The Halting Step by S. Elizabeth Hall

Chapter I.

O

n the Western coast of one of the islands in the Channel group is a level reach of salt marshes, to which the sea rises only at the highest spring tides, and which at other times extends as far as the eye can see, a dreary waste of salt pools, low rocks, and stretches of sand, yielding its meagre product of shell-fish, samphire, and sea-weed to the patient toil of the fisher-folk that dwell in scattered huts along the shore. One arm of the bay, at the time of which I am writing, extended inland to the left, being nearly cut off from the sea by a rocky headland, behind which it had spread itself, so as almost to present the appearance of an isolated pond or lake, encircled by low black rocks, within which the water rose and sank at regular intervals, as if under the influence of some strange, unknown power. On the borders of the lake stood a low, one-roomed cabin, such as the island fishermen in the wilder districts inhabit; and in the plot of ground beside the cabin, one September evening, in the mellow, westering light, a woman might have been seen busying herself by tying up into bundles the sea-weed that had been spread out to dry in the sun. She wore a shade bonnet with a large projecting peak and an enveloping curtain round the neck, quite concealing her face, as she bent over her work. Presently, although no sound had been heard, she looked up, with that apparently intuitive sense of what is happening at sea, which sea-folk seem to possess, and perceived an orange-sailed fishing boat just rounding the headland and making for the open sea. The face that appeared under the bonnet, as she looked up, had the colourless and haggard look frequently seen among fisher-women, and which is perhaps due to too much sea-air, added to hard living. But one was prevented from noticing the rest of the face by the expression of the two grey eyes, peering out from under the shade of the bonnet-peak; they were eyes that seemed always expecting: they seemed to have nothing to do with the pallid face, and the sea-weed, and the hut: they belonged to a different life. As she looked out over the sea, their glance was almost stern, as though demanding something which the sea did not give. But she only remarked to herself, in the island patois:—"I suppose the fish have gone over to the south-west again, and he'll make a night of it. Mackerel is such an aggravating fish, one day here, t'other there—you never know where you'll find them."

Presently, as it grew dark, she warmed up some herb-broth for her supper, and when she had finished it, and had fastened up the dog and the donkey, knowing that her husband would not return till the morning, she put out the glimmering oil-lamp, and was just going to bed, when a sound struck her ear. For two miles round the cabin not another human-being lived, and it was the rarest thing for any one to come in that direction after dark, as the rocks were slippery and dangerous, and a solitary bit of open country had to be crossed between the cabin and the nearest houses inland. Yet this sound was distinctly that of a human footstep, which halted in its gait.

The woman started up and listened: there was silence for a minute: then the limping step was heard again: again it ceased. The woman went to the door and looked out. Over the sandy, wind-swept common to the left the darkness brooded, the outlines of a broken bit of sea-wall, and of some giant boulders, said to be remains of a dolmen, emerging dimly therefrom like threatening phantoms; to the right moaned the long, grey sea, and in front was the waste of salt marshes and rocks, with the windlass of a ship once wrecked in the bay, projecting its huge outline among the uncertain shadows. Not a living thing was visible. She stood for several minutes peering out into the darkness and listening; no sound was to be heard but the lapping of the waves, and the sigh of the wind through the bent-grass on the common.

Suddenly Josef, the dog, started up in his corner, and barked. He was a large mastiff, with a dangerous temper, who was chained up at night in the rough lean-to that was built against the side of the cabin. He barked again furiously, dragging at his chain with all his might, and quivering in every nerve of his body. The woman lighted a torch at the dying embers on the hearth, and unfastening the dog, waited to see what would happen. He dashed forward furiously a few steps, then suddenly stopped, sniffed the air, made one or two uncertain darts hither and thither, and stood still, evidently puzzled. She called to him to encourage him, but he dropped his tail and returned to his shed, where he curled himself up in a comfortable corner, like a dog that was not going to be troubled by womanish fancies. The woman went round the cabin, and the pig-stye, and the patch of meagre gooseberry-bushes, throwing the uncertain torch-light on every dark hole or corner; but no one was to be seen. She was none the less convinced that someone had approached the cottage, for the dog was not likely to have been deceived as well as herself; so she kept the light burning, called Josef to lie down at the foot of the bed, barred the door, and went to sleep.

