Part 2 out of 4
they only moved their numbed blue hands, almost without thinking, by
sheer muscular habit. With their hair streaming and mouths contracted,
they had become changed, all the primitive wildness in man appearing
again. They could not see one another truly, but still were aware of
being companioned. In the instants of greatest danger, each time that
a fresh mountain of water rose behind them, came to overtower them,
and crash horribly against their boat, one of their hands would move
as if involuntarily, to form the sign of the cross. They no more
thought of Gaud than of any other woman, or any marrying. The travail
was lasting too long, and they had no thoughts left. The intoxication
of noise, cold, and fatigue drowned all in their brain. They were
merely two pillars of stiffened human flesh, held up by the helm; two
strong beasts, cowering, but determined they would not be overwhelmed.
A PARDONABLE RUSE
In Brittany, towards the end of September, on an already chilly day,
Gaud was walking alone across the common of Ploubazlanec, in the
direction of Pors-Even.
The Icelanders had returned a month back, except two, which had
perished in that June gale. But the /Marie/ had held her own, and Yann
and all her crew were peacefully at home.
Gaud felt very troubled at the idea of going to Yann's house. She had
seen him once since the return from Iceland, when they had all gone
together to see poor little Sylvestre off to the navy. They
accompanied him to the coaching-house, he blubbering a little and his
grandmother weeping, and he had started to join the fleet at Brest.
Yann, who had come also to bid good-bye to his little friend, had
feigned to look aside when Gaud looked at him, and as there were many
people round the coach to see the other sailors off, and parents
assembled to say good-bye, the pair had not a chance to speak. So, at
last, she had formed a strong resolution, and rather timidly wended
her way towards the Gaos's home.
Her father had formerly had mutual interests with Yann's father
(complicated business, which, with peasants and fishers alike, seems
to be endless), and owed him a hundred francs for the sale of a boat,
which had just taken place in a raffle.
"You ought to let me carry the money to him, father," she had said. "I
shall be pleased to see Marie Gaos. I never have been so far in
Ploubazlanec, either, and I shall enjoy the long walk."
To speak the truth, she was curiously anxious to know Yann's family,
which she might some day enter; and she also wanted to see the house
In one of their last chats, before his departure, Sylvestre had
explained to her, in his own way, his friend's shyness.
"D'ye see, Gaud, he's like this, he won't marry anybody, that's his
idea; he only loves the sea, and one day even, in fun, he said he had
promised to be wedded to it."
Whereupon, she forgave him all his peculiar ways, and remembered only
his beautiful open smile on the night of the ball, and she hoped on
If she were to meet him in his home, of course she would say nothing;
she had no intention of being so bold. But if he saw her closely
again, perhaps he might speak.
OF SINISTER PORTENT
She had been walking for the last hour, lightly yet oppressed,
inhaling the healthy open breeze whistling up the roads to where they
crossed and /Calvaires/ were erected, ghastly highway ornaments of our
Saviour on His cross, to which Bretons are given.
From time to time she passed through small fishing villages, which are
beaten about by the winds the whole year through till of the colour of
the rocks. In one of these hamlets, where the path narrows suddenly
between dark walls, and between the whitewashed roofs, high and
pointed like Celtic huts, a tavern sign-board made her smile. It was
"The Chinese Cider Cellars." On it were painted two grotesque figures,
dressed in green and pink robes, with pigtails, drinking cider. No
doubt the whim of some old sailor who had been in China. She saw all
on her way; people who are greatly engrossed in the object of a
journey always find more amusement than others in its thousand
The tiny village was far behind her now, and as she advanced in this
last promontory of the Breton land, the trees around her became more
scarce, and the country more mournful.
The ground was undulating and rocky, and from all the heights the open
sea could be seen. No more trees now; nothing but the shorn heaths
with their green reeds, and here and there the consecrated crosses
rose, their outstretched arms outlined against the sky, giving the
whole country the aspect of a cemetery.
At one of the cross-ways, guarded by a colossal image of Christ, she
hesitated between two roads running among thorny slopes.
A child happening to pass, came to her rescue: "Good-day, Mademoiselle
It was one of the little Gaoses, one of Yann's wee sisters. Gaud
kissed her and asked her if her parents were at home.
"Father and mother are, yes. But brother Yann," said the little one,
without intent, of course, "has gone to Loguivy; but I don't think
he'll be very late home again."
So he was not there? Again destiny was between them, everywhere and
always. She thought at first of putting off her visit to another day.
But the little lass who had met her might mention the fact. What would
they think at Pors-Even? So she decided to go on, but loitering so as
to give Yann time to return.
As she neared his village, in this lost country, all things seemed
rougher and more desolate. Sea breezes that made men stronger, made
shorter and more stubbly plants. Seaweeds of all kinds were scattered
over the paths, leaves from growths in another element, proving the
existence of a neighbouring world; their briny odour mingled with the
perfume of the heather.
Now and again Gaud met passers-by, sea-folk, who could be seen a long
way off, over the bare country, outlined and magnified against the
high sea-line. Pilots or fishers, seeming to watch the great sea, in
passing her wished her good-day. Broad sun-burnt faces were theirs,
manly and determined under their easy caps.
Time did not go quickly enough, and she really did not know what to do
to lengthen the way; these people seemed surprised at seeing her walk
What could Yann be doing at Loguivy? Courting the girls, perhaps.
Ah! if she only had known how little he troubled his head about them!
He had simply gone to Loguivy to give an order to a basket-maker, who
was the only one in the country knowing how to weave lobster pots. His
mind was very free from love just now.
She passed a chapel, at such a height it could be seen remotely. It
was a little gray old chapel in the midst of the barren. A clump of
trees, gray too, and almost leafless, seemed like hair to it, pushed
by some invisible hand all on one side.
It was that same hand that had wrecked the fishers' boats, the eternal
hand of the western winds, and had twisted all the branches of the
coast trees in the direction of the waves and of the off-sea breezes.
The old trees had grown awry and dishevelled, bending their backs
under the time-honoured strength of that hand.
Gaud was almost at the end of her walk, as the chapel in sight was
that of Pors-Even; so she stopped there to win a little more time.
A petty mouldering wall ran round an enclosure containing tombstones.
Everything was of the same colour, chapel, trees, and graves; the
whole spot seemed faded and eaten into by the sea-wind; the stones,
the knotty branches, and the granite saints, placed in the wall
niches, were covered by the same grayish lichen, splashed pale yellow.
On one of the wooden crosses this name was written in large letters:
"GAOS.--GAOS, JOEL, 80 years."
Yes, this was the old grandfather--she knew that--for the sea had not
wanted this old sailor. And many of Yann's relatives, besides, slept
here; it was only natural, and she might have expected it;
nevertheless, the name upon the tomb had made a sad impression.
To waste a little more time, she entered to say a prayer under the old
cramped porch, worn away and daubed over with whitewash. But she
stopped again with a sharp pain at her heart. "Gaos"--again that name,
engraved upon one of the slabs erected in memory of those who die at
She read this inscription:
"To the Memory of
Aged 24 years; seaman on board the /Marguerite/.
Disappeared off Iceland, August 3d, 1877.
May he rest in peace!"
Iceland--always Iceland! All over the porch were wooden slabs bearing
the names of dead sailors. It was the place reserved for the
shipwrecked of Pors-Even. Filled with a dark foreboding she was sorry
to have gone there.
In Paimpol church she had seen many such inscriptions; but in this
village the empty tomb of the Iceland fishers seemed more sad because
so lone and humble. On each side of the doorway was a granite seat for
the widows and mothers; and this shady spot, irregularly shaped like a
grotto, was guarded by an old image of the Virgin, coloured red, with
large staring eyes, looking most like Cybele--the first goddess of the
"To the Memory of
Husband of Anne-Marie le Goaster,
Captain on board the /Paimpolais/,
Lost off Iceland, between the 1st and 3d of May, 1877,
With the twenty-three men of his crew.
May they rest in peace!"
And, lower down, were two cross-bones under a black skull with green
eyes, a simple but ghastly emblem, reminding one of all the barbarism
of a bygone age.
"Gaos, Gaos!" The name was everywhere. As she read, thrills of sweet
tenderness came over her for this Yann of her choice, damped by a
feeling of hopelessness. Nay, he would never be hers! How could she
tear him from the sea where so many other Gaoses had gone down,
ancestors and brothers, who must have loved the sea like he! She
entered the chapel. It was almost dark, badly lit by low windows with
heavy frames. And there, her heart full of tears that would better
have fallen, she knelt to pray before the colossal saints, surrounded
by common flowers, touching the vaulted roof with their massive heads.
Outside, the rising wind began to sob as if it brought the death-gasps
of the drowned men back to their Fatherland.
Night drew near; she rose and went on her way. After having asked in
the village, she found the home of the Gaos family, which was built up
against a high cliff. A dozen granite steps led up to it. Trembling a
little at the thought that Yann might have returned, she crossed the
small garden where chrysanthemums and veronicas grew.
When she was indoors, she explained she had come to bring the money
for the boat, and they very politely asked her to sit down, to await
the father's return, as he was the one to sign the receipt for her.
Amidst all, her eyes searched for Yann--but did not see him.
They were very busy in the home. Already they were cutting out the new
waterproof cloth on the clean white table, and getting it ready for
the approaching Iceland season.
"You see, Mademoiselle Gaud, it's like this: every man wants two new
They explained to her how they set to work to make them, and to render
their seams waterproof with tar, for they were for wet weather wear.
