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Title: A Loose End and Other Stories
Author: Hall, S. Elizabeth
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Loose End and Other Stories" ***

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A LOOSE END AND OTHER STORIES

by

S. ELIZABETH HALL

Author of _The Interloper_

London:
Simpkin, Marshall Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd.
London: Truslove and Bray, Printers, West Norwood, S.E.



CONTENTS.


   A LOOSE END

   IN A BRETON VILLAGE

   TWICE A CHILD

   THE ROAD BY THE SEA

   THE HALTING STEP

   TABITHA'S AUNT



A LOOSE END.

CHAPTER I.


One September morning, many years ago, when the Channel Islands seemed
further off than they do now, and for some of them communication with
the outer world hardly existed, some two hours after the sun had risen
out of the sea, and while the grass and the low-growing bushes were
still fresh with the morning dew, a young girl tripped lightly along the
ridge of a headland which formed the south side of a cove on the coast
of one of the smaller islands in the group. The ridge ascended gradually
till it reached a point on which stood a ruined building, that was said
to have been once a mill, and from which on the right-hand side the path
began to descend to a narrow landing-place in the cove. The girl stood
still for a moment when she reached the highest point, and shading her
eyes looked out to sea. On the opposite side of the cove a huge rock,
formed into an island by a narrow shaft of water, which in the strife of
ages had cleared its way between it and the rocky coast, frowned dark
and solemn in the shadow, its steep and clear-cut sides giving it a
character of power and imperturbability that crowned it a king among
islands. The sea beyond was glittering in the morning sun, but there was
deep purple shadow in the cove, and under the rocks of the projecting
headlands, which in fantastic succession on either side threw out their
weird arms into the sea; while just around the edge of the shore, where
the water was shallow over rocks and weed, was a girdle of lightest,
loveliest green. Guernsey, idealized in the morning mist, lay like a
dream on the horizon. Here and there a fishing-boat, whose sail flashed
orange when the sun touched it, was tossing on the waves; nearer in a
boat with furled sail was cautiously making for the narrow passage--the
Devil's Drift, as the fishermen called it--between the island and the
mainland, a passage only traversed with oars, the oarsmen facing
forwards; while the two occupants of another were just taking down their
sail preparatory to rowing direct for the landing-place.

The moment the girl caught sight of this last boat she began rapidly to
descend the 300 feet of cliff which separated her from the cove below.
The path began in easy zig-zags, which, however, got gradually steeper,
and the last thirty feet of the descent consisted of a sheer face of
rock, in which were fixed two or three iron stanchions with a rope
running from one to the other to serve as a handrail; and the climber
must depend for other assistance on the natural irregularities of the
rock, which provided here and there an insecure foothold. The girl,
however, sprang down the dangerous path, without the slightest
hesitation, though her skilful balance and dexterity of hand and foot
showed that her security was the result of practice.

By the time she had reached the narrow strip of beach, one of the few
and difficult landing-places which the island offered, the two fishermen
were already out of the boat, which they were mooring to an iron ring
fastened in the rock. One of the men was young; the other might be, from
his appearance, between sixty and seventy. A strange jerking gait, which
was disclosed as soon as he began to move on his own feet, suggested the
idea that his natural habitat was the sea, and that he was as little at
ease on land as some kinds of waterfowl appear to be when walking. He
could not hold himself upright when on one foot, so that his whole
person turned first to one side and then to the other as he walked.

"Marie!" he called to the girl as she alighted at the bottom of the
cliff, and he shouted something briefly which the strange jargon in
which it was spoken and the gruff, wind-roughened voice of the speaker,
would have made unintelligible to any but a native of the islands.

The girl, without replying, took the basket of fish which he handed her,
slung it on her back by a rope passed over one shoulder, and stationed
herself at the foot of the path, waiting for him to begin the ascent:
the younger man, who was busy with the tackle of the boat, apparently
intending to stay behind.

When the old man had placed himself in position to begin the ascent,
with both hands on the rope, and all his weight on one leg, the girl
stooped down, and placing her lithe hands round his great wet
fisherman's boot, deftly lifted the other foot and placed it in the
right position on the first ledge of rock.

"Now, Daddy, hoist away!" she cried in her clear, piping voice, using,
like her father, the island dialect; and he dragged himself up to the
first iron hold, wriggling his large, awkward form into strange
contortions, till he found a secure position and could wait till his
young assistant was beside him once more. She sprang up like a cat and
balanced herself safely within reach of him. It was odd to see the
implicit confidence with which he let her lift and place his feet;
having now to support herself by the rope she had only one hand to
spare; but the feat was accomplished each time with the same precision
and skill, till the precipitous part of the ascent was passed and they
had commenced the zigzag path.

