Posing on a bathing-machine, Ostend. Library of Congress image collection.
[See part one here. After straying into the wrong bathing-machine, our hero tries to explain his presence to its fair occupant.]
And he told her everything. She recovered her senses by degrees; her eyes indicated attention at first, then confidence in the sincerity of the guilty man.
When he had finished she looked at him with an air of despair that would have brought tears from a stone, and passing from tears to sobs, which she restrained with heartrending efforts, she said: “So, sir, because it has pleased you to satisfy your insulting curiosity, here I am lost, dishonored forever. And I, who have done nothing, who do not even know your name, I shall bear through all my life the opprobrium which you have needed but a moment to attach to it!”
At these words Gaston comprehended the enormity of this fault which, by its consequences, assumed minute by minute the proportions of a crime. He fell on his knees and implored pardon. Through the tears that dimmed her eyes she let fall on him one of those glances which can in a moment of danger give to a man the power of a god. The poor child, kneeling, and her hands joined as in prayer, looked at him with the most supplicating air in the world, and the confidence of the weaker being, who awaits her rescue by the stronger, shone in her pretty eyes.
Here Gaston gave the measure of what was to be expected of his coolness and lucidity in moments of peril.
“Before everything, madame,” said he, “let us begin by seeing how matters are outside. I do not see how I am going to conceal myself in these bare walls, but in desperate straits the first thing to try is that which is most simple, and I want to see if I can not simply open the door and walk away.”
But Gaston, applying his eye to the keyhole, saw a spectacle, or rather a scene, which left him no hope from that side. He sat down on the bench with a despairing shake of the head to his companion in captivity.
Outside, or rather around, were groups, seemingly posted by chance, evidently surrounding and guarding No. 13.
There was at that time in Mareville a retired Parisian milliner, who had married herself in some unknown way to an old beau in the last extremity, and who called herself the Baroness de Longuepine. She passed her life sowing evil reports and reaping scandals.
When the Pichard woman returned from opening for the fair bather the door of No. 13, the Baroness de Longuepine had come down to the beach to pick up the gossip of the day. The Pichards’ two children, a little boy and a little girl, who aided their parents in the service of the bathers, came up at this moment, and declared that they had seen a gentleman bather go into No. 13 a few minutes before the lady came out of the water and that he had not come out again. Severe cross-questioning failed to shake them in their belief, and their story, deftly aided by the baroness’s sharp tongue, soon worked the Pichard woman up to a fine pitch of anger.
“I’ll show them,” she cried in a loud and angry tone, “I’ll teach these turtle-doves to build their nests in my bathing-machines! Come,” she said, turning to the children, “let us find the mayor and the constable.”
At these words the baroness was off like a shot to spread the precious news, and to such good purpose that soon a great crowd of the curious gathered about No. 13, and she was beside herself with joy.
“Poor things,” said she, “do you think they will be sent to the galleys? After this — more’s the pity —Mareville is lost,” she ran on, to the proprietor of the three prettiest cottages on the beach, “if such scandalous affairs are allowed to pass unpunished.”
A general movement of arms and heads directed toward the great stairs of the promenade announced the arrival of the mayor. Soon he was seen to appear on the left of the line, along which he passed rapidly and stopped a few paces in front of No. 13. Never had Mareville witnessed such a scene! The curious crowd, breaking from all restraint, formed a semicircle, and concentrated their hungry looks on the door where in a few moments the victim would appear in all her shame and dishonor. It was one of those little pictures in which humanity shows itself in all its cowardliness and cruelty.
The mayor now gave a signal to the constable, and the latter, respectfully unfolding a package wrapped in gray paper, drew from it a tri-colored scarf with silver fringe, with which the mayor begirt himself. He was drawing the two ends to cross them, when a sharp little noise came from the interior of No. 13 It was the bolt, which had just been drawn. The mayor, an excellent man at heart, let fall the two ends of his scarf, his heart failed him as he thought of the poor penitent whose punishment was about to begin.
A minute at least passed. The crowd no longer heard the waves, which seemed to rumble curses mingled with the cries of a soul in anguish. Another noise was heard; the latch was being lifted. The poor mayor almost fainted and turned his head aside, but the others, craning their necks, took a step forward.