And while they worked, Gaud looked attentively around the home of
It was furnished after the traditional manner of all Breton cottages;
an immense chimney-place took up one whole end, and on the sides of
the walls the Breton beds, bunks, as on shipboard, were placed one
above another. But it was not so sombre and sad as the cabins of other
peasants, which are generally half-hidden by the wayside; it was all
fresh and clean, as the homes of seamen usually are. Several little
Gaoses were there, girls and boys, all sisters and brothers of Yann;
without counting two big ones, who were already out at sea. And,
besides, there was a little fair girl, neat, but sad, unlike the
"We adopted her last year," explained the mother; "we had enough
children as it was, of course, but what else could we do, Mademoiselle
Gaud, for her daddy belonged to the /Maria-Dieu-t'aime/, lost last
season off Iceland, as you know; so the neighbours divided the little
ones between them, and this one fell to our lot."
Hearing herself spoken of, the adopted child hung her pretty head and
smiled, hiding herself behind little Laumec Gaos, her favourite.
There was a look of comfort all over the place, and radiant health
bloomed on all the children's rosy cheeks.
They received Gaud very profusely, like a great lady whose visit was
an honour to the family. She was taken upstairs, up a newly-built
wooden staircase, to see the room above, which was the glory of the
home. She remembered the history of its construction; it was after the
finding of a derelict vessel in the channel, which luck had befallen
Yann's father and his cousin the pilot.
The room was very gay and pretty in its whiteness; there were two town
beds in it, with pink chintz curtains, and a large table in the
middle. Through the window the whole of Paimpol could be seen, with
the Icelanders at anchor off shore, and the channel through which they
She did not dare question, but she would have liked to have known
where Yann slept; probably as a child he had slept downstairs in one
of the antique cupboard-beds. But perhaps now he slept under those
pink draperies. She would have loved to have known all the details of
his life, especially what he did in the long winter evenings.
A heavy footstep on the stairs made her tremble. But it was not Yann,
though a man much like him; notwithstanding his white hair, as tall
and as straight. It was old father Gaos returning from fishing.
After he had saluted her and asked her the object of her visit, he
signed her receipt for her which was rather a long operation, as his
hand was not very steady, he explained.
But he would not accept the hundred francs as a final payment, but
only as an instalment; he would speak to M. Mevel again about it.
Whereupon Gaud, to whom money was nothing, smiled imperceptibly; she
had fancied the business was not quite terminated, and this just
They made something like excuses for Yann's absence; as if they found
it more orthodox for the whole family to assemble to receive her.
Perhaps the father had guessed, with the shrewdness of an old salt,
that his son was not indifferent to this beautiful heiress; for he
rather insisted upon talking about him.
"It's very queer," said he, "the boy's never so late out. He went over
to Loguivy, Mademoiselle Gaud, to buy some lobster baskets; as you
know, lobster-catching is our main winter fishery."
She dreamily lengthened out her call, although conscious that it was
too long already, and feeling a tug at her heart at the idea that she
would not see him after all.
"A well-conducted young man like Yann--what can he be doing? Surely
he's not at the inn. We don't fear that for our lad. I don't say that
now and then, of a Sunday, with his mates---- You know, Mademoiselle
Gaud, what them sailors are. Eh! ye know, he's but a young chap, and
must have some liberty now and again. But it's very rare with him to
break out, for he's a straight-goer; we can say that."
But night was falling, and the work had been folded up. The little
ones on the benches around drew closer to one another, saddened by the
grey dismal gloaming, and eyed Gaud hard, seeming to say--
"Why doesn't she go now?"
On the hearth, the flames burned redder in the midst of the falling
"You ought to stay and have a bit o' supper with us, Mademoiselle
"Oh, no! I couldn't think of it!" The blood rushed to her face at the
idea of having remained so late. She got up and took her leave.
Yann's father also rose to accompany her part of the way, anyhow as
far as a lonely nook where the old trees make a dark lane.
As they walked along together, she felt a sudden sympathy of respect
and tenderness towards him; she would have liked to have spoken as to
a father in the sudden gushes of feeling that came over her; but the
words were stifled in her throat, and she said not a word.
And so they went their way, in the cold evening wind, full of the
odour of the sea, passing here and there, on the barren heath, some
poor hovels, where beach-combers dwelt and had already sealed
themselves up for the night; dark and neglected they looked under the
weather-beaten roofs; these crosses, clumps of reeds, and boulders
they left behind.
What a great way off Pors-Even was, and what a time she had remained!
Now and then they met folks returning from Paimpol or Loguivy; and as
she watched the shadows approach, each time she thought it was Yann;
but it was easy to recognise him at a good distance off, and so she
was quickly undeceived. Every moment her feet caught in the brown
trailing plants, tangled like hair, which were sea-weeds littering the
At the Cross of Plouezoc'h she bade good-bye to the old man, and
begged him to return. The lights of Paimpol were already in view, and
there was no more occasion to be afraid.
So hope was over for this time. Who could tell her when she might see
An excuse to return to Pors-Even would have been easy; but it would
really look too bad to begin her quest all over again. She would have
to be braver and prouder than that. If only her little confidant
Sylvestre had been there, she might have asked him to go and fetch
Yann, so that there could be some explanation. But he was gone now,
and for how many years?
"Me get married?" said Yann to his parents that same evening. "Me get
married? Good heavens, why should I? Shall I ever be as happy as here
with ye? no troubles, no tiffs with any one, and warm soup ready for
me every night when I come home from sea. Oh! I quite understand that
you mean the girl that came here to-day, but what's such a rich girl
to do with us? 'Tisn't clear to my thinking. And it'll be neither her,
nor any other. It's all settled, I won't marry--it ain't to my
The two old Gaoses looked at one another in silence, deeply
disappointed, for, after having talked it over together, they were
pretty well sure that this young lady would not refuse their handsome
Yann. But they did not try to argue, knowing how useless that would
be. The mother lowered her head, and said no more; she respected the
will of her son, her eldest born, who was all but the head of the
family; although he was always tender and gentle with her, more
obedient than a child in the petty things of life, he long ago had
been her absolute master for the great ones, eluding all restraint
with a quiet though savage independence. He never sat up late, being
in the habit, like other fishermen, of rising before break of day. And
after supper at eight o'clock, he had given another satisfactory look
to his baskets and new nets from Loguivy, and began to undress--calm
to all appearances, and went up to sleep in the pink-curtained bed,
which he shared with his little brother Laumec.
SAILORS AT THE PLAY
For the last fortnight Gaud's little confidant, Sylvestre, had been
quartered in Brest; very much out of his element, but very quiet and
obedient to discipline. He wore his open blue sailor-collar and red-
balled, flat, woollen cap, with a frank, fearless look, and was noble
and dignified in his sailor garb, with his free step and tall figure,
but at the bottom of his heart he was still the same innocent boy as
ever, and thinking of his dear old grandam.
One evening he had got tipsy together with some lads from his parts,
simply because it is the custom; and they had all returned to the
barracks together arm-in-arm, singing out as lustily as they could.
And one Sunday, too, they had all gone to the theatre, in the upper
galleries. A melodrama was being played, and the sailors, exasperated
against the villain, greeted him with a howl, which they all roared
together, like a blast of the Atlantic cyclones.
ORDERED ON FOREIGN SERVICE
One day Sylvestre was summoned before the officer of his company; and
they told him he was among those ordered out to China--in the squadron
for Formosa. He had been pretty well expecting it for some time, as he
had heard those who read the papers say that out there the war seemed
And because of the urgency of the departure, he was informed at the
same time that he would not be able to have the customary leave for
his home farewells; in five days' time he would have to pack up and be
Then a bitter pain came over him; though charmed at the idea of far-
off travels amid the unknown and of the war. There also was agony at
the thought of leaving all he knew and loved, with the vague
apprehension that he might never more return.
A thousand noises rang in his head. Around was the bustle of the
barrack-rooms, where hundreds of others were called up, like himself,
chosen for the Chinese squadron. And rapidly he wrote to his old
grandmother, with a stump of pencil, crouching on the floor, alone in
his own feverish dream, though in the thick of the continual hurry and
hubbub amidst all the young sailors hurried away like himself.
"His sweetheart's a trifle old!" said the others, a couple of days
later, as they laughed after Sylvestre and his grandmother, "but they
seem to get on fine together all the same."
It amused them to see the boy, for the first time, walk through the
streets of Recouvrance, with a woman at his side, like the rest of
them; and, bending towards her with a tender look, whisper what seemed
to be very soft nothings.
She was a very quick, diminutive person seen from behind, with rather
short skirts for the fashion of the day; and a scanty brown shawl, and
a high Paimpol /coiffe/. She, too, hanging on his arm, turned towards
him with an affectionate glance.
"A trifle old was his sweetheart!"
That's what the others called after him, we say, but without spite,
for any one could see that she was his old granny, come up from the
country. She had come, too, in a hurry, suddenly terrified at the news
of his sudden departure; for this Chinese war had already cost Paimpol
many sailors. So she had scraped together all her poor little savings,
put her best Sunday dress and a fresh clean /coiffe/ in a box, and had
set out to kiss him once again.
She had gone straight to the barracks to ask for him; at first his
adjutant had refused to let him go out.
"If you've anything to say, my good woman, go and speak to the captain
yourself. There he is, passing."
So she calmly walked up to him, and he allowed himself to be won over.
"Send Moan to change his clothes, to go out," said he.
All in hot haste Moan had gone to rig up in his best attire, while the
good old lady, to make him laugh, of course, made a most inimitably
droll face and a mock curtsey at the adjutant behind his back.
But when the grandson appeared in his full uniform, with the
inevitable turned-down collar, leaving his throat bare, she was quite
struck with his beauty; his black beard was cut into a seamanly
fashionable point by the barber, and his cap was decked out with long
floating ribbons, with a golden anchor at each end. For the moment she
almost saw in him her son Pierre, who, twenty years before, had also
been a sailor in the navy, and the remembrance of the far past, with
all its dead, stealthily shadowed the present hour.
But the sadness soon passed away. Arm-in-arm they strolled on, happy
to be together; and it was then that the others had pretended to see
in her his sweetheart, and voted her "a trifle old."
