Part 1 out of 4
Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com
and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
AN ICELAND FISHERMAN
by PIERRE LOTI
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
ON THE ICY SEA
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
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
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
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
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
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
"But I say, Yann," asked Sylvestre, "when are we going to celebrate
"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
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
"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
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
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-
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
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.
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
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/,
c/o 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
"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
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
The /Marie/ projected over the sea a shadow long and black as night,
or rather appearing deep green in the midst of the polished surface,
which reflected all the purity of the heavens; in this shadowed part,
which had no glitter, could be plainly distinguished through the
transparency, myriads upon myriads of fish, all alike, gliding slowly
in the same direction, as if bent towards the goal of their perpetual
travels. They were cod, performing their evolutions all as parts of a
single body, stretched full length in the same direction, exactly
parallel, offering the effect of gray streaks, unceasingly agitated by
a quick motion that gave a look of fluidity to the mass of dumb lives.
Sometimes, with a sudden quick movement of the tail, all turned round
at the same time, showing the sheen of their silvered sides; and the
same movement was repeated throughout the entire shoal by slow
undulations, as if a thousand metal blades had each thrown a tiny
flash of lightning from under the surface.
The sun, already very low, lowered further; so night had decidedly
come. As the great ball of flame descended into the leaden-coloured
zones that surrounded the sea, it grew yellow, and its outer rim
became more clear and solid. Now it could be looked straight at, as if
it were but the moon. Yet it still gave out light and looked quite
near in the immensity; it seemed that by going in a ship, only so far
as the edge of the horizon, one might collide with the great mournful
globe, floating in the air just a few yards above the water.
Fishing was going on well; looking into the calm water, one could see
exactly what took place; how the cod came to bite, with a greedy
spring; then, feeling themselves hooked, wriggled about, as if to hook
themselves still firmer. And every moment, with rapid action, the
fishermen hauled in their lines, hand overhand, throwing the fish to
the man who was to clean them and flatten them out.
The Paimpol fleet were scattered over the quiet mirror, animating the
desert. Here and there appeared distant sails, unfurled for mere
form's sake, considering there was no breeze. They were like clear
white outlines upon the greys of the horizon. In this dead calm,
fishing off Iceland seemed so easy and tranquil a trade that ladies'
yachting was no name for it.
"Jean Francois de Nantes;
So they sang, like a couple of children.
Yann little troubled whether or no he was handsome and good-looking.
He was boyish only with Sylvestre, it is true, and sang and joked with
no other; on the contrary, he was rather distant with the others and
proud and disdainful--very willing though, when his help was required,
and always kind and obliging when not irritated.
So the twain went on singing their song, with two others, a few steps
off, singing another, a dirge--a clashing of sleepiness, health, and
vague melancholy. But they did not feel dull, and the hours flew by.
Down in the cabin a fire still smouldered in the iron range, and the
hatch was kept shut, so as to give the appearance of night there for
those who needed sleep. They required but little air to sleep; indeed,
less robust fellows, brought up in towns, would have wanted more. They
used to go to bed after the watch at irregular times, just when they
felt inclined, hours counting for little in this never-fading light.
And they always slept soundly and peacefully without restlessness or
"Jean Francois de Nantes;
They looked attentively at some almost imperceptible object, far off
on the horizon, some faint smoke rising from the waters like a tiny
jot of another gray tint slightly darker than the sky's. Their eyes
were used to plumbing depths, and they had seen it.
"A sail, a sail, thereaway!"
"I have an idea," said the skipper, staring attentively, "that it's a
government cruiser coming on her inspection-round."
This faint smoke brought news of home to the sailors, and among
others, a letter we wrote of, from an old grandam, written by the hand
of a beautiful girl. Slowly the steamer approached till they perceived
her black hull. Yes, it was the cruiser, making the inspection in
these western fjords.
At the same time, a slight breeze sprang up, fresher yet to inhale,
and began to tarnish the surface of the still waters in patches; it
traced designs in a bluish green tint over the shining mirror, and
scattering in trails, these fanned out or branched off like a coral
tree; all very rapidly with a low murmur; it was like a signal of
awakening foretelling the end of this intense torpor. The sky, its
veil being rent asunder, grew clear; the vapours fell down on the
horizon, massing in heaps like slate-coloured wadding, as if to form a
soft bank to the sea. The two ever-during mirrors between which the
fishermen lived, the one on high and the one beneath, recovered their
deep lucidity, as if the mists tarnishing them had been brushed away.
