AN ICELAND FISHERMAN
By Pierre Loti
Translated by M. Jules Cambon
The first appearance of Pierre Loti's works, twenty years ago, caused a sensation throughout those circles wherein the creations of intellect and imagination are felt, studied, and discussed. The author was one who, with a power which no one had wielded before him, carried off his readers into exotic lands, and whose art, in appearance most simple, proved a genuine enchantment for the imagination. It was the time when M. Zola and his school stood at the head of the literary movement. There breathed forth from Loti's writings an all-penetrating fragrance of poesy, which liberated French literary ideals from the heavy and oppressive yoke of the Naturalistic school. Truth now soared on unhampered pinions, and the reading world was completely won by the unsurpassed intensity and faithful accuracy with which he depicted the alluring charms of far-off scenes, and painted the naive soul of the races that seem to endure in the isles of the Pacific as surviving representatives of the world's infancy.
It was then learned that this independent writer was named in real life Louis Marie Julien Viaud, and that he was a naval officer. This very fact, that he was not a writer by profession, added indeed to his success. He actually had seen that which he was describing, he had lived that which he was relating. What in any other man would have seemed but research and oddity, remained natural in the case of a sailor who returned each year with a manuscript in his hand. Africa, Asia, the isles of the Pacific, were the usual scenes of his dramas. Finally from France itself, and from the oldest provinces of France, he drew subject-matter for two of his novels, An Iceland Fisherman and Ramuntcho. This proved a surprise. Our Breton sailors and our Basque mountaineers were not less foreign to the Parisian drawing-room than was Aziyade or the little Rahahu. One claimed to have a knowledge of Brittany, or of the Pyrenees, because one had visited Dinard or Biarritz; while in reality neither Tahiti nor the Isle of Paques could have remained more completely unknown to us.
The developments of human industry have brought the extremities of the world nearer together; but the soul of each race continues to cloak itself in its own individuality and to remain a mystery to the rest of the world. One trait alone is common to all: the infinite sadness of human destiny. This it was that Loti impressed so vividly on the reading world.
His success was great. Though a young man as yet, Loti saw his work crowned with what in France may be considered the supreme sanction: he was elected to membership in the French Academy. His name became coupled with those of Bernardin de St. Pierre and of Chateaubriand. With the sole exception of the author of Paul and Virginia and of the writer of Atala, he seemed to be one without predecessor and without a master. It may be well here to inquire how much reason there is for this assertion, and what novel features are presented in his work.
It has become a trite saying that French genius lacks the sense of Nature, that the French tongue is colourless, and therefore wants the most striking feature of poetry. If we abandoned for one moment the domain of letters and took a comprehensive view of the field of art, we might be permitted to express astonishment at the passing of so summary a judgment on the genius of a nation which has, in the real sense of the term, produced two such painters of Nature as Claude Lorrain and Corot. But even in the realm of letters it is easily seen that this mode of thinking is due largely to insufficient knowledge of the language's resources, and to a study of French literature which does not extend beyond the seventeenth century. Without going back to the Duke of Orleans and to Villon, one need only read a few of the poets of the sixteenth century to be struck by the prominence given to Nature in their writings. Nothing is more delightful than Ronsard's word-paintings of his sweet country of Vendome. Until the day of Malherbe, the didactic Regnier and the Calvinistic Marot are the only two who could be said to give colour to the preconceived and prevalent notion as to the dryness of French poetry. And even after Malherbe, in the seventeenth century, we find that La Fontaine, the most truly French of French writers, was a passionate lover of Nature. He who can see nothing in the latter's fables beyond the little dramas which they unfold and the ordinary moral which the poet draws therefrom, must confess that he fails to understand him. His landscapes possess precision, accuracy, and life, while such is the fragrance of his speech that it seems laden with the fresh perfume of the fields and furrows.
Racine himself, the most penetrating and the most psychological of poets, is too well versed in the human soul not to have felt its intimate union with Nature. His magnificent verse in Phedre,
"Ah, que ne suis-je assise a l'ombre des forets!"
is but the cry of despair, the appeal, filled with anguish, of a heart that is troubled and which oft has sought peace and alleviation amid the cold indifference of inanimate things. The small place given to Nature in the French literature of the seventeenth century is not to be ascribed to the language nor explained by a lack of sensibility on the part of the race. The true cause is to be found in the spirit of that period; for investigation will disclose that the very same condition then characterized the literatures of England, of Spain, and of Italy.
We must bear in mind that, owing to an almost unique combination of circumstances, there never has been a period when man was more convinced of the nobility and, I dare say it, of the sovereignty of man, or was more inclined to look upon the latter as a being independent of the external world. He did not suspect the intimately close bonds which unite the creature to the medium in which it lives. A man of the world in the seventeenth century was utterly without a notion of those truths which in their ensemble constitute the natural sciences. He crossed the threshold of life possessed of a deep classical instruction, and all-imbued with stoical ideas of virtue. At the same time, he had received the mould of a strong but narrow Christian education, in which nothing figured save his relations with God. This twofold training elevated his soul and fortified his will, but wrenched him violently from all communion with Nature. This is the standpoint from which we must view the heroes of Corneille, if we would understand those extraordinary souls which, always at the highest degree of tension, deny themselves, as a weakness, everything that resembles tenderness or pity. Again, thus and thus alone can we explain how Descartes, and with him all the philosophers of his century, ran counter to all common sense, and refused to recognise that animals might possess a soul-like principle which, however remotely, might link them to the human being.
When, in the eighteenth century, minds became emancipated from the narrow restrictions of religious discipline, and when method was introduced into the study of scientific problems, Nature took her revenge as well in literature as in all other fields of human thought. Rousseau it was who inaugurated the movement in France, and the whole of Europe followed in the wake of France. It may even be declared that the reaction against the seventeenth century was in many respects excessive, for the eighteenth century gave itself up to a species of sentimental debauch. It is none the less a fact that the author of La Nouvelle Heloise was the first to blend the moral life of man with his exterior surroundings. He felt the savage beauty and grandeur of the mountains of Switzerland, the grace of the Savoy horizons, and the more familiar elegance of the Parisian suburbs. We may say that he opened the eye of humanity to the spectacle which the world offered it. In Germany, Lessing, Goethe, Hegel, Schelling have proclaimed him their master; while even in England, Byron, and George Eliot herself, have recognised all that they owed to him.
The first of Rosseau's disciples in France was Bernardin de St. Pierre, whose name has frequently been recalled in connection with Loti. Indeed, the charming masterpiece of Paul and Virginia was the first example of exoticism in literature; and thereby it excited the curiosity of our fathers at the same time that it dazzled them by the wealth and brilliancy of its descriptions.
Then came Chateaubriand; but Nature with him was not a mere background. He sought from it an accompaniment, in the musical sense of the term, to the movements of his soul; and being somewhat prone to melancholy, his taste seems to have favoured sombre landscapes, stormy and tragical. The entire romantic school was born from him, Victor Hugo and George Sand, Theophile Gautier who draws from the French tongue resources unequalled in wealth and colour, and even M. Zola himself, whose naturalism, after all, is but the last form and, as it were, the end of romanticism, since it would be difficult to discover in him any characteristic that did not exist, as a germ at least, in Balzac.
I have just said that Chateaubriand sought in Nature an accompaniment to the movements of his soul: this was the case with all the romanticists. We do not find Rene, Manfred, Indiana, living in the midst of a tranquil and monotonous Nature. The storms of heaven must respond to the storms of their soul; and it is a fact that all these great writers, Byron as well as Victor Hugo, have not so much contemplated and seen Nature as they have interpreted it through the medium of their own passions; and it is in this sense that the keen Amiel could justly remark that a landscape is a condition or a state of the soul.
M. Loti does not merely interpret a landscape; though perhaps, to begin with, he is unconscious of doing more. With him, the human being is a part of Nature, one of its very expressions, like animals and plants, mountain forms and sky tints. His characters are what they are only because they issue forth from the medium in which they live. They are truly creatures, and not gods inhabiting the earth. Hence their profound and striking reality.
Hence also one of the peculiar characteristics of Loti's workers. He loves to paint simple souls, hearts close to Nature, whose primitive passions are singularly similar to those of animals. He is happy in the isles of the Pacific or on the borders of Senegal; and when he shifts his scenes into old Europe it is never with men and women of the world that he entertains us.
What we call a man of the world is the same everywhere; he is moulded by the society of men, but Nature and the universe have no place in his life and thought. M. Paul Bourget's heroes might live without distinction in Newport or in Monte Carlo; they take root nowhere, but live in the large cities, in winter resorts and in drawing-rooms as transient visitors in temporary abiding-places.
