only one arm free; the right. Gigot’s face was close to his now, so close that he could feel his foul breath upon his cheeks. Two hot convulsive hands were holding him by the throat.... The man was drunk and helpless.... His deadly enemy... the future lord and master of Follette... and the man was at his mercy... he was drunk and helpless and Darieux had a pistol in his belt.
The grey veil thickened... became black and opaque.... Darieux could no longer see Follette’s face up in the evening sky. But the voice from far, very far away came to his ears again.
“Thou shalt not kill.”
His right hand sought for his pistol and closed upon its butt. His finger was close to the trigger. But one thought remained clear in his mind now, right through fading consciousness: He must throw that pistol away... far away from him. A man, a soldier, cannot kill an enemy who is drunk and helpless.... He must throw the pistol far from him... he must hurl... the pistol.... Gigot’s hand closed upon his, tried to wrest the pistol from his grasp, but one thing he knew... he must hurl the pistol... throw it far... from him... throw... the pistol... or...
But darkness enveloped him now... darkness... impenetrable night.... He heard a pistol-shot... and nothing more....
When earlier in the evening Follette opened the window of her room and threw back the shutters she had been vaguely aware that Darieux was somewhere down there watching, waiting to see her, to speak to her perhaps. But what was the good? The die had been cast. She was Gerard de Morieton’s promised wife. Her father had wished it with all the strength of his declining years. To end his days in the house where he was born, where his father was born and had lived until cruel circumstances had driven him out of his home; to take his place in the old chateau, proud of his name, proud of all his possessions, proud to be once again Comte de Lorgeril, respected by all, acknowledged even by the Emperor himself. That desire had been an overmastering passion in him. It amounted to fanaticism. And that desire could only be fulfilled with the consent and collaboration of Gerard de Morieton, without whose fortune and without whose aid all those wonderful schemes would tumble about the old man’s ears like a house of cards.
“If I am to go forth once more like a homeless vagabond, I would sooner lay me down in my grave right away,” he had said repeatedly to Follette.
And Follette loved her father. He was all the world to her. Lonely and desolate she would be if it were not for him. She had no one to whom she could have turned if he left her. No one in all this wide world. She had shared in his adventures: in the dangers he had faced. She had been the ray of light in his clouded life, the constant sharer of his joys and his sorrows. How could she refuse him the great, the ultimate, happiness he was yearning for?
And Follette drifted into acquiescence, because she loved her father and there seemed no other way of making him happy and repaying him for all the love and devotion he had showered upon her childhood and her adolescence. She acquiesced, hardly knowing that she had done so. Gerard de Morieton loved her apparently and desired her for his wife, and she drifted into being engaged to him. What did it matter after all? In her lighthearted, impulsive way she thought to herself that when she was tired of living in a marble palace in Provence with Gigot de Morieton she would return to her father and to Lorgeril. And anyhow, her father, the one being on earth she cared for, could only be made contented by that happy-go-lucky acquiescence; then why not?
On one occasion she did make a fight for her own future.
“We could,” she said to the old man, “live very quietly at the chateau on the money we have saved without troubling our heads about Gerard de Morieton.”
He shook his head.
“We have no money, my child,” he said dolefully, “only what he chooses to give us.”
“How do you mean — we have no money? There are your savings and mine...”
“Gigot has got them.”
“I gave the money to him... what there was left after the estate was paid for.... He made me....”
“Made you give him the money?” she insisted, frowning. “What made you do it?”
“He made me give it him in exchange...”
“In exchange for what?”
“The sum of one hundred thousand livres which he will pay me annually as long as I live,” Maurice de Lorgeril concluded shamefacedly, hardly daring to look his daughter in the face.
“And there’s nothing left?”
He made no reply to this. And Follette had to be satisfied. What was the use of arguing? She didn’t really care what happened to her. She could at least secure the happiness of the one being in the world who loved her, and it is not given to everyone to be loved as her dear old father had loved her. He had put his future in her hands. Now he was going downhill, had not, probably, many more years before him; at any rate those years should be happy ones for him. He would have his wish. Maurice Comte de Lorgeril would end his days in his ancestral home.
And after that...? Ah well!..
She heard footsteps treading the rough ground beneath her window. She knew it was Philippe Darieux, knew for certain now that he had been down there, waiting and watching. She would not speak to him. What would have been the good? Things would be said, words spoken that would only add to her misery in the years that were to come. She had danced with him tonight, rested her cheek against his shoulder, held fast to his hand, felt his breath fanning her hair: but she had not spoken with him in a way that would have mattered — mattered so horribly. The quarrel? Well, of course, there was that. Gerard was a vulgar brute and Philippe Darieux must at one time have seen red. She had done her best to keep the two men apart, for there was murder in the eyes of both. Now she heard Darieux’ footsteps on the rough ground below. She heard him making his way round to the front of the house. But somehow she felt no anxiety for the moment. Gerard was drunk and probably quite helpless by now and Philippe was not the man to waylay a defenceless enemy. Gerard was upstairs in the attic-room with her father. They would both be drinking themselves silly by now. Follette gave a shrug of disgust, but her eyes filled with tears immediately afterwards because she thought of her father, weak and subjugated by that bully who was the master of his fate. If only she could have torn at her heart-strings till they became atrophied, till the image of that old man who had cherished her throughout her life had become blurred and then faded away. If only.. but there, again, what was the good of wishing? Poor little Follette, she was always wishing for things that were unattainable!
Darieux’ footsteps died away in the distance. Perhaps he had gone down the cliff. It was still raining, but not so hard. Down in La Grande the young people were still dancing. They were making merry over the great occasion: Follette de Lorgeril’s betrothal. They had toasted her and congratulated her and wished her joy and happiness through many years to come. And they were happy and merry, whilst she, the heroine of the feast, felt that her heart was like lead in her breast. She sank into a chair and gave herself the luxury of having a good cry. Was she crying for the moon? Of course she was. And she knew how futile were her tears, how futile her regrets. But the tears did her good, and presently she went over to the window, and as was her wont she leaned over the sill and looked out upon the gathering night. And suddenly she heard the detonation of a pistol-shot. It came from down below. From the front of the house. Luckily she was still fully dressed. She ran out of her room, across the landing and down the stairs into the hall. The front door was wide open. She made a dash for it and fell up against her father, who was coming into the house, lurching and staggering on the doorstep.
He all but fell over the threshold had not Follette caught him by the shoulders. She didn’t cry out, she just held him, while through clenched teeth he murmured in a raucous voice:
“I have killed him... the swine...”
Follette clapped her hand against his mouth. She had not uttered a sound yet, just stood there on the doorstep supporting the old man, who was swaying backwards and forwards, muttering: “I have killed him... the swine.” All her faculties were on the qui vive, because as in a flash the whole tragedy and its inevitable consequences stood out like a livid kaleidoscope before her mind. The pistol-shot. What pistol? For weeks now all firearms had been stowed away in the farmhouse out of the old man’s reach. They were kept under lock and key, and she, Follette, usually kept the key in her charge. Gerard de Morieton was not armed when he brought her on his shoulder to the farmhouse and deposited her at the foot of the stairs which led up to her room. Then what was it that had happened?
Certainty she must have. She must know exactly what had happened, then only would she think and act. Hers was the master-mind, hers the will that must deal with the situation whatever it was. She took hold of her father by the arms and drew him further into the hall. It was quite dark here save for the shaft of wan evening light which came through the open doorway and the faint glimmer that filtered down the staircase from the floor above.
She let the old man sink into a chair, then she asked: “Where is he?”
Her voice was steady, hardly raised above a whisper, but its tone was resolute and commanding. He looked up into her face. Her eyes he could not see clearly, but he felt the determination in her, the will to act. He was as nothing, a limp rag that the wind of circumstances would now blow hither and thither to cataclysm and destruction. She did not repeat her question, only shook him by the shoulders, and after a moment or two he muttered:
“Outside there... I killed him...”
“Where did you get the pistol?...”
He gave a kind of chuckle and went on composedly: “I had brought a hatchet down with me, you understand? He was a more loathsome swine tonight than I had ever known and I meant to kill him... because of something he said... about my Follette.... — I took the hatchet... but there was the pistol in his dirty hand... ready for me, see?... better than a hatchet... less of a mess, and I had to kill him... you understand?”
“What pistol was it?” she insisted, gasping with apprehension. “Whose pistol was it?”
“His, I suppose... the swine... He swore he would... he meant to kill me, but I was first...
“Did you see Captain Darieux?”
“No... he wasn’t there... I only saw that..
“Never mind,” she broke in quickly, “Tell me again, Gerard was alone when you followed him down? Where was he?”
“Just by the shrubbery there,” he sniggered. “I hadn’t far to go. He had the pistol in his hand... he meant to kill me... but I..”
“You took the pistol from him?...”
“At first he wouldn’t let go...”
“But you took it and...
He nodded, and went on clucking like an old hen and chuckling. “Yes! I threw down the hatchet... no good, a hatchet.. such a mess.”
“And what did you do with the pistol?”
“What did you do with the pistol?”
He made a sweeping gesture with his right arm. It nearly sent him off his balance.
“I threw it away....
He attempted to repeat the gesture.
“Go and look for it, petit pére.... I have got to think things out.”
He rose and went out into the open and she was left alone in the house. She sank into a chair, and leaned her elbow on the table and her head against her hand. She had to “think things out”.
She was beginning to take it all in. The whole tragedy, act by act, and the horror of it all. Those two men up in the attic-room... both of them drunk and irresponsible.... Bickering at first... then strife... then a clash.... Words... insults... that blood alone could expiate.... Gerard the first to withdraw from the strife, lurching down the stairs and across the hall. He knew where firearms were kept, he had the key of the cupboard, stolen it probably. He picked one up, for he was unarmed and thought perhaps that he would be meeting Philippe Darieux somewhere out in the road. But Darieux had gone.... The old man said he was not there.... Only Gerard alone with a loaded pistol in his hand. Follette seemed to see him lurching down the stairs and across the hall with the murderer on his track. The murderer! Her father! With the hatchet in his hand.
The rest was only guesswork. The time had come to act.
She went to the front door and called to her father. He hadn’t gone far and answered at once.
“Have you found the pistol?” she queried.
“No,” he replied doggedly: “I threw it away, far away. It fell down the cliff side, or else on the road. I heard it strike the stones.”
It didn’t strike her that he might be lying, and in any case there was one thing more desperately urgent than to look for the pistol.
“Come!” she commanded curtly, and went out of the house.
He came obedient as a child. He had complete trust in Follette. She would be sure to do what was practical and sensible.
It was still raining, but not quite so hard. Evening light still lingered, faint and gloomy. Gerard’s body was lying close to the front door, coiled up in its last convulsive agony. Resolutely Follette bent down to him.
“Help me!” she called to her father, and together they lifted the inanimate body of Gerard de Morieton. His weight was terrific. Follette had taken hold of him by the armpits and directed her father how to lift the legs.
“Now then,” she went on peremptorily, and he nerved himself to the effort.
“Where are we taking him?” he queried, as she began to move.
“The plantation,” she replied.
The plantation was a small grove of young larches situated some two hundred metres behind the house at the bottom of the rising ground. And together the two of them, carrying their gruesome burden, started on their arduous way. Follette’s was by far the hardest and most difficult task. There was not only the great strain on her young arms but every step she took was fraught with the danger of a possible fall. She was obliged to step backwards, sometimes sideways, with her back bent nearly double, and her eyes searching the gloom behind her, lest a false step brought about a catastrophic stumble. Once past the immediate environment of the house the ground was very rough. No attempt had ever been made to clear it of the tangle of undergrowth and overgrown shrubbery which formed such an effectual screen against prying eyes and ensured the privacy of the domicile. But hard as was the self-imposed task the girl stuck to it with all her strength and might.
The church clock of Saint-Victor struck eight before the two of them reached the plantation. Directed by Follette, they lowered their burden to the ground. After the old man had been relieved of the strain he collapsed in a heap, and with a deep groan of weariness, on the wet carpet of moss and pine needles. He leaned his head against the trunk of an upstanding larch, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his streaming forehead. Not so Follette, however; she neither collapsed nor did she echo her father’s groans. She was so tired that she felt as if her whole body would break in pieces. What had she not accomplished since sunrise on this day of days!
Preparing, arranging, seeing that everything was as it should be for the great banquet and the festival. And then dancing, dancing till she nearly dropped, enjoying and living every minute of life during those hours of excitement, of surprises and commotion, of events tumbling one upon the other and all taking their toll of her physical strength and vitality.
She had been weary almost to a collapse when she got home at last and was up in her room in sight of her bed, which seemed to be heavenly in its appeal to her to come and lie down and sleep. Weary she had been, terribly weary and half asleep, when she heard that pistol-shot and ran down to the hall door in time to receive her father, dazed and tottering, into her young arms, in time to hear his awful muttering: “I have killed him... the swine.
From that moment, though fatigue did not cease to rack her body she ceased to be conscious of it. There was so much to think of, so much to plan and so much to do. And everything — the present, the future, life, death, all devolved upon her powers to think and to plan.