She had taken him, for a treat, to dine in an inn kept by some people
from Paimpol, which had been recommended to her as rather cheap. And
then, still arm-in-arm, they had sauntered through Brest, looking at
the shop-windows. There never were such funny stories told as those
she told her grandson to make him laugh; of course all in Paimpol
Breton, so that the passers-by might not understand.
OLD AND YOUNG
She stayed three days with him, three happy days, though over them
hung a dark and ominous forecast; one might as well call them three
days of respite.
At last she was forced to return to Ploubazlanec, for she had come to
the end of her little savings, and Sylvestre was to embark the day
afterward. The sailors are always inexorably kept in barracks the day
before foreign cruises (a custom that seems rather barbarous at first,
but which is a necessary precaution against the "flings" they would
have before leaving definitely).
Oh that last day! She had done her very best to hatch up some more
funny stories in her head, to tell her boy just at the parting; but
she had remembered nothing--no; only tears had welled up, and at every
moment sobs choked her. Hanging on his arm, she reminded him of a
thousand things he was not to forget to do, and he also tried hard to
repress his tears. They had ended by going into a church to say their
It was by the night train that she went. To save a few pence, they had
gone on foot to the station; he carrying her box, and holding her on
his strong arm, upon which she weighed heavily.
She was so very, very tired--poor old lady! She had scarcely any
strength left after the exertion of the last three or four days. Her
shoulders were bent under her brown shawl, and she had no force to
bear herself up; her youngish look was gone, and she felt the weight
of her seventy-six years.
Oh! how her heart ached at the thought that it was all over, and that
in a few moments she must leave him! Was he really to go out so far,
to China, perhaps to slaughter. She still had him there with her,
quite close, her poor hands could yet grasp him--and yet he must go;
all the strength of her will, all her tears, and all her great
heartrending despair--all! would nothing be of avail to keep him back?
With her ticket, and her lunch-basket, and her mittens in her grasp,
agitated, she gave him her last blessing and advice, and he answered
her with an obedient "Ay, ay," bending his head tenderly towards her
and gazing lovingly at her, in his soft childish way.
"Now then, old lady, you must make up your mind plaguey quick if you
want to go by this train!"
The engine whistled. Suddenly terrified at the idea of losing the
train, she bore her box from Sylvestre's grasp, and flinging it down,
threw her arms round his neck in a last and supreme embrace.
Many people on the platform stared at them, but not one smiled.
Hustled about by the porters, worn out and full of pain, she pressed
into the first carriage near; the door was banged quickly upon her,
while Sylvestre, with all the speed of a young sailor, rushed out of
the station to the rails beside the line to see the train pass.
A shrill screeching whistle, a noisy grinding of the wheels, and his
grandmother passed away, leaving him leaning against the gate and
swinging up his cap with its flying ribbons, while she, hanging out of
the window of her third-class carriage, made an answering signal with
her handkerchief; and for as long as she could see the dark blue-clad
figure, that was her child, followed him with her eyes, throwing her
whole soul into that "good-bye!" kept back to the last, and always
uncertain of realization when sailors are concerned.
Look long at your little Sylvestre, poor old woman; until the very
latest moment, do not lose sight of his fleeting shadow, which is
fading away for ever.
When she could see him no longer, she fell back, completely crushing
her still clean unrumpled cap, weeping and sobbing in the agony of
He had turned away slowly, with his head bent, and big tears falling
down his cheeks. The autumn night had closed in; everywhere the gas
was flaring, and the sailors' riotous feasts had begun anew. Paying no
heed to anything about him, he passed through Brest and over the
Recouvrance Bridge, to the barracks.
"Whist! here, you darling boy!" called out some nocturnal prowlers to
him; but he passed on, and entering the barracks, flung himself down
in his hammock, weeping, all alone, and hardly sleeping until dawn.
THE EASTERN VOYAGE
Sylvestre was soon out on the ocean, rapidly whisked away over the
unknown seas, far more blue than Iceland's. The ship that carried him
off to the confines of Asia was ordered to go at full speed and stop
nowhere. Ere long he felt that he was far away, for the speed was
unceasing, and even without a care for the sea or the wind. As he was
a topman, he lived perched aloft, like a bird, avoiding the soldiers
crowded upon the deck.
Twice they stopped, however, on the coast of Tunis, to take up more
Zouaves and mules; from afar he had perceived the white cities amid
sands and arid hills. He had even come down from his top to look at
the dark-brown men draped in their white robes who came off in small
boats to peddle fruit; his mates told him that these were Bedouins.
The heat and the sun, which were unlessened by the autumn season, made
him feel out of his element.
One day they touched at Port Said. All the flags of Europe waved
overhead from long staves, which gave it an aspect of Babel on a
feast-day, and the glistening sands surrounded the town like a moving
They had stopped there, touching the quays, almost in the midst of the
long streets full of wooden shanties. Since his departure, Sylvestre
never had seen the outside world so closely, and the movement and
numbers of boats excited and amused him.
With never-ending screeching from their escape-pipes, all these boats
crowded up in the long canal, as narrow as a ditch, which wound itself
in a silvery line through the infinite sands. From his post on high he
could see them as in a procession under a window, till disappearing in
On the canal all kinds of costumes could be seen; men in many-coloured
attire, busy and shouting like thunder. And at night the clamour of
confused bands of music mingled with the diabolical screams of the
locomotives, playing noisy tunes, as if to drown the heart-breaking
sorrow of the exiles who for ever passed onward.
The next day, at sunrise, they, too, glided into the narrow ribbon of
water between the sands. For two days the steaming in the long file
through the desert lasted, then another sea opened before them, and
they were once again upon the open. They still ran at full speed
through this warmer expanse, stained like red marble, with their
boiling wake like blood. Sylvestre remained all the time up in his
top, where he would hum his old song of "Jean-Francois de Nantes," to
remind him of his dear brother Yann, of Iceland, and the good old
Sometimes, in the depths of the shadowy distance, some wonderfully
tinted mountain would arise. Notwithstanding the distance and the
dimness around, the names of those projected capes of countries
appeared as the eternal landmarks on the great roadways of the earth
to the steersmen of this vessel; but a topman is carried on like an
inanimate thing, knowing nothing, and unconscious of the distance over
the everlasting, endless waves.
All he felt was a terrible estrangement from the things of this world,
which grew greater and greater; and the feeling was very defined and
exact as he looked upon the seething foam behind, and tried to
remember how long had lasted this pace that never slackened night or
day. Down on deck, the crowd of men, huddled together in the shadow of
the awnings, panted with weariness. The water and the air, even the
very light above, had a dull, crushing splendour; and the fadeless
glory of those elements were as a very mockery of the human beings
whose physical lives are so ephemeral.
Once, up in his crow's nest, he was gladdened by the sight of flocks
of tiny birds, of an unknown species, which fell upon the ship like a
whirlwind of coal dust. They allowed themselves to be taken and
stroked, being worn out with fatigue. All the sailors had them as pets
upon their shoulders. But soon the most exhausted among them began to
die, and before long they died by thousands on the rigging, yards,
ports, and sails--poor little things!--under the blasting sun of the
Red Sea. They had come to destruction, off the Great Desert, fleeing
before a sandstorm. And through fear of falling into the blue waters
that stretched on all sides, they had ended their last feeble flight
upon the passing ship. Over yonder, in some distant region of Libya,
they had been fledged in masses. Indeed, there were so many of them,
that their blind and unkind mother, Nature, had driven away before her
this surplus, as unmoved as if they had been superabundant men. On the
scorching funnels and ironwork of the ship they died away; the deck
was strewn with their puny forms, only yesterday so full of life,
songs, and love. Now, poor little black dots, Sylvestre and the others
picked them up, spreading out their delicate blue wings, with a look
of pity, and swept them overboard into the abysmal sea.
Next came hosts of locusts, the spawn of those conjured up by Moses,
and the ship was covered with them. At length, though, it surged on a
lifeless blue sea, where they saw no things around them, except from
time to time the flying fish skimming along the level water.
Rain in torrents, under a heavy black sky. This was India. Sylvestre
had just set foot upon land, chance selecting him to complete the crew
of a whale boat. He felt the warm shower upon him through the thick
foliage, and looked around, surprised at the novel sight. All was
magnificently green; the leaves of the trees waved like gigantic
feathers, and the people walking beneath them had large velvety eyes,
which seemed to close under the weight of their lashes. The very wind
that brought the rain had the odour of musk and flowers.
At a distance, dusky girls beckoned him to come to them. Some happy
strain they sang, like the "Whist! here, you darling boy!" so often
heard at Brest. But seductive as was their country, their call was
imperious and exasperating, making his very flesh shudder. Their
perfect bosoms rose and fell under transparent muslin, in which they
were solely draped; they were glowing and polished as in bronze
statues. Hesitating, fascinated by them, he wavered about, following
them; but the boatswain's sharp shrill whistle rent the air with bird-
like trills, summoning him hurriedly back to his boat, about to push
He took his flight, and bade farewell to India's beauties.
After a second week of the blue sea, they paused off another land of
dewy verdure. A crowd of yellow men appeared, yelling out and pressing
on deck, bringing coal in baskets.
"Already in China?" asked Sylvestre, at the sight of those grotesque
figures in pigtails.
"Bless you, no, not yet," they told him; "have a little more
It was only Singapore. He went up into his mast-top again, to avoid
the black dust tossed about by the breeze, while the coal was
feverishly heaped up in the bunkers from little baskets.
One day, at length, they arrived off a land called Tourane, where the
/Circe/ was anchored, to blockade the port. This was the ship to which
Sylvestre had been long ago assigned, and he was left there with his
On board he met with two mates from home, Icelanders, who were
captains of guns for the time being. Through the long, hot, still
evenings, when there was no work to be done, they clustered on deck
apart from the others, to form together a little Brittany of
Five months he passed there in inaction and exile, locked up in the
cheerless bay, with the feverish desire to go out and fight and slay,
for change's sake.
