The Sinking Boat

The darkness was thickening. Godfrey d’Etigues lit a lamp. Oscar de Bennetot went to the château to get some dinner. He must have made a hasty meal, for he was back in about a quarter of an hour. The two cousins settled down to the death vigil. Even in that dim light Ralph could see that their faces were sinister. He could see the nervous twitchings which the thought of the crime so near at hand provoked.

“You ought to have brought a bottle of rum,” growled Oscar de Bennetot. “There are occasions on which one had better not perceive too clearly what one is doing.”

“This is not one of them,” said the Baron coldly. “On the contrary, we shall need to have all our wits about us.”

“It’s a nice business,” growled de Bennetot.

“Then you ought to have argued it out with Beaumagnan and refused him your help,” said the Baron impatiently.

“It was impossible,” murmured de Bennetot.

“Then obey,” said the Baron sternly.

The time passed slowly. No sound came from the château or from the sleeping countryside.

Once de Bennetot rose, went to their prisoner, and bending down, listened. Then he turned to the Baron and said:

“She is not even groaning. She certainly is a woman of character.”

He went back to his chair and added in a low voice in which there was a note of fear: “Do you believe all these things they say about her?”

“What things?”

“About her age?⁠ ⁠… And all those stories of bygone days?”

“They’re rubbish!” said the Baron scornfully. “Beaumagnan believes in them at any rate.”

“Who knows what Beaumagnan believes, or what he doesn’t?” said the Baron impatiently.

“Nevertheless you must admit, Godfrey, that it’s an infernally odd business⁠ ⁠… and that everything goes to show that she was not born yesterday.”

“Yes: that is so,” murmured Godfrey d’Etigues.

“For my part, when I read that paper Beaumagnan drew up, I spoke to her as if she really had been living all those years ago.”

“Then you do believe it?”

“More or less. But stop talking about it. I’ve already had a good deal more than I bargained for in getting mixed up in this affair. If I had only known what it meant before I started on it, I swear to you⁠—” he raised his voice⁠—“I would have refused to have anything to do with it, and made no bones about it. Only⁠—”

He broke off short. The subject was in the highest degree distasteful to him and he did not wish to say a word more about this infinitely painful business.

But de Bennetot went on: “Yes, and I swear to you that for two pins I’d clear out now; and all the more, look you, because I’ve a notion that Beaumagnan has us all nicely hooked. As I told you before he knows a lot more about the business than we do; and we’re just puppets in his hands. One day or other, when he no longer has any need of us, he’ll bid us a fond farewell and we shall see that he has worked the whole business for his own advantage. I’d bet on it. However⁠—”

Godfrey put his finger to his lip and murmured: “Be quiet. She can hear you.”

“What does that matter?” said de Bennetot. “In a little while she’ll⁠—”

The words died away on his lips; and they seemed no longer to dare to break the silence. Every quarter of an hour the clock of the village church chimed. Ralph fancied he could see their lips move as they counted the strokes, gazing fearfully at one another without saying anything.

But when that clock struck ten, Godfrey d’Etigues banged his fist down on the table with a violence that made the lamp jingle.

“Hell take it! It’s time we started.”

“What a disgusting job it is!” growled de Bennetot. “Are we going by ourselves?”

“The others want to come with us. But I shall send them back from the top of the cliff, since they believe in that English ship,” said the Baron.

“I should much prefer that we went in a body,” said de Bennetot.

“Oh, be quiet! My instructions are that only you and I are to handle the matter. The others might get talking; and that would be a pretty kettle of fish. Hullo! Here they are!”

The others turned out to be the three who had not taken the train, that is to say d’Ormont, Rufus d’Estiers, and Rolleville. The latter was carrying a stable lamp which the Baron made him extinguish.

“No lights,” he said. “Somebody would see it moving about on the cliff and start gossiping about it. Have the servants gone to bed?”

