Chapter 1: The Elopement
My dandy-rigged yacht, the Spitfire, of twenty-six tons, lay in Boulogne harbor, hidden in the midnight shadow of the wall against which she floated. It was a breathless night, dark despite the wide spread of cloudless sky that was brilliant with stars.
It was hard upon the hour of midnight, and low down where we lay we heard but dimly the sounds of such life as was still abroad in the Boulogne streets. Ahead of us loomed the shadow of a double-funneled steamer, —an inky dye of scarcely determinable proportions upon the black and silent waters of the harbor.
The Capécure pier made a faint, phantomlike line of gloom as it ran seawards on our left, with here and there a lump of shadow denoting some collier fast to the skeleton timbers.
We were waiting for the hour of midnight to strike, and our ears were strained.
"What noise is that?" I exclaimed.
"The dip of sweeps, sir," answered my captain, Aaron Caudel; "some smack a-coming along,—ay, there she is." And he shadowily pointed to a dark square heap amongst the piers, softly approaching to the impulse of her long oars.
"How is your pluck now, Caudel?" said I, in a low voice, sending a glance up at the dark edge of the harbor wall above us, where stood the motionless figure of a douanier, with a button or two of his uniform faintly glimmering to the gleam of a lamp near him.
"Right for the job, sir,—-right as your honor could desire it. There's but one consideration which ain't like a feeling of certainty; and that, I must say, concerns the dawg."
"Smother the dog! But you are right. We must leave our boots in the ditch."
"Ain't there plenty of grass, sir?" said he.
"I hope so; but a fathom of gravel will so crunch under such hoofs as yours that the very dead buried beneath might turn in their coffins, let alone a live dog, wide awake from the end of his beastly cold snout to the tip of his tail. Does the ladder chafe you?"
"No, sir. Makes me feel a bit asthmatic-like, and if them douaniers get a sight of me they'll reckon I've visited the Continent to make a show of myself," he exclaimed, with a low deep-sea laugh, whilst he spread his hands upon his breast, around which, under cover of a large, loose, long pea-coat, he had coiled a length of rope-ladder with two iron hooks at one end of it which made a bump under either shoulder blade. There was no other way, however, of conveying the ladder ashore. In the hand it would instantly have challenged attention, and a bag would have been equally an object of curiosity to the two or three custom—house phantoms flitting about in triangular-shaped trousers and shake-like head-gear.
"There goes midnight, sir!" cried Caudel.
As I listened to the chimes a sudden fit of excitement set me trembling.
"Are ye there, Job?" called my captain.
"Ay, sir," responded a voice from the bows of the yacht.
"Here, sir," answered a second voice out of the darkness forward.
"Here, sir," responded the squeaky note of a boy.
"Lay aft, all you ship's company, and don't make no noise," growled Caudel.
I looked up; the figure of the douanier had vanished. The three men and the boy came sneaking out of the yacht's head.
"Now, what ye've got to do," said Caudel, "is to keep awake. You'll see already for hoisting and getting away the instant Mr. Barclay and I arrive aboard. You understand that?"
"It's good English, cap'n," said one of the sailors.
"No Skylarking, mind. You're a-listening, Bobby ?"
"You'll just go quietly to work and see all clear, and then tarn to and loaf about in the shadow.—Now, Mr. Barclay, sir, if you're ready I am."
"Have you the little bull's-eye in your pocket?" said I. He felt, and answered yes.
"Stop a minute," said I, and I descended into the cabin to read my darling's letter for the last time, that I might make sure of all the details of our romantic plot are embarking on as hare-brained an adventure as was ever attempted by a lover and his sweetheart.
The cabin-lamp burned brightly. I see the little interior now, and myself standing upright under the skylight which found me room for my stature, for I was six feet high. The night shadow came black against the glass, and made a mirror of each pane.
My heart was beating fast, and my hands trembled as I held my sweetheart's letter
to the light. I had read it twenty times before,—you might have known that by the creases in it, and the frayed edges, as though for sooth it had been a love-letter fifty years old,—but my nervous excitement obliged me to go through it once more for the last time, as I have said, to make sure.
The handwriting was girlish; how could it be otherwise, seeing that the sweet writer was not yet eighteen?
