In a Breton Village by S. Elizabeth Hall
n a wild and little-known part of the coast of Brittany, where, in
place of sandy beach or cliff, huge granite boulders lie strewn along
the shore, like the ruins of some Titan city, and assuming, here the
features of some uncouth monster, there the outline of some gigantic
fortress, present an aspect of mingled farce and solemnity, and give the
whole region the air of some connection with the under-world,—on this
coast, and low down among the boulders out to sea, stands a little
The granite cottages with their thatched roofs—bits of warm colour
among the bare rocks—lie on a tongue of land between the two inlets of
the sea, which, when the tides run high, nearly cut them off from the
mainland. Opposite the village on the other side of the little inland
sea, is a second cluster of piled-up rocks thrust forth, like the fist
of a giant, to defy the onslaught of Neptune, and on a plateau near the
summit, is the skeleton of a house, built for a summer residence by a
Russian Prince, who had a fancy for solitude and sea air, but abandoned
for some reason before the interior was completed. Solitary and
lifeless, summer and winter, it looks silently down like a wall-eyed
ghost over the waste of rocks and sea.
Below the house and close down by the seashore, is a low, thatched
cottage, built against the rock, which forms its back wall, and on to
which the rough granite blocks of which the cottage is constructed are
rudely cemented with earth and clay; the floor also consists of the
living rock, not levelled, but just as the foot of the wanderer had
trodden it under the winds of heaven for ages before the cottage was
built. In this primitive dwelling—which was not, however, more rude
than many of the fishermen's cottages along the coast—there lived, a
few years since, three persons: old Aimée Kaudren, aged seventy, who
with her snow-white cap and sabots, and her keen clear-cut face, might
have been seen any day in or near the cottage, cutting the gorse-bushes
that grew about the rocks for firing, leading the cow home from her
scanty bit of grazing, kneeling on the stone edge of the pond by the
well, to wash the clothes, or within doors cooking the soup in the huge
cauldron that stood on the granite hearth. A sight indeed it was to see
the aged dame bending over the tripod, with the dried gorse blazing
beneath it, while its glow illumined the dark, cavernous chimney above,
was flashed back from the polished doors of the great oak chest, with
its burnished brass handles, and from the spotless copper saucepans
hanging on the walls; and brightened the red curtains of the cosy
box-bedstead in the corner by the fire.
The second inhabitant of the cottage was Aimée's son, Jean, the
fisherman, with his blue blouse, and his swarthy, rough-hewn face,
beaten by wind and weather into an odd sort of resemblance to the rocks
among which he passed his life—the hardy and primitive life to which he
had been born, and to which all his ideas were limited, a life of
continual struggle with the elements for the satisfaction of primary
needs, and which was directed by the movements of nature, by the tides,
the winds, and the rising and setting of the sun and the moon.
And thirdly there was Jean's nephew, Antoine.
The day before Antoine was born, his father had been drowned in a storm
which had wrecked many of the fishing-boats along the coast, and his
mother, from the shock of the news, gave premature birth to her babe,
and died a few hours after. His grandmother had brought up the child,
and his silent, rough-handed uncle had adopted him, and worked for him,
as if he were his own. So the little Antoine, with his blond head, and
his little bare feet, grew up in the rock-hewn cottage, like a bright
gorse-flower among the boulders, and spent an untaught childhood,
pattering about the granite floor, or clambering over the rough rocks,
and dabbling in the salt water, where he would watch the beautiful green
anemones, that had so many fingers but no hands, and which he never
touched, because, if he did, they spoilt themselves directly, packing
their fingers up very quickly, so that they went into nowhere: or the
prawns, that he always thought were the spirits of the other fish, for
they looked as if they were made of nothing, and they lay so still under
a stone, as if they were not there, and then darted so quickly across
the pool that you could not see them go.