Loti seeks his heroes and his heroines among those antique races of Europe which have survived all conquests, and which have preserved, with their native tongue, the individuality of their character. He met Ramuntcho in the Basque country, but dearer than all to him is Brittany: here it was that he met his Iceland fishermen.
The Breton soul bears an imprint of Armorica's primitive soil: it is melancholy and noble. There is an undefinable charm about those arid lands and those sod-flanked hills of granite, whose sole horizon is the far-stretching sea. Europe ends here, and beyond remains only the broad expanse of the ocean. The poor people who dwell here are silent and tenacious: their heart is full of tenderness and of dreams. Yann, the Iceland fisherman, and his sweetheart, Gaud of Paimpol, can only live here, in the small houses of Brittany, where people huddle together in a stand against the storms which come howling from the depths of the Atlantic.
Loti's novels are never complicated with a mass of incidents. The characters are of humble station and their life is as simple as their soul. Aziyade, The Romance of a Spahi, An Iceland Fisherman, Ramuntcho, all present the story of a love and a separation. A departure, or death itself, intervenes to put an end to the romance. But the cause matters little; the separation is the same; the hearts are broken; Nature survives; it covers over and absorbs the miserable ruins which we leave behind us. No one better than Loti has ever brought out the frailty of all things pertaining to us, for no one better than he has made us realize the persistency of life and the indifference of Nature.
This circumstance imparts to the reading of M. Loti's works a character of peculiar sadness. The trend of his novels is not one that incites curiosity; his heroes are simple, and the atmosphere in which they live is foreign to us. What saddens us is not their history, but the undefinable impression that our pleasures are nothing and that we are but an accident. This is a thought common to the degree of triteness among moralists and theologians; but as they present it, it fails to move us. It troubles us as presented by M. Loti, because he has known how to give it all the force of a sensation.
How has he accomplished this?
He writes with extreme simplicity, and is not averse to the use of vague and indefinite expressions. And yet the wealth and precision of Gautier's and Hugo's language fail to endow their landscapes with the striking charm and intense life which are to be found in those of Loti. I can find no other reason for this than that which I have suggested above: the landscape, in Hugo's and in Gautier's scenes, is a background and nothing more; while Loti makes it the predominating figure of his drama. Our sensibilities are necessarily aroused before this apparition of Nature, blind, inaccessible, and all-powerful as the Fates of old.
It may prove interesting to inquire how Loti contrived to sound such a new note in art.
He boasted, on the day of his reception into the French Academy, that he had never read. Many protested, some smiled, and a large number of persons refused to believe the assertion. Yet the statement was actually quite credible, for the foundation and basis of M. Loti rest on a naive simplicity which makes him very sensitive to the things of the outside world, and gives him a perfect comprehension of simple souls. He is not a reader, for he is not imbued with book notions of things; his ideas of them are direct, and everything with him is not memory, but reflected sensation.
On the other hand, that sailor-life which had enabled him to see the world, must have confirmed in him this mental attitude. The deck officer who watches the vessel's course may do nothing which could distract his attention; but while ever ready to act and always unoccupied, he thinks, he dreams, he listens to the voices of the sea; and everything about him is of interest to him, the shape of the clouds, the aspect of skies and waters. He knows that a mere board's thickness is all that separates him and defends him from death. Such is the habitual state of mind which M. Loti has brought to the colouring of his books.
He has related to us how, when still a little child, he first beheld the sea. He had escaped from the parental home, allured by the brisk and pungent air and by the "peculiar noise, at once feeble and great," which could be heard beyond little hills of sand to which led a certain path. He recognised the sea; "before me something appeared, something sombre and noisy, which had loomed up from all sides at once, and which seemed to have no end; a moving expanse which struck me with mortal vertigo; . . . above was stretched out full a sky all of one piece, of a dark gray colour like a heavy mantle; very, very far away, in unmeasurable depths of horizon, could be seen a break, an opening between sea and sky, a long empty crack, of a light pale yellow." He felt a sadness unspeakable, a sense of desolate solitude, of abandonment, of exile. He ran back in haste to unburden his soul upon his mother's bosom, and, as he says, "to seek consolation with her for a thousand anticipated, indescribable pangs, which had wrung my heart at the sight of that vast green, deep expanse."
A poet of the sea had been born, and his genius still bears a trace of the shudder of fear experienced that evening by Pierre Loti the little child.
Loti was born not far from the ocean, in Saintonge, of an old Huguenot family which had numbered many sailors among its members. While yet a mere child he thumbed the old Bible which formerly, in the days of persecution, had been read only with cautious secrecy; and he perused the vessel's ancient records wherein mariners long since gone had noted, almost a century before, that "the weather was good," that "the wind was favourable," and that "doradoes or gilt-heads were passing near the ship."
He was passionately fond of music. He had few comrades, and his imagination was of the exalted kind. His first ambition was to be a minister, then a missionary; and finally he decided to become a sailor. He wanted to see the world, he had the curiosity of things; he was inclined to search for the strange and the unknown; he must seek that sensation, delightful and fascinating to complex souls, of betaking himself off, of withdrawing from his own world, of breaking with his own mode of life, and of creating for himself voluntary regrets.
He felt in the presence of Nature a species of disquietude, and experienced therefrom sensations which might almost be expressed in colours: his head, he himself states, "might be compared to a camera, filled with sensitive plates." This power of vision permitted him to apprehend only the appearance of things, not their reality; he was conscious of the nothingness of nothing, of the dust of dust. The remnants of his religious education intensified still more this distaste for the external world.
He was wont to spend his summer vacation in the south of France, and he preserved its warm sunny impressions. It was only later that he became acquainted with Brittany. She inspired him at first with a feeling of oppression and of sadness, and it was long before he learned to love her.
Thus was formed and developed, far from literary circles and from Parisian coteries, one of the most original writers that had appeared for a long time. He noted his impressions while touring the world; one fine morning he published them, and from the very first the reading public was won. He related his adventures and his own romance. The question could then be raised whether his skill and art would prove as consummate if he should deviate from his own personality to write what might be termed impersonal poems; and it is precisely in this last direction that he subsequently produced what are now considered his masterpieces.
A strange writer assuredly is this, at once logical and illusive, who makes us feel at the same time the sensation of things and that of their nothingness. Amid so many works wherein the luxuries of the Orient, the quasi animal life of the Pacific, the burning passions of Africa, are painted with a vigour of imagination never witnessed before his advent, An Iceland Fisherman shines forth with incomparable brilliancy. Something of the pure soul of Brittany is to be found in these melancholy pages, which, so long as the French tongue endures, must evoke the admiration of artists, and must arouse the pity and stir the emotions of men.
The real name of PIERRE LOTI is LOUIS MARIE JULIEN VIAUD. He was born of Protestant parents, in the old city of Rochefort, on the 14th of January, 1850. In one of his pleasant volumes of autobiography, "Le Roman d'un Enfant," he has given a very pleasing account of his childhood, which was most tenderly cared for and surrounded with indulgences. At a very early age he began to develop that extreme sensitiveness to external influences which has distinguished him ever since. He was first taught at a school in Rochefort, but at the age of seventeen, being destined for the navy, he entered the great French naval school, Le Borda, and has gradually risen in his profession. His pseudonym is said to have had reference to his extreme shyness and reserve in early life, which made his comrades call him after "le Loti," an Indian flower which loves to blush unseen. He was never given to books or study (when he was received at the French Academy, he had the courage to say, "Loti ne sait pas lire"), and it was not until his thirtieth year that he was persuaded to write down and publish certain curious experiences at Constantinople, in "Aziyade," a book which, like so many of Loti's, seems half a romance, half an autobiography. He proceeded to the South Seas, and, on leaving Tahiti, published the Polynesian idyl, originally called "Raharu," which was reprinted as "Le Mariage de Loti" (1880), and which first introduced to the wider public an author of remarkable originality and charm. Loti now became extremely prolific, and in a succession of volumes chronicled old exotic memories or manipulated the journal of new travels. "Le Roman d'un Spahi," a record of the melancholy adventures of a soldier in Senegambia, belongs to 1881. In 1882 Loti issued a collection of short studies under the general title of "Fleurs d'Ennui." In 1883 he achieved the widest celebrity, for not only did he publish "Mon Frere Yves," a novel describing the life of a French bluejacket in all parts of the world—perhaps, on the whole, to this day his most characteristic production—but he was involved in a public discussion in a manner which did him great credit. While taking part as a naval officer in the Tonquin war, Loti had exposed in a Parisian newspaper a series of scandals which succeeded on the capture of Hue, and, being recalled, he was now suspended from the service for more than a year. He continued for some time nearly silent, but in 1886, he published a novel of life among the Breton fisher-folk, entitled "Pecheurs d'Islande"; this has been the most popular of all his writings. In 1887 he brought out a volume of extraordinary merit, which has never received the attention it deserves; this is "Propos d'Exil," a series of short studies of exotic places, in Loti's peculiar semi-autobiographic style. The fantastic romance of Japanese manners, "Madame Chrysantheme," belongs to the same year. Passing over one or two slighter productions, we come to 1890, to "Au Maroc," the record of a journey to Fez in company with a French embassy. A collection of strangely confidential and sentimental reminiscences, called "Le Livre de la Pitie et de la Mort," belongs to 1891. Loti was on board his ship at the port of Algiers when news was brought to him of his election, on the 21st of May, 1891, to the French Academy. Since he has become an Immortal the literary activity of Pierre Loti has somewhat declined. In 1892 he published "Fantome d'Orient," another dreamy study of life in Constantinople, a sort of continuation of "Aziyade." He has described a visit to the Holy Land in three volumes, "Le Desert," "Jerusalem," "La Galilee" (1895-96), and he has written one novel, "Ramentcho" (1897), a story of manners in the Basque province, which is quite on a level with his best work. In 1898 he collected his later essays as "Figures et Choses qui passaient." In 1899-1900 Loti visited British India, and in the autumn of the latter year China; and he has described what he saw there, after the seige, in a charming volume, "Derniers Jours de Pekin," 1902.
