A LOOSE END AND OTHER STORIES
S. ELIZABETH HALL
Author of The Interloper
London: Simpkin, Marshall Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd. London: Truslove and Bray, Printers, West Norwood, S.E.
A LOOSE END
IN A BRETON VILLAGE
TWICE A CHILD
THE ROAD BY THE SEA
THE HALTING STEP
A LOOSE END.
One September morning, many years ago, when the Channel Islands seemed further off than they do now, and for some of them communication with the outer world hardly existed, some two hours after the sun had risen out of the sea, and while the grass and the low-growing bushes were still fresh with the morning dew, a young girl tripped lightly along the ridge of a headland which formed the south side of a cove on the coast of one of the smaller islands in the group. The ridge ascended gradually till it reached a point on which stood a ruined building, that was said to have been once a mill, and from which on the right-hand side the path began to descend to a narrow landing-place in the cove. The girl stood still for a moment when she reached the highest point, and shading her eyes looked out to sea. On the opposite side of the cove a huge rock, formed into an island by a narrow shaft of water, which in the strife of ages had cleared its way between it and the rocky coast, frowned dark and solemn in the shadow, its steep and clear-cut sides giving it a character of power and imperturbability that crowned it a king among islands. The sea beyond was glittering in the morning sun, but there was deep purple shadow in the cove, and under the rocks of the projecting headlands, which in fantastic succession on either side threw out their weird arms into the sea; while just around the edge of the shore, where the water was shallow over rocks and weed, was a girdle of lightest, loveliest green. Guernsey, idealized in the morning mist, lay like a dream on the horizon. Here and there a fishing-boat, whose sail flashed orange when the sun touched it, was tossing on the waves; nearer in a boat with furled sail was cautiously making for the narrow passage—the Devil's Drift, as the fishermen called it—between the island and the mainland, a passage only traversed with oars, the oarsmen facing forwards; while the two occupants of another were just taking down their sail preparatory to rowing direct for the landing-place.
The moment the girl caught sight of this last boat she began rapidly to descend the 300 feet of cliff which separated her from the cove below. The path began in easy zig-zags, which, however, got gradually steeper, and the last thirty feet of the descent consisted of a sheer face of rock, in which were fixed two or three iron stanchions with a rope running from one to the other to serve as a handrail; and the climber must depend for other assistance on the natural irregularities of the rock, which provided here and there an insecure foothold. The girl, however, sprang down the dangerous path, without the slightest hesitation, though her skilful balance and dexterity of hand and foot showed that her security was the result of practice.
By the time she had reached the narrow strip of beach, one of the few and difficult landing-places which the island offered, the two fishermen were already out of the boat, which they were mooring to an iron ring fastened in the rock. One of the men was young; the other might be, from his appearance, between sixty and seventy. A strange jerking gait, which was disclosed as soon as he began to move on his own feet, suggested the idea that his natural habitat was the sea, and that he was as little at ease on land as some kinds of waterfowl appear to be when walking. He could not hold himself upright when on one foot, so that his whole person turned first to one side and then to the other as he walked.
"Marie!" he called to the girl as she alighted at the bottom of the cliff, and he shouted something briefly which the strange jargon in which it was spoken and the gruff, wind-roughened voice of the speaker, would have made unintelligible to any but a native of the islands.
The girl, without replying, took the basket of fish which he handed her, slung it on her back by a rope passed over one shoulder, and stationed herself at the foot of the path, waiting for him to begin the ascent: the younger man, who was busy with the tackle of the boat, apparently intending to stay behind.
When the old man had placed himself in position to begin the ascent, with both hands on the rope, and all his weight on one leg, the girl stooped down, and placing her lithe hands round his great wet fisherman's boot, deftly lifted the other foot and placed it in the right position on the first ledge of rock.
"Now, Daddy, hoist away!" she cried in her clear, piping voice, using, like her father, the island dialect; and he dragged himself up to the first iron hold, wriggling his large, awkward form into strange contortions, till he found a secure position and could wait till his young assistant was beside him once more. She sprang up like a cat and balanced herself safely within reach of him. It was odd to see the implicit confidence with which he let her lift and place his feet; having now to support herself by the rope she had only one hand to spare; but the feat was accomplished each time with the same precision and skill, till the precipitous part of the ascent was passed and they had commenced the zigzag path.
Then Marie took her daddy's arm under hers, and carefully steadied the difficult, ricketty gait, supporting the heavy figure with a practised skill which took the place of strength in her slight frame. Her features were formed after the same pattern as his, the definite profile, tense spreading nostril, and firm lips, being repeated with merely feminine modifications; and as her clear, merry eyes, freshened by the sea-breeze, flashed with fun at the stumblings and uncertainties of their course, they met the same expression of mirth in his hard-set, rocky face.
"You've got a rare job, child!" said he, as they stood still for breath at a turning in the path, "a basket of fish to lug up, as well as your old daddy. He'd ought to have brought them as far as the turning for you."
"I'd sooner have their company than his, any day," with a little moue in the direction of the cove. "I just wish you wouldn't take him out fishing with you, Daddy, that I do!"
"Why not, girl?"
"It's he as works for himself and cares for himself and for no one else, does Pierre," said the girl. "Comin' a moonin' round and pretending he's after courting me, when all he wants, with takin' the fish round and that, is to get the custom into his own hands, and tells folks, if he had the ordering of it, there'd be no fear about them getting their fish punctual."
"Tells 'em that, does he?" said the father, his sea-blue eyes suddenly clouding over.
"That he does; and says he'd take up the inshore fishing, if he'd the money to spend: and they should be supplied regular with crabs and shrimps and such; and then drops a word that poor Andre he's gettin' old, and what with being lame, and one thing and another, what can you expect, and such blathers!"
"Diable! Do you know that for certain, child?" said Andre, stopping in the path, and turning round upon her with a face ablaze with anger. "I should like to hear him sayin' that, I should."
"Now, Daddy," she cried with a sudden change of tone, "don't you be getting into one of your tantrums with him. Don't, there's a dear Daddy! I only told you, so you shouldn't be putting too much into his hands. But he'd be the one that would come best out of a quarrel. He's only looking for a chance of doin' you a mischief, it's my belief."
"H'm! 'Poor Andre a gettin' old,' is he?" grunted her father, somewhat calmed. "Poor Andre won't be takin' him out with him again just yet awhile—that's a certain thing. Paul Nevin would suit me a deal better in many ways, only I' bin keepin' Pierre on out o' charity, his pore father havin' bin a pal o' mine. But he's a deal stronger in the arms, is Paul."
They reached the cottage, which stood on the first piece of level ground on the way to the mainland. There was no other building within sight; and with its bleak boulders and rocks of strangest form, in perpetual death-struggle with the mighty force of ocean, resounding night and day with the rush and tramp of the wild sea-horses, as they flung themselves in despair on their rocky adversary, and with the many voices of the winds, which scarcely ever ceased blowing in that exposed spot, while the weird notes of the sea-fowl floated in the air, like the cries of wandering spirits, the solitary headland seemed indeed as if it might be the world's end.
The cottage consisted of one room, and a lean-to. Nearly half the room was taken up with a big bed, and on the other side were the fire-place and cooking utensils. Opposite the door was a box-sofa, on which Marie had slept since she was a child, and which with a small table, two chairs and a stool, completed the furniture of the room; the only light was that admitted by the doorway, the door nearly always standing open; the lean-to was little more than a dog-kennel, being formed in fact out of a great heap of stones and rubbish, which had been piled up as a protection to the cottage on the windward side; and three dogs and two hens were enjoying themselves in front of the fire.
It was here that Marie had lived, ever since she could remember, in close and contented companionship with her father: whom indeed, especially since he had the fever which crippled him three years before, she had fed, clothed, nursed and guarded with a care almost more motherly than filial.
Marie was leaning over the low wall of a cottage garden in the 'village,' as a clump of small houses at the meeting of four cross-roads was called, and waiting for the kail which she had come to buy for the evening's soup from Mrs. Nevin, who cultivated a little plot of ground with fruit and vegetables. The back-door of the cottage, which opened on the garden, was ajar, and she could hear some one enter from the front with a heavy tread, and call out in a big, jovial voice, "Hullo, Mother, we're in luck to-day! You'd never guess who's goin' to take me on. Lame Andre, he's goin' to give Pierre the sack, and says he'll have me for a time or two to try. Says I'm strong in the shoulders, and he guesses I can do him more good than Pierre. I should think I easy could too, a pinch-faced whipper-snapper like that!"
"And high time it is too that Andre had his eyes opened," rejoined Mrs. Nevin; "often it is I've told Marie, as there she stands, that her father don't ought to trust the fish-sellin' too much to that Pierre: a lad as could rob his own grandmother the moment the life was out o' her body."
"Well, Mother, you've often told me about that five franc piece, but nobody can't say that she hadn't given it him before she died, as he said—"
"Given it him, I should think so, when she never would have aught to say to him for all his wheedling ways, and his brother Jacques was her favourite; and poor old lady if she'd a known that Pierre was goin' to be alone with her, when she went off suddint in a fit, I guess she'd a locked up her purse first, I do."
"Well, I must say he turned a queer colour when he heard Andre say he didn't want him no more: and you should have seen the look he gave him, sort of squintin' out of his eyes at him, when he went away. He ain't a man I would like to meet unawares in a dark lane, if I'd a quarrel with him."
"Hullo, where's Marie?" cried Mrs. Nevin, coming out of the door with the kail ready washed in her hand. "She never took offence at what we was sayin', think you? Folks did say, to be sure, that she and Pierre was sweet on one another some time since. Well, she's gone, any way," and the good woman stood for a few minutes in some dismay, shading her eyes as she looked down the road.