The letter consisted of four sheets, and on one of them was very cleverly drawn, in pen and ink, a tall, long, narrow, old-fashioned château, with some shrubbery in front of it, a short length of wall, then a tall hedge with an arrow pointing at it, under which was written, "Here is the hole."
Under another arrow, indicating a big square door to the right of the house, where a second short length of wall was sketched in, were written the words, "Here is the dog."
Other arrows—quite a flight of them, indeed, causing the sketch to resemble a weather-chart—pointed to windows, doors, a little balcony, and so forth, and against them were written, "Ma'm'selle's room," "The German governess's room," "Four girls sleep here,"—with other hints of a like kind. I put the letter in my pocket and went on deck.
"Where are you, Caudel ?"
"Here, sir," cried a shadow in the starboard gangway.
"Let us start," said I. "there is half an hour's walk before us, and, though the agreed time is one, there is a great deal to be done when we arrive."
"I've been thinking, Mr. Barclay," he exclaimed, "that the young lady'll never be able to get aboard this yacht by that there up-and-down ladder," meaning the perpendicular steps affixed to the harbor wall.
"No!" cried I, needlessly startled by an insignificant oversight on the very threshold of the project.
"The boat," he continued, "had better be in waiting at them stairs, just past the smack astern of us there."
"Give the necessary orders," said I.
He did so swiftly, bidding two of the men to be at the stairs by one o'clock, the others to have the port gangway unshipped to enable us to step aboard in a moment, along with sails loosed and gear all seen to, ready for a prompt start. We then ascended the ladder and gained the top of the quay.
We said little until we had cleared the Rue de l'Ecu and were marching up the broad Grande Rue, with the church of St. Nicholas soaring in a dusky mass out of the marketplace, and the few lights of the wide main street rising in fitful twinkling to the shadow of the rampart walls.
A mounted gendarme passed; the stroke of his horse's hoofs sounded hollow in the broad thoroughfare and accentuated the deserted appearance of the street. Here and there a light showed in a window; from a distance came a noise of chorusing,—a number of fellows, no doubt, arm in arm, singing "Mourir pour la Patrie" to the inspiration of several glasses of sugar-and-water.
"I shan't be sorry when we're there," said Caudel. "This here ladder makes my coat feel a terrible tight fit. I suppose it'll be the first job of the sort ye was ever engaged in, sir?"
"The first," said I, "and the last too, believe me. It is nervous work. I would rather have to deal with an armed burglar than with an elopement. I wish the business were ended and we were heading for Penzance."
"And I don't suppose the young lady feels extra comfortable, either" he exclaimed. "Let me see: I've got to be right in my latitude and longitude, or we shall be finding ourselves ashore. It's for us to make the signal, ain't it, sir ?"
"Yes," said I, puffing, for the road was steep and we were walking rapidly. "First of all, you'll have to prepare the ladder. You haven't forgotten the rungs, I hope?" referring to three brass pieces to keep the ropes extended, contrivances which had been made to my order, resembling stair-rods with forks and an arrangement of screws by which they could be disconnected into pieces convenient for the pocket.
"They're here, sir," he exclaimed, slapping his breast.
"Well, we proceed thus. The bull's-eye must be cautiously lighted and darkened. We have then to steal noiselessly to abreast of the window on the left of the house and flash the lantern. This will be answered by the young lad striking a match at the window."
"Won't the scraping of the lucifer be heard?" inquired Caudel.
"No. Miss Bellassys writes to me that no one sleeps within several corridors of that room."
"Well, and then I think ye said, sir," observed Caudel, "that the young lady'll slip out onto the balcony and lower away a small length of line to which this here ladder," he said, giving his breast a thump, "is to be bent on, she hauling of it up?"
"Quite right," said I. "You must help her to descend, whilst I hold the ladder taut at the foot of it. No fear of the ropes breaking, I hope?"
"Lord love"ee," he cried, heartily, "it's brand-new ratline-stuff, strong enough to hoist the main-mast out of a first-rate."
By this time we had gained the top of the Grande Rue. Before us stretched an open space dark with lines of trees; at long intervals, the gleam of an oil lamp dotted that space of gloom; on our right lay the dusky mass of the rampart walls, the yawning gateway dully illuminated by the trembling flame of a lantern into a picture which carried the imagination back into heroic times, when elopements were exceedingly common, when gallant knights were to be met with galloping away with women of beauty a distinction clinging to them, when the midnight air was vocal with guitars, and nearly every other darkling lattice framed some sweet, pale, listening face.