AN ICELAND FISHERMAN
by Pierre Loti
PART 1 — ON THE ICY SEA
CHAPTER I—THE FISHERMEN
There they were, five huge, square-built seamen, drinking away together in the dismal cabin, which reeked of fish-pickle and bilge-water. The overhead beams came down too low for their tall statures, and rounded off at one end so as to resemble a gull's breast, seen from within. The whole rolled gently with a monotonous wail, inclining one slowly to drowsiness.
Outside, beyond doubt, lay the sea and the night; but one could not be quite sure of that, for a single opening in the deck was closed by its weather-hatch, and the only light came from an old hanging-lamp, swinging to and fro. A fire shone in the stove, at which their saturated clothes were drying, and giving out steam that mingled with the smoke from their clay pipes.
Their massive table, fitted exactly to its shape, occupied the whole space; and there was just enough room for moving around and sitting upon the narrow lockers fastened to the sides. Thick beams ran above them, very nearly touching their heads, and behind them yawned the berths, apparently hollowed out of the solid timbers, like recesses of a vault wherein to place the dead. All the wainscoting was rough and worn, impregnated with damp and salt, defaced and polished by the continual rubbings of their hands.
They had been drinking wine and cider in their pannikins, and the sheer enjoyment of life lit up their frank, honest faces. Now, they lingered at table chatting, in Breton tongue, on women and marriage. A china statuette of the Virgin Mary was fastened on a bracket against the midship partition, in the place of honour. This patron saint of our sailors was rather antiquated, and painted with very simple art; yet these porcelain images live much longer than real men, and her red and blue robe still seemed very fresh in the midst of the sombre greys of the poor wooden box. She must have listened to many an ardent prayer in deadly hours; at her feet were nailed two nosegays of artificial flowers and a rosary.
These half-dozen men were dressed alike; a thick blue woollen jersey clung to the body, drawn in by the waist-belt; on the head was worn the waterproof helmet, known as the sou'-wester. These men were of different ages. The skipper might have been about forty; the three others between twenty-five and thirty. The youngest, whom they called Sylvestre or "Lurlu," was only seventeen, yet already a man for height and strength; a fine curly black beard covered his cheeks; still he had childlike eyes, bluish-grey in hue, and sweet and tender in expression.
Huddled against one another, for want of space, they seemed to feel downright comfort, snugly packed in their dark home.
Outside spread the ocean and night—the infinite solitude of dark fathomless waters. A brass watch, hung on the wall, pointed to eleven o'clock—doubtless eleven at night—and upon the deck pattered the drizzling rain.
Among themselves, they treated these questions of marriage very merrily; but without saying anything indecent. No, indeed, they only sketched plans for those who were still bachelors, or related funny stories happening at home at wedding-feasts. Sometimes with a happy laugh they made some rather too free remarks about the fun in love-making. But love-making, as these men understand it, is always a healthy sensation, and for all its coarseness remains tolerably chaste.
But Sylvestre was worried, because a mate called Jean (which Bretons pronounce "Yann") did not come down below. Where could Yann be, by the way? was he lashed to his work on deck? Why did he not come below to take his share in their feast?
"It's close on midnight, hows'ever," observed the captain; and drawing himself up he raised the scuttle with his head, so as to call Yann that way.
Then a weird glimmer fell from above.
"Yann! Yann! Look alive, matey!"
"Matey" answered roughly from outside while through the half-opened hatchway the faint light kept entering like that of dawn. Nearly midnight, yet it looked like a peep of day, or the light of the starry gloaming, sent from afar through mystic lenses of magicians.
When the aperture closed, night reigned again, save for the small lamp, "sended" now and again aside, which shed its yellow light. A man in clogs was heard coming down the wooden steps.
He entered bent in two like a big bear, for he was a giant. At first he made a wry face, holding his nose, because of the acrid smell of the souse.
He exceeded a little too much the ordinary proportions of man, especially in breadth, though he was straight as a poplar. When he faced you the muscles of his shoulders, moulded under his blue jersey, stood out like great globes at the tops of his arms. His large brown eyes were very mobile, with a grand, wild expression.
Sylvestre threw his arms round Yann, and drew him towards him tenderly, after the fashion of children. Sylvestre was betrothed to Yann's sister, and he treated him as an elder brother, of course. And Yann allowed himself to be pulled about like a young lion, answering by a kind smile that showed his white teeth. These were somewhat far apart, and appeared quite small. His fair moustache was rather short, although never cut. It was tightly curled in small rolls above his lips, which were most exquisitely and delicately modelled, and then frizzed off at the ends on either side of the deep corners of his mouth. The remainder of his beard was shaven, and his highly coloured cheeks retained a fresh bloom like that of fruit never yet handled.
When Yann was seated, the mugs were filled up anew.
The lighting of all the pipes was an excuse for the cabin boy to smoke a few wiffs himself. He was a robust little fellow, with round cheeks—a kind of little brother to them all, more or less related to one another as they were; otherwise his work had been hard enough for the darling of the crew. Yann let him drink out of his own glass before he was sent to bed. Thereupon the important topic of marriage was revived.
"But I say, Yann," asked Sylvestre, "when are we going to celebrate your wedding?"
"You ought to be ashamed," said the master; "a hulking chap like you, twenty-seven years old and not yet spliced; ho, ho! What must the lasses think of you when they see you roll by?"
Yann answered by snapping his thick fingers with a contemptuous look for the women folk. He had just worked off his five years' government naval service; and it was as master-gunner of the fleet that he had learned to speak good French and hold sceptical opinions. He hemmed and hawed and then rattled off his latest love adventure, which had lasted a fortnight.
It happened in Nantes, a Free-and-Easy singer for the heroine. One evening, returning from the waterside, being slightly tipsy, he had entered the music hall. At the door stood a woman selling big bouquets at twenty francs apiece. He had bought one without quite knowing what he should do with it, and before he was much more than in had thrown it with great force at the vocalist upon the stage, striking her full in the face, partly as a rough declaration of love, partly through disgust for the painted doll that was too pink for his taste. The blow had felled the woman to the boards, and—she worshipped him during the three following weeks.
"Why, bless ye, lads, when I left she made me this here present of a real gold watch."
The better to show it them he threw it upon the table like a worthless toy.
This was told with coarse words and oratorical flourishes of his own. Yet this commonplace of civilized life jarred sadly among such simple men, with the grand solemnity of the ocean around them; in the glimmering of midnight, falling from above, was an impression of the fleeting summers of the far north country.
These ways of Yann greatly pained and surprised Sylvestre. He was a girlish boy, brought up in respect for holy things, by an old grandmother, the widow of a fisherman in the village of Ploubazlanec. As a tiny child he used to go every day with her to kneel and tell his beads over his mother's grave. From the churchyard on the cliff the grey waters of the Channel, wherein his father had disappeared in a shipwreck, could be seen in the far distance.
