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Face au drapeau. English, Page 2

Jules Verne



  Just who was this Count d'Artigas? A Spaniard? So his name wouldappear to indicate. Yet on the stern of his schooner, in letters ofgold, was the name _Ebba_, which is of pure Norwegian origin. And hadyou asked him the name of the captain of the _Ebba_, he would havereplied, Spade, and would doubtless have added that that of theboatswain was Effrondat, and that of the ship's cook, Helim--allsingularly dissimilar and indicating very different nationalities.

  Could any plausible hypothesis be deducted from the type presented byCount d'Artigas? Not easily. If the color of his skin, his black hair,and the easy grace of his attitude denoted a Spanish origin, the_ensemble_ of his person showed none of the racial characteristicspeculiar to the natives of the Iberian peninsula.

  He was a man of about forty-five years of age, about the averageheight, and robustly constituted. With his calm and haughty demeanorhe resembled an Hindoo lord in whose blood might mingle that of somesuperb type of Malay. If he was not naturally of a cold temperament,he at least, with his imperious gestures and brevity of speech,endeavored to make it appear that he was. As to the language usuallyspoken by him and his crew, it was one of those idioms current inthe islands of the Indian Ocean and the adjacent seas. Yet when hismaritime excursions brought him to the coasts of the old or new worldhe spoke English with remarkable facility, and with so slight anaccent as to scarcely betray his foreign origin.

  None could have told anything about his past, nor even about hispresent life, nor from what source he derived his fortune,--obviouslya large one, inasmuch as he was able to gratify his every whim andlived in the greatest luxury whenever he visited America,--nor wherehe resided when at home, nor where was the port from which hisschooner hailed, and none would have ventured to question him upon anyof these points so little disposed was he to be communicative. He wasnot the kind of man to give anything away or compromise himself in theslightest degree, even when interviewed by American reporters.

  All that was known about him was what was published in the papers whenthe arrival of the _Ebba_ was reported in some port, and particularlyin the ports of the east coast of the United States, where theschooner was accustomed to put in at regular periods to lay inprovisions and stores for a lengthy voyage. She would take on boardnot only flour, biscuits, preserves, fresh and dried meat, live stock,wines, beers, and spirits, but also clothing, household utensils, andobjects of luxury--all of the finest quality and highest price, andwhich were paid for either in dollars, guineas, or other coins ofvarious countries and denominations.

  Consequently, if no one knew anything about the private life of Countd'Artigas, he was nevertheless very well known in the various ports ofthe United States from the Florida peninsula to New England.

  It is therefore in no way surprising that the director of HealthfulHouse should have felt greatly flattered by the Count's visit, andhave received him with every mark of honor and respect.

  It was the first time that the schooner _Ebba_ had dropped anchorin the port of New-Berne, and no doubt a mere whim of her owner hadbrought him to the mouth of the Neuse. Otherwise why should he havecome to such a place? Certainly not to lay in stores, for PamlicoSound offered neither the resources nor facilities to be found insuch ports as Boston, New York, Dover, Savannah, Wilmington in NorthCarolina, and Charleston in South Carolina. What could he haveprocured with his piastres and bank-notes in the small markets ofNew-Berne? This chief town of Craven County contained barely sixthousand inhabitants. Its commerce consisted principally in theexportation of grain, pigs, furniture, and naval munitions. Besides, afew weeks previously, the schooner had loaded up for some destinationwhich, as usual, was unknown.

  Had this enigmatical personage then come solely for the purpose ofvisiting Healthful House? Very likely. There would have been nothingsurprising in the fact, seeing that the establishment enjoyed a highand well-merited reputation.

  Or perhaps the Count had been inspired by curiosity to meet ThomasRoch? This curiosity would have been legitimate and natural enoughin view of the universal renown of the French inventor. Fancy--a madgenius who claimed that his discoveries were destined to revolutionizethe methods of modern military art!

  As he had notified the director he would do, the Count d'Artigaspresented himself in the afternoon at the door of Healthful House,accompanied by Captain Spade, the commander of the _Ebba_.

  In conformity with orders given, both were admitted and conducted tothe office of the director. The latter received his distinguishedvisitor with _empressement_, placed himself at his disposal, andintimated his intention of personally conducting him over theestablishment, not being willing to concede to anybody else the honorof being his _cicerone_. The Count on his part was profuse in theexpression of his thanks for the considerations extended to him.

  They went over the common rooms and private habitations of theestablishment, the director prattling unceasingly about the care withwhich the patients were tended--much better care, if he was to bebelieved, than they could possibly have had in the bosoms of theirfamilies--and priding himself upon the results achieved, and which hadearned for the place its well-merited success.

  The Count d'Artigas listened to his ceaseless chatter with apparentinterest, probably in order the better to dissemble the real motive ofhis visit. However, after going the rounds for an hour he ventured toremark:

  "Have you not among your patients, sir, one anent whom there was agreat deal of talk some time ago, and whose presence here contributedin no small measure to attract public attention to Healthful House?"

  "You refer to Thomas Roch, I presume, Count?" queried the director.

  "Precisely--that Frenchman--that inventor--whose mental condition issaid to be very precarious."

