On the Rocks by Henry Seton Merriman

     "For they are blest that have not much to rue—
      That have not oft misheard the prompter's cue."

The gale was apparently at its height—that is to say, it was blowing harder than it had blown all through the night. But those whose business is on the great waters know that a gale usually finishes its wrath in a few wild squalls. "'Tis getting puffy," the sailors say; "'tis nearly over."

A man hurrying through the narrow main street of Yport was thrown against the shutters of the little baker's shop on the left-hand side, and stood there gasping for breath.

"Mon Dieu!" he muttered. "It's a dog's night."

And he wiped the rain from his face. The wind, which blew from a wild north-west, roared against the towering cliffs, and from east and west concentrated itself funnel-wise on the gap where Yport lies. Out seaward there was a queer, ghostly light lying on the face of the waters—the storm-light—and landsmen rarely see it. For the sea was beaten into unbroken foam. The man, who was clad in oilskins, was in the neck of the funnel. Overhead, he heard the wind roaring through the pines far up on the slope of the narrow valley—close at hand, a continuous whistle told of its passage across the housetops. The man steadied himself with his left hand. He had but one, and he cursed the empty sleeve which flapped across his face.

"Provided," he muttered, "that I can waken that cure."

He crept on, while the gale paused to take breath, and a moment later cowered in the porch of a little yellow house. He kicked the door with his heel and then waited, with his ear to the great keyhole. Surely the cure must have been a good man to sleep in such a night. The street had naturally been deserted, for it was nearly three o'clock in the morning, and dawn could not be far off.

"A one-armed man and a priest!" said the man to himself, with an expressive jerk of the head. And, indeed, all the men of Yport had sailed for the Northern fisheries, leaving the village to the women and children, and the maimed.

Within the house there were sounds of some one astir.

"One comes!" cried a cheery voice belonging assuredly to some one who was brave, for none expects to be called from his bed to hear good news. A single bolt was drawn and the door thrown open. The cure—a little man—stood back, shading the candle with his hand.

"Ah, Jean Belfort! it is you."

"Yes, I and my one arm," replied the man, coming in and closing the door. The rain dripped from his oilskins to the clean floor.

"Ah, but this is no night to complain. Better be on shore with one arm than at sea with two to-night."

The little cure looked at his visitor with bright eyes, and a shake of the head. A quick-spoken man this, with a little square mouth, a soft heart, a keen sense of humour.

"Why have you got me from my bed, malcontent?" he asked.

"Because there are some out there that want your prayers," replied Belfort, jerking his head towards the sea. He was an unbeliever, this maimed sailor, who read the Petit Journal, and talked too loudly in the Cafe de la Marine of an evening. He spoke mockingly now.

"One can pray in the morning. Come with me while I get on some clothes—if it is a wreck," said the priest, simply.

The man followed him to a little bare room, of which the walls were decorated by two cheap sacred prints and a crucifix, such as may be bought for ten sous at any fair on the coast.

"Never mind your hat," said the priest, seeing the man's fingers at the strings of his sou'wester. "Give me my great boots from the cupboard. A wreck is it? The summer storms are always the worst. Is it a boat?"

"Who knows?" replied the man. "It is my wife who looked from the window an hour ago, and saw a light at sea two points to the east of north—a red light and then a green and then the masthead light."

"A steamer."

"So it would appear; and now there are no lights. That is all."

The priest was dressed, and now pulled on a great oilskin coat. There are men who seem compact in mind and body, impressing their fellows with a sense of that restfulness which comes of assured strength. This little priest was one of these, and the mental impress that he left upon all who came in contact with him was to the effect that there is nothing in a human life that need appal, no sorrow beyond the reach of consolation—no temptation too strong to be resisted. The children ran after him in the streets, their faces expectant of a joke. The women in the doorways gave a little sigh as he passed. A woman will often sigh at the thought of that which another woman has lost, and this touches a whole gamut of thoughts which are above the reach of a man's mind.

The priest tied the strings of a sou'wester under his pink chin. He was little more than a boy after all—or else he was the possessor of a very young heart.

"Between us we make a whole man—you and I," he said cheerily. "Perhaps we can do something."

They went out into the night, the priest locking the door and pausing to hide the key under the mat in the porch. They all keep the house-door key under the mat at Yport. In the narrow street, which forms the whole village, running down the valley to the sea, they met the full force of the gale, and stood for a moment breathlessly fighting against it. In a lull they pushed on.