As his grandmother and himself were poor he had to take to fishing in his early youth, and his childhood had been spent out on the open water. Every night he said his prayers, and his eyes still wore their religious purity. He was captivating though, and next to Yann the finest-built lad of the crew. His voice was very soft, and its boyish tones contrasted markedly with his tall height and black beard; as he had shot up very rapidly he was almost puzzled to find himself grown suddenly so tall and big. He expected to marry Yann's sister soon, but never yet had answered any girl's love advances.
There were only three sleeping bunks aboard, one being double-berthed, so they "turned in" alternately.
When they had finished their feast, celebrating the Assumption of their patron saint, it was a little past midnight. Three of them crept away to bed in the small dark recesses that resembled coffin-shelves; and the three others went up on deck to get on with their often interrupted, heavy labour of fish-catching; the latter were Yann, Sylvestre, and one of their fellow-villagers known as Guillaume.
It was daylight, the everlasting day of those regions—a pale, dim light, resembling no other—bathing all things, like the gleams of a setting sun. Around them stretched an immense colourless waste, and excepting the planks of their ship, all seemed transparent, ethereal, and fairy-like. The eye could not distinguish what the scene might be: first it appeared as a quivering mirror that had no objects to reflect; and in the distance it became a desert of vapour; and beyond that a void, having neither horizon nor limits.
The damp freshness of the air was more intensely penetrating than dry frost; and when breathing it, one tasted the flavour of brine. All was calm, and the rain had ceased; overhead the clouds, without form or colour, seemed to conceal that latent light that could not be explained; the eye could see clearly, yet one was still conscious of the night; this dimness was all of an indefinable hue.
The three men on deck had lived since their childhood upon the frigid seas, in the very midst of their mists, which are vague and troubled as the background of dreams. They were accustomed to see this varying infinitude play about their paltry ark of planks, and their eyes were as used to it as those of the great free ocean-birds.
The boat rolled gently with its everlasting wail, as monotonous as a Breton song moaned by a sleeper. Yann and Sylvestre had got their bait and lines ready, while their mate opened a barrel of salt, and whetting his long knife went and sat behind them, waiting.
He did not have long to wait, or they either. They scarcely had thrown their lines into the calm, cold water in fact, before they drew in huge heavy fish, of a steel-grey sheen. And time after time the codfish let themselves be hooked in a rapid and unceasing silent series. The third man ripped them open with his long knife, spread them flat, salted and counted them, and piled up the lot—which upon their return would constitute their fortune—behind them, all still redly streaming and still sweet and fresh.
The hours passed monotonously, while in the immeasurably empty regions beyond the light slowly changed till it grew less unreal. What at first had appeared a livid gloaming, like a northern summer's eve, became now, without any intervening "dark hour before dawn," something like a smiling morn, reflected by all the facets of the oceans in fading, roseate-edged streaks.
"You really ought to marry, Yann," said Sylvestre, suddenly and very seriously this time, still looking into the water. (He seemed to know somebody in Brittany, who had allowed herself to be captivated by the brown eyes of his "big brother," but he felt shy upon so solemn a subject.)
"Me! Lor', yes, some day I will marry." He smiled, did the always contemptuous Yann, rolling his passionate eyes. "But I'll have none of the lasses at home; no, I'll wed the sea, and I invite ye all in the barkey now, to the ball I'll give at my wedding."
They kept on hauling in, for their time could not be lost in chatting; they had an immense quantity of fish in a traveling shoal, which had not ceased passing for the last two days.
They had been up all night, and in thirty hours had caught more than a thousand prime cods; so that even their strong arms were tired and they were half asleep. But their bodies remained active and they continued their toil, though occasionally their minds floated off into regions of profound sleep. But the free air they breathed was as pure as that of the first young days of the world, and so bracing, that notwithstanding their weariness they felt their chests expand and their cheeks glow as at arising.
Morning, the true morning light, at length came; as in the days of Genesis, it had "divided from the darkness," which had settled upon the horizon and rested there in great heavy masses; and by the clearness of vision now, it was seen night had passed, and that that first vague strange glimmer was only a forerunner. In the thickly-veiled heavens, broke out rents here and there, like side skylights in a dome, through which pierced glorious rays of light, silver and rosy. The lower-lying clouds were grouped round in a belt of intense shadow, encircling the waters and screening the far-off distance in darkness. They hinted as of a space in a boundary; they were as curtains veiling the infinite, or as draperies drawn to hide the too majestic mysteries, which would have perturbed the imagination of mortals.
On this special morning, around the small plank platform occupied by Yann and Sylvestre, the shifting outer world had an appearance of deep meditation, as though this were an altar recently raised; and the sheaves of sun-rays, which darted like arrows under the sacred arch, spread in a long glimmering stream over the motionless waves, as over a marble floor. Then, slowly and more slowly yet loomed still another wonder; a high, majestic, pink profile—it was a promontory of gloomy Iceland.
Yann's wedding with the sea? Sylvestre was still thinking of it—after resuming his fishing without daring to say anything more. He had felt quite sad when his big brother had so turned the holy sacrament of marriage into ridicule; and it particularly had frightened him, as he was superstitious.
For so long, too, he had mused on Yann's marriage! He had thought that it might take place with Gaud Mevel, a blonde lass from Paimpol; and that he would have the happiness of being present at the marriage-feast before starting for the navy, that long five years' exile, with its dubious return, the thought of which already plucked at his heart-strings.
Four o'clock in the morning now. The watch below came up, all three, to relieve the others. Still rather sleepy, drinking in chestfuls of the fresh, chill air, they stepped up, drawing their long sea-boots higher, and having to shut their eyes, dazzled at first by a light so pale, yet in such abundance.
Yann and Sylvestre took their breakfast of biscuits, which they had to break with a mallet, and began to munch noisily, laughing at their being so very hard. They had become quite merry again at the idea of going down to sleep, snugly and warmly in their berths; and clasping each other round the waist they danced up to the hatchway to an old song-tune.
Before disappearing through the aperture they stopped to play with Turc, the ship's dog, a young Newfoundland with great clumsy paws. They sparred at him, and he pretended to bite them like a young wolf, until he bit too hard and hurt them, whereupon Yann, with a frown and anger in his quick-changing eyes, pushed him aside with an impatient blow that sent him flying and made him howl. Yann had a kind heart enough, but his nature remained rather untamed, and when his physical being was touched, a tender caress was often more like a manifestation of brutal violence.
Their smack was named La Marie, and her master was Captain Guermeur. Every year she set sail for the big dangerous fisheries, in the frigid regions where the summers have no night. She was a very old ship, as old as the statuette of her patron saint itself. Her heavy, oaken planks were rough and worn, impregnated with ooze and brine, but still strong and stout, and smelling strongly of tar. At anchor she looked an old unwieldy tub from her so massive build, but when blew the mighty western gales, her lightness returned, like a sea-gull awakened by the wind. Then she had her own style of tumbling over the rollers, and rebounding more lightly than many newer ones, launched with all your new fangles.
As for the crew of six men and the boy, they were "Icelanders," the valiant race of seafarers whose homes are at Paimpol and Treguier, and who from father to son are destined for the cod fisheries.
They hardly ever had seen a summer in France. At the end of each winter they, with other fishers, received the parting blessing in the harbour of Paimpol. And for that fete-day an altar, always the same, and imitating a rocky grotto, was erected on the quay; and over it, in the midst of anchors, oars and nets, was enthroned the Virgin Mary, calm, and beaming with affection, the patroness of sailors; she would be brought from her chapel for the occasion, and had looked upon generation after generation with her same lifeless eyes, blessing the happy for whom the season would be lucky, and the others who never more would return.
The Host, followed by a slow procession of wives, mothers, sweethearts, and sisters, was borne round the harbour, where the boats bound for Iceland, bedecked in all colours, saluted it on its way. The priest halted before each, giving them his holy blessing; and then the fleet started, leaving the country desolate of husbands, lovers, and sons; and as the shores faded from their view, the crews sang together in low, full voices, the hymns sacred to "the Star of the Ocean." And every year saw the same ceremonies, and heard the same good-byes.
Then began the life out upon the open sea, in the solitude of three or four rough companions, on the moving thin planks in the midst of the seething waters of the northern seas.
Until now La Marie followed the custom of many Icelanders, which is merely to touch at Paimpol, and then to sail down to the Gulf of Gascony, where fish fetches high prices, or farther on to the Sandy Isles, with their salty swamps, where they buy the salt for the next expedition. The crews of lusty fellows stay a few days in the southern, sun-kissed harbour-towns, intoxicated by the last rays of summer, by the sweetness of the balmy air, and by the downright jollity of youth.