The first phase of the task which she had undertaken to carry through was now accomplished: the tramp through the undergrowth. The weight of that inert body had made her feel as if her back would never straighten out again. When the gruesome load was at last lying at her feet she remained quite still for a few moments pressing her aching back with both her hands and drawing in deep breaths of the damp, invigorating air. It had ceased raining and the air was very still. The storm had left a heavy ground-swell in its wake and the roll of the breakers against the rocks came only as a soothing murmur from down below.
But this was not the time for rest or idle musings. Follette gave her young body a good shake, called all her faculties, her will-power, her determination, to the aid of her weary limbs. What was the next thing to be done? The tools, of course. And, resolutely, she turned to go back to the house.
“Where are you going?” the old man cried out in sudden alarm.
“To fetch tools,” she replied curtly.
He made an effort to struggle to his feet.
“I’ll go,” he countered.
“You stay where you are,” the girl ordered. “I’ll be back directly.”
“I won’t be left alone here,” he whined like a frightened child, “not with him.”
A kind of shudder seemed to go through him, and he covered his face with his hands. This was the first indication he had given that he was conscious of the balefulness of his act. Up to now his composure almost amounted to callousness. He had followed Follette’s lead, had obeyed her directions without showing the slightest emotion, let alone fear or remorse. Follette, with a slight shrug, went back to him, stooped, got hold of him by the shoulder and gave him a good shake.
“Pull yourself together, petit pére,” she commanded. “I am only going as far as the toolshed. Stay where you are and don’t go to sleep.”
He tried to detain her and dung to her skirt, but she wrenched it out of his grasp and was soon gone out of his reach. The evening mist crept out of the pools and swamps of the moor, closing in around her. Unerringly she sped along in the gathering gloom, up the rising ground to the yard at the back of the house. Here were kept a few heavy tools for Pierre’s use when he needed them. Follette felt her way to the place where they were stowed for the night. The shadows were deeper here than in the open. She had to grope about with her hands till she found what she wanted. A couple of spades for digging and turning the sod. They were heavy but she shouldered them, and made her way back to the plantation. The old man had not moved. He still sat with his back resting against the upstanding larch. Follette put the spades down.
“Take off your coat, petit pére,” she suggested, “you’ll be more comfortable. It will be warm work, you know.”
She looked about her for a moment, selecting the most suitable spot for the grim task that still lay before her. She took up one of the spades and without loss of time turned over the first sod.
“Now then.” She gave the word of command, and Maurice with a sigh of weariness struggled at once to his feet. He took off his coat, picked up the second spade and set to do his share of the work as obediently as a child.
Uninterruptedly and in silence the two of them worked away, digging into the wet earth until a six-foot trench was made ready for its intended use.
“That will do,” Follette then decided, and they put down their tools.
“One more effort,” she went on encouragingly.
One more effort and the last of the grim task was accomplished. Gerard de Morieton, alias Gigot de Morieton, the Provencal, the shipwrecked mariner from aboard an English lugger, who but for this cataclysm would have become her husband, lay buried in unconsecrated ground under a canopy of young larches in the hollow behind the old farmhouse of Lorgeril.
At the last, and still indefatigable, Follette began to collect branches of undergrowth, bramble and dwarf ilex, juniper and pine. These she threw over the improvised grave, tramping them down heavily with her feet into the ground. The old man watched her idly for some time. When he grew tired of watching he announced his intention of going to bed. He had just taken the first step in the direction of the house when through the still evening air there came the sound of someone whistling one of the dance tunes that had been popular at the jollification that afternoon, also the tramp of footsteps along the cliff track. Maurice de Lorgeril came to an abrupt halt, smothering the cry of terror that had come to his lips. Follette instinctively clapped her hand against his mouth and seized him by the wrist.
“Sh... sh... sh...” she whispered: “only Pierre coming home from La Grande.”
Her heart beat intermittently. For one second it ceased its beating altogether while she listened to those footsteps, which way they would go. Pierre’s quarters lay at the back of the house. They gave on the yard. He had no cause to come round by the front. And effectually a few moments later his footsteps were distinctly heard skirting the house and moving in the direction of the sheds. A deep sigh of relief eased the tension in Follette’s breast, but she still held on to her father’s wrist. Luckily he was too frightened to move. After a moment or two a door was heard to close with a bang. Then nothing more for a long, long time. But during this last interval of silence a thought had suddenly flashed in the girl’s brain.
The pistol! Her whole mind had been engrossed for the past hour in the man lying dead and in his grave. But now she remembered. The pistol. What had become of it?
“Petit pere,” she whispered under her breath, “what did you do with the pistol?”
“Eh?” he muttered vaguely.
“The pistol,” she insisted: “where is it now? What did you do with it?”
“I told you, didn’t I? I threw it down when I had done for him. Right down on the road. It is still there, I expect.”
“Go and get it at once,” she urged. “Put it away in my cupboard in the kitchen. Here is the key,” and she groped in her pocket for a key which she then put into his hand. “Lock the door and put the key in my room under my pillow.”
“You come with me,” he whispered.
“No, I must finish here first,” she said decisively, “and I must put the spades away.”
And she returned to her task of obliterating as far as possible with dead and decaying branches all traces of that improvised grave.
“Then I’ll wait here for you,” he ventured.
She stamped her feet with impatience.
“Do as I tell you,” she commanded. “Can’t you see that someone might be going down the road at any moment, and if the pistol is lying there as you say — —”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he murmured. And his whole body shook now in an access of panic. “If someone should come they would find the pistol. All right, I’ll go... I’ll do as you tell me... my good little Follette... my clever girl.
Fright had turned him again into putty. Holding the key tightly in his hand he started off, and soon Follette heard him making his way through the thicket. Then only did she return to her task, and carried it through without interruption.
Maurice de Lorgeril continued on his way, half-dazed and staggering. The way was rough and his feet kept on getting entangled in the undergrowth. But he held on to the key of Follette’s cupboard and repeated her commands to himself in a half audible murmur. Presently he reached the smoother path that surrounded the front and side of the house. Here he walked more steadily and more jauntily. It was not quite so dark here either, and this comforted him, for, like a child, he did not like the darkness. He was facing the tangled shrubbery to the right of the front door when he suddenly perceived two feet with the soles stretched straight out towards him, feet in Hessian boots adorned with gold tassels.
Just then a slight stir in the air caused these tassels to move almost imperceptibly. Almost, but the old man’s bleared eyes had caught sight of that movement, and at once he was seized with panic. He put his arm over his eyes to screen them against the terrifying sight and in so doing he dropped the key, which fell with a clatter on the stony path. This last strident sound scattered his sorely-tried wits to the winds. He lurched up against the front door, groped for the latch and succeeded in giving it the necessary turn in spite of the trembling of his hands. The door swung open and he stumbled over the threshold into the hall. Here he fell into a chair in a state of mental and physical exhaustion, and here did Follette come upon him half an hour later. She had in the meantime put the tools away and come into the house by the back door. Passing through the kitchen, she had lighted the lamp and was carrying it into the hall. She had a vague idea of getting a draught of cider for herself as she was desperately thirsty, and also for her father if he was still awake. The moment she set the lamp down she saw him. He seemed like a man in a stupor. His eyes were closed. His chin was sunk down on his breast. His forearm lay across a corner of the table and the hand which hung over the edge trembled as with ague. When the light struck on his eyes he opened them and gazed as if unseeing on Follette. She ran to him and put her arm round his neck.
“Petit pére, what is it?” she asked, sick almost with apprehension. “Do you feel ill or only tired?”
“Very tired, my little Follette,” he murmured. “I want to go to bed.”
“And you shall go to bed now, at once,” she said encouragingly: “or would you like a nice drink of cider first? I expect you are very thirsty. I know I am.”
He shook his head.
“No, no!” he protested. “Not cider. Nasty cold stuff. Just a drop of my good old Armagnac.”
For a moment she hesitated. She knew he had been drinking all day more than was good for him. But he was obviously in such a state of weariness, not to say collapse, that she thought an extra drop or two would not harm him much.
“Very well,” she said, “you go upstairs to bed and I’ll bring you some Armagnac. And after that you’ll just get a nice, comfortable sleep. We both will, for I can tell you that I am as tired as a dog that has chased a hare half the day.
“Come along now,” she went on, and held him up under the armpits. He pulled himself together a little after that and let her lead him to the foot of the stairs. Here he came to a halt and refused to go any further.
“You come with me,” he whimpered. “I won’t go up there alone.”
And at once he started shivering and trembling and cast furtive eyes up the staircase and around him into the shadows.
There was a slight argument over this matter, but it ended in Follette linking her arm in his and taking him up the stairs to his room. He would not allow her to leave him until she had him tucked up safely in bed. And even then he begged her to stay with him for he had a dread of being left alone. Horror of his deed had wrought havoc with his nerves. He, a man who had lived through some of the most appalling tragedies of the Vendean civil war and the bloody encounters of smuggling days, was now like a chicken-hearted poltroon afraid of his own shadow. He was trembling in every limb like one stricken with ague. He clung to Follette’s hand and would not let her go. She felt rather impatient with him but found it in her heart — in her love for him — to pity him rather than despise. What he had done, he had done for her unpremeditatedly. Out of affection for her and pride in her, his beloved child. How could she have contempt for one whose whole life had been one of love for her? She remembered the days in St. Lucques when, tracked by the Republican soldiers like a wild beast, he would brave capture and death and make his way through country bristling with enemies to their little home in the woods in order to spend a few hours in the company of his Follette, to have her on his knee, to feel her dewy lips against his cheek.
And now that he was old and sick, had fallen into temptation that obviously was beyond his strength to combat, her heart went out to him in a great, an overwhelming, wave of tenderness. Whatever happened, she would stand by him. She would guard him from the consequences of his own unpremeditated act. As he had sheltered her — a child — against the dangers and perils of that awful civil war, so she would now as a woman shelter him against the impending threat of the world’s obloquy.
There was an armchair by the side of his bed. In this she sank without attempting to withdraw her hand from his grasp. Luckily he had forgotten his desire for a drop of Armagnac. He seemed gradually to be getting a little more at rest. The trembling of his body subsided slowly, then ceased altogether. His breath came and went more gently, his eyes closed. She thought he had gone to sleep, and tried to withdraw her hand, but this slight movement aroused him at once. “Don’t leave me, Follette,” he murmured.
So she stayed on, motionless, her head resting against the back of the chair. She was so tired. So very, very tired. Her lids felt heavy as lead. They fell over her eyes. She slept.
The lamplight flickered up and died down again. Flickered once, twice more and died out. The lights in the room were merged in shadows. The shadows sank into darkness.
Follette was fast asleep.
The church clock of Saint-Victor had just struck four when Philippe Darieux returned to consciousness. The murmur of voices came faintly to his ear. He tried to raise himself on his elbow. His head ached furiously and his senses were still numb. As far as he was able to distinguish things around him he was lying in the thicket of shrubs and trees to the right of the house, a secluded spot where he had often remained concealed when he was on the watch striving to get a sight of Follette. How he had got there and why his head should ache so furiously he had not the vaguest notion.
The murmur of voices came from below. Two men were walking along the cliff track and presently they strode up the rising ground in the direction of the house. Instinctively and with a great effort of will Darieux drew his half-conscious body further into the thicket up against the rough palisade which enclosed the shrubbery from the wilderness that lay beyond. A few stunted trees formed the outer margin of this grove and a tangle of tall grass and riotous undergrowth made an effective cache in which he could lie concealed.
The two men, whoever they were, had now reached the approach to the farmhouse. Up to this moment Darieux, intent on getting out of sight, had failed to catch the drift of their talk. But now a word struck all of a sudden sharply on his ear.
The word “Pistol.”
“There’s his pistol lying on the road, anyway,” one of them said.
“We’d better go to the commissariat right away,” came from the other.
“I am for keeping out of it all,” the first speaker objected. “Police. Juge d’instruction. Summoned as a witness. Made to swear. Takes up no end of time. And all time wasted. And a good catch missed probably. I was through it once. A smuggling affair. I lost one of the finest catches of the season. No more of that for me, thank you.”
The other, however, wasn’t quite sure.
“One ought to inform the police,” he argued.
“Let someone else do it then. Monsieur le Comte will be down presently. Let him see to things.”
“But... Mademoiselle Follette...”
The other gave a prolonged whistle.
“Name of a name!” he muttered. “I hadn’t thought of Follette. What the devil is to become of her...?”
“Aye! What the devil...?”
“Well, we don’t know that anyone has been murdered, do we?” the first man argued cynically. “Gigot or the Captain. I can’t see anything... no sign of a corpse... or... or anything....”
“Only this blood up here, and Darieux’ pistol down on the road with one chamber empty.”
Darieux made another effort to prop himself up on his elbow. He tried to gather his scattered senses together but there was such an awful buzzing and throbbing in his head that not a single coherent thought took form in his brain. He had kept very still up to now, his blurred vision taking in the gradual break of day, the sinking of the shadows into the pale light of dawn, the slow fading out of the stars, the sentinels of the sky.