Marie's slight, girlish figure vanished quickly round the turning in the lane, and Mrs. Nevin could not see her pass swiftly by her own cottage, and up the ridge to the old mill. When she reached the point at which the path began to descend to the cove, she paused and looked down. The keen glance and alert figure, poised on guard, suggested the idea of a mother bird watching her nest from afar. The tide had gone out sufficiently for the boats to be drawn up on the eight or ten feet of the shelving shore, which was thus laid bare, and the glowing light of the sunset touched in slanting rays the head and hands of an old man seated on a rock and bending over some fishing tackle, which he seemed to be repairing.
Round the extreme point of the headland, which in a succession of uncouth shapes dropped its rocky outline into the shadowy purple sea, there was visible, hastily clambering across pathless boulders, another man, of a young and lithe figure, and with something in the eager, forward thrust of the head, crouching gait, and swift, deft footing that resembled an animal of the cat species when about to leap on its prey. He was evidently making for the cove, but would have to take the rope path in order to reach it, as there was no way of approaching it on that side except over the sheer face of rock. Marie was further from the rope than he was, but her path was easier. The moment her eye caught sight of the crouching, creeping figure, she sped like a hare down the path, till she reached a point at which she was on a level with the man, at a distance of about a hundred feet. There she stood, uncertain a moment, then turned to meet him. He seemed too intent on his object in the cove to notice her advance, till she was within speaking distance, when she suddenly called to him "Pierre!"
Her clear, defiant tone put the meaning of a whole discourse into the word. The man turned sharply round with an expression of vindictive malice in his fox-like face.
"Well, what do you want?"
"What are you doing here, please?"
"What's that to you, I should like to know?"
"Come nearer, then I can hear what you say."
"I sha'n't come no nearer than I choose."
"Don't be afraid. I ain't a-goin' to hurt you!"
The taunt seemed to have effect, for he leaped hurriedly along over the rocky path, with an angry, threatening air that would have frightened some girls. Marie stood like the rock beneath her.
"Now, Miss, I'll teach you to come interfering with business that's none o' yourn. What, you thought you'd come after me, did yer? because you was tired o' waitin' for me to come after you again, I suppose."
"What is that you're carryin' in your belt?" she demanded calmly. A handle was seen sticking up under his fisherman's blouse. "You believe its safer to climb the rocks with a butcher's knife in your pocket, do you? You think in case of an accident it would make you fall a bit softer, hey?"
"It don't matter to you what I've got in my pocket," he rejoined, but his tone was uncertain. "I brought it to cut the tackle—we've got a job of mending to do."
"I don't know whether you think me an idiot," she replied; "but if you want me to believe your stories you'd better invent 'em more reasonable. Now, Pierre, this is what you've got to do before you leave this spot. You've got to promise me solemnly not to go near Daddy, nor threaten him as you once threatened me on a day you may remember, nor try to intimidate him into takin' you back. Neither down in the cove, nor anything else: neither now, nor at any other time."
Her girlish figure as she stood with one arm clasping the rock beside her, looked a slight enough obstacle in the path.
"Intimidate him! A parcel o' rubbish; who's goin' to intimidate him as you call it. Get out o' the way, and don't go meddling in men's concerns that you know nothing about."
He seized her wrist roughly, and with her precarious footing the position was dangerous enough: but she clung with her other arm like a limpit to the rock. He attempted to dislodge her, when she suddenly turned and fled back on her own accord. He hastened after her, and it was not till he had gone some yards that, putting his hand to his belt, he found that the knife had gone.
"The jade," he muttered, "she did it on purpose," and even with his hatred and malice was mingled a gleam of admiration at the cleverness that had outwitted him. He hurried on towards the cliff path, but the sunset light was already fading into dusk, and he had to choose his footing more carefully. When he reached the point where the rope began, Marie had already gone down and was leaning on the rock beside her father. Had he been near he might have noticed a strange expression in her eyes, as she furtively watched the precipitous descent. The purple shadows now filled both sky and sea, and the island opposite reared its grand outline solemnly in the twilight depths, as though sitting in eternal judgment on the transient ways of men. The evening star shone softly above the sea. Suddenly a crash, followed by one sharp cry, was heard; then all was still.
"Good God! That's some one fallen down the path—why don't you go and see, child?" but Marie seemed as if she could not stir. Old Andre slowly dragged himself on to his feet, and took her arm, and they went together. At the foot of the path they found the body of Pierre, dead, his head having struck against a rock.
"He must have missed his footing in the dark," said Andre, when they had rowed round to the fishing village to carry the news, and the solitary constable had bustled forth, and was endeavouring to collect information about the accident from the only two witnesses, of whom the girl seemed to have lost the power of speech.
"He must have missed his footing in the dark; and then the rope broke with his weight and the clutch he give it. It lies there all loose on the ground."
"It shouldn't have broken," said the constable. "But I always did say we'd ought to have an iron chain down there."
Fifty years had passed, with all their seasons' changes, and the changing life of nature both by land and sea, and had made as little impression on the island as the ceaseless dashing of the waves against its coast. The cliffs, the caves and the sea-beaten boulders were the same; the colours of the bracken on the September hills, and of the sea anemones in their green, pellucid pools, were the same, and the fishermen's path down to the cove was the same. No iron chain had been put there, but the rope had never broken again.
A violent south-west gale was blowing, driving scud and sea-foam before it, while ever new armies of rain-clouds advanced threateningly across the shadowy waters—mighty, moving mists, whose grey-winged squadrons, swift and irresistible, enveloped and almost blotted from sight the little rock-bound island, against which the forces of nature seemed to be for ever spending themselves in vain. From time to time through a gap in the shifting cloud-ranks there shone a sudden dazzling gleam of sunlight on the white crests of the sea-horses far away.
The good French pastor, who struggled to discharge the offices of religion in that impoverished and for the most part socially abandoned spot, had just allowed himself to be persuaded by his wife that it was unnecessary to visit his sick parishioner at the other end of the island that afternoon, when a loud rat-tat was heard in the midst of a shriek of wind, through a grudged inch of open door-way. The hurricane burst into the house while a dripping, breathless girl panted forth her message, that "old Marie" had been suddenly taken bad, and was dying, and wanted but one thing in the world, to see the Vicar.
"I wonder what it is she has got to say," said the Vicar, as his wife buttoned his mackintosh up to his throat. "I always did think there was something strange about old Marie."
A mile of bitter, breathless battling with the storm, then a close cottage-room, with rain-flooded floor, the one small window carefully darkened, and on a pillow in the furthest corner, shaded by heavy bed-curtains, a wrinkled old woman's face, pinched and colourless, on which the hand of Death lay visibly.
But in the eagerness with which she signed to the pastor to come close, and in the keen glance she cast round the room to see that no one else was near, the vigour of life still asserted itself.
"I've somewhat to tell you, Father," she began in a rapid undertone, in the island dialect. "I can't carry it to the grave with me, tho' I've borne it in my conscience all my life. When I was a young lass it happened, when things was different, and the men were rougher than now, and strange deeds might be done from time to time, and never come under the eye o' the law. And you must judge me, Father, by the way things was then, for that was what I had to think of when it all happened.
"There was a young man that used to come a' courting me when I was a lass o' nineteen, and he had a black heart for all he spoke so fair; but I didn't see it at the first, and he was that cliver and insinuatin', and had such a way o' talkin', and made so much o' me, I couldn't but listen to him for a while. And he used to go out fishin' wi' my father, and Daddy, he was lame, so Pierre used to take the fish round and do jobs with the boats for him, and this and that, so as Daddy thought a rare lot o' him; and when he seed we was thinkin' o' each other, he sort o' thought he'd leave the business to him and me, and we'd be able to keep him when he got too old to go out any more. And all was goin' right, when one day Pierre says to me, would I go out in the boat and row with him to the village, as he'd got a creel of crabs to take round, so I got in and we rowed: and we went through the Devil's Drift, and he says to me sudden like, 'When we're man and wife, Marie, what'll your father do to keep hisself?' 'Keep hisself,' I said, 'why ain't we agoin' to keep him?' And then he began such a palaver about a man bein' bound to keep his wife but not his father-in-law, and it not bein' fit for three grown people to live in one room, as if my father and mother and his father afore him and all his brothers and sisters hadn't lived in this very room that now I lie a-dyin' in; and I said 'well, as I see it, if you take Daddy's custom off of him, you're bound to keep Daddy.' And he said that wasn't his way o' lookin' at it, and I went into a sudden anger, and declared I wouldn't have nought to do with a man that could treat my Daddy so, and he was just turning the boat round to go into the Drift, and there came such an evil look in his eyes so as it seemed to go through my bones like a knife, and he said 'You shall repent this one day—you and your daddy too,' and I said not another word and he began to row forwards through the Devil's Drift. And somehow bein' there alone with him in that fearsome place, when a foot's error one side or the other may mean instant death, as he sat facin' me I seemed to see the black heart of him, as I'd never seen it before, and there was summat came over me and made me feel my life was in his hands, in the hands of my enemy.
"Well, I said no more to him, not one word good or bad, the rest of that evenin's row, and I never went out with him no more. But now, Father, this is what I want to say—for my breath is a goin' from me every minute—my Daddy, he was like my child to me, me that have never had a child of my own. I had watched him and cared for him as if I was his mother, 'stead of his bein' my father, and a hurt to him was like a hurt to me: and when that man talked o' leavin' him to fend for himself in his old age, the thought seemed as if it would break my heart: and now I knew he had an enemy, and a pitiless enemy: and I tried to stop him goin' out alone with Pierre, and I wanted him to get rid o' him out of the fishing business altogether, and father he took it up so, when I told him Pierre said he was gettin' too old to manage for hisself, that he up and dismissed him that very day: and then I heard Lisette Nevin and Paul talkin' and savin' how ill Pierre had taken it, and I seemed to see his face with the evil look on it; and something seemed to say in my heart that Daddy was in danger, and I couldn't stop a moment; I went flying to the cove where I knew he'd gone by hisself, and there from the top of the path I saw the other one creeping, closer and closer, like a cruel beast of prey as he was: and I went down and I met him, and he'd a knife in his belt, and of one thing I was certain, he might have been only goin' to frighten Daddy, but he meant him no good."
