A Tragedy of Error
|A Tragedy of Error (1864)
|"A Tragedy of Error" is Henry James's first known published short story. Written in four parts, it appeared without authorial attribution in the February 1864 issue of The Continental Monthly. The story was rediscovered in the 1950s and reprinted for the first time in the September 1956 edition of The New England Quarterly. Clearly evident here is the early James's skill at dialog and his penchant for turning a French phrase.|
A low English phaeton was drawn up before the door of the post office of a French seaport town. In it was seated a lady, with her veil down and her parasol held closely over her face. My story begins with a gentleman coming out of the office and handing her a letter.
He stood beside the carriage a moment before getting in. She gave him her parasol to hold, and then lifted her veil, showing a very pretty face. This couple seemed to be full of interest for the passers by, most of whom stared hard and exchanged significant glances. Such persons as were looking on at the moment saw the lady turn very pale as her eyes fell on the direction of the letter. Her companion saw it too, and instantly stepping into the place beside her, took up the reins, and drove rapidly along the main street of the town, past the harbor, to an open road skirting the sea. Here he slackened pace. The lady was leaning back, with her veil down again, and the letter lying open in her lap. Her attitude was almost that of unconsciousness, and he could see that her eyes were closed. Having satisfied himself of this, he hastily possessed himself of the letter, and read as follows:
Southampton, July I6th, 18—.
My Dear Hortense:
You will see by my postmark that I am a thousand leagues nearer home than when I last wrote, but I have hardly time to explain the change. M.P— has given me a most unlooked-for congé. After so many months of separation, we shall be able to spend a few weeks together. God be praised! We got in here from New York this morning, and I have had the good luck to find a vessel, the Armorique, which sails straight for H—. The mail leaves directly, but we shall probably be detained a few hours by the tide; so this will reach you a day before I arrive: the master calculates we shall get in early Thursday morning. Ah, Hortense! how the time drags! Three whole days. If I did not write from New York, it is because I was unwilling to torment you with an expectancy which, as it is, I venture to hope, you will find long enough. Farewell. To a warmer greeting!
Your devoted C. B.
When the gentleman replaced the paper on his companion's lap, his face was almost as pale as hers. For a moment he gazed fixedly and vacantly before him, and a half-suppressed curse escaped his lips. Then his eyes reverted to his neighbor. After some hesitation, during which he allowed the reins to hang so loose that the horse lapsed into a walk, he touched her gently on the shoulder.
'Well, Hortense,' said he, in a very pleasant tone, 'what's the matter; have you fallen asleep?'
Hortense slowly opened her eyes, and, seeing that they had left the town behind them, raised her veil. Her features were stiffened with horror.
'Read that,' said she, holding out the open letter.
The gentleman took it, and pretended to read it again.
'Ah! M. Bernier returns. Delightful!' he exclaimed.
'How, delightful?' asked Hortense; 'we mustn't jest at so serious a crisis, my friend.'
'True,' said the other, 'it will be a solemn meeting. Two years of absence is a great deal.'
'O Heaven! I shall never dare to face him,' cried Hortense, bursting into tears.
Covering her face with one hand, she put out the other toward that of her friend. But he was plunged in so deep a reverie, that he did not perceive the movement. Suddenly he came to, aroused by her sobs.
'Come, come,' said he, in the tone of one who wishes to coax another into mistrust of a danger before which he does not himself feel so secure but that the sight of a companion's indifference will give him relief. 'What if he does come? He need learn nothing. He will stay but a short time, and sail away again as unsuspecting as he came.'
'Learn nothing! You surprise me. Every tongue that greets him, if only to say bon jour, will wag to the tune of a certain person's misconduct.'
'Bah! People don't think about us quite as much as you fancy. You and I, n'est-ce-pas? we have little time to concern ourselves about our neighbors' failings. Very well, other people are in the same box, better or worse. When a ship goes to pieces on those rocks out at sea, the poor devils who are pushing their way to land on a floating spar, don't bestow many glances on those who are battling with the waves beside them. Their eyes are fastened to the shore, and all their care is for their own safety. In life we are all afloat on a tumultuous sea; we are all struggling toward some terra firma of wealth or love or leisure. The roaring of the waves we kick up about us and the spray we dash into our eyes deafen and blind us to the sayings and doing of our fellows. Provided we climb high and dry, what do we care for them?'