The sun was high the next morning when the fisherman returned. He stood in the stream of light in the open doorway, in his blue, knitted jersey and jack-boots; and with the beaming smile which overspread his whole countenance, and his big, powerful limbs, he might well have been taken for an impersonation of the sun shining in his strength.

It was as great a pleasure to him to greet his Louise now, as it had been in the days of their early courtship; for he had courted her twice, his sunny boyhood's lovemaking having been overclouded by the advent of a stranger from the mainland, who, with his smooth tongue and new-fangled ways, had gained such an influence over Louise during a four months' absence of Peter's on a fishing cruise, that she forgot her first love, and wedded this new settler; who took her to the town a few miles inland, where he carried on a retail fishmonger's business, knowing but little of fishing himself, either deep-sea or along-shore. But Providence had not blessed their union, for not a child had been born to them, and after but three years of married life, when Fauchon, the husband, was out one day in a fishing smack, which he had just bought to carry on business for himself with men under him, the boat capsized in a sudden squall, and neither he nor the two other men were ever seen or heard of again. Then to Louise, in her sudden poverty and despair (for all the savings had been put into the fishing smack) came Peter once more, and with his frank, whole-hearted love, and his strength and confidence, fairly carried her off her feet, making her happy with or without her own consent, in such shelter and comfort as his fisherman's home could supply. They had been married seven years now, and had on the whole been happy together; and as she answered his "Well, my child, how goes it with thee to-day?" her own face lighted up with a reflection of the beam on his.

After she had heard of the haul of mackerel, and had got Peter his breakfast, she stood with her arms akimbo looking at him, as he gulped down his bouillon with huge satisfaction.

The expectant look had not left her eyes, as, fixing them upon his, she said, "I had a fright last night, my friend."

"Hein! How was that?" said he, with the spoon in his mouth.

"I heard a step outside, and Josef heard it too and barked; and we went all round with a torch, but there was nobody."

"Ho! ho!" cried Peter, with his hearty laugh, "she will always hear a step, or the wing of a sea-swallow flying overhead, or perhaps a crab crawling in the bay, if Peter is not at home to take care of her."

"But indeed," said Louise, "it is the truth I am telling thee: it was the step of a man, and of one that halted in his gait."

"Did Josef hear it—this step that halted?"

"Yes, he barked till I set him free: then all in a moment he stopped, and would not search."

"Pou-ouf," crowed Peter, in jovial scorn. "Surely it was Josef that was the wisest." Then, as she still seemed unsatisfied, he added, "May-be 'twas the water in the smuggler's cave. Many's the time that I've thought somebody was coming along, sort of limping—cluck—chu—cluck—chu—when the tide was half-way up in the cave over there. And the wind was blowing west last night: 'tis with a west wind it sounds the plainest."

"May-be 'twas that, my friend," said the woman, taking up the pail to fetch the water from the well across the common. But she kept looking around her, with a half-frightened, half-expectant glance, all the way.

Chapter II.

For several days the halting step was not heard again, and Louise had nearly forgotten her fright, when one morning, about six o'clock, when Peter was out getting up his lobster pots, Louise, with her head still buried in the bed-clothes, suddenly heard—or thought she heard—the sound again. She started up and listened: there could be no doubt about it; someone was approaching the cottage at the back—some one who was lame. She hurried on some clothes and looked out of the door (the cabin had no window). In the glittering morning light, the expanse of level shore and common was as desolate as ever. She turned the corner of the cottage to the left, where Jenny and the pigs were. There was no one there; then she went round to the right, and, as she did so, distinctly perceived a shadow vanishing swiftly round the corner of the stack of sea-weed. She uttered a cry, and for a moment seemed like one paralysed; then moved forward hastily a few steps; stopped again, listening with a strange expression on her countenance to the sound of the limp, as it grew fainter and fainter; then advanced, as if unwillingly, to the back of the cottage, whence no one was visible. A corner of rock, round which wound the path that ascended to the top of the cliff, projected at no great distance from the cottage. She stood and looked at the rock, half as if it were a threatening, monster, half as if it were the door of hope: then she went slowly back to the cottage.

She did not tell Peter this time about the step.

A week or two afterwards, when Peter Girard was returning from the rocks with a basketful of crabs, he was joined on the way by his mate, Mesurier.