"And the tide?" shouted the priest.

"It is high at four o'clock—a spring tide, and the wind in the north-west—not standing room on the shore against the cliff for a man from here to Glainval."

At high tide the waves beat against the towering cliff all along this grim coast, and a man standing on the turf may not recognize his son on the rocks below, while the human voice can only span the distance in calmest weather. There are spaces of three and four miles between the gaps in the great and inaccessible bluffs. An evil lee-shore to have under one's quarter—one of the waste places of the world which Nature has set apart for her own use. When Nature speaks it is with no uncertain voice.

"There is old Loisette," shouted the cure. "He may have gone to bed sober."

"There is no reason to suppose it," shouted the man in reply. "No, my father, if there is aught to be done, you and I must do it."

What with the wind and the flannel ear-flaps of the sou'wester, it was hard to make one's self heard, and the two faces almost touched—the unbeliever who knew so little, and the priest who knew not only books but men. They made their way to the little quay, or, rather, the few yards of sea-wall that protect the houses at the corner of the street. But here they could not stand, and were forced to retire to the lee side of the Hotel de la Plage, which, as all know, stands at the corner, with two timorous windows turned seaward, and all the rest seeking the comfort of the street.

In a few words Belfort explained where the light had been seen, and where, according to his judgment, the steamer must have taken the rocks.

"If the good God has farther use for any of them, he will throw them on the shore a kilometre to the east of us, where the wire rope descends from the cliff to the shore for the seaweed," said the priest.

The other nodded.

"What must be done must be done quickly. Let us go," said the little cure in his rather bustling manner, at which the great, slow-limbed fishermen were wont to laugh.

"Where to?"

"Along the shore."

"With a rising tide racing in before a north-westerly wind?" said Belfort, grimly, and shook his head.

"Why not? You have your two legs, and there is Some One—up there!"

"I shouldn't have thought it," answered the man, glancing up at the storm-driven clouds. "However, where a priest can go a one-armed man can surely follow. We need lanterns and a bottle of brandy."

"Yes; I will wait and watch here while you fetch them."

The priest, left alone, peered round the corner, shading his eyes with his soft, white hand, upon which the cold rain pattered. To the east of him he knew that there were three miles of almost impassable shore, of unbroken, unscalable cliff. To the west of him the same. On the one hand Fecamp, five miles away by a cliff path that none would attempt by night, nine miles by road. On the other hand Etretat, still further by road and cliff path. Inland a few farms and many miles of forest. He and Belfort had stumbled over the fallen telegraph wires as they struggled down the village street. No; if there was a wreck out there in the darkness, and men, clinging half-drowned to the rigging, were looking towards the shore, they had better look elsewhere. The sea, like the wind, treated Yport as the mouth of a funnel, and a hundred cross currents were piling up such waves as no boat could pass, though the Yport women were skilful as any man with oar or sail.

Presently Belfort returned carrying two lanterns.

"I have told her that we will not quit the seawall," he said with a short laugh.

And straightway they both clambered over the wall and down the iron ladder to the beach. A meandering, narrow pathway is worn on the weed-grown chalk from the village to the washing-ground on the beach, a mile to the eastward, where, at low tide, a spring of fresh water wells up amid the shingle and the rock. Along this pathway the two men made their way, the cure following on his companion's heel. They stumbled and fell many times. At every step they slipped, for their boots were soaked, and the chalk was greasy and half decomposed by the salt water. At times they paused to listen, and through the roar of the wind and sea came the distant note of a bell clanging continuously.

"It is the bell on Fecamp pier," said Belfort. "The mist is coming before the dawn."

To the east the long arm of Fecamp light swung slowly round the horizon, from the summit of the great bluff of Notre Dame du Salut, as if sweeping the sea and elbowing away all that dared approach so grim a coast.

"Ah!" exclaimed the priest, "I am in the water—the tide is coming up."

To their left a wall of foam and spray shut off all view of the sea. On the right the cliff rose, a vast barrier, and cut the sky in two. These two men had nothing in common. They had, indeed, standing between them that sword which was brought into the world nineteen hundred years ago, and is still unsheathed. But neither thought of turning back. It had been agreed between them that they should make what speed they could along the shore, and only turn back at the last moment, searching the sea and beach as they returned in the light of dawn.

Belfort, the leader, the expert in night and tide and wind, led the way with one eye on the sea, the other on the eastern sky, which was now showing grey through tossing clouds.

"Here we must turn," he said suddenly, "and the last half-mile to the sea-wall we shall have to wade."

They paused and looked up to the sky. In half an hour the day would come, but in seventy minutes the breakers must beat against the sheer cliff.

"None has reached the shore alive and with his senses," said Belfort, looking out to sea. "He would have seen our lights and come to us, or called if he had broken limbs. It is useless to search the shore too closely. We shall find them here at the edge, half in, half out, especially those with life belts, such as we find any winter morning after bad weather."

He spoke grimly, as one who knew that it is not the deep sea that must be paid its toll, but the shoal water where the rocks and quicksands and crabs and gulls are waiting. They made their way back in silence, and slowly a new grey day crept into life. At last they could see the horizon and read the face of the water still torn into a seething chaos of foam. There was no ship upon them. If there had been a wreck the storm had done its work thoroughly. Belfort climbed to the summit of a rock, and looked back towards Fecamp. Then he turned and searched the shore towards Yport.

"There is one," he cried, "half in, half out, as I said. We shall cheat the crabs at all events, my father."

And clambering down, he stumbled on with a reckless haste that contrasted strangely with his speech. For, whatever our words may be, a human life must ever command respect. Any may (as some have done) die laughing, but his last sight must necessarily be of grave faces.

"This one is not dead," said the priest, when they had turned the man over and dragged him to dry land. Belfort cut away the life-belt, examining it as he did so.

"No name," he said. "They will have to wait over there in London, till he can tell them what ship it was. See, he has been struck on the head. But he is alive—a marvel."

He looked up, meeting the priest's eyes, and, remembering his words spoken under the lee of the wall of the Hotel de la Plage, he laughed as a fencer may laugh who has been touched beyond doubt by a skilful adversary.

"He is a small-made man and light enough to carry—some town mouse this, my father—who has never had a wet jacket before—see his face how white it is, and his little arms and hands. We can carry him, turn and turn about, and shall reach the sea-wall before the tide is up, provided we find no more."

It was full daylight when they at length reached the weed-grown steps at the side of the sea-wall, and the smoke was already beginning to rise from the chimneys of Yport. The gale was waning as the day came, but the sea was at its highest, and all the houses facing northward had their wooden shutters up. The waves were breaking over the sea-wall, but the two men with their senseless burden took no heed of it. They were all past thinking of salt water.

In answer to their summons, the Mother Senneville came hastily enough to the back door of the Hotel de la Plage—a small inn of no great promise. The Mother Senneville was a great woman, six feet high, with the carriage of a Grenadier, the calm eye of some ruminating animal, the soft, deep voice, and perhaps the soft heart, of a giant.

"Already!" she said simply, as she held the door back for them to pass in. "I thought there would likely be some this morning without the money in their pockets."

"This one will not call too loud for his coffee," replied Belfort, with a cynicism specially assumed for the benefit of the cure. "And now," he added, as they laid their burden on the wine-stained table, "if he has papers that will tell us the name of the ship, I will walk to Fecamp, to Lloyds' agents there, with the news. It will be a five-franc piece in my pocket."

They hastily searched the dripping clothing, and found a crumpled envelope, which, however, told them all they desired to know. It was addressed to Mr. Albert Robinson, steamship Ocean Waif, Southampton.

"That will suffice," said Belfort. "I take this and leave the rest to you and Mother Senneville."

"Send the doctor from Fecamp," said the woman—"the new one in the Rue du Bac. It is the young ones that work best for nothing, and here is no payment for any of us."

"Not now," said the priest.

"Ah!" cried Belfort, tossing off the brandy, which the Mother Senneville had poured out for him. "You—you expect so much in the Hereafter, Mr. the Cure."

"And you—you expect so much in the present, Mr. the one-armed malcontent," replied the priest, with his comfortable little laugh. "Come, Madame Senneville. Let me get this man to bed."

"It is an Englishman, of course," said the Mother Senneville, examining the placid white face. "They throw their dead about the world like cigar-ends."

By midday the news was in the London streets, and the talk was all of storms and wrecks and gallant rescues. And a few whose concern it was noted the fact that the Ocean Waif, of London, on a voyage from Antwerp and Southampton to the River Plate, had supposedly been wrecked off the north coast of France. Sole survivor, Albert Robinson, apparently a fireman or a steward, who lay at the Hotel de la Plage at Yport, unconscious, and suffering from a severe concussion of the brain. By midday, also, the cure was established as sick nurse in the back bedroom of the little hotel with an English conversation-book, borrowed from the schoolmaster, protruding from the pocket of his soutane, awaiting the return of Albert Robinson's inner consciousness.

"Are you feeling better?" the cure had all ready to fire off at him as soon as he awoke. To which the conversation-book made reply: "Yes, but I have caught a severe chill on the mountain," which also the cure had made ready to understand—with modifications.

But the day passed away without any use having been found for the conversation-book. And sundry persons, whose business it was, came and looked at Albert Robinson, and talked to the priest and to Jean Belfort—who, to tell the truth, made much capital and a number of free glasses of red wine out of the incident—and went away again.

The cure passed that night on the second bed of the back bedroom of the Hotel de la Plage, and awoke only at daylight, full of self-reproach, to find his charge still unconscious, still placid like a statue, with cheeks a little hollower, and lips a little whiter. The young doctor came and shook his head, and discoursed of other cases of a similar nature which he had read up since the previous day, and pretended now to have remembered among his experiences. He also went away again, and Yport seemed to drop out of the world once more into that oblivion to which a village with such a poor sea front and no railway station, or lodging houses, or hotels where there are waiters, must expect to be consigned.

The cure had just finished his dejeuner of fish and an omelette—the day being Friday—when a carriage rattled down the village street, leaving behind it doorways suddenly occupied by the female population of Yport wiping its hands upon its apron.

"It is Francois Morin's carriage from Fecamp," said the Mother Senneville, "with a Parisienne, who has a parasol, if you please."

"No," corrected the cure; "that is an Englishwoman. I saw several last year in Rouen."

And he hurried out, hatless, conversation-book in hand. He was rather taken aback—never having spoken to a person so well-dressed as this English girl, who nodded quickly in answer to his salutation.

"Is this the hotel? Is he here? Is he conscious yet?" she asked in tolerable French.

"Yes—madam. He is here, but he is not conscious yet. The doctor—"

"I am not madam—I am mademoiselle. I am his sister," said the girl, quickly descending from the carriage and frankly accepting the assistance of the cure's rather timid hand.

He followed her meekly, wondering at her complete self-possession—at an utter lack of ceremony—at a certain blunt frankness which was new to Yport. She nodded to Madame Senneville.

"Where is he?" she asked.

"Monsieur le Cure will show you. It is he who has saved his life."

The young lady turned and looked into the priest's pink face, which grew pinker. This was not the material of which gallant rescuers are usually made.

"Thank you, Monsieur le Cure," she said, with a sudden gentleness. "Thank you. It is so difficult—is it not?—to thank any one."

"There is not the necessity," murmured the little cure, rather confusedly; and he led the way upstairs.

Once in the sick-room he found his tongue again, and explained matters volubly enough. Besides, she made it easy. She was so marvellously natural, so free from a certain constraint which in some French circles is mistaken for good manners. She asked every detail, and made particular inquiry as to who had seen the patient.

"No one must be allowed to see him," she said, in her decisive way. "He must be kept quite quiet. No one must approach this room, only you and I, Monsieur le Cure."

"Yes, mademoiselle," he said slowly. "Yes."

"You have been so good—you have done such wonders, that I rely upon you to help me;" and a sudden, sharp look of anxiety swept across her face. "We shall be good friends—n'est ce pas?" she said, turning to look at him as he stood near the door.

"It will be easy, I think, mademoiselle."

Then he turned to Madame Senneville, who was carrying the baggage upstairs.

"It is his sister, Madame Senneville," he said. "She will, of course, stay in the hotel."

"Yes, and I have no room ready," replied the huge woman, pessimistically. "One never knows what a summer storm may bring to one."

"No, Mother Senneville, no; one never knows," he said rather absently, and went out into the street. He was thinking of the strange young person upstairs, who was unlike any woman he had met or imagined. Those in her station in life whom he had seen during his short thirty years were mostly dressed-up dolls, to whom one made banal remarks without meaning. The rest were almost men, doing men's work, leading a man's life.

That same evening the injured man recovered consciousness, and it was the cure who sent off the telegram to the doctor at Fecamp. For the wire had been repaired with the practical rapidity with which they manage such affairs in France.

