The Road by the Sea by S. Elizabeth Hall

Part I.

F

rom East to West there stretched a long, straight road, glimmering white across the grey evening landscape: silently conscious, it seemed, of the countless human feet, that for ages had trodden it and gone their way—their way for good, or their way for evil, while the road remained. Coming as an alien from unknown scenes, the one thing in the country that spoke of change, yet itself more lasting than any, it seemed to be ever pursuing some secret purpose: persistent, relentless: a very Nemesis of a road.

On either side of it were barren "dunes," grudgingly covered by straggling heather and gorse, and to the South, at a little distance, rolled the dark-blue sea.

On the edge of the dune, near to a cluster of sweet-scented pines, stood two or three cottages built of grey stone, after the Breton manner, with high-pitched roofs of dove-coloured slate, and arched stone doorways, around which scratched pigs and hens, on equal terms with barefooted children. One of the cottages had "Buvette" inscribed over it in large, white letters, and a bench outside under a little awning; and opposite to this, a rough pathway led out of the road over the waste land to a hamlet on the dune, of which the grey, clustering cottages, crowning a rising ground about half a mile off, stood distinct against the opal sky of early evening.

Framed in the stone doorway of the Buvette, was the figure of a girl in a snow-white coiffe, of which the lappets waved in the wind, a short blue skirt, and sabots. She had a curious, inexpressive face, with the patient look of a dumb creature, and an odd little curl in her upper lip, which, with her mute expression, made her seem to be continually deprecating disapproval. She stood shading her eyes from the slanting sunbeams, as she looked up the road to the West. A little before her, out on the road, stood two other women, elderly, both white-capped, one leaning on a stick: they addressed brief sentences to one another now and again, in the disconnected manner of those who are expecting something: and they also stood looking up the road to the West.

And not they only, but a group of peasants belonging to the hamlet on the hill; free-stepping, strong-limbed Breton women, returning from the cliffs with bundles of dried sea-weed on their backs: a woman and two young lads from the furthermost cottage, with hoes in their hands, who had stepped out on to the road from their work of weeding the sorry piece of ground they had fenced in from the dune, and which yielded, at the best, more stones than vegetables: a couple of fishermen, who were tramping along the road with a basket of mackerel: and even old lame Jacques, who had risen from the bench on which he usually sat as though he had taken root there, and leant tottering on his stick, as he strained his blear eyes against the sunbeams: all stopped as if by one impulse: all seemed absorbed by one expectation, and stood gazing up the long, white road to the West.

The road was like a sensitive thing to ears long familiar with its various sounds, and vibrated at a mile's distance with the gallop of unwonted hoofs, or the haste of a rider that told of strange news. Moreover, all hearts were open to the touch of fear that October evening, when at any hour word might be brought of the fishing fleet that should now be returning from its long absence in distant seas: and one dare hardly think whether Jean and Pierre and little André would all be restored safely to the vacant places around the cottage fire: one dared not think: one could only pray to the Saints, and wait.

The girl with the mute, patient face had been the first to catch the sounds of galloping hoofs. She had from birth been almost speechless, with a paralysed tongue, but as if to compensate for this, her senses of touch and hearing were extraordinarily acute. The daughter of the aubergiste, she knew all who came and went along the road: the sights and sounds of the road were her interest the life of it was her life. She had heard in the faint, faint distance the galloping hoofs to the West: off the great rocks to the West the fleet should first be sighted: towards the West all one's senses seemed strained, on the alert for signals of danger, or hope: and at the sound, the heart within Annette's breast leaped with a sudden certainty of disaster.

Annette had never thought of love and marriage as possible for herself, but Paul Gignol had gone with the fleet for the first time this summer, and, for Annette, danger to the fleet meant danger to Paul. Paul and Annette were kin on her mother's side, and he being an orphan and adopted by her father, they had been brought up together like brother and sister. This summer had separated them for the first time, and when he bade her good-bye and sailed away, Annette felt like an uprooted piece of heather cast loose on the roadside, and belonging nowhere. And the first faint sounds of the hoofs on the road had struck on her ear as a signal from Paul. She made no sign, only stood still with a beating heart. And when the neighbours saw the dumb girl listening, they too came out into the road, and heard the galloping, now growing more and more distinct; and waited for the rider to appear on the ridge of the hill, which, some half mile off, raised its purple outline against the western sky.

