St. Michael's Night
THAT night, before many hours had passed over, and Jeanne had sunk from troubled thinking into restless dreams, and from these into deep unbroken slumber, the winds from the north and west had risen from their secret chambers, and were riding through the darkness, and chafing into angry waves the waters of the Channel. And when Jeanne rose, and arrayed herself in her gay holiday dress by the dim lights of the waning crescent moon and the early dawn, she heard the thunderous roll of the surf on the shore, and the echoes that the cliffs sent back, while the house was shaken by the gusts of angry wind. Such storms were not unfrequent, and Jeanne felt little anxiety for her father’s safety, deciding in her own mind that he would probably have given up the fishing expedition at the first indication of bad weather, and put into the harbor at Dieppe, and that there she would in all probability find him during the day.
Poor Jeanne ! It was not the fête day she had looked forward to. That had been a day all bright in sunshine and pleasant excitement in her anticipations. Gabriel and she were to have gone together, she wearing the dress his mother had given her ; they were both to see for the first time the Citadelle and the oyster-garden, but now the storm had come up, and there would certainly be rain, and her father’s fishing was spoiled, and — indeed, it must be confessed, that, for Jeanne, the weather within was as bad as that without. The fatal, angry words that had come between Gabriel and herself were still sore in her heart. If she could only feel light-hearted and content again as she had done before this had happened ! Gabriel had asked her to marry him. Why should she ? That meant to leave her home, to leave her father, to leave the coast. She had not yet thought of marrying. Yes, she had had always a vague prospect before her in the future, that some time she would marry a fisherman, who would help her father, and live in the cottage; but this was different, — altogether different; she was bewildered, perplexed, by the prospect that opened before her. She had said “No” to Gabriel, sure enough ; she was glad she had said “No”; but she wished, with a sinking heart, that they had not quarrelled. Gabriel, Gabriel, marry Gabriel, — that all seemed so strange ; and yet he was so near, so closely tied by affection and habit to her life, that the thought of estrangement between her and him gave her a bitter pang. What would Aunt Ducres say ? An uneasy suspicion vexed her that she might take her son’s part in the matter,— if course a mother always did, and An Ducres loved Gabriel more than most mothers do their sons. A dismal prospect of alienation and separation seemed to open before her, a maelstrom of perplexity seemed ready to swallow her up. So you see Jeanne’s thoughts before her little mirror were by no means in harmony with her gay attire.
There was little to do, when she was dressed, but her bed to make, and her every-day clothes to be laid away ; for she had set all the house in order overnight, even to the grooming of her donkey, that, sleek and well conditioned, stood in his stall, and only needed to be saddled and have the pannier of fish slung across his back. This was an easy task to Jeanne’s adroit and experienced hands. So, leading her donkey by the bridle, Jeanne walked slowly down the lane towards the Robbes’ cottage.
It were hard to imagine a dress more suited and becoming to the strong rounded figure, with its movements of natural grace and dignity, than the short red petticoat, the trim flowered bodice, and the fair white Norman cap, beneath which appeared heavy braids of golden-brown hair. A threefold silver chain encircled Jeanne’s neck, to which hung a silver figure of the Madonna; and heavy gold earrings, heirlooms of many generations in her mother’s family, completed her costume. In her hand she carried her rosary and missal.
A pleasant greeting met Jeanne, as she neared the Robbes’ gate, from the group of neighbors and friends who — all like herself in holiday dress, some on foot and some mounted on their donkeys —were awaiting the assembling of the rest of the little company before starting on their day’s pilgrimage. The stream of lively talk ran on with added force after her arrival; for the new robe de fête had to be examined and admired, and the girls crowded about her with loud ejaculations of approval, as they fingered the bows of ribbon, and felt the delicate texture of her skirt.
Marie Robbe stood aloof at first, and made an attempt to behave with a becoming degree of coldness in resentment for Jeanne’s brusquerie of the previous evening. But her assumed dignity was not proof against the goodhumored indifference of Jeanne ; and her little airs of displeasure melted away when Jeanne began to arrange the basket of fish on Marie’s despised donkey, and then invited her to mount her own handsome beast.
Others of the villagers came up by twos and threes till all were assembled, and the whole company began to move forward, falling into the natural groups that family ties or mutual sympathy dictated. The women chatted together over their household concerns, and the men discussed the prospects of the fishing-season. The children of the company trudged on sturdily by the sides of their mothers, or rode before them on the donkeys, or chased each other through the thymy grass. As the morning wore on, and the blustering wind made the walking more fatiguing, the talk flagged; even Marie Robbe’s tongue ceased its chatter, and she allowed her mind to fall back upon the more important business of scheming how it should be her turn to ride on their entrance into the town. This at the present moment was the most ardent wish of her heart, and if to this satisfaction she could have added that of passing François Milette on her triumphal entry, and have poisoned his happiness for the day by some coquettish slight, so that his very holiday wine should become gall and the sweet fête cakes wormwood to his taste, perhaps she would have experienced the keenest sense of pleasure of which her nature was capable.
Jeanne, meanwhile, was walking by the side of Epiphanie Milette, whose pretty face did indeed look pale and careworn enough to justify the belief of some people that she had received the ominous greeting from the Fairy. It is true that evil fortune had pursued poor Épiphanie, and things had gone unkindly with her. Her father had, as 1 said before, been a hard man of no very good character, on whom the more pious surmised the good Saints had laid a ban on account of certain nefarious undertakings under shadow of the night, bringing him more than once into collision with the coast guards. Certain it is that the fickle fortune of the sea had never smiled upon Milette as a fisherman, nay, had most persistently frowned, and yet he had had at times unaccountably large sums of money. Madame Milette, during her husband’s lifetime, though she was always well clothed, and had money to spend, had a sour and discontented look. They had always had little to do with other people, and she had a hard life of it, it was said, down in the lonely house on the cliffside with her sickly child and her bad husband ; and some of the women, if they did speak tauntingly of her leather shoes and new chain, pitied her, and were ready, when the time came, to do her a good turn.
