The Face and the Mask/The Predicament of De Plonville
VIII. THE PREDICAMENT OF DE PLONVILLE
This story differs from others in having an assortment of morals. Most stories have one moral; here are several. The moral usually appears at the end—in this case a few are mentioned at the beginning, so that they may be looked out for as the reading progresses. First: it is well for a man—especially a young man—to attend to his own business. Second: in planning a person's life for some little distance ahead, it will be a mistake if an allowance of ten per cent. at least, is not made for that unknown quantity—woman. Third: it is beneficial to remember that one man rarely knows everything. Other morals will doubtless present themselves, and at the end the cynically-inclined person may reflect upon the adage about the frying-pan and the fire.
Young M. de Plonville of Paris enjoyed a most enviable position. He had all the money he needed, which is quite a different thing from saying he had all the money he wanted. He was well educated, and spoke three languages, that is, he spoke his own well and the other two badly, but as a man always prides himself on what he is least able to do, De Plonville fancied himself a linguist. His courage in speaking English to Englishmen and German to Germans showed that he was, at least, a brave man. There was a great deal of good and even of talent in De Plonville. This statement is made at the beginning, because everyone who knows De Plonville will at once unhesitatingly contradict it. His acquaintances thought him one of the most objectionable young men in Paris, and naval officers, when his name was mentioned, usually gave themselves over to strong and unjustifiable language. This was all on account of De Plonville's position, which, although enviable had its drawbacks.
His rank in the navy was such that it entitled him to no consideration whatever, but, unfortunately for his own popularity, De Plonville had a method of giving force to his suggestions. His father was a very big man in the French Government. He was so big a man that he could send a censure to the commander of a squadron in the navy, and the commander dare not talk back. It takes a very big man indeed to do this, and that was the elder De Plonville's size. But then it was well known that the elder De Plonville was an easy-going man who loved comfort, and did not care to trouble himself too much about the navy in his charge, and so when there was trouble, young De Plonville got the credit of it; consequently, the love of the officers did not flow out to him.
Often young De Plonville's idiotic impetuosity gave color to these suspicions. For instance, there is the well-known Toulon incident. In a heated controversy young De Plonville had claimed that the firing of the French ironclads was something execrable, and that the whole fleet could not hold their own at the cannon with any ten of the British navy. Some time after, the naval officers learned that the Government at Paris was very much displeased with the inaccurate gun practice of the fleet, and the hope was expressed that the commander would see his way to improving it. Of course, the officers could do nothing but gnash their teeth, try to shoot better, and hope for a time to come when the Government then in power would be out, and they could find some tangible pretence for hanging young De Plonville from the yard-arm.
All this has only a remote bearing upon this story, but we now come to a matter on which the story sinks or swims. De Plonville had a secret— not such a secret as is common in Parisian life, but one entirely creditable to him. It related to an invention intended to increase the efficiency of the French army. The army being a branch of the defences of his country with which De Plonville had nothing whatever to do, his attention naturally turned towards it. He spoke of this invention, once, to a friend, a lieutenant in the army. He expected to get some practical suggestions. He never mentioned it again to anyone.
"It is based on the principle of the umbrella," he said to his friend; "in fact, it was the umbrella that suggested it to me. If it could be made very light so as not to add seriously to the impedimenta at present carried by the soldier, it seems to me it would be exceedingly useful. Instead of being circular as an umbrella is, it must be oblong with sharp ends. It would have to be arranged so as to be opened and closed quickly, with the cloth thin, but impervious to water. When the army reached a river each soldier could open this, place it in the water, enter it with some care, and then paddle himself across with the butt-end of his gun, or even with a light paddle, if the carrying of it added but little to the weight, thus saving the building of temporary bridges. It seems to me such an invention ought to be of vast use in a forced march. Then at night it might be used as a sort of tent, or in a heavy rain it would form a temporary shelter. What do you think of the idea?" His friend had listened with half-closed eyes. He blew a whiff of cigarette smoke from his nostrils and answered:
"It is wonderful, De Plonville," he said drawlingly. "Its possibilities are vast—more so than even you appear to think. It would be very useful in our Alpine corps as well."
"I am glad you think so. But why there?"