'Ay, but if we don't? When we've lost hope ourselves, we want to make others sink. We hang weights about their necks, and dive down into the dirtiest pools for stones to cast at them. My friend, you don't feel the shots which are not aimed at you. It isn't of you the town talks, but of me: a poor woman throws herself off the pier yonder, and drowns before a kind hand has time to restrain her, and her corpse floats over the water for all the world to look at. When her husband comes up to see what the crowd means, is there any lack of kind friends to give him the good news of his wife's death?'
'As long as a woman is light enough to float, Hortense, she is not counted drowned. It's only when she sinks out of sight that they give her up.
Hortense was silent a moment, looking at the sea with swollen eyes.
'Louis,' she said at last, 'we were speaking metaphorically: I have half a mind to drown myself literally.'
'Nonsense!' replied Louis, 'an accused pleads not guilty, and hangs himself in prison. What do the papers say? People talk, do they? Can't you talk as well as they? A woman is in the wrong from the moment she holds her tongue and refuses battle. And that you do too often. That pocket handkerchief is always more or less of a flag of truce.'
'I'm sure I don't know,' said Hortense indifferently; 'perhaps it is.'
There are moments of grief in which certain aspects of the subject of our distress seem as irrelevant as matters entirely foreign to it. Her eyes were still fastened on the sea. There was another silence. 'O my poor Charles!' she murmured, at length, 'to what a hearth do you return!'
'Hortense,' said the gentleman, as if he had not heard her, although, to a third person, it would have appeared that it was because he had done so that he spoke: 'I do not need to tell you that it will never happen to me to betray our secret. But I will answer for it that so long as M. Bernier is at home no mortal shall breathe a syllable of it.'
'What of that?' sighed Hortense. 'He will not be with me ten minutes without guessing it.'
'Oh, as for that,' said her companion, dryly, 'that's your own affair.'
'Monsieur de Meyrau!' cried the lady.
'It seems to me,' continued the other, 'that in making such a guarantee, I have done my part of the business.'
'Your part of the business!' sobbed Hortense.
M. de Meyrau made no reply, but with a great cut of the whip sent the horse bounding along the road. Nothing more was said. Hortense lay back in the carriage with her face buried in her handkerchief, moaning. Her companion sat upright, with contracted brows and firmly set teeth, looking straight before him, and by an occasional heavy lash keeping the horse at a furious pace. A wayfarer might have taken him for a ravisher escaping with a victim worn out with resistance. Travellers to whom they were known would perhaps have seen a deep meaning in this accidental analogy. So, by a dètour, they returned to the town.
When Hortense reached home, she went straight up to a little boudoir on the second floor, and shut herself in. This room was at the back of the house, and her maid, who was at that moment walking in the long garden which stretched down to the water, where there was a landing place for small boats, saw her draw in the window blind and darken the room, still in her bonnet and cloak. She remained alone for a couple of hours. At five o'clock, some time after the hour at which she was usually summoned to dress her mistress for the evening, the maid knocked at Hortense's door, and offered her services. Madame called out, from within, that she had a migraine, and would not be dressed.
'Can I get anything for madame?' asked Josephine; 'a tisane, a warm drink, something?'
'Will madame dine?'
'Madame had better not go wholly without eating.'
'Bring me a bottle of wine—of brandy.'
Josephine obeyed. When she returned, Hortense was standing in the doorway, and as one of the shutters had meanwhile been thrown open, the woman could see that, although her mistress's hat had been tossed upon the sofa, her cloak had not been removed, and that her face was very pale. Josephine felt that she might not offer sympathy nor ask questions.
'Will madame have nothing more?' she ventured to say, as she handed her the tray.
Madame shook her head, and closed and locked the door.
Josephine stood a moment vexed, irresolute, listening. She heard no sound. At last she deliberately stooped down and applied her eye to the keyhole.
This is what she saw:
Her mistress had gone to the open window, and stood with her back to the door, looking out at the sea. She held the bottle by the neck in one hand, which hung listlessly by her side; the other was resting on a glass half filled with water, standing, together with an open letter, on a table beside her. She kept this position until Josephine began to grow tired of waiting. But just as she was about to arise in despair of gratifying her curiosity, madame raised the bottle and glass, and filled the latter full. Josephine looked more eagerly. Hortense held it a moment against the light, and then drained it down.
Josephine could not restrain an involuntary whistle. But her surprise became amazement when she saw her mistress prepare to take a second glass. Hortense put it down, however, before its contents were half gone, as if struck by a sudden thought, and hurried across the room. She stooped down before a cabinet, and took out a small opera glass. With this she returned to the window, put it to her eyes, and again spent some moments in looking seaward. The purpose of this proceeding Josephine could not make out. The only result visible to her was that her mistress suddenly dropped the lorgnette on the table, and sank down on an armchair, covering her face with her hands.
