Émile Gaboriau.

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"I am lost!"

But, desperate as his position was, he was not the man to give up.
Gathering, by one supreme effort, all his strength and energy, he took
hold of the boat, that had turned over just above him, and pushed it so
forcibly, that he loosened his foot, and at the same moment reached the
surface. It was high time; for Daniel had swallowed much water.

"Now," he thought, "I have a chance to escape!"

A very frail chance, alas! - so small a chance, in fact, that it required
all the strong will and the invincible courage of Daniel to give it
any effect. A furious current carried him down like a straw; the little
boat, which might have supported him, had disappeared; and he knew
nothing about this formidable Dong-Nai, except that it went on widening
to its mouth. There was nothing to guide him; for the night was so dark,
that land and water, the river and its banks, all melted together in the
uniform, bottomless darkness.

What had become of the boatman, however? At all events, he called, -

"Ahoy, my man!"

No answer. Had he been swept off? Or did he get back into the boat?
Perhaps he was drowned already.

But all of a sudden Daniel's heart trembled with joy and hope. He had
just made out, a few hundred yards below, a red light, indicating a
vessel at anchor. All his efforts were directed towards that point.
He was carried thither with an almost bewildering rapidity. He nearly
touched it; and then, with incredible presence of mind, and great
precision, at the moment when the current drove him close up to the
anchor-chain, he seized it. He held on to it; and, having recovered his
breath, he uttered three times in succession, with all the strength of
his lungs, so sharp a cry, that it was heard above the fierce roar of
the river, -

"Help, help, help!"

From the ship came a call, "Hold on!" proving to him that his appeal had
been heard, and that help was at hand.

Too late! An eddy in the terrible current seized him, and, with
irresistible violence, tore the chain, slippery with mud, out of his
stiffened hands. Rolled over by the waters, he was rudely thrown against
the side of the vessel, went under, and was carried off.

When he rose to the surface, the red light was far above him, and below
no other light was in sight. No human help was henceforth within reach.
Daniel could now count only upon himself in trying to make one of the
banks. Although he could not measure the distance, which might be very
great, the task did not seem to him beyond his strength, if he had only
been naked. But his clothes encumbered him terribly; and the water which
they soaked up made them, of course, every moment more oppressive.

"I shall be drowned, most assuredly," he thought, "if I cannot get rid
of my clothes."

Excellent swimmer as he was, the task was no easy one. Still he
accomplished it. After prodigious efforts of strength and skill, he got
rid of his shoes; and then he cried out, as if in defiance of the blind
element against which he was struggling, -

"I shall pull through! I shall see Henrietta again!"

But it had cost him an enormous amount of time to undress; and how could
he calculate the distance which this current had taken him down - one of
the swiftest in the world? As he tried to recall all he knew about it,
he remembered having noticed that, a mile below Saigon, the river was
as wide as a branch of the sea. According to his calculation, he must be
near that spot now.

"Never mind," he said to himself, "I mean to get out of this."

Not knowing to which bank he was nearest, he had resolved, almost
instinctively, to swim towards the right bank, on which Saigon stands.

He was thus swimming for about half an hour, and began already to feel
his muscles stiffening, and his joints losing their elasticity, while
his breathing became oppressed, and his extremities were chilled, when
he noticed from the wash of the water that he was near the shore. Soon
he felt the ground under his feet; but, the moment he touched it, he
sank up to his waist into the viscous and tenacious slime, which makes
all the Cochin China rivers so peculiarly dangerous.

There was the land, no doubt, and only the darkness prevented his seeing
it; and yet his situation was more desperate than ever. His legs were
caught as in a vice; the muddy water was boiling nearly up to his lips;
and, at every effort to extricate himself, he sank deeper in, a little
at a time, but always a little more. His presence of mind now began to
leave him, as well as his strength; and his thoughts became confused,
when he touched, instinctively feeling for a hold, the root of a
mangrove.

That root might be the saving of his life. First he tried its strength;
then, finding it sufficiently solid, he hoisted himself up by it,
gently, but with the frenzied energy of a drowning man; then, creeping
cautiously on the treacherous mud, he finally succeeded in reaching firm
ground, and fell down exhausted.