Antoine knew a great deal about the spirits: how there were evil ones,
such as that which dwelt in the great mushroom stone out yonder to sea,
which was very powerful and wicked, so that the stone, being in fear,
always trembled, yet could not fall, because the evil spirit would not
let it: and then there were others which haunted the little valley
beyond Esquinel Point, where you must not go after dark, for the spirits
took the form of Little Men, who had the power to send astray the wits
of any that met them. Antoine feared those spirits more than any of the
others: they were so cunning and wanted to do you harm on purpose: and
when he went with his grandmother to pray in the little chapel on the
shore, he used to trot away from her side, as she knelt on her chair
with clasped hands and devoutly murmuring lips; and he would wander over
the rugged stone floor, till he found the niche in the wall where St.
Nicholas stood, wearing a blue cloak with a pink border, and having such
lovely pink cheeks: the kind St. Nicholas that took care of little
children, and that had three little boys without any clothes on always
with him, in the kind of little boat he stood in. And Antoine would
pray a childish prayer to St. Nicholas to protect him from the evil
spirits of the valley.
Antoine grew up very tall and strong. He accompanied Jean on his fishing
expeditions from the time he was twelve years old, and his uncle used to
say that he was of more use than many a grown man. He knew every rock
and even-current along that dangerous coast: he could trim the boat to
the wind through narrow channels in weather in which Jean would hardly
venture to do it himself: and the way in which the fish took his bait
made Jean sometimes cross himself, as he counted over the shining
boat-load of bream and cod, and mutter in his guttural Breton speech,
"'Tis the blessed St. Yvon aids him." Everybody liked him in the
village, and he took a kind of lead among the other lads, but, whether
it was the grave gaze of his blue eyes, or his earnest, outright speech,
or some other quality about him less easy to define, they all had the
same kind of feeling in regard to him that his uncle had. He was
different from themselves. There were indeed some among them in whom
this acknowledged superiority inspired envy and ill-will, and one in
particular, a lad that went lame with a club foot, but who had a
beautiful countenance, with dark, glowing eyes and finely-cut features,
never lost an opportunity of saying an ill word of, or doing an ill turn
to Antoine. Geoffroi Le Cocq seemed never far off, wherever Antoine
might be. He would lounge in the doorway of the café, watching for him,
and sing a mocking song as he passed down the road. He would mimic his
sayings among the other lads, who were not, however, very ready to join
in deriding him. And once he contrived to poison the Kaudrens' bait,
just when weather and season were at their best for fishing, so that
Antoine brought not a single fish home. Jean, with the quick-blazing
anger of his race, declared that if he could find the man who had done
it, he would "break his skull." But Antoine, though he knew well enough
who had done it, held his peace. Geoffroi was quicker of speech than
Antoine, and on the Sunday, when the whole village trooped out of the
little chapel after mass, and streamed down the winding village road,
the women in their white coiffes and black shawls, and the men in their
round Breton hats with buckles and streaming ribbons, while knots began
to collect about the doors of the village cafés, and laughter, gossip
and the sound of the fiddle arose on the sunny air, Geoffroi would
gather a circle round him to hear his quips and odd stories, and to join
in the fun that he would mercilessly make of others less quick than
himself at repartee. It was extraordinary on these occasions how
Geoffroi, like a spider in his web on the watch for a fly, would
contrive to draw Antoine into his circle, sometimes as though it were
merely to show off his cleverness before him, at other times adroitly
lighting on some quaint habit or saying of Antoine's, holding it up to
ridicule, now in one light, now in another, with a versatility that
would have made his fortune as a comedian, and returning to the charge
again and again, in the hope, as it seemed, of provoking Antoine's
seldom-stirred anger: but in this entirely failing, for Antoine would
generally join heartily in the laugh himself. Only once did a convulsion
of anger seize him, and he strode forward in the throng and gave
Geoffroi the lie to his face, when the latter had said that Marie
Pierrés kissed him in the Valley of Dwarfs, the evening before. He knew
that Geoffroi only said it to spite him; for Marie—the daughter of
Jean's partner—was his fiancée, and was as true as gold: but the image
the words called up convulsed his brain; a blind impulse sprang up
within him to strike and crush that beautiful face of Geoffroi's. He
clenched his fist and dared him to repeat the words. Geoffroi would only
reply, in his venomous way, "Come to-night to the Valley and see if I
lie." And the same instant the keen, strident voice was silenced by one
straight blow from Antoine's fist.