Josephine could contain her wonderment no longer. She hurried down to the kitchen.
'Valentine,' said she to the cook, 'what on earth can be the matter with Madame? She will have no dinner, she is drinking brandy by the glassful, a moment ago she was looking out to sea with a lorgnette, and now she is crying dreadfully with an open letter in her lap.'
The cook looked up from her potato-peeling with a significant wink.
'What can it be,' said she, 'but that monsieur returns?'
At six o'clock, Josephine and Valentine were still sitting together, discussing the probable causes and consequences of the event hinted at by the latter. Suddenly Madame Bernier's bell rang. Josephine was only too glad to answer it. She met laer mistress descending the stairs, combed, cloaked, and veiled, with no traces of agitation, but a very pale face.
'I am going out,' said Madame Bernier; 'if M. le Vicomte comes, tell him I am at my mother-in-law's, and wish him to wait till I return.'
Josephine opened the door, and let her mistress pass; then stood watching her as she crossed the court.
'Her mother-in-law's,' muttered the maid; 'she has the face!'
When Hortense reached the street, she took her way, not through the town, to the ancient quarter where that ancient lady, her husband's mother, lived, but in a very different direction. She followed the course of the quay, beside the harbor, till she entered a crowded region, chiefly the residence of fishermen and boatmen. Here she raised her veil. Dusk was beginning to fall. She walked as if desirous to attract as little observation as possible, and yet to examine narrowly the population in the midst of which she found herself. Her dress was so plain that there was nothing in her appearance to solicit attention; yet, if for any reason a passer by had happened to notice her, he could not have helped being struck by the contained intensity with which she scrutinized every figure she met. Her manner was that of a person seeking to recognize a long-lost friend, or perhaps, rather, a long-lost enemy, in a crowd. At last she stopped before a flight of steps, at the foot of which was a landing place for half a dozen little boats, employed to carry passengers between the two sides of the port, at times when the drawbridge above was closed for the passage of vessels. While she stood she was witness of the following scene:
A man, in a red woollen fisherman's cap, was sitting on the top of the steps, smoking the short stump of a pipe, with his face to the water. Happening to turn about, his eye fell on a little child, hurrying along the quay toward a dingy tenement close at hand, with a jug in its arms.
'Hullo, youngster!' cried the man; 'what have you got there? Come here.’
The little child looked back, but, instead of obeying, only quickened its walk.
'The devil take you, come here!' repeated the man angrily, 'or I'll wring your beggarly neck. You won't obey your own uncle, eh?'
The child stopped, and ruefully made its way to its relative, looking around several times toward the house, as if to appeal to some counter authority.
'Come, make haste!' pursued the man, 'or I shall go and fetch you. Move!'
The child advanced to within half a dozen paces of the steps, and then stood still, eyeing the man cautiously, and hugging the jug tight.
'Come on, you little beggar, come up close.'
The youngster kept a stolid silence, however, and did not budge. Suddenly its self-styled uncle leaned forward, swept out his arm, clutched hold of its little sunburned wrist, and dragged it toward him.
'Why didn't you come when you were called?' he asked, running his disengaged hand into the infant's frowsy mop of hair, and shaking its head until it staggered. 'Why didn't you come, you unmannerly little brute, eh?-eh?-eh?' accompanying every interrogation with a renewed shake.
The child made no answer. It simply and vainly endeavored to twist its neck around under the man's gripe, and transmit some call for succor to the house.
'Come, keep your head straight. Look at me, and answer me. What's in that jug? Don't lie.'
'Granny be hanged.'
The man disengaged his hands, lifted the jug from the child's feeble grasp, tilted it toward the light, surveyed its contents, put it to his lips, and exhausted them. The child, although liberated, did not retreat. It stood watching its uncle drink until he lowered the jug. Then, as he met its eyes, it said:
'It was for the baby.'
For a moment the man was irresolute. But the child seemed to have a foresight of the parental resentment, for it had hardly spoken when it darted backward and scampered off, just in time to elude a blow from the jug, which the man sent clattering at its heels. When it was out of sight, he faced about to the water again, and replaced the pipe between his teeth with a heavy scowl and a murmur that sounded to Madame Bernier very like— 'I wish the baby'd choke.'
Hortense was a mute spectator of this little drama. When it was over, she turned around, and retraced her steps twenty yards with her hand to her head. Then she walked straight back, and addressed the man.