"Well, you see, if the army reached a high peak looking into a deep valley, only to be reached over an inaccessible precipice, all the army would have to do would be to spread out your superb invention and use it as a parachute. The sight of the army of France gradually floating down into the valley would be so terrifying to the nations of Europe, that I imagine no enemy would wait for a gun to be fired. De Plonville, your invention will immortalize you, and immortalize the French army."
Young De Plonville waited to hear no more, but turned on his heel and strode away.
This conversation caused young De Plonville to make two resolutions; first, to mention his scheme to no one; second, to persevere and perfect his invention, thus causing confusion to the scoffer. There were several sub-resolutions dependent on these two. He would not enter a club, he would abjure society, he would not speak to a woman—he would, in short, be a hermit until his invention stood revealed before an astonished world.
All of which goes to show that young De Plonville was not the conceited, meddlesome fop his acquaintances thought him. But in the large and small resolutions he did not deduct the ten per cent. for the unknown quantity.
Where? That was the question. De Plonville walked up and down his room, and thought it out. A large map of France was spread on the table. Paris and the environs thereof were manifestly impossible. He needed a place of seclusion. He needed a stretch of water. Where then should be the spot to which coming generations would point and say, "Here, at this place, was perfected De Plonville's celebrated parachute-tent-bateau invention."
No, not parachute. Hang the parachute! That was the scoffing lieutenant's word. De Plonville paused for a moment to revile his folly in making a confidant of any army man.
There was a sufficiency of water around the French coast, but it was too cold at that season of the year to experiment in the north and east. There was left the Mediterranean. He thought rapidly of the different delightful spots along the Riviera—Cannes, St. Raphael, Nice, Monte Carlo,—but all of these were too public and too much thronged with visitors. The name of the place came to him suddenly, and, as he stopped his march to and fro, De Plonville wondered why it had not suggested itself to him at the very first. Hyères! It seemed to have been planned in the Middle Ages for the perfecting of just such an invention. It was situated two or three miles back from the sea, the climate was perfect, there was no marine parade, the sea coast was lonely, and the bay sheltered by the islands. It was an ideal spot.
De Plonville easily secured leave of absence. Sons of fathers high up in the service of a grateful country seldom have any difficulty about a little thing like that. He purchased a ticket for that leisurely train which the French with their delicious sense of humor call the "Rapide," and in due time found himself with his various belongings standing on the station platform at Hyères.
Few of us are as brave as we think ourselves. De Plonville flinched when the supreme moment came, and perhaps that is why the Gods punished him. He had resolved to go to one of the country inns at Carqueyranne on the coast, but this was in a heroic mood when the lieutenant had laughed at his project. Now in a cooler moment he thought of the cuisine of Carqueyranne and shuddered. There are sacrifices which no man should be called upon to endure, so the naval officer hesitated, and at last directed the porter to put his luggage on the top of the Costebelle Hotel "bus." There would be society at the hotel it is true, but he could avoid it, while if he went to the rural tavern he could not avoid the cooking. Thus he smothered his conscience. Lunch at Costebelle seemed to justify his choice of an abiding-place. The surroundings of the hotel were dangerously charming to a man whose natural inclination was towards indolent enjoyment. It was a place to "Loaf and invite your soul," as Walt Whitman phrases it. Plonville, who was there incognito, for he had temporarily dropped the "De," strolled towards the sea in the afternoon, with the air of one who has nothing on his mind. No one to see him would have suspected he was the future Edison of France. When he reached the coast at the ruins of the ancient Roman naval station called Pomponiana, he smote his thigh with joy. He had forgotten that at this spot there had been erected a number of little wooden houses, each larger than a bathing-machine and smaller than a cottage, which were used in summer by the good people of Hyères, and in winter were silently vacant. The largest of these would be exactly the place for him, and he knew he would have no difficulty in renting it for a month or two. Here, he could bring down his half- finished invention; here, work at it all day unmolested; and here test its sailing qualities with no onlookers.
He walked up the road, and hailed the ancient bus which jogs along between Toulon and Hyères by way of the coast; mounted beside the driver, and speedily got information about the owner of the cottages at Pomponiana.
As he expected, he had no difficulty in arranging with the proprietor for the largest of the little cottages, but he thought he detected a slight depression on the right eyelid as that person handed him the key. Had the owner suspected his purpose? he asked himself anxiously, as he drove back from the town to Costebelle. Impossible. He felt, however, that he could not be too secret about his intentions. He had heard of inventors being forestalled just at the very moment of success.