The weather was changing in a rapid way that foretold no good. Smacks
began to arrive from all points of the immense plane; first, all the
French smacks in the vicinity, from Brittany, Normandy, Boulogne, or
Dunkirk. Like birds flocking to a call, they assembled round the
cruiser; from the apparently empty corners of the horizon, others
appeared on every side; their tiny gray wings were seen till they
peopled the pallid waste.
No longer slowly drifting, for they had spread out their sails to the
new and cool breeze, and cracked on all to approach.
Far-off Iceland also reappeared, as if she would fain come near them
also; showing her great mountains of bare stones more distinctly than
And there arose a new Iceland of similar colour, which little by
little took a more definite form, and none the less was purely
illusive, its gigantic mountains merely a condensation of mists. The
sun, sinking low, seemed incapable of ever rising over all things,
though glowing through this phantom island so tangible that it seemed
placed in front of it. Incomprehensible sight! no longer was it
surrounded by a halo, but its disc had become firmly spread, rather
like some faded yellow planet slowly decaying and suddenly checked
there in the heart of chaos.
The cruiser, which had stopped, was fully surrounded by the fleet of
Icelanders. From all boats were lowered, like so many nut-shells, and
conveyed their strong, long-bearded men, in barbaric-looking dresses,
to the steamer.
Like children, all had something to beg for; remedies for petty
ailments, materials for repairs, change of diet, and home letters.
Others came, sent by their captains, to be clapped in irons, to
expiate some fault; as they had all been in the navy, they took this
as a matter of course. When the narrow deck of the cruiser was
blocked-up by four or five of these hulking fellows, stretched out
with the bilboes round their feet, the old sailor who had just chained
them up called out to them, "Roll o' one side, my lads, to let us
work, d'ye hear?" which they obediently did with a grin.
There were a great many letters this time for the Iceland fleet. Among
the rest, two for "/La Marie/, Captain Guermeur"; one addressed to
"Monsieur Gaos, Yann," the other to "Monsieur Moan, Sylvestre." The
latter had come by way of Rykavyk, where the cruiser had taken it on.
The purser, diving into his post-bags of sailcloth, distributed them
all round, often finding it hard to read the addresses, which were not
always written very skilfully, while the captain kept on saying: "Look
alive there, look alive! the barometer is falling."
He was rather anxious to see all the tiny yawls afloat, and so many
vessels assembled in that dangerous region.
Yann and Sylvestre used to read their letters together. This time they
read them by the light of the midnight sun, shining above the horizon,
still like a dead luminary. Sitting together, a little to one side, in
a retired nook of the deck, their arms about each other's shoulders,
they very slowly read, as if to enjoy more thoroughly the news sent
them from home.
In Yann's letter Sylvestre got news of Marie Gaos, his little
sweetheart; in Sylvestre's, Yann read all Granny Moan's funny stories,
for she had not her like for amusing the absent ones you will
remember; and the last paragraph concerning him came up: the "word of
greeting to young Gaos."
When the letters were got through, Sylvestre timidly showed his to his
big friend, to try and make him admire the writing of it.
"Look, is it not pretty writing, Yann?"
But Yann, who knew very well whose hand had traced it, turned aside,
shrugging his shoulders, as much as to say that he was worried too
often about this Gaud girl.
So Sylvestre carefully folded up the poor, rejected paper, put it into
its envelope and all in his jersey, next his breast, saying to himself
sadly: "For sure, they'll never marry. But what on earth can he have
to say against her?"
Midnight was struck on the cruiser's bell. And yet our couple remained
sitting there, thinking of home, the absent ones, a thousand things in
reverie. At this same moment the everlasting sun, which had dipped its
lower edge into the waters, began slowly to reascend, and lo! this was
IN THE BRETON LAND
THE PLAYTHING OF THE STORM
The Northern sun had taken another aspect and changed its colour,
opening the new day by a sinister morn. Completely free from its veil,
it gave forth its grand rays, crossing the sky in fitful flashes,
foretelling nasty weather. During the past few days it had been too
fine to last. The winds blew upon that swarm of boats, as if to clear
the sea of them; and they began to disperse and flee, like an army put
to rout, before the warning written in the air, beyond possibility to
misread. Harder and harder it blew, making men and ships quake alike.