The two men had ceased talking, for Darieux heard nothing now save the tramping of their heavy boots crunching the stony ground. He made a movement, trying to peep through the undergrowth. There followed the crackling of broken twigs.
“What was that?” he heard one of the men exclaim at once.
“Name of a name! I wanted to keep out of this.” And the heavy boots trod the ground at a more rapid pace. The men were making their way back to the cliff track as quickly as they could. Soon the sound of their footsteps died away in the distance.
Slowly, fuller consciousness returned. Darieux succeeded at last in propping himself up on his elbow. He tried to do more than that. He wanted to sit up and think. But a horrible feeling of nausea and that perpetual pain in his head paralysed his efforts. The men had gone and there was silence all round him, save for the distant lapping of the waves on the shore below. The morning air was soft and still. Far out to the east the first streak of the rising sun peeped across the moor over vapoury curtains of iridescent clouds in tender shades of chrysoprase and rose and lemon gold. But of this Darieux saw nothing. He sat propped on his elbow with eyes closed, trying to think.
What had happened? If only he could remember! If only he could visualize himself as he was from the moment when he perceived that the front door of the farmhouse was thrown open, that Gigot remained standing for a few seconds under the lintel, clinging to the jambs, then staggered out into the open, and uttering a ferocious roar made a rush for him and threw him to the ground. He remembered falling under the weight of that tigerish onslaught and remembered a sudden sharp pain at the back of his head. But what happened after that? He remembered nothing beyond the fact that here he was now, with a furious pain in his head, and that through a kind of fog he had heard two men talking together. They had spoken of “police”, of “pistol” and of “blood”. And one of them had said something about “Darieux’ pistol with one chamber empty”, and the other: “One ought to inform the police.”
“Darieux’ pistol with one chamber empty.”
It was true then? It had really happened? The brainstorm which had swept over him at sight of the man whom he hated with a devastating hatred and which had roused in him a ferocious lust to kill had forced his hand. The lust to kill had been irresistible, and he was now a criminal. A murderer. A man whom the law of the land would pursue and punish, whose name would for ever be inscribed on the roll of dishonour. His name of which he had been so proud, which his father and those before him had borne with untainted honour, which his mother had taught him from childhood to keep unsullied before the world, that name would become a byword for everything that was cowardly and vile. He had killed a man who was drunk and defenceless, and for this he would have to suffer an ignominious death. The guillotine or a platoon at dawn, he cared not which. His death would not only be his mother’s grief but also her shame.
But that, of course, must not, could not, be. Not while he had a spark of consciousness in him, or a glimmer of strength. What he could still do was to save her and his young sister from that final disgrace. His death could still be of his own choosing. With luck, perhaps, a certain veil of mystery might hang over the event which led up to it. Conjectures might point to suicide, to a fair fight also, or perhaps to an accident. It all hung on his own will to do the only thing that was right.
He had heard the two men talking, and they had seen his pistol lying somewhere close by on the road. He could not remember past events, but some words spoken by the two men had remained fixed in his memory.
“Darieux’ pistol with one chamber empty.” And: “There is his pistol lying on the road, anyway.”
The road down below. His pistol with one chamber empty was somewhere there, close by. He must have dropped it after... afterwards... and it had fallen down the incline into the road below. The first thing to do then was to get it. A supreme effort which nearly threw him back into unconsciousness brought him finally first to his knees and then to his feet. Daylight was finding its way now through the shrubbery. The deep shadows of the night were still around him, but there were streaks of light which penetrated through the tangled undergrowth. Time was getting short. People from the farmhouse would soon be about. Strangely enough, he could not remember who those people were likely to be. There was Pierre who looked after the animals... and Pere Ribot... but he could not remember anything about Pere Ribot... and... there was someone else... someone who would presently be about... Someone...
Pushing his way through the tangled branches of birch and larch and juniper, hanging on to such branches as were likely to give him support, Darieux wandered down the incline as far as the cliff track. The stony road wet with the recent rainfall wound its way along under the pale light of dawn like a glistening ribbon at his feet. And there less than six feet away from where he stood hesitant and scanning was his pistol. The next moment he had it in his hand, and his eyes were fixed on this mute and incontrovertible witness of his crime. Any doubt or hope that may have lingered in his mind vanished, for there was the one empty chamber and the others still loaded.
“Darieux’ pistol with one chamber empty.’
“One ought to inform the police.”
Well, the police would be informed in due time that Captain Philippe Darieux, late of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards, was found dead on the roadside below the grounds of the farmhouse dependent on the Chateau de Lorgeril.... Found dead? By accident? people would ask. Or design? Or...
He sat down on a projecting boulder, with his back against a stunted tree, and made a final examination of the pistol to see that it was in perfect order, when suddenly he felt the touch of a soft and firm hand closing round his wrist.
“Look out, mon Capitaine,” came in a voice with its well-known tone of gentle irony. “You must not be playing with that old pistol like that. You will be doing yourself or me an injury.”
And while holding on to Darieux’ wrist with her right hand, she extricated the weapon from its grasp with her left. He did his best to cling to it. But he was weak and dizzy and she was strong and resolute.
“But no, mon Capitaine,” she said firmly, “you can’t have that little toy. To begin with, it’s not yours and...” He struggled to his feet and made a desperate lurch forward to try and recover the pistol which Follette was holding behind her back. But his head began to swim, he lost his balance, his senses reeled and he would have measured his length on the ground had not Follette been standing there like a solid pillar of strength, breaking his fall, while her free arm shot out and her hand grabbed him under the armpit. She let him down gently by slackening her hold on him, and gradually he came down on his knees. He was a dead weight and she still had the heavy pistol in one hand. But he was losing consciousness and slowly, very slowly, she allowed him to slide down to the ground. When she saw that he was quite unconscious she thrust the pistol into her belt underneath her cloak and called loudly and repeatedly for Pierre.
As soon as she saw the boy come round the house she shouted to him again:
“Quick, quick, Pierre! Monsieur le Capitaine Darieux has met with an accident. Help me lift him and we’ll carry him into the house.”
She vouchsafed no further explanation. Monsieur le Capitaine had met with an accident and that was all there was to it. Mademoiselle had heard some talking going on underneath Monsieur le Comte’s window. She had run down to see who was down there. There was only Monsieur le Capitaine lying in a swoon in the road. Probably he had stumbled and had fallen, striking his head against the stump of a tree. There was no wound or any other sign of injury.
Pierre must be satisfied with that. And he was. Discretion had always been the order of the day in the old farmhouse and Mademoiselle was not one to forgive any infraction of that order.
The two of them bore the stricken man into the farmhouse. They carried him through the outer hall into the kitchen and laid him down on the horsehair sofa whereon the shipwrecked mariner had lain on that stormy night all those years ago. With a curt, “You may go, Pierre,” the boy was dismissed by Follette, who then set to work to put cushions to Darieux’ head and back.
With tender care Follette pushed the matted hair from off the sick man’s brow, looked down upon the pale, still face with eyes that were swimming in tears, while words of tender reproach came like the murmurings of a wounded bird from her lips.
“So you really did love me, mon beau Capitaine? Then why did you hurt me so? You struck at my pride. Scorned me because to you I was only a village wench unfit to enter into the halls where you consorted with those of your own rank, where you danced with those who were well-born and prettier than I. Oh, how I hated you that night, mon beau Capitaine! I saw you through the window-glass dancing and laughing, with your arms round another’s waist, whilst I stood outside with grief in my heart, for you had made me understand that I was nothing to you except just a toy to play with and to break. When did you learn to love me? How could I tell? I hated you, or so I thought. I hated you and said bitter and cruel words to you, for I longed to make you suffer as you had made me suffer that night. How could I tell that you had learned to love me? How could I tell?”
She fell on her knees by the side of the couch and allowed her tears full play. Follette cried very seldom, but when she did it was because her heart was wrung with grief, as it was now. She held Darieux’ inanimate hand in hers and pressed her lips against it. Why, why had she been so cruel and so vindictive? Why had she closed her ears against his passionate pleadings, against the avowal of his love? It was such a tender, such a pure expression of affection, how could she have had the heart to refuse it a hearing? It was remorse that caused her tears to flow now: remorse that gnawed at her heart and made her suffer an agony of self-reproach and of sorrow that was very like despair.
But Follette never allowed herself to give way for long either to grief or to hopelessness. Her nature was too buoyant, her mind too alert and too virile to truckle to the buffets of fate. All her life, even during her tender years, her instinct had always been to guard and to protect those she cared for, to aid the weak and to shelter the foolish. There had always been her father to look after even in the days when he was hale and hearty, a tough customer, a reckless fighter, and hers was the self-imposed task to see to it that he did not get into avoidable mischief. He had always been a little foolish in his recklessness. And there was dear, faithful old Armand, too, over whom she ruled with the tyranny of tender affection. And she had kept a sharp eye on Lieutenant Darieux when he roamed about on the moor after dark and lost his way because he had been foolish enough to trust to the lure of the mischievous will-o’-the-wisp. She had saved his life then, but he had broken his word, had proved callous and ungrateful, and she took to hating and despising him — or believed that she hated and despised him whilst love which had taken possession of her from the first day that she looked on him remained strong and enduring in her heart.
And now there were just these two beloved ones left. Her father and “mon Capitaine”. She loved them both, each in his way, and both were at this moment in peril that might prove deadly if she, Follette, were not here to protect them from the consequences of their own folly.
No, no! This was not the time to indulge in self-pity and in tears. She was here now, ready to answer “Present” when loved voices called for aid and protection. To think, to act, that was Follette’s task now, her bounden duty to be performed.
To begin with, the sick man must be attended to. To call in a leech at this juncture when every circumstance connected with Captain Darieux’ present condition was wrapped in mystery, and must so remain, was out of the question. Nor was there any necessity for it. Follette had vast experience of so-called broken heads in this district where quarrels always ended in fisticuffs. She knew what to do, knew how to dress wounds, how to treat concussion, and careful examination of the patient’s hurt had soon reassured her as to its gravity. Very slight concussion and nothing more. A matter of herbal compresses and cold water, and as much quietude and rest as possible.
Darieux lay quite still under her ministrations. Now and again he murmured her name and once or twice he captured her hand and raised it to his lips. She mixed him a soothing potion of herbs and he drank it eagerly. She was in hopes that he would soon fall into a quiet sleep. His eyes were closed but he was not asleep, for as soon as she made a movement to get to her feet he groped for her hand again, seized it and held it so tightly that she was unable to move.
“Follette,” he murmured, “you have saved my life again.”
“Is that so, mon Capitaine?” she countered flippantly.
“But my life no longer belongs to me, Follette.”
“The lives of all of us are in the hands of God... so Monsieur le Curé will tell you, bel officier.”
“But mine belongs first and foremost to the justice of my country.”
“I don’t catch your meaning, mon Capitaine,” said she. She did succeed after a short struggle in getting to her feet, and began busying herself about with the kitchen stove and the saucepans, getting her father’s breakfast ready.
Still Darieux did not open his eyes, but went on talking softly and quietly under his breath.
“You see, Follette, I have committed a crime which, as the laws of this land have decreed, is punishable by death.”
Follette ceased clattering the saucepans for a minute, gave a shrug and faced him, saying calmly:
“You? Committed a crime? You are raving, mon Capitaine.”
“I killed Gerard de Morieton. I came here through the storm and the rain determined to fight him to the death. He fell on me and...”
“And what, mon Capitaine?” she queried, for he had come to a sudden halt.
“That’s the trouble, Follette,” said he.
He opened his eyes, fixed them steadfastly on her, and making a great effort he raised himself to a sitting position on the couch.
“That is the trouble, Follette,” he reiterated. “I have not the faintest recollection of what happened after that. The whole thing is a horrible puzzle.”
“So you thought the simplest way to solve it was to decide that you committed a murder?” she commented in a tone of gentle irony.
And back she went to her stove and to her saucepans, turning her back on him.
“He rushed at me,” Darieux went on musing, “and threw me down.... I hit my head against something hard... he had me by the throat... I had my pistol... I drew it... and I heard a shot... and that’s all I can recollect until...”
“Until I heard two men talking, and they said something about finding Captain Darieux’ pistol with one chamber empty.
.. They also spoke of informing the police....”
“And on the strength of what you heard when you had not your wits about you, you tried to do away with yourself. Had I not chanced to be there..
“I would have saved my mother from the terrible disgrace of knowing that her son is a murderer.”
“A murderer? What rubbish you talk, mon Capitaine!” she said scornfully, and came to a halt in front of him, arms akimbo. “To begin with, self-defence is not murder. You are a soldier. You ought to know.”
“I am a soldier, Follette, and the Emperor’s Minister of Justice will not allow me to be tried by my superior officers, but by a civil court which holds the members of my corps of coastguards in abhorrence and will condemn me unheard.”
Follette shrugged her pretty shoulders and rejoined drily:
“It cannot do anything of the sort, seeing that Gerard de Morieton, whom you say you murdered, is probably alive, and most certainly drunk if he is alive at the present moment.”