A CURIOUS RENCONTRE
In Paimpol again, on the last day of February, before the setting-out
for Iceland. Gaud was standing up against her room door, pale and
still. For Yann was below, chatting to her father. She had seen him
come in, and indistinctly heard his voice.
All through the winter they never had met, as if some invincible fate
always had kept them apart.
After the failure to find him in her walk to Pors-Even, she had placed
some hope on the /Pardon des Islandais/ where there would be many
chances for them to see and talk to one another, in the market-place
at dusk, among the crowd.
But on the very morning of the holiday, though the streets were
already draped in white and strewn with green garlands, a hard rain
had fallen in torrents, brought from the west by a soughing wind;
never had so black a sky shadowed Paimpol. "What a pity! the boys
won't come over from Ploubazlanec now," had moaned the lasses, whose
sweethearts dwelt there. And they did not come, or else had gone
straight into the taverns to drink together.
There had been no processions or strolls, and she, with her heart
aching more than ever, had remained at her window the whole evening
listening to the water streaming over the roofs, and the fishers'
noisy songs rising and falling out of the depths of the taverns.
For the last few days she had been expecting this visit, surmising
truly that old Gaos would send his son to terminate the business
concerning the sale of the boat, as he did not care to come into
Paimpol himself. She determined then that she would go straight to
him, and, unlike other girls, speak out frankly, to have her
conscience clear on the subject. She would reproach him with having
sought her out and having abandoned her like a man without honour. If
it were only stubbornness, timidity, his great love for his sailor-
life, or simply the fear of a refusal, as Sylvestre had hinted, why,
all these objections would disappear, after a frank, fair
understanding between them. His fond smile might return, which had
charmed and won her the winter before, and all would be settled. This
hope gave her strength and courage, and sweetened her impatience. From
afar, things always appear so easy and simple to say and to do.
This visit of Yann's fell by chance at a convenient hour. She was sure
that her father, who was sitting and smoking, would not get up to walk
part of the way with him; so in the empty passage she might have her
explanation out with him.
But now that the time had come, such boldness seemed extreme. The bare
idea of looking him face to face at the foot of those stairs, made her
tremble; and her heart beat as if it would break. At any moment the
door below might open, with the squeak she knew so well, to let him
"No, no, she never would dare; rather would she die of longing and
sorrow, than attempt such an act." She already made a few return steps
towards the back of her room, to regain her seat and work. But she
stopped again, hesitating and afraid, remembering that to-morrow was
the sailing day for Iceland, and that this occasion stood alone. If
she let it slip by, she would have to wait through months upon months
of solitude and despair, languishing for his return--losing another
whole summer of her life.
Below, the door opened--Yann was coming out!
Suddenly resolute, she rushed downstairs, and tremblingly stood before
"Monsieur Yann, I--I wish to speak to you, please."
"To me, Mademoiselle Gaud?" queried he, lowering his voice and
snatching off his hat.
He looked at her fiercely, with a hard expression in his flashing
eyes, and his head thrown back, seeming even to wonder if he ought to
stop for her at all. With one foot ready to start away, he stood
straight up against the wall, as if to be as far apart from her as
possible, in the narrow passage, where he felt imprisoned.
Paralyzed, she could remember nothing of what she had wished to say;
she had not thought he would try and pass on without listening to her.
What an affront!
"Does our house frighten you, Monsieur Yann?" she asked, in a dry, odd
tone--not at all the one she wished to use.
He turned his eyes away, looking outside; his cheeks blazed red, a
rush of blood burned all his face, and his quivering nostrils dilated
with every breath, keeping time with the heavings of his chest, like a
"The night of the ball," she tried to continue, "when we were
together, you bade me good-bye, not as a man speaks to an indifferent
person. Monsieur Yann, have you no memory? What have I done to vex
The nasty western breeze blowing in from the street ruffled his hair
and the frills of Gaud's /coiffe/, and behind them a door was banged
furiously. The passage was not meet for talking of serious matters in.
After these first phrases, choking, Gaud remained speechless, feeling
her head spin, and without ideas. They still advanced towards the
street door; he seemed so anxious to get away, and she was so
determined not to be shaken off.
Outside the wind blew noisily and the sky was black. A sad livid light
fell upon their faces through the open door. And an opposite neighbour
looked at them: what could the pair be saying to one another in that
passage together, looking so troubled? What was wrong over at the
"Nay, Mademoiselle Gaud," he answered at last, turning away with the
powerful grace of a young lion, "I've heard folks talk about us quite
enough already! Nay, Mademoiselle Gaud, for, you see, you are rich,
and we are not people of the same class. I am not the fellow to come
after a 'swell' lady."
He went forth on his way. So now all was over for ever and ever. She
had not even said what she wished in that interview, which had only
made her seem a very bold girl in his sight. What kind of a fellow was
this Yann, with his contempt for women, his scorn for money, and all
At first she remained fixed to the spot, sick with giddiness, as
things swam around her. One intolerably painful thought suddenly
struck her like a flash of lightning--Yann's comrades, the Icelanders,
were waiting for him below in the market-place. What if he were to
tell them this as a good joke--what a still more odious affront upon
her! She quickly returned to her room to watch them through her
Before the house, indeed, she saw the men assembled, but they were
simply contemplating the weather, which was becoming worse and worse,
and discussed the threatening rain.
"It'll only be a shower. Let's go in and drink away the time, till it
They poked jokes and laughed loudly over Jeannie Caroff and other
beauties; but not even one of them looked up at /her/ window. They
were all joyful, except Yann, who said nothing, and remained grave and
sad. He did not go in to drink with them; and without noticing either
them or the rain, which had begun to fall, he slowly walked away under
the shower, as if absorbed in his thoughts, crossing the market-place
Then she forgave him all, and a feeling of hopeless tenderness for him
came, instead of the bitter disappointment that previously had filled
her heart. She sat down and held her head between her hands. What
could she do now?
Oh! if he had listened only a moment to her, or if he could come into
that room, where they might speak together alone, perhaps all might
yet be arranged. She loved him enough to tell him so to his face. She
would say to him: "You sought me out when I asked you for nothing; now
I am yours with my whole soul, if you will have me. I don't mind a bit
being the wife of a fisherman, and yet, if I liked, I need but choose
among all the young men of Paimpol; but I do love you, because,
notwithstanding all, I believe you to be better than others. I'm
tolerably well-to-do, and I know I am pretty; although I have lived in
towns, I am sure that I am not a spoiled girl, as I never have done
anything wrong; then, if I love you so, why shouldn't you take me?"
But all this never would be said except in dreams; it was too late!
Yann would not hear her. Try and talk to him a second time? Oh, no!
what kind of a creature would he take her then to be? She would rather
Yet to-morrow they would all start for Iceland. The whitish February
daylight streamed into her fine room. Chill and lonely she fell upon
one of the chairs along the wall. It seemed to her as if the whole
world were crashing and falling in around her. All things past and
present were as if buried in a fearful abyss, which yawned on all
sides of her. She wished her life would end, and that she were lying
calm beneath some cold tombstone, where no more pain might touch her.
But she had sincerely forgiven him, and no hatred mingled with her
STRIKING THE ROCK UNKNOWN
The sea, the gray sea once more, where Yann was gently gliding along
its broad, trackless road, that leads the fishermen every year to the
Land of Ice.
The day before, when they all had set off to the music of the old
hymns, there blew a brisk breeze from the south, and all the ships
with their outspread sails had dispersed like so many gulls; but that
breeze had suddenly subsided, and speed had diminished; great fog-
banks covered the watery surface.
Yann was perhaps quieter than usual. He said that the weather was too
calm, and appeared to excite himself, as if he would drive away some
care that weighed upon him. But he had nothing to do but be carried
serenely in the midst of serene things; only to breathe and let
himself live. On looking out, only the deep gray masses around could
be seen; on listening, only silence.
Suddenly there was an almost imperceptible rumbling, which came from
below, accompanied by a grinding sensation, as when a brake comes hard
down on carriage wheels. The /Marie/ ceased all movement. They had
struck. Where, and on what? Some bank off the English coast probably.
For since overnight they had been able to see nothing, with those
curtains of mist.
The men ran and rushed about, their bustle contrasting strongly with
the sudden rigidity of their ship. How had the /Marie/ come to a stop
in that spot? In the midst of that immensity of fluid in this dull
weather, seeming to be almost without consistence, she had been seized
by some resistless immovable power hidden beneath the waves; she was
tight in its grasp, and might perish there.
Who has not seen poor birds caught by their feet in the lime? At first
they can scarcely believe they are caught; it changes nothing in their
aspect; but they soon are sure that they are held fast, and in danger
of never getting free again. And when they struggle to get free, and
the sticky stuff soils their wings and heads, they gradually assume
that pitiful look of a dumb creature in distress, about to die. Such
was the case with the /Marie/. At first it did not seem much to be
concerned about; she certainly was careened a little on one side, but
it was broad morning, and the weather was fair and calm; one had to
know such things by experience to become uneasy, and understand that
it was a serious matter.
The captain was to be pitied. It was his fault, as he had not
understood exactly where they were. He wrung his hands, saying: "God
help us! God help us!" in a voice of despair.
Close to them, during a lifting of the fog, they could distinguish a
headland, but not recognize it. But the mists covered it anew, and
they saw it no longer.
There was no sail or smoke in sight. They all jostled about, hurrying
and knocking the deck lumber over. Their dog Turc, who did not usually
mind the movement of the sea, was greatly affected too by this
incident, these sounds from down below, these heavy wallowings when
the low swell passed under, and the sudden calm that afterwards
followed; he understood that all this was unusual, and hid himself
away in corners, with his tail between his legs. They got out the
boats to carry the kedges and set them firm, and tried to row her out
of it by uniting all their forces together upon the tow-lines--a heavy
piece of work this, which lasted ten successive hours. So, when
evening came, the poor bark, which had only that morning been so fresh
and light, looked almost swamped, fouled, and good for nothing. She
had fought hard, floundered about on all sides, but still remained
there, fixed as in a dock.