  "Very precarious, Count, and happily so, perhaps! In my opinionhumanity has nothing to gain by his discoveries, the application ofwhich would increase the already too numerous means of destruction."

  "You speak wisely, sir, and I entirely agree with you. Real progressdoes not lie in that direction, and I regard as inimical to societyall those who seek to follow it. But has this inventor entirely lostthe use of his intellectual faculties?"

  "Entirely, no; save as regards the ordinary things of life. In thisrespect he no longer possesses either comprehension or responsibility.His genius as an inventor, however, remains intact; it has survivedhis moral degeneracy, and, had his insensate demands been compliedwith, I have no doubt he would have produced a new war engine--whichthe world can get along very well without."

  "Very well without, as you say, sir," re-echoed the Count d'Artigas,and Captain Spade nodded approval.

  "But you will be able to judge for yourself, Count, for here is thepavilion occupied by Thomas Roch. If his confinement is well justifiedfrom the point of view of public security he is none the less treatedwith all the consideration due to him and the attention which hiscondition necessitates. Besides, Healthful House is beyond the reachof indiscreet persons who might...."

  The director completed the phrase with a significant motion ofhis head--which brought an imperceptible smile to the lips of thestranger.

  "But," asked the Count, "is Thomas Roch never left alone?"

  "Never, Count, never. He has a permanent attendant in whom we haveimplicit confidence, who speaks his language and keeps the closestpossible watch upon him. If in some way or other some indicationrelative to his discovery were to escape him, it would be immediatelynoted down and its value would be passed upon by those competent tojudge."

  Here the Count d'Artigas stole a rapid and meaning glance at CaptainSpade, who responded with a gesture which said plainly enough: "Iunderstand." And had any one observed the captain during the visit,they could not have failed to remark that he examined with thegreatest minuteness that portion of the park surrounding Pavilion No.17, and the different paths leading to the latter--probably in view ofsome prearranged scheme.

  The garden of the pavilion was near the high wall surrounding theprop
erty, from the foot of which on the other side the hill slopedgently to the right bank of the Neuse.

  The pavilion itself was a one-story building surmounted by a terracein the Italian style. It contained two rooms and an ante-room withstrongly-barred windows. On each side and in rear of the habitationwere clusters of fine trees, which were then in full leaf. In frontwas a cool, green velvety lawn, ornamented with shrubs and brilliantlytinted flowers. The whole garden extended over about half an acre, andwas reserved exclusively for the use of Thomas Roch, who was free towander about it at pleasure under the surveillance of his guardian.

  When the Count d'Artigas, Captain Spade, and the director entered thegarden, the first person they saw was the warder Gaydon, standingat the door of the pavilion. Unnoticed by the director the Countd'Artigas eyed the attendant with singular persistence.

  It was not the first time that strangers had come to see the occupantof Pavilion No. 17, for the French inventor was justly regarded as themost interesting inmate of Healthful House. Nevertheless, Gaydon'sattention was attracted by the originality of the type presented bythe two visitors, of whose nationality he was ignorant. If the nameof the Count d'Artigas was not unfamiliar to him, he had never hadoccasion to meet that wealthy gentleman during the latter's sojourn inthe eastern ports. He therefore had no idea as to who the Count was.Neither was he aware that the schooner _Ebba_ was then anchored at theentrance to the Neuse, at the foot of the hill upon which HealthfulHouse was situated.

  "Gaydon," demanded the director, "where is Thomas Roch?"

  "Yonder," replied the warder, pointing to a man who was walkingmeditatively under the trees in rear of the pavilion.

  "The Count d'Artigas has been authorized to visit Healthful House,"the director explained; "and does not wish to go away without havingseen Thomas Roch, who was lately the subject of a good deal too muchdiscussion."

  "And who would be talked about a great deal more," added the Count,"had the Federal Government not taken the precaution to confine him inthis establishment."

  "A necessary precaution, Count."

  "Necessary, as you observe, Mr. Director. It is better for the peaceof the world that his secret should die with him."

  After having glanced at the Count d'Artigas, Gaydon had not uttered aword; but preceding the two strangers he walked towards the clump oftrees where the inventor was pacing back and forth.

  Thomas Roch paid no attention to them. He appeared to be oblivious oftheir presence.

  Meanwhile, Captain Spade, while being careful not to excite suspicion,had been minutely examining the immediate surroundings of the pavilionand the end of the park in which it was situated. From the top of thesloping alleys he could easily distinguish the peak of a mast whichshowed above the wall of the park. He recognized the peak at a glanceas being that of the _Ebba_, and knew therefore that the wall at thispart skirted the right bank of the Neuse.

  The Count d'Artigas' whole attention was concentrated upon the Frenchinventor. The latter's health appeared to have suffered in no wayfrom his eighteen months' confinement; but his queer attitude, hisincoherent gestures, his haggard eye, and his indifference to what waspassing around him testified only too plainly to the degeneration ofhis mental faculties.