"Which'll be the road, sir ?" broke in Caudel's tempestuous voice.
I had explored the district that afternoon, had observed all that was necessary, and discovered that the safest if not the shortest way to the Rue de Maquétra, where my sweetheart Grace Bellassys was at school, lay through the Haute Ville, or Upper Town, as the English called it.
The streets were utterly deserted; not so much as a cat stirred. One motionless figure we passed, hard by the cathedral,—a policeman or gendarme,—he might have been a statue.
It was like pacing the streets of a town that had been sacked, in which nothing lived to deliver so much as a groan; and the fancy was not a little improved by our emergence into what resembled a tract of country through a gate-way similar to that by which we had entered, over which there faintly glimmered out to the sheen of a near lamp the figure of Our Lady of Boulogne erect in some carving of a boat.
"Foreigners is a queer lot," exclaimed Caudel. "I dunno as I should much relish living between them walls. How much farther off is it, sir?"
"About ten minutes," said I.
"A blooming walk, Mr. Barclay, sir, begging your pardon.
Wouldn't it have been as well if you'd have ordered a fee-hacre to stand by ready to jump aboard of?"
"A fee what ?" said I.
"What's the French for a cab, sir?"
"Oh! I see what you mean. No. It's all down-hill for the lady. A carriage makes a noise; and then there is the cabman to be left behind to tell all that he knows."
Caudel grunted an assent, and we strided onward in silence.
The Rue de Maquétra was—is, I may say; I presume it still exists—a long, narrow lane leading to a pretty valley. Something more than half-way up it, on the left-hand side, runs a tall convent wall, the shadow of which, dominated as the heights were by trees on such a motionless midnight as this, plunged the road-way into deepest gloom.
Directly opposite the convent wall stood the old château, darkened and thickened in front by a profusion of shrubbery, with a short length of wall, as I have already said, at both extremities of it.
The grounds belonging to the house, as they rose with the hill, were divided from the lane by a thick hedge, which terminated at a distance of some two. hundred feet.
We came to a stand and listened, staring our hardest with all our eyes. The house was in blackness; the line of the roof ran in a clear sweep of ink against the stars, and not the faintest sound came from it or its grounds, save the delicate tinkling murmur of a fountain playing somewhere among the shrubbery in front.
"Where'll be the dawg ?" exclaimed Caudel, in a hoarse whisper.
"Behind the wall there," I answered,—"yonder where the great square door is. Hark! Did not that sound like the rattle of a chain ?"
We listened: then said I,— "Let us make for the hole in the hedge. I have its bearings. It directly fronts the third angle of that convent wall."
We crept soundlessly past the house, treading the verdure that lay in dark streaks upon the glimmering ground of this little-frequented lane. The clock of the convent opposite struck half-past twelve.
"One bell, sir," said Caudel. "It's about time we turned to, and no mistake. Lord, how I'm a-perspiring! yet it ben't so hot, neither. Which side of the house do the lady descend from ?"
"From this side," I answered.
"Well clear of the dawg, anyhow," said he, "and that's a good job."
"Here's the hole," I cried, with my voice shrill beyond recognition of my own hearing through the nervous excitement I labored under.
The hole was a neglected gap in the hedge, a rent originally made probably by donkey-boys, several of whose cattle I had remarked that afternoon browsing along the ditch and bank-side.
We squeezed through, and found ourselves in a sort of kitchen garden, as I might imagine from the aspect of the shadowy vegetation; it seemed to run clear to the very walls of the house on this side in dwarf bushes and low ridged growths.
"Here'll be a path, I hope," growled Caudel. "What am I a-treading on? Cabbages? They crackle worse nor gravel, Mr. Barclay."
"Clear yourself of the rope-ladder, and then I'll smother you in your big pea-coat whilst you light the lamp," said I. "Let us keep well in the shadow of the hedge. Who knows what eyes may be star gazing, yonder ?"
The hedge flung a useful dye upon the blackness of the night, and our figures against it, though they should have been viewed close to, must have been indistinguishable.