Jeanne’s good aunt had been one of these, and, on the morning after that stormy night when Milette was brought home dead, she went down to the desolate house on the cliffside, and performed the office of good neighbor to the poor widow, who was sitting there alone with her daughter, and feeling, Heaven help her ! more bitterly the fact that the world had turned its back on her than that death had robbed her of her husband. For, indeed, the death of her husband confirmed all the suspicions of his evil life.
That stormy winter’s morning, just at dawn, when the two fishermen came stumbling up the shingly pathway to the lonely house bearing the body drenched with sea-water, and with a pistol-wound in the breast, the two scared and trembling women dragged him in, and laid him on the bed, asking no questions.
So the shadow of Milette’s life grew darker over his death, and people stood aloof from the widow and her daughter. Jeanne’s aunt and old Madame Lennet were, for a time, their only friends ; and, indeed, on one of those cold, winter days, Madame Lennet had gone up to see Monsieur le Curé himself, to beg him — which she did with tears and the simple eloquence of her compassionate heart — to let Milette’s body receive the full rites of Christian burial without question as to the cause of his death, usual in such cases, so that the widow might be spared the additional disgrace and misery certain to result on investigation.
“ Without doubt,” argued good Madame Lennet, “ Milette had come by that ugly wound in the breast in an affray with some of the smuggling gang to which he belonged, and who were now safely hidden in one of their dens on the coast, or, more probably still, in some English seaport. Their own nefarious traffic led them to the knowledge of many a secret asylum, and swift and sure ways of flight. Inquiry into the means by which Milette had come by his death, while it would almost certainly fail in bringing the murderers to justice, would only make certain and public the facts of the evil doings of the murdered man.” And Monsieur le Curé, with his thin, white hands clasped behind him, pacing softly to and fro in his dingy little room, as was his custom when his mind was disturbed, though perplexed by the question in which human pity seemed to confront abstract justice and ecclesiastical duty, did not turn a deaf ear to the good woman’s petition. He dismissed her with a promise to accede to her wishes, and with his benediction.
As time went on, the cloud was gradually lifted off the Widow Milette and her daughter, especially as Épiphanie, then growing into womanhood, became a fair and blooming, though somewhat delicate girl. Few had the heart to slight the gentle young creature, who rarely showed her downcast face and brown eyes anywhere but at church.
Jeanne Defére followed her good aunt’s example, and remained a firm friend to Épiphanie, who clung to her with the natural instinct which binds the weak and timid to the strong and resolute, and in time their neighborly intimacy ripened into a close and lasting friendship. Good old Madame Lennet, likewise, as we have seen, befriended the widow, and never turned her back upon her from the time when Pierre, her son, then a young man of fiveand-twenty, had come home, and told his mother the story of the finding of the bruised and wounded body floating among the rocks on the rising tide, touching her kind heart by the picture of the two pale and trembling women who had met him at the threshold, and taken in the body in unnatural silence, but with looks of dread and terror.
Perhaps the plaintive eyes of the younger woman, then a girl of seventeen, had touched the honest heart of Pierre ; he did many a good turn for the widow after that, and often, softening his boisterous tones, would seek to draw Épiphanie from her quiet corner at the village merry-makings, and make her dance among the rest.
Some people said Pierre Lennet would marry the Widow Milette’s timid daughter; but years went on, Pierre went voyages and returned, and had many an unlucky turn, and Épiphanie won the heart of a well-to-do grocer from Tréport, and, after a somewhat long wooing, married him,—though with a sad grace, as people thought, and more to please her mother than herself. Madame Milette went to live with her daughter and the honest grocer, in the dingy little shop on the quay at Tréport.
But within two years poor Épiphanie’s ill-starred married life came to an end. A sharp fever seized her husband, who died after a few days’ illness. His relations, who had always disliked the intruding wife and her mother, took possession of the little stock of goods, and the young widow and her mother returned to their old home at Verangeville, —the mother, a disappointed and embittered woman ; her daughter, pale and careworn beyond her years.
Épiphanie’s life, however, was brightened by the presence of her baby, — the only token of the brief interlude of her wedded life brought back with her to Verangeville, — and in the care of this child the whole happiness of her days centred.
During the years that had since gone by, they had lived together in the little house at the foot of the cliff, supported partly by the earnings of Épiphanie, who wrought skilfully at the ivory carving for which Dieppe is famous. She carried in, from time to time, the little packet of thimbles, crosses, and brooches that she had made, and returned with her small earnings. This source of income helped to eke out François’s gains as a fisherman. François was a young man now, twenty-three years of age, and had been at home for two years since his last voyage. He was a handsome fellow, and had done well enough as a fisherman, as any one might judge by old Defére’s taking him so often in his boat, and sharing the profits of his night’s work with him. Indeed, François seemed to bid fair to redeem the shattered fame of his family, and to win back respect to the name of Milette. One indiscretion he certainly had committed, and that was having given his heart to Marie Robbe, who, as we have seen, set small store by the gift.
“IT will be a stormy night, Jeanne, sure enough,” said Épiphanie, looking to seaward, as, with the rest of the company, they journeyed across the cliffs towards Dieppe. “See how the clouds are flying, and the wind is driving hard ashore. I wish they had not started last night.”
“ So do I,” said Jeanne.
