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Jacques de Wissant sat at his desk in the fine old room which is set aside for the mayor's sole use in the town hail of Falaise.
He was waiting for Admiral de Saint Vilquier, whom he had summoned on the plea of a matter both private and urgent. In his note, of which he had written more than one draft, he had omitted none of the punctilio usual in French official correspondence, and he had asked pardon, in the most formal language, for asking the Admiral to come to him, instead of proposing to go to the Admiral.
The time that had elapsed since he had parted from his sister-in-law had seemed like | | 73 years instead of hours, and yet every moment of those hours had been filled with action.
From the Châlet des Dunes Jacques had made his way straight to the Pavillon de Wissant, and there his had been the bitter task of lying to his household.
They had accepted unquestioningly his statement that their mistress, without waiting even to go home, had left the Châlet des Dunes with her sister for Italy owing to the arrival of sudden worse news from Mantua.
While Claire's luggage was being by his orders hurriedly prepared, he had changed his clothes; and then, overcome with mortal weariness, with sick, sombre suspense, he had returned to Falaise, taking the railway station on his way to the town hall, and from there going through the grim comedy of despatching his wife's trunks to Paris.
Since the day war was declared by France on Germany, there had never been at the town hall of Falaise so busy an afternoon. Urgent messages of inquiry and condolence came pouring in from all over the civilized world, and the mayor had to compose suitable answers to them all.
To him there also fell the painful duty of officially announcing to the crowd surging impatiently in the market place—though room | | 74 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 which had gone down.
He had seen the effect of that announcement painted on rough, worn, upturned faces; he had heard the cries of anger, the groans of despair of the few, and bad witnessed the relief, the tears of joy of the many. But his heart felt numb,and his cold, stern manner kept the emotions and excitement of those about him in check.
At last there had come a short respite. It was publicly announced that owing to the currents the divers had had to suspend their work awhile, but that salvage appliances from England and from Cherbourg were on their way to Falaise,and that it was hoped by seven that evening active operations would begin. With luck the Neptune might be raised before midnight.
Fortunate people blessed with optimistic natures were already planning a banquet at which the crew of the Neptune were to be entertained within an hour of the rescue.
Jacques de Wissant rose from the massive First Empire table which formed part of the fine suite of furniture presented by the great | | 75 Napoleon just a hundred years ago to the municipality of Falaise.
With bent head, his hands clasped behind him, the mayor began walking up and down the long room.
Admiral de Saint Vilquier might now come at any moment, but the man awaiting him had not yet made up his mind how to word what he had to say—how much to tell, how much to conceal from, his wife's old friend. He was only too well aware that if the desperate attempts which would soon be made to raise the Neptune were successful, and if its human freight were rescued alive, the fact that there had been a woman on board could not be concealed. Thousands would know to-night, and millions to-morrow morning.
Not only would the amazing story provide newspaper readers all over the world with a thrilling, unexpected piece of news, but the fact that there had been a woman involved in the disaster would be perpetuated, as long as our civilization endures, in every account of subsequent accidents to submarine craft.
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 marriage for Clairette or Jacqueline.| | 76
As he paced up and down the room, longing for and yet dreading the coming of the Admiral, he visualized what would happen. He could almost hear the whispered words: "Yes, dear friend, the girl is admirably brought up, and has a large fortune, also she and your son have taken quite a fancy for one another, but there is that very ugly story of the mother! Don't you remember that she was with her lover in the submarine Neptune? The citizens of Falaise still laugh at the story and point her out in the street. Like mother like daughter, you know!" Thus the miserable man tortured himself, turning the knife in his wound.
But stay——Supposing the salvage appliances failed, as they had failed at Bizerta, to raise the Neptune? Then with the help of Admiral de Saint Vilquier the awful truth might be kept secret.
At last the door opened.
Jacques de Wissant took a step forward, and as his hand rested loosely for a moment in the old seaman's firmer grasp, he would have given many years of his life to postpone the coming interview.