Then Marie took her daddy's arm under hers, and carefully steadied the
difficult, ricketty gait, supporting the heavy figure with a practised
skill which took the place of strength in her slight frame. Her features
were formed after the same pattern as his, the definite profile, tense
spreading nostril, and firm lips, being repeated with merely feminine
modifications; and as her clear, merry eyes, freshened by the
sea-breeze, flashed with fun at the stumblings and uncertainties of
their course, they met the same expression of mirth in his hard-set,
rocky face.

"You've got a rare job, child!" said he, as they stood still for breath
at a turning in the path, "a basket of fish to lug up, as well as your
old daddy. He'd ought to have brought them as far as the turning for
you."

"I'd sooner have their company than his, any day," with a little _moue_
in the direction of the cove. "I just wish you wouldn't take him out
fishing with you, Daddy, that I do!"

"Why not, girl?"

"It's he as works for himself and cares for himself and for no one else,
does Pierre," said the girl. "Comin' a moonin' round and pretending he's
after courting me, when all he wants, with takin' the fish round and
that, is to get the custom into his own hands, and tells folks, if _he_
had the ordering of it, there'd be no fear about them getting their fish
punctual."

"Tells 'em that, does he?" said the father, his sea-blue eyes suddenly
clouding over.

"That he does; and says he'd take up the inshore fishing, if he'd the
money to spend: and they should be supplied regular with crabs and
shrimps and such; and then drops a word that poor André he's gettin'
old, and what with being lame, and one thing and another, what can you
expect, and such blathers!"

"Diable! Do you know that for certain, child?" said André, stopping in
the path, and turning round upon her with a face ablaze with anger. "I
should like to hear him sayin' that, I should."

"Now, Daddy," she cried with a sudden change of tone, "don't you be
getting into one of your tantrums with him. Don't, there's a dear Daddy!
I only told you, so you shouldn't be putting too much into his hands.
But he'd be the one that would come best out of a quarrel. He's only
looking for a chance of doin' you a mischief, it's my belief."

"H'm! 'Poor André a gettin' old,' is he?" grunted her father, somewhat
calmed. "Poor André won't be takin' _him_ out with him again just yet
awhile--that's a certain thing. Paul Nevin would suit me a deal better
in many ways, only I' bin keepin' Pierre on out o' charity, his pore
father havin' bin a pal o' mine. But he's a deal stronger in the arms,
is Paul."

They reached the cottage, which stood on the first piece of level ground
on the way to the mainland. There was no other building within sight;
and with its bleak boulders and rocks of strangest form, in perpetual
death-struggle with the mighty force of ocean, resounding night and day
with the rush and tramp of the wild sea-horses, as they flung themselves
in despair on their rocky adversary, and with the many voices of the
winds, which scarcely ever ceased blowing in that exposed spot, while
the weird notes of the sea-fowl floated in the air, like the cries of
wandering spirits, the solitary headland seemed indeed as if it might be
the world's end.

The cottage consisted of one room, and a lean-to. Nearly half the room
was taken up with a big bed, and on the other side were the fire-place
and cooking utensils. Opposite the door was a box-sofa, on which Marie
had slept since she was a child, and which with a small table, two
chairs and a stool, completed the furniture of the room; the only light
was that admitted by the doorway, the door nearly always standing open;
the lean-to was little more than a dog-kennel, being formed in fact out
of a great heap of stones and rubbish, which had been piled up as a
protection to the cottage on the windward side; and three dogs and two
hens were enjoying themselves in front of the fire.

It was here that Marie had lived, ever since she could remember, in
close and contented companionship with her father: whom indeed,
especially since he had the fever which crippled him three years before,
she had fed, clothed, nursed and guarded with a care almost more
motherly than filial.


CHAPTER II.

Marie was leaning over the low wall of a cottage garden in the
'village,' as a clump of small houses at the meeting of four cross-roads
was called, and waiting for the kail which she had come to buy for the
evening's soup from Mrs. Nevin, who cultivated a little plot of ground
with fruit and vegetables. The back-door of the cottage, which opened on
the garden, was ajar, and she could hear some one enter from the front
with a heavy tread, and call out in a big, jovial voice, "Hullo, Mother,
we're in luck to-day! You'd never guess who's goin' to take me on. Lame
André, he's goin' to give Pierre the sack, and says he'll have me for a
time or two to try. Says I'm strong in the shoulders, and he guesses I
can do him more good than Pierre. I should think I easy could too, a
pinch-faced whipper-snapper like that!"

"And high time it is too that André had his eyes opened," rejoined Mrs.
Nevin; "often it is I've told Marie, as there she stands, that her
father don't ought to trust the fish-sellin' too much to that Pierre: a
lad as could rob his own grandmother the moment the life was out o' her
body."