The two fishermen trudged along in silence for some time, one a little in front of the other, after the manner of their kind; then Mesurier remarked, "We shall be wanting some new line before we go out for mackerel again." (Mackerel are caught by lines in those parts, where the sea-bottom is too rocky for trawling).

Peter turned round and stood still to consider the question.

"I've got some strands knotted, if you and I set to work we can plait it before night."

"I must go up to Jean's for some bait first; there won't be more than three hours left before dark, and how are we to get it done in that time? I'd better get some in the village when I'm up there."

"Hout, man! pay eight shillings for a line," said the economical Peter, "and a pound of horsehair will make six. I'll send Louise for the bait, and you come along with me—we'll soon reckon out the plait."

Mesurier, a thick-set, vigorous-looking man, shorter than Peter, stood still a moment, looking at him rather queerly out of his keen, grey eyes.

"Been up to Jean's much of late?" he asked, trudging on again.

"No, not I," said Peter. "Hangin' round in the village isn't much after my mind."

"Best send Louise instead, hey?"

Peter wheeled his huge frame round in a moment.

"What do you mean, man?" he demanded, in a voice that seemed to come from his feet.

Mesurier's face was devoid of expression, as he replied, "Nothing, to be sure. Of course Louise will be going to the shop now and again."

Peter laid his hand, like a lion's paw, on Mesurier's shoulder, as if he would rend the truth out of him.

"And what's the matter with her going to the shop?" said Peter, so rapidly and thickly as to be hardly articulate.

"None that I know of," said the other uneasily, shrugging off Peter's hand, with an attempted laugh.

"Now you understand," said Peter, with blazing eyes, "you've either got to swear that you've heard nothing at all about Louise which you oughtn't to have heard, or else you'll tell me who said it, and let him know he's got me to reckon with," and Peter clenched his fist in a way that would have made most people swear whatever he might have happened to wish.

"Well, mate," said the other man. "You go and see Jean, and ask him what company he's had of late." Then seeing Peter's face becoming livid, he added briefly, "There's been a queer-looking fish staying with him the last three weeks—walks all on one side—and Louise was talking to him t'other evening under the church wall. 'Twas my wife saw her. That's the truth. Nobody else has said nought about her."

Peter swung round without a word, and marched off in the direction of the village. Mesurier watched him a moment, then called after him, "I say, mate! mind what you're doing: the man's a poor blighted creature, more like a monkey than a Christian."

Peter said something in his throat while he handed the crabs to Mesurier: his hand shook so violently as he did so that the basket nearly fell to the ground. Then he strode on again. Mesurier had glanced at his face, and did not follow.

It took Peter less than an hour, at the pace at which he was walking, to reach the next village along the coast where Jean lived. The mellow afternoon sunshine was lighting up the cottage wall, and the long strip of gaily flowering garden, as he approached. He entered the front room, which was fitted up as a sort of shop, in which fishermen's requisites were sold. There was no one there. He pushed the door open into the inner room: it was also empty. He felt as if he could not breathe within the cottage walls, and went out again. The cliff overhung the sea a few yards in front of the cottage. He went to the edge and was scanning the shore for a sign of Jean, when below, on a narrow, zigzag path which led down the cliff to the beach, he perceived his wife. She stood at a turn in the path, looking downwards. There was something about her that to Peter made her seem different from what she had ever seemed before. He looked at Louise, and he saw a woman with a shadow of guilt upon her. The path below her was concealed from Peter's sight by an over-hanging piece of rock, but she seemed to be watching someone coming slowing up it. Then she glanced fearfully round, and saw Peter standing on the top of the cliff. She made a hasty sign to the person below, but already a man's hand leaning on a stick was visible beyond the edge of the rock. Peter strode straight down the face of the cliff to the turning in the path. Louise screamed. Peter seized by the collar a puny, crooked creature, whom he scarcely stopped to look at, and held him, as one might a cat, over the cliff-side.

"Swear you'll quit the island to-night, or I'll drop you," he thundered.

The creature merely screamed for mercy, and seemed unable to articulate a sentence; while Louise knelt, clasping Peter's knees in an agony of entreaty. Meanwhile, the screaming ceased; the creature had fainted in Peter's grasp. He flung him down on the path, said sternly to Louise, "Come with me," and they went up the cliff-side together.