And the still tiny waves began to run one after another and to melt
together; at first they were frosted over with white foam spread out
in patches; and then, with a whizzing sound, arose smoke as though
they burned and scorched, and the whistling grew louder every moment.
Fish-catching was no longer thought of; it was their work on deck. The
fishing lines had been drawn in, and all hurried to make sail and some
to seek for shelter in the fjords, while yet others preferred to round
the southern point of Iceland, finding it safer to stand for the open
sea, with the free space about them, and run before the stern wind.
They could still see each other a while: here and there, above the
trough of the sea, sails wagged as poor wearied birds fleeing; the
masts tipped, but ever and anon righted, like the weighted pith
figures that similarly resume an erect attitude when released after
being blown down.
The illimitable cloudy roof, erstwhile compacted towards the western
horizon, in an island form, began to break up on high and send its
fragments over the surface. It seemed indestructible, for vainly did
the winds stretch it, pull and toss it asunder, continually tearing
away dark strips, which they waved over the pale yellow sky, gradually
becoming intensely and icily livid. Ever more strongly grew the wind
that threw all things in turmoil.
The cruiser had departed for shelter at Iceland; some fishers alone
remained upon the seething sea, which now took an ill-boding look and
a dreadful colour. All hastily made preparations for bad weather.
Between one and another the distance grew greater, till some were lost
The waves, curling up in scrolls, continued to run after each other,
to reassemble and climb on one another, and between them the hollows
In a few hours, everything was belaboured and overthrown in these
regions that had been so calm the day before, and instead of the past
silence, the uproar was deafening. The present agitation was a
dissolving view, unconscientious and useless, and quickly
accomplished. What was the object of it all? What a mystery of blind
destruction it was!
The clouds continued to stream out on high, out of the west
continually, racing and darkening all. A few yellow clefts remained,
through which the sun shot its rays in volleys. And the now greenish
water was striped more thickly with snowy froth.
By midday the /Marie/ was made completely snug for dirty weather: her
hatches battened down, and her sails storm-reefed; she bounded lightly
and elastic; for all the horrid confusion, she seemed to be playing
like the porpoises, also amused in storms. With her foresail taken in,
she simply scudded before the wind.
It had become quite dark overhead, where stretched the heavily
crushing vault. Studded with shapeless gloomy spots, it appeared a set
dome, unless a steadier gaze ascertained that everything was in the
full rush of motion; endless gray veils were drawn along, unceasingly
followed by others, from the profundities of the sky-line--draperies
of darkness, pulled from a never-ending roll.
The /Marie/ fled faster and faster before the wind; and time fled also
--before some invisible and mysterious power. The gale, the sea, the
/Marie/, and the clouds were all lashed into one great madness of
hasty flight towards the same point. The fastest of all was the wind;
then the huge seething billows, heavier and slower, toiling after;
and, lastly, the smack, dragged into the general whirl. The waves
tracked her down with their white crests, tumbling onward in continual
motion, and she--though always being caught up to and outrun--still
managed to elude them by means of the eddying waters she spurned in
her wake, upon which they vented their fury. In this similitude of
flight the sensation particularly experienced was of buoyancy, the
delight of being carried along without effort or trouble, in a springy
sort of way. The /Marie/ mounted over the waves without any shaking,
as if the wind had lifted her clean up; and her subsequent descent was
a slide. She almost slid backward, though, at times, the mountains
lowering before her as if continuing to run, and then she suddenly
found herself dropped into one of the measureless hollows that evaded
her also; without injury she sounded its horrible depths, amid a loud
splashing of water, which did not even sprinkle her decks, but was
blown on and on like everything else, evaporating in finer and finer
spray until it was thinned away to nothing. In the trough it was
darker, and when each wave had passed the men looked behind them to
see if the next to appear were higher; it came upon them with furious
contortions, and curling crests, over its transparent emerald body,
seeming to shriek: "Only let me catch you, and I'll swallow you
But this never came to pass, for, as a feather, the billows softly
bore them up and then down so gently; they felt it pass under them,
with all its boiling surf and thunderous roar. And so on continually,
but the sea getting heavier and heavier. One after another rushed the
waves, more and more gigantic, like a long chain of mountains, with
yawning valleys. And the madness of all this movement, under the ever-
darkening sky, accelerated the height of the intolerable clamour.