“Follette,” he exclaimed, “it is you who are raving now. When I tell you that I held the pistol in my hand with which I killed de Morieton, that I heard the shot, and that my pistol is there with one chamber empty to prove it.”
“Your pistol is where?” she retorted.
“Two men found it on the road. They mean to inform the police...”
“And did they also find Gerard de Morieton’s body with the bullet in him which caused his death?”
“That I don’t know,” quoth he with a sigh. “Perhaps they did.”
“Well,” she concluded in her usual decisive way, “until you know, and until they do, don’t go and deprive your poor dear mother of her only son by playing about with any pistol, yours or someone else’s. Just lie down again and go to sleep. I must look after Father and give him his breakfast. I haven’t the time to listen to your nonsense. After you’ve had a good rest you can go down to the Pot d’Etain, or wherever you left your horse, and go back slowly to your quarters, where you can report yourself sick and unfit for duty. Lieutenant Praslins, who has more sense than you have, will look after you and see that you do not get into any further mischief.”
She talked just like a mother would to a naughty, unruly child.
With gentle pressure of her strong hands on his shoulders, she pushed him back against the pillows and settled his head comfortably upon them.
“And mind,” she cautioned, bending down to him and shaking an admonitory finger under his nose, “no more nonsense about murders and such rubbish in and about this house, for you’ll only bring down no end of trouble on Father and on me — yes, trouble and worry, not to say disgrace, for which I would never, never forgive you and never speak to you again.”
After which homily she allowed him to capture her hand and to raise it to his lips. She gave him a motherly pat on the cheek and with a sigh of relief returned to her household duties, which consisted, as she said, in looking after her father and getting his breakfast ready.
At what precise moment Follette conceived the plan for the protection of those she cared for she could not have told you. There certainly was a time when the two main facts stood out unequivocally before her active brain. And they were facts that had to be faced fair and square: her father had killed Gerard de Morieton, but there was no proof against him except his own word. On the other hand, Philippe Darieux believed himself to be the murderer. There had been the deadly quarrel between him and Gerard, and there was his pistol with one chamber empty already seen by two witnesses who could testify against him.
At the precise moment when she spied Darieux on the roadside with the pistol in his hand this last fact came to her in a flash: namely, that he believed himself to be a murderer and intended on that account to do away with himself. Luckily she had come in time to avert this appalling catastrophe. It was undoubtedly then that the first inkling of what she was going to do — what she must inevitably do — took shape within her mind: to save Darieux, who was innocent, and to save her father, who was guilty. On first logical reasoning it must have appeared to any sane thinker that it would be impossible to save one man without incriminating the other. Follette was a sane thinker, a logical one, but she was also a creature of impulse and of abounding will-power. While she questioned Darieux, chaffed and scolded him, her plan, still in embryo, worked round and round in her brain. Took form. Matured. By the time she had settled him down for another sleep she knew exactly how she would proceed.
An hour or so ago she had left her father lying in bed, comfortably asleep. Now she heard him moving about overhead. Quietly, methodically, she went on with her work, preparing his breakfast. Hot ale. A slice of fried ham. A hunk of bread. She laid it all out on the table in the hall. She then ran upstairs to him, found him fully dressed in his everyday clothes and almost normal in the way he greeted her.
He gave one of his habitual chuckles.
“Well, my little one,” he said with a snigger, “and what is going to be the end of all this pother?”
Follette had taken in his appearance at a glance and noted with a great feeling of satisfaction that all traces of yesterday’s drunken orgy had to a great extent been obliterated. He had evidently soused his head in cold water. His hair was still dropping tiny rivulets of moisture down his face and the back of his neck which he was engaged at the moment in mopping up with a towel.
So far so good. He showed no sign of panic nor did he appear befuddled. While he put the last finishing touches to his toilet, she started putting the room tidy: made his bed, emptied the slops, put away the clothes he had worn the day before.
“Your breakfast is quite ready, Father,” she said, after a time.
“And I have a wolfish appetite for it,” he returned glibly.
He was standing in front of the mirror at the moment, brushing his hair. Follette could see that, through the glass, his eyes were searching her face. After a moment or two he put his brushes down and turned sharply on his heel.
“You haven’t answered my question yet, little one,” he said.
“What question, Father?”
“I asked you what was going to be the end of this pother.”
She was in the act of examining his socks for a likely hole in the toe. Satisfied that there was none, she put the socks away carefully in a drawer.
“What pother?” she then queried lightly.
“Well,” he responded with a snigger, “I did kill the swine, did I not? And isn’t that enough pother for us both, I should like to know?”
Follette ceased to busy herself about the room, stood up straight, arms akimbo, facing her father with a frown of complete puzzlement like two sharp cuts between her eyes.
“What on earth are you talking about?” she demanded slowly, measuring every word.
Then as he remained silent, staring at her with an expression of bewilderment as great as hers, she went on:
“Is this some joke, or what?”
He gave a chuckle and a kind of foolish giggle.
“It wasn’t much of a joke burying that ruffian in the middle of the night, was it? We were pretty much done for, both of us, weren’t we?”
Follette’s frown deepened. She went up to her father, gripped his arm and gave him a good shake.
“Look here, petit pére,” she said sternly, “you cannot have been drinking at this early hour. You are not drunk, so gather your wits together and give up talking nonsense.”
“And you give up talking inanities. You are not going to tell me that you and I did not bury that dirty blackguard Gerard de Morieton down in the larch plantation, that we did not dig his grave and cover him over with sod, so as to give him no chance of rising up again before the judgment day? You are not going to say that we did nothing of the sort? I have had no end of trouble getting the dirt away from under my finger-nails.” Follette shrugged and gave a short laugh.
“I’m pleased to know, petit pere, that you have given your nails a good brushing. And now,” she went on decisively, “enough of all this rubbish. You have been dreaming, that’s what it is. Now come and have your breakfast.” And she turned in the direction of the door. He called out to her: “Follette!”
“Well, what is it?”
“What makes you say that I have been dreaming when you know quite well... quite well,” he emphasized, “that I did kill that swine, that I shot him dead with the pistol with which he meant to do for me. And that you and I carried his carcase down to the larch plantation and there buried him? What makes you say, then, that I have been dreaming?”
She went back, quite close to him, placed her two hands upon his shoulders, stared him unflinchingly in the eyes and said with slow emphasis:
“Because you did not kill Gerard de Morieton, nor did I help you to bury him, seeing that Gerard de Morieton is alive at this moment and on his way to Cabourg. That’s why.”
“Follette,” the old man exclaimed with scornful composure, “that’s a lie.”
“The truth, petit pere,” she rejoined drily. “I saw him on his way “Cabourg?” he murmured, really like a man in a dream. “You saw him on his way to Cabourg?”
He paused a moment, blinked his eyes and shook his head with perplexity.
“Why should he go to Cabourg,” he muttered to himself, “at that time of night? In the pouring rain too? Now if you had said Cremieux..”
Follette gave another shrug.
“How should I know? Business, I suppose. He didn’t say. You know what he is. Comes and goes and says nothing to nobody.”
“But... your marriage...”
“That’s all for the future. We’ll see about it when he comes back. Are you ever coming down to breakfast, petit pere?” she concluded lightly.
Again she made to go in the direction of the door, but it was his turn to detain her, and he did it by clutching hold of her arm and making her stand face to face with him. His eyes were fixed upon her with a swiftly changing expression, firstly of mystification, then of slowly, slowly dawning comprehension.
Yes, he was beginning to understand!
“Follette!” he cried out.
And the cry came involuntarily from his throat in a kind of wild jubilation. He paused a moment, swallowed hard, then added slowly: “And you think that you can stick to that lie?”
She did not reply. Only returned his glance. Her eyes on his. Unblinking. And slowly a smile curved around her lips and spread over the whole of her face. And Maurice de Lorgeril cried out again:
“Follette, my Follette! you are the most wonderful, the most amazing girl that God ever put on the map. Come, Follette, let’s to breakfast. My great, my astonishing, my unique Follette!”
And seizing her two hands in his own he began humming the opening bars of the bourrée. Swinging her by the arms, he threw his feet backwards and forwards and stamped them to the rhythm of the tune. His voice rose gradually. No longer did he hum the tune but sang it with a full throat and made the girl twist and turn about and about, up and down the room. Then, holding on to her waist with both hands, he swung her round and round, and round again, till, hot and panting, she cried for mercy.
“And now to breakfast!” the old man exclaimed, gasping for breath. “Come, Follette!”
And the two of them went clattering down the stairs.
It was something of a shock to find that Captain Darieux had in the meanwhile “file a l ’Anglaise”, i.e., taken French leave. Follette didn’t like the idea of losing sight of him. One never knew into what kind of a quagmire an impulsive, obstinate, self-disparaging nature might lead an innocent man. Self accusation in this case might lead to complications very difficult to combat. The success of Follette’s plan of action depended on her being first in the field of confronting the village gossips before conjectures and accusations began to fly about.
Leaving her father to finish his breakfast and taking none herself, she took bonnet and shawl and sallied forth into the open. None too soon. The gossips had lost no time. She ran down the cliff to the village and noted at once the familiar groups of old and young women congregated on the Place in front of the cottages, heads close together, arms folded under the aprons, all talking away nineteen to the dozen until she appeared coming down the cliff-side, when at once the talking ceased and heads were one and all turned up towards her. As she came nearer the groups disintegrated, some going one way, some another, all returning to their respective cottages and disappearing within doors like so many rabbits seeking their burrows till there was no one left on the Place except Maman Thibaud and Grandmere Bosseny.
At once she tackled the two arch-gossips, wishing them a cheery good day.
“Bonjour Grandmere, bonjour Maman Thibaud,” she called out gaily. “I hope you all slept well after the exciting time we had yesterday. Oh, that bourree!” she went on, pretending not to notice the covert glances exchanged by the two cronies. “I shall never forget it. I could have gone on for ever while it lasted, but afterwards — oh, how my feet ached! They ached and ached... I am sure I could never have gone home on them had not Monsieur de Morieton carried me up the cliff.”
Mamam Thibaud “Hm’d” and cleared her throat, looking shamefaced and uncomfortable.
Grandmére Bosseny said drily:
“A very good thing that was for you, Mademoiselle” (they all called her Mademoiselle now), “but not so for poor Monsieur.”
“Why not for poor Monsieur, Grandmere? And why poor Monsieur?” Follette queried blandly.
“Because,” the old woman minced, pursing her lips, “he would be here now, wouldn’t he?”
“But no, Grandmere,” Follette argued, unperturbed: “he wouldn’t, anyhow, be here I don’t expect him back from Cabourg for some days.”
Maman Thibaud swallowed a sharp cry, while Grandmere, the more self-possessed of the two, gave a kind of gasp.
“You don’t expect Monsieur... or... Monsieur...” she mumbled with a stare of amazement directed on Follette.
“Monsieur de Morieton?” Follette suggested as the old woman had come to a halt, seeking her words. “Not before the middle of next week, Grandmere.”
“He has gone to Cabourg?” Grandmere insisted, and nudged her friend on the elbow.
What does this mean? thought she. As a rule Follette knew everything that ever went on in and around the farmhouse. Was it possible that she knew nothing concerning those amazing rumours that were flying about the village ever since Antoine Evrard and Paul Colombi had spied a pistol lying in the road?
But Follette appeared completely self-possessed. Bland and unconcerned did she seem. How could she be so calm and so natural if the man to whom she was affianced but a few hours ago had been murdered in the night by the jealous rival in her affections? Hark at her now! She was chattering away as gaily as a linnet about all sorts of things. The storm:
“Wasn’t it awful?” she sighed. “The heavy rain broke down some pot-roses I was so fond of. We’ve had lots of storms this year, haven’t we? More than usual, I think. But last night was one of the worst we have had to my idea.”
“Funny Monsieur de Morieton going off like that in the middle of it,” Grandmere remarked pointedly.
“Father and I wanted him to wait till it was over. But he is funny, you know. He makes up his mind to a thing and nothing will do but he must have his way.”
And so she rattled on, till the two gossips felt quite bewildered and knew not what to say. She kept talking about Cabourg and Monsieur le Maire and the lawyer there who was a friend of Gerard de Morieton.
“He never talked about Cabourg before,” Maman Thibaud put in when Grandmere appeared wrapped in meditation, her eyes roaming over the girl’s frank and open countenance, “or about his friend the lawyer, or Monsieur le Maire.”
“Why, no,” Follette countered artlessly, “he had no occasion to trouble about Monsieur le Maire or a lawyer before. Had he?”
She paused a moment, gave a furtive wink which threw Grandmere nearly off her balance with amazement and concluded with an affected little laugh.
“He was not getting married before, was he? Not to my knowledge, anyhow.”
Did you ever hear the like?
“Oh!” came involuntarily from the pursed-up lips of the old gossip. And she too gave a constrained little laugh which the other woman echoed. Blandness for blandness, thought she. I too can play at that game, look unknowing and innocent.
“And Monsieur de Morieton,” said she slyly, “is getting married. Of course we all know that.”
“Of course you do, Grandmere. Weren’t we affianced yesterday, before you all?”