“ François had little heart for the fishing, I know,” said Épiphanie ; “but I thought it was only because he would miss the fête to-day by being at sea. I wonder if he thought of bad weather. O Jeanne, I wish I had begged him to stay! ”
“ Don’t trouble thyself ! ” said Jeanne. “It was n’t that he feared bad weather; he was vexing himself because he could not go with Marie Robbe to Dieppe today ; and I ’ll tell thee, Épiphanie,—and this is my mind on that matter, — he had much better have bad weather at sea than fair weather with Marie ; a man
may get to know what the worst sea means in time, and learn how to steer through it, a false heart, —who can ever learn the shiftings of that, without breaking his own ? ”
Épiphanie shook her head. “ She is a coquette, it is true, but—dost thou think she will not marry François after all ? I know it is the desire of his heart, and in another year or two he will have saved enough to marry on. Old Robbe is well ott too. She has danced with him all summer more than with any other lad ; and every bourrée after the Angelas last Sunday he was her partner, and she has taken all his gifts.”
“ Oui dà!” said Jeanne, with contemptuous emphasis; “and she will marry him — if—she marries not some one else-—and, as bonne amie of François, I wish she would. It might give him a sore heart for a while, but he would learn a good lesson therefrom, that is, that a man ought to choose his wife as he would his friend, — for her good faith, and for the good qualities God has given her, and not for this or that, her dress or her dancing, with which the bon Dieu has nothing to do.”
“ François would take it very hardly,” said Épiphanie, leaving the abstract question, with which she had no concern, and returning to the fate of her brother.
“Yes, pauvre gars,” said Jeanne, sighing; “but I don’t think it would hurt him so much as thou thinkest for. He would see what a false heart she had, and that he had been a fool; and to know that is to be wise sometimes. It is a bad thing to marry ill, for either man or woman, but it is worse for a man, I think. A woman is miserable if she has a bad husband, without doubt, — more miserable than a man, perhaps ; but then she will think all the more of the Sainte Vierge and the saints, and consoles herself with her children ; but a man who has a bad wife, for him there is but one road, — c’est au diable.”
“ Rut she might not make so bad a wife, after all,” said Épiphanie; “some girls that are foolish enough before grow wiser when they are married.”
“No, no,” said Jeanne, “Marie is stupid because she has a bad heart; she cannot sew, she cannot keep the house, she cannot make the best of little troubles, she cannot give good counsel, she understands only to do one thing, to torment ; in that she has wit, in that she has sense : she can tornient with the patience of a saint and the fury of a devil.”
“These are hard words, ’ sighed Épiphanie.
“ One ought not to mind hearing the truth,” said Jeanne. “It is better to listen when they tell you the tide is going down, than shut your eyes and hope till you find your nets are stranded for my part, I 'd rather suffer thirst for a while than sicken my stomach by drinking bad cider.”
“ Thou speakest so strongly, Jeanne,” said Épiphanie, almost bitterly. “It makes my heart heavy to think of him. I — I know what is to — to be disappointed, — at least, to have to be contented with what one does not want.”
Jeanne looked up at her friend ; her eyes lately so fierce in denunciation, so stern in judgment, melted, softened, almost to tears. She laid her arm on Épiphanie’s waist.
“Have I not pity?” she said. “O yes, I tell thee ; and it is that that makes me feel and speak so hard. It is always so with me ; when I feel this sorrow and pity, it grows and grows, and seems to make my heart burn, and then I speak as if I were angry. Tiens, mon amie! when I think of thee and the child, and pray God to give thee some happiness now, when thou hast had so little, when I get up from my knees, my hands ache with clasping them so tightly, so much do I desire it, and so much does thy sorrow pain me.”
“Tu es bonne amie, Jeanne, I know it well; but sometimes, — dost thou know?I think perhaps François and I have an evil fate that will always bring us misfortune?”
“ I tell thee no,” said Jeanne ; “it is only because thou art so full of fears!
Thou hast been a good girl always; thou hast done the will of God, thou hast never done evil to any one ; if thou hast had sorrows, God sent thee them : they have not been misfortunes; we make our own misfortunes, — voilà la différence ! Le bon Dieu t’aime, and he has confidence in thee ; for, behold ! has he not given thee this child ?” and she laid her hand on the sleeping child in Épiphanie’s arms.
