A Citizen of Calais
A Citizen of Calais
O mort, vieux Capitaine, il est temps, levons l'ancre,
Le pays nous ennuie, O mort, apparaillons!
JACQUES de WISSANT stood in his wife's boudoir. It was a strange and beautiful room, likely to linger in the memory of those who knew its strange and beautiful mistress. The walls were draped with old Persian shawls, the furniture was of red Chinese lacquer. Pale blue and faded yellow silk cushions softened the formal angularity of the wide cane-seated couch and low square chairs. There was a deep crystal bowl filled with midsummer flowering roses on the table, laden with books, by which Claire often sat long hours, reading poetry and prose written by authors of whom her husband had only vaguely heard, but of whom he definitely disapproved.
It was nine o'clock in the morning of a hot August day. The window was wide open, and there floated in from the garden, which sloped away to the edge and, indeed, over the low, crumbling cliff, fragrant salt-laden odors, dominated by the clean, sharp scent thrown from huge shrubs of red and white geraniums.
But Jacques de Wissant was unconscious, uncaring of the beauty round him, either in the room or without; and when, at last, he walked forward to the window, his face hardened as his eyes instinctively sought out the spot where, built on the edge of the great expanse of sand to the left, lay the quarters of the Submarine Flotilla. These buildings were actually on his land, and he had eagerly assented to their being placed there; yet now he would have given much—and he was a careful man—to have had them swept away, transferred to the other side of Calais. Down there, within but a few minutes' walk, dwelt Jacques de Wissant's secret foe; for the man of whom he was acutely, miserably jealous was Commander Dupré, the naval officer commanding the Submarine Station . The owner of the Pavillon de Wissant seldom entered the room where he now stood impatiently waiting for his wife, and he never did so without looking round him with distaste, and remembering with an odd, wistful feeling the room as it had been in his mother's time. Then le boudoir de Madame had reflected the tastes and simple interests of an old-fashioned, provincial lady born in the year that Louis Philippe came to the throne. The man standing there greatly preferred the room as it had been to what it was, now! Over the low marble mantelpiece, where were arranged a trophy of ancient Chinese weapons sent home by Claire de Wissant's admiral father in 1899, there had hung, in Jacques' own childhood, a large engraving of a painting by Delaroche, showing the Citizens of Calais, each with a halter round his neck, prepared for the great sacrifice. Especially prominent among them—or so the grave little boy had always secretly hugged the thought to himself—was the austere figure of his own ancestor and name-sake, that Jacques de Wissant who, according to tradition, was the first to follow Eustache de St. Pierre in the path of perilous honor.
The engraving, dethroned from its pride of place, now hung in the room where the twin daughters of the house, Clairette and Jacqueline, did their lessons with their English governess.
Clairette and Jacqueline! Jacques de Wissant's lantern-jawed, expressionless face quickened into feeling as he thought of his two little girls. They were the pride, as well as the only vivid interest and pleasure, of his life. All that he dispassionately admired in his wife was, so he sometimes told himself with satisfaction, repeated in his daughters. They had inherited their mother's look of race, her fastidiousness and refinement of bearing, while lacking—fortunately—Claire's dangerous personal beauty, her touch of eccentricity, and her discontent with life—or, rather, with the life that Jacques de Wissant, in spite of a gnawing ache and longing that nothing could still or assuage, yet found good.
Jacques de Wissant was a narrow-built man of forty-six; his clean-shaven, rather fleshy face was very pale; and on this hot August morning he was dressed in a gray frock-coat and a pale yellow waistcoat. On his wife's writing-table lay his tall hat and lemon-colored gloves.
As Mayor of Calais—a position he owed to his historic name and to his wealth—he had to perform civil marriages, and to-day, it being the eve of the Assumption, there were to be a great many weddings celebrated in the Hôtel de Ville.
Suddenly there broke on his ear the sound of a low, full voice, singing. It came from the next room, his wife's bedroom, and the mournful, passionate words of the old soldier song rang out, full of a desolate pain and sense of bitter loss:
"Je me suis engagé,
Pour l'amour d'une belle—
À cause d'un baiser
Qu'elle m'a refusé——"
and then the refrain in a minor key:
"À cause d'un baiser qu'elle m'a refusé."
He knocked twice, sharply, on his wife's door. The song broke short, and there followed a perceptible pause before he heard her say, "Come in."
Claire de Wissant was standing before a long, narrow mirror placed at right angles to a window looking straight out to sea. Her short, narrow, dark-blue skirt and long blue silk jersey silhouetted her slender figure, which remained so supple, so—so young, in spite of her twelve-year-old daughters. There was something shy and wild, untamed and yet beckoning, in the oval face, now drawn with pain and sleeplessness, in the gray, almond-shaped eyes, reddened with secret tears, and in the firm, delicately modeled mouth. She was engaged in tucking up her dark, curling hair under a gray yachting-cap, and for a few minutes she neither spoke nor looked to see who was standing in the door.
When she at last turned away from the mirror and saw her husband, the color, rushing into her pale face, caused an unbecoming flush to cover it.
"I thought it was one of the children," she said, a little breathlessly. And then she waited, assuming—or so her husband thought—an air at once of patience and of surprise which angered him. Her look of strain, of positive illness, also vaguely alarmed him. Could she be grieving so about her younger sister, Marie-Anne, the wife of an Italian officer, who was now ill of scarlet fever at Mantua? Two days ago Claire had implored him to allow her to go and nurse Marie-Anne. He had refused, not unkindly, but quite firmly. Claire's duty lay at Calais with her husband and children, not at Mantua with her sister.
As he said nothing, she again broke silence. "Well?" she said. "Is there anything you wish to tell me?"
Seeing that he still did not answer, she added: "I am lunching with Madeleine, but I shall be home by three o'clock."
Jacques de Wissant frowned. He did not like or approve of Madeleine Guiard. This summer she had hired a furnished villa close to the beach that ran below the Pavillon de Wissant, and there she often entertained the officers of the Submarine Flotilla. From her brother-in-law's point of view, this was very far from "correct" conduct on the part of a young widow.