She lowered her voice, and spoke in a hoarse whisper.
"Father, do you understand? Here was a man without ruth or pity, and with a sore grudge in his black heart. Was I to trust my Daddy to his hands, and him old and lame?" She paused another moment, then drew the Vicar close to her and whispered in his ear, "I cut the rope. I knew he was followin' me. I let myself halfway down, then clung to the iron hold and cut the rope, with the knife I'd taken from him. It was at the risk of my life I did it. And he followed me, and he fell and was killed. Father, will God punish me for it? It has blighted my life. I have never been like other women. I never was wed, for how could I tend little children with blood on my hands? And the children shrank from me, or I thought they did. But it was for Daddy's sake. He had a happy old age, and he gave me his blessing when he died. Father"—her voice became almost inaudible—"when I stand before God's throne—will God remember—it was for Daddy's sake?"
The failing eye was fixed on the pastor's face, as if it would search his soul for the truth. The fellow-being, on whom she laid so great a burden, for one moment, quailed: then spoke assuring words of the mercy of that God to whom all hearts are open: but already the ebbing strength, too severely strained in the effort of disclosure, was passing away, and the words of comfort were spoken to ears that were closed in death.
* * * * *
Under the South wall of the island burying-ground is a nameless grave: where in the summer days fragments of toys and nose-gays are often to be seen scattered about; for the sunny corner is a favourite play-place, and the voices of children sound there; and they trample with their little feet the grass above Marie's grave, and strew wild flowers on it.
IN A BRETON VILLAGE.
In a wild and little-known part of the coast of Brittany, where, in place of sandy beach or cliff, huge granite boulders lie strewn along the shore, like the ruins of some Titan city, and assuming, here the features of some uncouth monster, there the outline of some gigantic fortress, present an aspect of mingled farce and solemnity, and give the whole region the air of some connection with the under-world,—on this coast, and low down among the boulders out to sea, stands a little fishing village.
The granite cottages with their thatched roofs—bits of warm colour among the bare rocks—lie on a tongue of land between the two inlets of the sea, which, when the tides run high, nearly cut them off from the mainland. Opposite the village on the other side of the little inland sea, is a second cluster of piled-up rocks thrust forth, like the fist of a giant, to defy the onslaught of Neptune, and on a plateau near the summit, is the skeleton of a house, built for a summer residence by a Russian Prince, who had a fancy for solitude and sea air, but abandoned for some reason before the interior was completed. Solitary and lifeless, summer and winter, it looks silently down like a wall-eyed ghost over the waste of rocks and sea.
Below the house and close down by the seashore, is a low, thatched cottage, built against the rock, which forms its back wall, and on to which the rough granite blocks of which the cottage is constructed are rudely cemented with earth and clay; the floor also consists of the living rock, not levelled, but just as the foot of the wanderer had trodden it under the winds of heaven for ages before the cottage was built. In this primitive dwelling—which was not, however, more rude than many of the fishermen's cottages along the coast—there lived, a few years since, three persons: old Aimee Kaudren, aged seventy, who with her snow-white cap and sabots, and her keen clear-cut face, might have been seen any day in or near the cottage, cutting the gorse-bushes that grew about the rocks for firing, leading the cow home from her scanty bit of grazing, kneeling on the stone edge of the pond by the well, to wash the clothes, or within doors cooking the soup in the huge cauldron that stood on the granite hearth. A sight indeed it was to see the aged dame bending over the tripod, with the dried gorse blazing beneath it, while its glow illumined the dark, cavernous chimney above, was flashed back from the polished doors of the great oak chest, with its burnished brass handles, and from the spotless copper saucepans hanging on the walls; and brightened the red curtains of the cosy box-bedstead in the corner by the fire.
The second inhabitant of the cottage was Aimee's son, Jean, the fisherman, with his blue blouse, and his swarthy, rough-hewn face, beaten by wind and weather into an odd sort of resemblance to the rocks among which he passed his life—the hardy and primitive life to which he had been born, and to which all his ideas were limited, a life of continual struggle with the elements for the satisfaction of primary needs, and which was directed by the movements of nature, by the tides, the winds, and the rising and setting of the sun and the moon.
And thirdly there was Jean's nephew, Antoine.
The day before Antoine was born, his father had been drowned in a storm which had wrecked many of the fishing-boats along the coast, and his mother, from the shock of the news, gave premature birth to her babe, and died a few hours after. His grandmother had brought up the child, and his silent, rough-handed uncle had adopted him, and worked for him, as if he were his own. So the little Antoine, with his blond head, and his little bare feet, grew up in the rock-hewn cottage, like a bright gorse-flower among the boulders, and spent an untaught childhood, pattering about the granite floor, or clambering over the rough rocks, and dabbling in the salt water, where he would watch the beautiful green anemones, that had so many fingers but no hands, and which he never touched, because, if he did, they spoilt themselves directly, packing their fingers up very quickly, so that they went into nowhere: or the prawns, that he always thought were the spirits of the other fish, for they looked as if they were made of nothing, and they lay so still under a stone, as if they were not there, and then darted so quickly across the pool that you could not see them go.
Antoine knew a great deal about the spirits: how there were evil ones, such as that which dwelt in the great mushroom stone out yonder to sea, which was very powerful and wicked, so that the stone, being in fear, always trembled, yet could not fall, because the evil spirit would not let it: and then there were others which haunted the little valley beyond Esquinel Point, where you must not go after dark, for the spirits took the form of Little Men, who had the power to send astray the wits of any that met them. Antoine feared those spirits more than any of the others: they were so cunning and wanted to do you harm on purpose: and when he went with his grandmother to pray in the little chapel on the shore, he used to trot away from her side, as she knelt on her chair with clasped hands and devoutly murmuring lips; and he would wander over the rugged stone floor, till he found the niche in the wall where St. Nicholas stood, wearing a blue cloak with a pink border, and having such lovely pink cheeks: the kind St. Nicholas that took care of little children, and that had three little boys without any clothes on always with him, in the kind of little boat he stood in. And Antoine would pray a childish prayer to St. Nicholas to protect him from the evil spirits of the valley.
Antoine grew up very tall and strong. He accompanied Jean on his fishing expeditions from the time he was twelve years old, and his uncle used to say that he was of more use than many a grown man. He knew every rock and even-current along that dangerous coast: he could trim the boat to the wind through narrow channels in weather in which Jean would hardly venture to do it himself: and the way in which the fish took his bait made Jean sometimes cross himself, as he counted over the shining boat-load of bream and cod, and mutter in his guttural Breton speech, "'Tis the blessed St. Yvon aids him." Everybody liked him in the village, and he took a kind of lead among the other lads, but, whether it was the grave gaze of his blue eyes, or his earnest, outright speech, or some other quality about him less easy to define, they all had the same kind of feeling in regard to him that his uncle had. He was different from themselves. There were indeed some among them in whom this acknowledged superiority inspired envy and ill-will, and one in particular, a lad that went lame with a club foot, but who had a beautiful countenance, with dark, glowing eyes and finely-cut features, never lost an opportunity of saying an ill word of, or doing an ill turn to Antoine. Geoffroi Le Cocq seemed never far off, wherever Antoine might be. He would lounge in the doorway of the cafe, watching for him, and sing a mocking song as he passed down the road. He would mimic his sayings among the other lads, who were not, however, very ready to join in deriding him. And once he contrived to poison the Kaudrens' bait, just when weather and season were at their best for fishing, so that Antoine brought not a single fish home. Jean, with the quick-blazing anger of his race, declared that if he could find the man who had done it, he would "break his skull." But Antoine, though he knew well enough who had done it, held his peace. Geoffroi was quicker of speech than Antoine, and on the Sunday, when the whole village trooped out of the little chapel after mass, and streamed down the winding village road, the women in their white coiffes and black shawls, and the men in their round Breton hats with buckles and streaming ribbons, while knots began to collect about the doors of the village cafes, and laughter, gossip and the sound of the fiddle arose on the sunny air, Geoffroi would gather a circle round him to hear his quips and odd stories, and to join in the fun that he would mercilessly make of others less quick than himself at repartee. It was extraordinary on these occasions how Geoffroi, like a spider in his web on the watch for a fly, would contrive to draw Antoine into his circle, sometimes as though it were merely to show off his cleverness before him, at other times adroitly lighting on some quaint habit or saying of Antoine's, holding it up to ridicule, now in one light, now in another, with a versatility that would have made his fortune as a comedian, and returning to the charge again and again, in the hope, as it seemed, of provoking Antoine's seldom-stirred anger: but in this entirely failing, for Antoine would generally join heartily in the laugh himself. Only once did a convulsion of anger seize him, and he strode forward in the throng and gave Geoffroi the lie to his face, when the latter had said that Marie Pierres kissed him in the Valley of Dwarfs, the evening before. He knew that Geoffroi only said it to spite him; for Marie—the daughter of Jean's partner—was his fiancee, and was as true as gold: but the image the words called up convulsed his brain; a blind impulse sprang up within him to strike and crush that beautiful face of Geoffroi's. He clenched his fist and dared him to repeat the words. Geoffroi would only reply, in his venomous way, "Come to-night to the Valley and see if I lie." And the same instant the keen, strident voice was silenced by one straight blow from Antoine's fist.
In the confused clamour of harsh Breton speech that arose, as neighbours rushed to separate the two and friends took one side or the other, Antoine strode away with a brain on fire and a mind intent on one object—to prove the lie at once.
To go to the Valley of Dwarfs in order to spy on Marie and Geoffroi was impossible to him. But he marched straight off to Marie's cottage. He knew she would deny the charge, and her word was as good as the Blessed Gospel: but he longed to hear the denial from her lips. He pictured her as she would look when she spoke: the hurt, innocent expression of her candid eyes: her rosy cheeks flushing a deeper red under her demure snow-white cap: her child-like lips uttering earnest and indignant protestation. When he reached the cottage, he found the door locked; no one was about; he leaned his elbows on the low, stone wall in front and waited.