Through the slow recovery it was the cure who was ever at the beck and call of the two strangers, divining their desires, making quite easy a situation which otherwise might have been difficult enough. Not only the cure, but the whole village soon became quite reconciled to the hitherto unheard-of position assumed by this young girl, without a guardian or a chaperon, who lived a frank, fearless life among them, making every day terrible assaults upon that code of feminine behaviour which hedges Frenchwomen about like a wall.

In the intimacy of the sick-room the little priest soon learnt to talk with the Englishwoman and her brother quite freely, as man to man, as he had talked to his bosom friend by selection at St. Omer. And there was in his heart that ever-abiding wonder that a woman may thus be a companion to a man, sharing his thoughts, nay, divining them before he had shaped them in his own mind. It was all very wonderful and new to this little priest, who had walked, as it were, on one side of the street of life since boyhood without a thought of crossing the road.

When the three were together they were merry enough; indeed, the Englishman's mistakes in French were sufficient to cause laughter in themselves without that re-action which lightens the atmosphere of a sick-room when the danger is past. But while he was talking to the Mother Senneville downstairs, or waiting a summons to come up, the cure never heard laughter in the back bedroom. There seemed to be some shadow there which fled before his cheery smile when he went upstairs. When he and the girl were together when she walked on the sea-wall with him for a breath of air, she was grave enough too, as if now that she knew him better she no longer considered it necessary to assume a light-heartedness she did not feel.

"Are you sure there is nothing I can do to make your life easier here?" he asked suddenly one day.

"Quite sure," she answered without conviction.

"Have you all that you want, mademoiselle?"

"Oh yes."

But he felt that there was some anxiety weighing upon her. He was always at or near the Hotel de la Plage now, so that she could call him from the window or the door. One day—a day of cloud and drizzle, which are common enough at Yport in the early summer—he went into the little front room, which the Mother Senneville fondly called her salon, to read the daily office from the cloth-bound book he ever carried in his pocket. He was engaged in this devout work when the Englishwoman came hastily into the room, closing the door and standing with her back against it.

"There is a gendarme in the street," she said, in little more than a whisper, her eyes glittering. She was breathless.

"What of it, mademoiselle? It is my old friend the Sergeant Grall. It is I who christen his children."

"Why is he here?"

"It is his duty, mademoiselle. The village is peaceful enough now that the men are away at the fisheries. You have nothing to fear."

She glanced round the room with a hunted look in her eyes.

"Oh," she said, "I cannot keep it up any longer. You must have guessed—you who are so quick—that my brother is a great criminal. He has ruined thousands of people. He was escaping with the money he had stolen when the steamer was wrecked."

The cure did not say whether this news surprised him or not, but walked to the window and looked thoughtfully out to sea. The windows were dull and spray-ridden.

"Ah!" the girl cried, "you must not judge hastily. You cannot know his temptation."

"I will not judge at all, mademoiselle. No man may judge of another's temptation. But—he can restore the money."

"No. It was all lost in the steamer."

She had approached the other window, and stood beside the little priest looking out over the grey sea.

"It was surely my duty to come here and help him, whatever he had done."

"Assuredly, mademoiselle."

"But he says you can give him up if you like."

She glanced at him and caught her breath. The priest shook his head.

"Why not? Because you are too charitable?" she whispered; and again he shook his head. "Then, why not?" she persisted with a strange pertinacity.

"Because he is your brother, mademoiselle."

And they stood for some moments looking out over the sea, through the rime-covered windows, in a breathless silence. The cure spoke at length.

"You must get him removed to Havre," he said, in his cheery way, "as soon as possible. There he can take a steamer to America. I will impress upon the doctor the necessity of an early departure."

It was not lately, but many years ago, that the Ocean Waif was wrecked in a summer storm. And any who penetrate to Yport to-day will probably see in the sunlight on the sea-wall a cheery little cure, who taps his snuff-box, while he exchanges jokes with the idlers there. Yport has slowly crept into the ken of the traveller, and every summer sees English tourists pass that way. They are not popular with the rough natives, who, after all, are of the same ancestry as ourselves; but the little cure is quick and kind with information or assistance to all who seek it. When the English tongue is spoken he draws near and listens—snuff-box in hand; when the travellers speak in French his eyes travel out to sea with a queer look, as if the accent aroused some memory.

And in an obscure English watering-place there lives a queer little old maid—churchy and prim—who does charitable work, gives her opinion very freely concerning the administration of matters parochial, thinks the vicar very self-indulgent and idle—and in her own heart has the abiding conviction that there are none on earth like the Roman clergy.