"I suppose you are on your way to some important town function?" There was a slight, mocking smile on Claire's face. She disliked the town and the town folk, and she hated the vast old family house standing in the market-place, where she had to spend each winter.
"To-day is the fourteenth of August," said Jacques de Wissant, in his deliberate voice, "and I have a great many marriages to celebrate this morning."
"Ah, yes, of course!" Claire de Wissant spoke with the courteous indifference, the lack of interest in her husband's concerns, that she had early schooled him to endure.
But all at once there came a change in her voice, in her manner. "Why, to-day—to-day is our wedding-day! How stupid of me to forget! We must tell Jacqueline and Clairette; it will amuse them."
Jacques de Wissant came forward into the room, and, as he did so, his wife moved abruptly away from where she had been standing, thus maintaining the distance between them. But Claire de Wissant need not have been afraid; her husband had his own strict code of manners, and to this code he ever remained faithful. He had a remarkable mastery of his emotions, and he had always shown so singular a power of self-restraint that his wife, not unreasonably, sometimes doubted if he had any emotions to master, any passionate feelings to restrain. All he now did was to take a shagreen case out of his pocket and hold it out toward her.
"Claire," he said, "I have brought you, in memory of our wedding-day, a little gift which I hope you will like. It is a medallion of the children." And, as she at last came close to him, he pressed a spring and revealed a dull-gold medal on which, modeled in high relief and superposed the one on the other, were Clairette's and Jacqueline's young, delicately pure profiles.
A light came into Claire de Wissant's heavy-lidded eyes. She looked surprised and touched. She held out a hesitating hand, and Jacques de Wissant, before placing the shagreen case in it, took his wife's hand in his, and, bending rather awkwardly, kissed it lightly.
To Claire the touch of her husband's lips was hateful—so hateful, indeed, that she had to make a great effort to hide the feeling of physical repulsion which had suddenly engulfed her in certain dark recesses of memory and revolt.
"It is a charming medallion," she said hurriedly—"a work of art, Jacques; and I thank you for having thought of it! It gives me great, very great pleasure."
And then something happened which was to her so utterly unexpected that she gave a cry of pain, almost, it seemed, of fear.
As she had forced herself to look into his face, the anguish in her own sore heart unlocked the key to his, and she perceived the suffering, the dumb longing, she had never allowed herself to know were there. For the first time since her marriage,—since that wedding-day of exactly thirteen years ago,—Claire de Wissant felt pity for another than herself. She realized that her husband, like herself, was enmeshed in a web of tragic circumstance.
"Jacques!" she cried. "Oh, Jacques!" And, as she so uttered his name twice, there came a look of acute distress, and then of sudden resolution, in her face. "I wish you to know," she said, "that—that—if I were a wicked woman I should perhaps be a better wife." Thanks to the language in which she spoke, there was a play on the word—the word that in French signifies woman as well as wife.
He looked at her fixedly, but he made no comment on her strange speech. At one time—not lately, but many years ago—she had sometimes tried his patience by the odd, unreasonable things she said; and Claire, knowing that this had been so, now told herself, with quick, exultant relief, that Jacques had not understood—that he was, as she had always supposed him to be till to-day, dull and unperceptive. With a nervous smile, she turned again to her mirror, and then Jacques de Wissant, with her words ringing in his ears, left the room.
Ah, yes, he had understood! There are things that all men and all women, when tortured by jealousy, well understand, however dull, however unperceptive they may be. Jacques de Wissant believed that he was now justified in his suspicions. His wife, moved by some obscure desire for self-revelation to which he had no clue, had flung at him the truth. Yes, no doubt she could have made him happy—so little would have contented his hunger for her—had she been one of those light women of whom he sometimes heard, who from their husbands' kisses go to those of their lovers. He knew nothing of such women. The men of his race had known how to acquire honest wives, ay, and keep them so. There had never been in the de Wissant family any of those ugly scandals that stain other clans, and which are remembered over generations in French provincial towns.
At last he looked at his watch. It was still early. If he started now, at once, he would be at the Hôtel de Ville by ten o'clock, when the first of the marriages he had to celebrate that morning was timed to take place.
As he drove the five miles into the town, keeping his fine horses well in hand, Jacques de Wissant found it impossible to think of any matter but that which for the moment filled his heart to the exclusion of all else—his own relation to his wife, his wife's relation to Commander Dupré. In his distress of mind—for his wife's sudden confidence had outraged his sense of what was decent and fitting, and had increased a thousandfold his jealous misery—he went back to the past. His parents' uneventful happy married life lay spread before him retrospectively. They had been married in the good old way; that is, up to their wedding-day, they had never met save in the presence of their respective parents and relations. And yet, how devoted they had been to each other! So completely one in thought, in interest, in sympathy, that when his father died his mother had not known how to go on living. But Jacques had been difficult to please, and he was already thirty-three when he met Claire de Kergouet at her first ball. She was only seventeen, with but the promise of a beauty that was now in exquisite flower; yet he had decided, there and then, in the course of two hours, that this Demoiselle de Kergouet was alone worthy of becoming Madame Jacques de Wissant.
And, on the whole, his prudent parents had blessed his choice, for the girl was of the best Breton stock, and came of a famous naval family. It was Claire's grandfather who, at Trafalgar, when both his legs had been shattered by a shell, bade his men place him in a barrel of bran, that he might go on commanding, in the hour of defeat, to the end. She had had no dowry to speak of; but Jacques de Wissant had not allowed his parents to give the matter of Claire's fortune more than a regretful thought; indeed, he had gone further—he had "recognized" a dowry that was non-existent, to save the pride of her family.
But Claire—he could not help thinking of it to-day with a sense of bitter injury—had never seemed grateful, had never seemed to understand all that had been done for her.