"Well, Mother, you've often told me about that five franc piece, but
nobody can't say that she hadn't given it him before she died, as he
said--"

"Given it him, I should think so, when she never would have aught to say
to him for all his wheedling ways, and his brother Jacques was her
favourite; and poor old lady if she'd a known that Pierre was goin' to
be alone with her, when she went off suddint in a fit, I guess she'd a
locked up her purse first, I do."

"Well, I must say he turned a queer colour when he heard André say he
didn't want him no more: and you should have seen the look he gave him,
sort of squintin' out of his eyes at him, when he went away. He ain't a
man I would like to meet unawares in a dark lane, if I'd a quarrel with
him."

"Hullo, where's Marie?" cried Mrs. Nevin, coming out of the door with
the kail ready washed in her hand. "She never took offence at what we
was sayin', think you? Folks did say, to be sure, that she and Pierre
was sweet on one another some time since. Well, she's gone, any way,"
and the good woman stood for a few minutes in some dismay, shading her
eyes as she looked down the road.

Marie's slight, girlish figure vanished quickly round the turning in the
lane, and Mrs. Nevin could not see her pass swiftly by her own cottage,
and up the ridge to the old mill. When she reached the point at which
the path began to descend to the cove, she paused and looked down. The
keen glance and alert figure, poised on guard, suggested the idea of a
mother bird watching her nest from afar. The tide had gone out
sufficiently for the boats to be drawn up on the eight or ten feet of
the shelving shore, which was thus laid bare, and the glowing light of
the sunset touched in slanting rays the head and hands of an old man
seated on a rock and bending over some fishing tackle, which he seemed
to be repairing.

Round the extreme point of the headland, which in a succession of
uncouth shapes dropped its rocky outline into the shadowy purple sea,
there was visible, hastily clambering across pathless boulders, another
man, of a young and lithe figure, and with something in the eager,
forward thrust of the head, crouching gait, and swift, deft footing that
resembled an animal of the cat species when about to leap on its prey.
He was evidently making for the cove, but would have to take the rope
path in order to reach it, as there was no way of approaching it on that
side except over the sheer face of rock. Marie was further from the
rope than he was, but her path was easier. The moment her eye caught
sight of the crouching, creeping figure, she sped like a hare down the
path, till she reached a point at which she was on a level with the man,
at a distance of about a hundred feet. There she stood, uncertain a
moment, then turned to meet him. He seemed too intent on his object in
the cove to notice her advance, till she was within speaking distance,
when she suddenly called to him "Pierre!"

Her clear, defiant tone put the meaning of a whole discourse into the
word. The man turned sharply round with an expression of vindictive
malice in his fox-like face.

"Well, what do you want?"

"What are you doing here, please?"

"What's that to you, I should like to know?"

"Come nearer, then I can hear what you say."

"I sha'n't come no nearer than I choose."

"Don't be afraid. I ain't a-goin' to hurt you!"

The taunt seemed to have effect, for he leaped hurriedly along over the
rocky path, with an angry, threatening air that would have frightened
some girls. Marie stood like the rock beneath her.

"Now, Miss, I'll teach you to come interfering with business that's none
o' yourn. What, you thought you'd come after me, did yer? because you
was tired o' waitin' for me to come after you again, I suppose."

"What is that you're carryin' in your belt?" she demanded calmly. A
handle was seen sticking up under his fisherman's blouse. "You believe
its safer to climb the rocks with a butcher's knife in your pocket, do
you? You think in case of an accident it would make you fall a bit
softer, hey?"

"It don't matter to you what I've got in my pocket," he rejoined, but
his tone was uncertain. "I brought it to cut the tackle--we've got a job
of mending to do."

"I don't know whether you think me an idiot," she replied; "but if you
want me to believe your stories you'd better invent 'em more reasonable.
Now, Pierre, this is what you've got to do before you leave this spot.
You've got to promise me solemnly not to go near Daddy, nor threaten him
as you once threatened me on a day you may remember, nor try to
intimidate him into takin' you back. Neither down in the cove, nor
anything else: neither now, nor at any other time."

Her girlish figure as she stood with one arm clasping the rock beside
her, looked a slight enough obstacle in the path.

"Intimidate him! A parcel o' rubbish; who's goin' to intimidate him as
you call it. Get out o' the way, and don't go meddling in men's concerns
that you know nothing about."

He seized her wrist roughly, and with her precarious footing the
position was dangerous enough: but she clung with her other arm like a
limpit to the rock. He attempted to dislodge her, when she suddenly
turned and fled back on her own accord. He hastened after her, and it
was not till he had gone some yards that, putting his hand to his belt,
he found that the knife had gone.