With the mists of autumn they return home to Paimpol, or to the scattered huts of the land of Goelo, to remain some time in their families, in the midst of love, marriages, and births. Very often they find unseen babies upon their return, waiting for godfathers ere they can be baptized, for many children are needed to keep up this race of fishermen, which the Icelandic Moloch devours.
CHAPTER III—THE WOMEN AT HOME
At Paimpol, one fine evening of this same year, upon a Sunday in June, two women were deeply busy in writing a letter. This took place before a large open window, with a row of flowerpots on its heavy old granite sill.
As well as could be seen from their bending over the table, both were young. Once wore a very large old-fashioned cap; the other quite a small one, in the new style adopted by the women of Paimpol. They might have been taken for two loving lasses writing a tender missive to some handsome Icelander.
The one who dictated—the one with the large head-dress—drew up her head, wool-gathering. Oh, she was old, very old, notwithstanding her look from behind, in her small brown shawl—we mean downright old. A sweet old granny, seventy at least. Very pretty, though, and still fresh-coloured, with the rosy cheeks some old people have. Her coiffe was drawn low upon the forehead and upon the top of the head, was composed of two or three large rolls of muslin that seemed to telescope out of one another, and fell on to the nape. Her venerable face, framed in the pure white pleats, had almost a man's look, while her soft, tender eyes wore a kindly expression. She had not the vestige of a tooth left, and when she laughed she showed her round gums, which had still the freshness of youth.
Although her chin had become as pointed "as the toe of a sabot" (as she was in the habit of saying), her profile was not spoiled by time; and it was easily imagined that in her youth it had been regular and pure, like the saints' adorning a church.
She looked through the window, trying to think of news that might amuse her grandson at sea. There existed not in the whole country of Paimpol another dear old body like her, to invent such funny stories upon everybody, and even upon nothing. Already in this letter there were three or four merry tales, but without the slightest mischief, for she had nothing ill-natured about her.
The other woman, finding that the ideas were getting scarce, began to write the address carefully:
"TO MONSIEUR MOAN, SYLVESTRE, ABOARD THE MARIE, co CAPTAIN GUERMEUR, IN THE SEA OF ICELAND, NEAR RYKAWYK."
Here she lifted her head to ask: "Is that all, Granny Moan?"
The querist was young, adorably young, a girl of twenty in fact; very fair—a rare complexion in this corner of Brittany, where the race runs swarthy—very fair, we say, with great grey eyes between almost black lashes; her brows, as fair as the hair, seemed as if they had a darker streak in their midst, which gave a wonderful expression of strength and will to the beautiful face. The rather short profile was very dignified, the nose continuing the line of the brow with absolute rectitude, as in a Greek statue. A deep dimple under the lower lip foiled it up delightfully; and from time to time, when she was absorbed by a particular idea, she bit this lower lip with her white upper teeth, making the blood run in tiny red veins under the delicate skin. In her supple form there was no little pride, with gravity also, which she inherited from the bold Icelandic sailors, her ancestors. The expression of her eyes was both steady and gentle.
Her cap was in the shape of a cockle-shell, worn low on the brow, and drawn back on either side, showing thick tresses of hair about the ears, a head-dress that has remained from remote times and gives quite an olden look to the women of Paimpol.
One felt instinctively that she had been reared differently than the poor old woman to whom she gave the name of grandmother, but who is reality was but a distant great-aunt.
She was the daughter of M. Mevel, a former Icelander, a bit of a freebooter, who had made a fortune by bold undertakings out at sea.
The fine room where the letter had been just written was hers; a new bed, such as townspeople have, with muslin lace-edged curtains, and on the stone walls a light-coloured paper, toning down the irregularities of the granite; overhead a coating of whitewash covered the great beams that revealed the antiquity of the abode; it was the home of well-to-do folk, and the windows looked out upon the old gray market-place of Paimpol, where the pardons are held.
"Is it done, Granny Yvonne? Have you nothing else to tell him?"
"No, my lass, only I would like you to add a word of greeting to young Gaos."
"Young Gaos" was otherwise called Yann. The proud beautiful girl had blushed very red when she wrote those words. And as soon as they were added at the bottom of the page, in a running hand, she rose and turned her head aside as if to look at some very interesting object out on the market-place.
Standing, she was rather tall; her waist was modelled in a clinging bodice, as perfectly fitting as that of a fashionable dame. In spite of her cap, she looked like a real lady. Even her hands, without being conventionally small, were white and delicate, never having touched rough work.
True, she had been at first little Gaud (Daisy), paddling bare-footed in the water, motherless, almost wholly neglected during the season of the fisheries, which her father spent in Iceland; a pretty, untidy, obstinate girl, but growing vigorous and strong in the bracing sea-breeze. In those days she had been sheltered, during the fine summers, by poor Granny Moan, who used to give her Sylvestre to mind during her days of hard work in Paimpol. Gaud felt the adoration of a young mother for the child confided to her tender care. She was his elder by about eighteen months. He was as dark as she was fair, as obedient and caressing as she was hasty and capricious. She well remembered that part of her life; neither wealth nor town life had altered it; and like a far-off dream of wild freedom it came back to her, or as the remembrance of an undefined and mysterious previous existence, where the sandy shores seemed longer, and the cliffs higher and nobler.
Towards the age of five or six, which seemed long ago to her, wealth had befallen her father, who began to buy and sell the cargoes of ships. She had been taken to Saint-Brieuc, and later to Paris. And from la petite Gaud she had become Mademoiselle Marguerite, tall and serious, with earnest eyes. Always left to herself, in another kind of solitude than that of the Breton coast, she still retained the obstinate nature of her childhood.
Living in large towns, her dress had become more modified than herself. Although she still wore the coiffe that Breton women discard so seldom, she had learned to dress herself in another way.
Every year she had returned to Brittany with her father—in the summer only, like a fashionable, coming to bathe in the sea—and lived again in the midst of old memories, delighted to hear herself called Gaud, rather curious to see the Icelanders of whom so much was said, who were never at home, and of whom, each year, some were missing; on all sides she heard the name of Iceland, which appeared to her as a distant insatiable abyss. And there, now, was the man she loved!
One fine day she had returned to live in the midst of these fishers, through a whim of her father, who had wished to end his days there, and live like a landsman in the market-place of Paimpol.
The good old dame, poor but tidy, left Gaud with cordial thanks as soon as the letter had been read again and the envelope closed. She lived rather far away, at the other end of Ploubazlanec, in a hamlet on the coast, in the same cottage where she first had seen the light of day, and where her sons and grandsons had been born. In the town, as she passed along, she answered many friendly nods; she was one of the oldest inhabitants of the country, the last of a worthy and highly esteemed family.
With great care and good management she managed to appear pretty well dressed, although her gowns were much darned, and hardly held together. She always wore the tiny brown Paimpol shawl, which was for best, and upon which the long muslin rolls of her white caps had fallen for past sixty years; her own marriage shawl, formerly blue, had been dyed for the wedding of her son Pierre, and since then worn only on Sundays, looked quite nice.
She still carried herself very straight, not at all like an old woman; and, in spite of her pointed chin, her soft eyes and delicate profile made all think her still very charming. She was held in great respect—one could see that if only by the nods that people gave her.
On her way she passed before the house of her gallant, the sweetheart of former days, a carpenter by trade; now an octogenarian, who sat outside his door all the livelong day, while the young ones, his sons, worked in the shop. It was said that he never had consoled himself for her loss, for neither in first or second marriage would she have him; but with old age his feeling for her had become a sort of comical spite, half friendly and half mischievous, and he always called out to her:
"Aha, la belle, when must I call to take your measure?"
But she declined with thanks; she had not yet quite decided to have that dress made. The truth is, that the old man, with rather questionable taste, spoke of the suit in deal planks, which is the last of all our terrestrial garments.
"Well, whenever you like; but don't be shy in asking for it, you know, old lady."
He had made this joke several times; but, to-day, she could scarcely take it good-naturedly. She felt more tired than ever of her hard-working life, and her thoughts flew back to her dear grandson—the last of them all, who, upon his return from Iceland, was to enter the navy for five years! Perhaps he might have to go to China, to the war! Would she still be about, upon his return? The thought alone was agony to her. No, she was surely not so happy as she looked, poor old granny!
And was it really possible and true, that her last darling was to be torn from her? She, perhaps, might die alone, without seeing him again! Certainly, some gentlemen of the town, whom she knew, had done all they could to keep him from having to start, urging that he was the sole support of an old and almost destitute grandmother, who could no longer work. But they had not succeeded—because of Jean Moan, the deserter, an elder brother of Sylvestre's, whom no one in the family ever mentioned now, but who still lived somewhere over in America, thus depriving his younger brother of the military exemption. Moreover, it had been objected that she had her small pension, allowed to the widows of sailors, and the Admiralty could not deem her poor enough.