He bade the driver wait, and placed that part of his luggage in the cab which consisted of his half-finished invention and the materials for completing it. Then he drove to the coast, and after placing the packages on the ground, paid and dismissed the man. When the cab was out of sight, he carried the things to the cottage and locked them in. His walk up the hill to the hotel rendered the excellent dinner provided doubly attractive.
Next morning he was early at work, and speedily began to realize how many necessary articles he had forgotten at Paris. He hoped he would be able to get them at Hyères, but his remembrance of the limited resources of the town made him somewhat doubtful. The small windows on each side gave him scarcely enough light, but he did not open the door, fearing the curiosity of a chance passer-by. One cannot be too careful in maturing a great invention.
Plonville had been at work for possibly an hour and a half, when he heard someone singing, and that very sweetly. She sang with the joyous freedom of one who suspected no listener. The song came nearer and nearer. Plonville standing amazed, dropped his implements, and stole to the somewhat obscure little window. He saw a vision of fresh loveliness dressed in a costume he never before beheld on a vision. She came down the bank with a light, springy step to the next cottage, took a key that hung at her belt, and threw open the door. The song was hushed, but not silenced, for a moment, and then there came from out the cottage door the half of a boat that made Plonville gasp. Like the costume, he had never before seen such a boat. It was exactly the shape in which he had designed his invention, and was of some extra light material, for the sylph-like girl in the extraordinary dress pushed it forth without even ceasing her song. Next moment, she came out herself and stood there while she adjusted her red head-gear. She drew the boat down to the water, picked out of it a light, silver-mounted paddle, stepped deftly aboard, and settled down to her place with the airy grace of a thistle-down. There was no seat in the boat, Plonville noted with astonishment. The sea was very smooth, and a few strokes of the paddle sent girl and craft out of sight along the coast. Plonville drew a deep breath of bewilderment. It was his first sight of a Thames boating costume and a canoe.
This, then, was why the man winked when he gave him the key. Plonville was in a quandary. Should he reveal himself when she returned? It did not seem to be quite the thing to allow the girl to believe she had the coast to herself when in fact she hadn't. But then there was his invention to think of. He had sworn allegiance to that. He sat down and pondered. English, evidently. He had no idea English girls were so pretty, and then that costume! It was very taking. The rich, creamy folds of the white flannel, so simple, yet so complete, lingered in his memory. Still, what was he there for? His invention certainly. The sneer of the lieutenant stung his memory. That Miss Whatever-her-name-might-be had rented the next box was nothing to him; of course not. He waved her aside and turned to his work. He had lost enough of time as it was; he would lose no more.
Although armed with this heroic resolution, his task somehow did not seem so interesting as before, and he found himself listening now and then for the siren's song. He dramatized imaginary situations, which is always bad for practical work. He saw the frail craft shattered or overturned, and beheld himself bravely buffeting the waves rescuing the fair girl in white. Then he remembered with a sigh that he was not a good swimmer. Possibly she was more at home in the waves than he was. Those English seemed on such terms of comradeship with the sea.
At last, intuition rather than hearing told him she had returned. He walked on tip-toe to the dingy window. She was pulling the light canoe up from the water. He checked his impulse to offer assistance. When the girl sprang lightly up the bank, Plonville sighed and concluded he had done enough work for the day. As he reached the road, he noticed that the white figure in the distance did not take the way to the hotel, but towards one of the neighboring Chateaux.
In the afternoon, Plonville worked long at his invention, and made progress. He walked back to his hotel with the feeling of self-satisfaction which indolent men have on those rare occasions when they are industrious. He had been uninterrupted, and his resolutions were again heroic. What had been done one afternoon might be done all afternoons. He would think no more of the vision he had seen and he would work only after lunch, thus avoiding the necessity of revealing himself, or of being a concealed watcher of her actions. Of course she came always in the morning, for the English are a methodical people, and Plonville was so learned in their ways that he knew what they did one day they were sure to do the next. An extraordinary nation, Plonville said to himself with a shrug of his shoulders, but then of course, we cannot all be French.