'My good man,' she said, in a very pleasant voice, 'are you the master of one of these boats?'
He looked up at her. In a moment the pipe was out of his mouth, and a broad grin in its place. He rose, with his hand to his cap.
'I am, madame, at your service.'
'Will you take me to the other side?'
'You don't need a boat; the bridge is closed,' said one of his comrades at the foot of the steps, looking that way.
'I know it,' said Madame Bernier; but I wish to go to the cemetery, and a boat will save me half a mile walking.'
'The cemetery is shut at this hour.'
' Allons, leave madame alone,' said the man first spoken to.
'This way, my lady.'
Hortense seated herself in the stern of the boat. The man took the sculls.
'Straight across?' he asked.
Hortense looked around her. 'It's a fine evening,' said she; suppose you row me out to the lighthouse, and leave me at the point nearest the cemetery on our way back.
'Very well,' rejoined the boatman; 'fifteen sous,' and began to pull lustily.
' Allez, I'll pay you well,' said Madame.
'Fifteen sous is the fare,' insisted the man.
'Give me a pleasant row, and I'll give you a hundred,' said Hortense.
Her companion said nothing. He evidently wished to appear not to have heard her remark. Silence was probably the most dignified manner of receiving a promise too munificent to be anything but a jest.
For some time this silence was maintained, broken only by the trickling of the oars and the sounds from the neighboring shores and vessels. Madame Bernier was plunged in a sidelong scrutiny of her ferryman's countenance. He was a man of about thirty-five. His face was dogged, brutal, and sullen. These indications were perhaps exaggerated by the dull monotony of his exercise. The eyes lacked a certain rascally gleam which had appeared in them when he was so empressé with the offer of his services. The face was better then—that is, if vice is better than ignorance. We say a countenance is 'lit up' by a smile; and indeed that momentary flicker does the office of a candle in a dark room. It sheds a ray upon the dim upholstery of our souls. The visages of poor men, generally, know few alternations. There is a large class of human beings whom fortune restricts to a single change of expression, or, perhaps, rather to a single expression. Ah me! the faces which wear either nakedness or rags; whose repose is stagnation, whose activity vice; ignorant at their worst, infamous at their best!
'Don't pull too hard,' said Hortense at last. 'Hadn't you better take breath a moment?'
'Madame is very good,' said the man, leaning upon his oars. 'But if you had taken me by the hour,' he added, with a return of the vicious grin, 'you wouldn't catch me loitering.'
'I suppose you work very hard,' said Madame Bernier.
The man gave a little toss of his head, as if to intimate the inadequacy of any supposition to grasp the extent of his labors.
'I've been up since four o'clock this morning, wheeling bales and boxes on the quay, and plying my little boat. Sweating without five minutes' intermission. C’est comme ça. Sometimes I tell my mate I think I'll take a plunge in the basin to dry myself. Ha! ha! ha!'
'And of course you gain little,' said Madame Bernier.
'Worse than nothing. Just what will keep me fat enough for starvation to feed on.'
'How? you go without your necessary food?'
'Necessary is a very elastic word, madame. You can narrow it down, so that in the degree above nothing it means luxury. My necessary food is sometimes thin air. If I don't deprive myself of that, it's because I can't.'
'Is it possible to be so unfortunate?'
'Shall I tell you what I have eaten today?'
'Do,' said Madame Bernier.
'A piece of black bread and a salt herring are all that have passed my lips for twelve hours.'
'Why don't you get some better work?'
'If I should die tonight,' pursued the boatman, heedless of the question, in the manner of a man whose impetus on the track of self-pity drives him past the signal flags of relief, 'what would there be left to bury me? These clothes I have on might buy me a long box. For the cost of this shabby old suit, that hasn't lasted me a twelve-month, I could get one that I wouldn't wear out in a thousand years. La bonne idee! '
'Why don't you get some work that pays better?' repeated Hortense.
The man dipped his oars again.
'Work that pays better? I must work for work. I must earn that too. Work is wages. I count the promise of the next week's employment the best part of my Saturday night's pocketings. Fifty casks rolled from the ship to the storehouse mean two things: thirty sous and fifty more to roll the next day. Just so a crushed hand, or a dislocated shoulder, mean twenty francs to the apothecary and bon jour to my business.'
'Are you married?' asked Hortense.
'No, I thank you. I'm not cursed with that blessing. But I've an old mother, a sister, and three nephews, who look to me for support. The old woman's too old to work; the lass is too lazy, and the little ones are too young. But they're none of them too old or young to be hungry, allez. I'll be hanged if I'm not a father to them all.'