“Yes,” said Rufus d’Estiers. “And Clarice?”

“She must be upstairs. We haven’t seen anything of her,” said Rolleville.

“As a matter of fact, she’s a little out of sorts today,” said the Baron. “Let’s be getting off.”

D’Ormont and Rolleville took the handles of the stretcher. They crossed the park and then a field to the lane which led from the village to the priest’s staircase. The starless sky was black with heavy clouds; and in the darkness the little procession, practically feeling its way, stumbled over ruts and banks. Curses kept slipping out; the Baron d’Etigues angrily hushed them.

“Will you stop that noise, confound you!” he muttered savagely. “Somebody will recognize our voices!”

“Who will recognize our voices, Godfrey? There’s absolutely nobody about, for you took your precautions with regard to the coastguards,” de Bennetot protested.

“Yes, they’re safe enough. They’re at the inn, guests of a man I can rely on. Nevertheless it’s just possible that a patrol is making its round.”

There came a depression in the plateau which the road followed. Then it rose again; and they made their way as best they might to the spot at which the staircase rose to the top of the cliff.

It had been hollowed out of the cliff many years before on the suggestion of a priest of Benouville, in order that the country people might descend to the beach. It was lighted by openings cut through the chalk. Through them there were magnificent views of the sea, whose waves were dashing against the rocks below, and into which one seemed to be on the point of plunging.

“It’s going to be a difficult job, to get that stretcher down those steps,” said Rolleville. “We’d better help you. At any rate we can light the staircase for you.”

“No,” said the Baron with decision. “It is wiser to separate. So back you get.”

The three of them obeyed without further protest. The Baron lighted a bull’s-eye lantern; and without any delay the two cousins set about the difficult task of getting the stretcher down the staircase.

It proved a long job. The steps were steep and the turnings in the cliff were sometimes so narrow that they were compelled to raise the stretcher right on end to get it round them. The little lamp afforded but a feeble light that illumined but a few steps at a time.

De Bennetot soon lost his temper, and to such a degree that with the natural brutality of a badly brought up boor he proposed simply to “chuck the whole thing down,” that is to say, to push the unfortunate girl, litter and all, through one of the openings in the chalk.

At last they reached the beach, which was composed of a fine gravel, and stopped to recover their breath. A little way off two boats were drawn up side by side. The sea, quite calm, unruffled by the smallest wave, lapped against their keels. De Bennetot pointed out the hole he had made in the bottom of the smaller of the two, which for the time being was closed by a kind of stopper of straw. They set the stretcher on the three thwarts.

“Let’s tie the whole lot together,” said Godfrey d’Etigues.

De Bennetot made a very sensible objection; he said: “And if ever there’s a search, and this boat and stretcher and girl are found tied together at the bottom of the sea, this stretcher will prove damned awkward evidence against us.”

“We’ve got to go far enough out to make it impossible for anyone to recover anything ever,” said the Baron. “Besides it’s an old stretcher which hasn’t been used for the last twenty years. I routed it out from a loft full of lumber. There’s nothing to fear from that.”

He spoke in a shaky, fearful voice that de Bennetot hardly recognized.

“What’s the matter with you, Godfrey?” he asked.

“The matter with me? What should be the matter with me?” muttered the Baron more than a trifle indistinctly.

“Then?⁠ ⁠…”

“Then shove the boat down into the water.⁠ ⁠… But first of all, according to the instructions of Beaumagnan, we’ve got to remove her gag and ask her if there is any last wish she wants carrying out. You’d better get it over.”

“Me?” de Bennetot almost howled. “Me touch her? Me see her? I’d rather die!⁠ ⁠… Suppose you do it!”

“I couldn’t.⁠ ⁠… I’ll be damned if I could,” murmured the Baron huskily.

“But she’s guilty.⁠ ⁠… She committed those murders.”

“Of course.⁠ ⁠… Of course.⁠ ⁠… At least it’s probable that she did.⁠ ⁠… The only thing is she looked such a gentle creature.”