They came out when they saw the dumb girl listening: for the keenness of the perceptions with which her fragile body was endowed, was well known among them, and was attributed to the direct agency of the unseen powers; with whom indeed she had been acknowledged from her birth to have closer relations than is the lot of ordinary mortals. For there could be no doubt that Annette's mother had received an intimation of some sort from the other world, the night before her child was born. She had been found lying senseless in the moonlight on the hill-top, and had never spoken from that hour till her death a week afterwards. As to what she had met or seen, there were various rumours: some of the shrewder gossips declaring that it was nothing but old Marie Gourdon, the sorceress, who had frightened her by predicting in her mysterious wisdom, which not the shrewdest of them dared altogether disregard, that some strange calamity would attend the life of the child she was about to bring forth; a child that had indeed turned out speechless, and of so sickly a constitution that from year to year one hardly expected her to live. Moreover, was it not the ill-omened figure of the old witch-woman, that had hobbled into the auberge with the news that Christine Leroux was lying like one dead by the roadside? On the other hand, however, it was asserted with equal assurance, that she had seen in the moonlight, with her own eyes, the evil spirit of the dunes: him of whom all travellers by night must beware; for it was his pleasure to delude them by showing lights as if of cottage windows on the waste land, where no cottage was: while twice within living memory, he had kindled false fires on the great rock out at sea, which they called Le Géant, luring mariners to their death: and woe betide the solitary wayfarer whose path he crossed!

Annette's father knew what his wife had seen: and one winter evening beside the peat-fire, as Annette was busy with her distaff, and he sat smoking and watching the glowing embers, he told her her mother's story. She and Paul's father, the elder Paul Gignol, had been betrothed in their youth; but his fishing-smack had struck on the rocks one foggy night, and gone down, and with it all his worldly wealth. And Christine's father had broken off the match; for he had never been favourable to it, and how was Paul to keep her now with nothing to look to, but what might be picked up in the harbour? And Paul was like one mad, and threatened to do her a bodily mischief, so that she was afraid to walk out at night by herself: and her father offered him money to go away: and he refused the money: but he went off at last, hiring himself out on a cargo-boat, and declaring as he went, that one day yet, he would meet Christine in the way, and have his revenge. And he was abroad for years, and wedded some English woman in one of the British sea-port towns, and at last was lost at sea on the very night on which Annette was born.

"And his spirit it was, Annette, that appeared to your mother in the road that night, the very hour that he died. For it was borne in on me that he had met her in the way, as he had said, and I asked her, as she lay a-dying, if it was Paul that she had seen; and she looked at me with eyes that spoke as plain as the speech that she had lost: and said that it was he."

Jules was ordinarily a silent man: he told the story slowly, with long pauses between the sentences: and when he had once told it, he never spoke of it again.

Now Annette thought of many things in her quiet, clear-sighted way. She knew that her mother had been found senseless at the foot of the menhir, which they called Jean of Kerdual, just beyond the crest of the hill: and she had often noticed the shadow which the great, weird stone threw across the road, and thought how like it was (especially by moonlight) to the figure of a fisherman with his peaked cap and blouse. She believed there was more in this than a chance resemblance; for to a Breton girl the supernatural world is very real: and she had no doubt that the spirit of Paul's father haunted the stone that was so like his bodily form, and that on the night when he was drowned, the dumb menhir had found voice, and had spoken to her mother in his name. Annette always avoided Jean of Kerdual, if it was possible to do so, and would never let his shadow fall upon her. She felt that the solemn, world-old stone was in some way hostile to her, and attributed her dumbness to its influence.

She often wished that she and her father did not live so near the stone. It had come to be like a nightmare to her. She would dream that it stood threateningly over her, enveloping her in its shadow: that she was struggling to speak, and that it reached forth a hand, heavy as stone, and laid it on her mouth, stifling utterance. Then the paralysis that had fettered her tongue from her birth, would creep over the rest of her senses and over all her limbs, till she lay motionless and helpless under the hand of the menhir, like a stone herself, only alive and conscious. This dream had come more frequently since Paul had been away, and Annette would often look up and down the road—that road which was her only link with the world beyond—in the vague hope that it might one day bring her some deliverance.

And now, as she stood listening to the galloping hoofs, she had an odd feeling that Jean of Kerdual was threatening once more to render her powerless, but that this time he would not prevail: for that something was coming along the road, nearer—nearer—with every gallop, to free her from him for ever. Then suddenly the sounds changed: the horseman was ascending the hill on the other side, and the galloping grew laboured and slower. Would he never come into sight? It seemed to Annette that she could bear it no longer: she set off and ran along the road and up the hill, to meet the unseen rider. The slow-thoughted, simple-minded peasants looked after her, wondering. She had nearly reached the top, when, silhouetted against the sky on the crest of the hill, appeared the figure of a man on horse-back, his Breton tunic and long hat-ribbons flying loose in the wind, as he reined in his chafing steed. He rose a moment in his stirrups, pointed out to sea with his whip, and shouted something inaudible: at the same instant his horse shied violently, as it seemed, at some object by the roadside, and threw his rider to the ground.