Night was overtaking them; the wind and the waves were rising; things
were growing worse, when, all of a sudden, towards six o'clock, they
were let go clear, and could be off again, tearing asunder the tow-
lines, which they had left to keep her head steady. The men wept,
rushing about like madmen, cheering from stem to stern--"We're afloat,
They were afloat, with a joy that cannot be described; what it was to
feel themselves going forwards on a buoyant craft again, instead of on
the semi-wreck it was before, none but a seaman feels, and few of them
Yann's sadness had disappeared too. Like his ship, he became lively
once more, cured by the healthy manual labour; he had found his
reckless look again, and had thrown off his glum thoughts.
Next morning, when the kedges were fished up, the /Marie/ went on her
way to Iceland, and Yann's heart, to all appearance, was as free as in
his early years.
The home letters were being distributed on board the /Circe/, at
anchor at Ha-Long, over on the other side of the earth. In the midst
of a group of sailors, the purser called out, in a loud voice, the
names of the fortunate men who had letters to receive. This went on at
evening, on the ship's side, all crushing round a funnel.
"Moan, Sylvestre!" There was one for him, postmarked "Paimpol," but it
was not Gaud's writing. What did that mean? from whom did it come
After having turned and flourished it about, he opened it fearingly,
"PLOUBAZLANEC, March 5th, 1884.
"MY DEAR GRANDSON:"
So, it was from his dear old granny. He breathed free again. At the
bottom of the letter she even had placed her signature, learned by
heart, but trembling like a school-girl's scribble: "Widow Moan."
"Widow Moan!" With a quick spontaneous movement he carried the paper
to his lips and kissed the poor name, as a sacred relic. For this
letter arrived at a critical moment of his life; to-morrow at dawn, he
was to set out for the battlefield.
It was in the middle of April; Bac-Ninh and Hong-Hoa had just been
taken. There was no great warfare going on in Tonquin, yet the
reinforcements arriving were not sufficient; sailors were taken from
all the ships to make up the deficit in the corps already disembarked.
Sylvestre, who had languished so long in the midst of cruises and
blockades, had just been selected with some others to fill up the
It is true that now peace was spoken of, but something told them that
they yet would disembarck in good time to fight a bit. They packed
their bags, made all their other preparations, and said good-bye, and
all the evening through they strolled about with their unfortunate
mates who had to remain, feeling much grander and prouder than they.
Each in his own way showed his impression at this departure--some were
grave and serious, others exuberant and talkative.
Sylvestre was very quiet and thoughtful, though impatient; only, when
they looked at him, his smile seemed to say, "Yes, I'm one of the
fighting party, and huzza! the action is for to-morrow morning!"
Of gunshots and battle he formed but an incomplete idea as yet; but
they fascinated him, for he came of a valiant race.
The strange writing of his letter made him anxious about Gaud, and he
drew near a porthole to read the epistle through. It was difficult
amid all those half-naked men pressing round, in the unbearable heat
of the gundeck.
As he thought she would do, in the beginning of her letter Granny Moan
explained why she had had to take recourse to the inexperienced hand
of an old neighbour:
"My dear child, I don't ask your cousin to write for me to-day, as
she is in great trouble. Her father died suddenly two days ago. It
appears that his whole fortune has been lost through unlucky
gambling last winter in Paris. So his house and furniture will
have to be sold. Nobody in the place was expecting this. I think,
dear child, that this will pain you as much as it does me.
"Gaos, the son, sends you his kind remembrance; he has renewed his
articles with Captain Guermeur of the /Marie/, and the departure
for Iceland was rather early this year, for they set sail on the
first of the month, two days before our poor Gaud's trouble, and
he don't know of it yet.
"But you can easily imagine that we shall not get them wed now,
for she will be obliged to work for her daily bread."
Sylvestre dwelt stupor-stricken; this bad news quite spoiled his glee
at going out to fight.
IN THE SHADOW
Hark! a bullet hurtles through the air!
Sylvestre stops short to listen!
He is upon an infinite meadow, green with the soft velvet carpet of
spring. The sky is gray, lowering, as if to weigh upon one's very
They are six sailors reconnoitring among the fresh rice-fields, in a
Hist! again the whizz, breaking the silence of the air--a shrill,
continuous sound, a kind of prolonged /zing/, giving one a strong
impression that the pellets buzzing by might have stung fatally.
For the first time in his life Sylvestre hears that music. The bullets
coming towards a man have a different sound from those fired by
himself: the far-off report is attenuated, or not heard at all, so it
is easier to distinguish the sharp rush of metal as it swiftly passes
by, almost grazing one's ears.
Crack! whizz! ping! again and yet again! The balls fall in regular
showers now. Close by the sailors they stop short, and are buried in
the flooded soil of the rice-fields, accompanied by a faint splash,
like hail falling sharp and swift in a puddle of water.
The marines looked at one another as if it was all a piece of odd fun,
"Only John Chinaman! pish!"
To the sailors, Annamites, Tonquinese, or "Black Flags" are all of the
same Chinese family. It is difficult to show their contempt and
mocking rancour, as well as eagerness for "bowling over the beggars,"
when they speak of "the Chinese."
Two or three bullets are still flying about, more closely grazing;
they can be seen bouncing like grasshoppers in the green. The slight
shower of lead did not last long.
Perfect silence returns to the broad verdant plain, and nowhere can
anything be seen moving. The same six are still there, standing on the
watch, scenting the breeze, and trying to discover whence the volley
came. Surely from over yonder, by that clump of bamboos, which looks
like an island of feathers in the plain; behind it several pointed
roofs appear half hidden. So they all made for it, their feet slipping
or sinking into the soaked soil. Sylvestre runs foremost, on his
longer, more nimble legs.
No more buzz of bullets; they might have thought they were dreaming.
As in all the countries of the world, some features are the same; the
cloudy gray skies and the fresh tints of fields in spring-time, for
example; one could imagine this upon French meadows, and these young
fellows, running merrily over them, playing a very different sport
from this game of death.
But as they approach, the bamboos show the exotic delicacy of their
foliage, and the village roofs grow sharper in the singularity of
their curves, and yellow men hidden behind advance to reconnoitre;
their flat faces are contracted by fear and spitefulness. Then
suddenly they rush out screaming, and deploy into a long line,
trembling, but decided and dangerous.
"The Chinese!" shout the sailors again, with their same brave smile.
But this time they find that there are a good many--too many; and one
of them turning round perceives other Chinese coming from behind,
springing up from the long tall grass.
At this moment, young Sylvestre came out grand; his old granny would
have been proud to see him such a warrior. Since the last few days he
had altered. His face was bronzed, and his voice strengthened. He was
in his own element here.
In a moment of supreme indecision the sailors hit by the bullets
almost yielded to an impulse of retreat, which would certainly have
been death to them all; but Sylvestre continued to advance, clubbing
his rifle, and fighting a whole band, knocking them down right and
left with smashing blows from the butt-end. Thanks to him the
situation was reversed; that panic or madness that blindly deceives
all in these leaderless skirmishes had now passed over to the Chinese
side, and it was they who began to retreat.
It was soon all over; they were fairly taking to their heels. The six
sailors, reloading their repeating rifles, shot them down easily; upon
the grass lay dead bodies by red pools, and skulls were emptying their
brains into the river.
They fled, cowering like leopards. Sylvestre ran after them, although
he had two wounds--a lance-thrust in the thigh and a deep gash in his
arm; but feeling nothing save the intoxication of battle, that
unreasoning fever that comes of vigorous blood, gives lofty courage to
simple souls, and made the heroes of antiquity.
One whom he was pursuing turned round, and with a spasm of desperate
terror took a deliberate aim at him. Sylvestre stopped short, smiling
scornfully, sublime, to let him fire, and seeing the direction of the
aim, only shifted a little to the left. But with the pressure upon the
trigger the barrel of the Chinese jingal deviated slightly in the same
direction. He suddenly felt a smart rap upon his breast, and in a
flash of thought understood what it was, even before feeling any pain;
he turned towards the others following, and tried to cry out to them
the traditional phrase of the old soldier, "I think it's all up with
me!" In the great breath that he inhaled after having run, to refill
his lungs with air, he felt the air rush in also by a hole in his
right breast, with a horrible gurgling, like the blast in a broken
bellows. In that same time his mouth filled with blood, and a sharp
pain shot through his side, which rapidly grew worse, until it became
atrocious and unspeakable. He whirled round two or three times, his
brain swimming too; and gasping for breath through the rising red tide
that choked him, fell heavily in the mud.
"OUT, BRIEF CANDLE!"
About a fortnight later, as the sky was darkening at the approach of
the rains, and the heat more heavily weighed over yellow Tonquin,
Sylvestre brought to Hanoi, was sent to Ha-Long, and placed on board a
hospital-ship about to return to France.
He had been carried about for some time on different stretchers, with
intervals of rest at the ambulances. They had done all they could for
him; but under the insufficient conditions, his chest had filled with
water on the pierced side, and the gurgling air entered through the
wound, which would not close up.
He had received the military medal, which gave him a moment's joy. But
he was no longer the warrior of old--resolute of gait, and steady in
his resounding voice. All that had vanished before the long-suffering
and weakening fever. He had become a home-sick boy again; he hardly
spoke except in answering occasional questions, in a feeble and almost
inaudible voice. To feel oneself so sick and so far away; to think
that it wanted so many days before he could reach home! Would he ever
live until then, with his strength ebbing away? Such a terrifying
feeling of distance continually haunted him and weighed at every
wakening; and when, after a few hours' stupor, he awoke from the
sickening pain of his wounds, with feverish heat and the whistling
sound in his pierced bosom, he implored them to put him on board, in
spite of everything. He was very heavy to carry into his ward, and
without intending it, they gave him some cruel jolts on the way.