With a seaman's alacrity, Caudel slipped off his immense coat, and in a few moments had unwound the length of ladder from his body. He wore a colored flannel shirt; I had dreaded to find him figuring in white calico! He dropped the ladder to the ground, and the iron hooks clanked as they fell together. I hissed a sea bling at him through my teeth.
"Have you no wick in those tallow-candle fingers of yours ? Hush! Stand motionless."
As I spoke, the dog began to bark. That it was the dog belonging to the house I could not swear. The sound, nevertheless, proceeded from the direction of the yard in which my sweetheart had told me the dog was chained. The deep and melancholy note was like that of a blood-hound giving tongue. It was reverberated by the convent wall, and seemed to penetrate to the farthest distance, awaking the very echoes of the sleeping river Liane, and it filled the breathless pause that had fallen upon us with a torment of inquietude and expectation.
After a few minutes, the creature ceased.
"He'll be a whopper, sir. Big as a pony, sir, if his voice don't belie him," said Caudel, fetching a deep breath. "I was once bit by a dawg." He was about to spin a yarn.
"For heaven's sake, now, bear a hand and get your bull's-eye alight," I angrily whispered, at the same moment snatching up his coat and so holding it as effectually to screen his figure from the house.
Feeling over the coat, he pulled out the little bull's-eye lamp and a box of matches, and, catching with oceanic dexterity the flame of the lucifer in the hollow of his hands, he kindled the wick, and I immediately closed the lantern with its glass eclipsed.
This done, I directed my eyes at the black smears of growths—for thus they showed—lying round about us, in search of a path; but apparently we were on the margin of some wide tract of vegetables through which we should have to thrust to reach the stretch of award that according to the description in my pocket lay immediately under the balcony from which my sweetheart was to descend.
"Pick up that ladder,—by the hooks; see they don't clank; crouch low; make a bush of yourself, as I do, and come along," said I.
Foot by foot we groped our way towards the tall thin shadow of the house through the cabbages,—to give the vegetation a name,—and presently arrived at the edge of the sward; and now we had to wait until the clock struck one.
Fortunately, there were some bushes here, but none that rose higher than our girths, and this obliged us to maintain a posture of stooping which in a short time began to tell upon Caudel's rheumatic knees, as I knew by his snuffling and his uneasy movements, though the heart of oak suffered in silence.
This side of the house lay so black against the fine, clear, starry dusk of the sky that it was impossible to see the outlines of the windows in it. I could manage, however, to trace faintly the line of the balcony.
My heart beat fast as I thought that even now my darling might be standing at the window peering through it, waiting for the signal flash. Caudel was thinking of her too:
"The young lady, begging of your pardon, sir, must be a gal of uncommon spirit, Mr. Barclay."
"She loves me, Caudel, and love is the most animating of spirits, my friend."
"I don't doubt it, sir. What room'll it be that she's to come out of ?"
"The dining-room,—-a big deserted apartment where the girls take their meals."
"'Tain't her bedroom, then ?"
"No. She is to steal dressed from her bedroom to the saIle-à-manger"
"The Sally what, sir ?"
"No matter, no matter," I answered.
I pulled out my watch, but there was no power in the starlight to reveal the dial-plate. All continued still as the tomb, saving at fitful intervals a low note of silken rustling that stole upon the ear with some tender, dream-like gushing of night air, as though the atmosphere had been stirred by the sweep of a large, near, invisible pinion.
"This here posture ain't so agreeable as dancing," hoarsely rumbled Caudel. "Could almost wish myself a dwarf. That there word beginning with a Sally___ "
"Not so loud, man; not so loud."
"It's uncommon queer," he persisted, "to feel one's self in a country where one's language ain't spoke. The wary soil don't seem natural. As to the language itself, burst me if I can understand how a man masters it. I was once trying to teach an Irish sailor how to dance a quadrille. 'Now, Murphy,' says I to him, 'you understand you're my wiz-a-wee.' ' What's dat you mil me?' he cried out; you're another, and a darn scoundrel besides!' Half the words in this here tongue sound like cussing of a man. And to think of a dining room being called a Sally "
The convent clock struck one.
"Now," said I, "stand by."
I held up the lamp, and so turned the darkened part as to produce two flashes. A moment after, a tiny flame showed and vanished above the balcony.