  At length Thomas Roch dropped into a seat and with the end of a switchtraced in the sand of the alley the outline of a fortification. Thenkneeling down he made a number of little mounds that were evidentlyintended to represent bastions. He next plucked some leaves from aneighboring tree and stuck them in the mounds like so many tinyflags. All this was done with the utmost seriousness and without anyattention whatever being paid to the onlookers.

  It was the amusement of a child, but a child would have lacked thischaracteristic gravity.

  "Is he then absolutely mad?" demanded the Count d'Artigas, whoin spite of his habitual impassibility appeared to be somewhatdisappointed.

  "I warned you, Count, that nothing could be obtained from him."

  "Couldn't he at least pay some attention to us?"

  "It would perhaps be difficult to induce him to do so."

  Then turning to the attendant:

  "Speak to him, Gaydon. Perhaps he will answer you."

  "Oh! he'll answer me right enough, sir, never fear," replied Gaydon.

  He went up to the inventor and touching him on the shoulder, saidgently: "Thomas Roch!"

  The latter raised his head, and of the persons present he doubtlesssaw but his keeper, though Captain Spade had come up and all formed acircle about him.

  "Thomas Roch," continued Gaydon, speaking in English, "here are somevisitors to see you. They are interested in your health--in yourwork."

  The last word alone seemed to rouse him from his indifference.

  "My work?" he replied, also in English, which he spoke like a native.

  Then taking a pebble between his index finger and bent thumb, as aboy plays at marbles, he projected it against one of the littlesand-heaps. It scattered, and he jumped for joy.

  "Blown to pieces! The bastion is blown to pieces! My explosive hasdestroyed everything at one blow!" he shouted, the light of triumphflashing in his eyes.

  "You see," said the director, addressing the Count d'Artigas. "Theidea of his invention never leaves him."

  "And it will die with him," affirmed the attendant.

  "Couldn't you, Gaydon, get him to talk about his fulgurator?" askedhis chief.

  "I will try, if you order me to do so, sir."

  "Well, I do order you, for I think it might interest the Countd'Artigas."

  "Certainly," assented the Count, whose physiognomy betrayed no sign ofthe sentiments which were agitating him.

  "I ought to warn you that I risk bringing on another fit," observedGaydon.

  "You can drop the conversation when you consider it prudent. TellThomas Roch that a foreigner wishes to negotiate with him for thepurchase of his fulgurator."

  "But are you not afraid he may give his secret away?" questioned theCount.

  He spoke with such vivacity that Gaydon could not restrain a glance ofdistrust, which, however, did not appear to disturb the equanimity ofthat impenetrable nobleman.

  "No fear of that," said the warder. "No promise would induce him todivulge his secret. Until the millions he demands are counted into hishand he will remain as mute as a stone."

  "I don't happen to be carrying those millions about me," remarked theCount quietly.

  Gaydon again touched Roch on the shoulder and repeated:

  "Thomas Roch, here are some foreigners who are anxious to acquire yourinvention."

  The madman started.

  "My invention?" he cried. "My deflagrator?"

  And his growing animation plainly indicated the imminence of the fitthat Gaydon had been apprehensive about, and which questions of thischaracter invariably brought on.

  "How much will you give me for it--how much?" continued Roch. "Howmuch--how much?"

  "Ten million dollars," replied Gaydon.

  "Ten millions! Ten millions! A fulgurator ten million times morepowerful than anything hitherto invented! Ten millions for anautopropulsive projectile which, when it explodes, destroys everythingin sight within a radius of over twelve thousand square yards! Tenmillions for the only deflagrator that can provoke its explosion! Why,all the wealth of the world wouldn't suffice to purchase the secretof my engine, and rather than sell it at such a price I would cutmy tongue in half with my teeth. Ten millions, when it is worth abillion--a billion--a billion!"

  It was clear that Roch had lost all notion of things, and had Gaydonoffered him ten billions the madman would have replied in exactly thesame manner.

  The Count d'Artigas and Captain Spade had not taken their eyes offhim. The Count was impassible as usual, though his brow had darkened,but the captain shook his head in a manner that implied plainly:"Decidedly there is nothing to hope from this poor devil!"

  After his outburst Roch fled across the garden crying hoarsely:

  "Billions! Billions!"

  Gaydon turned to the director and remarked:

  "I told you how it would be."

  Then he rushed after his patient, caught him by the arm, and led him,without any attempt at resistance, into the pavilion and closed thedoor.

  The Count d'Artigas remained alone with the director, Captain Spadehaving strolled off again in the direction of the wall at the bottomof the park.

  "You see I was not guilty of exaggeration, Count," said the director."It is obvious to every one that Thomas Roch is becoming daily worse.In my opinion his case is a hopeless one. If all the money he asks forwere offered to him, nothing could be got from him."

  "Very likely," replied the Count, "still, if his pecuniary demands aresupremely absurd, he has none the less invented an engine the power ofwhich is infinite, one might say."

  "That is the opinion expressed by competent persons, Count. But whathe has discovered will ere long be lost with himself in one of thesefits which are becoming more frequent and intense. Very soon even themotive of interest, the only sentiment that appears to have survivedin his mind, will become extinct."

  "Mayhap the sentiment of hatred will remain, though," muttered theCount, as Spade joined them at the garden gate.