In the confused clamour of harsh Breton speech that arose, as neighbours
rushed to separate the two and friends took one side or the other,
Antoine strode away with a brain on fire and a mind intent on one
object—to prove the lie at once.
To go to the Valley of Dwarfs in order to spy on Marie and Geoffroi was
impossible to him. But he marched straight off to Marie's cottage. He
knew she would deny the charge, and her word was as good as the Blessed
Gospel: but he longed to hear the denial from her lips. He pictured her
as she would look when she spoke: the hurt, innocent expression of her
candid eyes: her rosy cheeks flushing a deeper red under her demure
snow-white cap: her child-like lips uttering earnest and indignant
protestation. When he reached the cottage, he found the door locked; no
one was about; he leaned his elbows on the low, stone wall in front and
Presently clattering sabots were heard coming down the road, and he
perceived old Jeanne Le Gall trudging along, her back nearly bent double
under a large bundle of dried sea-weed. She and her goat lived in the
low, rubble-built hovel, that adjoined the Pierrés' cottage, and from
her lonely, eccentric habits, and uncanny appearance, she had the
reputation of being a sorceress. Antoine called to her to know where
"Gone to the widow Conan's," mumbled the old woman, her strange eyes
gleaming under the sprays of sea-weed, "she and her father and mother,
all of them."
She deposited her load, and hobbled off again, fixing her eyes on
Antoine as she turned away, but saying nothing more.
Antoine strolled a little down the lane, seated himself on the steps of
the cross at the corner, and waited—evening was drawing on and they
were sure to return before dark.
Presently the cluck, cluck of the sabots was heard again, and old Jeanne
slowly approached him from behind. She said something in her toothless,
mumbling way, and held out a crumpled bit of paper in her shaking hand.
He opened it and read, scrawled as if in haste, in ill-spelt Breton:
"I go to a baptism at St. Jean-du-Pied, and cannot return before
sun-down. Meet me at the cross on the hill-side at six o'clock, as I
fear to pass through the valley alone in the dark. Marie."
As he studied the writing, the old woman's mumblings became more
articulate. She was saying, "'Twas the child Conan should have brought
it an hour ago. But he is ever good-for-nothing, and forgot it."
Antoine looked at the sun, which was already westering, and perceived
that he must set out to meet Marie in half-an-hour. He got up and walked
slowly towards the sandy shore of the little inlet, wide and wet at low
tide, on the other side of which lay his own home. He walked slowly, but
he felt as if he were hurrying at a headlong pace. The thought kept
going round and round in his brain like a little torturing wheel, which
nothing would stop, that after all Marie was going to the Dwarf's
Valley this evening, just as Geoffroi had said. Geoffroi's words were
still sounding in his ears, and his right hand was clenched, as he had
clenched it when the whirlwind of anger first convulsed him.
He entered his own cottage, hardly knowing what he did.
Old Aimée was bending over the cauldron, cutting up cabbage for the
"Good-bye, Grandmother," he said. "I am going to the Dwarf's Valley."
Aimée looked up at him out of her keen old eyes.
"And why are you going there in the dark?" she said, "'Tis an evil
meeting place after the sun has set."
"Why do you say meeting place, Grandmother Whom do you think I am going
to meet there?"
"The blessed Saints protect you," she replied, "less you should meet
Whom you would not."