In the beginning of their married life he had poured splendid gifts upon her, and, what had been far more difficult to him, within reason he had satisfied all her fantasies. But naught had availed to secure him even a semblance of that steadfast, warm affection, that sincere interest and pride in his concerns, which is all such a Frenchman as Jacques de Wissant expects, or indeed desires, of his wedded wife. Had she been such a woman, his own passion for her would have soon dulled into a reasonable, comfortable liking. But Claire's coldness, her aloofness, had kept alive his hidden fires, the more so—so ironic are the tricks that nature plays—that for many years past he had troubled her but very little with his intimate company.
And yet, not until within the last few months had Jacques de Wissant ever felt jealous of his wife. There had been times when he had been angered by the way in which her young beauty, her indefinable, mysterious charm, attracted the men who came to their house. But Claire, he had always admitted to himself, was no flirt; she was ever perfectly "correct." "Correct" was a word dear to Jacques de Wissant; it was one that he used as a synonym for great things—honor, fineness of conduct, loyalty.
And then—and then there had come a man into the slow, decorous life of the Pavillon de Wissant, and he had brought him there. How bitter it now was to look back and remember how much he had liked—liked because he had respected—Commander Dupré! He had come to hate him, and would have liked to despise him. But that he could not do. Commander Dupré was all that Jacques de Wissant had taken him to be—a brilliant officer, devoted to his profession, already noted in the service as having made an important improvement in the steering-gear of submarine craft.
True, Commander Dupré soon did not trouble him by his material presence at the Pavillon de Wissant: for a long time past the naval officer had come there only when good breeding required him to pay a formal call on his nearest neighbor and sometime host, the Mayor of Calais. But Claire saw him constantly at her sister's house, the Chalet des Dunes; and she was both too proud and too indifferent, it appeared, to her husband's view of what a young married woman's conduct should be, to conceal the fact. This openness on Claire's part was at once her husband's consolation and his opportunity for endless self-torture.
It was one o'clock, and the last of the wedding parties had left the great hall of the Calais Hôtel de Ville. Jacques de Wissant took up his hat and gloves—and then a look of annoyance came over his weary face, for he heard the swinging of a door. Probably his clerk was coming back to ask him some useless question. Jacques de Wissant always found it difficult to leave the Hôtel de Ville at the exact moment he wished to do so; for, although all the officials were afraid of the Mayor, they were far more afraid of his cold anger if business of any importance were done without his knowledge and sanction. But it was not his clerk who wished to intercept him on his way out; it was the chief of the employees in the telephone and telegraph department of the building, a forward, pushing young man whom Jacques de Wissant disliked.
"M'sieurle Maire—" The speaker stopped short, daunted by Jacques de Wissant's look of impatient fatigue. "Has M'sieur le Maire heard the news?" He gathered courage; it is always exciting to be the bearer of news, especially of bad news.
Jacques de Wissant shook his head.
"There has been an accident, M'sieur le Maire—a terrible accident! One of the submarines—they don't yet know which it is—has been struck by the Dover steamer. The craft has sunk in the fairway of the Channel, about two miles out!"
Jacques de Wissant uttered an exclamation of horror. "When did it happen?" he asked quickly.
"About half an hour ago, more or less. I said that M'sieur le Maire ought to be informed at once of such a calamity; but I was told to wait till the marriages were over."
Looking furtively at the Mayor's face, the young man regretted that he had not interrupted the weddings. There was an old feud between the municipal and the naval authorities,—there always is in a Continental port,—and the Mayor ought certainly to have been among the very first to hear the news of the disaster.
"The Admiral has only just driven by," he observed insinuatingly, "not five minutes ago—"
Jacques de Wissant shook the man off impatiently. He strode out of the hall into the street, and joined the hurrying crowd, which grew denser as it swept down the tortuous, narrow ways leading to the harbor.
The end of the pier was already roped off, only the officially privileged being allowed to go through to the spot where now stood the Admiral de Saint Vilquier, impatiently waiting for the tug that was to take him out to the scene of the disaster. He was a naval officer of the old school, that is, an aristocrat who always went to church, who called his men "my children," and who detested the republican form of government.
As Jacques de Wissant hurried up to him, he turned and stiffly saluted the Mayor of Calais. The old Admiral had no liking for Jacques de Wissant—a cold prig of a fellow, who was married to such a beautiful, such a charming woman, the daughter, too, of one of the Admiral's oldest friends—that Admiral de Kergouet with whom he had first gone to sea a matter of forty years ago. His old friend's daughter was worthy of a better fate than to be the wife of this plain, cold-blooded landsman.
"Do they yet know which of the submarines has gone down?" asked de Wissant. He was full of a burning curiosity edged with a longing and a suspense into whose secret sources he had no wish to thrust a probe.
"Yes, the news has just come in; but it isn't yet to be made public. It's the submarine Neptune that was struck—with Commander Dupré, Lieutenant Paritot, and ten men on board. They're eighteen fathoms down."
And then, hearing the other utter an inarticulate cry,—was it of horror or only of surprise?—the Admiral, moved by the Mayor's emotion, relaxed into a confidential undertone: "Poor Dupré! I had forgotten that you know him well. He has, indeed, been pursued by fate. As, of course, you are aware, he applied a short time ago to be transferred to Toulon, and his appointment is in to-day's Gazette. In fact, he was actually leaving Calais to-morrow to spend a week with his family before taking up his new command!"
Jacques de Wissant made no comment on what was to him a very surprising piece of information. He was telling himself that if this were true—and of course it was true—he had been mistaken as no man had ever been mistaken before! In a few moments his mind traversed a whole gamut of conflicting emotions, in which relief and a touch of sharp self-condemnation predominated.
The fact that Commander Dupré had applied for promotion (he supposed it to be promotion) was surely a proof that there had been nothing—that is, nothing of any consequence—between the naval officer and Claire.
There came over Jacques de Wissant, as he stood there on the pier, staring out, as all those about him and behind him were doing, at the great expanse of dark blue, foam-flecked sea, a great lightening of spirit. But, all too soon, his mind, his memory, swung back to the tragic business of the moment.