“And when is the wedding to be, Mademoiselle?” then interposed a voice which had not yet made itself heard.
While the two old women had thus been catechizing Follette, the rabbits had one by one come out of their burrows. This was too good an opportunity for gossip and scandal, and gradually a small group of quidnuncs, female for the most part, had gathered together, listening open-mouthed to the colloquy that was going on. Rumour had, it seems, found its way into one or two of the burrows. Antoine Evrard and Paul Colombi had found a pistol which had been worn by Captain Darieux of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards the day before.... He and Gigot de Morieton had quarrelled... and a pistol-shot had been heard at a late hour of the night.... Both the men had disappeared.... one of them had been murdered.... The question was, which one?... Rumour was not precise on that point. One wanted to know what truth there was in it all. One had to know.
“When is the wedding to be?” echoed another voice.
Follette shrugged, let her laughing eyes travel over the inquisitorial faces before her before she gave answer.
“That’ll depend,” she said drily.
“Oh! I hope it won’t be long,” one of the women put in insinuatingly. “The girls and boys are so looking forward to the wedding-day. Another feast and dance like yesterday.”
“Well, we’ll see! We’ll see!” Follette returned. “Time enough to think about dancing when Monsieur de Morieton comes back from Cabourg.”
“He went late last night, didn’t he? In spite of the storm?” This from Grandmere, who didn’t approve of another spokesman while she was present.
“The storm was just going over..” quoth Follette. “It must have been about eight o’clock.”
“Some of us heard a pistol-shot just about then. Didn’t you hear it, Mademoiselle?”
“No! A pistol-shot did you say?”
“Something uncommonly like it.”
“And you all heard it?”
The quidnuncs shook their heads, and one or two remarked: “Some of us did.”
“I wonder where it came from then. Father and I and Monsieur de Morieton were in the yard about that time. We were seeing Monsieur de Morieton off. He had left his horse with us.... No,” Follette reiterated, shaking her curls, “we didn’t hear anything.”
There was a general pause in the conversation after that until Follette appeared suddenly to recollect that she had other matters to attend to, besides standing about and listening to gossip.
“Mon Dieu!” she exclaimed. “I was forgetting that I have nothing much for Father’s dinner. I had promised him a nice sheep’s heart done en papiliote, with plenty of onion sauce. He loves that. But if I get to the butcher’s too late... Oh hey! no sheep’s heart for Papa today.... Au revoir, Grandmere... au revoir, Maman Thibaud....”
She waved her little hand in farewell to the company in general and was already half-way up the side of the cliff. They could hear her humming her favourite tune:
“Sur le pont d’Avignon...”
And soon she disappeared round the side of the house.
All the quidnuncs, male and female, were flabbergasted. Did you ever hear or see anything like it? Her fiance had been murdered... or done away with somehow... anyhow, he had vanished, and she, Follette, knew nothing about it apparently. Yes — apparently. Though Grandmere shrugged and pursed her lips she was as much flabbergasted as any of the others. Nor would she condescend to a regular pronouncement. She, the village oracle, held her counsel. She would not commit herself, and there was no, “Voyons, Grandmere, what do you think of it all?” or, “Do tell us what is your opinion,” that elicited one word from her.
As a matter of fact, Grandmere had not yet formed a definite opinion in her mind. Rumours of every sort and kind had been flying about since early morning but there was nothing definite to deduce from them. Antoine Evrard and Paul Colombi had gone fishing and would not be home all day. They alone might have thrown additional light on the mystery of the pistol: the exact spot where they found it, its position when found lying on the road. And had they really failed to spy anyone about at that early hour? Neither Gigot de Morieton nor Captain Darieux? And it was no use questioning Pierre, for Pierre was always silent when matters relating to the farmhouse or its inmates were discussed.
Antoine Evrard had picked it up and recognized it as being the one worn by Captain Darieux yesterday. After a short argument he and Paul Colombi decided to leave the thing on the road, where they had originally come across it. Better keep out of the whole business. Antoine was very strongly of opinion that they would be fools to meddle with the police and lose ever so many days’ work hanging about being interrogated, badgered, worried to death. So they left the pistol lying in the road and went their way.
Evrard, who was a good son and had a kind mother, imparted the story of the pistol to her under promise of secrecy, and then went out fishing as usual. Colombi, on the other hand, said nothing to anybody. Madame Evrard kept her promise, no doubt, or meant to; certain it is that the fact leaked out in the way village rumours have a way of doing. Anyhow, it came to the ears of Grandmere Bosseny, who made use of it in the manner already recorded. She had a wonderful way of putting two and two together, had the old gossip. “And,” concluded she, “they will always make four if one thinks things out logically.” And this she seemingly did, and decided that when two men — neither of them sober probably — started fighting, there was no knowing which of them would become possessed of the pistol in the end, who would discharge it, and which of the two would then be the slayer and which the victim.
And this goes to prove that even oracles may at times be flabbergasted, and also that two and two will not always make an indisputable four even when one thought things out logically as oracles usually do.
Would any man or woman knowing the true facts of the case have condemned Follette for what she had done in order to save her father from the consequence of his crime? Condemned her for the lies which she told, and went on telling till the truth was completely obscured, and she had by dint of constant repetition imposed her falsehoods on all who chose to listen to her? Who shall say? Let it be stated at once that all the villagers and fisher-folk who formed the population of the district were only too willing to believe what she said. She was popular, her father was greatly respected, for he was rich now and open-handed, and the times were not yet so far distant when the seigneur lorded it over the humble folk and imposed his will and his views upon all those who were dependent on him for their subsistence.
And these villagers and fisher-folk who dwelt on this coast between Cabourg and Arromanches were just simple-minded children, who lived in constant communion with the forces of nature, and were witnesses to God’s justice and to His mercy. Their object in life was to do what seemed to them right, to act in accordance with their lights, even though they kept the light of their rectitude burning rather dim. They were not wise in their own conceits. Had they been told the truth about what happened on that fateful night they would never have condemned Follette for what she had done. Her father was guilty of a crime before the laws of men, a crime which was punishable by a shameful death. Follette had saved him from that by inventing a deliberate lie. Who shall blame her for that? Surely not these simple folk to whom love of father and mother was second in point of duty to love of God.
But no one did know what had actually happened. What was conjectured and guessed at was nowhere near the truth. In the minds of all and sundry in the district guilt lay between two men:
Gigot de Morieton and Captain Darieux. One had killed the other, so it was thought... at first. Logically this was the only possible solution of the mystery that hung over the affair. But Mademoiselle Follette’s story was a different one. It pointed to the fact that there had been no murder and that both men were alive. Her fiance, Monsieur de Morieton (still spoken of as Gigot de Morieton), was getting to horse at the very time when a pistol-shot was said to have been heard down in La Grande. (Be it remembered that a storm outside and music in the barn were going on at the same time and that only one or two persons averred that they had heard the shot.) He had then said farewell to Monsieur le Comte and to Mademoiselle and ridden off in the direction of Cabourg.
Captain Darieux, on the other hand, was back at his quarters, suffering from a crack on the head, not a very serious one seemingly. Pierre, the cowman at the farmhouse, had helped Mademoiselle to carry him into the house. He was unconscious then, but otherwise uninjured.
Then again there was the question of the pistol which Antoine Evrard and Paul Colombi had found lying on the road. This pistol had disappeared since the two men had picked it up. They had stated at first, both of them, that it was one which Captain Darieux had worn in his belt during the festivities in La Grande, and that one of the chambers was empty. But no one else had seen that pistol except these two. Then where was it now? What had those two fellows done with it?
Antoine Evrard and Paul Colombi were for a time the heroes of the hour, because they had actually handled the pistol — whose ever it was — and knowing, as it were, more about the affair than anyone else. They had in fact the time of their lives. They were out fishing the whole of the day following the eventful evening, but after they came home, and when they entered the Pot d’Etain, they were greeted with loud cheers and at once plied with mugs of cider and subsequently with a bowl of punch just to loosen their tongues. The whole of that evening and the day and evening that followed they were listened to open-mouthed while they told and retold their story of how they had come across a pistol on the cliff road, had picked it up and examined it and ascertained that one of its chambers was empty and the other still loaded. To suppose that these simple facts were stated and restated without the introduction of some fresh — usually thrilling — detail would be to underrate the imaginative powers of Antoine Evrard and his friend Colombi. They felt their position keenly as heroes of the hour, and desired to retain the same in view of the emoluments in the way of drinks and so on attached thereon. But the time came when their imaginative powers gave out, when, tired out by questions and cross-questionings, they no longer could enlarge upon their tale, which they felt was becoming stale.
And presently, it was during the evening hours, someone said something about the Commissary of Police and asked if Antoine and Paul had as yet received their summons to appear before him and retail to him the story of the pistol from the moment when first they had knocked against it with their boots, and what subsequently they had done with it.
“Surely you’ll get your summons tomorrow,” said Grandmere, who always knew everything and always put two and two together, logically making it come to four.
“Monsieur le Commissaire will want to know what you’ve done with the pistol,” Maman Thibaud added in corroboration of the older woman’s assurance.
Silence fell over the assembly at this point, while all eyes were fixed enquiringly on Antoine and his friend.
And Grandmere, with arms akimbo and her nose well up in the air, demanded authoritatively, just as if she were the Commissary of Police herself:
“As a matter of fact, what did you do with the pistol, Antoine Evrard?”
Antoine looked at her blankly, but said nothing. So she went on, turning her inquisitorial glance on Paul Colombi:
“And you, Paul?”
Then, as Paul also remained mute and stared vacantly before him, Grandmere continued sternly:
“Have you both lost your tongues? They were glib enough before.”
A murmur not altogether favourable to the whilom heroes went round the assembly. Many nods of approval were directed on Grandmere Bosseny’s assumption of authority.
This was altogether more than Antoine’s flesh and blood could stand. He had at the very first declared to his friend that he did not want to have anything to do with the whole affair. Paul was for informing the police of their find at once, but Antoine had said “No.” He didn’t want to be hauled up before the Commissary of Police or — heaven help him! — before the Juge d’Instruction, to be badgered and bullied, questioned and cross-questioned and days of work wasted just when the time was coming on for mackerel-fishing, a thing he had never missed since he was breeched and his father took him out with him to the Irish coast. But somehow Paul did not hold his tongue. He did not go to the police, having a wholesome horror of them himself, but he did blurt the story out in the first buvette where he and Antoine had gone after their fateful find for their morning drink.
And now the prestige which both men had acquired and had retained for two whole days and evenings was all at once gone by the board through that old woman’s interference. The evening closed on a note of sullenness on the part of the whilom heroes, and of discomfort, not to say suspicion, on the part of the assembly.
But there was worse to come, for as Grandmere had foretold, Antoine Evrard and Paul Colombi were summoned the very next day to appear before the Commissary of Police of Cremieux on a report sent in by the local police of Saint-Victor, in order to give an account of what had actually happened on that eventful morning. How it subsequently transpired — and it certainly did — that the two men did not come very brilliantly out of the ordeal will never be known. Somebody must have talked. Certain it is that Antoine and Paul were taken very severely to task by Monsieur le Commissaire for their neglect in informing the police immediately of their find.
Monsieur le Commissaire insisted on the word, ‘immediately’, and reproved them unrelentingly for this dereliction of duty. Antoine and Paul, dumbfounded and seriously upset by being taken to task over this matter, became embroiled in their narrative. One man contradicted the other. They nearly came to blows at one time, until it appeared doubtful to Monsieur le Commissaire whether there had been any pistol at all. The fact of the pistol having disappeared was in his view a distinct proof that the men were lying, until Antoine and Paul, after two hours’ quarrelling, began to feel that they themselves were being accused of having murdered Gigot de Morieton — or whatever his name was — or Captain Darieux, or both, and deliberately hidden away the proof of their guilt.
They left the presence of Monsieur le Commissaire in a state bordering on collapse.
So much for the only witness of this mysterious affair. Follette and her father, both of whom were in their turn requested to appear — not summoned, mind you — before Monsieur le Commissaire, were entirely self-possessed, clear and succinct in their account of what took place in the farmhouse that evening. Mademoiselle de Lorgeril’s word could not, of course, be doubted, and with smiling face and becoming blushes she described how her fiance, Monsieur Gerard de Morieton, had gone to Cabourg to make final arrangements with a friend of his who was a lawyer for his subsequent marriage to herself. This statement was corroborated by Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril. On Monsieur le Commissaire remarking — always with deep respect for Monsieur le Comte and Mademoiselle — that he thought it strange that Monsieur de Morieton should have chosen the middle of the night — and a stormy one at that — for his journey to Cabourg, Follette, with one of her most engaging little laughs, retorted that that was unfortunately Monsieur de Morieton’s way. He had made up his mind some days ago that he would go to Cabourg and see his friend the lawyer after the festivities at La Grande had come to a close and not before.