Yann and Sylvestre stood at the helm, still singing, "Jean Francois de
Nantes"; intoxicated with the quiver of speed, they sang out loudly,
laughing at their inability to hear themselves in this prodigious
wrath of the wind.
"I say, lads, does it smell musty up here too?" called out Guermeur to
them, passing his bearded face up through the half-open hatchway, like
Oh, no! it certainly did not smell musty on deck. They were not at all
frightened, being quite conscious of what men can cope with, having
faith in the strength of their barkey and their arms. And they
furthermore relied upon the protection of that china Virgin, which had
voyaged forty years to Iceland, and so often had danced the dance of
this day, smiling perpetually between her branches of artificial
Generally speaking, they could not see far around them; a few hundred
yards off, all seemed entombed in the fearfully big billows, with
their frothing crests shutting out the view. They felt as if in an
enclosure, continually altering shape; and, besides, all things seemed
drowned in the aqueous smoke, which fled before them like a cloud with
the greatest rapidity over the heaving surface. But from time to time
a gleam of sunlight pierced through the north-west sky, through which
a squall threatened; a shuddering light would appear from above, a
rather spun-out dimness, making the dome of the heavens denser than
before, and feebly lighting up the surge. This new light was sad to
behold; far-off glimpses as they were, that gave too strong an
understanding that the same chaos and the same fury lay on all sides,
even far, far behind the seemingly void horizon; there was no limit to
its expanse of storm, and they stood alone in its midst!
A tremendous tumult arose all about, like the prelude of an
apocalypse, spreading the terror of the ultimate end of the earth. And
amidst it thousands of voices could be heard above, shrieking,
bellowing, calling, as from a great distance. It was only the wind,
the great motive breath of all this disorder, the voice of the
invisible power ruling all. Then came other voices, nearer and less
indefinite, threatening destruction, and making the water shudder and
hiss as if on burning coals; the disturbance increased in terror.
Notwithstanding their flight, the sea began to gain on them, to "bury
them up," as they phrased it: first the spray fell down on them from
behind, and masses of water thrown with such violence as to break
everything in their course. The waves were ever increasing, and the
tempest tore off their ridges and hurled them, too, upon the poop,
like a demon's game of snowballing, till dashed to atoms on the
bulwarks. Heavier masses fell on the planks with a hammering sound,
till the /Marie/ shivered throughout, as if in pain. Nothing could be
distinguished over the side, because of the screen of creamy foam; and
when the winds soughed more loudly, this foam formed into whirling
spouts, like the dust of the way in summer time. At length a heavy
rain fell crossways, and soon straight up and down, and how all these
elements of destruction yelled together, clashed and interlocked, no
tongue can tell.
Yann and Sylvestre stuck staunchly to the helm, covered with their
waterproofs, hard and shiny as sharkskin; they had firmly secured them
at the throat by tarred strings, and likewise at wrists and ankles to
prevent the water from running in, and the rain only poured off them;
when it fell too heavily, they arched their backs, and held all the
more stoutly, not to be thrown over the board. Their cheeks burned,
and every minute their breath was beaten out or stopped.
After each sea was shipped and rushed over, they exchanged glances,
grinning at the crust of salt settled in their beards.
In the long run though, this became tiresome, an unceasing fury, which
always promised a worse visitation. The fury of men and beasts soon
falls and dies away; but the fury of lifeless things, without cause or
object, is as mysterious as life and death, and has to be borne for
"Jean Francois de Nantes;
Through their pale lips still came the refrain of the old song, but as
from a speaking automaton, unconsciously taken up from time to time.
The excess of motion and uproar had made them dumb, and despite their
youth their smiles were insincere, and their teeth chattered with
cold; their eyes, half-closed under their raw, throbbing eyelids,
remained glazed in terror. Lashed to the helm, like marble caryatides,