“Thou always puttest me in good heart, Jeanne, and I begin to think, while thou art talking, that perhaps I may be wrong about Pierre, and that it might be well for the child, too. if I married him; but then I go back again, and think I am too sad, too quiet, that I should not make him happy, and I fear lest he should not love the child. Ah, when one has beaten down one’s heart once, Jeanne, and it has ached long enough, it grows heavy, and it is not hard to give up what one desires ! ”
“I don’t know,” said Jeanne, “how that may be. I think thou troublest thyself too much with these fears. When one’s heart is at peace, and makes one no reproaches, one may take what is offered one, when one knows it is good ; and the love of Pierre — is it not good, I ask thee ? ”
“If I did not think so much of it, I should not be so afraid to take it, I think,’ she said with a sigh. “It is like a dream, Jeanne, to be thinking again of Pierre after all these years, — and — and maybe it isn’t right for me, who am a widow, to feel so towards him whom I knew before I was married. There are many things that make me afraid; but I will tell thee all, that of which I have never spoken before, and thou mayest judge for thyself, — and for me. Long ago, when he first used to come to our house, and used to make me dance, when there were all the other girls ready to dance with him, — for he was always the favorite, — I used to think it was pity that made him kind, and I felt as if my body were stone and my feet lead, and I could dance no more, and speak no more, and he thought me cold. And then sometimes I thought he did not think of pity at all, and cared nothing that I was the smuggler Milette’s daughter, and my heart grew warm and light as it had never done before. But he went to sea, and, when he came back again, I thought, Perhaps he will ask me to be his wife ; but he had had ill luck, — he had been wrecked, and lost all he had. The night he came home, I was down at your house, and he came to supper, thou knowest, and told of his voyage; and while we sat round the fire, little Jacques Bignard ran in, crying that a man had fallen from the cliff and was near drowning; and Pierre jumped up and ran out, and thou and thy father followed him with the others, but I stayed, — I dared not see Pierre jump into the dark water among the rocks, for I knew he would be the one to do it, being so much younger than thy father. A dread like death came into my heart, that he might be drowned now, just as he had reached home. I could faintly hear the shouts below on the shore, for the night was still, the men were calling to each other about the rope that Pierre swam out with, but I thought it might be for fresh help, and I was sick with fear. I knelt down before the crucifix, and cried, ‘O my God, have pity upon me, and spare his life ! I offer thee this love that is the life of my life, but spare his life, which is more dear than my own ! ’ My heart suddenly filled with a great joy and peace, and I stood up, and, behold, voices of rejoicing on the shore, and I knew that God had heard me, and that Pierre was sale. I went to the door, and held the lamp above my head to light them up the path ; and I heard them coming slowly and heavily, thy father and Pierre carrying the man who seemed dead. It was just as he had brought home my father, Jeanne! They were busy with the poor drowned man. He was long in coming to himself, and then he could not speak, or at least only English, which none but Pierre could understand, and he but a little. There were others of the neighbors who had come up with them from the beach. I went out to get cider, to make into hot drink for the men who had been in the water; and as I stood in the shed by the barrel, drawing the cider, I heard Madame Robbe and Marie Bignard talking just outside. They were talking of Pierre, — what ill luck he had had, so different from the other Lennets. ‘Be sure,’ Marie Bignard said, ‘there’s worse luck in store for him if he is fool enough to marry the smuggler Milette’s daughter! Ever since he has had to do with the widow and that girl things have gone wrong with him,— i have observed that!’ O Jeanne, I could not help hearing those words, and my heart became as lead while I listened ! ”
“Malicious gossips!” said Jeanne, with indignant violence ; “ why shouldst thou have cared what they said, my poor Épiphanie ? Madame Robbe speaks the truth but once in the month, and that is when she goes to the confessional and tells her sins ; and it is time to cross one’s self, and call on the good saints for protection, when Marie Bignard speaks well of one ! ”
“ But they say the dead and listeners hear the truth about themselves,” said Épiphanie, smiling sadly. “ No, Jeanne, when I heard that, I knew how it would all be. The Lennets were honorable people, and had all married well. I was the smuggler’s daughter; it could never be otherwise. I could not make myself what I was not, however I might try; I remembered my vow. God required it of me, — I knew that: it was not because the women that loved me not had said this, but because God had let me hear them say this. And I knew what people would say of Pierre, and that it would be like a disgrace to him, and so ill luck would, as they said, stick to him. I hid myself from Pierre all the time he was at home, nor danced, nor went out much at all, and went quickly away from church ; but told no one, — neither my mother nor thee, Jeanne, —for fear I might be shaken in my purpose. And I walked on in a sort of dream. And one day they told me that Pierre was going; his ship was ordered to sail suddenly at a few hours' warning. I knew he would come that evening to say good by, and I ran down to the shore, and hid myself in an empty boat; I saw him come down the path on the cliff, and I knew he had been to our house, and was going; I shut my eyes till he had passed, and then I went home. They said it would be a short voyage, but it was nearly two years before he came back.
“ Mats done, Épiphanie ! how couldst thou do it ? ” said Jeanne, looking with eyes full of tender pity, almost awe, at her friend. “If it had but been for religion, thou wouldst have been a martyr.”
Épiphanie crossed herself. “ Hush, Jeanne!” she said; “my heart was weak as a reed; but God aided me, I think.” After a pause, she continued: “ My mother was sick all that winter and the spring, François was away, thou wast with thy aunt at the Vallée d’Allon, and I had no friend beside. It was then Coutelenq came, and was kind to my mother, and helped her in many ways. My mother talked always of Coutelenq, but I thought of Pierre night and day. ‘And,’ I said to myself, ‘if I can make enough money to keep us this winter, when François comes home he will have his wages, and can pay Coutelenq his debt.’ So I worked on, sometimes at night, and sometimes early in the morning; but I was sad and sick, and the strength seemed gone from my hands. I set off one day, early in the morning, to take my ivory work into Dieppe, and hoped I might bring back the money with me ; but the man at the shop said the work was bad, and he could not give me the full price for it, and two pieces he would not take at all. I cried as I came home. I felt as if the bon Dieu himself had thrust me from him. Then I thought, it is because I have forgotten my vow, and think always of Pierre, and desire to be his wife. ' For some there must always be pain, and thou art one,’ I said.”
“O Epiphanie, Epiphanie! that was too hard ! ” burst out Jeanne, full of pity and impatience at the same time. “ God is good, and does not sell us what we desire, but gives it us through love, and that we may love him in return. He could not desire to make thee so miserable ! ”
“I don’t know; Jeanne, I did my best. My mother was ill; I could not forget her. Coutelenq said, “If thou wilt marry me, Épiphanie, thy mother shalt have no more care ; there is room at Tréport for her also.” Épiphanie paused. “Thou knowest the rest, Jeanne,” she said.
“Yes,” said Jeanne, “I know.”
“ I was better in health at Tréport,” continued Épiphanie, “after the child came, for I had him to think of and care for. O mon ange! mon petit marmot! mon seul bonheur! ” she cried, suddenly, holding the child closer to her bosom, and pressing kiss after kiss upon his rosy face.