There was a pause. The man had resumed rowing. Madame Bernier sat motionless, still examining her neighbor's physiognomy. The sinking sun, striking full upon his face, covered it with an almost lurid glare. Her own features being darkened against the western sky, the direction of them was quite indistinguishable to her companion.
'Why don't you leave the place?' she said at last.
'Leave it! how?' he replied, looking up with the rough avidity with which people of his class receive proposals touching their interests, extending to the most philanthropic suggestions that mistrustful eagerness with which experience has taught them to defend their own side of a bargain—the only form of proposal that she has made them acquainted with.
'Go somewhere else,' said Hortense.
'Where, for instance!'
'To some new country—America.'
The man burst into a loud laugh. Madame Bernier's face bore more evidence of interest in the play of his features than of that discomfiture which generally accompanies the consciousness of ridicule.
'There's a lady's scheme for you! If you'll write for furnished apartments, là-bas, I don't desire anything better. But no leaps in the dark for me. America and Algeria are very fine words to cram into an empty stomach when you're lounging in the sun, out of work, just as you stuff tobacco into your pipe and let the smoke curl around your head. But they fade away before a cutlet and a bottle of wine. When the earth grows so smooth and the air so pure that you can see the American coast from the pier yonder, then I'll make up my bundle. Not before.'
'You're afraid, then, to risk anything?'
'I'm afraid of nothing, moi. But I am not a fool either. I don't want to kick away my sabots till I am certain of a pair of shoes. I can go barefoot here. I don't want to find water where I counted on land. As for America, I've been there already.'
'Ah! you've been there?'
'I've been to Brazil and Mexico and California and the West Indies.'
'I've been to Asia, too.'
' Pardio, to China and India. Oh, I've seen the world! I've been three times around the Cape.'
'You've been a seaman then?'
'Yes, ma'am; fourteen years.'
'On what ship?'
'Bless your heart, on fifty ships.'
'French and English and Spanish; mostly Spanish.'
'Yes, and the more fool I was.'
'Oh, it was a dog's life. I'd drown any dog that would play half the mean tricks I used to see.'
'And you never had a hand in any yourself?'
' Pardon, I gave what I got. I was as good a Spaniard and as great a devil as any. I carried my knife with the best of them, and drew it as quickly, and plunged it as deep. I've got scars, if you weren't a lady. But I'd warrant to find you their mates on a dozen Spanish hides!'
He seemed to pull with renewed vigor at the recollection. There was a short silence.
'Do you suppose,' said Madame Bernier, in a few moments 'do you remember—that is, can you form any idea whether you ever killed a man?'
There was a momentary slackening of the boatman's oars. He gave a sharp glance at his passenger's countenance, which was still so shaded by her position, however, as to be indistinguishable. The tone of her interrogation had betrayed a simple, idle curiosity.
He hesitated a moment, and then gave one of those conscious, cautious, dubious smiles, which may cover either a criminal assumption of more than the truth or a guilty repudiation of it.
' Mon Dieu! ' said he, with a great shrug, 'there's a question! ..... I never killed one without a reason.'
'Of course not,' said Hortense.
'Though a reason in South America, ma foi! ' added the boatman, 'wouldn't be a reason here.'
'I suppose not. What would be a reason there?'
'Well, if I killed a man in Valparaiso—I don't say I did, mind—it's because my knife went in farther than I intended.'
'But why did you use it at all?'
'I didn't. If I had, it would have been because he drew his against me.'
'And why should he have done so?'
' Ventrebleu! for as many reasons as there are craft in the harbor.'
'Well, that I should have got a place in a ship's company that he was trying for.'
'Such things as that? is it possible?'
'Oh, for smaller things. That a lass should have given me a dozen oranges she had promised him.'
'How odd!' said Madame Bernier, with a shrill kind of laugh. 'A man who owed you a grudge of this kind would just come up and stab you, I suppose, and think nothing of it?'
'Precisely. Drive a knife up to the hilt into your back, with an oath, and slice open a melon with it, with a song, five minutes afterward.'
'And when a person is afraid, or ashamed, or in some way unable to take revenge himself, does he—or it may be a woman—does she get some one else to do it for her?'
