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27: The Hand of God

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Author Topic: 27: The Hand of God  (Read 45 times)
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« on: March 19, 2023, 08:21:10 am »

"Chacun ne comprend que ce qu'il retrouve en soi."

Mr. Sander only made a mistake common to Englishmen when he underrated the capacity of his neighbour. Hearing from his colleague in Nice that Miste had left that city for St. Martin Lantosque, with us upon his heels, Sander concluded that our quarry would escape us, and with great promptitude set forth to Cuneo to await his arrival there.

Before leaving Genoa, however, my agent took steps to ensure the transmission of his correspondence, and a telegram despatched by Giraud from St. Martin, after my departure thence, duly reached the addressee at Cuneo. On arriving, therefore, at Genoa, and going to the Hôtel de Gênes there, I found, not Mr. Sander, but a telegraphic message from him bidding me await his return.

"At what time," I asked the waiter, "arrives the next train from Cuneo?"

"At eight o'clock, signor."

I looked at the clock. It was now seven.

"There is a steamer sailing this evening for South America," I said.

"Yes, signor; with many passengers from this hotel."

"At what time?"

"At seven o'clock---even now."

A minute later I was driving down to the docks---my swimming head full of half-matured ideas of bribing some one to delay the steamer. Then came the blessed reflection that, in the absence of Miste, his confederate would certainly not depart alone. I knew enough of their tactics to feel sure that instead of taking passage in the steamer this man (who could only be a subordinate to that master in cunning who had shot me) must perforce await his chief's arrival.

Nevertheless, I bade the man drive as quickly as the vile pavement would allow, thinking to board the steamer at all events and scrutinise the faces of her passengers. We rattled through the narrow and tortuous streets, reaching the port in time to see the last rope cast off from the great vessel as she swung round to seaward. I hurried to the pierhead, and reached the extremity of the port before the Principe Amadeo, which had to move with circumspection amid the shipping.

The passengers were assembled on deck, taking what many of them doubtless knew to be a last look at their native land. The lowering sun cast a glow over city and harbour, while a great silence hovered over all. The steamer came quite close to the pierhead. I could have tossed a letter on her deck.

Suddenly my heart stood still as my gaze lighted on the form of an old man who stood at the stern-rail a little apart from his fellow-passengers. He stood with his back turned towards me looking up to the lighthouse. Every line of his form, his attitude, the very locks of thin, white hair were familiar to me. This was the Vicomte de Clericy, and no other---the man whose funeral I had attended at Senneville six months ago. I did not cry out, or rub my eyes, or feel unreal, as people do in books. I knew that I was my sober self, and yonder was the Vicomte de Clericy. But I thought that the pier was moving and not the steamer, and bumped awkwardly against my neighbour, who looked at me curiously and apologised.

The old man by the stern-rail slowly turned and showed me his face---bland, benevolent, short-sighted. I can swear that it was the Vicomte de Clericy, though the world has only my word for it; that Lucille's father---dead, buried and mourned---stood on the deck of the steamer Principe Amadeo as she steamed out into the Gulf of Genoa on the evening of the 30th of May, 1871.

The precious moments slipped by, the great steamer glided past me. I heard the engine-room gong. The screw stirred the clear water, and I was left gazing stupidly at the receding form of my old patron as he stood with his placid hands clasped behind him.

It was some time before I left the spot; for my wounds had left me weak, and I have never had that quickness of brain which enables men to see the right course, and take it in a flash of thought.

The steamer had gone---was, indeed, now growing smaller on the horizon---and on board of her the Vicomte de Clericy. There was no gainsaying it. I had seen him with my own eyes, but why had he done this thing?

My shoulder throbbed painfully. I was sick at heart, and could not bring my mind to bear upon any one subject. The cab-driver had followed as far as he could, and now stood beckoning to me with his whip. I went back, and bade him drive me to the hotel; for I had not been in bed for three nights, and had a strong desire to get and remain there until this great fatigue should at length leave me.

Of what followed I have but a dim recollection; indeed, remember little from that time until I awoke in a bedroom at the Hôtel de Gênes and found a gentle pink and white face, surrounded by a snowy cap, bending over my bed.

"What time is it, and what day, my sister?" I asked, and was gently commanded to hold my tongue. She gave me a spoonful of something with no taste to it, without so much as asking me whether I wanted it. Indeed, this gentle person treated me as a child, as, moreover, I think women always treat such men as are wholly in their power.

"You must keep quiet," she said. "See, I will read to you!" and taking a book from her pocket read aloud the Psalms in a cunning sing-song voice that sent me to sleep.

When I awoke again the nun was still in the room, and, with her, Sander, talking the most atrocious French. A queer contrast. One of the world worldly, a moth that battened on the seamy side; the other far above the wickedness of men.

"Hush!" I heard her say. "He is awake, and must not hear of your affairs."

And she turned away from poor Sander, with his shrewd air, as from the world and the iniquity thereof.

He shrugged his shoulders and looked at her placid back, which, indeed, she gave him unceremoniously enough, with a hopeless contempt. Womanhood had earned, it appeared, his profoundest scorn as unbusinesslike and incompetent. Nunhood simply astounded him.

"Look here, my sister!" he said, plucking impatiently at her demure sleeve, and even in my semi-consciousness I smiled at the sound of the words from his cockney lips.

"Well?" she answered, turning her unruffled glance upon him.

Sander lowered his voice and talked hurriedly in her ear. But she only shook her head. How small the things of this world are to those who look with honest eyes beyond it!

"Well, I must tell him---there!" exclaimed Sander, angrily, and he made a step towards the bed. But she laid her hand on his arm and held him. It was a queer picture.

"Let me go," he said. "I know best."