It is rather a pity that temptation should step in just when a man has made up his mind not to deviate from a certain straight line of conduct. There was to be a ball that night at the big hotel. Plonville had refused to have anything to do with it. He had renounced the frivolities of life. He was there for rest, quiet, and study. He was adamant. That evening the invitation was again extended to him, the truth being that there was a scarcity of young men, as is usually the case at such functions. Plonville was about to re-state his objections to frivolity when through the open door he caught a glimpse of two of the arriving guests ascending the stair. The girl had on a long opera cloak with some fluffy white material round the neck and down the front. A filmy lace arrangement rested lightly on her fair hair. It was the lady of the canoe—glorified. Plonville wavered and was lost. He rushed to his room and donned his war paint. Say what you like, evening dress improves the appearance of a man. Besides this, he had resumed the De once more, and his back was naturally straighter. De Plonville looked well.
They were speedily introduced, of course. De Plonville took care of that, and the manager of the ball was very grateful to him for coming, and for looking so nice. There was actually an air of distinction about De Plonville. She was the Hon. Margaret Stansby, he learned. Besides being unfair, it would be impossible to give their conversation. It would read like a section from Ollendorf's French-English exercises. De Plonville, as has been said, was very proud of his English, and, unfortunately, the Hon. Margaret had a sense of humor. He complimented her by saying that she talked French even better than he talked English, which, while doubtless true, was not the most tactful thing De Plonville might have said. It was difficult to listen to such a statement given in his English, and refrain from laughing. Margaret, however, scored a great victory and did not laugh. The evening passed pleasantly, she thought; delightfully, De Plonville thought.
It was hard after this to come down to the prosaic work of completing a cloth canoe-tent, but, to De Plonville's credit, he persevered. He met the young lady on several occasions, but never by the coast. The better they became acquainted the more he wished to have the privilege of rescuing her from some deadly danger; but the opportunity did not come. It seldom does, except in books, as he bitterly remarked to himself. The sea was exasperatingly calm, and Miss Margaret was mistress of her craft, as so many charming women are. He thought of buying a telescope and watching her, for she had told him that one of her own delights was looking at the evolutions of the ironclads through a telescope on the terrace in front of the Chateau.
At last, in spite of his distractions, De Plonville added the finishing touches to his notable invention, and all that remained was to put it to a practical test. He chose a day when that portion of the French navy which frequents the Rade d'Hyères was not in sight, for he did not wish to come within the field of the telescope at the Chateau terrace. He felt that he would not look his best as he paddled his new-fangled boat. Besides, it might sink with him.
There was not a sail in sight as he put forth. Even the fishing boats of Carqueyranne were in shelter. The sea was very calm, and the sun shone brightly. He had some little difficulty in getting seated, but he was elated to find that his invention answered all expectations. As he went further out he noticed a great buoy floating a long distance away. His evil genius suggested that it would be a good thing to paddle out to the buoy and back. Many men can drink champagne and show no sign, but few can drink success and remain sober. The eccentric airs assumed by noted authors prove the truth of this. De Plonville was drunk, and never suspected it. The tide, what little there is of it in the Mediterranean, helped him, and even the gentle breeze blew from the shore. He had some doubts as to the wisdom of his course before he reached the gigantic red buoy, but when he turned around and saw the appalling distance to the coast, he shuddered.
The great buoy was of iron, apparently boiler plate, and there were rings fastened to its side. It was pear-shaped with the point in the water, fastened to a chain that evidently led to an anchor. He wondered what it was for. As he looked up it was moved by some unseen current, and rolled over as if bent on the destruction of his craft. Forgetting himself, he sprang up to ward it off, and instantly one foot went through the thin waterproof that formed the bottom and sides of his boat. He found himself struggling in the water almost before he realized what had happened. Kicking his foot free from the entanglement that threatened to drag him under, he saw his invention slowly settle down through the clear, green water. He grasped one of the rings of the buoy, and hung there for a moment to catch his breath and consider his position. He rapidly came to the conclusion that it was not a pleasant one, but further than that he found it difficult to go. Attempting to swim ashore would be simply one form of suicide. The thing to do was evidently to get on top of the buoy, but he realized that if he tried to pull himself up by the rings it would simply roll him under. He was surprised to find, however, that such was not the case. He had under-estimated both its size and its weight.