They walked home without a word, Louise crying and moaning a little, but not daring to speak. When they got inside the cabin, he stood and faced her.

"Woman," he said, in a low, shaken voice, "What hast thou done?"

She fell upon her knees, crying. "Forgive me, Peter," she entreated. "Thou art such a strong man; forgive me."

"Tell me the whole truth. What is this man to thee?"

She knelt in silence, shaken with sobs.

"Who is he?" said Peter, his voice getting deeper and hoarser.

She only kept moaning, "Forgive me." Presently she said between her sobs, "I only went this morning to tell him to go away. I wanted him to go away; I have prayed him to go again and again."

"Since when hast thou known him?"

Again she made no answer, but inarticulate moans.

Peter stood looking at her for a few seconds with an indescribable expression of sorrow and aversion.

"I loved thee," he said; and turning away, left her.

Chapter III.

Peter went out in the evening without speaking to Louise again, and was not seen till the following afternoon, when he called his mate to go mackerel-fishing, and they were absent two days getting a great haul. He came back and slept at Mesurier's, and did not go near his own home for a week, though he sent money to Louise, when he sold the fish.

At the end of that time he went over to Jean's. The stranger had gone, but Peter sat down on a stool opposite Jean, and began to enter into conversation with him, with a more settled look in his hollow eyes than had been there since the catastrophe of the week before. The meeting on the cliff had been seen by more than one passerby, and the report had spread that Peter had nearly murdered the stranger for intriguing with his wife. Jean told Peter all he knew of the man, but he neither knew his business nor whence he came. He said his name was Jacques, and would give no other. He had gone to the nearest inland town, where he said that a relation of his kept an "auberge." He had gone in a hurry, and had left some bottles and things behind, containing the stuff he rubbed his leg with, Jean thought; and Jean meant to take them to him when next he went to the town.

"By the way," he said, taking a little book from the shelf, "I believe this belonged to him too. I remember to have seen him more than once poring over it with them close-seeing eyes of his. The man was a rare scholar, and no mistake."

Peter took the little book from him, and opened it. Jean, glancing at him as he did so, uttered an exclamation. A deadly paleness had overspread Peter's face, and he clutched with his hand in the air, as though for something to steady himself with. Then he staggered to his feet, still tightly grasping the little book, and saying something unintelligible, went out.

He went down the cliff to the place where, a week ago, he had found his wife and the stranger, and stood under the rock, and looked at the book. He looked at it still closed in his hand, as if it were some venomous creature, which might, the next moment, dart forth a poisoned fang to sting him. From the cover it appeared to be a little, much-worn prayer-book. Presently he opened it gingerly, and read something written on the fly-leaf. He spelled it out with some difficulty and slowly, and yet he looked at it as if the page were a familiar vision to him. Then he remained immovable for a long time, gazing out to sea, with the little book crunched to a shapeless mass in his huge fist. When at last he turned to ascend the cliff again, his face was ashen pale, and his step was that of an old man. He trudged heavily across the common and along the road inland, five or six miles, till he reached the town, inquired for a certain auberge, entered the kitchen, and found himself face to face with the man he sought. A spasm of fear passed swiftly over the face of Jacques, as he beheld Peter, and he instinctively started up from the bench on which he was sitting, and shrank backwards. As he did so, he showed himself a disfigured paralytic, one side of his face being partly drawn, and one leg crooked. He was an undersized man, with sandy hair, quick, intelligent, grey eyes, and a well-cut profile.

"Jacques Fauchon," said Peter, "have no fear of me."

Jacques kept his eyes on him, still distrustfully.

"I did not know," continued Peter, speaking thickly and slowly, "the other day, what I know now. I had never seen you but once—and you have changed."

"It is not my wish to cause trouble," said Jacques, still glancing furtively round. "Things being as they are, to my thinking, there's nought for it but to let 'em be."

"I have not said yet," said Peter, "what it is I've come to say. This little prayer-book with her name writ in it, and yours below,—'tis the one she always took to church, as a girl—has shown me the path I've got to take. How you came back from the dead, I don't know: 'twas the hand of the Lord. But here you are, and you are her husband, and not I." He stopped.

"Well, Mr. Girard, I know my legal rights," began Jacques, "but considering—and I've no wish to cause unpleasantness, of that you may be sure. 'Tis why I never wrote, not knowing how the land might lie, and for four years I was helpless on my back."