He was saved from drowning; but what was to become of him, naked,
exhausted, chilled as he was, and lost in this dark night in a strange
and deserted country? After a moment, however, he rose, and tried to get
on; but at every step he was held back on all sides by lianes and cactus
thorns.

"Well," he said, "I must stay here till day breaks."

The rest of the night he spent in walking up and down, and beating his
chest, in order to keep out the terrible chills which penetrated to the
very marrow of his bones. The first light of dawn showed him how he was
imprisoned within an apparently impenetrable thicket, out of which, it
seemed, he could never find his way. He did find it, however, and after
a walk of four hours, he reached Saigon.

Some sailors of a merchant-ship, whom he met, lent him a few clothes,
and carried him on board "The Conquest," where he arrived more dead than
alive.

"Where do you come from, great God! in such a state?" exclaimed his
comrades when they saw him.

"What has happened to you?"

And, when he had told them all he had gone through since they parted,
they said, -

"Certainly, my dear Champcey, you are a lucky fellow. This is the second
accident from which you escape as by a miracle. Mind the third!"

"Mind the third!" that was exactly what Daniel thought.

For, in the midst of all the frightful sufferings he had undergone
during the past night, he had reflected deeply. That block which had
fallen on his head, no one knew whence; this boat sinking suddenly, and
without apparent cause - were they the work of chance alone?

The awkwardness of the boatman who had so unexpectedly turned up to
offer him his services had filled his mind with strange doubts. This
man, a wretched sailor, might be a first-class swimmer; and, having
taken all his measures before upsetting the boat, he might easily have
reached land after the accident.

"This boatman," Daniel thought, "evidently wanted me to perish. Why, and
what purpose? Evidently not for his sake. But who is interested in my
death? Sarah Brandon? No, that cannot be!"

What was still less likely was, that a wretch in Sarah Brandon's pay
should have found his way on board "The Conquest," and should then have
been precisely at the right moment at the wharf, the first time Daniel
went on shore. Still his suspicions troubled him to such a degree, that
he determined to make every effort to solve the mystery.

To begin, _he asked_ for a list of all the men who had been allowed to
go on shore the night before. He learned in reply, that only the crews
of the different boats had been at Saigon, but that all the emigrants
having been allowed to land, several of these men had also gone on
shore. With this information, and in spite of his great weakness, Daniel
went to the chief of police at Saigon, and asked him for an officer.
With this agent he went to the wharf, to the spot where the boat of
"The Conquest" had been lying the night before, and asked him to make
inquiries there as to any boatman that might have disappeared during the
night.

None of the boatmen was missing; but they brought Daniel a poor Annamite
fellow, who had been wandering about the river-bank ever since early
morning, tearing his hair, and crying that he had been robbed; that
they had stolen his boat. Daniel had been unable the night before to
distinguish the form or the dress of the man whose services he had
accepted; but he had heard his voice, and he recalled the peculiar
intonation so perfectly, that he would have recognized it among
thousands. Besides, this poor devil did not know a word of French (more
than ten persons bore witness to it); and born on the river, and having
always lived there, he was an excellent sailor. Finally, it was very
clear, that, if this man had committed the crime, he would have been
careful not to claim his boat.

What could Daniel conclude from this summary inquiry?

"There is no doubt about it," he thought. "I was to be murdered."




XXIII.

There is no man, however brave he may think himself, who would not
tremble at the idea that he has, just by a miracle, escaped from the
assassin's hand. There is not one who would not feel his blood grow
chill in his veins at the thought that those who have failed in their
attempt once will no doubt renew their efforts, and that perhaps the
miracle may not be repeated.

That was Daniel's position.

He felt henceforth this terrible certainty, that war had been declared
against him, a savage warfare, merciless, pitiless, a war of treachery
and cunning, of snare and ambush. It had been proved to him that at his
side, so to say, as his very shadow, there was ever a terrible enemy,
stimulated by the thirst of gain, watching all his steps, ever awake and
on the watch, and ready to seize the first opportunity to strike. The
infernal cunning of the first two attempts enabled Daniel to measure
the superior wickedness of the man who had been chosen and enlisted - at
least Daniel thought so - by Sarah Brandon.