She had told her story hitherto with unaltering tones ; her voice now was eager, broken with sudden tenderness. Jeanne, with instinctive sagacity, perceived the omnipotent thought of Épipbanie’s heart: in the child her life now centred ; her love, her conscience, vibrated to this tender touch with unalterable loyalty ; through him all things approached her heart; he was at once the key that opened and the door that barred.
Épiphanie,” said Jeanne, “ thou hast told me all thy story, and I will tell thee what I think. Thou hast been as good as an angel, but now I say — and I say it with a good conscience — that thou shouldst not say ‘no’ to Pierre any more. Thou hast done thy duty without thinking of thy own will; thou hast been good wife, good daughter, good mother, — yes, I say, — let me go on,” as Épiphanie appeared about to say something, “ I don't say it is always good to give a child a step-father, but thou and Pierre are different from most people. If thou and thy mother were to die, who would be so ready as Pierre to provide for the boy? and whom couldst thou trust so well ? I tell thee, Pierre’s heart is deep, large as the sea; he loves thee and all things that belong to thee, —thy mother, thy child. He has loved thee at home, at sea, in evil fortune and in good; he loved thee then, he loves thee now, and he has loved thee seven long years! No, I have not finished yet, — thou wouldst say something of thy vow ; well, look at it,.— thy vow ! Hast thou not observed it well ? I tell thee, yes. Thou gavest up thy happiness once, and thou madest thy husband happy while he lived; I know thy life at Tréport, and how thou wast always gentle and uncomplaining and kind, till even thy husband’s relations were forced to love thee! Now, when the bon Dieu has made Pierre faithful to thee still, and offers thee again some happiness, is it thou who must say ‘no’? If thou thinkest of thy evil luck, and that thou wilt bring it on Pierre, ma foi! I don’t understand that. Look a little, — Pierre is what one may call rich, I tell thee. He has money in Dieppe, he is first mate of his ship, he has never had a bad voyage since the first two, and he cares as much for the Widow Milette and her daughter as ever; ‘ I have observed that ’ (with some asperity of tone), as well as Marie Bignard! Thou art no longer ‘Milette,’ but the Widow Coutelenq, — as good a name as Robbe or Bignard, for example ; and, if we call thee ‘ Milette,’ still, it is because we like the old name better. Eh bien ! I will tell thee one thing more. Thou hast done thy duty to all, — to thy mother, to thy husband, to me,—always, Épiphanie; but there remains still one whom thou hast wronged; je le dit whom thou hast made to suffer, whom thou hast caused to put himself in danger instead of staying tranquilly at home. It is necessary to make this one amends, and who is this? It is Pierre Lennet!”
Épiphanie smiled. “It sounds like Monsieur le Curé, when he gives one advice,” she said, “to hear thee talk. Thou art always so strong and sure about everything ; thou always usedst as a child to speak out, and wast always ready to do things that the others held back from out of fear.”
“Ah!” said Jeanne, with a sigh, “ there ’s no great good comes of quick words or quick deeds after all. You should be sure you want to get there before you jump into a hole, because changing your mind when you are down at the bottom is poor work, to my thinking. Look, Épiphanie, there is Dieppe,” and she pointed to eastward, where a sudden bend in the line of cliffs showed them a glimpse of the harbor. In another moment the towers of the Citadelle rose above the cliffs, and the sudden clash of bells borne fitfully on the wind met them, and proclaimed that they neared the town.
Marie Robbe, who had diplomatically walked an extra mile to accomplish her object, now mounted the donkey, and rode on triumphantly in front; glancing demurely from under her dark lashes at the crowds that filled the streets, and were now already streaming into the great church of St. Jacques.
AND now the little company began to separate, — some to visit their friends in the different quarters of the city where they were to spend the day ; others to the market-place to do their business before church-time ; and the more devout going at once into the church, to spend the time before service in visiting the shrines to the Madonne de Bon Secours and St. Jacques, or to place a votive candle before the shrine of the entombment, an ancient and rude carving in stone, representing the group of mourning women and disciples at the tomb. These figures stand within a deep recess, in a sombre nook near the entrance of the church. They are enclosed, in front, by an iron grating, through which the people pass by a little gate ; and, after placing their candles on an iron frame, not unlike an upturned harrow, that stands before the shrine, the votaries may meditate on this ancient and sacred scene of sorrow till their own troubles become ennobled by the fellowship or lessened by the contrast.
Épiphanie Milette was one of these votaries, and left Jeanne at the marketplace, going herself at once to the church. Marie Robbe accompanied Jeanne as far as the end of the narrow street where lived her uncle, the ivorycarver; and Jeanne, as she mounted her donkey once more, looking back, saw her arranging her dress with a face of much discontent at the clouds of dust that were driving along the street.
Jean Farge, at whose house Jeanne was to stay the night, lived in the Pollet, — an ancient part of the town separated from the rest of Dieppe by the intervening harbor and dock. In the Pollet still linger some of the primitive customs of ancient Normandy, nowhere else to be found. The Polletais are a bold, free people, who love the sea, and have held to their own ways with a tenacity that perhaps more strongly than anything else bears witness to their Scandinavian blood. They still pride themselves on their ancient title of Loups de Mer,—a title most likely handed down from their ancestors, those veritable sea-wolves, who, sweeping southward from the far away northern forests and rocky shores of Denmark, came down upon the fair coasts of Normandy, and, stealing up the rivers in their black ships, burned and plundered town and village, and drove the miserable inhabitants before them like panic-stricken sheep.