They laid him on one of the iron camp bedsteads placed in rows,
hospital fashion, and then he set out in an inverse direction, on his
long journey through the seas. Instead of living like a bird in the
full wind of the tops, he remained below deck, in the midst of the bad
air of medicines, wounds, and misery.
During the first days the joy of being homeward bound made him feel a
little better. He could even bear being propped up in bed with
pillows, and at times he asked for his box. His seaman's chest was a
deal box, bought in Paimpol, to keep all his loved treasures in;
inside were letters from Granny Yvonne, and also from Yann and Gaud, a
copy-book into which he had copied some sea-songs, and one of the
works of Confucius in Chinese, caught up at random during pillage; on
the blank sides of its leaves he had written the simple account of his
Nevertheless he got no better, and after the first week, the doctors
decided that death was imminent. They were near the Line now, in the
stifling heat of storms. The troop-ship kept on her course, shaking
her beds, the wounded and the dying; quicker and quicker she sped over
the tossing sea, troubled still as during the sway of the monsoons.
Since leaving Ha-Long more than one patient died, and was consigned to
the deep water on the high road to France; many of the narrow beds no
longer bore their suffering burdens.
Upon this particular day it was very gloomy in the travelling
hospital; on account of the high seas it had been necessary to close
the iron port-lids, which made the stifling sick-room more unbearable.
Sylvestre was worse; the end was nigh. Lying always upon his wounded
side, he pressed upon it with both hands with all his remaining
strength, to try and allay the watery decomposition that rose in his
right lung, and to breathe with the other lung only. But by degrees
the other was affected and the ultimate agony had begun.
Dreams and visions of home haunted his brain; in the hot darkness,
beloved or horrible faces bent over him; he was in a never-ending
hallucination, through which floated apparitions of Brittany and
Iceland. In the morning was called in the priest, and the old man, who
was used to seeing sailors die, was astonished to find so pure a soul
in so strong and manly a body.
He cried out for air, air! but there was none anywhere; the
ventilators no long gave any; the attendant, who was fanning him with
a Chinese fan, only moved unhealthy vapours over him of sickening
staleness, which revolted all lungs. Sometimes fierce, desperate fits
came over him; he wished to tear himself away from that bed, where he
felt death would come to seize him, and rush above into the full fresh
wind and try to live again. Oh! to be like those others, scrambling
about among the rigging, and living among the masts. But his extreme
effort only ended in the feeble lifting of his weakened head;
something like the incompleted movement of a sleeper. He could not
manage it, but fell back in the hollow of his crumpled bed, partly
chained there by death; and each time, after the fatigue of a like
shock, he lost all consciousness.
To please him they opened a port at last, although it was dangerous,
the sea being very rough. It was going on for six in the evening. When
the disk was swung back, a red light entered, glorious and radiant.
The dying sun appeared upon the horizon in dazzling splendour, through
a torn rift in a gloomy sky; its blinding light glanced over the
waves, and lit up the floating hospital, like a waving torch.
But no air rushed in; the little there was outside, was powerless to
enter and drive before it the fevered atmosphere. Over all sides of
that boundless equatorial sea, floated a warm and heavy moisture,
unfit for respiration. No air on any side, not even for the poor
gasping fellows on their deathbeds.
One vision disturbed him greatly; it was of his old grandmother,
walking quickly along a road, with a heartrending look of alarm; from
low-lying funereal clouds above her, fell the drizzling rain; she was
on her way to Paimpol, summoned thither to be informed of his death.
He was struggling now, with the death-rattle in his throat. From the
corners of his mouth they sponged away the water and blood, which had
welled up in quantities from his chest in writhing agony. Still the
grand, glorious sun lit up all, like a conflagration of the whole
world, with blood-laden clouds; through the aperture of the port-hole,
a wide streak of crimson fire blazed in, and, spreading over
Sylvestre's bed, formed a halo around him.
At that very moment that same sun was to be seen in Brittany, where
midday was about to strike. It was, indeed, the same sun, beheld at
the precise moment of its never-ending round; but here it kept quite
another hue. Higher up in the bluish sky, it kept shedding a soft
white light on grandmother Yvonne, sitting out at her door, sewing.
In Iceland, too, where it was morning, it was shining at that same
moment of death. Much paler there, it seemed as if it only showed its
face by some miracle. Sadly it shed its rays over the fjord where /La
Marie/ floated; and now its sky was lit up by a pure northern light,
which always gives the idea of a frozen planet's reflection, without
an atmosphere. With a cold accuracy, it outlined all the essentials of
that stony chaos that is Iceland; the whole of the country as seen
from /La Marie/ seemed fixed in one same perspective and held upright.
Yann was there, lit up by a strange light, fishing, as usual, in the
midst of this lunar-like scenery.
As the beam of fiery flame that came through the port-hole faded, and
the sun disappeared completely under the gilded billows, the eyes of
the grandson rolled inward toward his brow as if to fall back into his
They closed his eyelids with their own long lashes, and Sylvestre
became calm and beautiful again, like a reclining marble statue of
THE GRAVE ABROAD
I cannot refrain from telling you about Sylvestre's funeral, which I
conducted myself in Singapore. We had thrown enough other dead into
the Sea of China, during the early days of the home voyage; and as the
Malay land was quite near, we decided to keep his remains a few hours
longer; to bury him fittingly.
It was very early in the morning, on account of the terrible sun. In
the boat that carried him ashore, his corpse was shrouded in the
national flag. The city was in sleep as we landed. A wagonette, sent
by the French Consul, was waiting on the quay; we laid Sylvestre upon
it, with a wooden cross made on board--the paint still wet upon it,
for the carpenter had to hurry over it, and the white letters of his
name ran into the black ground.
We crossed that Babel in the rising sun. And then it was such an
emotion to find the serene calm of an European place of worship in the
midst of the distasteful turmoil of the Chinese country. Under the
high white arch, where I stood alone with my sailors, the "/Dies
Iroe/," chanted by a missionary priest, sounded like a soft magical
incantation. Through the open doors we could see sights that resembled
enchanted gardens, exquisite verdure and immense palm-trees, the wind
shook the large flowering shrubs and their perfumed crimson petals
fell like rain, almost to the church itself. Thence we marched to the
ceremony, very far off. Our little procession of sailors was very
unpretentious, but the coffin remained conspicuously wrapped in the
flag of France. We had to traverse the Chinese quarter, through
seething crowds of yellow men; and then the Malay and Indian suburbs,
where all types of Asiatic faces looked upon us with astonishment.
Then came the open country already heated; through shady groves where
exquisite butterflies, on velvety blue wings, flitted in masses. On
either side, waved tall luxuriant palms, and quantities of flowers in
splendid profusion. At last we came to the cemetery, with mandarins'
tombs and many-coloured inscriptions, adorned with paintings of
dragons and other monsters; amid astounding foliage and plants growing
everywhere. The spot where we laid him down to rest resembled a nook
in the gardens of Indra. Into the earth we drove the little wooden
And we left him, forced to go because of the hot rising sun; we turned
back once more to look at him under those marvellous trees and huge
TO THE SURVIVORS, THE SPOILS
The trooper continued its course through the Indian Ocean. Down below
in the floating hospital other death-scenes went on. On deck there was
carelessness of health and youth. Round about, over the sea, was a
very feast of pure sun and air.
In this fine trade-wind weather, the sailors, stretched in the shade
of the sails, were playing with little pet parrots and making them run
races. In this Singapore, which they had just left, the sailors buy
all kinds of tame animals. They had all chosen baby parrots, with
childish looks upon their hooknose faces; they had no tails yet; they
were green, of a wonderful shade. As they went running over the clean
white planks, they looked like fresh young leaves, fallen from
Sometimes the sailors gathered them all together in one lot, when they
inspected one another funnily; twisting about their throats, to be
seen under all aspects. They comically waddled about like so many lame
people, or suddenly started off in a great hurry for some unknown
destination; and some fell down in their excitement. And there were
monkeys, learning tricks of all kinds, another source of amusement.
Some were most tenderly loved and even kissed extravagantly, as they
nestled against the callous bosoms of their masters, gazing fondly at
them with womanish eyes, half-grotesque and half-touching.
Upon the stroke of three o'clock, the quartermasters brought on deck
two canvas bags, sealed with huge red seals, bearing Sylvestre's name;
for by order of the regulations in regard to the dead, all his clothes
and personal worldly belongings were to be sold by auction. The
sailors gaily grouped themselves around the pile; for, on board a
hospital ship, too many of these sales of effects are seen to excite
any particular emotion. Besides, Sylvestre had been but little known
upon that ship.
His jackets and shirts and blue-striped jerseys were fingered and
turned over and then bought up at different prices, the buyers forcing
the bidding just to amuse themselves.
Then came the turn of the small treasure-box, which was sold for fifty
sous. The letters and military medal had been taken out of it, to be
sent back to the family; but not the book of songs and the work of
Confucious, with the needles, cotton, and buttons, and all the petty
requisites placed there by the forethought of Granny Moan for sewing
Then the quartermaster who held up the things to be sold drew out two
small buddhas, taken in some pagoda to give to Gaud, and so funny were
they that they were greeted with a general burst of laughter, when
they appeared as the last lot. But the sailors laughed, not for want
of heart, but only through thoughtlessness.
To conclude, the bags were sold, and the buyer immediately struck out
the name on them to substitute his own.
A careful sweep of the broom was afterward given to clear the
scrupulously clean deck of the dust and odds and ends, while the
sailors returned merrily to play with their parrots and monkeys.
One day, in the first fortnight of June, as old Yvonne was returning
home, some neighbours told her that she had been sent for by the
Commissioner from the Naval Registry Office. Of course it concerned
her grandson, but that did not frighten her in the least. The families
of seafarers are used to the Naval Registry, and she, the daughter,
wife, mother, and grandmother of seamen, had known that office for the
past sixty years.