Antoine strode out again, without saying more. He fancied he was in the
Valley of Dwarfs already, about to meet Marie. He saw the weird, gnarled
trunks of trees on either hand, that grew among—sometimes writhed
around—the huge fantastic boulders: the dark cave-like recesses, formed
strangely between and under them where the dwarfs lay hidden to emerge
at dusk: the sides of the ravine towering up stern and gloomy on either
hand: and high above all against the sky, the grey stone cross at which
he was to meet Marie. He saw it all as if he were there, and the ground
beneath him, as he tramped on, seemed unreal. Twilight was already
falling over the rocks and the grey sea: there were no lights in the
village, except such as shone here and there in a cottage window: the
distant roar of the sea was heard, as it dashed over a long line of
rocks two or three miles out, but there was hardly any other sound: the
place indeed seemed God-abandoned, like some long-forgotten strand of a
dead world, with the skeleton house on the rock above for its forsaken
It was already dark in the ravine when Antoine arrived there, and anyone
not knowing how instinctive is the feeling for the ways of his mother
earth in a son of the soil, would have thought his straightforward
stride, in such a chaos of rocks and pitfalls, reckless, till they
observed with what certainty each step was taken where alone it was
possible and safe. He was making his way through the valley to the cross
above, where the light still lingered, and it yet wanted some fifteen
minutes to the time of rendez-vous, when he suddenly stopped in a
listening attitude; he had reached a part of the valley to which
superstition had attached the most dangerous character. A particular
rock called "The Black Stone," which towered over him on the left, and
slightly bending towards the centre of the valley, seemed like some
threatening monster about to swoop upon the traveller, was especially
regarded as the haunt of evil spirits. It was in this direction that he
now heard a slight sound, which his practised ear discerned at once as
not being one of the sounds of nature. Immediately afterwards the shadow
of the rock beside him seemed to move and enlarge, and out of it there
sprang the figure of a man, and stood straight in Antoine's path.
Antoine's whole frame became rigid, like that of a beast of prey on the
point of springing, even before the shadow revealed its limping foot.
Geoffroi was the first to speak.
"You gave me the lie this afternoon. Take it back now and see what you
think of the taste of it. Would you like to see Marie?"
"What are you saying? What is it to you when I see Marie?"
"It is this—that I have arranged a nice little meeting for you. Hein?
Are you not obliged to me?"
Antoine's voice sounded hollow and muffled as he replied, "Stand out of
the path. You have nought to do between her and me."
"You think so? Then you shall learn what I have to do. You think you are
going to meet her at the cross at six o'clock. But you will not, you
will meet her sooner than that. It was I that sent you that message, and
I have advanced the time by half an hour. Am I not kind?"
Antoine's hand was on his collar like an iron vice.
"What have you done with her? Where is she?"
Geoffroi writhed himself free with movements lithe like those of a
panther. "Will you take back the lie," he said, "or will you see the
proof with your own eyes?"
He was turning with a mocking sign to Antoine to follow, when from the
left of the rock beside which they stood, there darted forward the
white-coiffed figure of a girl, who with extended arms and agonized
face, rushed up to Geoffroi, crying, "Take me away—I have seen Them!
Take me away."
She clung to Geoffroi's arm, and screamed when Antoine would have
touched her. Antoine stood for a moment as if turned to stone. Marie
seemed half fainting and clung hysterically to Geoffroi, apparently
hardly conscious of what she was doing. Geoffroi took her in his arms
and kissed her. The act was so loathsome in its deliberate effrontery,
that Antoine felt as if he was merely crushing a serpent when he struck
him to the ground and tore Marie from his hold. But he was dealing with
something which he did not understand for Marie, finding herself in his
grasp, opened her eyes on his face with a look of speechless terror, and
breaking from him, fled down the ravine, springing from rock to rock
with the security of recklessness.
Antoine followed her, stumbling through the darkness, but his speed was
no match for the madness of fear, and his steps were still to be heard
crashing through the furze bushes and loose stones, when the white
coiffe had flitted, like some bird of night, round the projecting
boulders of the sea-coast, and disappeared.