"The jade," he muttered, "she did it on purpose," and even with his
hatred and malice was mingled a gleam of admiration at the cleverness
that had outwitted him. He hurried on towards the cliff path, but the
sunset light was already fading into dusk, and he had to choose his
footing more carefully. When he reached the point where the rope began,
Marie had already gone down and was leaning on the rock beside her
father. Had he been near he might have noticed a strange expression in
her eyes, as she furtively watched the precipitous descent. The purple
shadows now filled both sky and sea, and the island opposite reared its
grand outline solemnly in the twilight depths, as though sitting in
eternal judgment on the transient ways of men. The evening star shone
softly above the sea. Suddenly a crash, followed by one sharp cry, was
heard; then all was still.

"Good God! That's some one fallen down the path--why don't you go and
see, child?" but Marie seemed as if she could not stir. Old André slowly
dragged himself on to his feet, and took her arm, and they went
together. At the foot of the path they found the body of Pierre, dead,
his head having struck against a rock.

"He must have missed his footing in the dark," said André, when they had
rowed round to the fishing village to carry the news, and the solitary
constable had bustled forth, and was endeavouring to collect information
about the accident from the only two witnesses, of whom the girl seemed
to have lost the power of speech.

"He must have missed his footing in the dark; and then the rope broke
with his weight and the clutch he give it. It lies there all loose on
the ground."

"It shouldn't have broken," said the constable. "But I always did say
we'd ought to have an iron chain down there."


CHAPTER III.

Fifty years had passed, with all their seasons' changes, and the
changing life of nature both by land and sea, and had made as little
impression on the island as the ceaseless dashing of the waves against
its coast. The cliffs, the caves and the sea-beaten boulders were the
same; the colours of the bracken on the September hills, and of the sea
anemones in their green, pellucid pools, were the same, and the
fishermen's path down to the cove was the same. No iron chain had been
put there, but the rope had never broken again.

A violent south-west gale was blowing, driving scud and sea-foam before
it, while ever new armies of rain-clouds advanced threateningly across
the shadowy waters--mighty, moving mists, whose grey-winged squadrons,
swift and irresistible, enveloped and almost blotted from sight the
little rock-bound island, against which the forces of nature seemed to
be for ever spending themselves in vain. From time to time through a gap
in the shifting cloud-ranks there shone a sudden dazzling gleam of
sunlight on the white crests of the sea-horses far away.

The good French pastor, who struggled to discharge the offices of
religion in that impoverished and for the most part socially abandoned
spot, had just allowed himself to be persuaded by his wife that it was
unnecessary to visit his sick parishioner at the other end of the island
that afternoon, when a loud rat-tat was heard in the midst of a shriek
of wind, through a grudged inch of open door-way. The hurricane burst
into the house while a dripping, breathless girl panted forth her
message, that "old Marie" had been suddenly taken bad, and was dying,
and wanted but one thing in the world, to see the Vicar.

"I wonder what it is she has got to say," said the Vicar, as his wife
buttoned his mackintosh up to his throat. "I always did think there was
something strange about old Marie."

A mile of bitter, breathless battling with the storm, then a close
cottage-room, with rain-flooded floor, the one small window carefully
darkened, and on a pillow in the furthest corner, shaded by heavy
bed-curtains, a wrinkled old woman's face, pinched and colourless, on
which the hand of Death lay visibly.

But in the eagerness with which she signed to the pastor to come close,
and in the keen glance she cast round the room to see that no one else
was near, the vigour of life still asserted itself.

"I've somewhat to tell you, Father," she began in a rapid undertone, in
the island dialect. "I can't carry it to the grave with me, tho' I've
borne it in my conscience all my life. When I was a young lass it
happened, when things was different, and the men were rougher than now,
and strange deeds might be done from time to time, and never come under
the eye o' the law. And you must judge me, Father, by the way things was
then, for that was what I had to think of when it all happened.

