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Jacques de Wissant woke with a start and sat up in bed. He had heard a knock—but, awake or sleeping, his ears were never free of the sound of knocking,—of muffled, regular knocking. . . .
It was the darkest hour of the summer night, but with a sharp sense of relief he became aware that what had wakened him this time was a real sound, not the slow, patient, rhythmical, tapping which haunted him incessantly. But now the knocking had been followed by the opening of his bedroom door, and vaguely outlined before him was the short, squat form of an old woman who had entered his mother's service when he was a little boy, and who always stayed in his town house.
"M'sieur l'Amiral de Saint Vilquier desires to see M'sieur Jacques on urgent business," she whispered. "I have put him | | 88 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—was upon him? He knew this summons to mean that the Neptune had been finally towed into the harbour, and that now, in this still, dark hour before dawn, was about to begin the work of taking out the bodies.
Every day for a week past it had been publicly announced that the following night would see the final scene of the dread drama, and each evening—even last evening—it had been as publicly announced that nothing could be done for the present.
Jacques de Wissant had put all his trust in the Admiral and in the arrangements the Admiral was making to avoid discovery. But now, as he got up and dressed himself—strange to say that phantom sound of knocking had ceased—there came over him a frightful sensation of doubt and fear. Had he been right to trust wholly to the old naval officer? Would it not have been better to have taken the Minister of Marine into his confidence?
How would it be possible for Admiral de Saint Vilquier, unless backed by Governmental authority, to elude the vigilance, not only | | 89 of the Admiralty officials and of all those that were directly interested, but also of the journalists who, however much the public interest had slackened in the disaster, still stayed on at Falaise in order to be present at the last act of the tragedy?
These thoughts jostled each other in Jacques de Wissant's brain. But whether he had been right or wrong it was too late to alter now.
He went into the room where the Admiral stood waiting for him.
The two men shook hands, but neither spoke till they had left the house. Then, as they walked with firm, quick steps across the deserted market-place, the Admiral said suddenly, "This is the quietest hour in the twenty-four, and though I anticipate a little trouble with the journalists, I think everything will go off quite well."
His companion muttered a word of assent, and the other went on, this time in a gruff whisper: "By the way, I have had to tell Dr. Tarnier—" and as Jacques de Wissant gave vent to a stifled exclamation of dismay—"of course I had to tell Dr. Tarnier! He has most nobly offered to go down into the Neptune alone—though in doing so he will run considerable personal risk."
Admiral de Saint Vilquier paused a moment, | | 90 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 that the fact must never be revealed." He spoke in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. " There will not be room on the pontoon for more than five or six, including ourselves and Dr. Tarnier. 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 for the work to be done only at night."
As the two men emerged on the quays, they saw that the news had leaked out, for knots of people stood about, talking in low hushed tones, and staring at the middle of the harbour.
Apart from the others, and almost dangerously close to the unguarded edge below which was the dark lapping water, stood a line of women shrouded in black, and from them came no sound.
As the Admiral and his companion ap- | | 91 proached 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 harbour-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 in which they were to be rowed to the pontoon, there arose an angry discussion. The harbour-master had, it seemed, promised the representatives of two Paris newspapers that they should be present when the submarine was first opened.
But the Admiral stiffly asserted his supreme authority. "In such matters I can allow no favouritism! It is doubtful if any bodies will be taken out 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 harbour of Bizerta when the Lutin was raised, you would now thank me for not allowing you to view the sight which we may be about to see."
And the weary, disappointed special corre- | | 92 spondents, who had spent long days watching for this one hour, realized that they would have to content themselves with describing what could be seen from the quays.
It will, however, surprise no one familiar with the remarkable enterprise of the modern press, when it is recorded that by far the most accurate account of what occurred during the hour that followed was written by a cosmopolitan war correspondent, who had had the good fortune of making Dr. Tarnier's acquaintance during the dull fortnight of waiting.
None of those who were there will ever forget what they saw last night in the harbour of Falaise.