' Parbleu! Poor devils on the lookout for such work are as plentiful all along the South American coast as commissionaires on the street corners here.' The ferryman was evidently surprised at the fascination possessed by this infamous topic for so lady-like a person; but having, as you see, a very ready tongue, it is probable that his delight in being able to give her information and hear himself talk were still greater. 'And then down there,' he went on, 'they never forget a grudge. If a fellow doesn't serve you one day, he'll do it another. A Spaniard's hatred is like lost sleep—you can put it off for a time, but it will gripe you in the end. The rascals always keep their promises to themselves ................ An enemy on shipboard is jolly fun. It's like bulls tethered in the same field. You can't stand still half a minute except against a wall. Even when he makes friends with you, his favors never taste right. Messing with him is like drinking out of a pewter mug. And so it is everywhere. Let your shadow once flit across a Spaniard's path, and he'll always see it there. If you’ve never lived in any but these damned clockworky European towns, you can't imagine the state of things in a South American seaport—one half the population waiting round the corner for the other half. But I don’t see that it's so much better here, where every man's a spy on every other. There you meet an assassin at every turn, here a sergent de ville ......... At all events, the life là bas used to remind me, more than anything else, of sailing in a shallow channel, where you don't know what infernal rock you may ground on. Every man has a standing account with his neighbor, just as madame has at her fournisseur's; and, ma foi, those are the only accounts they settle. The master of the Santiago may pay me one of these days for the pretty names I heaved after him when we parted company, but he'll never pay me my wages'.
A short pause followed this exposition of the virtues of the Spaniard.
'You yourself never put a man out of the world, then?' resumed Hortense.
'Oh, que si! .... Are you horrified?'
'Not at all. I know that the thing is often justifiable.'
The man was silent a moment, perhaps with surprise, for the next thing he said was:
'Madame is Spanish?'
'In that, perhaps, I am,' replied Hortense.
Again her companion was silent. The pause was prolonged. Madame Bernier broke it by a question which showed that she had been following the same train of thought.
'What is sufficient ground in this country for killing a man?'
The boatman sent a loud laugh over the water. Hortense drew her cloak closer about her.
'I'm afraid there is none.'
'Isn't there a right of self-defence?'
'To be sure there is—it's one I ought to know something about. But it's one that ces messieurs at the Palais make short work with.'
'In South America and those countries, when a man makes life insupportable to you, what do you do?'
' Mon Dieu! I suppose you kill him.'
'And in France?'
'I suppose you kill yourself. Ha! ha! ha!'
By this time they had reached the end of the great breakwater, terminating in a lighthouse, the limit, on one side, of the inner harbor. The sun had set.
'Here we are at the lighthouse,' said the man; 'it's growing dark. Shall we turn?'
Hortense rose in her place a few moments, and stood looking out to sea. 'Yes,' she said at last, 'you may go back—slowly.' When the boat had headed round she resumed her old position, and put one of her hands over the side, drawing it through the water as they moved, and gazing into the long ripples.
At last she looked up at her companion. Now that her face caught some of the lingering light of the west, he could see that it was deathly pale.
'You find it hard to get along in the world,' said she: 'I shall be very glad to help you.'
The man started, and stared a moment. Was it because this remark jarred upon the expression which he was able faintly to discern in her eyes? The next, he put his hand to his cap.
'Madame is very kind. What will you do?'
Madame Bernier returned his gaze.
'I will trust you.
'And reward you.'
'Ah? Madame has a piece of work for me?'
'A piece of work,' Hortense nodded.
The man said nothing, waiting apparently for an explanation. His face wore the look of lowering irritation which low natures feel at being puzzled.
'Are you a bold man?'
Light seemed to come in this question. The quick expansion of his features answered it. You cannot touch upon certain subjects with an inferior but by the sacrifice of the barrier which separates you from him. There are thoughts and feelings and glimpses and foreshadowings of thoughts which level all inequalities of station.
'I'm bold enough,' said the boatman, 'for anything you want me to do.'
'Are you bold enough to commit a crime?'
'Not for nothing.'
'If I ask you to endanger your peace of mind, to risk your personal safety for me, it is certainly not as a favor. I will give you ten times the weight in gold of every grain by which your conscience grows heavier in my service.'
The man gave her a long, hard look through the dim light.
'I know what you want me to do,' he said at last.
'Very well,' said Hortense; 'will you do it?'
He continued to gaze. She met his eyes like a woman who has nothing more to conceal.
'State your case.'
'Do you know a vessel named the Armorique, a steamer?'
'Yes, it runs from Southampton.'
'It will arrive tomorrow morning early. Will it be able to cross the bar?'
'No; not till noon.'
'I thought so. I expect a person by it—a man.