"There was a young man that used to come a' courting me when I was a
lass o' nineteen, and he had a black heart for all he spoke so fair; but
I didn't see it at the first, and he was that cliver and insinuatin',
and had such a way o' talkin', and made so much o' me, I couldn't but
listen to him for a while. And he used to go out fishin' wi' my father,
and Daddy, he was lame, so Pierre used to take the fish round and do
jobs with the boats for him, and this and that, so as Daddy thought a
rare lot o' him; and when he seed we was thinkin' o' each other, he sort
o' thought he'd leave the business to him and me, and we'd be able to
keep him when he got too old to go out any more. And all was goin'
right, when one day Pierre says to me, would I go out in the boat and
row with him to the village, as he'd got a creel of crabs to take round,
so I got in and we rowed: and we went through the Devil's Drift, and he
says to me sudden like, 'When we're man and wife, Marie, what'll your
father do to keep hisself?' 'Keep hisself,' I said, 'why ain't we agoin'
to keep him?' And then he began such a palaver about a man bein' bound
to keep his wife but not his father-in-law, and it not bein' fit for
three grown people to live in one room, as if my father and mother and
his father afore him and all his brothers and sisters hadn't lived in
this very room that now I lie a-dyin' in; and I said 'well, as I see it,
if you take Daddy's custom off of him, you're bound to keep Daddy.' And
he said that wasn't his way o' lookin' at it, and I went into a sudden
anger, and declared I wouldn't have nought to do with a man that could
treat my Daddy so, and he was just turning the boat round to go into the
Drift, and there came such an evil look in his eyes so as it seemed to
go through my bones like a knife, and he said 'You shall repent this one
day--you and your daddy too,' and I said not another word and he began
to row forwards through the Devil's Drift. And somehow bein' there alone
with him in that fearsome place, when a foot's error one side or the
other may mean instant death, as he sat facin' me I seemed to see the
black heart of him, as I'd never seen it before, and there was summat
came over me and made me feel my life was in his hands, in the hands of
my enemy.

"Well, I said no more to him, not one word good or bad, the rest of that
evenin's row, and I never went out with him no more. But now, Father,
this is what I want to say--for my breath is a goin' from me every
minute--my Daddy, he was like my child to me, me that have never had a
child of my own. I had watched him and cared for him as if I was his
mother, 'stead of his bein' my father, and a hurt to him was like a hurt
to me: and when that man talked o' leavin' him to fend for himself in
his old age, the thought seemed as if it would break my heart: and now
I knew he had an enemy, and a pitiless enemy: and I tried to stop him
goin' out alone with Pierre, and I wanted him to get rid o' him out of
the fishing business altogether, and father he took it up so, when I
told him Pierre said he was gettin' too old to manage for hisself, that
he up and dismissed him that very day: and then I heard Lisette Nevin
and Paul talkin' and savin' how ill Pierre had taken it, and I seemed to
see his face with the evil look on it; and something seemed to say in my
heart that Daddy was in danger, and I couldn't stop a moment; I went
flying to the cove where I knew he'd gone by hisself, and there from the
top of the path I saw the other one creeping, closer and closer, like a
cruel beast of prey as he was: and I went down and I met him, and he'd a
knife in his belt, and of one thing I was certain, he might have been
only goin' to frighten Daddy, but he meant him no good."

She lowered her voice, and spoke in a hoarse whisper.

"Father, do you understand? Here was a man without ruth or pity, and
with a sore grudge in his black heart. Was I to trust my Daddy to his
hands, and him old and lame?" She paused another moment, then drew the
Vicar close to her and whispered in his ear, "I cut the rope. I knew he
was followin' me. I let myself halfway down, then clung to the iron hold
and cut the rope, with the knife I'd taken from him. It was at the risk
of my life I did it. And he followed me, and he fell and was killed.
Father, will God punish me for it? It has blighted my life. I have
never been like other women. I never was wed, for how could I tend
little children with blood on my hands? And the children shrank from me,
or I thought they did. But it was for Daddy's sake. He had a happy old
age, and he gave me his blessing when he died. Father"--her voice became
almost inaudible--"when I stand before God's throne--will God
remember--it was for Daddy's sake?"

The failing eye was fixed on the pastor's face, as if it would search
his soul for the truth. The fellow-being, on whom she laid so great a
burden, for one moment, quailed: then spoke assuring words of the mercy
of that God to whom all hearts are open: but already the ebbing
strength, too severely strained in the effort of disclosure, was passing
away, and the words of comfort were spoken to ears that were closed in
death.

       *       *       *       *       *

Under the South wall of the island burying-ground is a nameless grave:
where in the summer days fragments of toys and nose-gays are often to be
seen scattered about; for the sunny corner is a favourite play-place,
and the voices of children sound there; and they trample with their
little feet the grass above Marie's grave, and strew wild flowers on it.



IN A BRETON VILLAGE.

PART I.


In a wild and little-known part of the coast of Brittany, where, in
place of sandy beach or cliff, huge granite boulders lie strewn along
the shore, like the ruins of some Titan city, and assuming, here the
features of some uncouth monster, there the outline of some gigantic
fortress, present an aspect of mingled farce and solemnity, and give the
whole region the air of some connection with the under-world,--on this
coast, and low down among the boulders out to sea, stands a little
fishing village.

The granite cottages with their thatched roofs--bits of warm colour
among the bare rocks--lie on a tongue of land between the two inlets of
the sea, which, when the tides run high, nearly cut them off from the
mainland. Opposite the village on the other side of the little inland
sea, is a second cluster of piled-up rocks thrust forth, like the fist
of a giant, to defy the onslaught of Neptune, and on a plateau near the
summit, is the skeleton of a house, built for a summer residence by a
Russian Prince, who had a fancy for solitude and sea air, but abandoned
for some reason before the interior was completed. Solitary and
lifeless, summer and winter, it looks silently down like a wall-eyed
ghost over the waste of rocks and sea.