Still he did not say a word of the danger to which he was exposed,
and even assumed, as soon as he had recovered from the first shock, a
certain cheerfulness which he had not shown during the whole voyage, and
under which he concealed his apprehensions.

"I do not want my enemy," he said to himself, "to suspect my
suspicions."

But from that moment his suspicions never fell asleep; and every step
he took was guided by most careful circumspection. He never put one foot
before the other, so to say, without first having examined the ground;
he never seized a man-rope without having first tried its solidity; he
had made it a law to eat and drink nothing, not even a glass of water,
but what came from the officers' table.

These perpetual precautions, these ceaseless apprehensions, were
extremely repugnant to his daring temper; but he felt, that, under such
circumstances, careless would be no longer courage, but simple folly. He
had engaged in a duel in which he wanted to be victorious; hence he must
at least defend himself against the attack. He felt, moreover, that he
was the only protector his beloved had now; and that, if he died, she
would certainly be lost. But he also thought not only of defending
himself, but of getting at the assassin, and, through him, at the
infamous creature by whom he was employed, Sarah Brandon.

He therefore pursued his search quietly, slowly, but indefatigably.
Certain circumstances which he had at first forgotten, and a few points
skilfully put together, gave him some hope. He had, for instance,
ascertained that none but the crews of the boats had been on shore, and
that, of these, not one had been for ten minutes out of sight of the
others. Hence the pretended boatman was not a sailor on board "The
Conquest." Nor could it have been one of the marines, as none of them
had been allowed to leave the vessel. There remained the emigrants,
fifty or sixty of whom had spent the night in Saigon.

But was not the idea that one of these men might have led Daniel into
the trap contradicted by the circumstances of the first attempt? By
no means; for many of the younger men among these emigrants had asked
permission to help in the working of the ship in order to break the
monotony of the long voyage. After careful inquiry, Daniel ascertained
even that four of them had been with the sailors on the yards from which
the heavy block fell that came so near ending his life.

Which were they? This he could not ascertain.

Still the result was enough for Daniel to make his life more endurable.
He could breathe again on board ship; he went and came in all safety,
since he was sure that the guilty man was not one of the crew. He even
felt real and great relief at the thought that his would-be assassin was
not to be looked for among these brave and frank sailors; none of them,
at least, had been bribed with gold to commit a murder. Moreover, the
limits of his investigations had now narrowed down in such a manner,
that he might begin to hope for success in the end.

Unfortunately the emigrants had, a fortnight after the landing,
scattered abroad, going according as they were wanted, to the different
establishments in the colony, which were far apart from each other.
Daniel had therefore, at least for the moment, to give up a plan he had
formed, to talk with every one of them until he should recognize the
voice of the false boatman.

He himself, besides, was not to remain at Saigon. After a first
expedition, which kept him away for two months, he obtained command of
a steam-sloop, which was ordered to explore and to take all the bearings
of the River Kamboja, from the sea to Mitho, the second city of Cochin
China. This was no easy task; for the Kamboja had already defeated the
efforts of several hydrographic engineers by its capricious and constant
changes, every pass and every turn nearly changing with the monsoons in
direction and depth.

But the mission had its own difficulties and dangers. The Kamboja is not
only obstructed by foul swamps; but it flows through vast marshy plains,
which, in the season of rains, are covered with water; while in the
dry season, under the burning rays of the sun, they exhale that fatal
malaria which has cost already thousands of valuable lives.

Daniel was to experience its effects but too soon. In less than a week
after he had set out, he saw three of the men who had been put under
his orders die before his eyes, after a few hours' illness, and amid
atrocious convulsions. They had the cholera. During the next four
months, seven succumbed to fevers which they had contracted in these
pestilential swamps. And towards the end of the expedition, when the
work was nearly done, the survivors were so emaciated, that they had
hardly strength enough to hold themselves up. Daniel alone had not yet
suffered from these terrible scourges. God knows, however, that he had
not spared himself, nor ever hesitated to do what he thought he ought
to do. To sustain, to electrify these men, exhausted as they were by
sickness, and irritated at wasting their lives upon work that had no
reward, a leader was required who should possess uncommon intrepidity,
and who should treat danger as an enemy who is to be defied only by
facing him; and such a leader they found in Daniel.