The Admiral went on, addressing himself rather than the silent man by his side. "The devil of it is," he exclaimed, "that the nearest salvage appliances are at Cherbourg! Thank God, the Ministry of Marine are alone responsible for that blunder! Dupré and his comrades have, it seems, thirty-six hours' supply of oxygen—if, indeed, they are still living, which I feel tempted to hope they are not. You see, Monsieur de Wissant, I was at Bizerta when the Lutin sank. A man doesn't want to remember two such incidents in his career."
"I suppose it isn't yet known how far the Neptune was injured?"
"No; but we shall learn something of that presently. The divers are on their way there. But—but even if the craft sustained no injury, what can they do? Ants might as well attempt to pierce a cannon-ball." He shrugged his shoulders, oppressed by the vision his homely simile had conjured up.
And then, suddenly, Jacques de Wissant bethought himself that it was most unlikely that any news of the accident could yet have reached the Chalet des Dunes, the lonely villa on the shore, where Claire was lunching with her sister; but at any moment some casual visitor from the town might come in there with the news. He told himself, uneasily, that it would be well, if possible, to save his wife from such a shock. After all, she and Dupré had been good friends; so much must be admitted—nay, he was now eager to admit it.
He touched the older man on the arm. "I should be grateful. Admiral, for the loan of your motor-car. I have just remembered that, I ought to go home for an hour. This terrible affair made me forget it; but I shall not be long—indeed, I cannot be, for there will be all sorts of arrangements to be made at the Hôtel de Ville. Of course we shall be besieged with inquiries, with messages from Paris, with telegrams——"
"My car is entirely at your disposal." The Admiral could not help feeling, even at so sad a moment as this, a little satirical amusement. Arrangements at the Hôtel de Ville, forsooth! If the end of the world were in sight, the claims of the municipality of Calais must not be neglected or forgotten.
Not till Jacques de Wissant was actually in the car did he give his instructions to the chauffeur. "Take me to the Chalet des Dunes as quickly as you can drive without danger," he said briefly. "You probably know where it is."
And then, for the first time that day, Jacques de Wissant began to feel pleasantly cool; nay, there even came over him a certain exhilaration.
He remembered with a shamed feeling of distaste his own state of mind and body that very morning. He had then been in the mood to kill Dupré—or, rather, in the mood to welcome the news of his death with fierce joy; and then, simultaneously with his discovery of how groundless had been his jealousy, he had learned the awful fact that the man whom he had wrongly accused lay out there, buried and yet alive, beneath the glistening sea that stretched out, like a great blue pall, to his right!
A bend in the road, and the sea was spread out, an opaque, glistening sheet of steel, before him. He looked out, with a feeling of melancholy and fearful curiosity, to the spot where already a swarm of craft, great and small, marked the place where the Neptune lay, eighteen fathoms deep.
He got up and touched the chauffeur on the shoulder. "Stop here," he said. "You needn't drive up to the house. I want you to turn and wait for me at the Pavillon de Wissant. Ask the servants to give you lunch. I may be half an hour, I may be an hour; but I want to get back to Calais as soon as I can."
The house looked singularly quiet and deserted, and Jacques de Wissant became vaguely uneasy. He reconsidered his plan of action. If the two sisters were alone together—as he supposed them to be—he would go in and quietly tell them what had happened. It would be making altogether too much of the matter to send for Claire; she would very properly resent it.
He pulled the rusted bell-handle. How absurd to have ironwork in such a place! There followed what seemed to him a long pause, and he rang again.
At last the door was opened by his sister-in-law, Madame Guiard, herself; and, in the midst of his own agitation and unease, he saw that there was a look of embarrassment on the face that Madeleine tried to make amiably welcoming.
"Jacques!" she exclaimed. "I had no idea that you were coming here to-day. I have sent the servants in to the town to purchase a railway time-table. Claire will have told you that I am starting for Italy to-night. Our poor Marie-Anne is worse, and I feel that it is my duty to go to her; I am thinking of driving to Boulogne."
No, Claire had not told him that Marie-Anne was worse. That, doubtless, was why she had looked so unhappy this morning. He felt hurt and angered by his wife's reserve.
"I am sure you will agree with me, Madeleine," he said stiffly—he was glad to gain a little time—"that it would not be wise for Claire to accompany you. After all, she is still quite a young woman, and poor Marie-Anne's disease is most infectious. I have ascertained, too, that there is a regular epidemic raging in Mantua."
Madeleine nodded her head. Then she turned, with an uneasy side-look at her brother-in-law, and began to lead the way down the short passage. The door of the dining-room was open; it was clear that Madeleine had just finished her luncheon.
"Isn't Claire here?" he asked, surprised. "She said she was going to lunch with you. Hasn't she been here this morning?"
"No—I mean, yes." Madame Guiard spoke confusedly. "She was here for a little while."
"But has she gone home again?"
"Well—she may be home by now, but—" She was opening the door of the little drawing-room.
It was an ugly, common-looking room, the walls hung with Turkey red and ornamented with cheap colored prints. Jacques de Wissant told himself that it was odd that Claire should like to spend so much of her time here, instead of asking her sister to join her each morning or afternoon in her own beautiful house on the cliff.
"Forgive me," he said, "but I can't stay a moment. I really came for Claire. You say I shall find her at home?" He still held his tophat and his yellow gloves in his hand.
Madeleine looked at once relieved and perplexed; but she knew the slow, sure workings of her brother-in-law's mind. If he found that his wife had not gone home, and that there was no news of her there, he would come back to the Chalet des Dunes for further information.
"No," she said at last; "Claire has not gone back to the Pavillon In fact, I know that she has gone into the town; she had something important she wished to do there."
She looked so troubled, so uncomfortable, that Jacques de Wissant leaped to the sudden conclusion that the tidings that he had been at such pains to bring had already been told.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "then I am too late! Ill news travels fast."
"Ill news?" Madeleine repeated affrightedly. "Is anything the matter? Has anything happened to one of the children? Don't keep me in suspense, Jacques—I am not coldblooded like you!"