He sat down on top of it and breathed heavily after his exertions, gazing for a few moments at the vast expanse of shimmering blue water. It was pretty, but discouraging. Not even a fishing-boat was in sight, and he was in a position where every prospect pleases, and only man is in a vile situation. The big iron island had an uncomfortable habit every now and then of lounging partly over to one side or the other, so that De Plonville had to scramble this way or that to keep from falling off. He vaguely surmised that his motions on these occasions lacked dignity. The hot sun began to dry the clothes on his back, and he felt his hair become crisp with salt. He recollected that swimming should be easy here, for he was on the saltest portion of the saltest open sea in the world. Then his gaze wandered over the flat lands about Les Salins where acres of ground were covered artificially with Mediterranean water so that the sun may evaporate it, and leave the coarse salt used by the fishermen of the coast. He did not yet feel hungry, but he thought with regret of the good dinner which would be spread at the hotel that evening, when, perhaps, he would not be there.
He turned himself around and scanned the distant Islands of Gold, but there was as little prospect of help from that quarter as from the mainland. Becoming more accustomed to the swayings of the big globe, he stood up. What a fool he had been to come so far, and he used French words between his teeth that sounded terse and emphatic. Still there was little use thinking of that. Here he was, and here he would stay, as a President of his country had once remarked. The irksomeness and restraint of his position began to wear on his nerves, and he cried aloud for something—anything—to happen rather than what he was enduring.
From between the Islands, there slowly appeared a great modern French ship of war, small in the distance. Hope lighted up the face of De Plonville. She must pass near enough to enable his signalling to be seen by the lookout. Heavens! how leisurely she moved! Then a second war vessel followed the first into view, and finally a third. The three came slowly along in stately procession. De Plonville removed his coat and waved it up and down to attract attention. So intent was he upon this that he nearly lost his footing, and, realizing that the men-of-war were still too far away, he desisted. He sat down as his excitement abated, and watched their quiet approach. Once it seemed to him they had stopped, and he leaned forward, shading his eyes with his hand, and watched them eagerly. They were just moving—that was all.
Suddenly, from the black side of the foremost battle-ship, there rolled upward a cloud of white smoke, obscuring the funnels and the rigging, thinning out into the blue sky over the top-masts. After what seemed a long interval the low, dull roar of a cannon reached him, followed by the echo from the high hills of the island, and later by the fainter re-echo from the mountains on the mainland. This depressed De Plonville, for, if the ships were out for practice, the obscuring smoke around them would make the seeing of his signalling very improbable; and then that portion of the fleet might return the way it came, leaving him in his predicament. From the second ironclad arose a similar cloud, and this time far to his left there spurted up from the sea a jet of water, waving in the air like a plume for a moment, then dropping back in a shower on the ruffled surface.
The buoy was a target!
As De Plonville realized its use, he felt that uncomfortable creeping of the scalp which we call, the hair standing on end. The third cannon sent up its cloud, and De Plonville's eyes extended at what they saw. Coming directly towards him was a cannon ball, skipping over the water like a thrown pebble. His experience in the navy—at Paris—had never taught him that such a thing was possible. He slid down flat on the buoy, till his chin rested on the iron, and awaited the shock. A hundred yards from him the ball dipped into the water and disappeared. He found that he had ineffectually tried to drive his nails into the boiler plate, until his fingers' ends were sore. He stood up and waved his arms, but the first vessel fired again, and the ball came shrieking over him so low that he intuitively ducked his head. Like a pang of physical pain, the thought darted through his brain that he had instigated a censure on the bad firing of these very boats. Doubtless they saw a man on the buoy, but as no man had any business there, the knocking of him off by a cannon ball would be good proof of accuracy of aim. The investigation which followed would be a feather in the cap of the officer in charge, whatever the verdict. De Plonville, with something like a sigh, more than suspected that his untimely death would not cast irretrievable gloom over the fleet.
Well, a man has to die but once, and there is little use in making a fuss over the inevitable. He would meet his fate calmly and as a Frenchman should, with his face to the guns. There was a tinge of regret that there would be no one to witness his heroism. It is always pleasant on such occasions to have a war correspondent, or at least a reporter, present. It is best to be as comfortable as possible under any circumstances, so De Plonville sat down on the spheroid and let his feet dangle toward the water. The great buoy for some reason floated around until it presented its side to the ships. None of the balls came so near as those first fired—perhaps because of the accumulated smoke. New features of the situation continued to present themselves to De Plonville as he sat there. The firing had been going on for some time before he reflected that if a shot punctured the buoy it would fill and sink. Perhaps their orders were to fire until the buoy disappeared. There was little comfort in this suggestion.