Below the house and close down by the seashore, is a low, thatched
cottage, built against the rock, which forms its back wall, and on to
which the rough granite blocks of which the cottage is constructed are
rudely cemented with earth and clay; the floor also consists of the
living rock, not levelled, but just as the foot of the wanderer had
trodden it under the winds of heaven for ages before the cottage was
built. In this primitive dwelling--which was not, however, more rude
than many of the fishermen's cottages along the coast--there lived, a
few years since, three persons: old Aimée Kaudren, aged seventy, who
with her snow-white cap and sabots, and her keen clear-cut face, might
have been seen any day in or near the cottage, cutting the gorse-bushes
that grew about the rocks for firing, leading the cow home from her
scanty bit of grazing, kneeling on the stone edge of the pond by the
well, to wash the clothes, or within doors cooking the soup in the huge
cauldron that stood on the granite hearth. A sight indeed it was to see
the aged dame bending over the tripod, with the dried gorse blazing
beneath it, while its glow illumined the dark, cavernous chimney above,
was flashed back from the polished doors of the great oak chest, with
its burnished brass handles, and from the spotless copper saucepans
hanging on the walls; and brightened the red curtains of the cosy
box-bedstead in the corner by the fire.

The second inhabitant of the cottage was Aimée's son, Jean, the
fisherman, with his blue blouse, and his swarthy, rough-hewn face,
beaten by wind and weather into an odd sort of resemblance to the rocks
among which he passed his life--the hardy and primitive life to which he
had been born, and to which all his ideas were limited, a life of
continual struggle with the elements for the satisfaction of primary
needs, and which was directed by the movements of nature, by the tides,
the winds, and the rising and setting of the sun and the moon.

And thirdly there was Jean's nephew, Antoine.

The day before Antoine was born, his father had been drowned in a storm
which had wrecked many of the fishing-boats along the coast, and his
mother, from the shock of the news, gave premature birth to her babe,
and died a few hours after. His grandmother had brought up the child,
and his silent, rough-handed uncle had adopted him, and worked for him,
as if he were his own. So the little Antoine, with his blond head, and
his little bare feet, grew up in the rock-hewn cottage, like a bright
gorse-flower among the boulders, and spent an untaught childhood,
pattering about the granite floor, or clambering over the rough rocks,
and dabbling in the salt water, where he would watch the beautiful green
anemones, that had so many fingers but no hands, and which he never
touched, because, if he did, they spoilt themselves directly, packing
their fingers up very quickly, so that they went into nowhere: or the
prawns, that he always thought were the spirits of the other fish, for
they looked as if they were made of nothing, and they lay so still under
a stone, as if they were not there, and then darted so quickly across
the pool that you could not see them go.

Antoine knew a great deal about the spirits: how there were evil ones,
such as that which dwelt in the great mushroom stone out yonder to sea,
which was very powerful and wicked, so that the stone, being in fear,
always trembled, yet could not fall, because the evil spirit would not
let it: and then there were others which haunted the little valley
beyond Esquinel Point, where you must not go after dark, for the spirits
took the form of Little Men, who had the power to send astray the wits
of any that met them. Antoine feared those spirits more than any of the
others: they were so cunning and wanted to do you harm on purpose: and
when he went with his grandmother to pray in the little chapel on the
shore, he used to trot away from her side, as she knelt on her chair
with clasped hands and devoutly murmuring lips; and he would wander over
the rugged stone floor, till he found the niche in the wall where St.
Nicholas stood, wearing a blue cloak with a pink border, and having such
lovely pink cheeks: the kind St. Nicholas that took care of little
children, and that had three little boys without any clothes on always
with him, in the kind of little boat he stood in. And Antoine would
pray a childish prayer to St. Nicholas to protect him from the evil
spirits of the valley.