“And,” Follette went on with a shrug of her pretty shoulders, “once Monsieur de Morieton makes up his mind to a particular course of action nothing will move him; neither storm, nor deluges of rain, not even an earthquake,” she concluded, and looked Monsieur le Commissaire straight in the eyes with such an ingenuous, artless glance that he would have been a boor or a curmudgeon indeed had he badgered that charming young lady any further. Moreover, he did know as a fact, which had been brought to his notice before now, that Monsieur de Morieton’s comings and goings were always of an unforeseen, mostly mysterious, kind.
He therefore thanked Monsieur le Comte and Mademoiselle profusely for their gracious attendance and for the patience and forbearance with which they had answered his questions. He hoped that Monsieur le Comte and Mademoiselle understood that in thus taking up their valuable time he had obeyed the dictates of his duty as Commissary of Police, and so on and so on. He was both apologetic and obsequious, as was only to be expected under these trying circumstances, and as was due to such exalted personages as Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril and Mademoiselle his daughter.
The interview ended on a very cheerful note when Mademoiselle graciously allowed Monsieur le Commissaire to kiss her hand and took the opportunity of informing him that she would certainly be driving herself to Cabourg in the course of a day or two to meet Monsieur de Morieton, who would no doubt be vastly entertained when he heard that the whole district had been agog under the impression that he had either murdered Captain Darieux or been murdered by him.
After that entirely satisfactory interview, details of which — more or less accurately retold — found their way on the wings of rumour to the surrounding district, Grandmere Bosseny had a lot to say about the affair. Maman Thibaud and the other cronies listened to her open-mouthed on autumnal evenings, sitting about on the beach mending and spreading the nets, while the old oracle prophesied that something definite would of a certainty transpire that would give the clue to all the mystery. What that something would be, she refused to say, not wishing to jeopardize her prestige as infallible soothsayer. As a matter of fact nothing did transpire. Friends and relations of Monsieur le Commissaire de Police of Cremieux, or of his staff, were plied with questions by those who were intimate enough with them to venture on such a course, but nothing ever came of these questionings. The local police as a body, including their wives, their sisters and their aunts, either knew nothing or had been commanded to hold their tongues. Just for a time a certain excitement was created when Jules Grossi, the carpenter from Arromanches, declared that he had seen Gigot de Morieton in the bar of the Trois Pigeons at Cabourg, drunk as usual, in the company of the most disreputable crowd in the city. Aye, and he stuck to his story, too, and enlarged upon it, seeing that with every new version thereof told by him with much gusto and picturesque flow of language his drinks were paid for by the quidnuncs who delighted in such tales, and subsequently retold them to others as eager for gossip as they were themselves.
Then there was Maria Bernoni, the wife of Casimir the wheelwright from Cremieux, who would have it that when last she was in Cabourg she saw Mademoiselle Follette in the company of Gigot de Morieton. They were standing in front of a jeweller’s shop window and Maria heard Mademoiselle say that nothing short of a diamond ring would please her.
But as a matter of fact both these tales lacked authenticity. Summoned to appear before Monsieur le Commissaire, they refused to repeat their story on oath. As a matter of fact neither Grossi from Arromanches nor Maria Bernoni from Cremieux had long been resident in the neighbourhood, nor had they known Gigot de Morieton personally. Nor was the truth ever known, in spite of rumours and reports which grew in variety as the autumn wore on. It was a dark, dismal autumn, rainy and foggy. September and October went by with rain and sleet alternating with north-westerly gales and easterly winds, which presently brought frost o’ nights and foreshadowed the near approach of winter. The hollow places on the marsh glistened with ice on moonlit nights and the dampness of early autumn turned to rime under cold blasts which were unpleasant, yet never seemed to drive the fogs away.
The evenings lengthened and were chilly. Children got colds in the head and old people suffered from bronchitis. Everyone, even the most inveterate gossips, were chary of leaving their own firesides, nor did the mornings with their alternating gales and frosts lure the habitual cronies to friendly gatherings outside cottage doors. By the time November drew to its close and preparations for the boats to be leaving for mackerel-fishing were being set on foot, by the time the last belated blackbird had piped his last from the old ilex tree behind the farmhouse, gossip anent the local mystery, as it was always called, died down for want of fresh rumours to feed it.
Then one evening — it happened to be the feast of Saint Andrew — the appearance in the roadstead above Cabourg of an English lugger turned everyone’s thoughts back to the days when illicit goods were being brought inshore at dead of night, and casks of brandy found their way out from the Rochers de Calvados to the ship lying in wait for them. The lugger only bided in the roadstead during the hours of the night, after which she vanished under cover of the morning mist.
But there were those who declared that Mademoiselle Follette had been seen late in the evening on her pony, riding hell-for-leather, as she had been wont to do, in the direction of the river mouth. It was at the river mouth that she kept her boat, and the river mouth was the loneliest spot on the coast and the English lugger had chosen a night as dark as pitch for biding in French waters.
For a time then gossip revived but it took an altogether different turn. Gigot de Morieton, so the cronies averred, now had, as had been his wont, gone with the wind; gone to England no doubt in order to carry on the trade which had enriched him and turned Papa Ribot into a grand seigneur, Comte de Lorgeril. Gone with the wind, that had always been his way, at dead of night, in absolute secrecy, unknown, unseen by anyone save Mademoiselle Follette, who had the eyes of a cat for seeing in the dark and who had rowed him out to the English lugger and seen him aboard thereon as she had done in the past. Would he come back with the tide as he had so often done, and as secretly as before, bringing with him great wealth, the provenance of which was as mysterious as his comings and goings? And would his long projected marriage with Mademoiselle Follette then take place, say at the New Year? Who would dare tell, seeing that prophecies had invariably proved deceptive and had put the oracles to shame?
Follette, plied with questions, would smile enigmatically, shrug her plump shoulders and either laugh outright under the very nose of the inquisitors, or run away with a final, “Qui vivra verra!” flung at them as she breasted the cliff. “Who lives will see!” the cronies echoed in their discontent. See what? See Mademoiselle de Lorgeril an old maid, if Gigot de Morieton jilted her in the end? — for there was no one else who would court her after such a scandal. She was too wayward, the gossips declared, too self-willed, too much of a fly-by-night, a regular will-o’-the-wisp for appearing and disappearing in the darkness of the night. All very well for that dissolute Gigot de Morieton, she would keep him in order, but certainly not a wife for a sane, sensible man, whether aristocrat or commoner.
Of Captain Darieux little was said, and very little was known. After the episode which had nearly involved him in a charge of murder, his personality seemed to fade out of the ken of the village and fisher-folk. At any rate for a time. It was revived when the English lugger appeared in the roadstead in the old familiar way, and there was talk of a raid of coast-guards on the beach and along the coast. But the lugger came and went and the distinguished corps of the Emperor’s coast-guards was not to be seen patrolling the shore or ferreting about in the old places where smuggled goods had erstwhile been concealed. Enquiries set on foot by pryers eager for information elicited the fact that the corps had been greatly reduced in number and its officers had been drafted into the regular army.
During this long while the population of outlying French provinces had no notion of the debacle that had overcome and very nearly annihilated Napoleon’s “invincible” armies. The venal Parisian press, fed by subventions from the Treasury, said not a word of the disasters that had overtaken the Emperor during his enforced retreat across Europe after the supreme cataclysm of the Russian campaign. Minor skirmishes ending in insignificant victories were blazoned and trumpeted throughout the country as a proof of the indomitable valour of the French army and the genius of its imperial chief. Not a word was bruited across the frontier of the allied forces crossing the Rhine or penetrating into Holland, not a hint that Blucher at the head of the Silesian army had resolved to carry on the war until he had accomplished the invasion of France.
As soon as Napoleon was back in Paris he set to work with his marvellous energy and self-confidence to resume military preparations. He sent his agents throughout the country calling on Frenchmen of all classes to rally round his standard and to respond to their Emperor’s call to renewed victories and to undying glory. So great was the prestige of his name and his personality that before many weeks were over Napoleon was ready to take the field once more at the head of an army of 350,000 men. The response, though in no way as enthusiastic as it had been after the victories of the past, fed his inordinate vanity nevertheless. Blinded by ambition, he refused to listen to counsels of prudence and conciliation urged by his most favoured generals, and the self-confidence which he displayed, coupled with the contempt with which he chose to regard the allied armies arrayed against him, was never surpassed even by himself. He appointed his wife, Marie Louise, Regent of France in his absence, and then set out to complete the conquest of the world.
Then came the overwhelming defeat of Leipzig, where Napoleon lost 50,000 men in killed, wounded and prisoners, the catastrophe coming on the top of the terrible losses incurred during the Russian campaign — a loss of 450,000 men including forty-eight generals and over 3,000 regimental officers — would to any sane man have meant nothing short of irretrievable ruin. Of the formidable army with which Napoleon had “set out to complete the conquest of the world”, there only remained less than 50,000 and of these a large percentage of young boys of foreign nationality.
But Napoleon was no longer sane. His ambition soared beyond the limits of reason. His belief in himself and in his lucky star was as firmly fixed in his brain as ever it was. Even now he would not admit that he had been defeated and returned to Paris still full of self-confidence and energy.
His arrival was greeted with enthusiasm, for such was the power of his personality that the words, “The Emperor is safe,” proclaimed by the press, drowned the whispers of suspicion in a flood of adulation. It was only the Russian winter, the enslaved press proclaimed, that had triumphed over his genius and occasioned a slight setback in his glorious march to victory.
But the time soon came when the secret could no longer be kept. Rumours that were very disquieting, not to say alarming, began to filter through from one province into another, across the frontiers over the Vosges and the Jura and the Alps, from Champagne and Savoie into Languedoc and Auvergne, that nothing short of the invasion of France would satisfy the ambition of the allied armies. Wealthy inhabitants collected their goods and chattels and made haste for Paris. Rich owners of estates and chateaux in their chariots and on their chargers, the rank and file in chaises or stage-coaches, the proletariat in waggons and market carts, and the poor in sabots or barefooted. All these with the terrified peasantry, the women and the children, encumbered the roads in an endless trail which tended towards the north. They spread the news of coming disasters, spread the report that a smashing defeat had been inflicted on the invincible army and that the star of fortune which had waited on the great Emperor through years of glory and victory was now eclipsed. Foreign armies had set foot on the sacred soil of France and had forced the mighty Emperor to flee before his enemies who were bent on putting him to death. He had, it was averred, taken refuge in Rheims. Where Rheims was situated exactly was unknown to many, but it was somewhere up north, and thither the crowd of refugees tended, not knowing where else to go.
Thus did rumours, some true, some garbled, penetrate to isolated corners of France, even to the coast which faced north in the direction of England, even to the villages between Cabourg and Arromanches. And here it was whispered among the men in the buvettes that England was the Emperor’s most powerful enemy and that with the might of her armies and her navy she would send the Emperor into exile or mayhap put him to death and replace on his throne the Bourbon King of France.
Indeed, it must be admitted that this eventuality was discussed with a certain amount of satisfaction in Saint-Victor and Saint-Lys, because here the villagers and fisher-folk knew very well that the political opinions of Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril tended in that direction. Now Monsieur le Comte, be it said, being the owner of all the land from Cabourg to Arromanches, of the moorland and the forests to the east and the west and to the south, was the overlord and patron of the population for miles and miles around his chateau of Lorgeril, and under his patronage the working people, peasants as well as fisher-folk and their families, were extremely comfortable. There was always plenty of food for the children, for the old people and invalids. All one had to do was to go up to the chateau and put one’s case before Monsieur le Comte or Mademoiselle Follette and help in time of trouble would always be forthcoming. Just as in the olden days one used to go to Papa Ribot’s back shop and there buy warm clothing for the kiddies or a bit of tobacco for father, so one went nowadays up to the chateau, where there would always be something to satisfy one’s needs. Sometimes — very rarely — it would only be a kind word of encouragement or a promise for the future, but this sympathy which one felt to be real was enough to ease a heart-ache or anxiety for the future. As was only natural — except in a very few cases of hard-hearted dissatisfaction or perhaps envy — the good folk were quite willing to imbibe the political opinions of Monsieur le Comte and Mademoiselle Follette. They were both so good and so generous that their opinions must also be equally good and generous. It was pretty well known by now that Monsieur le Comte had spent the best years of his life fighting for Louis XVIII, who was, it seems, by the grace of God, the rightful King of France. He had sacrificed his substance and jeopardized his health in this cause which he held to be sacred. All the old stories of the civil war of La Vendee and the horrors of the Chouan guerillas were revived and retold when Monsieur le Comte or Mademoiselle spoke of those exciting times, which they did of an evening on the beach or inside La Grande. A crowd would then collect to listen to them, breathlessly attentive, and many there were who felt a glow of loyalty for the King warm up their blood and inflame their imagination.
And in all these turmoils, both local and political, the mystery of Gigot de Morieton’s continued absence — his disappearance in fact — was gradually allowed to fall into oblivion. There were so many other things to gossip about. The restoration of the chateau to its former splendour — a splendour known to the older inhabitants of Saint-Victor and Saint Lys, Grandmere Bosseny and her cronies — workmen recruited from Cremieux, some even from Caen, were at work week by week, month by month, repairing, plastering, plumbing, painting, all under the personal supervision of Monsieur le Comte and Mademoiselle Follette. Mademoiselle took a great interest in all these works, principally in the garden and in the painting and decorating of the rooms, and from this it was argued that she was apparently resolved to continue to live in the chateau after her marriage — when and if that great event took place some time in the coming year.