"As you asked me so urgently to do so, I have come, M. de Wissant, to learn what you | | 77 have to tell me. But I'm afraid the time I can spare you must be short. As you know, I am to be at the station in half an hour to meet the Minister of Marine. He will probably wish to go out at once to the scene of the calamity, and I shall have to accompany him."
The Admiral was annoyed at having been thus sent for to the town hall. It was surely Jacques de Wissant's place to have come to him.
And then, while listening to the other's murmured excuses, the old naval officer happened to look straight into the face of the Mayor of Falaise, and at once a change came over his manner, even his voice softened and altered.
"Pardon my saying so, M. de Wissant," he exclaimed abruptly, "but you look extremely ill! You mustn't allow this sad business to take such a hold on you. It is tragic no doubt that such things must be, but remember"—he uttered the words solemnly—"they are the Price of Admiralty."
"I know, I know," muttered Jacques de Wissant.
"Shall we sit down?"
The deadly pallor, the look of strain on the face of the man before him was making the Admiral feel more and more uneasy. "It would be very awkward" he thought to him- | | 78 self, " were Jacques de Wissant to be taken ill, here, now, with me——Ah, I have it! "
Then he said aloud, "You have doubtless had nothing to eat since the morning? " And as de Wissant nodded—" But that's absurd! It's always madness to go without food. Believe me, you will want all your strength during the next few days. As for me, I had fortunately lunched before I received the sad news. I keep to the old hours; I do not care for your English déjeuners at one o'clock. Midday is late enough for me!"
"Admiral?" said the wretched man, "Admiral——?"
"Yes, take your time; I am not really in such a hurry. I am quite at your disposal."
"It is a question of honour," muttered Jacques de Wissant, "a question of honour, Admiral, or I should not trouble you with the matter."
Admiral de Saint Vilquier leant forward, but Jacques de Wissant avoided meeting the shrewd, searching eyes.
"The honour of a naval family is involved." The Mayor of Falaise was now speaking in a low, pleading voice.
The Admiral stiffened. "Ah!" he exclaimed. "So you have been asked to intercede with me on behalf of some young | | 79 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——"
"——Admiral, it concerns this business."
"The loss of the Neptune? In what way can the honour 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 seaman'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 of Marine, countersigned by an admiral. No such permit has been issued for many months. In no case would a woman be allowed on board. Commander Dupré is far too conscientious, too loyal, an officer to break such a regulation."
"Commander Dupré," said Jacques de Wissant in a low, bitter tone, " was not too conscientious or too loyal an officer to break that regulation, for there is, I repeat it, a woman in the Neptune ."| | 80
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 pallid 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 sincere relief in his voice.
"I beg of you not to ask me, Admiral! The family of the lady 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."The unhappy man 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 | | 81 prevent the fact becoming known?" asked Jacques de Wissant—and, as the other waited a moment before answering, the suspense became almost more than he could endure.
He got up and instinctively stood with his back to the light. "The family of this young lady are willing to make any pecuniary sacrifice——"
"It is not a question of pecuniary sacrifice," the Admiral said stiffly. "Money will never really purchase either secrecy or silence. But honour, M. de Wissant, will sometimes, nay, often, do both."
"Then you think the fact can be concealed? "
"I think it will be impossible to conceal it if the Neptune is raised"—he hesitated, and his voice sank as he added the poignant words "in time. But if that happens, though I fear that it is not likely to happen, then I promise you that I will allow it to be thought that I had given this lady permission, and her improper action will be accepted for what it no doubt was—a foolish escapade. If Dupré and little Paritot are the men of honour I take them to be, one or other of them will of course marry her! "
"And if the Neptune is not raised—" the | | 82 Mayor's voice also dropped to a whisper—"in time—what then?"
"Then," said the Admiral, "everything will be done by me—so you can assure your unlucky friends—to conceal the fact that Commander Dupré failed in his duty. Not for his sake, you understand—he, I fear, deserves what he has suffered, what he is perhaps still suffering,"—a look of horror stole over his old, weather-roughened face—"but for the sake of the foolish girl and for the sake of her family. You say it is a naval family?"
"Yes," said Jacques de Wissant. "A noted naval family."