When she returned home, she said her prayers at length for all her dead ones, sons and grandsons; then she prayed again with renewed strength and confidence for her Sylvestre, and tried to sleep—thinking of the "suit of wood," her heart sadly aching at the thought of being so old, when this new parting was imminent.
Meanwhile, the other victim of separation, the girl, had remained seated at her window, gazing upon the golden rays of the setting sun, reflected on the granite walls, and the black swallows wheeling across the sky above. Paimpol was always quiet on these long May evenings, even on Sundays; the lasses, who had not a single lad to make love to them, sauntered along, in couples or three together, brooding of their lovers in Iceland.
"A word of greeting to young Gaos!" She had been greatly affected in writing that sentence, and that name, which now she could not forget. She often spent her evenings here at the window, like a grand lady. Her father did not approve of her walking with the other girls of her age, who had been her early playmates. And as he left the cafe, and walked up and down, smoking his pipe with old seamen like himself, he was happy to look up at his daughter among her flowers, in his grand house.
"Young Gaos!" Against her will she gazed seaward; it could not be seen, but she felt it was nigh, at the end of the tiny street crowded with fishermen. And her thoughts travelled through a fascinating and delightful infinite, far, far away to the northern seas, where "La Marie, Captain Guermeur," was sailing. A strange man was young Gaos! retiring and almost incomprehensible now, after having come forward so audaciously, yet so lovingly.
In her long reverie, she remembered her return to Brittany, which had taken place the year before. One December morning after a night of travelling, the train from Paris had deposited her father and herself at Guingamp. It was a damp, foggy morning, cold and almost dark. She had been seized with a previously unknown feeling; she could scarcely recognise the quaint little town, which she had only seen during the summer—oh, that glad old time, the dear old times of the past! This silence, after Paris! This quiet life of people, who seemed of another world, going about their simple business in the misty morning. But the sombre granite houses, with their dark, damp walls, and the Breton charm upon all things, which fascinated her now that she loved Yann, had seemed particularly saddening upon that morning. Early housewives were already opening their doors, and as she passed she could glance into the old-fashioned houses, with their tall chimney-pieces, where sat the old grandmothers, in their white caps, quiet and dignified. As soon as daylight had begun to appear, she had entered the church to say her prayers, and the grand old aisle had appeared immense and shadowy to her—quite different from all the Parisian churches—with its rough pillars worn at the base by the chafing of centuries, and its damp, earthy smell of age and saltpetre.
In a damp recess, behind the columns, a taper was burning, before which knelt a woman, making a vow; the dim flame seemed lost in the vagueness of the arches. Gaud experienced there the feeling of a long-forgotten impression: that kind of sadness and fear that she had felt when quite young at being taken to mass at Paimpol Church on raw, wintry mornings.
But she hardly regretted Paris, although there were many splendid and amusing sights there. In the first place she felt almost cramped from having the blood of the vikings in her veins. And then, in Paris, she felt like a stranger and an intruder. The Parisiennes were tight-laced, artificial women, who had a peculiar way of walking; and Gaud was too intelligent even to have attempted to imitate them. In her head-dress, ordered every year from the maker in Paimpol, she felt out of her element in the capital; and did not understand that if the wayfarers turned round to look at her, it was only because she made a very charming picture.
Some of these Parisian ladies quite won her by their high-bred and distinguished manners, but she knew them to be inaccessible to her, while from others of a lower caste who would have been glad to make friends with her, she kept proudly aloof, judging them unworthy of her attention. Thus she had lived almost without friends, without other society than her father's, who was engaged in business and often away. So she did not regret that life of estrangement and solitude.
But, none the less, on that day of arrival she had been painfully surprised by the bitterness of this Brittany, seen in full winter. And her heart sickened at the thought of having to travel another five or six hours in a jolting car—to penetrate still farther into the blank, desolate country to reach Paimpol.
All through the afternoon of that same grisly day, her father and herself had journeyed in a little old ramshackle vehicle, open to all the winds; passing, with the falling night, through dull villages, under ghostly trees, black-pearled with mist in drops. And ere long lanterns had to be lit, and she could perceive nothing else but what seemed two trails of green Bengal lights, running on each side before the horses, and which were merely the beams that the two lanterns projected on the never-ending hedges of the roadway. But how was it that trees were so green in the month of December? Astonished at first, she bent to look out, and then she remembered how the gorse, the evergreen gorse of the paths and the cliffs, never fades in the country of Paimpol. At the same time a warmer breeze began to blow, which she knew again and which smelt of the sea.
Towards the end of the journey she had been quite awakened and amused by the new notion that struck her, namely: "As this is winter, I shall see the famous fishermen of Iceland."
For in December they were to return, the brothers, cousins, and lovers of whom all her friends, great and small, had spoken to her during the long summer evening walks in her holiday trips. And the thought had haunted her, though she felt chilled in the slow-going vehicle.
Now she had seen them, and her heart had been captured by one of them too.
CHAPTER IV—FIRST LOVE
The first day she had seen him, this Yann, was the day after his arrival, at the "Pardon des Islandais," which is on the eighth of December, the fete-day of Our Lady of Bonne-Nouvelle, the patroness of fishers—a little before the procession, with the gray streets, still draped in white sheets, on which were strewn ivy and holly and wintry blossoms with their leaves.
At this Pardon the rejoicing was heavy and wild under the sad sky. Joy without merriment, composed chiefly of insouciance and contempt; of physical strength and alcohol; above which floated, less disguised than elsewhere, the universal warning of death.
A great clamour in Paimpol; sounds of bells mingled with the chants of the priests. Rough and monotonous songs in the taverns—old sailor lullabies—songs of woe, arisen from the sea, drawn from the deep night of bygone ages. Groups of sailors, arm-in-arm, zigzagging through the streets, from their habit of rolling, and because they were half-drunk. Groups of girls in their nun-like white caps. Old granite houses sheltering these seething crowds; antiquated roofs telling of their struggles, through many centuries, against the western winds, the mist, and the rain; and relating, too, many stories of love and adventure that had passed under their protection.
And floating over all was a deep religious sentiment, a feeling of bygone days, with respect for ancient veneration and the symbols that protect it, and for the white, immaculate Virgin. Side by side with the taverns rose the church, its deep sombre portals thrown open, and steps strewn with flowers, with its perfume of incense, its lighted tapers, and the votive offerings of sailors hung all over the sacred arch. And side by side also with the happy girls were the sweethearts of dead sailors, and the widows of the shipwrecked fishers, quitting the chapel of the dead in their long mourning shawls and their smooth tiny coiffes; with eyes downward bent, noiselessly they passed through the midst of this clamouring life, like a sombre warning. And close to all was the everlasting sea, the huge nurse and devourer of these vigorous generations, become fierce and agitated as if to take part in the fete.
Gaud had but a confused impression of all these things together. Excited and merry, yet with her heart aching, she felt a sort of anguish seize her at the idea that this country had now become her own again. On the market-place, where there were games and acrobats, she walked up and down with her friends, who named and pointed out to her from time to time the young men of Paimpol or Ploubazlanec. A group of these "Icelanders" were standing before the singers of "complaintes," (songs of woe) with their backs turned towards them. And directly Gaud was struck with one of them, tall as a giant, with huge shoulders almost too broad; but she had simply said, perhaps with a touch of mockery: "There is one who is tall, to say the least!" And the sentence implied beneath this was: "What an incumbrance he'll be to the woman he marries, a husband of that size!"
He had turned round as if he had heard her, and had given her a quick glance from top to toe, seeming to say: "Who is this girl who wears the coiffe of Paimpol, who is so elegant, and whom I never have seen before?"
And he quickly bent his eyes to the ground for politeness' sake, and had appeared to take a renewed interest in the singers, only showing the back of his head and his black hair that fell in rather long curls upon his neck. And although she had asked the names of several others, she had not dared ask his. The fine profile, the grand half-savage look, the brown, almost tawny pupils moving rapidly on the bluish opal of the eyes; all this had impressed her and made her timid.
And it just happened to be that "Fils Gaos," of whom she had heard the Moans speak as a great friend of Sylvestre's. On the evening of this same Pardon, Sylvestre and he, walking arm-in-arm, had crossed her father and herself, and had stopped to wish them good-day.