"Never mind the past, man," interrupted Peter, "It's the future that's to be thought of. What you've got to do is to take her away to a distance, and settle in some place where nobody knows what's gone by."

Fauchon considered for a moment, a slight, deprecatory smile stealing over his face.

"I suppose," he remarked, "she hasn't got any little purse of her own by this time; considering, I mean, that she's been of use with the lines and the nets and so on."

"Do you mean," said Peter, "that you can't support her?"

"Well, you see, I worked my passage from New Zealand as cook—that's what I waited so long for. If she could pay her passage, the same captain would take us again, when he starts to go back next week. And if she had a little in hand, when we got there, we could set up a store, may-be, and make shift to get on. I only thought, may-be, she having been of use—"

"I'll sell the cottage and the bits of things," said Peter, "and there's a trifle put by to add to it. But tell me this; when you're out there, can you support her, or can't you?"

"Well, there's Mr. Boucher, that took me on as house-servant at first in New Zealand, he being in the sailing ship when I was picked up. And when the paralytics came on, resulting from the injury I got in the wreck, he never let me want for nothing, the four years that I lay helpless. He's got money to spare, you see"—with a wink—"he's well off, and he's what I call easy-going; and if we could manage to get the right side of him"—with another wink—"I reckon he'd help us a bit."

"Man," said Peter, letting his hand fall heavily on Fauchon's shoulder, "tell me plain that you've got honest work as'll feed and clothe her out there, else, by God, you shan't have her!" and his grip on Fauchon's shoulder tightened, so that a flash of terror passed over the man's face, and he tried to edge away, saying deprecatingly, "I've no wish, Mr. Girard, you understand—I've no wish to offend. In fact, my whole intention was not to cause any trouble. On my honour, I was going to leave the island to-morrow, when I found how things were—'tis the truth I speak."

"You are her husband," said Peter, "and she loves you, and she shall go with you. But if you let her want, God do so unto you, and more also!"

And he let go of him, and strode away again.

When he got back it was dark, and he stood at his cottage door and looked in. Louise was sitting by the hearth, with her back to him, and her hands in her lap, rocking herself gently on her stool, and gazing into the glowing ash on the hearthstone. Opposite, on the other side of the hearth, Peter's own stool stood empty, and on the shelf beside it were the two yellow porringers, out of which he and Louise used always to sup together. His jersey, the one she had knitted for him when they were married, hung in the corner, with the bright blue patch in it, that she had been mending it with the last time he was at home. Louise was so absorbed in her thoughts that she did not hear his approach, and stepping softly, he passed in and stood before her; she started back, and immediately began to whimper a little, putting up her hands to her face.

"Louise," said Peter, "wilt thou forgive me?"

She looked up perplexed, only half believing what she heard.

"I know everything. I have seen Jacques. I was harsh to thee, mon enfant."

"I meant no harm," said Louise. "I begged him not to come. I knew thou wouldest be angered."

"I am not angered. He is thy husband."

She glanced up with an irrepressible start of eagerness.

"Thou meanest—" Her very desire seemed to take away her speech.

Peter laid his hand on her wrist, as gently as a woman.

"Louise," he said, "thou lovest him?"

She gazed at him in silence; the piercing question in her eyes her only answer.

"Thou shalt go with him," he said. "I only came to say goodbye."

He went to the door: then stood and looked back, with a world of yearning and tenderness in his face. He stretched out his arms. "Kiss me, Louise," he said.

She rose, still half frightened, and kissed him as she was told.

He held her tightly in his arms for a minute, then put her silently from him, and turned away.

Peter was not seen in those parts again. It was understood that he and his wife had emigrated to New Zealand, and the cottage was sold, and the furniture and things dispersed.

In a fishing village on the coast of Brittany, there appeared, not long afterwards, a tall Englishman, speaking the Channel Island patois, who settled down to make a home among the Breton folk, adopting their ways and language, and eking out, like them, a livelihood by hard toil early and late among the rocks and sand-banks, or by long months of fishing on the high seas; a man on whom the simple-minded villagers looked with a certain respect, mingled with awe, as on one who seemed to them marked out by heaven for some special fate; who lived alone in his cottage, attending to his own wants, no woman being ever allowed to enter it; and about whose past nothing was known, and no one dared to ask.