Old Jeanne Le Gall was leaning on her stick in her solitary way beside
the arched wellhead at the top of the lane, when she heard flying steps
along the pathway of rock that bordered the sea, and peered through the
twilight with her cunning old eyes, alert for something uncanny, or
perchance out of which she could make some profit for herself. Already
that day, she had earned a sou by carrying a bit of a letter, and
telling one or two little lies. As the steps came nearer, a kind of
moaning and sobbing was heard, and the old woman, muttering to
herself—"It is the voice of Marie. What has the devil's imp been doing
to her?"—hobbled as fast as she could to the turning that led to the
sea, and just as the flying figure appeared, put out her skinny hand to
arrest it. There was a sudden scream, a fall, and Marie lay in the road,
like one dead.
The cry brought to their doors, one after another, the occupants of the
neighbouring cottages; and as the dark-shawled, free-stepping Breton
women gathered round, for the clattering of sabots and of tongues, it
might have been a group of black sea-fowl clamouring over some
'trouvaille' of the sea, thrown up among their rocks.
They raised her painfully, with kind but ungentle hands, wept and called
on the saints, availing little in any way, till the heavy tramp of a
fisherman's nailed boots was heard on the rocks, and Antoine thrust the
throng aside, and bending over, took her up in his arms, as a mother
might her child, and without a word bore her along the road towards her
But he had scarcely placed her on the settle beside the bed, when her
eyes opened, and as they rested on him, again the look of terror came
into them: she flung herself away from him with a scream, and sobbing
and uttering strange sounds of fear and aversion, was hardly to be held
by the other women.
"She has lost her wits!" they cried. "Our Blessed Lady help her!"
White with fear themselves, and half believing it to be some
supernatural visitation, they clung round her, supporting her till the
fit had passed, and she lay back on the bed exhausted and half
unconscious: her fresh, young lips drawn with an unnatural expression of
suffering, and her frank, blue eyes heavy and lifeless. Antoine was
turned out of the cottage, lest the sight of him should excite her
again, and he marched away across the low rocks to his own home on the
solitary foreland. As he passed the chapel on the shore, he saw through
the open door, a single taper burning before the shrine of St. Nicholas,
and just serving to show the gloom and emptiness of the place; and it
seemed to him as though the Saints had deserted it.
He never saw Marie again. Once during her illness, the kind, clever old
Aimée, wrung by the sight of her boy's haggard face, as he went to and
fro about the boats, without food or sleep, took her way to the Pierrés'
cottage, with the present of a fine fresh "dorade" for the invalid; and
when she had stood for a minute by the bedside leaning on her stick, and
looking on the face of the half-unconscious girl, she began with her
natty old hand to pat Marie's shoulder, and with coaxing words to get
her to say that she would see Antoine. But at the first sound of the
name, the limp figure started up from the pillows, and from the
innocent, childish lips came a stream of strange, eager speech, as she
poured forth her conviction, like a cherished secret, that Antoine was
possessed of the Evil One: for Jeanne, the sorceress, had told her so:
that he was one of Them, and by night in the valley you could see him
in his own shape. Then she grew more wild, crying out that Antoine
would kill her: that he had bewitched her, and she must die.
Anyone unaware of the hold which superstition has over the Breton mind,
would perhaps hardly believe that the women stood round awe-struck at
this revelation, seeing nothing improbable in it. In spite of her
dangerous state of excitement, they eagerly pressed her with questions
as to what she had seen, and what Jeanne had said, but she had become
too incoherent to satisfy them, and only flung herself wildly about,
crying, "Let me go—he will kill me—let me go:" till she suddenly sank
down motionless on the pillow, was silent for a few moments, and then
began to murmur over and over in an awe-struck, eager whisper, "Go to
the Black Stone this night, and you shall see. Go to the Black Stone
this night, and you shall see."
While the old cronies shook their heads, muttering that it was true,
there had always been something uncanny about Antoine: and see the way
he would draw the fish into his net, against their own better sense: it
was plain there was something in Antoine they dared not resist:—old
Aimée hobbled out with her stick and sabots, without saying a word, went
round to the open door of the next cottage, and peered round the rough
wooden partition that screened off the inner half of the room. On a
settle beside the hearth, where a cauldron was boiling, sat Jeanne, the
sorceress, with her absorbed, concentrated air, as though her thoughts
were fixed on something which she could communicate to no one: she
turned her strange, bright eyes on the figure in the entrance, without
change of expression, and waited for Aimée to speak.
