Reine and Cassis were still asleep when I left, and I guessed I had about half an hour to take care of my business before they awoke. I checked the sky, which was clear and greenish, with a faint yellow stripe on the horizon. Dawn was maybe ten minutes away. I would have to hurry.
I took a bucket from the kitchen, pulled on my clogs, which were waiting on the doormat, and ran as fast as I could toward the river. I took the shortcut through Hourias’s back field, where summer sunflowers raised hairy, still-green heads at the pale sky. I kept low, invisible beneath the spread of leaves, my bucket clanging against my leg at every step. It took me less than five minutes to arrive at the Standing Stones.
At five in the morning the Loire is still and sumptuous with mist. The water is beautiful at that time of the day, cool and magically pale, the sandbanks rising like lost continents. The water smells of night, and here and there a spray of new sunlight makes mica shadows on the surface. I took off my shoes and my clothes and surveyed the water critically. It looked deceptively still.
The Treasure Stone was maybe thirty feet from the bank, and the water at its base looked oddly silky at the surface, a sign that a strong current was at work. I could drown here, I told myself, and no one would even know where to look for me.
But I had no choice. Cassis had issued a challenge. I had to pay my own way. How could I do that, with no pocket money of my own, without using the purse hidden in the treasure chest? Of course, there was a chance he might have removed it. If he had, I would risk stealing from my mother’s purse. But that I was reluctant to do. Not because stealing was especially wrong, but because of my mother’s unusual memory for figures. She knew what she had to the last centime. She would know at once what I had done.
No. It had to be the treasure chest.
Since Cassis and Reinette had finished school there had been few expeditions to the river. They had treasure of their own-adult treasure-to gloat over. The few coins in the purse amounted to a couple of francs, no more. I was counting on Cassis’s laziness, his conviction that no one but he would be able to reach the box tied to the pillar. I was sure the money was still there.
Carefully I scrambled down the banking and into the water. It was cold, river mud oozing between my toes. I waded out until the water was waist deep. I could feel the current now like an impatient dog at the leash. God, it was already so strong! I put out a hand against the first pillar, pushing away from it into the current, and took another step. I knew that there was a drop just ahead, a point at which the still-shallow verge of the Loire sheared away into nothingness. Cassis, when he was making the trip, always pretended to drown at this point, turning belly up into the opaque water, struggling, screaming with a mouthful of brown Loire spurting from between his lips. He always fooled Reine, however many times he did this, making her squeal in horror as he sank beneath the surface.
I had no time for such an exhibition. I felt for the drop with my toes. There. Pushing against the riverbed I propelled myself as far as I could with my first kick, keeping the Standing Stones downriver to my right. The water was warmer on the surface, and the drag of current not as strong. I swam steadily, in a smooth arc, from the first Standing Stone to the second. The Stones are maybe four meters apart at their widest stretch, spread unevenly from the bank. I could make two meters with a good strong kick against each pillar, aiming slightly upstream so that the current would bring me back to the next pillar in time to begin again. Like a small boat tacking against a strong wind, I limped toward the Treasure Stone in this way, feeling the current grow stronger each time. I was gasping with cold. Then I was at the fourth pillar, making my final lunge toward my goal. As the current dragged me toward the Treasure Stone I overshot the pillar and there was a moment of sudden, sparkling terror as I began to move downstream into the main drag of the river, my arms and legs pinwheeling against the water. Panting, almost crying with panic, I managed to kick myself in range of the Stone and grabbed the rope that secured the treasure chest to the pillar. It felt weedy and unpleasant in my hand, slimed with the brown ooze of the river, but I used it to maneuver myself around the pillar.
I clung there for a moment, letting my pounding heart quiet. Then, with my back wedged safely against the pillar, I hauled the treasure chest up and out of its muddy cradle. It was a difficult job. The box itself was not especially heavy, but weighted with chain and tarpaulin as it was, it seemed a dead weight. Trembling with cold now, my teeth chattering, I struggled with the chain and finally felt something give. Kicking my legs frantically to keep my position against the pillar, I hauled at the box. I knew another moment of near panic as the mud-slimed tarpaulin caught at my feet, then my fingers were working at the rope that held the box. For an instant I was sure that my numbed fingers would not be able to open the tin, then the catch gave way and water rushed into the treasure chest. I swore. Still, there was the purse, an old brown leather thing Mother had discarded because of a faulty catch. I grabbed it and jammed it between my teeth for safety, then with a final effort, slammed the box closed and let it sink, weighted by its chain, to the bottom again. The tarpaulin was lost, of course, the remaining treasure waterlogged, but that couldn’t be helped. Cassis would have to find somewhere drier to hide his cigarettes.
I had the money, and that was all that mattered.
I swam back to the bank, missing the last two pillars and drifting two hundred meters down toward the Angers road before I managed to steer myself out of the current-more like a dog than ever, a mad brown dog with its leash twined crazily around my frozen legs. The whole episode, I guessed, had taken maybe ten minutes.
I forced myself to rest awhile, feeling the slight warmth of the sun’s first rays on my face, drying the mud of the Loire against my skin. I was trembling with cold and exhilaration. I counted the money in the purse-there was certainly enough for a cinema ticket and a glass of juice. Good. Then I walked upstream to where I had left my clothes. I dressed-an old skirt and a red sleeveless man’s shirt cut down to make a smock. My clogs. I did a perfunctory check on my fishing traps, tipping out the small fry or leaving it in place as bait. In a cray pot by the Lookout Post there was the unexpected bonus of a small pike-not Old Mother, of course-and this I slid out into the bucket I had brought from the house. Other catches: a mess of eels from the muddy flats beside the big sandbank, a sizable bleak from one of my catch-all nets. I piled them all into the bucket. They would be my alibi if Cassis and Reine were already awake. Then I made my way home through the fields as unobtrusively as I had come.
I did well to bring the fish. Cassis was washing under the pump when I got back, though Reinette had warmed a basin of water and was dabbling delicately at her face with a soapy washrag. They looked at me curiously for a moment, then Cassis’s face relaxed into an expression of cheery contempt.
“You never give up, do you?” he said, jerking his dripping head at the fish bucket. “What you got in there, anyway?”
I shrugged. “Couple of things,” I said carelessly. The purse was in the pocket of my smock, and I smiled inwardly at its comforting weight. “Pike. Just a small one,” I said.
Cassis laughed. “You might catch the small ones, but you’ll never catch Old Mother,” he said. “Even if you did, what’d you do with it? A pike that old wouldn’t be any good to eat. Bitter as wormwood and full of bones.”
“I’ll catch her,” I said stubbornly.
“Oh?” His tone was careless, disbelieving. “And what then? You’ll make a wish, will you? Wish for a million francs and an apartment on the Left Bank?”
I shook my head mutely.
“I’d wish to be a movie star,” said Reine, toweling her face. “To see Hollywood, and the lights, and Sunset Boulevard, and to drive in a limousine and to have dozens and dozens of dresses…”
Cassis gave her a brief look of scorn, which cheered me immensely. Then he turned to me. “Well, what about it, Boise?” His grin was brash and irresistible. What’s it going to be? Furs? Cars? A villa in Juan-les-Pins?“
I shook my head again. “I’ll know when I’ve caught it,” I said flatly. “And I’ll get it too. See if I don’t.”
Cassis studied me for a moment, the grin sliding from his face. Then he made a little noise of disgust and turned back to his ablutions.
“You’re something, Boise,” he said. “Really something, you know?”
Then we raced off to finish the day’s chores before Mother woke up.