Perhaps there is not in history a more wonderful tale than this of Normandy,— the story of the first coming of those turbulent sea robbers, — those square-browed and yellow-haired Vikings, who, in their fierce and invincible strength, seem to make credible the stories of the Skalds and the superhuman heroes of the Niebelungenlied. They spread over the land, and kept it with the hard grasp of men who could hold as well as win, who could be princes and rulers as well as conquerors and robbers. Then they were gradually softened and ennobled under this sweeter sky, and the dew and sunshine of the Christian faith. Their enterprise and strength and daring had found a new channel ; and then rose the noble churches of Rouen, Chartres, and Caen, and an order of knights, who seemed to carry victory and empire before them. When Guaimar, prince of Salerno, and his trembling subjects, were ready to submit to the demands of the haughty Saracens, who besieged his gates, forty Norman pilgrims, who happened to be at the time within the walls, entreated to be allowed to have horses and arms, and liberty to go forth and chastise these insolent pagans. The request was eagerly granted, the gates thrown open, and the band of Normans, like a thunderbolt, descended on the foe. The Saracens, amazed by the furious and unexpected onslaught, fled tumultuously ; and the Pilgrims returned to lay down their arms and take up their weeds once more. When Guaimar would have loaded them with presents, they rejected them with scorn: “ For the love of God and of the Christian faith,” they said, “we have done what we have done ; and we can neither accept of wages for such service nor delay our return to our homes.” Some say, however, that the Polletais’ title to Loup de Mer has no such historic meaning, but is simply another name for “Seals,” —an appellation which they can certainly claim at this day as entirely characteristic. They love the sea, and follow the seaman’s craft with an undivided heart. No Polletais was ever known to be anything but fisherman or sailor, and the best pilots on the coast are found among them.
There is usually some solemnity in the taking up of the hereditary craft, for, before a young man goes his first independent voyage, he is presented by his mother or sister with a new fishingnet, the work of her own hands. This net is his sole capital. His family and neighbors accompany him down to his boat, and there embracing him, and calling down upon him the blessing of God, and the protecting care of St. James, they send him forth upon the sea, which they neither fear nor regard with distrust.
If, on a pleasant summer’s evening, about dusk, you walk along the wharfside of the Pollet, passing the rows of quaint gabled houses that open on the quay, you may see many a picturesque group sitting in the doorway; the women in their white caps and brightcolored petticoats, knitting, or, shuttle in hand, weaving fishing-nets, as the children play about the pavement, gabbling in the queer Pollet dialect, which ignores the double letters and all j’s and g’s, and gives a soft and flowing sound to their speech not unlike Italian, and thus does a little to strengthen the theory held by some fantastic antiquarians, that the Pollet is the remains of a Venetian settlement. On the benches by the doorways sit groups of men, smoking and talking, whose dress if it be Sunday or holiday is worth the seeing. It consists of a velvet cap, ornamented with embroideries in silver thread; a vest of blue cloth, also embroidered, and with large buttons ; breeches laced at the knee, silk stockings, and low shoes with silver clasps. A little later sounds the curfew, and before it has done ringing the streets become silent and deserted ; a light here and there twinkles in the windows, supper is over, the prayer said, and the Pollet by a little after nine is abed. At the corner of a narrow street, as the darkness deepens, glimmers the feeble light of a yellow candle burning at the feet of the Madonna, placed there by some devout Polletais. The sea breaks on the shingly beach below the cliff, the lights of the town twinkle across the harbor, the wind sighs pleasantly through the many masts in the dock, and so the Pollet sleeps till morning.
They tell you strange stories in the Pollet. There it was that I first heard the story of the little wren, that sings on Christmas eve and proclaims the Nativity. Another tale of this kind I heard one day, as I sat sheltered from a pelting shower in a fisherman’s cottage, watching through the open doorway the rain sweeping down between me and the masts in the dock, and the rifts of blue sky that widened and widened over the gables of the town as the storm cleared. I asked the fisherman’s wife — a pretty young woman, who sat knitting as she rocked her child on her knee — about the Dieppe Lighthouse.
“ A fine light,” she said, “ and an excellent guetteur to watch it, without doubt.” I had heard of Monsieur Bouzard ? — a man of a great courage ; the post of watchman to the Dieppe Light had been in his family for more than a hundred years. Old Bouzard, grandfather to the present watchman, (she had often heard her father tell of him,) he had saved one, two, three, four, five, six lives from drowning,—counting them on her fingers with her knittingneedles,— “ he was a swimmer for example ! ” She had been told that some great king” (Louis XVI.) had called him ' Le brave homme Bouzard’; and the great Napoleon, uncle of our Emperor, had made to be built that house for him and his family forever ; and on it one can read of all the people they have saved, and there one may see the medals of gold and silver, and learn all the honor of the family Bouzard. “ But what is that?” continues the pleasant little fishwife; “ I would not be guetteur for my part. To be always solitary in the wind and darkness on stormy nights ; and then the phantom ship,” — with a shudder, — “one might die of fear to see that.”
“Phantom ship!” I said; “and what is that ? ”
Mademoiselle had not heard of the phantom ship ? that was strange, but strangers can know so little of the true marvels of a place, to be sure !
At my request she told me the story. “On All-Souls’ night the watchman on the pier, as he walks there all alone, just after midnight, sees, approaching, a dark ship, with black sails, without light, without sound, but it makes forthe harbor. He hails it, but there is no answer ; he shouts to those on board the ship to throw the rope ; but then, — then while he watches it, — all slowly, slowly it disappears into the darkness, and he hears the sound of cries for help, and those die away into the darkness also, and his very flesh creeps, for ” — suddenly leaning forward with her wide brown eyes fixed on my face, and her voice dropping to a dramatic whisper — “he knows the voices; they are those of the sailors who have been drowned that year!” and the speaker suddenly claps her saboted foot down on the ground, and continues to rock and knit.