Madame Bernier appeared unable to continue, as if her voice had given way.
'Well, well?' said her companion.
'He's the person'—she stopped again.
'The person who—?'
'The person whom I wish to get rid of.'
For some moments nothing was said. The boatman was the first to speak again.
'Have you formed a plan?'
'Let's hear it.'
'The person in question,' said Madame Bernier, 'will be impatient to land before noon. The house to which he returns will be in view of the vessel if, as you say, she lies at anchor. If he can get a boat, he will be sure to come ashore. Eh bien!—but you understand me.'
'Aha! you mean my boat—this boat?'
Madame Bernier sprang up in her seat, threw out her arms, and sank down again, burying her face in her knees. Her companion hastily shipped his oars, and laid his hands on her shoulders.
' Allons donc, in the devil's name, don't break down,' said he; 'we'll come to an understanding.'
Kneeling in the bottom of the boat, and supporting her by his grasp, he succeeded in making her raise herself, though her head still drooped.
'You want me to finish him in the boat?'
'Is he an old man?'
Hortense shook her head faintly.
' Sapristi! it isn't so easy.
'He can't swim,' said Hortense, without looking up; 'he—he is lame.'
' Nom de Dieu! ' The boatman dropped his hands. Hortense looked up quickly. Do you read the pantomime?
'Never mind,' added the man at last, 'it will serve as a sign.
' Mais oui. And besides that, he will ask to be taken to the Maison Bernier, the house with its back to the water, on the extension of the great quay. Tenez, you can almost see it from here.'
'I know the place,' said the boatman, and was silent, as if asking and answering himself a question.
Hortense was about to interrupt the train of thought which she apprehended he was following, when he forestalled her.
'How am I to be sure of my affair?' asked he.
'Of your reward? I've thought of that. This watch is a pledge of what I shall be able and glad to give you afterward. There are two thousand francs' worth of pearls in the case.'
' II faut fixer la somme, ' said the man, leaving the watch untouched.
'That lies with you.'
'Good. You know that I have the right to ask a high price.'
'Certainly. Name it.'
'It's only on the supposition of a large sum that I will so much as consider your proposal. Songez donc, that it's a MURDER you ask of me.'
'The price—the price?'
' Tenez, ' continued the man, 'poached game is always high. The pearls in that watch are costly because it's worth a man's life to get at them. You want me to be your pearl diver. Be it so. You must guarantee me a safe descent,—it's a descent, you know—ha!—you must furnish me the armor of safety; a little gap to breathe through while I'm at my work—the thought of a capful of Napoleons!'
'My good man, I don't wish to talk to you or to listen to your sallies. I wish simply to know your price. I'm not bargaining for a pair of chickens. Propose a sum.
The boatman had by this time resumed his seat and his oars. He stretched out for a long, slow pull, which brought him closely face to face with his temptress. This position, his body bent forward, his eyes fixed on Madame Bernier's face, he kept for some seconds. It was perhaps fortunate for Hortense's purpose at that moment—it had often aided her purposes before—that she was a pretty woman. [James’s footnote: I am told that there was no resisting her smile; and that she had at her command, in moments of grief, a certain look of despair which filled even the roughest hearts with sympathy, and won over the kindest to the cruel cause.] A plain face might have emphasized the utterly repulsive nature of the negotiation. Suddenly, with a quick, convulsive movement, the man completed the stroke.
' Pas si bête! propose one yourself.'
'Very well,' said Hortense, 'if you wish it. Voyons: I'll give you what I can. I have fifteen thousand francs' worth of jewels. I'll give you them, or, if they will get you into trouble, their value. At home, in a box I have a thousand francs in gold. You shall have those. I'll pay your passage and outfit to America. I have friends in New York. I'll write to them to get you work.'
'And you'll give your washing to my mother and sister, hein? Ha! ha! Jewels, fifteen thousand francs; one thousand more makes sixteen; passage to America—first class—five hundred francs; outfit—what does Madame understand by that?'
'Everything needful for your success là-bas. '
'A written denial that I am an assassin? Ma foi, it were better not to remove the impression. It's served me a good turn, on this side of the water at least. Call it twenty-five thousand francs.'
'Very well; but not a sous more.'
'Shall I trust you?'
'Am I not trusting you? It is well for you that I do not allow myself to think of the venture I am making.'
'Perhaps we're even there. We neither of us can afford to make account of certain possibilities. Still, I'll trust you, too.... Tiens! ' added the boatman, 'here we are near the quay.' Then with a mock-solemn touch of his cap, 'Will Madame still visit the cemetery?'