He had told Sarah Brandon on the eve of his departure, -

"With a love like mine, with a hatred like mine, in the heart, one can
defy all things. The murderous climate is not going to harm me; and, if
I had six balls in my body, I should still find strength enough to come
and call you to account for what you have done to Henrietta before I
die."

He certainly had had need of all that dauntless energy which passion
inspires to sustain him in his trials. But alas! his bodily sufferings
were as nothing in comparison with his mental anxiety. At night, while
his men were asleep, he kept awake, his heart torn with anguish, now
crushed under the thought of his helplessness, and now asking himself if
rage would not deprive him of his reason.

It was a year now since he had left Paris to go on board "The Conquest,"
a whole year.

And he had not received a single letter from Henrietta, - not one. Every
time a vessel arrived from France with despatches, his hopes revived;
and every time they were disappointed.

"Well," he would say to himself, "I can wait for the next." And then he
began counting the days. Then it arrived at last, this long-expected
ship, and never, never once brought a letter from Henrietta -

How could this silence be explained? What strange events could have
happened? What must he think, hope, fear?

To be chained by honor to a place a thousand leagues from the woman he
loved to distraction, to know nothing about her, her life, her actions
and her thoughts, to be reduced to such extreme wretchedness, to doubt -

Daniel would have been much less unhappy if some one had suddenly come
and told him, "Miss Ville-Handry is no more."

Yes, less unhappy; for true love in its savage selfishness suffers less
from death than from treason. If Henrietta had died, Daniel would
have been crushed; and maybe despair would have driven him to extreme
measures; but he would have been relieved of that horrible struggle
within him, between his faith in the promises of his beloved and certain
suspicions, which caused his hair to stand on end.

But he knew that she was alive; for there was hardly a vessel coming
from France or from England which did not bring him a letter from
Maxime, or from the Countess Sarah. For Sarah insisted upon writing
to him, as if there existed a mysterious bond between them, which she
defied him to break.

"I obey," she said, "an impulse more powerful than reason and will
alike. It is stronger than I am, stronger than all things else; I must
write to you, I cannot help it."

At another time she said, -

"Do you remember that evening, O Daniel! when, pressing Sarah Brandon
to your heart, you swore to be hers forever? The Countess Ville-Handry
cannot forget it."

Under the most indifferent words there seemed to palpitate and to
struggle a passion which was but partially restrained, and ever on the
point of breaking forth. Her letters read like the conversations of
timid lovers, who talk about the rain and the weather in a tone of voice
trembling with desire, and with looks burning with passion.

"Could she really be in love with me?" Daniel thought, "and could that
be her punishment?"

Then, again, swearing, like the roughest of his men, he added, -

"Am I to be a fool forever? Is it not quite clear that this wicked woman
only tries to put my suspicions to sleep? She is evidently preparing for
her defence, in case the rascal who attempted my life should be caught,
and compromise her by his confessions."

Every letter; moreover, brought from the Countess Sarah some news about
his betrothed, her "stepdaughter." But she always spoke of her with
extreme reserve and reticence, and in ambiguous terms, as if counting
upon Daniel's sagacity to guess what she could not or would not write.
According to her account, Henrietta had become reconciled to her
father's marriage. The poor child's melancholy had entirely disappeared.
Miss Henrietta was very friendly with Sir Thorn. The coquettish ways of
the young girl became quite alarming; and her indiscretion provoked the
gossip of visitors. Daniel might as well accustom himself to the idea,
that, on his return, he might find Henrietta a married woman.

"She lies, the wretch!" said Daniel; "yes, she lies!"

But he tried in vain to resist; every letter from Sarah brought him the
germ of some new suspicion, which fermented in his mind as the miasma
fermented in the veins of his men.