Aimée's face was like a cut diamond, so keen and bright was it, as
leaning on her stick, which she struck on the floor from time to time
with the emphasis of her speech, she said in her shrill Breton tones:—
"Mademoiselle Jeanne, I have come to ask of you what evil lie it is that
you have told to the child Marie, that lies on her death-bed yonder.
Come. You have been bribed by Geoffroi, that I know, and a son will
purchase snuff, and for that you will sell your soul. Good—It is for
you to do what you will with your own affairs: but when you cause an
injury to my belle-fille, so that she becomes like a mad woman and dies,
I come to ask you for an account of what you have done, Mademoiselle:
that you may undo what you have done, while there is yet time,
Jeanne's thin, stern lips trembled, almost as if in fear, as she
listened to Aimée. She turned her shaking head slowly towards her, then
fixed her deep eyes on hers, and said:
"I have warned your belle-fille, that she may be saved. It was my love
for her. Let her have nought to do with Them that dwell in the rocks and
the trunks of the great trees."
Old Aimée shook her stick on the floor with rage.
"Impious and wicked woman! Confess, I say, or I will tell the good curé,
who knows your tricks, and he will not give you absolution; and then
the Evil Ones will have their way with you yourself, for what shall
save you from them?"
The thin lips in the strange face trembled more. "The old sorceress
dwells alone, abandoned of all," she murmured. "If she take not a sou
when one or another will give it her, how shall she contrive to live?"
"What is it," demanded Aimée, with increasing shrillness, "that you have
told the child Marie about my grandson?"
A look of cunning suddenly drove away the expression of conscious guilt
in Jeanne's face. She dropped her eyes on the floor, mumbled
inarticulately a moment, and then said shiftily, "You have perhaps a few
sous in your pocket, Madame, to show good-will to the sorceress; for
without good-will she cannot tell you what you seek to know."
Aimée's keen eyes flashed, as drawing forth two sous from her pocket,
she said in a tone of incisive contempt, "You shall have these,
Mademoiselle, but not till you have told me the whole truth, as you
would to the curé at confession. Come then—say."
The sorceress began with shuffling tones and glances, which grew more
sure as she went on:
"I watched for the little one returning on the afternoon of Sunday—he
told me to do so. I was to give her the message that Antoine desired to
meet with her at the entrance of the Dwarf's Valley: I had but to give
the message: it was not my fault. I am but a poor old woman that does
the bidding of others."
"Well, well," said Aimée, impatiently, "what else did you tell her?"
Jeanne looked at her interlocutor again, and a strange expression grew
in her eyes.
"It is Jeanne that knows the Evil Ones, that knows their shape and their
speech. She knows them when they walk among men, and she knows them in
their homes in the dark valley."
"Chut, chut," cried Aimée, the more irritably that her maternal feelings
had to overcome her natural inclination to superstition. "It is only one
thing you have to tell—how did you frighten Marie so that she is ready
to go out of her wits at the sight of Antoine?"
"Nay, it was Geoffroi that frightened her, as they went up the ravine
together. I had but told her not to go alone, for that They were abroad
that night." The old woman broke into a curious chuckle. "How she
shivered, like a chicken in the wind! H'ch, h'ch! Then he took hold of
her arm and led her away, for I had told her he was a safe protector
against the spirits, not like some that wear the face of man and go up
and down in the village, saying that the people should not believe in
Jeanne the sorceress, for that she tells that which is untrue—while
they themselves have dealings such as none can know with the Evil Ones."
Aimée looked at her keenly for some moments with a curious expression on
her tightly-folded lips.
"You would have me believe that Marie went into the ravine when she knew
the spirits were about, and went on the arm of Geoffroi?"