It was to one of the houses of the Pollet, then, that Jeanne repaired, after leaving Marie Robbe. Her path layover the draw-bridge that crosses the dock, and along the wharf, where she had to thread her way among cables, and piles of nets and tackle, that lay about on every side. Her destination was the house of Jean Farge. Jean Farge and his family were old friends of the Deféres ; and the quaint little house, built in the side of the cliff, and approached by steps cut in the chalk rock, was always their stopping-place when business or a fête day brought Jeanne or her father to Dieppe. As Jeanne passed along, she saw numbers of fishing-boats running into the harbor, seeking shelter from the storm; for there was no doubt now that the wind was rising, and gave it promise of a rough night. How the wind blew ! It came sweeping up from the sea, and roaring into the hollows of the cliffs, — said to have been the caves of smugglers in former times, but at present serving for the more innocent, but less interesting, purpose of storing herring-barrels, old spars, and disabled rowing-boats ; — it came blustering down the wharf, sending a cloud of dust before it, and swinging the fishing tackle and nets that hung against the sides of the houses, and rattling the rigging of the ships that lay at anchor in the dock.
Jeanne was glad to turn into the sheltered alley that led to Jean Farge’s abode. Fastening her donkey at the foot of the steps, she ascended, and knocked at the door. All were from home but old Madame Farge, who sat at her spinning-wheel in the window looking on to the wharf. She held out her hand to Jeanne, and kissed her somewhat ceremoniously on the forehead. “ Que Dieu te benisse, ma fille !” she said.
“ Que Dieu vous garde, madame ! ” replied the young girl, stooping, and kissing the proffered hand.
Madame Farge was a true Polletais ; and to-day, though she could not attend the service, she was arrayed in her full holiday attire. She was a little old woman, thin and spare, with a wrinkled, sharp-cut face. “ Ai, Jeanne! but thou art somewhat late, ma fille,” she said ; “ thou hast missed the others. It is too stormy for me, and I stay by my spinning-wheel.”
“ Yes,” said Jeanne, “ it is bad weather on land, let alone the sea; and my father is out in it too; he started last night, with the tide, at seven o’clock. No doubt but he will put into harbor to-day. I saw the boats running in by the dozen as I came along the wharf.”
“ Yes, yes, that is what he will do,” said Madame Farge; “thy father always was a prudent man, and has had good luck ; and that means, ma fille, that he has always had a stout heart and a cool head, and watched which way the wind blew, — eh, Jeanne? It is the fools that have always bad luck, — is it not ? ”
“ Maybe,” said Jeanne ; “but it is not so easy always to be wise. But,” she continued, looking through the little window that commanded a view of the harbor, “ the men say it won’t be much of a storm, only a blow enough to spoil the fish-haul, but not enough to do much damage.”
“ Well, I hope it may,” said the old woman ; “but I don't like the whistle of the wind in the cliffs ; it brings the gulls about, squalling, and they know more about bad weather than the men do, I fancy. I, for my part, never like a stormy fête day, nor dost thou, either, I suppose. When one wears ruban de soie like that on one’s bodice,” she continued, stooping towards Jeanne, and inspecting her attire, “one does not like rain ! Ai! a present from thy Aunt Ducrés, — is it ? Ah ! she knows what is suitable, to be sure. Thy cousin Gabriel was here last night. How was it you did not come together ? He told me something about it, but I forget; well, he and my grandson have been out since daybreak, I know not for what. Thou wilt meet them at church, most likely, and you can return here together, — or wilt thou wait here awhile ? ”
“ No,” said Jeanne, “ it is time to go now ; I don’t wish to be late. Épiphanie Milette is waiting for me at the shrine of Notre Dame. Gabriel can come with the other boys.”
“ Eh bien, ma fille ! fasten thy donkey in the shed, give him some feed, and return soon.”
And Jeanne departed, and walked swiftly along the wharf-side, fearing to meet Gabriel by the way. But she had little cause for such concern. Gabriel was far away, and she was destined to meet him under very different circumstances, — not till the quick anguish of despair of ever seeing him again had shown her that his life was dear to her as her own.
MADAME FARGE was right. The gulls did know more about the weather than she or any one else. The wind rose steadily all day, and by afternoon the gleams of light that had brightened the cloudy heavens every now and then during the morning, and given fitful hopes of clearing, had entirely disappeared, and a heavy surging mass of vapor spread sulky and dark from horizon to horizon. The rain began in gusty showers, which abated nothing the violence of the wind. The fishingboats came in hour by hour, seeking the shelter of the harbor, unwilling to tace the storm that now threatened to last all night. Knots of women, blown about by the wind, stood on the pier, watching the coming in of the boats. Some of them, with still a thought to their holiday dress, sheltered themselves under the lea of the sentry-box that stands by the great crucifix at one end of the pier. The more anxious leaned over the low wall of the pier, and gazed out towards the dark, threatening sea and sky, or watched the slow approach of the boats, that one by one, struggling and laboring in the heavy sea, made their way towards the mouth of the harbor. From time to time, when the cry of “A boat comes ! ” was given, the crowd became suddenly animated ; the talk rose by a rapid crescendo into an almost incoherent babel of exclamatory discussion, accompanied by eager gesticulations ; and all rushed with one accord to the end of the pier. As the boat entered the narrow mouth of the harbor, the excitement became intensified ; all eyes were strained to catch the first sight of the rope thrown out from the vessel by which she was to be towed into dock.
