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AN ICELAND FISHERMAN by Pierre Loti

Part 4 out of 4

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In the storm of the 4th and 5th of August, 1880."

She read mechanically under the arch of the doorway; her eyes sought
to pierce the distance over the sea. That morning it was untraceable
under the gray mist, and a dragging drapery of clouds overhung the
horizon like a mourning veil.

Another gust of wind, and other leaves danced in in whirls. A stronger
gust still, as if the western storm that had strewn those dead over
the sea, wished to deface the very inscriptions that remembered their
names to the living.

Gaud looked with involuntary persistency at an empty space upon the
wall that seemed to yawn expectant. By a terrible impression she was
pursued, the thought of a fresh slab which might soon, perhaps, be
placed there, with another name which she did not even dare to think
of in such a spot.

She felt cold, and remained seated on the granite bench, her head
reclining against the stone wall.

* * * * * * * * * * *

. . . . . . . "near the Norden-Fjord,
In the storm of the 4th and 5th of August,
At the age of 23 years,
/Requiescat in pace/!"

Then Iceland loomed up before her, with its little cemetery lighted up
from below the sea-line by the midnight sun. Suddenly in the same
empty space on the wall, with horrifying clearness she saw the fresh
slab she was thinking of; a clear white one, with a skull and cross-
bones, and in a flash of foresight, a name--the worshipped name of
"Yann Gaos!" Then she suddenly and fearfully drew herself up straight
and stiff, with a hoarse, wild cry in her throat like a mad creature.

Outside the gray mist of the dawn fell over the land, and the dead
leaves were again blown dancingly into the porch.

Steps on the footpath? Somebody was coming? She rose and quickly
smoothed down her cap and composed her face. Nearer drew the steps.
She assumed the air of one who might be there by chance; for, above
all, she did not wish to appear yet, like the widow of a shipwrecked
mariner.

It happened to be Fante Floury, the wife of the second mate of the
/Leopoldine/. She understood immediately what Gaud was doing there; it
was useless to dissemble with her. At first each woman stood
speechless before the other. They were angry and almost hated each
other for having met with a like sentiment of apprehension.

"All the men of Treguier and Saint Brieuc have been back this week,"
said Fante at last, in a pitiless, muffled, half-irritated voice.

She carried a blessed taper in her hand, to offer up a prayer. Gaud
did not wish yet to resort to that extreme resource of despairing
wives. Yet silently she entered the chapel behind Fante, and they
knelt down together side by side, like two sisters.

To the "Star of the Sea" they offered ardent imploring prayers, with
their whole soul in them. A sound of sobbing was alone heard, as their
rapid tears swiftly fell upon the floor. They rose together, more
confident and softened. Fante held up Gaud, who staggered, and taking
her in her arms, kissed her.

Wiping their eyes, and smoothing their dishevelled hair, they brushed
off the salt dust from the flagstones, soiling their gowns, and they
went away in opposite directions, without another word.

CHAPTER VI
ALL BUT ONE

This end of September was like another summer, only a little less
lively. The weather was so beautiful, that had it not been for the
dead leaves that fell upon the roads, one might have thought that June
had come back again. Husbands and sweethearts had all returned, and
everywhere was the joy of a second spring-time of love.

At last, one day, one of the missing ships was signalled. Which one
was it?

The groups of speechless and anxious women had rapidly formed on the
cliff. Gaud, pale and trembling, was there, by the side of her Yann's
father.

"I'm almost sure," said the old fisher, "I'm almost sure it's them! A
red rail and a topsail that clews up--it's very like them anyhow. What
do you make it, Gaud?

"No, it isn't," he went on, with sudden discouragement; "we've made a
mistake again, the boom isn't the same, and ours has a jigger sail.
Well, well, it isn't our boat this time, it's only the /Marie-Jeanne/.
Never mind, my lass, surely they'll not be long now."

But day followed day, and night succeeded night, with uninterrupted
serenity.