"I tell you, Grandmère, that she did so. It was Jeanne that compelled
her. For Jeanne knows when a man is in league with Them, and she said to
Marie, 'Thou wilt wed Antoine, but thou knowest not what he is; go to
the Black Stone to-night, and thou shalt see.' H'ch! Jeanne knows
nothing, does she? But Marie went, for she knew that Jeanne was wise.
And what she saw, she saw."
It was strange to see the conflict between superstition and natural
affection in the face of Aimée. Her thoughts seemed to be rapidly
scanning the past, and there was fear as well as anger in her look.
Could it be that this child, flung into her arms, as it were, from the
shipwreck, born before his time of sorrow, the very offspring of
death,—that had always lived apart from the other lads, with strange,
quiet ways of his own—that had astonished her by his wise sayings as a
child—and that, growing up had brought unnatural prosperity to the
home, as though some higher hand were upon him—could it be that there
was something in him more than of this earth? Her hand trembled so that
it shook the stick on which she leant: she made one or two attempts to
speak, then dropped the two halfpence on the table, as if they burnt
her, and went out.
When Marie was a little better, they sent her away to her married
sister's at Cherbourg, for the doctor said that the only chance of
recovering her balance of mind, lay in removing her from everything that
would remind her of her fright, or of Antoine. News travels slowly in
those parts, especially among the poor and illiterate, and for months
Antoine heard nothing of her, except for an occasional message brought
by some chance traveller from Cherbourg, to the effect that she was
still ill: while his own troubles at home grew and gathered as time went
on. For since that night in the ravine everything seemed to have gone
wrong. A superstitious fear had associated itself with the idea of
Antoine in the minds of the other villagers. The Kaudrens' cottage was
more and more avoided, and the fishing business was injured, for people
chose rather to buy their fish of those of whom no evil things were
hinted. The Pierrés themselves were infected with this feeling, and
Marie's father would go partner with Jean no longer. Jean could not
support a fishing smack by himself, and gave up the distant voyages,
confining himself to the long-shore fishing, and disposing of his
oysters, crayfish and prawns as best he could in the more remote
villages. Meanwhile, old Aimée, getting older and more feeble, would sit
knitting in the cottage by a cheerless hearth, and as the supply of
potatoes, chestnuts and black bread grew scantier and scantier, would
furtively watch Antoine, with anxious, awe-struck glances, and then
would sometimes cross herself, and wipe a tear away unseen.
It was on a wild, stormy morning of January, that a letter at length
arrived for Antoine from Cherbourg. The news was blurted out with
tactless plainness. 'La pauvre petite' was no more. In proportion as she
grew calmer in mind, it appeared, Marie had grown weaker in body: and a
cold she had contracted soon after her arrival in Cherbourg, had settled
on her lungs, which were always delicate. For weeks she had not risen
from her bed, but had gradually pined away. There was a message for
Antoine. "Tell him," she had said, in one of her last intervals of
consciousness, "that I cannot bear to think of how I acted towards him.
Tell him I did not know what I was doing. Ask him to come—to come
quick. For I cannot die in peace, unless he forgives me." But she had
died before the message could be sent.
Antoine read the letter, crushed it in his great, trembling hand, and
looked round him as though searching blankly for the hostile power, that
had thus entangled, baffled and overthrown him. That voice from the
grave seemed to call on him to claim again the rights that had been
snatched from him. She was his, and he would see her face once more: he
would go to Cherbourg, and look on her dead face, that he might know it,
for she was his.