Presently clattering sabots were heard coming down the road, and he perceived old Jeanne Le Gall trudging along, her back nearly bent double under a large bundle of dried sea-weed. She and her goat lived in the low, rubble-built hovel, that adjoined the Pierres' cottage, and from her lonely, eccentric habits, and uncanny appearance, she had the reputation of being a sorceress. Antoine called to her to know where Marie was.
"Gone to the widow Conan's," mumbled the old woman, her strange eyes gleaming under the sprays of sea-weed, "she and her father and mother, all of them."
She deposited her load, and hobbled off again, fixing her eyes on Antoine as she turned away, but saying nothing more.
Antoine strolled a little down the lane, seated himself on the steps of the cross at the corner, and waited—evening was drawing on and they were sure to return before dark.
Presently the cluck, cluck of the sabots was heard again, and old Jeanne slowly approached him from behind. She said something in her toothless, mumbling way, and held out a crumpled bit of paper in her shaking hand. He opened it and read, scrawled as if in haste, in ill-spelt Breton:
"I go to a baptism at St. Jean-du-Pied, and cannot return before sun-down. Meet me at the cross on the hill-side at six o'clock, as I fear to pass through the valley alone in the dark. Marie."
As he studied the writing, the old woman's mumblings became more articulate. She was saying, "'Twas the child Conan should have brought it an hour ago. But he is ever good-for-nothing, and forgot it."
Antoine looked at the sun, which was already westering, and perceived that he must set out to meet Marie in half-an-hour. He got up and walked slowly towards the sandy shore of the little inlet, wide and wet at low tide, on the other side of which lay his own home. He walked slowly, but he felt as if he were hurrying at a headlong pace. The thought kept going round and round in his brain like a little torturing wheel, which nothing would stop, that after all Marie was going to the Dwarf's Valley this evening, just as Geoffroi had said. Geoffroi's words were still sounding in his ears, and his right hand was clenched, as he had clenched it when the whirlwind of anger first convulsed him.
He entered his own cottage, hardly knowing what he did.
Old Aimee was bending over the cauldron, cutting up cabbage for the soup.
"Good-bye, Grandmother," he said. "I am going to the Dwarf's Valley."
Aimee looked up at him out of her keen old eyes.
"And why are you going there in the dark?" she said, "'Tis an evil meeting place after the sun has set."
"Why do you say meeting place, Grandmother Whom do you think I am going to meet there?"
"The blessed Saints protect you," she replied, "less you should meet Whom you would not."
Antoine strode out again, without saying more. He fancied he was in the Valley of Dwarfs already, about to meet Marie. He saw the weird, gnarled trunks of trees on either hand, that grew among—sometimes writhed around—the huge fantastic boulders: the dark cave-like recesses, formed strangely between and under them where the dwarfs lay hidden to emerge at dusk: the sides of the ravine towering up stern and gloomy on either hand: and high above all against the sky, the grey stone cross at which he was to meet Marie. He saw it all as if he were there, and the ground beneath him, as he tramped on, seemed unreal. Twilight was already falling over the rocks and the grey sea: there were no lights in the village, except such as shone here and there in a cottage window: the distant roar of the sea was heard, as it dashed over a long line of rocks two or three miles out, but there was hardly any other sound: the place indeed seemed God-abandoned, like some long-forgotten strand of a dead world, with the skeleton house on the rock above for its forsaken citadel.
It was already dark in the ravine when Antoine arrived there, and anyone not knowing how instinctive is the feeling for the ways of his mother earth in a son of the soil, would have thought his straightforward stride, in such a chaos of rocks and pitfalls, reckless, till they observed with what certainty each step was taken where alone it was possible and safe. He was making his way through the valley to the cross above, where the light still lingered, and it yet wanted some fifteen minutes to the time of rendez-vous, when he suddenly stopped in a listening attitude; he had reached a part of the valley to which superstition had attached the most dangerous character. A particular rock called "The Black Stone," which towered over him on the left, and slightly bending towards the centre of the valley, seemed like some threatening monster about to swoop upon the traveller, was especially regarded as the haunt of evil spirits. It was in this direction that he now heard a slight sound, which his practised ear discerned at once as not being one of the sounds of nature. Immediately afterwards the shadow of the rock beside him seemed to move and enlarge, and out of it there sprang the figure of a man, and stood straight in Antoine's path. Antoine's whole frame became rigid, like that of a beast of prey on the point of springing, even before the shadow revealed its limping foot.
Geoffroi was the first to speak.
"You gave me the lie this afternoon. Take it back now and see what you think of the taste of it. Would you like to see Marie?"
"What are you saying? What is it to you when I see Marie?"
"It is this—that I have arranged a nice little meeting for you. Hein? Are you not obliged to me?"
Antoine's voice sounded hollow and muffled as he replied, "Stand out of the path. You have nought to do between her and me."
"You think so? Then you shall learn what I have to do. You think you are going to meet her at the cross at six o'clock. But you will not, you will meet her sooner than that. It was I that sent you that message, and I have advanced the time by half an hour. Am I not kind?"
Antoine's hand was on his collar like an iron vice.
"What have you done with her? Where is she?"
Geoffroi writhed himself free with movements lithe like those of a panther. "Will you take back the lie," he said, "or will you see the proof with your own eyes?"
He was turning with a mocking sign to Antoine to follow, when from the left of the rock beside which they stood, there darted forward the white-coiffed figure of a girl, who with extended arms and agonized face, rushed up to Geoffroi, crying, "Take me away—I have seen Them! Take me away."
She clung to Geoffroi's arm, and screamed when Antoine would have touched her. Antoine stood for a moment as if turned to stone. Marie seemed half fainting and clung hysterically to Geoffroi, apparently hardly conscious of what she was doing. Geoffroi took her in his arms and kissed her. The act was so loathsome in its deliberate effrontery, that Antoine felt as if he was merely crushing a serpent when he struck him to the ground and tore Marie from his hold. But he was dealing with something which he did not understand for Marie, finding herself in his grasp, opened her eyes on his face with a look of speechless terror, and breaking from him, fled down the ravine, springing from rock to rock with the security of recklessness.
Antoine followed her, stumbling through the darkness, but his speed was no match for the madness of fear, and his steps were still to be heard crashing through the furze bushes and loose stones, when the white coiffe had flitted, like some bird of night, round the projecting boulders of the sea-coast, and disappeared.
Old Jeanne Le Gall was leaning on her stick in her solitary way beside the arched wellhead at the top of the lane, when she heard flying steps along the pathway of rock that bordered the sea, and peered through the twilight with her cunning old eyes, alert for something uncanny, or perchance out of which she could make some profit for herself. Already that day, she had earned a sou by carrying a bit of a letter, and telling one or two little lies. As the steps came nearer, a kind of moaning and sobbing was heard, and the old woman, muttering to herself—"It is the voice of Marie. What has the devil's imp been doing to her?"—hobbled as fast as she could to the turning that led to the sea, and just as the flying figure appeared, put out her skinny hand to arrest it. There was a sudden scream, a fall, and Marie lay in the road, like one dead.
The cry brought to their doors, one after another, the occupants of the neighbouring cottages; and as the dark-shawled, free-stepping Breton women gathered round, for the clattering of sabots and of tongues, it might have been a group of black sea-fowl clamouring over some 'trouvaille' of the sea, thrown up among their rocks.
They raised her painfully, with kind but ungentle hands, wept and called on the saints, availing little in any way, till the heavy tramp of a fisherman's nailed boots was heard on the rocks, and Antoine thrust the throng aside, and bending over, took her up in his arms, as a mother might her child, and without a word bore her along the road towards her home.
But he had scarcely placed her on the settle beside the bed, when her eyes opened, and as they rested on him, again the look of terror came into them: she flung herself away from him with a scream, and sobbing and uttering strange sounds of fear and aversion, was hardly to be held by the other women.
"She has lost her wits!" they cried. "Our Blessed Lady help her!"
White with fear themselves, and half believing it to be some supernatural visitation, they clung round her, supporting her till the fit had passed, and she lay back on the bed exhausted and half unconscious: her fresh, young lips drawn with an unnatural expression of suffering, and her frank, blue eyes heavy and lifeless. Antoine was turned out of the cottage, lest the sight of him should excite her again, and he marched away across the low rocks to his own home on the solitary foreland. As he passed the chapel on the shore, he saw through the open door, a single taper burning before the shrine of St. Nicholas, and just serving to show the gloom and emptiness of the place; and it seemed to him as though the Saints had deserted it.
He never saw Marie again. Once during her illness, the kind, clever old Aimee, wrung by the sight of her boy's haggard face, as he went to and fro about the boats, without food or sleep, took her way to the Pierres' cottage, with the present of a fine fresh "dorade" for the invalid; and when she had stood for a minute by the bedside leaning on her stick, and looking on the face of the half-unconscious girl, she began with her natty old hand to pat Marie's shoulder, and with coaxing words to get her to say that she would see Antoine. But at the first sound of the name, the limp figure started up from the pillows, and from the innocent, childish lips came a stream of strange, eager speech, as she poured forth her conviction, like a cherished secret, that Antoine was possessed of the Evil One: for Jeanne, the sorceress, had told her so: that he was one of Them, and by night in the valley you could see him in his own shape. Then she grew more wild, crying out that Antoine would kill her: that he had bewitched her, and she must die.
Anyone unaware of the hold which superstition has over the Breton mind, would perhaps hardly believe that the women stood round awe-struck at this revelation, seeing nothing improbable in it. In spite of her dangerous state of excitement, they eagerly pressed her with questions as to what she had seen, and what Jeanne had said, but she had become too incoherent to satisfy them, and only flung herself wildly about, crying, "Let me go—he will kill me—let me go:" till she suddenly sank down motionless on the pillow, was silent for a few moments, and then began to murmur over and over in an awe-struck, eager whisper, "Go to the Black Stone this night, and you shall see. Go to the Black Stone this night, and you shall see."
While the old cronies shook their heads, muttering that it was true, there had always been something uncanny about Antoine: and see the way he would draw the fish into his net, against their own better sense: it was plain there was something in Antoine they dared not resist:—old Aimee hobbled out with her stick and sabots, without saying a word, went round to the open door of the next cottage, and peered round the rough wooden partition that screened off the inner half of the room. On a settle beside the hearth, where a cauldron was boiling, sat Jeanne, the sorceress, with her absorbed, concentrated air, as though her thoughts were fixed on something which she could communicate to no one: she turned her strange, bright eyes on the figure in the entrance, without change of expression, and waited for Aimee to speak.
Aimee's face was like a cut diamond, so keen and bright was it, as leaning on her stick, which she struck on the floor from time to time with the emphasis of her speech, she said in her shrill Breton tones:—
"Mademoiselle Jeanne, I have come to ask of you what evil lie it is that you have told to the child Marie, that lies on her death-bed yonder. Come. You have been bribed by Geoffroi, that I know, and a son will purchase snuff, and for that you will sell your soul. Good—It is for you to do what you will with your own affairs: but when you cause an injury to my belle-fille, so that she becomes like a mad woman and dies, I come to ask you for an account of what you have done, Mademoiselle: that you may undo what you have done, while there is yet time, Mademoiselle."
Jeanne's thin, stern lips trembled, almost as if in fear, as she listened to Aimee. She turned her shaking head slowly towards her, then fixed her deep eyes on hers, and said:
"I have warned your belle-fille, that she may be saved. It was my love for her. Let her have nought to do with Them that dwell in the rocks and the trunks of the great trees."
Old Aimee shook her stick on the floor with rage.
"Impious and wicked woman! Confess, I say, or I will tell the good cure, who knows your tricks, and he will not give you absolution; and then the Evil Ones will have their way with you yourself, for what shall save you from them?"
The thin lips in the strange face trembled more. "The old sorceress dwells alone, abandoned of all," she murmured. "If she take not a sou when one or another will give it her, how shall she contrive to live?"
"What is it," demanded Aimee, with increasing shrillness, "that you have told the child Marie about my grandson?"
A look of cunning suddenly drove away the expression of conscious guilt in Jeanne's face. She dropped her eyes on the floor, mumbled inarticulately a moment, and then said shiftily, "You have perhaps a few sous in your pocket, Madame, to show good-will to the sorceress; for without good-will she cannot tell you what you seek to know."
Aimee's keen eyes flashed, as drawing forth two sous from her pocket, she said in a tone of incisive contempt, "You shall have these, Mademoiselle, but not till you have told me the whole truth, as you would to the cure at confession. Come then—say."
The sorceress began with shuffling tones and glances, which grew more sure as she went on:
"I watched for the little one returning on the afternoon of Sunday—he told me to do so. I was to give her the message that Antoine desired to meet with her at the entrance of the Dwarf's Valley: I had but to give the message: it was not my fault. I am but a poor old woman that does the bidding of others."
"Well, well," said Aimee, impatiently, "what else did you tell her?"
Jeanne looked at her interlocutor again, and a strange expression grew in her eyes.
"It is Jeanne that knows the Evil Ones, that knows their shape and their speech. She knows them when they walk among men, and she knows them in their homes in the dark valley."
"Chut, chut," cried Aimee, the more irritably that her maternal feelings had to overcome her natural inclination to superstition. "It is only one thing you have to tell—how did you frighten Marie so that she is ready to go out of her wits at the sight of Antoine?"
"Nay, it was Geoffroi that frightened her, as they went up the ravine together. I had but told her not to go alone, for that They were abroad that night." The old woman broke into a curious chuckle. "How she shivered, like a chicken in the wind! H'ch, h'ch! Then he took hold of her arm and led her away, for I had told her he was a safe protector against the spirits, not like some that wear the face of man and go up and down in the village, saying that the people should not believe in Jeanne the sorceress, for that she tells that which is untrue—while they themselves have dealings such as none can know with the Evil Ones."
Aimee looked at her keenly for some moments with a curious expression on her tightly-folded lips.
"You would have me believe that Marie went into the ravine when she knew the spirits were about, and went on the arm of Geoffroi?"
"I tell you, Grandmere, that she did so. It was Jeanne that compelled her. For Jeanne knows when a man is in league with Them, and she said to Marie, 'Thou wilt wed Antoine, but thou knowest not what he is; go to the Black Stone to-night, and thou shalt see.' H'ch! Jeanne knows nothing, does she? But Marie went, for she knew that Jeanne was wise. And what she saw, she saw."
It was strange to see the conflict between superstition and natural affection in the face of Aimee. Her thoughts seemed to be rapidly scanning the past, and there was fear as well as anger in her look. Could it be that this child, flung into her arms, as it were, from the shipwreck, born before his time of sorrow, the very offspring of death,—that had always lived apart from the other lads, with strange, quiet ways of his own—that had astonished her by his wise sayings as a child—and that, growing up had brought unnatural prosperity to the home, as though some higher hand were upon him—could it be that there was something in him more than of this earth? Her hand trembled so that it shook the stick on which she leant: she made one or two attempts to speak, then dropped the two halfpence on the table, as if they burnt her, and went out.
When Marie was a little better, they sent her away to her married sister's at Cherbourg, for the doctor said that the only chance of recovering her balance of mind, lay in removing her from everything that would remind her of her fright, or of Antoine. News travels slowly in those parts, especially among the poor and illiterate, and for months Antoine heard nothing of her, except for an occasional message brought by some chance traveller from Cherbourg, to the effect that she was still ill: while his own troubles at home grew and gathered as time went on. For since that night in the ravine everything seemed to have gone wrong. A superstitious fear had associated itself with the idea of Antoine in the minds of the other villagers. The Kaudrens' cottage was more and more avoided, and the fishing business was injured, for people chose rather to buy their fish of those of whom no evil things were hinted. The Pierres themselves were infected with this feeling, and Marie's father would go partner with Jean no longer. Jean could not support a fishing smack by himself, and gave up the distant voyages, confining himself to the long-shore fishing, and disposing of his oysters, crayfish and prawns as best he could in the more remote villages. Meanwhile, old Aimee, getting older and more feeble, would sit knitting in the cottage by a cheerless hearth, and as the supply of potatoes, chestnuts and black bread grew scantier and scantier, would furtively watch Antoine, with anxious, awe-struck glances, and then would sometimes cross herself, and wipe a tear away unseen.
It was on a wild, stormy morning of January, that a letter at length arrived for Antoine from Cherbourg. The news was blurted out with tactless plainness. 'La pauvre petite' was no more. In proportion as she grew calmer in mind, it appeared, Marie had grown weaker in body: and a cold she had contracted soon after her arrival in Cherbourg, had settled on her lungs, which were always delicate. For weeks she had not risen from her bed, but had gradually pined away. There was a message for Antoine. "Tell him," she had said, in one of her last intervals of consciousness, "that I cannot bear to think of how I acted towards him. Tell him I did not know what I was doing. Ask him to come—to come quick. For I cannot die in peace, unless he forgives me." But she had died before the message could be sent.
Antoine read the letter, crushed it in his great, trembling hand, and looked round him as though searching blankly for the hostile power, that had thus entangled, baffled and overthrown him. That voice from the grave seemed to call on him to claim again the rights that had been snatched from him. She was his, and he would see her face once more: he would go to Cherbourg, and look on her dead face, that he might know it, for she was his.
He would be in time, if he caught the night train (the funeral was the following day). He would have to walk to St. Jean-du-Pied, the next village along the coast, from which a diligence started in the afternoon to the nearest railway station. Old Aimee did up a little packet of necessaries for him, and borrowed money for the journey, saying nothing as she watched his face, full of the inarticulate suffering of the untaught. Antoine scarcely said farewell, as he walked straight out of the cottage door towards the sea, to take the shortest route to St. Jean-du-Pied by the coast. The rocks were white from the sea-foam, as if with driven snow, and the black sea was lashed to madness by a gale from the North East. The bitter wind tore across the bleak country-side, scourging every rock, tree and living thing that attempted to resist it, like the desolation of God descending in judgment on the land. Wild, torn clouds chased each other across the sky, and the deep roar of the sea among the rocks could be heard far inland.
Antoine's thoughts meanwhile were whirling tumultuously round and round one object—an object that had hovered fitfully before his mind for many weeks—pressing closer and closer on it, till at length with triumphant realization, they seized on it and made it the imperious necessity of his will.
Ever since the night in the ravine, Antoine had been living in a strange world: he had not known himself: his hand had seemed against every man's, and every man's hand against his. He never went to mass, for he felt that the good God had abandoned him.
Now he suddenly realised what it was he needed—the just punishment of Geoffroi. The path of life would be straight again, and God on His Throne in heaven, when Justice had been vindicated, and he had visited his crime on the evil-doer. That he must do it himself, was plain to him.
He marched on, possessed with a feeling that it was Geoffroi whom he was going to seek, towards the projecting foreland that shut in the village on the east. He was drenched by the waves, as they dashed madly against the walls of rock, and to get round the boulders under such circumstances was a dangerous task even for a skilled climber: but Antoine seemed borne forward by a force stronger than himself, and went on without pause, or doubt, till in a small inlet on the other side of the foreland, he discerned a figure clinging to a narrow ledge of rock, usually out of reach of the tide, but towards which the mighty waves were now rolling up more and more threateningly each moment. There was no mistaking the lithe, cringing movements, the particular turn of the head looking backward over the shoulder in terror at the menacing waters: even if Antoine had not known beforehand that he must find Geoffroi on that path, and that he had come to meet him.
Geoffroi's position was (for him) extremely dangerous. A bold climber might have extricated himself; but for a lame man to reach safety across the sea-scourged rocks was almost impossible. Could he hold on long enough and the sea rose no higher, he might be saved: but there would yet be an hour before the turn of the tide, and already the waves were racing over the ledge on which he stood. Antoine sprang over the intervening rocks, scrambling and wading through the water, as if not seeing what he did, till he set foot on the ledge, and stood face to face with his enemy.
Geoffroi's face was white with fear. He knew his hour was come. In the mighty strife of the elements, within an inch of death on every side, he was at Antoine's mercy.
"Don't kill me," he cried abjectly. "Have mercy, for the love of God."
Antoine grasped the writhing creature by the shoulder. The white face of Marie rose up before him. Geoffroi shrieked. A huge, heaving billow advanced, swept round the feet of both and sank boiling in the gulf beneath. The next that came would leave neither of them there. Antoine stood with his hand on Geoffroi's shoulder, as if he would crush it. Somewhat higher, but within reach, was a narrow projection in the rock, to which there was room for one to cling, and only for one: and Geoffroi with his lame foot could not reach it alone.
"Let me go," he shrieked. "I will confess all: but save me, save me!"
Suddenly another wave of feeling surged up in the soul of Antoine. He seemed to see the cross on the hill side, as it stood in light that evening when he was to have met Marie there. He saw the good God on the cross again, as he used to see Him in the chapel. He had a strange, deep feeling that he was God, or that God was he. He seemed to be on that cross himself. The great, green wave towered above them twenty feet in air. He grasped Geoffroi by both shoulders, and flung him up to the ledge above with a kind of scorn. The next moment the rolling sea descended. Antoine clung with all his force to the rock, but he knew that he should never see the light again.
So was he drawn out into the great deep, in whose arms his father lay: and the fisher-folk, when they knew it, looked for no sign of him more, for they said he had gone back to the sea, from whence he came. For, though they never knew the true story of his death, they felt that a spirit of a different mould from theirs had passed from among them in his own way.
TWICE A CHILD.
Halfway up the mountain-side, overlooking a ravine, through which a streamlet flowed to the lake, stood a woodman's cottage. In the room on which the front door opened were two persons—an infant in a wooden cradle, in the corner between the fire-place and the window; and, seated on a stool in the flood of sunlight that streamed through the doorway, an old man. His lips were moving slightly, and his face had the look of one whose thoughts were far away. On the patch of floor in front of him lay cross-bars of sunlight, which flowed in through the casement window. The sky overhead was cloudless, while the murky belt on the horizon was not visible from the cottage door. In the windless calm no leaf seemed to stir in the forest around. The cottage clock in the corner ticked the passing moments; the wild cry of the "curry fowl" was heard now and again from the lake; there was no other sound in the summer afternoon, and the deep heart of nature seemed at rest.
The old man's eyes rested on the bars of sunlight, but he saw another scene. On his face, in which the simplicity of childhood seemed to have reappeared, was a knowing, amused look, expressing infinite relish of some inward thought, the simple essence of mischief. Bars of sunlight, just like those, used to lie on the schoolroom floor when he was a little boy, and was sent to Dame Gartney's school to be kept out of harm's way, and to learn what he might. He saw himself, an urchin of five or six years, seated on a stool beside the Dame's great arm-chair. She was slowly, with dim eyes, threading a needle for the tiny maiden standing before her, clutching in her hot little hand the unhemmed duster on which she was to learn to sew. The thread approached the needle's eye; it was nearly in, when the arm-chair gave a very little shake, apparently of its own accord; the old lady missed her aim, and the needle and the thread were as far apart as ever, while the small imp sitting quiet at her side was unsuspected. Not once nor twice only was this little game successfully played. It used to enliven the hot, sleepy afternoon, while the bars of light were crawling slowly—oh! so slowly—across the floor. He knew school would be over when the outer edge of sunlight touched the corner of the box-bed against the wall, where the little girl that lived there and called the dame "Granny" was put to sleep of a night.
His school experience was short, consisting, indeed, of but six bright summer weeks, after which it had become his business to mind the baby, while his mother went out to work. But the most vivid of the impressions of his childhood were connected with that brief school career. Distinct above the rest stood out the memory of one afternoon, when sitting on his low stool he had seen dark smudges of shadow come straying, curling, whirling across the squares of sunlight; when shouts had arisen in the yard, and just as the dame had made Effie May hold out her hand for dropping her thimble the third time, the back-door was burst open by Ebenezer, the milkman, who cried out that the Dame's cow-house was on fire. He could see the old lady now, with the child's shrinking fingers firmly gripped in hers, her horny old hand arrested in the act of descending on the little pink palm (which escaped scot-free in the confusion) while she gazed for a moment, open-mouthed, at the speaker, as though she had come to a word which she couldn't spell, then jumped up with surprising quickness and hobbled across the floor without her stick, the point of her mob-cap nodding to every part of the room, while she moved the whole of herself first to one side and then to the other as she walked, like one of the geese waddling across the common.
"Goo back and mind yerr book!" cried the old lady to the sharp-eyed little boy, who was peeping round her skirts. But he did not go back. Who could, when they saw those tongues of flame shooting up, and the volumes of smoke darkening the summer sky, as the wooden shed and the palings near it caught and smoked and crackled, and heard the cries of men and boys shouting for water and more water, which old Jack Foster, and idiot Tom, and some women, with baskets hastily deposited by the roadside, and even boys not much bigger than himself, were toiling to bring as fast as possible in pails from the brook, before the flames should spread to the row of cottages so perilously near? No earthly power could have kept the mite out of the fray. Before the old dame knew where he was, his little hands were clenched round the handle of a heavy iron pail, and he was struggling up the yard to where the men were tearing down the connecting fences, in a desperate endeavour to stay the onrush, of the flames. To and fro, to and fro, the child toiled, begrimed by falling blacks, scorched by the blaze, his whole mind intent on one thing—to stop the burning of that charred and tottering mass.
It was done at last, and the cottages were saved. The rescue party dispersed, and the dirty, tired boy strayed slowly homeward down the village street. He could see himself now arriving soot-covered, and well-nigh speechless with fatigue, at his mother's door, could hear the cries and exclamations that arose at the sight of him, could feel the tender hands that removed the clothes from his hot little body, and washed him, and put him to bed. It took him several days to recover from the fever into which he had put himself, and it was then he had begun to mind the baby instead of going to school. Praise was liberally bestowed in the county paper on Mr. Ebenezer Rooke and his assistants, who by their energy and forethought had saved the village from destruction but no one had noticed the efforts of the tiny child, working beyond his strength; and, indeed, he himself had had no idea of being noticed.
As he sat now on the stool in the sunny doorway, and looked up the mountain-valley, to which he had been brought in his declining years to share his married daughter's home, the detail in that tragedy of his childhood, which pictured itself in his mind's eye more clearly than any other, was the shadow of the spreading, coiling puffs of smoke, which had first caught his childish attention, blurring the bars of sunlight on the floor of the Dame's kitchen. Perhaps it was on account of the likeness to the pattern now made by the sun, as it shone through the casement between him and the baby's cradle. For the gentle, domestic old man was often now, as in his docile childhood, charged to "mind the baby," and one of the quiet pleasures of his latter days was the sight of the little floweret, that grew so sweetly beside his sere and withered life. An uncultured sense of beauty within him was appealed to by the rounded limbs, the silent, dimpled laugh, the tottering feet feeling their unknown way, and all the sweet curves and softnesses, the innocent surprises and naive desires, which made up for him the image of "the baby." He would have said she was "prutty," implying much by the word.
As he gazed at his precious charge, and watched the sunlight pattern slowly but surely creeping towards the foot of the cradle, he had an odd feeling that school would soon be over. A moment after he rubbed his eyes and looked again. Was it true, or was he dreaming? Were those shadowy whirls of smoke, dimming the sunshine, a vision of the past, or did he actually see them before him, as of old, coiling about and around the bars of light on the floor? It was certainly there, the shadow of smoke, and came he could not tell whence; for in all the unpeopled valley there were, of human beings, as far as he knew at that moment, only himself and the baby. To his mind, so full of the past, it seemed the herald of another danger.
He raised himself with difficulty from his stool, and moved his stiff limbs to the threshold. As he did so, he noticed that the smoke was within the room as well as without; it was festooning about the baby's cradle, it was filling the place, there was scarcely air to breathe. His first idea, as he smelt the soot, and saw the blacks showering on the hearth, was that the chimney was on fire. He went straight to the baby in its cradle, and, his limbs forgetting their stiffness, lifted her in his arms to carry her to a place of safety; when that was done he would take off the embers from the grate, and sprinkle salt on the hearth to quench the fire.
Not till he reached the door did he notice a sound that filled the valley. A strange, high-pitched note, like a hundred curry-fowl crying at once—a wail, as of spirits in hell. Now from one direction, now from another; now rising, now falling, the weird, unearthly shriek seemed everywhere at once, increasing each moment in force and shrillness. As the old man, holding the baby close to him, looked up and listened, fear struck his lips with a sudden trembling. Opposite to him he saw a strange sight. Halfway up the mountain, on the other side of the valley, not a leaf on the trees was stirring: the lower slopes lay basking in the sunshine, and the shadows of fleeting clouds only added to the peaceful beauty of the scene; while the trees above were raging bacchanals, whirling, swaying, tossing their long arms in futile agony, as though possessed by some unseen demoniacal power.
In a moment the old man knew what had befallen him. The bewitched smoke, the shrieking spirits of the air, the motionless valley, and the maddened trees, of all these he had heard before, for he had listened to tales of the tornado in the valley, and knew what it meant to the defenceless dwellers on the upper slopes. The skirts of the fury were touching him even now; a sudden gust swept by; to draw breath for the moment was impossible, and his unsteady balance would soon have been overthrown; he was forced to cling to the doorpost, still holding the baby close. But the quiet, comprehending expression never left his face; he knew what was to be done, and he meant to do it; there might be time.
He set down the baby in the cradle, took off his coat, grasped a spade in his shaking hand, and hobbled across the patch of open ground to a spot as far distant as possible both from the cottage and from the borders of the wood; the maddened wind was wailing itself away in the distance, and happily for a few minutes there was a lull in the air. He could hear the baby crying, left alone in the cottage. He never looked off from his work, but went on digging a hole in the form of a little grave. The surface of the ground was hard, and the old man was short-winded; he could hardly gather enough force to drive the spade in. Before long, however, a few inches of the upper crust were removed from a space about three feet in length. The digging in the softer earth would now be easier and more rapid. As he worked on, a few heavy drops of rain fell. He looked up and saw the whole sky, lately full of sunlight, a mass of driving, ink-black clouds, while the shriek of the hurricane was heard again in the distance. The baby's cry was drowned by it. The hole was as yet only half a foot deep. At the next thrust the spade struck on a slanting ledge of slaty rock. No further progress could be made there; the trench must be dug in a different direction. Once more the old man, panting heavily, drove the spade into the hard ground, and in two or three minutes had so far altered the position of the hole that the rock was avoided. The gale was increasing every moment, and at times he could hardly keep his feet.
Suddenly, through the roar of the wind, was heard another sound, a rattling and rushing, as of loosened stones and of earth. All his senses on the alert, the old man glanced swiftly up, and saw a row of four tall fir trees, which stood out like sentinels, on a ridge of the mountain, in the very path of the storm, turn over like nine-pins, one after the other, and tearing up the soil with their roots, slip down the mountain-side, dragging with them an avalanche of earth. His eye darted to the cottage with a sudden fear. Even as he looked, the wind was lifting some of the slates on the roof, rattling them, loosening them, and in a few moments would scatter them around like chaff, chaff that would bring death to any on whom it should chance to light. With an odd, calculating look, the old man turned again to his digging, and, breathless as before, shovelled out the earth from the hole, with a speed of which his stiff and feeble frame would have been thought incapable; while now and again, without ceasing his work, he darted a backward glance at the doomed cottage. It ought to stand until the hole was dug; and at least in the digging there was a chance of safety: in going back to fetch the baby now, there was none.
After about five minutes, with a hideous yell, the demon tore in such fury across the mountain-side, that the old man would have been carried off his feet in a moment, and swept with the rest of the debris into the valley, but that he threw himself on the ground, clutching tightly with his fingers the edge of the hole he had dug. In the bottom of the hole a thistle-down lay unmoved. When the lull came, and he could raise his head, having escaped injury or death from falling stocks and stones, he darted over his shoulder a glance of awful anxiety at the cottage—of such anxiety as a strong man may reach to the depths of but once or twice in his prime. The roof of the cottage was gone; there were no fragments, for the wind was a clean sweeper; it had bodily vanished. The walls stood. He dragged himself unsteadily to his feet, and looked about for his spade. It was nowhere to be seen; the besom of the gale had whirled it to some unknown limbo.
The hole was still not quite a foot and a half deep, and would not preserve the cradle, if placed therein, from the destroyer. He shuffled back to the cottage with awkward, hasty steps. The baby had cried itself to sleep, and lay in its cradle in the corner, unconscious of the ruin of its home. The old man went to the hearth, on which the fire had been blown out, and from under the ashes dragged out a battered fire-shovel, its edge worn away, its handle loose. It was the nearest approach to a spade that was left him. Just as he got back to the hole another blast carried him off his feet, and he fell prostrate, this time clutching his substitute spade beneath him. He rose again, stepped into the hole, crouching down as low as possible, and rapidly raised out of it one shovelful of earth after another; it was no sooner on the surface than it was whisked away like dust. In the wood, a furlong to the right, some dozen trees were prostrated between one thrust of the shovel and the next; dark straight firs and silver birches, that slipped downwards to the valley like stiff, gleaming snakes.
Meanwhile the shovel had struck on a layer of stones, the remains of some past landslip, since buried under flowering earth. With its turned-back edge, it was hard to insert it below them, and again and again it came up having raised nothing but a little gravel; but the old man worked on still with his docile, child-like look, intent upon his task. Presently the infirm handle came off, and the shovel dropped into the bottom of the hole. At the same moment, with a wilder shriek and a fiercer on-rush, the fury came tearing again along the mountain side; the whole of the trees that yet remained in the patch of forest nearest to the cottage were swept away at once, and the slope was left bare. The old man crouched down in his hole, with his anxious eye fixed on the four walls within which the baby was sheltered; they still stood, the only object which the demon had not yet swept from his path. And even as the old man looked, he saw the upper part of the back wall begin to loosen, to totter, and give way. The baby was in the front room, but was under the windward wall. In the teeth of the gale the old man crawled out of the hole, extended his length on the ground, and began to drag his stiff and trembling frame, with hands, elbows and knees, across the fifty feet or so of barren soil that lay between the hole and the cottage. He heard the crash of bricks before he had accomplished half the distance; without pausing to look he crawled rapidly on till he crossed the threshold, and saw the babe still sleeping safely in its wooden cradle. There were two large iron dogs in the grate; he drew them out and placed them—panting painfully with the effort, for they were almost beyond his strength to lift—in the cradle, under the little mattress, one at each end. The baby, disturbed in its slumber, stretched its little limbs, smiled at him, and went to sleep again. He doubled a sack over the coverlet, tied a rope round the cradle, fastened it by a slip-knot underneath, pulled out the end at the back, and tightened it till it dragged against the hood. The cradle went on its wheels well enough to the door. Then the old man summoned his remaining strength, and having knotted the rope round his waist, threw himself on the ground again, and emerged with his precious charge into the roaring hurricane. Across the barren mountain slope, far above the ken of any fellow-being, in the teeth of death, the old man crept with the sleeping babe. Another threatening of the deluge of rain, which would surely accompany the tornado, added to the misery of the painful journey; the sudden downpour of heavy drops drenched the grandfather to the skin, but the grandchild was protected under the sacking.
They reached the hole at length, and raising himself to his knees, the wind being somewhat less boisterous while the rain was falling, the old man clutched the heavily-weighted cradle in both arms, and attempted to force it into the haven of safety he had spent his strength in forming. Alas! there was not room. The cradle was wider across than he had calculated. To take the child out and place it with the bedding in the hole would be leaving it to drown. Should the expected deluge descend, the trench he had dug would but form a reservoir for water. He seized the shovel, working it as well as he could without a handle, and attempted to break down and widen the edges. Pushing, stamping, driving with his make-shift spade, now clutching at the edges with his fingers and loosening the stones, now forcing them in with his heel, he succeeded in working through the hard upper surface; then breathless, dizzy, spent, with hands that could scarce grasp the shovel, and stumbling feet that each moment threatened to fail him, he spaded out the softer earth below and scraped and tore at the sides, till the hole was wide enough to contain the cradle, and deep enough to ensure its safety.
The last shovelful was raised, and the old man was stooping down to lift the cradle in, when the wildest war-cry yet uttered by the raging elements rang round the mountain side; all the former blasts seemed to have been but forerunners or skirmishers heralding the approach of the elemental forces; but now with awful ferocity and determination advanced the very centre of the fiendish host; while the horns were blown from mountain to mountain, announcing utter destruction to whatsoever should venture to obstruct the path of the army of the winds. In the shrieking solitude it seemed as if chaos and the end of the world were come. The poor old man crouched down, keeping his body between the gale and the baby's cradle, while the last remaining wall of the cottage fell flat before his eyes. But he felt himself being urged slowly but surely away from the refuge of the trench, downwards, downwards. The cradle, in spite of its iron ballast, was just overturning, when, with the strength of despair, he threw his body across it, digging his feet into the ground, and once more knotted the loose end of rope around his waist. The downward slip was stayed. Pushing the cradle with knees and arms, clutching the soil with hands and feet, he crept with his precious charge nearer and nearer the widened hole. Once over the edge the baby would be safe. The windy fiend seemed to be pursuing him with vindictive hate. It shrieked and tore around that bare strip of mountain side, as though the whole purpose of its fury was to destroy the old man and the babe. With a superhuman effort he grasped the cradle in both arms and lifted it in, then fell senseless across the opening.
Gradually the demon horns ceased to blow, the great guns died into silence, and the army of the air dispersed. The rain fell in torrents, but the old man never moved.
When the storm was over, and anxious steps hastened up the mountain path, and horror-stricken faces gazed at the ruined home and the havoc all around, there was broken-hearted lamentation for the old man and the child, supposed to have perished in the tornado. At last the mother's searching eye discerned in the sunshine that lay across the still mountain-side an unfamiliar object; and hastening towards it with the lingering hope of learning some news of her darling, she perceived the old man lying in his last sleep, with the eternal Peace in his child-like face, still stretched as if in protection across a trench, in which the baby lay safe in its cradle, sleeping as peacefully as he.
THE ROAD BY THE SEA.
From East to West there stretched a long, straight road, glimmering white across the grey evening landscape: silently conscious, it seemed, of the countless human feet, that for ages had trodden it and gone their way—their way for good, or their way for evil, while the road remained. Coming as an alien from unknown scenes, the one thing in the country that spoke of change, yet itself more lasting than any, it seemed to be ever pursuing some secret purpose: persistent, relentless: a very Nemesis of a road.
On either side of it were barren "dunes," grudgingly covered by straggling heather and gorse, and to the South, at a little distance, rolled the dark-blue sea.
On the edge of the dune, near to a cluster of sweet-scented pines, stood two or three cottages built of grey stone, after the Breton manner, with high-pitched roofs of dove-coloured slate, and arched stone doorways, around which scratched pigs and hens, on equal terms with barefooted children. One of the cottages had "Buvette" inscribed over it in large, white letters, and a bench outside under a little awning; and opposite to this, a rough pathway led out of the road over the waste land to a hamlet on the dune, of which the grey, clustering cottages, crowning a rising ground about half a mile off, stood distinct against the opal sky of early evening.
Framed in the stone doorway of the Buvette, was the figure of a girl in a snow-white coiffe, of which the lappets waved in the wind, a short blue skirt, and sabots. She had a curious, inexpressive face, with the patient look of a dumb creature, and an odd little curl in her upper lip, which, with her mute expression, made her seem to be continually deprecating disapproval. She stood shading her eyes from the slanting sunbeams, as she looked up the road to the West. A little before her, out on the road, stood two other women, elderly, both white-capped, one leaning on a stick: they addressed brief sentences to one another now and again, in the disconnected manner of those who are expecting something: and they also stood looking up the road to the West.
And not they only, but a group of peasants belonging to the hamlet on the hill; free-stepping, strong-limbed Breton women, returning from the cliffs with bundles of dried sea-weed on their backs: a woman and two young lads from the furthermost cottage, with hoes in their hands, who had stepped out on to the road from their work of weeding the sorry piece of ground they had fenced in from the dune, and which yielded, at the best, more stones than vegetables: a couple of fishermen, who were tramping along the road with a basket of mackerel: and even old lame Jacques, who had risen from the bench on which he usually sat as though he had taken root there, and leant tottering on his stick, as he strained his blear eyes against the sunbeams: all stopped as if by one impulse: all seemed absorbed by one expectation, and stood gazing up the long, white road to the West.
The road was like a sensitive thing to ears long familiar with its various sounds, and vibrated at a mile's distance with the gallop of unwonted hoofs, or the haste of a rider that told of strange news. Moreover, all hearts were open to the touch of fear that October evening, when at any hour word might be brought of the fishing fleet that should now be returning from its long absence in distant seas: and one dare hardly think whether Jean and Pierre and little Andre would all be restored safely to the vacant places around the cottage fire: one dared not think: one could only pray to the Saints, and wait.
The girl with the mute, patient face had been the first to catch the sounds of galloping hoofs. She had from birth been almost speechless, with a paralysed tongue, but as if to compensate for this, her senses of touch and hearing were extraordinarily acute. The daughter of the aubergiste, she knew all who came and went along the road: the sights and sounds of the road were her interest the life of it was her life. She had heard in the faint, faint distance the galloping hoofs to the West: off the great rocks to the West the fleet should first be sighted: towards the West all one's senses seemed strained, on the alert for signals of danger, or hope: and at the sound, the heart within Annette's breast leaped with a sudden certainty of disaster.
Annette had never thought of love and marriage as possible for herself, but Paul Gignol had gone with the fleet for the first time this summer, and, for Annette, danger to the fleet meant danger to Paul. Paul and Annette were kin on her mother's side, and he being an orphan and adopted by her father, they had been brought up together like brother and sister. This summer had separated them for the first time, and when he bade her good-bye and sailed away, Annette felt like an uprooted piece of heather cast loose on the roadside, and belonging nowhere. And the first faint sounds of the hoofs on the road had struck on her ear as a signal from Paul. She made no sign, only stood still with a beating heart. And when the neighbours saw the dumb girl listening, they too came out into the road, and heard the galloping, now growing more and more distinct; and waited for the rider to appear on the ridge of the hill, which, some half mile off, raised its purple outline against the western sky.
They came out when they saw the dumb girl listening: for the keenness of the perceptions with which her fragile body was endowed, was well known among them, and was attributed to the direct agency of the unseen powers; with whom indeed she had been acknowledged from her birth to have closer relations than is the lot of ordinary mortals. For there could be no doubt that Annette's mother had received an intimation of some sort from the other world, the night before her child was born. She had been found lying senseless in the moonlight on the hill-top, and had never spoken from that hour till her death a week afterwards. As to what she had met or seen, there were various rumours: some of the shrewder gossips declaring that it was nothing but old Marie Gourdon, the sorceress, who had frightened her by predicting in her mysterious wisdom, which not the shrewdest of them dared altogether disregard, that some strange calamity would attend the life of the child she was about to bring forth; a child that had indeed turned out speechless, and of so sickly a constitution that from year to year one hardly expected her to live. Moreover, was it not the ill-omened figure of the old witch-woman, that had hobbled into the auberge with the news that Christine Leroux was lying like one dead by the roadside? On the other hand, however, it was asserted with equal assurance, that she had seen in the moonlight, with her own eyes, the evil spirit of the dunes: him of whom all travellers by night must beware; for it was his pleasure to delude them by showing lights as if of cottage windows on the waste land, where no cottage was: while twice within living memory, he had kindled false fires on the great rock out at sea, which they called Le Geant, luring mariners to their death: and woe betide the solitary wayfarer whose path he crossed!
Annette's father knew what his wife had seen: and one winter evening beside the peat-fire, as Annette was busy with her distaff, and he sat smoking and watching the glowing embers, he told her her mother's story. She and Paul's father, the elder Paul Gignol, had been betrothed in their youth; but his fishing-smack had struck on the rocks one foggy night, and gone down, and with it all his worldly wealth. And Christine's father had broken off the match; for he had never been favourable to it, and how was Paul to keep her now with nothing to look to, but what might be picked up in the harbour? And Paul was like one mad, and threatened to do her a bodily mischief, so that she was afraid to walk out at night by herself: and her father offered him money to go away: and he refused the money: but he went off at last, hiring himself out on a cargo-boat, and declaring as he went, that one day yet, he would meet Christine in the way, and have his revenge. And he was abroad for years, and wedded some English woman in one of the British sea-port towns, and at last was lost at sea on the very night on which Annette was born.
"And his spirit it was, Annette, that appeared to your mother in the road that night, the very hour that he died. For it was borne in on me that he had met her in the way, as he had said, and I asked her, as she lay a-dying, if it was Paul that she had seen; and she looked at me with eyes that spoke as plain as the speech that she had lost: and said that it was he."
Jules was ordinarily a silent man: he told the story slowly, with long pauses between the sentences: and when he had once told it, he never spoke of it again.
Now Annette thought of many things in her quiet, clear-sighted way. She knew that her mother had been found senseless at the foot of the menhir, which they called Jean of Kerdual, just beyond the crest of the hill: and she had often noticed the shadow which the great, weird stone threw across the road, and thought how like it was (especially by moonlight) to the figure of a fisherman with his peaked cap and blouse. She believed there was more in this than a chance resemblance; for to a Breton girl the supernatural world is very real: and she had no doubt that the spirit of Paul's father haunted the stone that was so like his bodily form, and that on the night when he was drowned, the dumb menhir had found voice, and had spoken to her mother in his name. Annette always avoided Jean of Kerdual, if it was possible to do so, and would never let his shadow fall upon her. She felt that the solemn, world-old stone was in some way hostile to her, and attributed her dumbness to its influence.
She often wished that she and her father did not live so near the stone. It had come to be like a nightmare to her. She would dream that it stood threateningly over her, enveloping her in its shadow: that she was struggling to speak, and that it reached forth a hand, heavy as stone, and laid it on her mouth, stifling utterance. Then the paralysis that had fettered her tongue from her birth, would creep over the rest of her senses and over all her limbs, till she lay motionless and helpless under the hand of the menhir, like a stone herself, only alive and conscious. This dream had come more frequently since Paul had been away, and Annette would often look up and down the road—that road which was her only link with the world beyond—in the vague hope that it might one day bring her some deliverance.
And now, as she stood listening to the galloping hoofs, she had an odd feeling that Jean of Kerdual was threatening once more to render her powerless, but that this time he would not prevail: for that something was coming along the road, nearer—nearer—with every gallop, to free her from him for ever. Then suddenly the sounds changed: the horseman was ascending the hill on the other side, and the galloping grew laboured and slower. Would he never come into sight? It seemed to Annette that she could bear it no longer: she set off and ran along the road and up the hill, to meet the unseen rider. The slow-thoughted, simple-minded peasants looked after her, wondering. She had nearly reached the top, when, silhouetted against the sky on the crest of the hill, appeared the figure of a man on horse-back, his Breton tunic and long hat-ribbons flying loose in the wind, as he reined in his chafing steed. He rose a moment in his stirrups, pointed out to sea with his whip, and shouted something inaudible: at the same instant his horse shied violently, as it seemed, at some object by the roadside, and threw his rider to the ground.
The man, the bringer of tidings, lay motionless in the road, the horse galloped wildly on: the dumb girl stood, half way up the hill: the dumb girl, who alone had heard the message. The next moment she threw her arms convulsively above her head, turned towards the group below, and cried in a loud, clear voice, "Le Geant brule!"
The words fell on the ears of the listening crowd as if with an electric shock. As they repeated them to each other with fear and amazement, and scattered hither and thither to saddle a horse, or to catch the runaway steed, that they might carry the news in time over the two miles that lay between them and the harbour, the fact that the dumb had spoken, seemed for the moment hardly noticed by them. For might not the fishing-fleet even now be rounding the point, with darkness coming on, and the misleading light burning on the giant rock to lure them to destruction? A light which, as they knew too well, was not visible from the harbour, and which might be shewing its fatal signal unguessed the whole night through, unless as now, by favour of the saints, and doubtless by the quick eyes of some fisherman of the neighbouring village, who had chanced to be far enough out to sea at the time, it were perceived before darkness should fall.
The girl turned back again, and went up to the top of the hill to tend the fallen rider. The sun was sinking, and threw the shadow of the menhir, enlarged to a monstrous size, across her path. A few yards further on lay the senseless form of the Breton horseman, and it was clear to Annette that Jean of Kerdual had purposely stayed the rider by throwing the shadow across the road to startle his horse.
But a new exhilaration had taken possession of Annette's whole body and mind. She feared the menhir no longer: its power over her was gone. She kept repeating the words that had come to her at the crisis, the first she had spoken articulately all her life, "Le Geant brule—Le Geant brule," with a confidence in herself and the future, which was like new wine to her. The fleet would come safe home now, and by her means: for the Saints had helped her: the Saints were on her side.