The man, the bringer of tidings, lay motionless in the road, the horse galloped wildly on: the dumb girl stood, half way up the hill: the dumb girl, who alone had heard the message. The next moment she threw her arms convulsively above her head, turned towards the group below, and cried in a loud, clear voice, "Le Géant brûle!"

The words fell on the ears of the listening crowd as if with an electric shock. As they repeated them to each other with fear and amazement, and scattered hither and thither to saddle a horse, or to catch the runaway steed, that they might carry the news in time over the two miles that lay between them and the harbour, the fact that the dumb had spoken, seemed for the moment hardly noticed by them. For might not the fishing-fleet even now be rounding the point, with darkness coming on, and the misleading light burning on the giant rock to lure them to destruction? A light which, as they knew too well, was not visible from the harbour, and which might be shewing its fatal signal unguessed the whole night through, unless as now, by favour of the saints, and doubtless by the quick eyes of some fisherman of the neighbouring village, who had chanced to be far enough out to sea at the time, it were perceived before darkness should fall.

The girl turned back again, and went up to the top of the hill to tend the fallen rider. The sun was sinking, and threw the shadow of the menhir, enlarged to a monstrous size, across her path. A few yards further on lay the senseless form of the Breton horseman, and it was clear to Annette that Jean of Kerdual had purposely stayed the rider by throwing the shadow across the road to startle his horse.

But a new exhilaration had taken possession of Annette's whole body and mind. She feared the menhir no longer: its power over her was gone. She kept repeating the words that had come to her at the crisis, the first she had spoken articulately all her life, "Le Géant brûle—Le Géant brûle," with a confidence in herself and the future, which was like new wine to her. The fleet would come safe home now, and by her means: for the Saints had helped her: the Saints were on her side.

Part II.

When Annette brought the fallen man (who was already recovering consciousness when she reached him) safe back in the cart to the auberge, she found a little crowd of peasants, men and women, gathered there, talking loud and eagerly over the news, who looked at her with a reverent curiosity as she entered. The injured man was assisted to a bed, but none spoke to Annette: only silent, awe-struck glances were turned on her: for they had gradually realized the fact that a voice had been given to the dumb girl, and Annette's quiet, familiar presence had become charged with mystery for them. They had no doubt that the blessed St. Yvon, the patron saint of mariners, had himself uttered the warning through her, at the moment when the safety of the fishing fleet depended on a spoken word: and the miracle now occupied their attention almost to the exclusion of the false lights and the return of the boats.

But Annette observed their whisperings and glances with a slight touch of contempt: she knew that her own voice had been restored to her, and that she was now like any of the other women in the village; which, in her own simple presentment of things, must be interpreted as meaning that she might look to have a husband and a home of her own. It was as though she had for the first time become a real woman. She saddled the horse and rode off to fetch a doctor to attend to the sick man, thinking all the while that the fleet would be in before morning, that Paul would come home, and that he would hear her voice. She made little childish plans of pretending to be still dumb when she first saw him, so that she might surprise him the more when she should speak.

Darkness was fast gathering now, but the old horse knew every stone in the road: he carried her with his steady jog-trot safely enough over the two miles that lay between the auberge and the fishing village where the doctor lived, in a house overlooking the rade and the harbour. As she passed along, the dark quays were full of moving lights and figures; active women with short skirts and sabots, mingling in the groups of fishermen; while a buzz of harsh Breton speech resounded on all sides. She caught words about a gang of wreckers that had lately infested the coast: and the names of one or two "mauvais sujets" in the village, who were supposed to be their confederates. She saw a moving light at the mouth of the harbour, and from a low-breathed murmur that ran below the noisier speech of the crowd, she gathered that it was a boat's crew going out in the darkness, to scale the precipitous rock, and extinguish the light.

All her faculties seemed quickened, and she kept repeating aloud to herself the words she heard in the crowd, to make sure that she could articulate as clearly as she had done in the first moment that her voice was given to her.