It appeared that the extent of Monsieur le Comte’s landed estate was far greater than anyone had ever supposed — even though Grandmere Bosseny and also Maman Thibaud declared that they knew all about that, had known it all along, that not only the villages all along the coast from Cabourg to Arromanches, but the whole of the moorland to the east and the extensive forests to the south of the moor were part of the inheritance of Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril. Anyway, lawyers came down from Caen, and even a great gentleman from Paris, who was said to be a judge or a Minister of State; and there were talks and conferences with these important gentlemen both in Cremieux and in Cabourg, and there were documents with great seals attached to them which some of the workmen and some of the villagers had seen in the hands of Monsieur le Comte. And news filtered through from the Collines de Normandie that a great number of the forest trees there had been cut down by order of Monsieur le Comte, to whom a large sum of money had been paid for them. All of which went to prove two things; firstly that Monsieur le Comte was indeed the owner of a very large estate, which extended over the greater part of the department of Calvados, and secondly that he was just as rich now as he had been when Gigot de Mouton provided him with money, obtained, as everyone had always suspected, through the agency of the devil.
The only thing that gossips did not know, never would know probably, was that the large sums obtained by Monsieur le Comte for the sale of his woods and of some of his lands went to swell the coffers of the ever-growing organization of the Royalists, all making ready to take up arms against the Emperor and to fight for the restoration of the rightful King of France.
For Captain Darieux the year that was now drawing to its close had been one of unspeakable anguish. Never in his life could he have believed that he would be made to suffer such excruciating mental torture. In spite of all that Follette had so definitely asserted, in spite of everything that was said in the villages and in the buvettes, in Cabourg and in Cremieux, he was obsessed with the firm belief that he had in fact killed Gerard de Morieton, that he was a murderer in the sight of God, and would be so in the sight of man as soon as some hitherto unforeseen circumstance, a caprice of destiny, any incident, however slight, revealed what he believed to be the truth. And the conviction had taken definite possession of his mind that such a circumstance or incident would inevitably occur sooner or later.
For more than a year now he had been brooding over this. Left entirely to himself, without companionship, without a friend in the world, he was left to meditate in solitude over the cruelty of fate which had plunged him into an agony of remorse over a crime which he had committed in complete unconsciousness. He no longer contemplated suicide. Follette had stayed his hand when he had envisaged death as the only solution of his harrowing problem. Visions of his sorrowing mother and sister haunted him then and Follette had found the right words wherewith to make him understand that thoughts of those two lonely women, who loved him and whose sole support in life he now was, must dominate impulse to put his own troubles behind him by an act of cowardice. Follette had stayed his hand and put heart into him. While the sound of her dear voice still rang in his ears, he had taken comfort and hope in what she declared to be the truth. Gerard de Morieton lived, had gone to Cabourg to make arrangements for his marriage. He would soon be back....
But time went on and Gerard de Morieton did not return. He faded out as he undoubtedly had often done before. But his continued absence, Follette’s often febrile gaiety, and the absence of any preparation in the Chateau de Lorgeril for the promised wedding, set Darieux wondering what so much mystery round the personality of Morieton could possibly mean, and turned the workings of his mind back to its morbid thoughts. Weeks and months of loneliness did the rest.
He would not allow his mind to dwell on Follette. His love for her was greater because more selfless than it had ever been. When he thought of the present or of the future it was not his own future that troubled him; but hers, her happiness, her peace of mind now that she was free from the bondage of that devil incarnate who had brought her father down to moral degradation and changed her simple, childlike nature into a kind of false gaiety. Darieux had not spoken to her since that morning when she had seized his hand and saved him from suicide, and had told the lie which should have dissipated his doubts as to his guilt in the death of Gerard de Morieton.
He had made his quarters sometimes in Cabourg, sometimes in Arromanches or as far as Cremieux, and seldom rode down into Saint-Victor or Saint-Lys. When he did he nearly always saw her in the distance on her pony, or pulling out to sea in the old dinghy, as he used to do in the past, but he never approached her. Her hatred of him during the weeks and months that preceded the feast of La Grande had been so pronounced that the mere fact of having danced with him once on that occasion could not all in a moment have turned hatred into friendship. He had not set foot since then in Chateau Lorgeril. He no longer haunted its purlieus as he had done those of the old farmhouse. He did not join the crowd of village-and fisher-folk when they assembled on the beach in order to listen to Monsieur le Comte and to Mademoiselle when they spoke of La Vendee and of the rightful King of France. But from the rear of the crowd, unseen by her, he would look on her, feed his soul on the sight of her, on her eyes. now no longer sparkling with childish gaiety, her lips so seldom parted now in a smile. Oh, she was changed, changed! But he! Her hatred of him made no difference in his love for her. She still was, always would be, a part of his very being. How could he order his life in the future now that the last glimmer of hope of ever winning her had died out on that fateful August morning when he had stained his soul with a crime — unconscious or premeditated — he knew not which? Until that hour he had clung to hope... clung to it desperately... but now...
His friend de Praslins had long since been transferred to other activities, whilst he, Darieux, had begged, and begged, till he was sick in heart and body, that he might be drafted into the new army, be allowed to give up his military rank and to fight shoulder to shoulder with the herd of peasants and villagers, with the Henris and Antoines and Pierres, all those who had come forward at the latest call to arms, and with them to fight the enemy until he was down on his knees suing for peace, and compelled to retreat, broken and defeated, beyond the frontiers of France.
But either by design or merely by fortuitous circumstance his petitions were disregarded by the Minister of War. It was not until well into the New Year that a reply was vouchsafed to him. He was ordered to start a recruiting campaign in all the departments along the coast of Normandy. The Emperor was organizing a new army. 350,000 men at least would be wanted. The coast must furnish not less than 3,000 of these. Captain Darieux must recruit them and quickly too. No time must be wasted. He knew the coast, knew most of the folk probably. He must see to it. These were the orders of the Emperor, and let there be no more talk of transferring to other activities. Yes, he knew the coast and he knew the people, did Captain Philippe Darieux of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards, now disbanded. He knew them all, the villagers, the fisher-folk. The latter, especially, who formed the bulk of the population. They hated him, Darieux, hated him for all that they had been made to suffer through his interference with their livelihood: by the requisitions, by those abominable “prickers”, the destruction of their nets, by all the spying and the vexations. He had only done what was his duty, but they hated him for all that. And he was being ordered to talk to them, to persuade them to join the Emperor’s new army, to throw up their livelihood and go and fight a lot of foreigners in some distant country far from their children and their homes. Not for a moment would they listen to him. Insult him and his uniform, aye! and the Emperor too, most likely. 3,000 of them? 3,000 enemies of his person and of his calling.
Anyway, the land between Cabourg and Arromanches was out of the question. For one thing most of it was part of the estate belonging to Monsieur le Comte de Lorgeril, and he would pretty soon order Darieux off his property, if it were true what rumour declared to be a fact, that Monsieur le Comte had now openly thrown off his allegiance to the Emperor and was all for the restoration of the King, Louis XVIII, by the grace of God.
So Darieux’ activities were restricted to the coastal towns and villages on the further side of Cabourg and Arromanches. There was Isigny and Aure, there were even Trevieres and Bayeux at one end and Dozuli and l’Evaque and, of course Le Havre, at the other, and he rode from one commune to another, spending his days in the saddle, his nights in wayside inns, doing his duty to the Emperor from whom his heart had already withdrawn its aliegiance. The Emperor had formed the corps of coast-guards, with much flourish and outward graciousness had put its officers on a level with those of the regular army. Then he had suddenly, as it were, turned his back on them, handed them over to the civil authorities who were their avowed enemies, reduced their numbers, and jeopardized their honour and their lives. No! No! Darieux had no longer that feeling of loyalty for the man who had thus betrayed those who had served him faithfully, always under grave difficulties. He tried to do his duty while he wore the Emperor’s uniform, but his heart was not in the work. He did not transfer his allegiance — not yet — but that allegiance was no longer the end and aim of his life.
Orders from Paris grew more and more urgent. The recruiting campaign was not progressing as fast as had been expected. Darieux, torn between what he felt was still his duty and his desire to fight the enemies of France, was left to grapple alone with his perplexities, his doubt and the spectre of his visionary crime.
And nearer every day did the torrent of invasion sweep over France. The “invincible army” retreated, yielding ground step by step. Napoleon returned to Paris, summoned the National Guard to the Tuileries. He stood before them, having on his right the Empress Marie Louise, Regent of France, and on his left his young son, the King of Rome.
“Gentlemen,” he said to the officers of the Guard, “France is invaded. I go to put myself at the head of my troops, and aided by their valour I will drive the enemy beyond the frontier.”
Then taking Marie Louise’s hand in one of his and his son’s in the other, he added:
“If the enemy should threaten the capital I confide my wife and child to the National Guard.”
Early in the New Year Darieux received a letter from his mother:
My Dear Son,
It is now your duty to put every other consideration aside and come to your native Anjou, in order to protect your mother and sister who are here alone and soon will be at the mercy of the foreign invaders. They are no respecters of age or sex. We are both in grave danger. After your dear father’s death I did everything that it was possible for a woman to do to preserve intact the heritage left to you by your forbears, but I can do no more. I am old and sick. Too old to leave my home and wander north or south or east or west, as so many have done. Your dear sister Emelie is an angel of devotion, but what can two lonely women do, when the men are away fighting, and fight they must to keep the foreign armies from invading the whole of France? It is your duty to come to me, my son, and at once. I need your help and your protection. My life and that of your sister are at stake. God himself will tell you that here your first duty lies.
Your loving Mother, Emmeline Darieux.
La Trevouse, January 15th, 1814.
Sad and distressful as the letter was, it had the effect on Darieux of dissipating the anxiety and doubts that had assailed him in the past year, causing him at times unendurable agony of mind. Yes, his mother was right. God, whom he invoked in a simple, almost childlike spirit, seemed to whisper to him that she was right. His duty was first of all to his widowed mother, his first allegiance was to her. It was unthinkable that she and his young sister should be left alone and unprotected, alone to face an invading army! He rode over to Cremieux and from there sent a courier by post-chaise to Angers with a despatch announcing his early arrival to be delivered to Madame Veuve Darieux at her Chateau La Trevouse on the Loire. He then wrote a letter to the Minister of War, telling him of his mother’s letter and of her demand for his protection, demand to which he was resolved to respond immediately. He was leaving for Angers within the next twenty-four hours. He desired to relinquish the commission which he held from the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and was prepared to take the consequences which his seeming dereliction of duty would entail. And he was H.E. Monsieur le Ministre’s most humble servant, Philippe Darieux, ex-Captain of His Majesty’s corps of coast-guards.
He felt that not for years now had he been so carefree. His thoughts were no longer in a turmoil. His mind was at peace. Every doubt was set at rest, for he knew at last where his duty lay.
For the first time since weeks and months he allowed his mind to dwell on Follette; on his love for her, on the friendship which he hoped might take possession of her heart and dispel her hatred of him, even if she believed him guilty of an abominable crime. When visions of her, of her childlike smile, her laughing eyes, her dear face, her tawny hair ruffled by the wind, came to haunt his waking hours, he no longer tried to drive them away. He would go and see her, try to get a word with her — only a word perhaps — try to hold her hand only for a moment, for as long as others more favoured were allowed to do... or perhaps just a second or two longer.
It was in a curious, dreamlike state of mind that he set foot in Chateau Lorgeril. It was so altered now that he felt quite bewildered when in response to his pull on the bell a man in livery opened the front door to him, when instead of the dusty, empty, dilapidated vestibule with its broken pillars and cracked flooring he found himself in a vast entrance hall, with its marble columns and tapestries its monumental hearth and its pictures in rich gilt frames.
He gave his name to the man in livery, who, after a few moments’ absence, returned to say that Monsieur le Comte would be very happy to see Monsieur le Capitaine Darieux. And less than a minute later Monsieur le Comte appeared in person, his hands outstretched to grasp Darieux’ two hands with his old accustomed friendliness. He drew his visitor into an adjoining room, a kind of study or library, the walls of which were lined with books, a cosy fire of logs crackled in the tall chimney, the whole room was as beautifully decorated as the entrance hall.
Darieux felt as if he was dreaming. He had heard rumours of the change — this is what it was called — which had taken place in Maurice de Lorgeril, but he was of a certainty not prepared to see a man, though old and feeble to a certain extent, but nevertheless far from decrepit or rendered senile by nervous exhaustion and dissipation. Yes, Maurice de Lorgeril was certainly changed since the evil influence of Gerard de Morieton had faded out of his life, and noting this Darieux felt a sense of relief stealing into him, as if some part of his load of remorse had been lifted from his heart.