Doubtless it had to do with his "delegation"; or perhaps there was a
small prize-money account from /La Circe/ to take through her proxy.
As she knew what respect was due to "/Monsieur le Commissaire/," she
put on her best gown and a clean white cap, and set out about two
Trotting along swiftly on the pathways of the cliff, she neared
Paimpol; and musing upon these two months without letters, she grew a
She met her old sweetheart sitting out at his door. He had greatly
aged since the appearance of the winter cold.
"Eh, eh! When you're ready, you know, don't make any ceremony, my
beauty!" That "suit of deal" still haunted his mind.
The joyous brightness of June smiled around her. On the rocky heights
there still grew the stunted reeds with their yellow blossoms; but
passing into the hollow nooks sheltered against the bitter sea winds,
one met with high sweet-smelling grass. But the poor old woman did not
see all this, over whose head so many rapid seasons had passed, which
now seemed as short as days.
Around the crumbling hamlet with its gloomy walls grew roses, pinks,
and stocks; and even up on the tops of the whitewashed and mossy
roofs, sprang the flowerets that attracted the first "miller"
butterflies of the season.
This spring-time was almost without love in the land of Icelanders,
and the beautiful lasses of proud race, who sat out dreaming on their
doorsteps, seemed to look far beyond the visible things with their
blue or brown eyes. The young men, who were the objects of their
melancholy and desires, were remote, fishing on the northern seas.
But it was a spring-time for all that--warm, sweet, and troubling,
with its buzzing of flies and perfume of young plants.
And all this soulless freshness smiled upon the poor old grandmother,
who was quickly walking along to hear of the death of her last-born
grandson. She neared the awful moment when this event, which had taken
place in the so distant Chinese seas, was to be told to her; she was
taking that sinister walk that Sylvestre had divined at his death-hour
--the sight of that had torn his last agonized tears from him; his
darling old granny summoned to Paimpol to be told that he was dead!
Clearly he had seen her pass along that road, running straight on,
with her tiny brown shawl, her umbrella, and large head-dress. And
that apparition had made him toss and writhe in fearful anguish, while
the huge, red sun of the Equator, disappearing in its glory, peered
through the port-hole of the hospital to watch him die. But he, in his
last hallucination, had seen his old granny moving under a rain-laden
sky, and on the contrary a joyous laughing spring-time mocked her on
Nearing Paimpol, she became more and more uneasy, and improved her
speed. Now she is in the gray town with its narrow granite streets,
where the sun falls, bidding good-day to some other old women, her
contemporaries, sitting at their windows. Astonished to see her; they
said: "Wherever is she going so quickly, in her Sunday gown, on a
"Monsieur le Commissaire" of the Naval Enlistment Office was not in
just then. One ugly little creature, about fifteen years old, who was
his clerk, sat at his desk. As he was too puny to be a fisher, he had
received some education and passed his time in that same chair, in his
black linen dust-sleeves, scratching away at paper.
With a look of importance, when she had said her name, he got up to
get the official documents from off a shelf.
There were a great many papers--what did it all mean? Parchments,
sealed papers, a sailor's record-book, grown yellow on the sea, and
over all floated an odour of death. He spread them all out before the
poor old woman, who began to tremble and feel dizzy. She had just
recognized two of the letters which Gaud used to write for her to her
grandson, and which were now returned to her never unsealed. The same
thing had happened twenty years ago at the death of her son Pierre;
the letters had been sent back from China to "Monsieur le
Commissaire," who had given them to her thus.
Now he was reading out in a consequential voice: "Moan, Jean-Marie-
Sylvestre, registered at Paimpol, folio 213, number 2091, died on
board the /Bien Hoa/, on the 14th of ----."
"What--what has happened to him, my good sir?"
"Discharged--dead," he answered.
It wasn't because this clerk was unkind, but if he spoke in that
brutal way, it was through want of judgment, and from lack of
intelligence in the little incomplete being.
As he saw that she did not understand that technical expression, he
said in Breton:
"/Marw eo/!" (He is dead.)
She repeated the words after him, in her aged tremulous voice, as a
poor cracked echo would send back some indifferent phrase. So what she
had partly foreseen was true; but it only made her tremble; now that
it was certain, it seemed to affect her no more. To begin with, her
faculty to suffer was slightly dulled by old age, especially since
this last winter. Pain did not strike her immediately. Something
seemed to fall upside down in her brain, and somehow or another she
mixed this death up with others. She had lost so many of them before.
She needed a moment to grasp that this was her very last one, her
darling, the object of all her prayers, life, and waiting, and of all
her thoughts, already darkened by the sombre approach of second
She felt a sort of shame at showing her despair before this little
gentleman who horrified her. Was that the way to tell a grandmother of
her darling's death? She remained standing before the desk, stiffened,
and tearing the fringes of her brown shawl with her poor aged hands,
sore and chapped with washing.
How far away she felt from home! Goodness! what a long walk back to be
gone through, and steadily, too, before nearing the whitewashed hut in
which she longed to shut herself up, like a wounded beast who hides in
its hole to die. And so she tried not to think too much and not to
understand yet, frightened above all at the long home-journey.
They gave her an order to go and take, as the heiress, the thirty
francs that came from the sale of Sylvestre's bag; and then the
letters, the certificates, and the box containing the military medal.
She took the whole parcel awkwardly with open fingers, unable to find
pockets to put them in.
She went straight through Paimpol, looking at no one, her body bent
slightly like one about to fall, with a rushing of blood in her ears;
pressing and hurrying along like some poor old machine, which could
not be wound up, at a great pressure, for the last time, without fear
of breaking its springs.
At the third mile she went along quite bent in two and exhausted; from
time to time her foot struck against the stones, giving her a painful
shock up to the very head. She hurried to bury herself in her home,
for fear of falling and having to be carried there.
A CHARITABLE ASSUMPTION
"Old Yvonne's tipsy!" was the cry.
She had fallen, and the street children ran after her. It was just at
the boundary of the parish of Ploubazlanec, where many houses straggle
along the roadside. But she had the strength to rise and hobble along
on her stick.
"Old Yvonne's tipsy!"
The bold little creatures stared her full in the face, laughing. Her
/coiffe/ was all awry. Some of these little ones were not really
wicked, and these, when they scanned her closer and saw the senile
grimace of bitter despair, turned aside, surprised and saddened,
daring to say nothing more.
At home, with the door tightly closed, she gave vent to the deep
scream of despair that choked her, and fell down in a corner, her head
against the wall. Her cap had fallen over her eyes; she threw off
roughly what formerly had been so well taken care of. Her Sunday dress
was soiled, and a thin mesh of yellowish white hair strayed from
beneath her cap, completing her pitiful, poverty-stricken disorder.
Thus did Gaud, coming in for news in the evening, find her; her hair
dishevelled, her arms hanging down, and her head resting against the
stone wall, with a falling jaw grinning, and the plaintive whimper of
a little child; she scarcely could weep any more; these grandmothers,
grown too old, have no tears left in their dried-up eyes.
"My grandson is dead!" She threw the letters, papers, and medal into
her caller's lap.
Gaud quickly scanned the whole, saw the news was true, and fell on her
knees to pray. The two women remained there together almost dumb,
through the June gloaming, which in Brittany is long but in Iceland is
never-ending. On the hearth the cricket that brings joy was chirping
his shrill music.
The dim dusk entered through the narrow window into the dwelling of
those Moans, who had all been devoured by the sea, and whose family
was now extinguished.
At last Gaud said: "/I'll/ come to you, good granny, to live with you;
I'll bring my bed that they've left me, and I'll take care of you and
nurse you--you shan't be all alone."
She wept, too, for her little friend Sylvestre, but in her sorrow she
was led involuntarily to think of another--he who had gone back to the
They would have to write to Yann and tell him Sylvestre was dead; it
was just now that the fishers were starting. Would he, too, weep for
him? Mayhap he would, for he had loved him dearly. In the midst of her
own tears, Gaud thought a great deal of him; now and again waxing
wroth against the hard-hearted fellow, and then pitying him at the
thought of that pain which would strike him also, and which would be
as a link between them both--one way and another, her heart was full
THE BROTHER'S GRIEF
One pale August evening, the letter that announced Yann's brother's
death, at length arrived on board the /Marie/, upon the Iceland seas;
it was after a day of hard work and excessive fatigue, just as they
were going down to sup and to rest. With eyes heavy with sleep, he
read it in their dark nook below deck, lit by the yellow beam of the
small lamp; at the first moment he became stunned and giddy, like one
dazed out of fair understanding. Very proud and reticent in all things
concerning the feelings was Yann, and he hid the letter in his blue
jersey, next his breast, without saying anything, as sailors do. But
he did not feel the courage to sit down with the others to supper, and
disdaining even to explain why, he threw himself into his berth and
fell asleep. Soon he dreamed of Sylvestre dead, and of his funeral
Towards midnight, being in that state of mind that is peculiar to
seaman who are conscious of the time of day in their slumber, and
quite clearly see the hour draw night when to awaken for the watch--he
saw the funeral, and said to himself: "I am dreaming; luckily the mate
will come and wake me up, and the vision will pass away."
But when a heavy hand was laid upon him and a voice cried out: "Tumble
out, Gaos! watch, boy!" he heard the slight rustling of paper at his
breast, a fine ghastly music that affirmed the fact of the death. Yes,
the letter! It was true, then? The more cruel, heartrending impression
deepened, and he jumped up so quickly in his sudden start, that he
struck his forehead against the overhead beam. He dressed and opened
the hatchway to go up mechanically and take his place in the fishing.
WORK CURES SORROW
When Yann was on deck, he looked around him with sleep-laden eyes,
over the familiar circle of the sea. That night the illimitable
immensity showed itself in its most astonishingly simple aspects, in
neutral tints, giving only the impression of depth. This horizon,
which indicated no recognisable region of the earth, or even any
geological age, must have looked so many times the same since the
origin of time, that, gazing upon it, one saw nothing save the
eternity of things that exist and cannot help existing.