"The children are all right," he said shortly. "But there has been, as you evidently know, an accident. The submarine Neptune has gone down." He spoke with cold acerbity. How childishly foolish of Madeleine to try and deceive him! But all women of the type to which she belonged made foolish mysteries about nothing.
"The Neptune gone down!" There came over Madame Guiard's face a look of measureless terror. Twice her lips opened—and twice she closed them again. At last she uttered a few words—words of anguished protest. "No, no!" she cried. "That can't be—it's impossible!"
Then, as if speaking to herself, she used a phrase that was to linger a long time in Jacques de Wissant's memory. "We have done nothing," she said, "nothing so to provoke the anger of God!"
"You are a good sister," he said ironically, "to take Claire's distress so much to heart. Identifying yourself as entirely as you seem to do with her, I am the more surprised that you did not accompany her into Calais."
"Claire is not in Calais," muttered Madeleine.
"Not in Calais?" He echoed her words in a tone of anger, even of disgust. Was it possible that his wife had had herself rowed to the scene of the calamity? If she had done that, if her sister had allowed her to go alone, or accompanied perhaps by one or another of the officers belonging to the Submarine Flotilla, then he would find it very difficult to forgive Claire. There are things that a woman with any self-respect, especially a woman who is the mother of children, does not do. To this was added a feeling of contemptuous anger for Madeleine Guiard. She ought to have known how to save her sister from such an act of undignified folly.
"Well?" he said sharply. "Well, Madeleine? I am waiting to hear the truth. I desire no explanations—no excuses. I cannot, however, withhold myself from telling you that you ought to have accompanied your sister, even if you found it impossible to control her."
"I was there yesterday," she said, with a pinched, white face, "for over two hours."
"What do you mean?" he asked suspiciously. "Where were you yesterday for over two hours?"
"In the Neptune." She stared at him with widely open eyes,—as if she were staring, fascinated, at some scene of unutterable horror,—and there crept into Jacques de Wissant's mind a thought so full of shameful dread that he thrust it violently from him.
"You were in the Neptune," he said sternly, "knowing well that it is forbidden for any officer to take a friend on board a submarine without a special permit from the Minister of Marine?"
"It is often done," she said listlessly.
Madame Guiard had now sat down on a low chair, and she was plucking at the front of her colored flowered skirt with a curious mechanical movement of the fingers.
"Did the submarine actually put out to sea with you on board?"
She nodded her head, and then very deliberately added: "Yes, I was out for two hours. They all knew it—the men and officers of the whole flotilla, I was horribly frightened, but—but now I am glad indeed that I went. Yes, I am very glad!"
"Why are you glad?" he asked roughly—and again a terrible suspicion thrust itself insistently upon him.
"I am glad," she said deliberately,—"I am glad because it will make what Claire has done to-day seem natural—a—a simple escapade——"
There was a moment of awful silence between them.
"Then do all the officers and men belonging to the flotilla know that my wife is out there—in the Neptune?" he asked in a low voice.
"No," said Madeleine shamefacedly; "they none of them know—only those who are on board." She hesitated a moment. "That is why I sent the servants away this morning. We—I mean Commander Dupré and I—did not think it necessary that any one should know."
"Then no one—that is, only a harebrained young officer and ten men belonging to the town of Calais—was to be aware of the fact that my wife had accompanied her lover on this life-risking expedition?" Jacques de Wissant asked the question in bitter irony.
"Jacques!" She rose and faced her brother-in-law proudly. "What infamous thing is this that you are harboring in your mind? My sister is an honest woman—ay, as honest, as high-minded, as was your own mother——"
He stopped her with a violent gesture. "Do not mention Claire and my mother in the same breath!" he cried.
"Ah, but I will—I must! You want the truth; you said just now you wanted only the truth. Then you shall hear the truth. Yes, it is as you have evidently suspected. Louis Dupré loved Claire, and she"—her voice faltered—"she may have had for him a little sentiment—who can tell? You have not been at much pains to make her happy. But what is true, what is certain, is that she rejected his love. To-morrow they were to part—forever."
Her voice failed a moment, then strengthened and hardened. "That is why he, in a moment of folly,—I admit it was a moment of folly,—asked her to come out on this his last day in the Neptune. I was expecting them back any moment. But, Jacques, no one shall know. After all, Admiral de Saint Vilquier will do anything for us Kergouets. I myself will go to him and—and explain."
But Jacques de Wissant scarcely heard her eager words. He had thrust his wife from his mind, and her place had been taken by his honor—his honor, and that of his children, of happy, light-hearted Clairette and Jacqueline. For a moment he said nothing; then, all the anger gone from his voice, he spoke, uttered a fiat.
"No," he said; "you must leave the Admiral to me, Madeleine. You were going to Italy to-night—to Marie-Anne? Well, you must carry out your plan."
She stared at him, her face blotched with tears, a look of bewildered anguish in her eyes.
"You must do this," he went on deliberately, "for Claire's sake, and for the sake of Claire's children. You cannot stay here. You haven't sufficient control of yourself. You need not go farther than Paris; and I will keep you informed hour by hour. Those whom it concerns will be told that Claire has gone with you. It will be always time to tell the truth. The Admiral and I will devise a plan. And perhaps"—he waited a moment—"the truth will never be known, or known only to a very few people—people who, as you say, will understand."
He spoke very slowly, as if weighing his words. "I ask you to do this, my sister,"—he had never before called Madeleine "my sister,"—"because of the children, of Clairette and Jacqueline. Their mother would not wish a slur to rest upon them."
She looked at him piteously, but she knew that she would do what he asked.
Jacques de Wissant sat at his desk in the fine old room which is set aside for the Mayor's sole use in the Calais Hôtel de Ville. He was waiting for Admiral de Saint Vilquier, whom he had summoned there on the plea of a matter both private and urgent.
The time that had elapsed since he had parted from his sister-in-law had seemed like years instead of hours; and yet, every moment of those hours had been filled with action. From the Châlet des Dunes he had gone to his house, there to inform the household that Madame de Wissant was even then leaving with her sister for Italy, by way of Boulogne and Paris, and that her luggage was to be sent after her. While that same luggage was being prepared, he had changed his clothes, throwing aside his gala garments with loathing; and then he had returned to Calais, taking the station on his way to the Hôtel de Ville, and from there despatching Claire's trunks to Paris.