But he still felt as if nothing of this was real. This transformed chateau, this old man so changed in appearance, seemed part of a dream. He took the chair which de Lorgeril drew near to the hearth for him and heard the gentle rebuke for his long abstention from visiting the chateau. He tried to respond with equal cordiality, but there was just a little something in the old man’s manner which he could not exactly define but which vaguely disconcerted him... a look in his eyes... was it only scrutiny, or did it amount to suspicion?
After the first greetings a kind of constrained silence fell between them. Maurice had poured out a couple of glasses of his favourite old Armagnac and offered one to Darieux, who declined it. He felt ill at ease, longed to mention Follette’s name, but feared that his voice would quiver and betray the perturbed state of his mind.
De Lorgeril quietly sipped his Armagnac. After a minute or two he put his glass down, indulged in his habitual cackle and finally said in a kind of pleasant banter:
“So, mon Capitaine, you have at last made up your mind to come and see your old friends?”
“I did not venture before, Monsieur le Comte—”
“Venture?” de Lorgeril broke in glibly. “Venture? Have I not always been your friend? Aye!” he went on, “your friend even when you turned my poor old farmhouse topsy-turvy, searching for smuggled goods which were not there. Were they?” he insisted with another cackle.
“Monsieur le Comte—”
“Bah! Don’t ‘Monsieur le Comte’ me. To you and to my friends I am always Pere Ribot, and don’t forget it.”
He indulged in yet another more prolonged cackle, poured himself out a second glass of Armagnac, drank it down and then went on lightly:
“And so you are going away, mon Capitaine?”
He said this more as if he were stating a fact than asking a question.
“And for a long stay, may I ask?” he continued.
“For as long as my mother needs me,” Darieux replied.
“Ah! Then it is in order to visit Madame Veuve Darieux that you are leaving us?”
“At her desire, yes.”
“I thought that perhaps the... Emperor’s orders.. And at the words his lips curled in a sarcastic smile.
“I have thrown off my allegiance to Napoleon Bonaparte,” Darieux countered simply. “My duty now is firstly to my mother and young sister who might be in danger from the invading armies.”
And once again that curious look of scrutiny or suspicion came into the old man’s eyes. He rubbed his thin, dry hands one against the other. Smacked his lips, said, “You are sure you won’t have a sip of this excellent Armagnac?”
Darieux again declined with a smile, and de Lorgeril then rejoined lightly:
“Yes, the invading armies! And you, mon Capitaine,” he continued more earnestly, “what will be your role in your native Anjou in this final conflict which will inevitably see the overthrow of the usurper and the return of our gracious King Louis XVIII to the throne of his forbears?”
His keen eyes, deeply sunk beneath their wrinkled lids, still expressed that strangely anxious glitter which Darieux was unable to interpret. Anxious. And suspicious. But his voice, shrill and cracked as it had been in the past, had become steady and powerful even while he spoke.
“My role, Pere Ribot,” the younger man responded calmly, “will first of all be subservient to the wishes of my mother and to the protection which she has the right to demand of me, and then...”
“Yes? And then?”
“My father swore allegiance to the rightful King of France. For reasons which it is not for me to question now he chose a career for me in the service of Napoleon Bonaparte, Pere Ribot. Bonaparte,” Darieux went on earnestly, “dragged France out of the mire of revolution. We must not forget that. Those of us who swore allegiance to him did our duty to France by serving him to the best of our ability. Now that he has repudiated us and dragged France into disaster, we return to the fealty of our forbears, and serve the interests of France as well as those of our King.”
While Darieux thus made, as it were, his profession of faith, the whole expression of de Lorgeril’s face underwent a change. All the suspicion, the anxiety, even the scrutiny, faded from his eyes. They now sought those of the younger man with a look in them of warm approval and affection. Every now and then a sigh of satisfaction escaped him. He ejaculated once or twice: “Ah! Good! That is well!” and interposed, “Our King! God save him!” with wholehearted fervour.
When Darieux paused, Maurice de Lorgeril had another drink of Armagnac and rubbed his hands contentedly together, still gazing on the younger man with approving eyes. He gave a short laugh which this time was not like his usual cackle, but just an expression of light-hearted friendliness.
“I must say, my dear friend,” he said after a time, “that your frank and loyal declaration has greatly eased my mind. I was greatly troubled, you know...”
“Troubled, Pere Ribot?”
“Torn, I should say, between my desire to be true to my King in every way that lay in my power.... I mean my determination that not a single thought, I won’t say of disloyalty, for that is out of the question, but of indifference should obscure the one great purpose I have in my mind, the restoration of our King to his throne... torn, as I say, between my loyalty to my King and my love for my daughter, I was anxious my dear friend... anxious and sorely troubled....”
The subject of conversation which Darieux had both dreaded and longed to hear was suddenly on the tapis. Follette! Darieux, taken by surprise, bewildered, unaware whither the old man’s somewhat involved peroration was tending, murmured in a voice which he vainly tried to keep steady:
“Your daughter, Pere Ribot?”
“My little Follette!” Maurice echoed. “The darling of my heart, you know.... Next to my King, the most precious being on earth to me.... She loved you from the first, loved you even when she believed you false to your word of honour, when she believed that you looked down on her, were ashamed to be seen in her company—”
“Pere Ribot..” Darieux broke in like a suppliant craving for mercy.
“She loves you still... she waits for you.. waits for the happiness which can only come to her through you...”
Then as Darieux sat by silent, confused in mind, unable to put into words that which was rending his very soul with sorrow and remorse, the old man continued with an air of solemnity:
“I still await, Monsieur le Capitaine Philippe Darieux, late of the usurper’s corps of coast-guards, your request for the hand of Mademoiselle de Lorgeril, my daughter, in marriage.”
“Pere Ribot,” Darieux entreated, “for pity’s sake...”
It almost seemed as if he wanted to bend the knee and clasp his hands in prayer, so fervent was his appeal for pity.
“For pity’s sake, my friend?” Maurice ejaculated. “What in heaven’s name do you mean?”
“Aye! in heaven’s name, Pere Ribot! I am not made of wood or stone. With my very soul do I beg you to spare me. Follette loves me, you say. You await my request for her dear hand in marriage. You open before me the gates of Paradise well knowing that they are shut against me for ever....”
A flood of tears rising from his overburdened heart rose to his throat and choked his impassioned words. He had need of all his courage to swallow those bitter tears and to regain his self-control.
Pere Ribot had listened to him in astonishment first and then in complete puzzlement.
“Gates of Paradise,” he muttered, “shut against you for ever?... Nom d’un Men, whatever do you mean?”
“Pere Ribot, you know that I could never dare to ask a sweet, pure angel like Mademoiselle Follette to be my wife,” Darieux rejoined, trying hard to keep himself in check.
“And why on earth not?” Maurice countered. He paused for the fraction of a minute before he went on:
“If you are thinking of that devil Gigot...”
Once again he paused, sipped his Armagnac, glanced at Darieux, who had given a slight nod of the head, and finally said quietly and resolutely; “Gigot, my good Darieux, is dead.... Did you not know that?”
“Yes,” murmured Darieux tonelessly. “It was I who killed him.”
To his utter bewilderment Maurice de Lorgeril received this statement with a burst of prolonged laughter, in the midst of which he muttered repeatedly:
“You killed him?... You killed that old devil?... You killed... you...? Well, if that is not the most stupendous lie....”
“Pere Ribot.. Darieux protested.
But de Lorgeril was still laughing, and going on laughing, smacking his thigh with the palm of his hand; his eyes were streaming, so was his nose. He groped in his pocket for a handkerchief and mopped his face and his eyes.
“Pere Ribot,” Darieux protested again.
“Eh, what?” the old man retorted, subduing his fit of merriment with a great-effort of will. “You tell me such a palpable, such an outrageous, lie and I am not to laugh?... What should I do if I did not laugh? Call you a liar or a fool?”
“A fool and a criminal, Monsieur le Comte, but not a liar.”
“Well, I will call you a fool if that is more agreeable to you: a fool when you assert that you killed that limb of Satan... a fool since you don’t seem to know that it was I who had the privilege of performing that act of justice on a man unfit to darken this fair earth any longer.”
“You, Pere Ribot?” Darieux faltered.
“With this hand, my friend..” Maurice responded, clenching his right hand until the knuckles shone white against the wrinkled flesh. He brought his fist down with a smack upon his knee, sat silent for a few seconds while Darieux gazed on him, flabbergasted, as if on one demented.
Maurice de Lorgeril now rose.
“Come with me, mon Capitaine,”he commanded, and strode across the room. He opened the door which gave on the great hall. “Come!” he reiterated peremptorily. Darieux in his dream state obeyed, followed him into the hall, then round to the right where a long corridor, well known to him in the days when he was quartered in the old chateau, gave on the garden entrance facing the river. Maurice de Lorgeril went out into the open, never turning his head to see if Darieux did indeed keep in his wake: thus he went round the chateau over a beautifully gravelled path that cut through what had once been wild and tangled shrubbery and finally came to the stony track which led to the old farmhouse before continuing its way along the cliff.
Half-way up the stony track, where the front of the farmhouse came in sight, Maurice de Lorgeril came to a halt and pointed to that spot close to the front door which Darieux had such baneful cause to remember.
“That is the spot,” he said, “where I struck him. I followed him down the stairs, after I had heard his foul mouth speak vile words about my Follette. I followed him. I had a hatchet in my hand, for I had no firearms. I followed him, resolved to strike him dead, even though I knew him to be a strong man... and knew that my arm was feeble. Darkness had set in, and I only saw him vaguely through the gloom. It was his back that I saw, like a solid black shadow. I advanced towards him. My foot struck against something that was lying on the ground. What made me stoop for it I don’t know. But I did stoop and found that it was a pistol. I put down the hatchet and picked up the pistol. The solid black shadow that was Gerard de Morieton turned to me. I fired and he fell without a cry. I flung the pistol away from me. It fell into the road below.”
De Lorgeril paused, drawing his breath. He had spoken deliberately, quietly, every word clear and forceful. Darieux had listened motionless and struck dumb by the revelation of this crime which evidently had left no trace of remorse, or even of compunction, in the old man’s mind. He said nothing now, waiting for Maurice to speak again.
“We carried him down to the plantation behind the house, at the bottom of the rising ground. Here we buried him and with dead branches of juniper and ilex we obliterated every trace of the unhallowed grave in which he lies.”
“We?” Darieux questioned with beating heart and trembling lips.
“My cowman, Pierre, and I,” Maurice responded gravely. “He is as silent as that grave which he helped me to dig beneath the shade of the young larches. Come, mon Capitaine,” he continued, and turned back along the track towards the chateau. “Follette will be awaiting us.”
Darieux followed him, unable to speak, hardly able to think. He had been dreaming before. He was awake now. Awake to reality, to life and the very joy of living. The dark clouds of remorse and sorrow were dispelled, driven into the world of forgetfulness by de Lorgeril’s simple and decisive confession of the true facts of the case. He understood now. Understood everything. Still remembering nothing of the brain-storm which had assailed him on the fateful night, he nevertheless understood, and could at this moment have fallen on his knees and with childlike fervour have thanked God for the joyful relief which invaded his heart.
Darieux walked briskly in the wake of Maurice de Lorgeril. A few minutes later they were once more in sight of the chateau.
“You’ll find Follette on the terrace,” Maurice said with the same earnestness with which he had spoken all along. “Do not speak to her of me. She knows everything and has been the most devoted and loyal friend any mortal has ever been blessed with. She lied in order to save me from dishonour. God bless her for that lie and for the courage wherewith she stuck to it. You would not be the man I take you for if you did not appreciate her at her true worth and loved her with all your strength and with your very soul. I could not entrust her happiness to your keeping were I in any doubt on that score.”
Before Darieux could utter a word in response, making the protestation which hovered on his lips, Maurice Comte de Lorgeril had turned on his heels and disappeared down one of the winding paths in the shrubbery. Darieux continued along the way which led to the terrace.
Then Follette was in his arms.
Once again La Grande was the scene of great festivities and dancing and of merriment, while music filled the air and laughter and cries of joy rang from rafter to rafter in the old barn. Again there was feasting and drinking and speechmaking: again did the strains of la bourrée send the young folk turning, swirling, swinging their arms and legs, sent the girls’ hair rioting round, their faces hot and streaming with the exertion of the dance.
Peace had come at last. The great disturber of that priceless boon was now eating out his ambitious heart in the lonely fastness of Saint Helena. Elba had been too near, too easily accessible to his friends and adherents who placed his safety and his presence among them above the welfare of their country and the prosperity of the world. Ah, well! the anxieties, the troubles, the sorrows of the past years were over now. Waterloo had been fought and lost. Peace had come. Peace at last.
Philippe Darieux had returned to the scene of his past sorrow and of his newly found wonderful joy. And on this day of August, 1815, the betrothal of Mademoiselle de Lorgeril and Monsieur le Capitaine Darieux was celebrated in La Grande with that same light-hearted gaiety which had presided over that other betrothal three years before.
And Grandmere Bosseny nodded her head and reminded her hearers that she had known all along that this would ultimately come about. Hadn’t she always put two and two together and declared that these invariably made four?
All of which goes to prove that village oracles are always — or nearly always — right. Then who would not be a village oracle?
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