The information furnished by Maxime de Brevan was different, and
often contradictory even, but by no means more reassuring. His letters
portrayed the perplexity and the hesitation of a man who is all anxiety
to soften hard truths. According to him, the Countess Sarah and Miss
Ville-Handry did not get on well with each other; but he declared he was
bound to say that the wrong was all on the young lady's side, who seemed
to make it the study of her life to mortify her step-mother, while the
latter bore the most irritating provocations with unchanging sweetness.
He alluded to the calumnies which endangered Miss Henrietta's
reputation, admitting that she had given some ground for them by
thoughtless acts. He finally added that he foresaw the moment when
she would leave her father's house in spite of all his advice to the
contrary.

"And not one line from her," exclaimed Daniel, - "not one line!"

And he wrote her letter after letter, beseeching her to answer him,
whatever might be the matter, and to fear nothing, as the certainty
even of a misfortune would be a blessing to him in comparison with this
torturing uncertainty.

He wrote without imagining for a moment that Henrietta suffered all the
torments he endured, that their letters were intercepted, and that she
had no more news of him than he had of her.

Time passed, however, carrying with it the evil as well as the good
days. Daniel returned to Saigon, bringing back with him one of the
finest hydrographic works that exist on Cochin China. It was well known
that this work had cost an immense outlay of labor, of privations, and
of life; hence he was rewarded as if he had won a battle, and he was
rewarded instantly, thanks to special powers conferred upon his chief,
reserving only the confirmation in France, which was never refused.

All the survivors of the expedition were mentioned in public orders and
in the official report; two were decorated; and Daniel was promoted
to officer of the Legion of Honor. Under other circumstances, this
distinction, doubly valuable to so young a man, would have made him
supremely happy; now it left him cold.

The fact was, that these long trials had worn out the elasticity of his
heart; and the sources of joy, as well as the sources of sorrow, had
dried up. He no longer struggled against despair, and came to believe
that Henrietta had forgotten him, and would never be his wife. Now, as
he knew he never could love another, or rather as no other existed
for him; as, without Henrietta, the world seemed to him empty, absurd,
intolerable, - he asked himself why he should continue to live. There
were moments in which he looked lovingly at his pistols, and said to
himself, -

"Why should I not spare Sarah Brandon the trouble?"

What kept his hand back was the leaven of hatred which still rose in him
at times. He ought to have the courage, at least, to live long enough to
avenge himself. Harassed by these anxieties, he withdrew more and
more from society; never went on shore; and his comrades on board "The
Conquest" felt anxious as they looked at him walking restlessly up and
down the quarter-deck, pale, and with eyes on fire.

For they loved Daniel. His superiority was so evident, that none
disputed it; they might envy him; but they could never be jealous of
him. Some of them thought he had brought back with him from Kamboja the
germ of one of those implacable diseases which demoralize the strongest,
and which break out suddenly, carrying a man off in a few hours.

"You ought not to become a misanthrope, my dear Champcey," they would
say. "Come, for Heaven's sake shake off that sadness, which might make
an end of you before you are aware of it!"

And jestingly they added, -

"Decidedly, you regret the banks of the Kamboja!"

They thought it a jest: it was the truth. Daniel did regret even the
worst days of his mission. At that time his grave responsibility,
overwhelming fatigues, hard work, and daily danger, had procured him at
least some hours of oblivion. Now idleness left him, without respite or
time, face to face with his distressing thoughts. It was the desire, the
necessity almost, of escaping in some manner from himself, which made
him accept an invitation to join a number of his comrades who wanted to
try the charms of a great hunting party.

On the morning of the expedition, however, he had a kind of
presentiment.

"A fine opportunity," he thought, "for the assassin hired by Sarah
Brandon!"

Then, shrugging his shoulders, he said with a bitter laugh, -

"How can I hesitate? As if a life like mine was worth the trouble of
protecting it against danger!"

When they arrived on the following day on the hunting ground, he, as
well as the other hunters, received their instructions, and had their
posts assigned them by the leader. He found himself placed between two
of his comrades, in front of a thicket, and facing a narrow ravine,
through which all the game must necessarily pass as it was driven down



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 26 of 39)