At the Hôtel de Ville there had never been, since the day that war was declared by France on Germany, so busy an afternoon. With scarcely a moment's interval, the Mayor was called upon to compose suitable answers to the urgent messages of inquiry and condolence that came pouring in from all over the world.
It was to Jacques de Wissant also that there fell the task of officially announcing to the crowd surging impatiently in the marketplace—though room in front was always made and kept for those of the fisher-folk who had relatives in the Submarine Service—that it was the Neptune that had gone down. He had seen the effect of that announcement painted on the rough, worn, upturned faces; he had heard the cries of anguish, the groans of despair of the few, and had witnessed the relief, the tears of joy, of the greater number of his auditors. But his heart felt numb, and his cold, stern manner kept the emotions and excitement of those about him in check.
At last there came a short respite. It was explained that, owing to the currents, the divers had had to suspend their work. Jacques de Wissant gave orders that, when the Admiral arrived, they were on no pretext to be disturbed.
He got up and began to walk up and down the room—his head bent, his hands clasped behind him. Any moment the Admiral might be shown in, but he had not yet made up his mind how to word his communication—how much to tell, how much to conceal. He knew well that if the desperate attempts now being made to raise the Neptune were successful, and if its human freight were rescued living, the fact that there had been a woman on board could not be concealed, it would be known to thousands to-night, and to millions to-morrow morning.
Not only would the amazing story provide newspaper readers with a delightful thrill, but it would be perpetuated in every account of subsequent accidents to submarine craft. Already Jacques de Wissant had seen in that afternoon's local paper an elaborate recital of each former disaster; but now he reminded himself grimly that in every future list so printed the accident to the Neptune would be specially starred, if only because there had been a woman on board, the wife of the then Mayor of Calais, of Jacques de Wissant, namesake and descendant of one of the famous citizens who had offered their lives for the town!
More intimately, vividly agonizing was the knowledge that the story, the scandal, would be revived when there arose the all-important question of a suitable and happy marriage for Clairette or Jacqueline. He could visualize the scene with absolute distinctness. He could hear the words being whispered: "Yes, dear friend, the girl is admirably brought up, and has a large fortune; also, she and your son have taken quite a fancy to each other. But there is that very ugly story of the mother. Don't you remember that she was with her lover in the submarine Neptune?"
Thus the miserable man tortured himself, turning the knife in his wound. And, though he was waiting impatiently for the Admiral, when the old naval officer was at last ushered in, he would have given many years of his life to postpone their interview.
"As you asked me so urgently to do so, I have come here. Monsieur de Wissant, to learn what you have to tell me. But I'm afraid the time I can spare must be short. As you know, I must be at the station in half an hour to meet the Minister of Marine."
The Admiral was annoyed at having been thus sent for to come to the Hôtel de Ville. It was surely Jacques de Wissant's place to have come to him! And then, while listening to the other's murmured excuses, Admiral de Saint Vilquier happened to look straight into the Mayor's wan face, and a change came over his manner; even his voice altered.
"Pardon my saying so, Monsieur de Wissant," he exclaimed, "but you look extremely ill! You mustn't allow this affair to take such hold on you! It is tragic, no doubt, that such things must be, but they are the price of admiralty."
"Admiral," said the wretched man, "Admiral——"
"Yes? Take your time; I am not really in such a hurry. Pardon my ungraciousness of just now; I am quite at your disposal."
"It is a question of honor," muttered Jacques de Wissant,—"a question of honor."
The Admiral leaned forward.
"The honor of a naval family is involved, Admiral." The Mayor of Calais was speaking in a low, pleading voice.
The Admiral stiffened. "Ah!" he exclaimed. "And they have asked you to intercede with me on behalf of the young scapegrace. Well, who is it? I'll look into the matter to-morrow morning. I really cannot think of anything to-day but of this terrible business of the submarine——"
"Admiral, it concerns that business."
"The loss of the Neptune? In what way can the honor of a naval family be possibly involved in such a matter?" There was a touch of hauteur as well as of indignant surprise in the fine old man's voice.
"Admiral," said Jacques de Wissant deliberately, "there was—there is—a woman on board the Neptune."
"A woman in the Neptune? That is quite impossible!" The Admiral got up from his chair. "It is one of our strictest regulations that no stranger be taken on board a submarine without a special permit from the Minister, countersigned by the nearest port-admiral. No such permit has been issued for many months. Commander Dupré was far too conscientious, too loyal an officer, to break this regulation."
"Commander Dupré," repeated Jacques de Wissant, in a bitter tone, "was not too conscientious, too loyal an officer, to break that regulation; for there is—I repeat it—a woman in the Neptune."
The Admiral sat down again. "But this is serious—very serious," he muttered. He was thinking of the effect, not only at home but abroad, of such a breach of discipline.
He shook his head with a pained, angry gesture. "I understand what happened," he said at last. "The woman was, of course, poor Dupré's"—and then something in Jacques de Wissant's face made him substitute, for the plain word he meant to have used, a softer, kindlier phrase—"poor Dupré's bonne amie," he said.
"I am advised not," said Jacques de Wissant shortly. "I am told that the person in question is a young lady."
"Do you mean an unmarried girl?" asked the Admiral. There was great curiosity and a certain relief in his voice.
"I beg of you not to ask me, Admiral! The family have implored me to reveal as little of the truth as possible. They have taken their own measures, and they are good measures, to account for her—her disappearance." Jacques de Wissant spoke with considerable agitation.
"Quite so! Quite so! They are right; I have no wish to show indiscreet curiosity."
"Do you think anything can be done to prevent the fact becoming known?" asked de Wissant; and, as the other waited a moment before answering, his suspense became almost more than he could endure. He got up and instinctively stood with his back to the light. "The family of this lady are willing to make any pecuniary sacrifice, Admiral."