When she arrived at the doctor's gate, and dismounted to pull the great iron bell-rope that hung outside, she was trembling violently, and could hardly steady her hands to tie up the horse. Jeanne, the cook's sister, took her into the kitchen, while some one fetched the doctor, and she was so anxious that her speech should seem plain to them, that for the few first moments, from sheer nervousness, she could not utter a word. Then the doctor entered, a tall, well-built man, with stiff, iron-grey hair and imperial, and an expression of genial contentment with himself and the rest of the world.

"Mais, Mademoiselle Annette," he exclaimed the moment he saw her, "What are you doing then? You must return home and go to bed at once. Why did you not send me word before, instead of putting it off till you got so ill?"

He did not wait for her to reply, believing her to be speechless as usual, but placed her in a chair and began to feel her pulse. She was trying to speak all the time, but from excitement and a strange dizziness that had come over her, she could not at once use her new faculty. At last she got out the words, that it was not for herself she had come; that a fermier who had ridden fast from the village of St. Jean, further up the coast, to bring the news of the false light on the Géant, had been thrown from his horse—but before she had finished the sentence, the doctor, still absorbed in the contemplation of her own case, interrupted her, exclaiming with astonishment at her new power of speech, and demanding to know by what means it had come, and how long she had possessed it.

But to recall the experience of that moment on the hill, when at the thought of the danger menacing the fishing boats, her tongue had been loosened, and the unaccustomed words had come forth, was too much for Annette. She trembled so, and made such painful efforts to speak, that it seemed as though she were again losing the power of utterance; and the doctor bade her remain perfectly quiet, gave her some soothing medicine, and directed a bed to be prepared for her in the kitchen, as he said she was not fit to return home that night: then he himself took the old horse from the gate where he stood, and set off for the auberge with what haste he might.

For three or four minutes after he was gone, Annette remained motionless in her seat, wearing her patient, deprecatory expression, while her eyes rested on the window, without apparently seeing the lights and dimly outlined figures that were visible on the rade outside. Then her glance seemed to concentrate itself on something: the nervous, trembling lips closed rigidly, and before they saw what she was about to do, she had risen from her chair, and darted from the room and out into the night.

"Our Lady guard her! It was the boats she caught sight of," said Victorine, the cook. "There are the lights off the bay. Go, stop her, Jeanne! Monsieur will be angry with us if anything befall her."

"Dame! I will not go," said her sister. "Can you not see that Annette is bewitched? If she must go, she must. I will have nought to do with it."

Victorine, however, scouted her younger sister's reasoning, and hurried out across the small court-yard, through the gate and on to the road.

The whole village seemed gathered at the harbour-side; children and old men, lads and women, eager, yet with the patient quietness that is the way with the Breton folk. Here a demure group of white-coiffed girls stood waiting with scarce a word passing among them, waiting at the quay-side for the fathers, brothers, or sweethearts, that for months had been facing the perils of the northern seas. There a dark-eyed, loose-limbed Breton peasant, the wildness of whose look bewrayed the gentleness of his nature, was arguing with a white-haired patriarch about the probable value of this year's haul: while quaint-looking children in little tight-fitting bonnets and clattering sabots clung patiently to their mother's skirts, their mothers, who could remember many a home-coming of the boats, and knew that it would be well if to some of those now waiting at the harbour, grief were not brought instead of joy.

The vanguard of the fleet had been sighted some half-hour ago, and the two or three boats whose lights could now be seen approaching, one of which was recognized as Paul Gignol's "Annette," would, if all was well, anchor in the harbour that night: for the tide was high, so that the harbour basin was full; and the light of the torches and lanterns that were carried to and fro among the crowd, was reflected from its surface in distorted and broken flashes; while the regular plashing of the water against the quay-side accompanied the low murmur of the crowd.

Victorine sought in vain for Annette in the darkness, dressed, as she was, like all the other peasant girls; but her eye lighted on the tall, powerful figure of Jules Leroux, Annette's father, standing at the door of the bureau du port, where he and some others were discussing the signals.

Victorine approached the group, and announced in her emphatic way that Annette was ill, very ill, and had gone out alone into the crowd, when the doctor had bidden her not leave her bed. Jules, who had been down at the harbour since midday, and had heard nothing of Annette's recovered voice, or of her riding to the village, started off without waiting for more, along the quay and on to the very end of the mole, where the light guarded the entrance to the harbour, saying to himself, "It is there she will be—if she have feet to carry her—it is there she will be—when the boat comes in."

Victorine looked after him, murmuring, "Surely the child Annette is the apple of her father's eye."

