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CLAIRE DE WISSANT, wife of Jacques de Wissant, Mayor of Falaise, stood in the morning sunlight, graceful with a proud, instinctive grace of poise and gesture, on a wind-blown path close to the edge of the cliff.
At some little distance to her left rose the sloping, mansard roofs of the Pavillon de Wissant, the charming country house to which her husband had brought her, a seventeen year old bride, ten long years ago.
She was now gazing eagerly out to sea, shielding her grey, heavy-lidded eyes with her right hand. From her left hand hung a steel chain, to which was attached a small key.
A hot haze lay heavily over the great sweep of deep blue waters. It blotted out the low grey line on the horizon which, on the majority of each year's days, reminds the citizens of Falaise how near England is to France.| | 4
Jacques de Wissant had rejoiced in the entente cordiale, if only because it brought such a stream of tourists to the old seaport town of which he was now Mayor. But his beautiful wife thought of the English as gallant foes rather than as friends. Was she not great-granddaughter to that admiral who at Trafalgar, when both his legs were shattered by chain-shot, bade his men place him in a barrel of bran that he might go on commanding, in the hour of defeat, to the end?
And yet as Claire stood there, her eyes sweeping the sea for an as yet invisible craft, her heart seemed to beat rhythmically to the last verse of a noble English poem which the governess of her twin daughters had made them recite to her that very morning. How did it run? Aloud she murmured:
As you too shall adore—"
To Claire de Wissant, that moving cry from a man's soul was not dulled by familiarity, or hackneyed by common usage, and just now it found an intolerably faithful echo in her sad, rebellious heart, intensifying the anguish | | 5 born of a secret and very bitter renunciation.
With an abrupt, restless movement she turned and walked on till her way along the path was barred by a curious obstacle. This was a small red-brick tower, built within a few feet of the edge of the cliff. It was an ugly blot on the beautiful stretch of down, all the uglier that the bricks and tiles had not yet had time to lose their hardness of line and colour in the salt wind.
On the cliff side, the small circular building, open to wind, sky and sea, formed the unnatural apex of a natural stairway which led steeply, almost vertically, down to a deep land-locked cove below. The irregular steps carved by nature out of the chalk had been strengthened, and a rough protection added by means of knotted ropes fixed on either side of the dangerous descent.
In the days when the steps had started sheer from a cleft in the cliff path, Jacques de Wissant had never used this way of reaching a spot which till last year had been his property, and his favourite bathing-place; and he had also, in those same quiet days which now seemed so long ago, forbidden his daughters to use that giddy way. But Claire was a fearless woman; and she had always | | 6 preferred the dangerous, ladder-like stairs which seemed, when gazed at from below, to hang 'twixt sky and sea.
Now, however, she rarely availed herself of the right retained by her husband of using one of the two keys which unlocked the door set in the new brick tower, for the cove—only by courtesy could it be called a bay—had been chosen, owing to its peculiar position, naturally remote and yet close to a great maritime port, to be the quarters of the Northern Submarine Flotilla.
Jacques de Wissant—and it was perhaps the only time in their joint life that his wife had entirely understood and sympathized with any action of her husband's—had refused the compensation his Government had offered him; more, in his cold, silent way, he had shown himself a patriot in a sense comparatively few modern men have the courage to be, namely, in that which affected both his personal comfort and his purse.
After standing for a moment on the perilously small and narrow platform which made the floor of the tower, Claire grasped firmly a strand of the knotted rope and began descending the long steps cut in the cliff side. She no longer gazed out to sea, instead she | | 7 looked straight down into the pale green, sun-flecked waters of the little bay, where seven out of the nine submarines which composed the flotilla were lying half-submerged, as is their wont in harbour.
A landsman, coming suddenly upon the cliff-locked pool, might have thought that the centuries had rolled back, and that the strange sight before him was a school of saurians lazily sunning themselves in the placid waters of a sea inlet where time had stood still.
But no such vision came to Claire de Wissant. As she went down the cliff-side her lovely eyes rested on these sinister, man-created monsters with a feeling of sisterly, possessive affection. She had become so familiarly acquainted with each and all of them in the last few months; she knew with such a curious, intimate knowledge where they differed, both from each other and also from other submarine craft, not only here, in these familiar waters, but in the waters of France's great rival on the sea. . . .
It ever gave her a thrill of pride to remember that it was France which first led the way in this, the most dangerous as also the most adventurous new arm of naval warfare: and she rejoiced as fiercely, as exultantly as any of her sea-fighting forbears would have done | | 8 in the terrible potentialities of destruction which each of these strange, grotesque-looking craft bore in their narrow flanks.
It was now the hour of the crews' midday meal; there were fewer men standing about than usual; and so, after she had stepped down on the sandy strip of shore, and climbed the ladder leading to the old Napoleonic hulk which served as workshop and dwelling-place of the officers of the flotilla, Madame de Wissant for a few moments stood solitary, and looked musingly down into the waters of the bay.
Each submarine, its long, fish-like shape lying prone in the almost still, transparent water, differed not only in size, but in make, from its fellows, and no two conning towers even were alike.
Lying apart, as if sulking in a corner, was an example of the old "Gymnote" type of under-sea boat. She went by the name of the Carp, and she was very squat, small and ugly, her telescopic conning tower being of hard canvas.
To Claire, the Carp always recalled an old Breton woman she had known as a girl. That woman had given thirteen sons to France, and of the thirteen five had died while serving with the colours—three at sea and two in Tonkin— | | 9 and a grateful country had given her a pension of ten francs a week, two francs for each dead son.
Like that Breton woman, the ugly, sturdy little Carp had borne heroes in her womb, and like her, too, she had paid terrible toll of her sons to death.
Occasionally, but very seldom now, the Carp was taken out to sea, and the men, strange to say, liked being in her, for they regarded her as a lucky boat; she had never had what they called a serious accident.
Sunk deeper in the water was the broad-backed Abeille, significantly named "La Pétroleuse," the heroine of four explosions, no favourite with either crews or commanders; and, cradled in a low dock on the farther strip of beach, was stretched the Triton, looking like a huge fish which had panted itself to death. The Triton also was not a lucky boat; she had been the theatre of a terrible mishap when, for some inexplicable cause, the conning tower had failed to close. Claire was always glad to see her safe in dock.
Out in the middle of the bay was La Glorieuse, a submarine of the latest type. Had she not lain so low, little more than her flying bridge being above the water, she would have put her elder sisters to shame, so exquisitely shaped | | 10 was she. Everything about La Glorieuse was made delicately true to scale, and she could carry a crew of over twenty men. But somehow Claire de Wissant did not care for this miniature leviathan as she did for the older kind of submarine, and, with more reason for his prejudice, the officer in charge of the flotilla shared her feeling. Commander Dupré thought La Glorieuse difficult to handle under water. But he had had the same opinion of the Neptune, one of the two submarines which were out this fine August morning. . . .
An eager "Bonjour, madame," suddenly sounded in Claire de Wissant's ear, and she turned quickly to find one of the younger officers at her elbow.
"The Neptune is a few minutes late," he said smiling. "I hope your sister has enjoyed her cruise!" He was looking with admiring and grateful eyes at the young wife of the Mayor of Falaise, for Claire de Wissant and her widowed sister, Madeleine Baudoin, were very kind and hospitable to the officers of the submarine flotilla.
The life of both officers and men who volunteer for this branch of the service is grim and arduous. And if this is generally true of them all, it was specially so of those who served under Commander Dupré. By a tacit agree- | | 11 ment with their chief, they took no part in the summer gaieties of the watering-place which has grown up round the old port of Falaise, and out of duty hours they would have led dull lives indeed had it not been for the hospitality shown them by the owners of the Pavillon de Wissant, and for the welcome which awaited them in the freer, gayer atmosphere of Madame Baudoin's villa, the Châlet des Dunes.
Madeleine Baudoin was a lively, cheerful woman, younger in nature if not in years than her beautiful sister, and so she was naturally more popular with the younger officers. They had felt especially flattered when Madame Baudoin had allowed herself to be persuaded to go out for a couple of hours in the Neptune; till this morning neither of the sisters had ever ventured out to sea in a submarine.
And now 'twas true that the Neptune had been out longer than her commander had said she would be, but no touch of fear brushed Claire de Wissant; she would have trusted what she held most precious in the world—her children—to Commander Dupré's care, and a few moments after her companion had spoken she suddenly saw the little tricolor, for which her keen eyes had for long swept the sea, bravely riding the waves, and making straight for the bay.| | 12
The flag moving swiftly over the surface of the blue water was a curious, almost an uncanny sight; one which never failed to fill Claire with a kind of spiritual exaltation. For the tiny strip of waving colour was a symbol of the gallantry, of the carelessness of danger, lying under the dancing, sun-flecked ripples which alone proved that the tricolor was not some illusion of sorcery.
And then, as if the submarine had been indeed a sentient, living thing, the Neptune lifted her great shield-like back up out of the sea and glided through the narrow neck of the bay, and so close under the long deck on which Madame de Wissant and her companion were standing.
The eager, busy hum of work slackened—discipline is not perhaps quite so taut in the French as it is in the British Navy—for both men and officers were one and all eager to see the lady who had ventured out in the Neptune with their commander. Only those actually on board had seen Madame Baudoin embark; there was a long, rough jetty close to her house, the lonely Châet des Dunes, and it was from there the submarine had picked up her honoured passenger.
But when Commander Dupré's stern, sunburnt face suddenly appeared above the con- | | 13 ning tower, the men vanished as if by enchantment, while the eager, busy hum began again, much as if a lever, setting this human machinery in motion, had been touched by some titanic finger
The officers naturally held their ground.
There was a look of strain in the Commander's blue eyes, and his mouth was set in hard lines; a thoughtful onlooker would have suspected that the exciting, dangerous life he led was trying his nerves. His men knew better; still, though they had no clue to the cause which had changed him, they all knew he had changed greatly of late; to them individually he had become kinder, more human, and that heightened their regret that he was now quitting the Northern Flotilla.
Commander Dupré had asked to be transferred to the Toulon Submarine Station; some experiments were being made there which he was anxious to watch. He was leaving Falaise on the morrow.
Claire de Wissant reddened, and a gleam leapt into her eyes as she met the naval officer's grave, measuring glance. But very soon he looked away from her, for now he was bending down, putting out a hand to help his late passenger to step from the conning tower.| | 14
Smiling, breathless, a little dishevelled, her grey linen skirt crumpled, Madame Baudoin looked round her, dazed for the moment by the bright sunlight. Then she called out gaily:
"Well, Claire! Here I am—alive and very, very hot!"
And as she jumped off the slippery flank of the Neptune, she gave herself and her crumpled gown a little shake, and made a slight, playful grimace.
The bright young faces round her broke into broad grins—those officers who volunteer for the submarine services of the world are chosen young, and they are merry boys.
"You may well laugh, messieurs,"—she threw them all a lively challenging glance—"when I tell you that to-day, for the first time in my life, I acknowledge masculine supremacy! I think that you will admit that we women are not afraid of pain, but the discomfort, the—the stuffiness? Ah, no—I could not have borne much longer the horrible discomfort and stuffiness of that dreadful little Neptune of yours!"
Protesting voices rose on every side. The Neptune was not uncomfortable! The Neptune was not stuffy!
"And I understand"—again she made a little grimace—"that it is quite an exceptional | | 15 thing for the crew to be consoled, as I was today, by an ice-pail!"
"A most exceptional thing," said the youngest lieutenant, with a sigh. His name was Paritot, and he also had been out with the Neptune that morning. "In fact, it only happens in that week which sees four Thursdays—or when we have a lady on board, madame!"
"What a pity it is," said another, "that the old woman who left a legacy to the inventor who devises a submarine life-saving apparatus didn't leave us instead a cream-ice allowance! It would have been a far more practical thing to do."
Madame Baudoin turned quickly to Commander Dupré, who now stood silent, smile-less, at her sister's side.
"Surely you're going to try for this extraordinary prize?" she cried. "I'm sure that you could easily devise something which would gain the old lady's legacy."
"I, madame?" he answered with a start, almost as if he were wrenching himself free from some deep abstraction. "I should not think of trying to do such a thing! It would be a mere waste of time. Besides, there is no real risk—no risk that we are not prepared to run." He looked proudly round at the eager, | | 16 laughing faces of the youngsters who were, till to-morrow night, still under his orders.
"The old lady meant very well," he went on, and for the first time since he had stepped out of the conning tower Commander Dupré smiled. "And I hope with all my heart that some poor devil will get her money! But I think I may promise you that it will not be an officer in the submarine service. We are too busy, we have too many really important things to do, to worry ourselves about life-saving appliances. Why, the first thing we should do if pressed for room would be to throw our life-helmets overboard!"
"Has one of the life-helmets ever saved a life?"
It was Claire who asked the question in her low, vibrating voice.
Commander Dupré turned to her, and he flushed under his sunburn. It was the first time she had spoken to him that day.
"No, never," he answered shortly. And then, after a pause, he added, "the conditions in which these life-helmets could be utilized only occur in one accident in a thousand——"
"Still, they would have saved our comrades in the Lutin," objected Lieutenant Paritot.
The Lutin? There was a moment's silence. | | 17 The evocation of that tricksy sprite, the Ariel of French mythology, whose name, by an ironical chance, had been borne by the most ill-fated of all submarine craft, seemed to bring the shadow of death athwart them all.
Madeleine Baudoin felt a sudden tremor of retrospective fear. She was glad she had not remembered the Lutin when she was sitting, eating ices, and exchanging frivolous, chaffing talk with Lieutenant Paritot in that chamber of little ease, the drum-like interior of the Neptune, where not even she, a small woman, could stand upright.
"Well, well! We must not keep you from your déjeuner!" she cried, shaking off the queer, disturbing sensation. "I have to thank you for—shall I say a very interesting experience? I am too honest to say an agreeable one!"
She shook hands with Commander Dupré and Lieutenant Paritot, the officers who had accompanied her on what had been, now that she looked back on it, perhaps a more perilous adventure than she had realized.
"You're coming with me, Claire?" She looked at her sister—it was a tender, anxious, loving look; Madeleine Baudoin had been the eldest, and Claire de Wissant the youngest, of a Breton admiral's family of three daughters | | 18 and four sons; they two were devoted to one another.
Claire shook her head. "I came to tell you that I can't lunch with you to-day," she said slowly. "I promised I would be back by half-past twelve."
"Then we shall not meet till to-morrow?"
Claire repeated mechanically, "No, not till to-morrow, dear Madeleine."
"May I row you home, madame?" Lieutenant Paritot asked Madeleine eagerly.
"Certainly, mon ami."
And so, a very few minutes later, Claire de Wissant and Commander Dupré were left alone together—alone, that is, save for fifty inquisitive, if kindly, pairs of eyes which saw them from every part of the bay
At last she held out her hand. "Good-bye, then, till to-morrow," she said, her voice so low as to be almost inaudible.
"No, not good-bye yet! "he cried imperiously. "You must let me take you up the cliff to-day. It may be—I suppose it is—the last time I shall be able to do so."
Hardly waiting for her murmured word of assent, he led the way up the steep, ladder-like stairway cut in the cliff side; half-way up there were some very long steps, and it was from above that help could best be given. He | | 19 longed with a fierce, aching longing that she would allow him to take her two hands in his and draw her up those high, precipitous steps. But of late Claire had avoided accepting from him, her friend, this simple, trifling act of courtesy. And now twice he turned and held out a hand, and twice she pretended not to see it.
At last, within ten feet of the top of the cliff, they came to the steepest, rudest step of all—a place some might have thought very dangerous.
Commander Dupré bent down and looked into Claire's uplifted face. "Let me at least help you up here," he said hoarsely.
She shook her head obstinately—but suddenly he felt her tremulous lips touch his lean, sinewy hand, and her hot tears fall upon his fingers.
He gave a strangled cry of pain and of pride, of agony and of rapture, and for a long moment he battled with an awful temptation. How easy it would be to gather her into his arms, and, with her face hidden on his breast, take a great leap backwards into nothingness. . . .
But he conquered the persuasive devil who had been raised—women do not know how easy it is to rouse this devil—by Claire's moment of piteous self-revelation.| | 20
And at last they stood together on the narrow platform where she, less than an hour ago, had stood alone.
Sheltered by the friendly, ugly red walls of the little tower, they were as remote from their kind as if on a rock in the midst of the sea. More, she was in his power in a sense she had never been before, for she had herself broken down the fragile barrier with which she had hitherto known how to keep him at bay. But he felt rather than saw that it was herself she would despise if now, at the eleventh hour, he took advantage of that tremulous kiss of renunciation, of those hot tears of anguished parting—and so—"Then at eleven o'clock to-morrow morning?" he said, and he felt as if it was some other man, not he himself, who was saying the words. He took her hand in farewell—so much he could allow himself—and all unknowing crushed her fingers in his strong, convulsive grasp.
"Yes," she said, "at eleven to-morrow morning Madeleine and I will be waiting out on the end of the jetty."
He thought he detected a certain hesitancy in her voice.
"Are you sure you still wish to come?" he said gravely. "I would not wish you to do anything that would cause you any fear—or | | 21 any discomfort. Your sister evidently found it a very trying experience to-day——"
Claire smiled. Her hand no longer hurt her; her fingers had become quite numb.
"Afraid?" she said, and there was a little scorn in her voice. And then, "Ah me! I only wish that there were far more risk than there is about that which we are going to do together to-morrow." She was in a dangerous mood, poor soul—the mood that raises a devil in men. But perhaps her good angel came to help her, for suddenly, "Forgive me," she said humbly. "You know I did not mean that! Only cowards wish for death."
And then, looking at him, she averted her eyes, for they showed her that, if that were so, Dupré was indeed a craven.
"Au revoir," she whispered; "au revoir till to-morrow morning."
When half-way through the door, leading on to the lonely stretch of down, she turned round suddenly. "I do not want you to bring any ices for me to-morrow."
"I never thought of doing so," he said simply. And the words pleased Claire as much as anything just then could pleasure her, for they proved that her friend did not class her in his mind with those women who fear discomfort more than danger.| | 22
It had been her own wish to go out with Commander Dupré for his last cruise in northern waters. She had not had the courage to deny herself this final glimpse of him—they were never to meet again after to-morrow—in his daily habit as he lived.
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