He would be in time, if he caught the night train (the funeral was the
following day). He would have to walk to St. Jean-du-Pied, the next
village along the coast, from which a diligence started in the
afternoon to the nearest railway station. Old Aimée did up a little
packet of necessaries for him, and borrowed money for the journey,
saying nothing as she watched his face, full of the inarticulate
suffering of the untaught. Antoine scarcely said farewell, as he walked
straight out of the cottage door towards the sea, to take the shortest
route to St. Jean-du-Pied by the coast. The rocks were white from the
sea-foam, as if with driven snow, and the black sea was lashed to
madness by a gale from the North East. The bitter wind tore across the
bleak country-side, scourging every rock, tree and living thing that
attempted to resist it, like the desolation of God descending in
judgment on the land. Wild, torn clouds chased each other across the
sky, and the deep roar of the sea among the rocks could be heard far
Antoine's thoughts meanwhile were whirling tumultuously round and round
one object—an object that had hovered fitfully before his mind for many
weeks—pressing closer and closer on it, till at length with triumphant
realization, they seized on it and made it the imperious necessity of
Ever since the night in the ravine, Antoine had been living in a strange
world: he had not known himself: his hand had seemed against every
man's, and every man's hand against his. He never went to mass, for he
felt that the good God had abandoned him.
Now he suddenly realised what it was he needed—the just punishment of
Geoffroi. The path of life would be straight again, and God on His
Throne in heaven, when Justice had been vindicated, and he had visited
his crime on the evildoer. That he must do it himself, was plain to him.
He marched on, possessed with a feeling that it was Geoffroi whom he
was going to seek, towards the projecting foreland that shut in the
village on the east. He was drenched by the waves, as they dashed madly
against the walls of rock, and to get round the boulders under such
circumstances was a dangerous task even for a skilled climber: but
Antoine seemed borne forward by a force stronger than himself, and went
on without pause, or doubt, till in a small inlet on the other side of
the foreland, he discerned a figure clinging to a narrow ledge of rock,
usually out of reach of the tide, but towards which the mighty waves
were now rolling up more and more threateningly each moment. There was
no mistaking the lithe, cringing movements, the particular turn of the
head looking backward over the shoulder in terror at the menacing
waters: even if Antoine had not known beforehand that he must find
Geoffroi on that path, and that he had come to meet him.
Geoffroi's position was (for him) extremely dangerous. A bold climber
might have extricated himself; but for a lame man to reach safety across
the sea-scourged rocks was almost impossible. Could he hold on long
enough and the sea rose no higher, he might be saved: but there would
yet be an hour before the turn of the tide, and already the waves were
racing over the ledge on which he stood. Antoine sprang over the
intervening rocks, scrambling and wading through the water, as if not
seeing what he did, till he set foot on the ledge, and stood face to
face with his enemy.
Geoffroi's face was white with fear. He knew his hour was come. In the
mighty strife of the elements, within an inch of death on every side, he
was at Antoine's mercy.
"Don't kill me," he cried abjectly. "Have mercy, for the love of God."
Antoine grasped the writhing creature by the shoulder. The white face of
Marie rose up before him. Geoffroi shrieked. A huge, heaving billow
advanced, swept round the feet of both and sank boiling in the gulf
beneath. The next that came would leave neither of them there. Antoine
stood with his hand on Geoffroi's shoulder, as if he would crush it.
Somewhat higher, but within reach, was a narrow projection in the rock,
to which there was room for one to cling, and only for one: and Geoffroi
with his lame foot could not reach it alone.
"Let me go," he shrieked. "I will confess all: but save me, save me!"
Suddenly another wave of feeling surged up in the soul of Antoine. He
seemed to see the cross on the hill side, as it stood in light that
evening when he was to have met Marie there. He saw the good God on the
cross again, as he used to see Him in the chapel. He had a strange, deep
feeling that he was God, or that God was he. He seemed to be on that
cross himself. The great, green wave towered above them twenty feet in
air. He grasped Geoffroi by both shoulders, and flung him up to the
ledge above with a kind of scorn. The next moment the rolling sea
descended. Antoine clung with all his force to the rock, but he knew
that he should never see the light again.
So was he drawn out into the great deep, in whose arms his father lay:
and the fisher-folk, when they knew it, looked for no sign of him more,
for they said he had gone back to the sea, from whence he came. For,
though they never knew the true story of his death, they felt that a
spirit of a different mould from theirs had passed from among them in
his own way.