In another moment, with a shrill whir, the rope came, and had scarcely touched the ground when it was seized by the eager crowd, men and women together, who, forming into a double line, to the jubilant clack of their own sabots, trooped along, chattering gayly as they pulled, — the women calling shrill welcomes in reply to the shoutsof greeting from the men in the boat below.
Jeanne had watched hour by hour for her father’s boat in vain. A little before four o’clock the tide had turned, and begun to rise, and by about ten o’clock it would be high tide ; and the men predicted that the storm would abate after that, and go down with the falling tide. But there were six anxious hours to pass over before then, and the storm seemed to grow more violent every moment.
“It was possible,” reasoned Jeanne, “that her father might have put back into Verangeville, or, if he had got down as far as Tréport, he might have put in there for the night; her father knew how difficult the harbor at Dieppe was, and would most probably choose another.” And, in view of all these contingencies, Jeanne consoled Épiphanie, who thought of her brother’s evil luck, and looked out on the grim, desolate sea with despair deepening in her eyes every moment. How much Jeanne’s own stout heart misgave her as she argued thus, and sought to reassure her more disconsolate companion, we need not inquire ; but she kept up a brave front to misfortune, at any rate. Jeanne tried to persuade her companion to go back to Madame Farge, to stay there till the evening service, on account of the child, while she herself would remain on the watch, and promised to send her word at the first sight of the boat. Épiphanie did not leave Jeanne willingly ; she clung to her hope-giving, cheery presence ; but at last reluctantly obeyed, and Jeanne remained to watch and wait alone. As the day wore on to its close, the boats came in at greater intervals, and old Defére’s boat was not among them. Jeanne chatted with the other women and one or two men who still remained on the pier, and lent a hand in towing in the boats as they arrived; but, as evening approached, and nearly all of the expected fishingcraft had found safe harborage, the number of spectators gradually diminished, and Jeanne was left with the few watchers who still remained. As it grew dark, the bell began to ring for evening service, and Épiphanie came hurrying along the pier, wrapped in her long cloak, under which the baby lay and slept, sheltered from the wind and rain.
“Come, Jeanne,” she said, “it is time to go up to the office. I have brought thee some supper down from Madame Farge; thou canst eat it as we go along.”
So they went up together, stopping once or twice, with the involuntary curiosity of country women, to look into the shop windows, some of which were already lit up, and displayed their wares under the bright gaslight. As they crossed the market-place, the wind caught them, and, like a malignant spirit, seemed to hold them back from the church-porch. Out of the blustering storm they turned into the silence of the old church. The lights on the high altar faintly illuminated the chancel, but the great body of the nave and side aisles lay in gloom, the tall arches lost themselves in the sombre dimness of the vaulted roof, and the glowing colors of the windows were fading slowly from their lovely twilight splendor.
The two women paused for a moment at the Shrine of the Entombment, and then passed up the church. Taking two of the innumerable chairs piled in a stack round one of the pillars near the chancel, they knelt down to pass the time before service in their private devotions. The church soon began to fill rapidly, the high vaulted roof reechoing to the constant slamming of the great padded door at the west entrance, as the crowd streamed in. The lights upon the high altar grew into full radiance, the long line of priests and choristers entered the chancel, and the service began.
It was the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Round the church beat the storm, howling through the flying buttresses, and lashing the rain against the windows. As the service went on, the monotonous chanting of the priests gave place to the organ and the voices of the choir; the sounds of storm without were drowned in the triumphant tones, and it seemed as if St. Michael and his hosts, “ the shining squadrons of the sky,” fought with the rebellious spirits of the air, and drove them back with sweet tones of angelic victory.
The two women knelt side by side in the strange companionship and isolation of their devotion. Each joined devoutly in the triumphant service of the church, and yet each poured into it the warm life of her own heart with its individual longings and grief. Jeanne’s face was raised, and her eyes were fixed on the high altar and its blazing lights. The warm light, falling full upon her front, made her like some glowing picture as she knelt, with her high, white Norman cap and scarlet bodice, the trembling ear-rings and the chain about her throat, her soft and shining hair that fell beneath her cap, her clasped hands, and fervent, upturned face. Épiphanie cradled her baby in her arms that rested on the top of her chair, and her pale face was bent over the rosy, sleeping child, that lay against her bosom ; her lips moved with her prayers, her brother and the fishing-boats were in her thoughts, and every angry gust that blustered round the church increased the sickening pangs of her anxiety; for years of care had worn away the youthful spring of her spirit, and self-distrust and despondency were almost natural to her.
It had been well for Jeanne that she had had others to think of all day; she had carried the child for Épiphanie, and spoken words of cheer to many an anxious watcher on the pier, and this had given her more comfort than she herself knew of at the time. When Épiphanie took the child from her arms, and knelt down, Jeanne understood that her care was set aside. Épiphanie had thrown herself and her anxieties and sadness on a stronger arm, and for the time needed Jeanne no longer. Poor Jeanne ! now she must think of herself and her own troubles,—of her father, — of Gabriel!
She repeated her usual prayers, but they had neither strength nor savor as heretofore, for all was confusion within. There was fear for her father and poor François, and in her heart, buffeted and tossed by doubt and perplexity, rung her angry parting words with Gabriel. She bowed her head, while the floods of a bitter humiliation passed over her. Suddenly a cry rose in her heart with all the vehemence of youth and strength. “ Spare his life, spare but his life, O God! His anger may remain; we may never be at peace again any more, if that be thy will; but from the horror of death and danger O save him, Good Lord!” For clear and strong before her had risen a vision of Gabriel encompassed with danger ; it impressed itself upon her mind with importunate persistency and the clear horror of reality; and in that moment in which she learned that the withdrawal of his love must be as the darkening of her life, she accepted this if it were the alternative of his death, and prayed for his life alone.