"My brave darling!" I exclaimed. "Have you the ladder in your hand?"
"Mind those confounded hooks don't click."
We stepped across the sward and stood under the balcony.
"Grace, my darlin , is that you?" I called, in a low voice.
"Yes, Herbert. Oh, please be quick. I am fancying I hear footsteps. My heart is scarcely beating for fright."
But, despite the tremble in her sweet voice, my ear seemed to find strength of purpose enough in it to satisfy me that there would be no failure from want of courage on her part. I could just discern the outline of her figure as she leaned over the balcony and see the white of her face vague as a fancy.
"My darling, lower the line to pull the ladder up with. Very softly, my pet; there are iron books which make a noise."
In a few moments she called, "I have lowered the line."
I felt about with my hand and grasped the end of it,——a piece of twine, but strong enough to support the ladder. The deep blood hound-like buying of the dog recommenced, and at the same time I heard the sound of footsteps in the lane.
"Hist! Not a stir,—not a whisper," I breathed out.
It was the staggering step of a drunken man. He broke maudlinly into a song when immediately abreast of us, ceased his noise suddenly , and halted. This was a little passage of agony; I can assure you.
The dog continued to utter its sullen, deep-throated bark in single strokes like the beat of a bell. Presently there was a sound as of the scrambling and scrunching of feet, followed by the noise of a lunching tread; the man fell to drunkenly singing to himself again, and so passed away up the lane.
Caudel fastened the end of the twine to the ladder, and then grunted out, "All ready for hoisting."
"Grace, my sweet," I whispered, "do you hear me?"
"Distinctly, dearest; but I am so frightened!"
"Pull up this ladder softly, and hook the irons on to the rim of the balcony."
"Blast that dawg!" growled 0audel. "Damned if I don't think he smells us!"
"It is hooked, Herbert."
"All right. Caudel, swing of upon the end of it,—test it, and then aloft with you, for mercy's sake!"
The three metal rings held the ropes bravely stretched apart. The seaman sprang, and the ladder held as though it had been the shrouds of a man-of-war.
"Now, Caudel, you are a seamen, you must do the rest," said I.
He had removed his boots, and, mounting with cat-like agility, gained the balcony; then, taking my sweetheart in his arms, he lifted her over the rail and lowered her with his powerful arms until her little feet were half-way down the ladder. She uttered one or two faint exclamations, but was happily too frightened to cry out.
"Now, Mr. Barclay," hoarser whispered Caudel, "you hold of her, sir."
I grasped the ladder with one hand and passed my arm round her waist; my stature made the feat an easy one; thus holding her to me, I sprang back, then for an instant strained her to my heart with a whisper of joy, gratitude, and encouragement.
"You are as brave as you are true and sweet, Grace."
"Oh, Herbert !" she panted. "I can think of nothing. I am very wicked, and feel horribly frightened."
"Mr. Barclay," softly called Caudel from the balcony, "what's to be done with this here ladder?"
"Let it be, let it be," I answered. "Bear 21 hand, Caudel, and come down."
He was alongside of us in a trice, pulling on his boots. I held in darling's hand, and the three of us made for the hole in the hedge with all possible speed. But the cabbages were very much in the way of Grace's dress, and so urgent was the need to make haste that, I believe, in my fashion of helping her, I carried her one way or another more than half the distance across that wide tract of kitchen-garden stuff.
The dog continued to bark. I asked Grace if the brute belonged to the house, and she answered yes. There seemed little doubt from the persistency of the creature's deep delivery that it scented mischief going forward, despite its kennel standing some considerable distance away on the other side of the house.
I glanced back as Caudel was squeezing through the hole,—-I had told him to go first, to make sure that all was right with the aperture and to receive and help my sweetheart across the ditch,-—I glanced back, I say, in this brief pause; but the building showed as an impenetrable shadow against the winking brilliance o the sky hovering over and past it, rich with radiance in places of meteoric dust; no light gleamed; the night-hush, deep as death, was upon the château.
In a few moments, my captain and I had carefully handed Grace through the hole and got her safe in the lane, and off we started, keeping well in the deep gloom cast by the convent wall, walking swiftly, yet noiselessly, and scarcely fetching our breath till we were clear of the lane, with the broad glimmering St.-Omer road running in a rise upon our left.