Her face flushed suddenly, and the nun stood before the detective.

"No," she replied quietly, "you do not know best. I am mistress here. Will you kindly go?"

She went to the door and held it open for him, her actions and words belying the meek demeanour which belongs to her calling, and which she never laid aside for a moment.

So with a hopeless mien Sander left the room, and my nurse came towards the bed.

"That," she said, softly, "is a very stupid man."

"He is not generally considered so, my sister."

She paid as little heed to my words as a nurse to the prattle of a child.

"You have moved," she said, "and this bandage is ruffled. You must try to lie quieter, for you have a nasty wound in your shoulder. I know, for I have been through the war. How came you by such a hurt now that peace has been declared?"

"The other man came by a worse one, for he is dead."

"Then the good God forgive you. But you must keep quiet. See---I will read to you."

And out came the book again in its devotional black cover. She read for a long while, but I paid no heed to her voice, nor fell under its sleepy spell. Presently she closed the pages with a pious look of reproach.

"You are not attending," she said.

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I was wondering what cause you had to fall out with my agent, Mr. Sander, who is not so stupid as you think."

"He is one of those," she answered primly, "who do not know how to behave in a sick room. He foolishly wanted to talk to you of affairs---when you are not well enough. Affairs---to a sick man!"

"Who should be thinking of the affairs of another world, my sister."

"Those always should come first," she answered, with downcast eyes.

"And of what did Mr. Sander want to speak?" I asked.

She looked up with a gleam of interest. Beneath the demure bib of her professional apron there beat still a woman's heart. Sister Renée wanted to tell me the news herself.

"Oh," she answered, "it is nothing that will interest you. You are not even an Italian---only an Englishman."

"That is all, my sister."

"But all Genoa is on the housetops about it."

"Ah!"

"Yes. Never has there been so great a catastrophe; but you have no friends here, so it will not affect you."

"Therefore, I may be the more safely told. I am not affected by great catastrophes from a humane point of view."

"Well," she said, busying herself about the room with quick and noiseless movements, "but it is always terrible to hear of such a thing when one reflects that we are all so unprepared."

"For what, my sister?"

"For death," she answered, with a look of awe in the most innocent eyes in the world.

"But who is dead?"

"Three hundred people," she answered. "The passengers and crew of the Principe Amadeo—a large steamer that sailed last night from Genoa, with emigrants for South America."

"And all are drowned?" I asked, after a pause, thankful that my face was in the shadow of the curtain.

"All, except two of the crew. The steamer had only left the harbour an hour before, and all the passengers were at dinner. There came, I think, a fog, and in the darkness a collision occurred. The Principe Amadeo went down in five minutes."

She spoke quietly, and with that calm which religion, doubtless, gave her. Indeed, her only thought seemed to be that these people had passed to their account without the ministrations of the church.

She soon left me, having my promise to sleep quietly and at once. Sœur Renée, despite her grey hairs and the wrinkles that the years (for her life seemed purged of other cause) had left, was an easy victim to deception.

I did not sleep, but lay awake for many hours, turning over in my mind the events that had followed each other so quickly. And one thought came ever uppermost---namely, that in the smallest details of our existence a judgment far superior to ours must of necessity be at work. This wiser judgment I detected in the chance, as some will call it, that sent Sister Renée to me with this news. For if Sander had told me of the sinking of the Principe Amadeo I must assuredly, in the heat of the moment, have disclosed to him, in return, my knowledge that the Vicomte de Clericy was on board of her when she sailed from Genoa. Whereas, now that I had time to reflect, I saw clearly that this news belonged to Madame de Clericy alone, and was in nowise the business of Mr. Sander. That keen-witted man had faithfully performed the duty on which he had been employed---namely, to enable me to lay my hands on Charles Miste. One half of the money---a fortune in itself---had been recovered. There remained, therefore, nothing but to pay Mr. Sander and bid him farewell.

I was, however, compelled to await the arrival of Alphonse Giraud, who telegraphed to me that he was still in Nice. I did not know until long after that he had been formally arrested there for his participation in the chase of Miste that ended in that ill-starred miscreant's death. Nor did I learn, until months had elapsed, that my good friend John Turner had also hastened to Nice, taking thither with him a great Parisian lawyer to defend me in the trial that took place while I lay ill at Genoa. Sister Renée, moreover, had not laid aside her womanly guile when she took the veil, for she concealed from me with perfect success that I was under guard night and day in my bedroom at the Hôtel de Gênes. What had I done to earn such true friends or deserve such faithful care?

The trial passed happily enough, and Alphonse arrived at Genoa ere I had been there a week. He had delayed little in realising with a boyish delight one of his recovered drafts for five thousand pounds. He repaid such loans as I had been able to make him, settled accounts with Sander, and greatly relieved my mind by seeing him depart. For I felt in some sort a criminal myself, and the secret, which had by the merest accident been thrust upon me, discomfited me under the keen eye of the expert.

The weather was exceedingly hot, and sickness raged unchecked in the city. A fortnight elapsed, during which Giraud was my faithful attendant. The doctor who had been called in, the first of his craft with whom I had had business, a Frenchman and a clever surgeon, restored me to a certain stage of convalescence, but could not get beyond it.

"Where do you live," he asked me one day, with a grave face, "when you are at home?"

"In Suffolk, on the east coast of England."

"Where the air is different from this."

"As different as sunrise from afternoon," I answered, with a sudden longing for the bluff, keen air of Hopton.

"Are you a good sailor?" he asked.

"I spent half my boyhood on the North Sea."

He walked to the window and stood there in deep thought.

"Then," he said at length, "go home at once by steamer from here, and stay there. Your own country will do more for you than all the doctors in Italy."
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