“Yes,” said de Bennetot. “And she’s so pretty⁠—as beautiful as the Virgin.”

With one accord they fell on their knees on the pebbles and started to pray aloud for the girl who was about to die and on whose behalf they called for “the intervention of the Virgin Mary.”

Godfrey mingled verses from the burial service with prayers and de Bennetot punctuated them at intervals with fervent amens. This appeared to restore their courage a trifle, for they suddenly rose, burning to get the business over.

De Bennetot brought the great boulder he had ready, and tied it firmly to the iron ring. They pushed the boat down the beach into the still water. Then, together, they pushed the other boat down the beach and clambered into it. Godfrey took the two oars while de Bennetot tied the painter of the boat of the doomed woman to the last thwart of the boat they were in, then shipped the rudder.

So they rowed out to sea to the quiet accompaniment of dripping oars. Shadows darker than the night allowed them to make their slow way safely between lowering rocks towards the open sea. But, at the end of twenty minutes, their progress grew slower and slower; and they came to a stop.

“I can’t go any further,” said the Baron in a faint voice. “My arms have given out. It’s your turn.”

“I couldn’t move her a yard,” de Bennetot protested with manifest sincerity.

Godfrey made another attempt and gave it up.

“What’s the use?” he said. “Surely we’ve got far enough out and to spare. What do you think?”

“Of course we have,” said de Bennetot quickly⁠—“especially since there’s a breeze from the shore which will take the boat further out still.”

“Then pull that straw out of the hole.”

“You’ve got to do that,” protested de Bennetot, to whom the act seemed the very act of murder.

“Enough of that nonsense!” growled the Baron savagely, “Get on with it!”

De Bennetot pulled on the painter. The other boat came slowly up alongside, its gunwale rubbing the gunwale of the boat they were in. He had only to lean over to lay his hand on the straw.

“I’m afraid G-G-Godfrey,” he stammered. “By my eternal salvation, it is not I who do this, but you. Understand that.”

Godfrey growled like a wild beast, sprang forward, thrust him aside, bent over the gunwale, and tore the bolt of straw out of the hole.

There came a gurgle of rising water; and it upset him to such a degree that, in a sudden revulsion of feeling, he wished to stop up the hole again.

He was too late, de Bennetot had slipped into his seat and taken up the oars. Recovering all his strength in an access of panic at that sinister sound, he pulled with such violence that a single stroke drove their boat several fathoms from the other.

“Stop!” shouted the Baron. “Stop! I wish to save her! Stop! Curse you!⁠ ⁠… It’s you who are killing her, not me!⁠ ⁠… Murderer! I would have saved her!”

But de Bennetot, mad with terror, incapable of hearing or of understanding, was plying the oars with a fury that threatened to break them.

The corpse, for what else could one call this inert creature, helpless and doomed to death in that scuttled boat, remained alone. The sea must inevitably fill the boat in a few minutes, and it must sink beneath the waves.

Godfrey realized that. Therefore, making the best of it, he took the other pair of oars, and without caring whether anyone heard the splashes or not, the two confederates strove with the most desperate efforts to escape with the utmost possible speed from the scene of their crime. They dreaded to hear some faint cry of anguish or the terrible murmur of an object that sinks and over which the water closes forever.

The doomed boat floated almost without movement on the surface of the sea, on which the air, loaded with low clouds, appeared to weigh with an extraordinary heaviness.

D’Etigues and de Bennetot must have been halfway back to the shore. The sound of their flight was no longer heard. At that moment the boat heeled over to starboard; and in a kind of stupor of terror and agony that dazed her, the young woman thought that the end had come. She did not wince; she did not shiver. The acceptance of death produces a state of mind in which one seems already on the other side of the grave.