The outline of the foremost fishing-smack was growing more and more distinct on the water, as he reached the end of the quay. Moving figures on board flashed into uncertain light for a moment, then disappeared into darkness again. A girl darted out from the crowd as he approached, and clung to his arm. "Annette, my little one," said Jules, "never fear. The Saints will bring him safe home."

"He is there: it is the 'Annette' that comes. I have seen him!" she cried.

Her father drew back almost in alarm. "What! Thy tongue is loosened, my child?"

She drew down his head, and whispered eagerly in his ear. "The blessed St. Yvon made me speak. I will tell you afterwards: it was to save Paul. Is it not true now that he is mine?"

At that moment a clamour of welcome ran along the quay-side, as the boat glided silently through the harbour mouth, and into the light of the torches that flashed from the quay.

Women's voices called upon Paul and his mate Jean, and the name of the 'Annette' (the vessel that had been christened after his foster-father's dumb child) was passed from mouth to mouth, while the fishermen silently got out the boat that was to carry the mooring cable to the shore.

Annette clung convulsively to her father during the few minutes' delay, and once, as he saw the light flash on her face, he suddenly remembered something Victorine had said about the doctor. He watched her with a pang of alarm, and at the same time felt that she was stringing herself up for some effort. Everyone was greeting Jean, the first of the boat's crew that appeared, as he clambered up the quay-side, but Annette did not stir; then the second dark, sea-beaten figure emerged from below, and Annette darted forward. She clasped both Paul's hands and gazed into his face, while she seemed to be struggling with herself for something a spasm passed over her face, which was as white as her coiffe: her father and the others gathered round, but some instinct bade them be silent. Annette's lips opened more than once as if she were about to speak, but no sound came forth: then she turned to her father with a look of despairing entreaty, and at the same moment tottered and would have fallen, had he not darted forward and caught her in his arms.

"She is dead! God help me," he cried.

"Chut! Chut!" said the voice of Victorine in the crowd. "It is but the nerves. Did not you see she was striving to say the word of greeting, and it was a cruel blow to find her speech had gone from her again. Surely it is but a crisis of the nerves."

But Jules, bending his tangled beard over her, groaned "The hand of God is heavy on me."

He and Paul raised her between them, and carried her to the doctor's, stepping softly for fear of doing her a mischief: while the story of her recovered speech, and the danger which had threatened the fleet, was told to the returned fisherman in breathless, awe-struck accents. He listened, full of wonder, and as he saw her safely tucked into her box-bed in the doctor's kitchen, said in his light-hearted Celtic way, that it was not for nothing she had got her voice back, and no fear but she would soon be well, and would speak to him in the morning.

But her father, who sat watching her unconscious face, and holding her hand in both his, as though he feared she would slip away from him, shook his head and said, "She will not see another dawn."

They tried their utmost to restore her consciousness, but with that ignorance of the simplest remedies which is sometimes found among the Breton peasants, they had so far failed: and though someone had been sent to fetch back the doctor from the auberge, Victorine and the other women shook their heads, as Jules had done, and said to each other, "It is in vain; she will never waken more."

But when the fainting fit had lasted nearly an hour, and in the wild eyes of Paul, who stood leaning on the foot of the bed, a gleam of fear was beginning to show itself; there was a stir in the lifeless form, a struggle of the breath, a flicker of the eyelids: they opened, and a glance, in which all Annette's pure and loving spirit seemed to shine forth, fell direct on Paul's face at the end of the bed. She smiled brightly, and said distinctly "Au revoir:" then turned on her side, and died.

Jules and Paul, in their simple peasant fashion, went about seeing to what had to be done before morning; but Annette's father spoke not a word. Paul, to cheer him, told him of the wife he had wedded on the other side of the sea, and who would come home to be a daughter to him: and Jules nodded silently, without betraying a shadow of surprise: having art enough, in the midst of his grief, to keep Annette's secret loyally.

Along the straight, white road there came, in the early dawn, a little silent procession: the silent road, that was ever bringing tidings, good or evil, to the auberge: though now no white-coiffed girl with a patient face was waiting at the door. All the road was deserted, for the villagers were still asleep, as the little procession wound its way along: wrapped in the same silence in which Annette's own young life had been passed. A cart with a plain coffin in it, was drawn by the old horse that had carried Annette to the harbour the night before, and who stepped as though he knew what burden he was bringing: Paul led the horse; and beside the cart, with his head bowed on his breast, walked Annette's father.

After the funeral rites were over, the smooth current of existence by the roadside and the harbour flowed on, apparently in complete oblivion of the fragile blossom of a girl's life, that had appeared for a little while on its surface, and then been swept away for ever.