'Come, quick, let me land,' said Madame Bernier, impatiently.
'We have been among the dead, after a fashion,' persisted the boatman, as he gave her his hand.
It was more than eight o'clock when Madame Bernier reached her own house.
'Has M. de Meyrau been here?' she asked of Josephine.
'Yes, ma'am; and on learning that Madame was out, he left a note, chez monsieur.'
Hortense found a sealed letter on the table in her husband's old study. It ran as follows:
'I was desolated at finding you out. I had a word to tell you. I have accepted an invitation to sup and pass the night at C—, thinking it would look well. For the same reason I have resolved to take the bull by the horns, and go aboard the steamer on my return, to welcome M. Bernier home—the privilege of an old friend. I am told the Armorique will anchor off the bar by daybreak. What do you think? But it's too late to let me know. Applaud my savoir faire—you will, at all events, in the end. You will see how it will smoothe matters.'
'Baffled! baffled!' hissed Madame, when she had read the note; 'God deliver me from my friends!' She paced up and down the room several times, and at last began to mutter to herself, as people often do in moments of strong emotion: 'Bah! but he'll never get up by daybreak. He'll oversleep himself, especially after tonight's supper. The other will be before him. Oh, my poor head, you've suffered too much to fail in the end!'
Josephine reappeared to offer to remove her mistress's things. The latter, in her desire to reassure herself, asked the first question that occurred to her.
'Was M. le Vicomte alone?'
'No madame; another gentleman was with him—M. de Saulges, I think. They came in a hack, with two portmanteaus.'
Though I have judged best, hitherto, often from an exaggerated fear of trenching on the ground of fiction, to tell you what this poor lady did and said, rather than what she thought, I may disclose what passed in her mind now:
'Is he a coward? is he going to leave me? or is he simply going to pass these last hours in play and drink? He might have stayed with me. Ah! my friend, you do little for me, who do so much for you; who commit murder, and—Heaven help me!—suicide for you! .... But I suppose he knows best. At all events, he will make a night of it.'
When the cook came in late that evening, Josephine, who had sat up for her, said:
'You've no idea how Madame is looking. She's ten years older since this morning. Holy mother! what a day this has been for her!'
'Wait till tomorrow,' said the oracular Valentine.
Later, when the women went up to bed in the attic, they saw a light under Hortense's door, and during the night Josephine, whose chamber was above Madame's, and who couldn't sleep (for sympathy, let us say), heard movements beneath her, which told that her mistress was even more wakeful than she.
There was considerable bustle around the Armorique as she anchored outside the harbor of H—, in the early dawn of the following day. A gentleman, with an overcoat, walking stick, and small valise, came alongside in a little fishing boat, and got leave to go aboard.
'Is M. Bernier here?' he asked of one of the officers, the first man he met.
'I fancy he's gone ashore, sir. There was a boatman inquiring for him a few minutes ago, and I think he carried him off.
M. de Meyrau reflected a moment. Then he crossed over to the other side of the vessel, looking landward. Leaning over the bulwarks he saw an empty boat moored to the ladder which ran up the vessel's side.
'That's a town boat, isn't it?' he said to one of the hands standing by.
'Where's the master?'
'I suppose he'll be here in a moment. I saw him speaking to one of the officers just now.
De Meyrau descended the ladder, and seated himself at the stern of the boat. As the sailor he had just addressed was handing down his bag, a face with a red cap looked over the bulwarks.
'Hullo, my man!' cried De Meyrau, 'is this your boat?'
'Yes, sir, at your service,' answered the red cap, coming to the top of the ladder, and looking hard at the gentleman's stick and portmanteau.
'Can you take me to town, to Madame Bernier's, at the end of the new quay?'
'Certainly, sir,' said the boatman, scuttling down the ladder, 'you're just the gentleman I want.'
- * * * *
An hour later Hortense Bernier came out of the house, and began to walk slowly through the garden toward the terrace which overlooked the water. The servants, when they came down at an early hour, had found her up and dressed, or rather, apparently, not undressed, for she wore the same clothes as the evening before.
' Tiens! ' exclaimed Josephine, after seeing her, 'Madame gained ten years yesterday; she has gained ten more during the night.'
When Madame Bernier reached the middle of the garden she halted, and stood for a moment motionless, listening. The next, she uttered a great cry. For she saw a figure emerge from below the terrace, and come limping toward her with outstretched arms.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.
The author died in 1916, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.