Antoine grew up very tall and strong. He accompanied Jean on his fishing
expeditions from the time he was twelve years old, and his uncle used to
say that he was of more use than many a grown man. He knew every rock
and even-current along that dangerous coast: he could trim the boat to
the wind through narrow channels in weather in which Jean would hardly
venture to do it himself: and the way in which the fish took his bait
made Jean sometimes cross himself, as he counted over the shining
boat-load of bream and cod, and mutter in his guttural Breton speech,
"'Tis the blessed St. Yvon aids him." Everybody liked him in the
village, and he took a kind of lead among the other lads, but, whether
it was the grave gaze of his blue eyes, or his earnest, outright speech,
or some other quality about him less easy to define, they all had the
same kind of feeling in regard to him that his uncle had. He was
different from themselves. There were indeed some among them in whom
this acknowledged superiority inspired envy and ill-will, and one in
particular, a lad that went lame with a club foot, but who had a
beautiful countenance, with dark, glowing eyes and finely-cut features,
never lost an opportunity of saying an ill word of, or doing an ill turn
to Antoine. Geoffroi Le Cocq seemed never far off, wherever Antoine
might be. He would lounge in the doorway of the café, watching for him,
and sing a mocking song as he passed down the road. He would mimic his
sayings among the other lads, who were not, however, very ready to join
in deriding him. And once he contrived to poison the Kaudrens' bait,
just when weather and season were at their best for fishing, so that
Antoine brought not a single fish home. Jean, with the quick-blazing
anger of his race, declared that if he could find the man who had done
it, he would "break his skull." But Antoine, though he knew well enough
who had done it, held his peace. Geoffroi was quicker of speech than
Antoine, and on the Sunday, when the whole village trooped out of the
little chapel after mass, and streamed down the winding village road,
the women in their white coiffes and black shawls, and the men in their
round Breton hats with buckles and streaming ribbons, while knots began
to collect about the doors of the village cafés, and laughter, gossip
and the sound of the fiddle arose on the sunny air, Geoffroi would
gather a circle round him to hear his quips and odd stories, and to join
in the fun that he would mercilessly make of others less quick than
himself at repartee. It was extraordinary on these occasions how
Geoffroi, like a spider in his web on the watch for a fly, would
contrive to draw Antoine into his circle, sometimes as though it were
merely to show off his cleverness before him, at other times adroitly
lighting on some quaint habit or saying of Antoine's, holding it up to
ridicule, now in one light, now in another, with a versatility that
would have made his fortune as a comedian, and returning to the charge
again and again, in the hope, as it seemed, of provoking Antoine's
seldom-stirred anger: but in this entirely failing, for Antoine would
generally join heartily in the laugh himself. Only once did a convulsion
of anger seize him, and he strode forward in the throng and gave
Geoffroi the lie to his face, when the latter had said that Marie
Pierrés kissed him in the Valley of Dwarfs, the evening before. He knew
that Geoffroi only said it to spite him; for Marie--the daughter of
Jean's partner--was his fiancée, and was as true as gold: but the image
the words called up convulsed his brain; a blind impulse sprang up
within him to strike and crush that beautiful face of Geoffroi's. He
clenched his fist and dared him to repeat the words. Geoffroi would only
reply, in his venomous way, "Come to-night to the Valley and see if I
lie." And the same instant the keen, strident voice was silenced by one
straight blow from Antoine's fist.

In the confused clamour of harsh Breton speech that arose, as neighbours
rushed to separate the two and friends took one side or the other,
Antoine strode away with a brain on fire and a mind intent on one
object--to prove the lie at once.

To go to the Valley of Dwarfs in order to spy on Marie and Geoffroi was
impossible to him. But he marched straight off to Marie's cottage. He
knew she would deny the charge, and her word was as good as the Blessed
Gospel: but he longed to hear the denial from her lips. He pictured her
as she would look when she spoke: the hurt, innocent expression of her
candid eyes: her rosy cheeks flushing a deeper red under her demure
snow-white cap: her child-like lips uttering earnest and indignant
protestation. When he reached the cottage, he found the door locked; no
one was about; he leaned his elbows on the low, stone wall in front and
waited.

Presently clattering sabots were heard coming down the road, and he
perceived old Jeanne Le Gall trudging along, her back nearly bent double
under a large bundle of dried sea-weed. She and her goat lived in the
low, rubble-built hovel, that adjoined the Pierrés' cottage, and from
her lonely, eccentric habits, and uncanny appearance, she had the
reputation of being a sorceress. Antoine called to her to know where
Marie was.

"Gone to the widow Conan's," mumbled the old woman, her strange eyes
gleaming under the sprays of sea-weed, "she and her father and mother,
all of them."

She deposited her load, and hobbled off again, fixing her eyes on
Antoine as she turned away, but saying nothing more.

Antoine strolled a little down the lane, seated himself on the steps of
the cross at the corner, and waited--evening was drawing on and they
were sure to return before dark.

Presently the cluck, cluck of the sabots was heard again, and old Jeanne
slowly approached him from behind. She said something in her toothless,
mumbling way, and held out a crumpled bit of paper in her shaking hand.
He opened it and read, scrawled as if in haste, in ill-spelt Breton:

"I go to a baptism at St. Jean-du-Pied, and cannot return before
sun-down. Meet me at the cross on the hill-side at six o'clock, as I
fear to pass through the valley alone in the dark. Marie."