However she was faintly astonished not to feel the touch of icy water. At the moment it was the thing from which her delicate flesh most shrank. No; the boat was not plunging under. It seemed more likely rather to capsize because somebody had passed a leg over the gunwale. Somebody? But who? The Baron? His confederate?

She learned that it was neither the one nor the other, for a voice which she did not know murmured:

“You can stop being frightened. It’s a friend who has come to rescue you.”

This friend bent over her and without even knowing whether she heard or not, continued: “You have never seen me⁠ ⁠… my name is Ralph⁠ ⁠… Ralph d’Andresy.⁠ ⁠… It’s all right now⁠ ⁠… I’ve stopped the hole with a stocking rolled round one of the rowlocks. It’s a makeshift; but it will work all right⁠—especially since we are going to get rid of this great boulder.”

With his knife he cut the ropes which fastened the young woman to the stretcher, cut loose the boulder, and succeeded in heaving it overboard.

Then drawing aside the folds of the rug which enveloped her, he said:

“You can’t think how delighted I am things have turned out so much better than I expected. Here you are, safe! The water has not even had time to reach you. What luck we’ve had! You’re feeling all right?”

She whispered so low that he hardly heard it:

“No.⁠ ⁠… My ankle.⁠ ⁠… Their ropes twisted my foot and cut into it.”

“That will soon be all right,” he said. “The important thing is to get back to the shore. Your two executioners will have certainly landed by now and must be scrambling up the staircase as hard as they can climb. So we have nothing to fear from them.”

He got to work quickly. He took the two oars, which de Bennetot had not taken the trouble to remove⁠—unless perhaps he had thought that if the boat were found it would look less suspicious if the oars were in it⁠—and began to row towards the shore, telling her how he had come to her help in the nick of time, in a cheerful, careless voice, as if nothing more extraordinary had happened than happens at an ordinary picnic.

“Let me introduce myself in a rather more formal way, though I’m not particularly presentable at the moment, since I am only dressed in my shirt, one stocking, and a knife hanging from a string from my neck,” he said. “I am Ralph d’Andresy, at your service⁠—since chance willed it. And a very simple chance it was.⁠ ⁠… I overheard a conversation.⁠ ⁠… I learned that there was a plot in action against a certain lady. So I took the liberty of forestalling it. I hurried down to the beach, undressed, and when the two cousins came out of the entrance of the tunnel I slipped into the water. All I had to do then was to hide behind your boat and catch hold of the stern when they started to tow it out to sea. And that was what I did do. Neither of them had the slightest idea that they were taking out with their victim a champion swimmer who had made up his mind to save her. But I’ll tell you more about it later when you’re in a state to understand. I’ve got an idea that at the moment I’m babbling away to the empty air.”

He paused.

“I’m feeling very ill,” she murmured. “I’m utterly worn out.”

“I can tell you what to do,” he said quickly. “Lose consciousness. Nothing is so restful as to lose consciousness.”

She seemed to follow his advice, for after a little moan or two, she began to breathe quietly and regularly. He covered her up with the rug and fell to rowing again.

“It’s better as it is,” he said to himself. “I can act exactly as I like without having to explain what I’m doing.”

The fact that there was no one to listen to him did not prevent him from indulging in a sustained monologue, with all the satisfaction of a man who is exceedingly pleased with himself and everything he does. The boat moved quickly towards the shore. The dark mass of the cliffs loomed ahead.

When the keel of the boat ground its way into the pebbles, he jumped out of it, then lifted the unconscious young woman, with an ease which demonstrated the uncommon strength of his muscles, and carried her to the foot of the cliff.

“Boxing champion also,” said he⁠—“to say nothing of the Greco-Roman style. I don’t mind telling you, since you cannot hear me, that I found these useful accomplishments in my inheritance from father⁠ ⁠… and a jolly lot of others! But enough of this trifling. Rest here, under this rock, where you’re safe from the treacherous waves.⁠ ⁠… I shall be back presently. I expect you will be very keen on taking vengeance on those two cousins. That makes it necessary that the boat should not be found and that they should believe you thoroughly and completely drowned. So do not be impatient.”

Without wasting any more time he put this plan into execution. Once more he rowed out the boat to the open sea, pulled out the rowlock and his stocking out of the hole, and, sure that it would sink, took to the water again. As soon as he reached the shore, he put on his clothes which he had hidden in a cranny in the cliff.

He went back to the young woman and said: “Come, the next job is to climb to the top of the cliff; and it’s not the easiest job in the world.”

Little by little she came out of her swoon and he saw faintly the glimmer of her open eyes.

With his help she tried to stand upright, but uttered a cry of pain, and would have fallen but for his arm. He lowered her to the ground, took off her shoe, and found that her stocking was all bloody. It was in no way a serious injury, but uncommonly painful. He used his handkerchief as a temporary bandage. They had to be getting on their way; and he hoisted her on to his shoulder and began the ascent of the staircase.

Three hundred and fifty steps! If Godfrey d’Etigues and Oscar de Bennetot had had great difficulty in carrying, the two of them, the young woman down, what an immense effort was demanded by the ascent, and that from a young man! Four times he had to stop, streaming with sweat, feeling that he would never be able to go on. Nevertheless he went on, all the while with a cheerfulness no fatigue could dash. At the third halt, having sat down with the girl on his knee, he found that she was laughing faintly at his jokes and unflagging spirit. At last he finished the ascent with her charming form hugged tightly to him, his hands and his arms assuring him of its supple firmness.

When he reached the top he gave himself but the shortest rest, for a fresh breeze had risen and was clearing the sky. Fortunately they had no great distance to go to find security; and with a last brisk effort he carried her across a field into a lonely barn which he had had in mind all the while. He carried her up the ladder into the loft, laid her on a heap of straw, covered her with the rug, told her that she was safe and need fear nothing and that he would soon be back. Then he closed the trap-door, unhooked the ladder, hid it under straw, and hurried to the sleeping inn. With catlike quietness he filled a basket with some cold meat, cheese, bread, a bottle of wine, a bottle of water, and a lantern. He was soon back at the barn, climbed up into the loft with his basket, drew up the ladder, and shut the trapdoor.

“Twelve hour’s sleep and safety!” he said in a tone of satisfaction. “No one will disturb us here. At noon tomorrow I’ll get a carriage for you and take you wherever you like.”

Here they were then, shut up together after the most tragic and marvellous adventure that one could imagine. How far away it all seemed now⁠—all those dreadful scenes of the day! The tribunal of enquiry, the inexorable judges, the sinister executioners, Beaumagnan, Godfrey d’Etigues, the condemnation, the descent down to the sea, the boat sinking in the darkness, what nightmares already dim! They had come to an end in an intimate comradeship of victim and rescuer.

By the light of the lantern hanging from a beam he gave the young woman food and drink and dressed her wound with infinite gentleness. Protected by him, far from the snares and hatred of her enemies, Josephine Balsamo lay back in utter trustfulness. She shut her eyes and fell asleep.

The lamp illumined clearly her beautiful face, flushed by the fever of so many emotions. Ralph knelt down in front of her and contemplated her at length. Finding the heat of the barn oppressive, she had unfastened the top of her bodice; and he could see her admirably shaped shoulders and the purity of the line where they joined the neck.

He bethought himself of that black mark of which Beaumagnan had spoken, and which was plain to see in the miniature. How could he have resisted the temptation to make sure if it were really there on the bosom of the woman he had saved from death? Gently he drew down the top of her frock. Low down on her right shoulder a beauty spot, black as one of those mouches which coquettes used formerly to stick at the corner of their lips, marked the white and silky skin and rose and fell with the even rhythm of her breathing.

“Who are you? Who are you?” he murmured, greatly troubled. “From what world do you come?”

He too, like the others, was conscious of an inexplicable discomfort; like them felt the mysterious impression that emanated from this strange creature, accentuated by those curious details of her life and by her astonishing beauty. And he could not help questioning her as if she were able to answer on behalf of the woman who had, those long years, before been the model of the miniature.

Her lips formed words which he did not understand. And he was so near to them and the breath they breathed forth was so sweet that, trembling like a leaf, he brushed them with his own.

She sighed. Her eyes opened. At the sight of Ralph on his knees before her she blushed and at the same time smiled; and this smile still wreathed her lips when her heavy eyelids had come down again over her eyes and she had sunk back into her slumber.

Ralph was distracted; quivering with passionate admiration, Clarice utterly forgotten, he murmured the most exalted phrases and clasped his hands as before an idol to which he was addressing a hymn of the most ardent and frenzied adoration.

“Oh, how beautiful you are!⁠ ⁠… I did not think there was so much beauty in the world.⁠ ⁠… Do not go on smiling.⁠ ⁠… I can quite understand that men desire to make you weep⁠—your smile is so troubling.⁠ ⁠… One would like to efface it so that no one might ever see it again. Ah, do not smile at anyone but me, I implore you!”

Then in a lower voice and even more passionately he continued:

“Josephine Balsamo. How sweet your name is! And how much more mysterious it makes you! Did Beaumagnan call you a witch?⁠ ⁠… He was wrong. You’re an enchantress.⁠ ⁠… You have emerged from the darkness and you’re the light⁠—the light of the sun!⁠ ⁠… Josephine Balsamo.⁠ ⁠… Enchantress⁠ ⁠… Magician!⁠ ⁠… What a world opens before me!⁠ ⁠… What a wealth of happiness I see.⁠ ⁠… My life began at the very moment at which I took you in my arms. I have no other memories but the memory of you.⁠ ⁠… All my hope is in you.⁠ ⁠… Heavens how beautiful you are!⁠ ⁠… It is enough to make one weep with despair.”

He uttered these impassioned words, leaning over her, his mouth close to her mouth; but the kiss he had stolen was the only caress he allowed himself. There was not only a voluptuousness in the smile of Josephine Balsamo, but also such a modesty that he felt a profound respect for her; and his exaltation ended in the words of genuine gravity, full of juvenile devotion.

“I will help you.⁠ ⁠… The rest of the world shall be able to do nothing against you.⁠ ⁠… If you desire to reach, in spite of them, the goal at which they are aiming, I promise you that you shall succeed.⁠ ⁠… Far from you or near you, I shall always be your defender and savior. Trust in my devotion.”

At last he went to sleep, murmuring promises and oaths which had become rather incoherent; and it was a profound and dreamless sleep like the sleep of children who have to restore their overdriven young organizations.

The church clock struck eleven. He counted the strokes with a growing surprise.

“Eleven o’clock in the morning! Is it really possible?” he cried.

The light was filtering in through the chinks in the shutters and through openings under the old thatched roof. On the right, even, a ray of sunlight fell on the floor.

“Where are you?” he said in a dazed voice. “I do not see you.”

The lamp had been extinguished. He sprang to the shutters and pulled them open. A flood of light filled the loft; but it did not reveal Josephine Balsamo.

He sprang upon the trusses of hay and in a childish fury flung them aside. No one. Josephine Balsamo had disappeared. He hurried down from the loft, hunted through the park, fairly ransacked the plateau and the road. In vain. In spite of the injury to her foot which had, the night before, made it impossible for her to set it on the ground. She had left their hiding place, crossed the park and the plateau and got away.⁠ ⁠…

He returned to the barn to make a minute inspection of it. He did not have to seek long. He saw on the floor a rectangular piece of cardboard.

He picked it up. It was the photograph of the Countess of Cagliostro. On the back of it, written in pencil, were these two lines:

“My rescuer has all my gratitude, but he must not try to see me again.”