"It is not a question of pecuniary sacrifice," the Admiral said shortly. "Money will never really purchase either secrecy or silence. But honor, Monsieur de Wissant, will sometimes—nay, often—do both. Everything will be done by me—so you can assure your unhappy friends—to conceal the fact that Commander Dupré failed in his duty. Not for his sake, you understand; he, I hear, deserves what he has suffered, what he is perhaps still suffering,"—a look of horror stole over his old, set face,—"but for the honor of the service."
He also got up. "And now I, on my side, must exact of you a pledge." He looked searchingly at the government official standing before him. "I solemnly implore you, Monsieur de Wissant, to keep this fact you have told me absolutely secret—secret even from the Minister of Marine."
Jacques de Wissant bent his head. "I intend to act," he said slowly, "as if I had never heard it."
"I ask it for the honor, the repute, of our country," muttered the old officer. "After all, Monsieur de Wissant, the poor fellow did not mean much harm. We sailors have all at some time or other of our lives had a bonne amie whom we found it devilish hard to leave on shore!" The Admiral walked slowly toward the door. To-day had aged him years. Then he turned and looked benignantly at Jacques de Wissant. The man before him might be stiff, cold, awkward in manner, but he was a gentleman, a man of honor.
And, as he drove to the station to meet the Minister of Marine, Admiral de Saint Vilquier's shrewd, practical mind began to deal with the difficult problem that was now added to his other cares. It was simplified in view of the fact—the awful fact—that, according to private information, it was most unlikely that the submarine would be raised within the next few hours. He hoped with all his heart that the twelve men and the woman now lying beneath the sea had met death at the moment of the collision.
Jacques de Wissant sent home word that for the present he would stay in his town house. All that night the restaurants and cafés remained open, and there was a constant coming and going to the beach, where many people, even among the visitors who were not directly interested in the calamity, arranged to stay, staring out at the dark sea, waiting for news.
The Mayor was back at his post in the Hôtel de Ville at eight the next morning, and he spent the whole of that long, dragging day there. All hope that there could be any one still left alive in the Neptune was being gradually abandoned; and yet, that evening there ran a rumor through the town that knocking had been heard in the submarine.
Jacques de Wissant himself drew up the official proclamation in which it was pointed out that it was almost certain that all on board had died at the time of the collision, and that, even if any had survived for a few hours, not one of them could be alive now.
And then, one by one, the days of waiting began to wear themselves away, and the world, apart from the town that numbered ten of her sons among the doomed men, relaxed its painful interest in the fate of the French submarine Neptune.
But the Mayor of Calais was unceasing in his efforts, especially on behalf of the families of the men who still lay, eighteen fathoms deep, incased in their steel tomb. The townspeople were deeply moved by his evident, if restrained, distress. It became known that he had even put his children, his pretty twin daughters, into deep mourning. This touched the seafaring portion of the population very much.
It was also understood that Jacques de Wissant was suffering from domestic trouble. His sister-in-law was seriously ill in Italy of an infectious disease, and his wife, who had gone away at a moment's notice to help to nurse her, had caught the infection.
The Mayor of Calais and Admiral de Saint Vilquier had not often occasion to meet during those days which each of them spent in entertaining official personages and in composing answers to the messages and inquiries which went on dropping in, both by day and night, at the Hôtel de Ville and at the Admiralty buildings of Calais. But there came a day when the Admiral at last sought out the Mayor.
"I think I have arranged everything satisfactorily," he said briefly, "and you can convey that message to your friends. I do not think, as matters are now, that there is much fear that the truth will ever be discovered."
The old man did not look into Jacques de Wissant's face as he said the comforting words. He had become aware of many things—of Madeleine Guiard's expedition in the submarine the day before the accident, and of her own and her sister's sudden departure for Italy. But, alone among those who sometimes had speech with the Mayor during those somber days of waiting, he did not ask news of Madame de Wissant, or condole with the anxious husband on the fact that he could not yet leave his post.
Jacques de Wissant sat up in bed. It was the darkest hour of the summer night, but vaguely outlined before him was the short, squat form of an old woman who had entered his mother's service when he was only ten years old, and who now always stayed in his town house. During the last fortnight she had been his only servant, and she had amply fulfilled her master's simple requirements.
"M'sieur l'Admiral de Saint Vilquier desires to see M'sieur le Maire on urgent business," she said. "I have put him to wait in the great drawing-room. It is fortunate that I took all the covers off the furniture yesterday."
Then the moment of ordeal, the moment he had begun to think would never come, had come? The submarine had been finally towed into the harbor. Now was about to begin the work of taking out the bodies.
Jacques de Wissant had put all his trust in the Admiral, and in the arrangements that the Admiral was making to avoid discovery; but now there came over him a frightful sensation of doubt and fear. How would it be possible for Admiral de Saint Vilquier, unless backed by governmental authority, to elude the vigilance, not only of the Admiralty officials and all those who were directly interested, but also of the journalists who, however much the public interest had slackened in the disaster, still stayed on at Calais in order to be present at the last act of the tragedy?
These thoughts jostled each other in Jacques de Wissant's mind as he rapidly dressed himself.
Together the two men went out into the deserted market-place. "This is the quietest hour in the twenty-four," observed the Admiral abruptly; "and, though I anticipate a little trouble with the journalists, I think everything will go off quite well. By the way, I have had to tell Dr. Tarnier." And, as Jacques de Wissant uttered a stifled exclamation of dismay, "Of course I had to tell him," he said impatiently. "He has most nobly offered to go into the submarine alone—though in doing so he will run considerable risk."
Admiral de Saint Vilquier waited a moment, for the quick pace at which his companion was walking made him rather breathless. "I have simply told him that there was a young woman on board. He imagines her to have been a Parisienne, a person of no importance, you understand, who had come to spend the holiday with poor Dupré. But he quite realizes the vital necessity that the fact should never come to light." He spoke in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. "There will not be room on the pontoon for more than four or five officials, including ourselves. Doubtless some of our newspaper friends will be disappointed,—if one can speak of disappointment in such a connection,—but they will have plenty of opportunities of being present to-morrow and the following nights. I have arranged with the Minister of Marine that the work is to be done only at night."