And young Sylvestre had become again to her as a sort of brother. As they were cousins they had continued to tutoyer (using thou for you, a sign of familiarity) each other; true, she had at first hesitated doing so to this great boy of seventeen, who already wore a black beard, but as his kind, soft, childish eyes had hardly changed at all, she recognized him soon enough to imagine that she had never lost sight of him.
When he used to come into Paimpol, she kept him to dinner of an evening; it was without consequence to her, and he always had a very good appetite, being on rather short rations at home.
To speak truly, Yann had not been very polite to her at this first meeting, which took place at the corner of a tiny gray street, strewn with green branches. He had raised his hat to her, with a noble though timid gesture; and after having given her an ever-rapid glance, turned his eyes away, as if he were vexed with this meeting and in a hurry to go. A strong western breeze that had arisen during the procession, had scattered branches of box everywhere and loaded the sky with dark gray draperies.
Gaud, in her dreamland of remembrances, saw all this clearly again; the sad gloaming falling upon the remains of the Pardon; the sheets strewn with white flowers floating in the wind along the walls; the noisy groups of Icelanders, other waifs of the gales and tempests flocking into the taverns, singing to cheer themselves under the gloom of the coming rain; and above all, Gaud remembered the giant standing in front of her, turning aside as if annoyed, and troubled at having met her.
What a wonderful change had come over her since then; and what a difference there was between that hubbub and the present tranquility! How quiet and empty Paimpol seemed to-night in the warm long twilight of May, which kept her still at her window alone, lulled in her love's young dream!
CHAPTER V—THE SECOND MEETING
Their second meeting was at a wedding-feast. Young Gaos had been chosen to offer her his arm. At first she had been rather vexed, not liking the idea of strolling through the streets with this tall fellow, whom everybody would stare at, on account of his excessive height, and who, most probably, would not know what to speak to her about. Besides, he really frightened her with his wild, lofty look.
At the appointed hour all were assembled for the wedding procession save Yann, who had not appeared. Time passed, yet he did not come, and they talked of giving up any further waiting for him. Then it was she discovered that it was for his pleasure, and his alone, that she had donned her best dress; with any other of the young men present at the ball, the evening's enjoyment would be spoiled.
At last he arrived, in his best clothes also, apologizing, without any embarrassment, to the bride's party. The excuse was, that some important shoals of fish, not at all expected, had been telegraphed from England, as bound to pass that night a little off Aurigny; and so all the boats of Ploubazlanec hastily had set sail. There was great excitement in the villages, women rushing about to find their husbands and urging them to put off quickly, and struggling hard themselves to hoist the sails and help in the launching; in fact, a regular "turnout" throughout the places, though in the midst of the company Yann related this very simply; he had been obliged to look out for a substitute and warrant him to the owner of the boat to which he belonged for the winter season. It was this that had caused him to be late, and in order not to miss the wedding, he had "turned up" (abandoned) his share in the profits of the catch. His plea was perfectly well understood by his hearers, no one thinking of blaming him; for well all know that, in this coast life, all are more or less dependent upon the unforeseen events at sea, and the mysterious migrations of the fishy regions. The other Icelandes present were disappointed at not having been warned in time, like the fishers of Ploubazlanec, of the fortune that was skirting their very shores.
But it was too late now, worse luck! So they gave their arms to the lasses, the violins began to play, and joyously they all tramped out.
At first Yann had only paid her a few innocent compliments, such as fall to a chance partner met at a wedding, and of whom one knows but little. Amidst all the couples in the procession, they formed the only one of strangers, the others were all relatives or sweethearts.
But during the evening while the dancing was going on, the talk between them had again turned to the subject of the fish, and looking her straight in the eyes, he roughly said to her:
"You are the only person about Paimpol, and even in the world, for whom I would have missed a windfall; truly, for nobody else would I have come back from my fishing, Mademoiselle Gaud."
At first she was rather astonished that this fisherman should dare so to address her who had come to this ball rather like a young queen, but then delighted, she had ended by answering:
"Thank you, Monsieur Yann; and I, too, would rather be with you than with anybody else."
That was all. But from that moment until the end of the dancing, they kept on chatting in a different tone than before, low and soft-voiced.
The dancing was to the sound of a hurdy-gurdy and violin, the same couples almost always together. When Yann returned to invite her again, after having danced with another girl for politeness' sake, they exchanged a smile, like friends meeting anew, and continued their interrupted conversation, which had become very close. Simply enough, Yann spoke of his fisher life, its hardships, its wage, and of his parents' difficulties in former years, when they had fourteen little Gaoses to bring up, he being the eldest. Now, the old folks were out of the reach of need, because of a wreck that their father had found in the Channel, the sale of which had brought in 10,000 francs, omitting the share claimed by the Treasury. With the money they built an upper story to their house, which was situated at the point of Ploubazlanec, at the very land's end, in the hamlet of Pors-Even, overlooking the sea, and having a grand outlook.
"It is mighty tough, though," said he, "this here life of an Icelander, having to start in February for such a country, where it is awful cold and bleak, with a raging, foaming sea."
Gaud remembered every phrase of their conversation at the ball, as if it had all happened yesterday, and details came regularly back to her mind, as she looked upon the night falling over Paimpol. If Yann had had no idea of marriage, why had he told her all the items of his existence, to which she had listened, as only an engaged sweetheart would have done; he did not seem a commonplace young man, prone to babbling his business to everybody who came along.
"The occupation is pretty good, nevertheless," he said, "and I shall never change my career. Some years we make eight hundred francs, and others twelve hundred, which I get upon my return, and hand over to the old lady."
"To your mother, Monsieur Yann, eh?"
"Yes, every penny of it, always. It's the custom with us Icelanders, Mademoiselle Gaud." He spoke of this as a quite ordinary and natural course.
"Perhaps you'll hardly believe it, but I scarcely ever have any pocket-money. Of a Sunday mother gives me a little when I come into Paimpol. And so it goes all the time. Why, look 'ee here, this year my father had these clothes made for me, without which treat I never could have come to the wedding; certain sure, for I never should have dared offer you my arm in my old duds of last year."
For one like her, accustomed to seeing Parisians, Yann's habiliments were, perhaps, not very stylish; a short jacket open over the old-fashioned waistcoat; but the build of their wearer was irreproachably handsome, so that he had a noble look withal.
Smiling, he looked at her straight in the depths of her eyes each time he spoke to her, so as to divine her opinion. And how good and honest was his look, as he told her all these short-comings, so that she might well understand that he was not rich!
And she smiled also, as she gazed at him full in the face; answering seldom, but listening with her whole soul, more and more astonished and more and more drawn towards him. What a mixture of untamed roughness and caressing childishness he was! His earnest voice, short and blunt towards others, became softer and more and more tender as he spoke to her; and for her alone he knew how to make it trill with extreme sweetness, like the music of a stringed instrument with the mute upon it.
What a singular and astonishing fact it was to see this man of brawn, with his free air and forbidding aspect, always treated by his family like a child, and deeming it quite natural; having travelled over all the earth, met with all sorts of adventures, incurred all dangers, and yet showing the same respectful and absolute obedience to his parents.
She compared him to others, two or three dandies in Paris, clerks, quill-drivers, or what not, who had pestered her with their attentions, for the sake of her money. He seemed to be the best, as well as the most handsome, man she had ever met.
To put herself more on an equality with him she related how, in her own home, she had not always been so well-off as at present; that her father had begun life as a fisherman off Iceland, and always held the Icelanders in great esteem; and that she herself could clearly remember as a little child, having run barefooted upon the beach, after her poor mother's death.
Oh! the exquisite night of that ball, unique in her life! It seemed far away now, for it dated back to December, and May had already returned. All the sturdy partners of that evening were out fishing yonder now, scattered over the far northern seas, in the clear pale sun, in intense loneliness, while the dust thickened silently on the land of Brittany.
Still Gaud remained at her window. The market-place of Paimpol, hedged in on all sides by the old-fashioned houses, became sadder and sadder with the darkling; everywhere reigned silence. Above the housetops the still brilliant space of the heavens seemed to grow more hollow, to raise itself up and finally separate itself from all terrestrial things: these, in the last hour of day, were entirely blended into the single dark outline of the gables of olden roofs.
From time to time a window or door would be suddenly closed; some old sailor, shaky upon his legs, would blunder out of the tavern and plunge into the small dark streets; or girls passed by, returning home late after their walk and carrying nosegays of May-flowers. One of them who knew Gaud, calling out good-evening to her, held up a branch of hawthorn high towards her as if to offer it her to smell; in the transparent darkness she could distinguish the airy tufts of its white blossoms. From the gardens and courts floated another soft perfume, that of the flowering honeysuckle along the granite walls, mingled with a vague smell of seaweed in the harbour.