It was not the dead of night, for a patch of light, which seemed to
ooze from no particular point, dimly lit up the scene. The wind sobbed
as usual its aimless wail. All was gray, a fickle gray, which faded
before the fixed gaze. The sea, during its mysterious rest, hid itself
under feeble tints without a name.
Above floated scattered clouds; they had assumed various shapes, for,
without form, things cannot exist; in the darkness they had blended
together, so as to form one single vast veiling.
But in one particular spot of the sky, low down on the waters, they
seemed a dark-veined marble, the streaks clearly defined although very
distant; a tender drawing, as if traced by some dreamy hand--some
chance effect, not meant to be viewed for long, and indeed hastening
to die away. Even that alone, in the midst of this broad grandeur,
appeared to mean something; one might think that the sad, undefined
thought of the nothingness around was written there; and the sight
involuntarily remained fixed upon it.
Yann's dazzled eyes grew accustomed to the outside darkness, and gazed
more and more steadily upon that veining in the sky; it had now taken
the shape of a kneeling figure with arms outstretched. He began to
look upon it as a human shadow rendered gigantic by the distance
In his mind, where his indefinite dreams and primitive beliefs still
lingered, the ominous shadow, crushed beneath the gloomy sky, slowly
coalesced with the thought of his dead brother, as if it were a last
token from him.
He was used to such strange associations of ideas, that thrive in the
minds of children. But words, vague as they may be, are still too
precise to express those feelings; one would need that uncertain
language that comes in dreams, of which upon awakening, one retains
merely enigmatical, senseless fragments.
Looking upon the cloud, he felt a deep anguish, full of unknown
mystery, that froze his very soul; he understood full well now that
his poor little brother would never more be seen; sorrow, which had
been some time penetrating the hard, rough rind of his heart, now
gushed in and brimmed it over. He beheld Sylvestre again with his soft
childish eyes; at the thought of embracing him no more, a veil fell
between his eyelids and his eyes, against his will; and, at first, he
could not rightly understand what it was--never having wept in all his
manhood. But the tears began to fall heavily and swiftly down his
cheeks, and then sobs rent his deep chest.
He went on with his fishing, losing no time and speaking to no one,
and his two mates, though hearing him in the deep silence, pretended
not to do so, for fear of irritating him, knowing him to be so haughty
In his opinion death was the end of it all. Out of respect he often
joined in the family prayers for the dead, but he believed in no
after-life of the soul. Between themselves, in their long talks, the
sailors all said the same, in a blunt taken-for-granted way, as a
well-known fact; but it did not stop them from believing in ghosts,
having a vague fear of graveyards, and an unlimited confidence in
protecting saints and images, and above all a deep respect for the
consecrated earth around the churches.
So Yann himself feared to be swallowed up by the sea, as if it would
annihilate him, and the thought of Sylvestre, so far away on the other
side of the earth, made his sorrow more dark and desperate. With his
contempt for his fellows, he had no shame or constraint in weeping, no
more than if he were alone.
Around the boat the chaos grew whiter, although it was only two
o'clock, and at the same time it appeared to spread farther, hollowing
in a fearful manner. With that kind of rising dawn, eyes opened wider,
and the awakened mind could conceive better the immensity of distance,
as the boundaries of visible space receded and widened away.
The pale aurora increased, seeming to come in tiny jets with slight
shocks; eternal things seemed to light up by sheer transparency, as if
white-flamed lamps had slowly been raised up behind the shapeless gray
clouds, and held there with mysterious care, for fear of disturbing
the calm, even rest of the sea. Below the horizon that colossal white
lamp was the sun, which dragged itself along without strength, before
taking its leisurely ascent, which began in the dawn's eye above the
On this day, the usual rosy tints were not seen; all remained pale and
mournful. On board the gray ship, Yann wept alone. The tears of the
fierce elder brother, together with the melancholy of this surrounding
waste, were as mourning, worn in honour of the poor, obscure, young
hero, upon these seas of Iceland, where half his life had been passed.
When the full light of day appeared, Yann abruptly wiped his eyes with
his sleeve and ceased weeping. That grief was over now. He seemed
completely absorbed by the work of the fishery, and by the monotonous
routine of substantial deeds, as if he never had thought of anything
The catching went on apace, and there were scant hands for the work.
Around about the fishers, in the immense depths, a transformation
scene was taking place. The grand opening out of the infinitude, that
great wonder of the morning, had finished, and the distance seemed to
diminish and close in around them. How was it that before the sea had
seemed so boundless!
The horizon was quite clear now, and more space seemed necessary. The
void filled in with flecks and streamers that floated above, some
vague as mist, others with visibly jagged edges. They fell softly amid
an utter silence, like snowy gauze, but fell on all sides together, so
that below them suffocation set in swiftly; it took away the breath to
see the air so thickened.
It was the first of the August fogs that was rising. In a few moments
the winding-sheet became universally dense; all around the /Marie/ a
white damp lay under the light, and in it the mast faded and
"Here's the cursed fog now, for sure," grumbled the men. They had long
ago made the acquaintance of that compulsory companion of the second
part of the fishing season; but it also announced its end and the time
for returning to Brittany.
It condensed into fine, sparkling drops in their beards, and shone
upon their weather-beaten faces. Looking athwart ship to one another,
they appeared dim as ghosts; and by comparison, nearer objects were
seen more clearly under the colourless light. They took care not to
inhale the air too deeply, for a feeling of chill and wet penetrated
But the fishing was going on briskly, so that they had no time left to
chatter, and they only thought of their lines. Every moment big heavy
fish were drawn in on deck, and slapped down with a smack like a whip-
crack; there they wriggled about angrily, flapping their tails on the
deck, scattering plenty of sea-water about, and silvery scales too, in
the course of their death-struggle. The sailor who split them open
with his long knife, sometimes cut his own fingers, in his haste, so
that his warm blood mingled with the brine.
THE WHITE FOG
Caught in the fog, they remained ten days in succession without being
able to see anything. The fishing went on handsomely the while, and
with so much to do there was no time for weariness. At regular
intervals one of them blew a long fog-horn, whence issued a sound like
the howling of a wild beast.
Sometimes, out of the depths of white fog, another bellowing answered
their call. Then a sharper watch was kept. If the blasts were
approaching, all ears were turned in the direction of that unknown
neighbour, whom they might perhaps never see, but whose presence was
nevertheless a danger. Conjectures were made about the strange vessel;
it became a subject of conversation, a sort of company for them; all
longing to see her, strained their eyes in vain efforts to pierce
those impalpable white shrouds.
Then the mysterious consort would depart, the bellowing of her trumpet
fading away in the distance, and they would remain again in the deep
hush, amid the infinity of stagnant vapour. Everything was drenched
with salt water; the cold became more penetrating; each day the sun
took longer to sink below the horizon; there were now real nights one
or two hours long, and their gray gloaming was chilly and weird.
Every morning they heaved the lead, through fear that the /Marie/
might have run too near the Icelandic coast. But all the lines on
board, fastened end to end, were paid out in vain--the bottom could
not be touched. So they knew that they were well out in blue water.
Life on board was rough and wholesome; the comfort in the snug strong
oaken cabin below was enhanced by the impression of the piercing cold
outside, when they went down to supper or for rest.
In the daytime, these men, who were as secluded as monks, spoke but
little among themselves. Each held his line, remaining for hours and
hours in the same immovable position. They were separated by some
three yards of space, but it ended in not even seeing one another.
The calm of the fog dulled the mind. Fishing so lonely, they hummed
home songs, so as not to scare the fish away. Ideas came more slowly
and seldom; they seemed to expand, filling in the space of time,
without leaving any vacuum. They dreamed of incoherent and mysterious
things, as if in slumber, and the woof of their dreams was as airy as
This misty month of August usually terminated the Iceland season, in a
quiet, mournful way. Otherwise the full physical life was the same,
filling the sailors' lungs with rustling air and hardening their
already strong muscles.
Yann's usual manner had returned, as if his great grief had not
continued; watchful and active, quick at his fishing work, a happy-go-
lucky temper, like one who had no troubles; communicative at times,
but very rarely--and always carrying his head up high, with his old
indifferent, domineering look.
At supper in the rough retreat, when they were all seated at table,
with their knives busy on their hot plates, he occasionally laughed
out as he used to do at droll remarks of his mates. In his inner self
he perhaps thought of Gaud, to whom, doubtless, Sylvestre had plighted
him in his last hours; and she had become a poor girl now, alone in
the world. And above all, perhaps, the mourning for his beloved
brother still preyed upon his heart. But this heart of his was a
virgin wilderness, difficult to explore and little known, where many
things took place unrevealed on the exterior.
THE SPECTRE SHIP
One morning, going on three o'clock, while all were dreaming quietly
under their winding-sheet of fog, they heard something like a clamour
of voices--voices whose tones seemed strange and unfamiliar. Those on
deck looked at each other questioningly.
"Who's that talking?"
Nobody. Nobody had said anything. For that matter, the sounds had
seemed to come from the outer void. Then the man who had charge of the
fog-horn, but had been neglecting his duty since overnight, rushed for
it, and inflating his lungs to their utmost, sounded with all his
might the long bellow of alarm. It was enough to make a man of iron
start, in such a silence.
As if a spectre had been evoked by that thrilling, though deep-toned
roar, a huge unforeseen gray form suddenly arose very loftily and
towered threateningly right beside them; masts, spars, rigging, all
like a ship that had taken sudden shape in the air instantly, just as
a single beam of electric light evokes phantasmagoria on the screen of
a magic lantern.
Men appeared, almost close enough to touch them, leaning over the
bulwarks, staring at them with eyes distended in the awakening of
surprise and dread.
The /Marie's/ men rushed for oars, spars, boat-hooks, anything they
could lay their hands on for fenders, and held them out to shove off