The Admiral got up. "And now I, on my side, must exact of you a pledge, M. de Wissant—" he looked searchingly at the Government official standing before him. "I solemnly implore you, monsieur, to keep this fact you have told me absolutely secret for the time being—secret even from the Minister of Marine."
The Mayor of Falaise bent his head. "I intend to act," he said slowly, "as if I had never heard it."
"I ask it for the honour, the repute, of the Service," muttered the old officer. "After all, M. de Wissant, the poor fellow did not mean much harm. We sailors have all, at | | 83 different times of our lives, had some bonne amie whom we found it devilish hard to leave on shore!"
The Admiral walked slowly towards 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 honour.
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 which was now added to his other cares. It was simplified in view of the fact—the awful fact—that according to his 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.
All that summer night the cafés and eating-houses of Falaise remained open, and there was a constant coming and going to the beach, where many people, even among those visitors who were not directly interested in the calamity, camped out on the stones.
The mayor sent word to the Pavilion de | | 84 Wissant that he would sleep in his town house, but though he left the town hall at two in the morning he was back at his post by eight, and he spent there the whole of the next long dragging day.
Fortunately for him there was little time for thought. In addition to the messages of inquiry and condolence which went on pouring in, important members of the Government arrived from Paris and the provinces.
There also came to Falaise the mother of Commander Dupré, and the father and brother of Lieutenant Paritot. De Wissant made the latter his special care. They, the two men, were granted the relief of tears, but Madame Dupré's silent agony could not be assuaged.
Once, when he suddenly came upon her sitting, her chin in her hand, in his room at the town hall, Jacques de Wissant shrank from her blazing eyes and ravaged face, so vividly did they recall to him the eyes, the face, he had seen that April evening " 'twixt dog and wolf," when he had first leapt upon the truth.
On the third day all hope that there could be anyone still living in the Neptune was being abandoned, and yet at noon there ran a rumour through the town that knocking had been heard in the submarine. . . .| | 85
The mayor himself drew up an official proclamation, in which it was pointed out that it was almost certain that all on board had perished at the time of the collision, and that, even if any of them had survived for a few hours, not one could be alive now.
And then, as one by one the days of waiting began to wear themselves away, the world, apart from the town which numbered ten of her sons among the doomed men, relaxed its painful interest in the fate of the French submarine. Indeed, Falaise took on an almost winter stillness of aspect, for the summer visitors naturally drifted away from a spot which was still the heart of an awful tragedy.
But Jacques de Wissant did not relax in his duties or in his efforts on behalf of the families of the men who still lay, eighteen fathoms deep, encased in their steel tomb; and the townspeople were deeply moved by their mayor's continued, if restrained, distress. He even put his children, his pretty twin daughters, Jacqueline and Clairette, into deep mourning; this touched the seafaring portion of the population very much.
It also became known that M. de Wissant was suffering from domestic distress of a very sad and intimate kind; his sister-in-law was seriously ill in Italy from an infectious disease, | | 86 and his wife, who had gone away at a moment's notice to help to nurse her, had caught the infection.
The Mayor of Falaise and Admiral de Saint Vilquier did not often have occasion to meet during those days spent by each of them in entertaining official personages and in composing answers to the messages and inquiries which went on dropping in, both by day and by night, at the town hall and at the Admiral's quarters. But there came an hour when Admiral de Saint Vilquier at last sought to have a private word with the Mayor of Falaise.
"I think I have arranged everything satisfactorily," he said briefly, "and you can convey the fact to your friends. I do not suppose, as matters are now, that there is much fear that the truth will ever come out."
The old man did not look into Jacques de Wissant's face while he uttered the comforting words. He had become aware of many things—including Madeleine Baudoin's cruise in the Neptune the day before the accident, and of her own and Claire de Wissant's reported departure for Italy.
Alone, among the people who sometimes had friendly speech of the mayor during those | | 87 sombre days of waiting, Admiral de Saint Vilquier did not condole with the anxious husband on the fact that he could not yet leave Falaise for Mantua.
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