The Road by the Sea by S. Elizabeth Hall
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Her father drew back almost in alarm. "What! Thy tongue is loosened, my
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
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
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
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.