Firing had ceased for some minutes before he noticed the fact. A bank of thinning smoke rested on the water between the buoy and the ships. He saw the ironclads move ponderously around and steam through this bank turning broadside on again in one, two, three, order. He watched the evolution with his chin resting on his hands, not realizing that the moment for signalling had come. When the idea penetrated his somewhat dazed mind, he sprang to his feet, but his opportunity had gone. The smoke of the first gun rose in the air, there was a clang of iron on iron, and De Plonville found himself whirling in space: then sinking in the sea. Coming breathless to the surface, he saw the buoy revolving slowly, and a deep dinge in its side seemed to slide over its top and disappear into the water, showing where the shot had struck. The second boat did not fire, and he knew that they were examining the buoy with their glasses. He swam around to the other side, intending to catch a ring and have it haul him up where he could be seen. Before he reached the place the buoy was at rest again, and as he laboriously climbed on top more dead than alive, the second ship opened fire. He lay down at full length exhausted, and hoped if they were going to hit they would hit quick. Life was not worth having on these conditions. He felt the hot sun on his back, and listened dreamily to the cannon. Hope was gone, and he wondered at himself for feeling a remote rather than an active interest in his fate. He thought of himself as somebody else, and felt a vague impersonal pity. He criticised the random firing, and suspected the hit was merely a fluke. When his back was dry he rolled lazily over and lay gazing up at the cloudless sky. For greater comfort he placed his hands beneath his head. The sky faded, and a moment's unconsciousness intervened.
"This won't do," he cried, shaking himself. "If I fall asleep I shall roll off."
He sat up again, his joints stiff with his immersion, and watched the distant ironclads. He saw with languid interest a ball strike the water, take a new flight, and plunge into the sea far to the right. He thought that the vagaries of cannon-balls at sea would make an interesting study.
"Are you injured?" cried a clear voice behind him.
"'ARE YOU INJURED," CRIED A CLEAR VOICE'"—Page 96
"Mon Dieu!" shouted the young man in a genuine fright, as he sprang to his feet.
"Oh, I beg pardon," as if a rescuer need apologize, "I thought you were M. De Plonville."
"I am De Plonville."
"Your hair is grey," she said in an awed whisper; then added, "and no wonder."
"Mademoiselle," replied the stricken young man, placing his hand on his heart, "it is needless to deny—I do not deny—that I was frightened—but—I did not think—not so much as that, I regret. It is so—so—theatrical—I am deeply sorrowful."
"Please say no more, but come quickly. Can you come down? Step exactly in the middle of the canoe. Be careful—it is easily upset—and sit down at once. That was very nicely done."
"Mademoiselle, allow me at least to row the boat."
"It is paddling, and you do not understand it. I do. Please do not speak until we are out of range. I am horribly frightened."
"You are very, very brave."
Miss Stansby wielded the double-bladed paddle in a way a Red Indian might have envied. Once she uttered a little feminine shriek as a cannon ball plunged into the water behind them; but as they got further away from the buoy those on the iron-clads appeared to notice that a boat was within range, and the firing ceased.
Miss Stansby looked fixedly at the solemn young man sitting before her; then placed her paddle across the canoe, bent over it, and laughed. De Plonville saw the reaction had come. He said sympathetically:—
"Ah, Mademoiselle, do not, I beg. All danger is over, I think."
"I am not frightened, don't think it," she cried, flashing a look of defiance at him, and forgetting her admission of fear a moment before. "My father was an Admiral. I am laughing at my mistake. It is salt."
"What is?" asked her astonished passenger.
"In your hair."
He ran his fingers through his hair, and the salt rattled down to the bottom of the canoe. There was something of relief in his laugh.
De Plonville always believes the officers on board the gunboats recognized him. When it was known in Paris that he was to be married to the daughter of an English Admiral, whom rumor said he had bravely saved from imminent peril, the army lieutenant remarked that she could never have heard him speak her language—which, as we know, is not true.