The Neptune had been towed into the old harbor—the harbor digged out by the English in the days when they held Calais; and, as the Admiral and the Mayor of Calais emerged on the quay, Jacques de Wissant became aware that the news had leaked out, for there were groups of men standing about, talking in low, hushed tones and staring at the middle of the harbor.
Apart from the others, and almost dangerously close to the unguarded edge, below which was the black, shallow water, stood a line of women shrouded in deep black; and from them there came no sound.
As the Admiral and his companion approached the little group of officials who were apparently waiting for them, the old naval officer whispered to Jacques de Wissant, using for the first time the familiar expression, mon ami, "Do not forget, mon ami, to thank the harbor master and the pilot. They have had a very difficult task, and they will expect your commendation."
Jacques de Wissant said the words required of him. And then, at the last moment, just as he was on the point of going down the steps leading to the flat-bottomed boat that was about to be rowed to the pontoon, there arose a discussion. The harbor master had promised the representatives of two Paris papers that they should be present when the submarine was first opened.
But the Admiral angrily asserted his supreme authority. "In such matters I can allow no favoritism! It is doubtful if any bodies will be recovered to-night, gentlemen, for the tide is already turning. I will see if other arrangements can be made to-morrow. If any of you had been in the harbor of Bizerta when the Lutin was raised, you would now thank me for not compelling you to view the sight that we may be about to see."
And so the weary, disappointed journalists, who had spent long days waiting for this one hour, realized that they must content themselves with what could be seen from the quay.
It will, however, surprise no one familiar with the remarkable enterprise of the modern press that by far the most accurate account of what occurred during the hour that followed was written by a cosmopolitan war correspondent, and appeared the next morning in an Anglo-American paper:
None of those who were there will ever forget what they saw in the old harbor at Calais that summer night.
The scene, lighted by the searchlight of a destroyer, was at once sinister, somber, and magnificent. Below the high, narrow pontoon, on the floor of the harbor, lay the wrecked submarine. And those who gazed down at the Neptune felt as though they were gazing at what had been a once sentient being done to death, ripped open in three places by some huge Goliath of the deep.
Dr. Tarnier, the official physician of the town of Calais,—a man who is much beloved and respected by all the population of the place,—stood ready to begin his dreadful task. We all knew that he had obtained permission to go down alone into the hold of death—an exploration attended with considerable physical risk. He was clad in a suit of india-rubber clothing, and over his arm was folded a large tarpaulin sheet lined with carbolic wool, one of half a dozen such sheets lying at his feet.
The difficult work of unsealing the conning-tower or periscope was at once proceeded with in the presence of Admiral de Saint Vilquier, whose prowess as a midshipman is still remembered by British Crimean veterans, and of the Mayor of Calais, Monsieur Jacques de Wissant, who has been indefatigable throughout, and who is, it is interesting to note, directly descended from one of the famous Citizens of Calais who are commemorated in the sculptor Rodin's best-known work.
At last there came a guttural exclamation of "Ça y est!" and Dr. Tarnier entered the tower, to emerge but a moment later with the first body, obviously that of the gallant Commander Dupré, who was found, as it was expected he would be, at the helm. Once more the doctor's burly figure disappeared; once more he emerged, tenderly bearing a lighter burden, the boyish form of Lieutenant Paritot, who was found close to Commander Dupré. The tide was rising rapidly, but two more bodies—this time with the help of a webbed band cleverly designed by Dr. Tarnier with a view to this purpose—were lifted from the inner portion of the submarine. The four bodies, rather to the disappointment of the crowd that had gathered gradually on the quay, were not taken directly to the shore, to the great hall where Calais is to mourn her dead sons; one by one, they were reverently conveyed, by the Admiral's orders, to a barge which was once used as a hospital ward for sick sailors, and which is close to the mouth of the harbor. Thence, when all twelve bodies have been recovered,—that is, in three or four days, for the work is only to be proceeded with at night,— they will be taken to the Salle d'Armes, there to await the official obsequies.
On the morning following the night during which the last body was lifted from within the submarine, there ran a curious rumor through the fishing quarter of the town. It was said that thirteen bodies—not twelve, as declared the official report—had been taken out of the Neptune. It was declared, on the authority of one of the seamen—a Gascon, be it noted—who had been there on that first night, that five, not four, bodies had been conveyed to the hospital barge. But the rumor, though it found an echo in the French press, was not regarded as worth official denial, and it received its final quietus on the day of the official obsequies, when it was, of course, at once seen that the number of ammunition-wagons heading the great procession was twelve.
As long as tradition endures in the life of a town, Calais will remember the Neptune funeral procession.
Through the long line of soldiers, each man with his arms reversed, walked the official mourners, while from the fortifications there tolled the minute-gun.
First came the President of the French Republic, with, to his right, the Minister of Marine; close behind him paced the stiff, still vigorous figure of old Admiral de Saint Vilquier, and by his side Jacques de Wissant, Mayor of Calais—so mortally pale, so what the French call défait, that the Admiral felt fearful lest his companion should be compelled to fall out. But Jacques de Wissant was not minded to fall out.
The crowd looking on, especially those wives of substantial citizens of Calais who stood at their windows behind half-closed shutters and drawn blinds, stared down at Jacques de Wissant with pitying, concern. "He has a warm heart, though a cold manner," murmured these ladies to one another; "and just now, you know, he is in great personal anxiety, for his wife—that odd, beautiful Claire with whom he doesn't get on very well—is in Italy, ill of scarlet fever. As soon as this sad ceremony is over, he will leave for the South—the President has offered him a seat in his saloon as far as Paris."
As the head of the procession passed in front of Rodin's "Citizens of Calais," Jacques de Wissant straightened himself with an instinctive gesture, and his lips began to move. He was muttering to himself the last words of the speech he would soon have to deliver: