Émile Gaboriau.

The Clique of Gold online

. (page 25 of 39)
Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 25 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


crimes, - for that purpose I have walked in the deepest mud, and stirred
up heaps of infamy. But I have found out all. And yet in the whole life
of Sarah Brandon, - a life of theft and murder, - I have till this moment
not found a single fact which would bring her within the reach of the
law, so cunning is her wickedness."

His face brightened with an air of triumph; and his voice rose high as
he added, -

"But now! This time success seemed to her so sure and so easy, that she
has neglected her usual precautions. Eager to enjoy her millions, and,
in proportion, weary of playing a comedy of love with your father, she
has been too eager. And she is lost if we, on our side, are not also too
eager.

"As to your father, madam, I have my reasons for feeling safe about him.
According to your mother's marriage contract, and in consequence of
a bequest of a million and a half which were left her by one of her
uncles, your father's estate is your debtor to the amount of two
millions; and that sum is invested in mortgages on his estates in Anjou.
That sum he cannot touch, even if he is bankrupt. Should he die before
you, that sum remains still yours; but, if you die before him, it goes
to him. Now Sarah has sworn, in her insatiate cupidity, that she will
have these two millions also."

"Ah," said Henrietta, "you are right! It is Sarah's interest that my
father should live; and he will live, therefore, as long as she does not
know whether I am dead or alive, in fact, as long as she does not know
what has become of me."

"And she must not know that for some time," chimed in the old man.

Then laughing his odd, silent laugh, -

"You ought to see the anxiety of your enemies since you have slipped
out of their hands. That woman Chevassat had, last night, come to
the conclusion that you were gone, and gone forever; but this morning
matters looked very differently. Maxime de Brevan had been there, making
a terrible row, and beating her (God forgive him!) because she had
relaxed in her watchfulness. The rascal! The fellow has been spending
the whole day in running from the police office to the Morgue, and back
again. Destitute as you were, and almost without clothes, what could
have become of you? I, for my part, did not show; and the Chevassats are
far from suspecting that I had any thing to do with the whole
affair. Ah! It will soon be our turn, and if you will only accept my
suggestions, madam" -

It was past nine o'clock when the old dealer, his sister, and Henrietta
sat down to their modest meal. But in the interval a hopeful smile had
reappeared on Henrietta's face, and she looked almost happy, when, about
midnight, Papa Ravinet left them with the words, -

"To-morrow evening I shall have news. I am going to the navy
department."

The next day he reappeared precisely at six o'clock, but in what a
condition! He had in his hand a kind of carpet-bag; and his looks and
gestures made him look almost insane.

"Money!" he cried out to his sister as he entered. "I am afraid I have
not enough; and make haste. I have to be at the Lyons Railway at seven
o'clock."

And when his sister and Henrietta, terribly frightened, asked him, -

"What is the matter? What are you going to do?"

"Nothing," he replied joyously, "but that Heaven itself declares in our
favor. I went to the department. 'The Conquest' will remain another year
in Cochin China; but M. Champcey is coming back to Europe. He was to
have taken passage on board a merchant vessel, 'The Saint Louis,' which
is expected in Marseilles every day, if she has not already come in. And
I - I am going to Marseilles, I must see M. Champcey before anybody else
can see him."

When his sister had given him notes to the amount of four hundred
dollars, he rushed out, exclaiming, -

"To-morrow I will send you a telegram!"




XXII.

If there is in our civilized states a profession more arduous than
others it is surely that of the sailor. So arduous is it, that we are
almost disposed to ask how men can be found bold enough to embrace _it_,
and firm enough in their resolution not to abandon it after having tried
it. Not because of the hazards, the fatigues, and the dangers connected
with it, but because it creates an existence apart, and because the
conditions it imposes seem to be incompatible with free will.

Still no one is more attached to his home than the sailor. There are few
among them who are not married. And by a kind of special grace they
are apt to enjoy their short happiness as if it were for eternity,
indifferent as to what the morning may bring.

But behold! one fine morning, all of a sudden, a big letter comes from
the department.

It is an order to sail.

He must go, abandoning every thing and everybody, - mother, family, and
friends, the wife he has married the day before, the young mother who
sits smiling by the cradle of her first-born, the betrothed who was
looking joyfully at her bridal veil. He must go, and stifle all those
ominous voices which rise from the depth of his heart, and say to him,
"Will you ever return? and, if you return, will you find them all, your
dear ones? and, if you find them, will they not have changed? will they
have preserved your memory as faithfully as you have preserved theirs?"

To be happy, and to be compelled to open to mishap this fatal door,
absence! Hence it is only in comic operas, and inferior novels, that the
sailors are seen to sing their most cheerful songs at the moment when a
vessel is about to sail on a long and perilous voyage. The moment is, in
reality, always a sad one, very grave and solemn.

Such could not fail to be the scene also, when "The Conquest"
sailed, - the ship on board of which Daniel Champcey had been ordered as
lieutenant. And certainly there had been good reasons for ordering him
to make haste and get down to the port where she lay; for the very next
day after his arrival, she hoisted anchor. She had been waiting for him
only.

Having reached Rochefort at five o'clock in the morning, he slept the
same night on board; and the next day "The Conquest" sailed. Daniel
suffered more than any other man on board, although he succeeded in
affecting a certain air of indifference. The thought of Henrietta being
left in the hands of adventurers who were capable of any thing was
a thorn in his side, which caused him great and constant pain. As he
gradually calmed down, and peace returned to his mind, a thousand doubts
assailed him concerning Maxime de Brevan: would he not be exposed to
terrible temptation when he found himself thrown daily into the company
of a great heiress? Might he not come to covet her millions, and try to
abuse her peculiar situation in order to secure them to himself?

Daniel believed too firmly in his betrothed to apprehend that she would
even listen to Brevan. But he reasoned, very justly, that his darling
would be in a desperate condition indeed, if M. de Brevan, furious at
being refused, should betray his confidence, and go over to the enemy,
to the Countess Sarah.

"And I," he thought, "who in my last directions urged her to trust
implicitly in Maxime, and to follow his advice as if it were my own!"

In the midst of these terrible anxieties, he hardly recollected that
he had intrusted to Maxime every thing that he possessed. What was his
money to him in comparison!

Thus it appeared to him a genuine favor of Providence when "The
Conquest," six days out at sea, experienced a violent storm, which
endangered her safety for nearly seventy-two hours. His thoughts
disappeared while he felt his grave responsibility, as long as the sea
tossed the vessel to and fro like a mere cork, and while the crew fought
with the elements till they were overcome by fatigue. He had actually a
good night's rest, which he had not enjoyed since he left Paris.

When he awoke, he was surprised to feel a certain peace of mind.
Henceforth his fate was no longer in his own hands; he had been shown
very clearly his inability to control events. Sad resignation succeeded
to his terrible anxiety.

A single hope now kept him alive, - the hope of soon receiving a letter
from Henrietta, or, it might be, of finding one upon arriving at his
destination; for it was by no means impossible for "The Conquest" to be
outstripped by some vessel that might have left port three weeks later.
"The Conquest," an old wooden frigate, and a sailing vessel, justified
her bad reputation of being the worst sailor in the whole fleet.
Moreover, alternate calms and sudden blows kept her much longer than
usually on the way. The oldest sailors said they had never seen a more
tedious voyage.

To add to the discomfort, "The Conquest" was so crammed full with
passengers, that sailors and officers had hardly half of the space
usually allotted to them on board ship. Besides the crew, there were on
board a half battalion of marines, and a hundred and sixty mechanics of
various trades, whom government sent out for the use of the colony. Some
of these artisans had their families with them, having determined to
become settlers in Cochin China; others, generally quite young yet,
only made the voyage in order to have an opportunity for seeing foreign
lands, and for earning, perhaps, a little money. They were occasionally
called upon to assist in handling the ship, and were, on the whole, good
men, with the exception of four or five, who were so unruly that they
had to be put in irons more than once.

The days passed, nevertheless; and "The Conquest" had been out three
months, when one afternoon, as Daniel was superintending a difficult
manoeuvre, he was suddenly seen to stagger, raise his arms on high, and
fall backwards on the deck.

They ran up to him, and raised him up; but he gave no sign of life; and
the blood poured forth from his mouth and nose in streams. Daniel had
won the hearts of the crew by his even temper, his strict attention to
duty, and his kindness, when off duty, to all who came in contact with
him. Hence, when the accident became known, in an instant sailors and
officers came hurrying up from one end of the frigate to the other, and
even from the lowest deck, to see what had happened to him.

What had happened? No one could tell; for no one had seen any thing.
Still it must be a very grave matter, to judge from the large pool of
blood which dyed the deck at the place where the young man had fallen
down so suddenly. They had carried him to the infirmary; and, as soon as
he recovered his senses, the surgeons discovered the cause of his fall
and his fainting.

He had an enormous contused wound on the back of his head, a little
behind the left ear, - a wound such as a heavy hammer in the hands of a
powerful man might have produced. Whence came this terrible blow, which
apparently a miracle alone had prevented from crushing the skull? No
one could explain this, neither the surgeons, nor the officers who stood
around the bed of the wounded man. When Daniel could be questioned, he
knew no more about it than the others. There had been no one standing
near him; nor had he seen anybody come near him at the time of the
accident; the blow, moreover, had been so violent, that he had fallen
down unconscious. All these details soon became current among the
sailors and passengers who had crowded on deck. They were received with
incredulous smiles, and, when they could no longer be held in doubt,
with bursts of indignation.

What! Lieut. Champcey had been struck in broad daylight, in the midst of
the crew! How? By whom?

The whole matter was so wrapped up in mystery, that it became all
important to clear it up; and the sailors themselves opened at once a
kind of court of inquest. Some hairs, and a clot of blood, which were
discovered on an enormous block, seemed to explain the riddle. It would
seem that the rope to which this enormous block was fastened had slipped
out of the hands of one of the sailors who were engaged in the rigging,
carrying out the manoeuvre superintended by Daniel.

Frightened by the consequences of his awkwardness, but, nevertheless
preserving his presence of mind, this man had, no doubt, drawn up the
block so promptly, that he had not been noticed. Could it be hoped that
he would accuse himself? Evidently not. Besides, what would be the use
of it? The wounded man was the first to request that the inquiries might
be stopped.

When, at the end of a fortnight, Champcey returned to duty, they ceased
talking of the accident; unfortunately, such things happen but too
frequently on board ship. Besides, the idea that "The Conquest" was
drawing near her destination filled all minds, and sufficed for all
conversations.

And really, one fine evening, as the sun was setting, land was seen, and
the next morning, at daybreak, the frigate sailed into the Dong-Nai,
the king of Cochin Chinese rivers, which is so wide and so deep, that
vessels of the largest tonnage can ascend it without difficulty till
they reach Saigon.

Standing on deck, Daniel watched the monotonous scenes which they
passed, - a landscape strange in form, and exhaling mortal fevers from
the soil, and the black yielding slime.

After a voyage of several months, he derived a melancholy pleasure from
seeing the banks of the river overshadowed by mango trees and mangroves,
with their supple, snakelike roots wandering far off under water; while
on shore a soft, pleasant vegetation presented to the eye the whole
range of shades in green, from the bluish, sickly green of the idrys
to the dark, metallic green of the stenia. Farther inland, tall grapes,
lianes, aloes, and cactus formed impenetrable thickets, out of which
rose, like fluted columns, gigantic cocoa-palms, and the most graceful
trees on earth, areca-palms. Through clearings here and there, one could
follow, as far as the eye reached, the course of low, fever-breeding
marshes, an immense mud-plain covered with a carpet of undulating
verdure, which opened and closed again under the breeze, like the sea
itself.

"Ah! That is Saigon, is it?" said to Daniel a voice full of delight.

He turned round. It was his best friend on board, a lieutenant like
himself, who had come to his side, and, offering him a telescope, said
with a great sigh of satisfaction, -

"Look! there, do you see? At last we are here. In two hours, Champcey,
we shall be at anchor."

In the distance one could, in fact, make out upon the deep blue of the
sky the profile of the curved roof of the pagodas in Saigon. It took a
long hour yet, before, at a turn in the river, the town itself appeared,
miserable looking, - with all deference to our geographies, be it
said, - in spite of the immense labor of the French colony.

Saigon consists mainly of one wide street running parallel with the
right bank of the Dong-Nai, a primitive, unpaved street cut up into
ruts, broken in upon by large empty spaces, and lined with wooden houses
covered with rice-straw or palm-leaves.

Thousands of boats crowd against the banks of the river along this
street, and form a kind of floating suburb, overflowing with a strange
medley of Annamites, Hindoos, and Chinamen. At a little distance from
the river, there appear a few massive buildings with roofs of red tiles,
pleasing to the eye, and here and there an Annamite farm, which seems
to hide behind groups of areca-palms. Finally, on an eminence, rise the
citadel, the arsenal, the house of the French commander, and the former
dwelling of the Spanish colonel.

But every town is beautiful, where we land after a voyage of several
months. Hence, as soon as "The Conquest" was safely at anchor, all the
officers, except the midshipman on duty, went on shore, and hastened
to the government house to ask if letters from France had arrived there
before them. Their hopes were not deceived. Two three-masters, one
French, the other English, which had sailed a month later than "The
Conquest," had arrived there at the beginning of the week, bringing
despatches.

There were two letters for Daniel, and with feverish hands and beating
heart he took them from the hand of the old clerk. But at the first
glance at the addresses he turned pale. He did not see Henrietta's
handwriting. Still he tore open the envelopes, and glanced at the
signatures. One of the letters was signed, "Maxime de Brevan;" the
other, "Countess Ville-Handry," _nee_ Sarah Brandon.

Daniel commenced with the latter. After informing him of her marriage,
Sarah described at great length Henrietta's conduct on the wedding-day.

"Any other but myself," she said, "would have been incensed at this
atrocious insult, and would abuse her position to be avenged. But I, who
never yet forgave anybody, I will forgive her, Daniel, for your sake,
and because I cannot see any one suffer who has loved you."

A postscript she had added ran thus, -

"Ah! why did you not prevent my marriage, when you could do so by a
word? They think I have reached the summit of my wishes. I have never
been more wretched."

This letter made Daniel utter an exclamation of rage. He saw nothing in
it but bitter irony.

"This miserable woman," he thought, "laughs at me; and, when she says
she does not blame Henrietta, that means that she hates her, and will
persecute her."

Maxime's letter fortunately reassured him a little. Maxime confirmed
Sarah's account, adding, moreover, that Miss Henrietta was very sad,
but calm and resigned; and that her step-mother treated her with the
greatest kindness. The surprising part was, that Brevan did not say a
word of the large amounts that had been intrusted to his care, nor of
his method of selling the lands, nor of the price which he had obtained.

But Daniel did not notice this; all his thoughts were with Henrietta.

"Why should she not have written," he thought, "when all the others
found means to write?"

Overwhelmed with disappointment, he had sat down on a wooden bench in
the embrasure of one of the windows in the hall where the letters were
distributed. Travelling across the vast distance which separated him
from France, his thoughts were under the trees in the garden of the
count's palace. He felt as if a powerful effort of his will would enable
him to transport himself thither. By the pale light of the moon he
thought he could discern the dress of his beloved as she stole towards
him between the old trees.

A friendly touch on the shoulder recalled him rudely to the real world.
Four or five officers from "The Conquest" were standing around him, gay,
and free from cares, a hearty laugh on their lips.

"Well, my dear Champcey," they said, "are you coming?"

"Where?"

"Why, to dinner!"

And as he looked at them with the air of a man who had just been roused,
and has not had time to collect his thoughts, they went on, -

"Well, to dinner. It appears Saigon possesses an admirable French
restaurant, where the cook, a Parisian, is simply a great artist. Come,
get up, and let us go."

But Daniel was in a humor which made solitude irresistibly attractive.
He trembled at the idea of being torn from his melancholy reveries, of
being compelled to take his part in conversation, to talk, to listen, to
reply.

"I cannot dine with you to-day, my friends," he said to his comrades.

"You are joking."

"No, I am not. I must return on board." Then only, the others were
struck by the sad expression of his face; and, changing their tone, they
asked him in the most affectionate manner, -

"What is the matter, Champcey? Have you heard of any misfortune, any
death?"

"No."

"You have had letters from France, I see."

"They bring me nothing sad. I was expecting news, and they have not
come; that is all."

"Oh! then you must come with us."

"Do not force me; I would be a sorry companion."

Still they insisted, as friends will insist who will not understand that
others may not be equally tempted by what charms them; but nothing could
induce Daniel to change his mind. At the door of the government house he
parted with his comrades, and went back, sad and solitary, towards the
harbor.

He reached without difficulty the banks of the Dong-Nai; but here
obstacles presented themselves of which he had not thought. The night
was so dark, that he could hardly see to find his way along a wharf in
process of construction, and covered with enormous stones and timber.
Not a light in all the native huts around. In spite of his efforts to
pierce this darkness, he could discern nothing but the dark outline
of the vessels lying at anchor in the river, and the light of the
lighthouse as it trembled in the current.

He called. No voice replied. The silence, which was as deep as the
darkness, was broken only by the low wash of the river as it flowed down
rapidly.

"I am quite capable," thought Daniel, "of not finding the boat of 'The
Conquest.'"

Still he did find it, after long search, drawn up, and half lost, in a
crowd of native boats. But the boat seemed to be empty. It was only when
he got into it, that he discovered a little midshipman fast asleep in
the bottom, wrapped up in a carpet which was used to cover the seats
for the officers. Daniel shook him. He rose slowly, and grumbling, as if
overcome by sleep.

"Well, what is the matter?" he growled.

"Where are the men?" asked Daniel.

Quite awake now, the midshipman, who had good eyes, had noticed, in
spite of the darkness, the gold of the epaulets. This made him very
respectful at once; and he replied, -

"Lieutenant, all the men are in town."

"How so? All?"

"Why, yes, lieutenant! When all the officers had gone on shore, they
told the boatswain they would not come back very soon, and he might take
his time to eat a mouthful, and to drink a glass, provided the men did
not get drunk."

That was so; and Daniel had forgotten the fact.

"And where did they go?" he asked.

"I don't know, lieutenant."

Daniel looked at the large, heavy boat, as if he had thought for a
moment to return in it to "The Conquest" with no other help but the
little midshipman; but, no, that was impracticable.

"Well, go to sleep again," he said to the boy.

And jumping on shore, without uttering a word of disappointment, he was
going in search of his comrades, when he saw suddenly a man turn up out
of the darkness, whose features it was impossible to distinguish.

"Who is there?" he asked.

"Mr. Officer," answered the man in an almost unintelligible jargon, a
horrible medley of French, Spanish, and English. "I heard you tell the
little man in the boat there" -

"Well?"

"I thought you wanted to get back on board your ship?"

"Why, yes."

"Well, then, if you like it, I am a boatman; I can take you over."

There was no reason why Daniel should mistrust the man. In all ports of
the world, and at any hour of the day or the night, men are to be found
who are lying in wait on the wharves for sailors who have been belated,
and who are made to pay dear for such extra services.

"Ah! you are a boatman, you say?" Daniel exclaimed, quite pleased at the
encounter. "Well, where is your boat?"

"There, Mr. Officer, a little way down; just follow me. But what ship do
you want to go to?"

"That ship there."

And Daniel pointed out to him "The Conquest" as she lay not six hundred
yards off in the river, showing her lights.

"That is rather far," grumbled the man; "the tide is low; and the
current is very strong."

"I'll give you a couple of francs for your trouble."

The man clapped his hands with delight, and said, -

"Ah! if that's the way, all right. Come along, Mr. Officer, a little
farther down. There, that's my boat. Get in, now steady!"

Daniel followed his directions; but he was so much struck by the man's
awkwardness in getting the boat off, that he could not help saying to
him, -

"Ah, my boy, you are not a boatman, after all!"

"I beg pardon, sir; I used to be one before I came to this country."

"What is your country?"

"Shanghai."

"Nevertheless, you will have to learn a great deal before you will ever
be a sailor."

Still, as the boat was very small, a mere nutshell, in fact, Daniel
thought he could, if needs be, take an oar himself. Thereupon, sitting
down, and stretching out his legs, he was soon once more plunged in
meditations. The unfortunate man was soon roused, however, by a terrible
sensation.

Thanks to a shock, a wrong movement, or any other accident, the boat
upset, and Daniel was thrown into the river; and, to fill the measure of
his mishaps, one of his feet was so closely jammed in between the seat
and the boat itself, that he was paralyzed in his movements, and soon
under water.

He saw it all in an instant; and his first thought was, -



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 25 of 39)