The door opened slowly, slowly, and the fair bather, beautiful as the day, brilliant as a fairy, appeared on the sill, where she stopped a moment to consider the remarkable picture that presented itself to her gaze. It was horrible. The evil sentiments that possessed them had entirely changed all the faces; the sight of this troop hungering for scandal reminded one of a pack of wolves ready to throw themselves on a lamb. The bather swept the groups with a look of unutterable scorn, and she stepped down to the sand.
“What boldness!” cried the baroness, eyeing her victim from head to foot. And she flew into the bathing-machine to see The Man.
She recoiled with surprise and horror. The Man was not there!
Her cheeks became green, her lips gray, and she stood for a moment suffocated with spite and anger.
The beautiful bather, seeing everyone hurry to her bathing-machine, seemed greatly astonished and demanded what it meant. But no one dared reply, and she turned to the mayor to demand an explanation of him, when the two children, led by the Pichard woman, were brought forward, and, parrot-like, repeated their declaration to the mayor.
But just then the father came up, and not seeming to know what was going on, said to his wife, with an uneasy air: “Say, Marie, you haven’t seen the gentleman of No. 3, have you? Everybody came out of the water long ago, he has been in the water at least two hours, and his clothes are still in the machine. I have been looking for him for half an hour; I have gone out in the water more than a mile, and there’s no one to be seen. I hope nothing has happened to him!”
“Heaven help us, what a day!” cried the woman: “how was he dressed?”
“Red suit, with black edges, and a red-and-black cap.”
“The man we saw go into No. 13 was dressed like that,” cried the two children.
At these words the face of the Pichard woman turned pale; she made the sign of the cross, and said, looking at her husband: “Holy Virgin! it was his ghost the children saw!”
At this new turn of affairs there was a change like a transformation in a theatre. Every one rushed to the drowned man’s machine, while our heroine, after a covert glance at hers, walked away with the last of the crowd to where the boat was being put out.
After more than two hours the searchers came back. They had found nothing, and No. 3 was still empty.
They gathered together his effects, finding a card bearing the name “Gaston de Rochekern,” but no address, and the mayor proceeded to draw up his prods-verbal.
All the evening the events of that memorable day were discussed, and at the moment when Dr. Destombes was explaining to an attentive audience that it was not difficult to cite hallucinations such as had deceived the imaginations of the two children — at the moment when, pursuing his demonstration, the learned doctor added finely that many popular beliefs have no better origin. Gaston de Rochekern, who was not dead, but only buried, slipped as stealthily as a cat up the last step of the promenade and managed, unperceived, to reenter the cottage which he occupied alone.
He meditated the greater part of the night, and at dawn, before any one was astir, he put on his bathing-suit again, went and lay down on the edge of the beach, and waited. About an hour later, found by an early fisherman, the inanimate body of the drowned man was carried on a litter to the Casino, where Dr. Destombes, after energetic treatment, had the happiness to restore him to life. Gaston then recounted how, on the evening before, just as he was regaining the raft, he had been seized by a cramp; that he had made the raft; that the cramp had lasted a long time, getting worse: that the sea had carried him off again; that he had not been able to reach the shore; that, happily, he had managed to catch a piece of driftwood, which had sustained him until the incoming tide had carried him to the beach. It was, in fact, a tale long enough to put one to sleep, but to which no objection could be made.
Now, do you wish to know how he got out of the bathing-machine? It is very simple. With a strip of iron from the latch he had taken up two boards from the floor. With the aid of his companion he had scooped a hole beneath the floor, throwing the sand in the space between the floor and the beach; he had concealed himself in the hole, and the lady, replacing the planks, had only to rest the heel of her boot on them to drive the nails back in their holes, which Gaston had taken care to enlarge by working the nails in them like a drill.
From his place of concealment he had heard all that passed. He had remained hidden until night, and then, having carefully poked out his head to see that the beach was clear, he had made his escape.
The lady left Mareville in a few days, and her name was never registered in its hotels again: but Madame the Vicomtesse Gaston de Rochekern, who came there on the following year on her wedding tour, was marked by the wise bathing-master to bear resemblance to the fair bather of No. 13.
From the French of Eugene Mouton.
The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 16 January 1893
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