Bats flew silently through the air above, like hideous creatures in a dream.
Many and many an evening had Gaud passed at her window, gazing upon the melancholy market-place, thinking of the Icelanders who were far away, and always of that same ball.
Yann was a capital waltzer, as straight as a young oak, moving with a graceful yet dignified bearing, his head thrown well back, his brown, curled locks falling upon his brow, and floating with the motion of the dance. Gaud, who was rather tall herself, felt their contact upon her cap, as he bent towards her to grasp her more tightly during the swift movements.
Now and then he pointed out to her his little sister Marie, dancing with Sylvestre, who was her fiance. He smiled with a very tender look at seeing them both so young and yet so reserved towards one another, bowing gravely, and putting on very timid airs as they communed lowly, on most amiable subjects, no doubt.
Of course, Yann would never have allowed it to be otherwise; yet it amused him, venturesome and bold as he was, to find them so coy; and he and Gaud exchanged one of their confidential smiles, seeming to say: "How pretty, but how funny our little brother is!"
Towards the close of the evening, all the girls received the breaking-up kiss; cousins, betrothed, and lovers, all, in a good frank, honest way, before everybody. But, of course, Yann had not kissed Gaud; none might take that liberty with the daughter of M. Mevel; but he seemed to strain her a little more tightly to him during the last waltzes, and she, trusting him, did not resist, but yielded closer still, giving up her whole soul, in the sudden, deep, and joyous attraction that bound her to him.
"Did you see the saucy minx, what eyes she made at him?" queried two or three girls, with their own eyes timidly bent under their golden or black brows, though they had among the dancers one or two lovers, to say the least. And truly Gaud did look at Yann very hard, only she had the excuse that he was the first and only young man whom she ever had noticed in her life.
At dawn, when the party broke up and left in confusion, they had taken leave of one another, like betrothed ones, who are sure to meet the following day. To return home, she had crossed this same market-place with her father, little fatigued, feeling light and gay, happy to breathe the frosty fog, and loving the sad dawn itself, so sweet and enjoyable seemed bare life.
The May night had long since fallen; nearly all the windows had closed with a grating of their iron fittings, but Gaud remained at her place, leaving hers open. The last passers-by, who could distinguish the white cap in the darkness, might say to themselves, "That's surely some girl, dreaming of her sweetheart." It was true, for she was dreaming of hers, with a wild desire to weep; her tiny teeth bit her lips and continually opened and pursed up the deep dimple that outlined the under lip of her fresh, pure mouth. Her eyes remained fixed on the darkness, seeing nothing of tangible things.
But, after the ball, why had he not returned? What change had come over him? Meeting him by chance, he seemed to avoid her, turning aside his look, which was always fleeting, by the way. She had often debated this with Sylvestre, who could not understand either.
"But still, he's the lad for you to marry, Gaud," said Sylvestre, "if your father allowed ye. In the whole country round you'd not find his like. First, let me tell 'ee, he's a rare good one, though he mayn't look it. He seldom gets tipsy. He sometimes is stubborn, but is very pliable for all that. No, I can't tell 'ee how good he is! And such an A.B. seaman! Every new fishing season the skippers regularly fight to have him."
She was quite sure of her father's permission, for she never had been thwarted in any of her whims. And it mattered little to her whether Yann were rich or not. To begin with, a sailor like him would need but a little money in advance to attend the classes of the coast navigation school, and might shortly become a captain whom all shipowners would gladly intrust with their vessels. It also mattered little to her that he was such a giant; great strength may become a defect in a woman, but in a man is not prejudicial to good looks.
Without seeming to care much, she had questioned the girls of the country round about, who knew all the love stories going; but he had no recognized engagement with any one, he paid no more attention to one than another, but roved from right to left, to Lezardrieux as well as to Paimpol, to all the beauties who cared to receive his address.
One Sunday evening, very late, she had seen him pass under her windows, in company with one Jeannie Caroff, whom he tucked under his wing very closely; she was pretty, certainly, but had a very bad reputation. This had pained Gaud very much indeed. She had been told that he was very quick-tempered: one night being rather tipsy in a tavern of Paimpol, where the Icelanders held their revels, he had thrown a great marble table through a door that they would not open to him. But she forgave him all that; we all know what sailors are sometimes when the fit takes them. But if his heart were good, why had he sought one out who never had thought of him, to leave her afterward; what reason had he had to look at her for a whole evening with his fair, open smile, and to use his softest, tenderest voice to speak to her of his affairs as to a betrothed? Now, it was impossible for her to become attached to another, or to change. In this same country, when quite a child, she was used to being scolded when naughty and called more stubborn than any other child in her ideas; and she had not altered. Fine lady as she was now, rather serious and proud in her ways, none had refashioned her, and she remained always the same.
After this ball, the past winter had been spent in waiting to see him again, but he had not even come to say good-bye before his departure for Iceland. Since he was no longer by, nothing else existed in her eyes; slowly time seemed to drag until the return in autumn, when she had made up her mind to put an end to her doubts.
The town-hall clock struck eleven, with that peculiar resonance that bells have during the quiet spring nights. At Paimpol eleven o'clock is very late; so Gaud closed her window and lit her lamp, to go to bed.
Perhaps it was only shyness in Yann, after all, or was it because, being proud also, he was afraid of a refusal, as she was so rich? She wanted to ask him this herself straightforwardly, but Sylvestre thought that it would not be the right thing, and it would not look well for her to appear so bold. In Paimpol already her manners and dress were sufficiently criticised.
She undressed slowly as if in a dream; first her muslin cap, then her town-cut dress, which she threw carelessly on a chair. The little lamp, alone to burn at this late hour, bathed her shoulders and bosom in its mysterious light, her perfect form, which no eye ever had contemplated, and never could contemplate if Yann did not marry her. She knew her face was beautiful, but she was unconscious of the beauty of her figure. In this remote land, among daughters of fishers, beauty of shape is almost part of the race; it is scarcely ever noticed, and even the least respectable women are ashamed to parade it.
Gaud began to unbraid her tresses, coiled in the shape of a snail-shell and rolled round her ears, and two plaits fell upon her shoulders like weighty serpents. She drew them up into a crown on the top of her head—this was comfortable for sleeping—so that, by reason of her straight profile, she looked like a Roman vestal.
She still held up her arms, and biting her lip, she slowly ran her fingers through the golden mass, like a child playing with a toy, while thinking of something else; and again letting it fall, she quickly unplaited it to spread it out; soon she was covered with her own locks, which fell to her knees, looking like some Druidess.
And sleep having come, notwithstanding love and an impulse to weep, she threw herself roughly in her bed, hiding her face in the silken masses floating round her outspread like a veil.
In her hut in Ploubazlanec, Granny Moan, who was on the other and darker side of her life, had also fallen to sleep—the frozen sleep of old age—dreaming of her grandson and of death.
And at this same hour, on board the Marie, on the Northern Sea, which was very heavy on this particular evening, Yann and Sylvestre—the two longed-for rovers—sang ditties to one another, and went on gaily with their fishing in the everlasting daylight.
CHAPTER VI—NEWS FROM HOME
About a month later, around Iceland, the weather was of that rare kind that the sailors call a dead calm; in other words, in the air nothing moved, as if all the breezes were exhausted and their task done.
The sky was covered with a white veil, which darkened towards its lower border near the horizon, and gradually passed into dull gray leaden tints; over this the still waters threw a pale light, which fatigued the eyes and chilled the gazer through and through. All at once, liquid designs played over the surface, such light evanescent rings as one forms by breathing on a mirror. The sheen of the waters seemed covered with a net of faint patterns, which intermingled and reformed, rapidly disappearing. Everlasting night or everlasting day, one could scarcely say what it was; the sun, which pointed to no special hour, remained fixed, as if presiding over the fading glory of dead things; it appeared but as a mere ring, being almost without substance, and magnified enormously by a shifting halo.
Yann and Sylvestre, leaning against one another, sang "Jean-Francois de Nantes," the song without an end; amused by its very monotony, looking at one another from the corner of their eyes as if laughing at the childish fun, with which they began the verses over and over again, trying to put fresh spirit into them each time. Their cheeks were rosy under the sharp freshness of the morning: the pure air they breathed was strengthening, and they inhaled it deep down in their chests, the very fountain of all vigorous existence. And yet, around them, was a semblance of non-existence, of a world either finished or not yet created; the light itself had no warmth; all things seemed without motion, and as if chilled for eternity under the great ghostly eye that represented the sun.