Gaud continued to dress every day like a poor crazed woman, always in
fear of being taken for the widow of a shipwrecked sailor, feeling
exasperated when others looked furtively and compassionately at her,
and glancing aside so that she might not meet those glances that froze
her very blood.

She had fallen into the habit of going in the early morning right to
the end of the headland, on the high cliffs of Pors-Even, passing
behind Yann's old home, so as not to be seen by his mother or little
sisters. She went to the extreme point of the Ploubazlanec land, which
is outlined in the shape of a reindeer's horn upon the gray waters of
the channel, and sat there all day long at the foot of the lonely
cross, which rises high above the immense waste of the ocean. There
are many of these crosses hereabout; they are set up on the most
advanced cliffs of the seabound land, as if to implore mercy and to
calm that restless mysterious power that draws men away, never to give
them back, and in preference retains the bravest and noblest.

Around this cross stretches the ever-green waste, strewn with short
rushes. At this great height the sea air was very pure; it scarcely
retained the briny odour of the weeds, but was perfumed with all the
exquisite ripeness of September flowers.

Far away, all the bays and inlets of the coast were firmly outlined,
rising one above another; the land of Brittany terminated in ragged
edges, which spread out far into the tranquil surface.

Near at hand the reefs were numerous, but out beyond nothing broke its
polished mirror, from which arose a soft, caressing ripple, light and
intensified from the depths of its many bays. Its horizon seemed so
calm, and its depths so soft! The great blue sepulchre of many Gaoses
hid its inscrutable mystery, while the breezes, faint as human breath,
wafted to and fro the perfume of the stunted gorse, which had bloomed
again in the lastest autumn sun.

At regular hours the sea retreated, and great spaces were left
uncovered everywhere, as if the Channel was slowly drying up; then
with the same lazy slowness, the waters rose again, and continued
their everlasting coming and going, without any heed of the dead.

At the foot of the cross, Gaud remained, surrounded by these tranquil
mysteries, gazing ever before her, until the night fell and she could
see no more.

CHAPTER VII
THE MOURNER'S VISION

September had passed. The sorrowing wife took scarcely any
nourishment, and could no longer sleep. She remained at home now,
crouching low with her hands between her knees, her head thrown back
and resting against the wall behind. What was the good of getting up
or going to bed now? When she was thoroughly exhausted she threw
herself, dressed, upon her bed. Otherwise she remained in the same
position, chilled and benumbed; in her quiescent state, only her teeth
chattered with the cold; she had that continual impression of a band
of iron round her brows; her cheeks looked wasted; her mouth was dry,
with a feverish taste, and at times a painful hoarse cry rose from her
throat, and was repeated in spasms, while her head beat backward
against the granite wall. Or else she called Yann by his name in a
low, tender voice, as if he were quiet close to her, whispering words
of love to her.

Sometimes she occupied her brain with thoughts of quite insignificant
things; for instance, she amused herself by watching the shadow of the
china Virgin lengthen slowly over the high woodwork of the bed, as the
sun went down. And then the agonized thoughts returned more horrible,
and her wailing cry broke out again as she beat her head against the
wall.

All the hours of the day passed, and all the hours of evening, and of
night, and then the hours of the morning. When she reckoned the time
he ought to have been back, she was seized with a still greater
terror; she wished to forget all dates and the very names of the days.

Usually there is some information concerning the wrecks off Iceland;
those who return have seen the tragedy from afar, or else have found
some wreckage or bodies, or have an indication to guess the rest. But
of the /Leopoldine/ nothing had been seen, and nothing was known. The
/Marie-Jeanne/ men, the last to have seen her, on the 2d of August,
said that she was to have gone on fishing farther towards the north,
and, beyond that, the secret was unfathomable.

Waiting, always waiting, and knowing nothing! When would the time come
when she need wait no longer? She did not even know that; and, now,
she almost wished that it might be soon.

Oh! if he were dead; let them at least have pity enough to tell her
so! Oh! to see her darling, as he was at this very moment, that is,
what was left him! If only the much-implored Virgin, or some other
power, would do her the blessing to show her, by second-sight, her
beloved! either living and working hard to return a rich man, or else
as a corpse, surrendered by the sea, so that she might at least know a
certainty.

Sometimes she was seized with the thought of a ship appearing suddenly
upon the horizon; the /Leopoldine/ hastening home. Then she would
suddenly make an irreflected movement to rise, and rush to look out at
the ocean, to see whether it were true.

But she would fall back. Alas! where was this /Leopoldine now? Where
could she be? Out afar, at that awful distance of Iceland, forsaken,
crushed, and lost.

All ended by a never-fading vision appearing to her--an empty, sea-
tossed wreck, slowly and gently rocked by the silent gray and rose-
streaked sea; almost with soft mockery, in the midst of the vast calm
of deadened waters.

CHAPTER VIII
THE FALSE ALARM

Two o'clock in the morning.

It was at night, especially, that she kept attentive to approaching
footsteps; at the slightest rumour or unaccustomed noise her temples
vibrated; by dint of being strained to outward things, they had become
fearfully sensitive.

Two o'clock in the morning. On this night as on others, with her hands
clasped and her eyes wide open in the dark, she listened to the wind,
sweeping in never-ending tumult over the heath.

Suddenly a man's footsteps hurried along the path! At this hour who
would pass now? She drew herself up, stirred to the very soul, her
heart ceasing to beat.

Some one stopped before the door, and came up the small stone steps.

He!--O God!--he! Some one had knocked--it could be no other than he!
She was up now, barefooted; she, so feeble for the last few days, had
sprung up as nimbly as a kitten, with her arms outstretched to wind
round her darling. Of course the /Leopoldine/ had arrived at night,
and anchored in Pors-Even Bay, and he had rushed home; she arranged
all this in her mind with the swiftness of lightning. She tore the
flesh off her fingers in her excitement to draw the bolt, which had
stuck.

"Eh?"

She slowly moved backward, as if crushed, her head falling on her
bosom. Her beautiful insane dream was over. She just could grasp that
it was not her husband, her Yann, and that nothing of him, substantial
or spiritual, had passed through the air; she felt plunged again into
her deep abyss, to the lowest depths of her terrible despair.

Poor Fantec, for it was he, stammered many excuses, his wife was very
ill, and their child was stifling in its cot, suddenly attacked with a
malignant sore throat; so he had run over to beg for assistance on the
road to fetch the doctor from Paimpol.

What did all this matter to her? She had gone mad in her own distress,
and could give no thoughts to the troubles of others. Huddled on a
bench, she remained before him with fixed, glazed eyes, like a dead
woman's; without listening to him or even answering at random or
looking at him. What to her was the speech the man was making?

He understood it all; and guessed why the door had been opened so
quickly to him, and feeling pity for the pain he had unwittingly
caused, he stammered out an excuse.

"Just so; he never had ought to have disturbed her--her in
particular."

"I!" ejaculated Gaud, quickly, "why should I not be disturbed
particularly, Fantec?"

Life had suddenly come back to her; for she did not wish to appear in
despair before others. Besides, she pitied him now; she dressed to
accompany him, and found the strength to go and see to his little
child.

At four o'clock in the morning, when she returned to throw herself on
the bed, sleep subdued her, for she was tired out. But that moment of
excessive joy had left an impression on her mind, which, in spite of
all, was permanent; she awoke soon with a shudder, rising a little and
partially recollecting--she knew not what. News had come to her
concerning her Yann. In the midst of her confusion of ideas, she
sought rapidly in her mind what it could be, but there was nothing
save Fantec's interruption.

For the second time she fell back into her terrible abyss, nothing
changed in her morbid, hopeless waiting.

Yet in that short, hopeful moment she had felt him so near to her,
that it was as if his spirit had floated over the sea unto her, what
is called a foretoken (/pressigne/) in Breton land; and she listened
still more attentively to the steps outside, trusting that some one
might come to her to speak of him.

Just as the day broke Yann's father entered. He took off his cap, and
pushed back his splendid white locks, which were in curls like Yann's,
and sat down by Gaud's bedside.

His heart ached fully, too, for Yann, his tall, handsome Yann, was his
first-born, his favourite and his pride; but he did not despair yet.
He comforted Gaud in his own blunt, affectionate way; to begin with,
those who had last returned from Iceland spoke of the increasing dense
fogs that might well have delayed the vessel; and then, too, an idea
struck him; they might possibly have stopped at the distant Faroe
Islands on their homeward course, whence letters were so long in
travelling. This had happened to him once forty years ago, and his own
poor dead and gone mother had had a mass said for his soul. The
/Leopoldine/ was such a good boat, next to new, and her crew were such
able-bodied seamen.

Granny Moan stood by them shaking her head; the distress of her
granddaughter had almost given her back her own strength and reason;
she tidied up the place, glancing from time to time at the faded
portrait of Sylvestre, which hung upon the granite wall with its
anchor emblems and mourning-wreath of black bead-work. Ever since the
sea had robbed her of her own last offspring she believed no longer in
safe returns; she only prayed through fear, bearing Heaven a grudge in
the bottom of her heart.

But Gaud listened eagerly to these consoling reasonings; her large
sunken eyes looked with deep tenderness out upon this old sire, who so
much resembled her beloved one; merely to have him near her was like a
hostage against death having taken the younger Gaos; and she felt
reassured, nearer to her Yann. Her tears fell softly and silently, and
she repeated again her passionate prayers to the "Star of the Sea."

A delay out at those islands to repair damages was a very likely
event. She rose and brushed her hair, and then dressed as if she might
fairly expect him. All then was not lost, if a seaman, his own father,
did not yet despair. And for a few days, she resumed looking out for
him again.

Autumn at last arrived, a late autumn too, its gloomy evenings making
all things appear dark in the old cottage, and all the land looked
sombre, too.

The very daylight seemed crepuscular; immeasurable clouds, passing
slowly overhead, darkened the whole country at broad noon. The wind
blew constantly with the sound of a great cathedral organ at a
distance, but playing profane, despairing dirges; at other times the
noise came close to the door, like the howling of wild beasts.

She had grown pale, aye, blanched, and bent more than ever, as if old
age had already touched her with its featherless wing. Often did she
finger the wedding clothes of her Yann, folding and unfolding them
again and again like some maniac, especially one of his blue woolen
jerseys, which still had preserved his shape; when she threw it gently
on the table, it fell with the shoulders and chest well defined; so
she placed it by itself on a shelf of their wardrobe, and left it
there, so that it might for ever rest unaltered.

Every night the cold mists sank upon the land, as she gazed over the
depressing heath through her little window, and watched the paltry
puffs of white smoke arise from the chimneys of other cottages
scattered here and there on all sides. There the husbands had
returned, like wandering birds driven home by the frost. Before their
blazing hearths the evenings passed, cosy and warm; for the spring-
time of love had begun again in this land of North Sea fishermen.

Still clinging to the thought of those islands where he might perhaps
have lingered, she was buoyed up by a kind hope and expected him home
any day.

CHAPTER IX
WEDDED TO THE SEA

But he never returned. One August night, out off gloomy Iceland,
mingled with the furious clamour of the sea, his wedding with the sea
was performed. It had been his nurse; it had rocked him in his
babyhood, and had afterward made him big and strong; then, in his
superb manhood, it had taken him back again for itself alone.
Profoundest mystery had surrounded this unhallowed union. While it
went on, dark curtains hung pall-like over it as if to conceal the
ceremony, and the ghoul howled in an awful deafening voice to stifle
his cries. He, thinking of Gaud, his sole, darling wife, had battled
with giant strength against this deathly rival, until he at last
surrendered, with a deep death-cry like the roar of a dying bull,
through a mouth already filled with water; and his arms were stretched
apart and stiffened for ever.

All those he had invited in days of old were present at his wedding.
All except Sylvestre, who had gone to sleep in the enchanted gardens
far, far away, at the other side of the earth.

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