The scene, illumined by the searchlight of a destroyer, was at once sinister, sombre, and magnificent. Below the high, narrow pontoon, on the floor of the harbour, lay the wrecked submarine; and those who gazed down at the Neptune felt as though they were in the presence of what had once been a sentient being done to death by some huge Goliath of the deep.
Dr. Tarnier, the chief medical officer of the port—a man who is beloved and respected by the whole population of Falaise—stood ready to begin his dreadful task. I had ascertained that he had obtained permission to go down alone into the hold of death—an exploration attended with the utmost physical risk.| | 93
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 was then 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 Falaise, M. Jacques de Wissant.
At last there came a guttural exclamation of "Ca y est!" and Dr. Tarnier stepped downwards, to emerge a moment later with the first body, obviously that of the gallant Commander Dupré, who was found, as it was expected he would be, in the conning tower.
Once more the doctor's burly figure disappeared, once more he emerged, tenderly bearing a slighter, lighter burden, obviously 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 the purpose—were lifted from the inner portion of the submarine.
The four bodies, rather to the disappointment of the large crowd which had gradually gathered on the quays, were not taken directly to the shore, to the great hall where Falaise 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 harbour. Thence, when all twelve | | 94 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 Neptune, there ran a curious rumour 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 rumour, though it found an echo in the French press, was not regarded as worth an official denial, and it received its final quietus on the day of the official obsequies, when it was at once seen that the number of ammunition wagons heading the great procession was twelve.
As long as tradition endures in the life of the town, Falaise will remember the Neptune funeral procession. Not only was every navy in the world represented, but also every strand of that loosely woven human fabric we civilized peoples call a nation.| | 95
Through the long line of soldiers, each man with his arms reversed, walked the official mourners, while from the fortifications there boomed the minute gun.
First the President of the French Republic, with, to his right, the Minister of Marine; and close behind them the stiff, still vigorous, figure of old Admiral de Saint Vilquier. By his side walked the Mayor of Falaise—so mortally pale, so what the French call undone, that the Admiral felt fearful lest his neighbour should be compelled to fall out.
But Jacques de Wissant was not minded to fall out.
The crowd looking on, especially the wives of those substantial citizens of the town who stood at their windows behind half-closed shutters and drawn blinds, stared down at the mayor 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 anxiety, for his wife—that beautiful Claire with whom he doesn't get on very well—is in Italy, seriously ill of scarlet fever." "Yes, and as soon as this sad ceremony is over, he will leave for the south—I hear that the President has offered him a seat in his saloon as far as Paris."| | 96
As the head of the procession at last stopped on the great parade ground where the last honours were to be rendered to the lowly yet illustrious dead, Jacques de Wissant straightened himself with an instinctive gesture, and his lips began to move. He was muttering to himself the speech he would soon have to deliver, and which he had that morning, making a great mental effort, committed to memory.
And after the President had had his long, emotional, and flowery say; and when the oldest of French admirals had stepped forward and, in a quavering voice, bidden the dead farewell on behalf of the Navy, it came to the turn of the Mayor of Falaise.
He was there, he said, simply as the mouthpiece of his fellow-townsmen, and they, bowed as they were by deep personal grief, could say but little—they could indeed only murmur their eternal gratitude for the sympathy they had received, and were now receiving, from their countrymen and from the world.
Then Jacques de Wissant gave a brief personal account of each of the ten seamen whom this vast concourse had gathered together to honour. It was noted by the curious in such things that he made no allusion to the two officers, to Commander Dupré and Lieutenant | | 97 Paritot; doubtless he thought that they, after all, had been amply honoured in the preceding speeches.
But though his care for the lowly heroes proved the Mayor of Falaise a good republican, he showed himself in the popular estimation also a scholar, for he wound up with the old tag—the grand old tag which inspired so many noble souls in the proudest of ancient empires and civilizations, and which will retain the power of moving and thrilling generations yet unborn in both the Western and the Eastern worlds:
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."
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