As he studied the writing, the old woman's mumblings became more
articulate. She was saying, "'Twas the child Conan should have brought
it an hour ago. But he is ever good-for-nothing, and forgot it."

Antoine looked at the sun, which was already westering, and perceived
that he must set out to meet Marie in half-an-hour. He got up and walked
slowly towards the sandy shore of the little inlet, wide and wet at low
tide, on the other side of which lay his own home. He walked slowly, but
he felt as if he were hurrying at a headlong pace. The thought kept
going round and round in his brain like a little torturing wheel, which
nothing would stop, that after all Marie _was_ going to the Dwarf's
Valley this evening, just as Geoffroi had said. Geoffroi's words were
still sounding in his ears, and his right hand was clenched, as he had
clenched it when the whirlwind of anger first convulsed him.

He entered his own cottage, hardly knowing what he did.

Old Aimée was bending over the cauldron, cutting up cabbage for the
soup.

"Good-bye, Grandmother," he said. "I am going to the Dwarf's Valley."

Aimée looked up at him out of her keen old eyes.

"And why are you going there in the dark?" she said, "'Tis an evil
meeting place after the sun has set."

"Why do you say meeting place, Grandmother Whom do you think I am going
to meet there?"

"The blessed Saints protect you," she replied, "less you should meet
Whom you would not."

Antoine strode out again, without saying more. He fancied he was in the
Valley of Dwarfs already, about to meet Marie. He saw the weird, gnarled
trunks of trees on either hand, that grew among--sometimes writhed
around--the huge fantastic boulders: the dark cave-like recesses, formed
strangely between and under them where the dwarfs lay hidden to emerge
at dusk: the sides of the ravine towering up stern and gloomy on either
hand: and high above all against the sky, the grey stone cross at which
he was to meet Marie. He saw it all as if he were there, and the ground
beneath him, as he tramped on, seemed unreal. Twilight was already
falling over the rocks and the grey sea: there were no lights in the
village, except such as shone here and there in a cottage window: the
distant roar of the sea was heard, as it dashed over a long line of
rocks two or three miles out, but there was hardly any other sound: the
place indeed seemed God-abandoned, like some long-forgotten strand of a
dead world, with the skeleton house on the rock above for its forsaken
citadel.

It was already dark in the ravine when Antoine arrived there, and anyone
not knowing how instinctive is the feeling for the ways of his mother
earth in a son of the soil, would have thought his straightforward
stride, in such a chaos of rocks and pitfalls, reckless, till they
observed with what certainty each step was taken where alone it was
possible and safe. He was making his way through the valley to the cross
above, where the light still lingered, and it yet wanted some fifteen
minutes to the time of _rendez-vous_, when he suddenly stopped in a
listening attitude; he had reached a part of the valley to which
superstition had attached the most dangerous character. A particular
rock called "The Black Stone," which towered over him on the left, and
slightly bending towards the centre of the valley, seemed like some
threatening monster about to swoop upon the traveller, was especially
regarded as the haunt of evil spirits. It was in this direction that he
now heard a slight sound, which his practised ear discerned at once as
not being one of the sounds of nature. Immediately afterwards the shadow
of the rock beside him seemed to move and enlarge, and out of it there
sprang the figure of a man, and stood straight in Antoine's path.
Antoine's whole frame became rigid, like that of a beast of prey on the
point of springing, even before the shadow revealed its limping foot.

Geoffroi was the first to speak.

"You gave me the lie this afternoon. Take it back now and see what you
think of the taste of it. Would you like to see Marie?"

"What are you saying? What is it to you when I see Marie?"

"It is this--that I have arranged a nice little meeting for you. Hein?
Are you not obliged to me?"

Antoine's voice sounded hollow and muffled as he replied, "Stand out of
the path. You have nought to do between her and me."

"You think so? Then you shall learn what I have to do. You think you are
going to meet her at the cross at six o'clock. But you will not, you
will meet her sooner than that. It was I that sent you that message, and
I have advanced the time by half an hour. Am I not kind?"

Antoine's hand was on his collar like an iron vice.

"What have you done with her? Where is she?"

Geoffroi writhed himself free with movements lithe like those of a
panther. "Will you take back the lie," he said, "or will you see the
proof with your own eyes?"

He was turning with a mocking sign to Antoine to follow, when from the
left of the rock beside which they stood, there darted forward the
white-coiffed figure of a girl, who with extended arms and agonized
face, rushed up to Geoffroi, crying, "Take me away--I have seen Them!
Take me away."

She clung to Geoffroi's arm, and screamed when Antoine would have
touched her. Antoine stood for a moment as if turned to stone. Marie
seemed half fainting and clung hysterically to Geoffroi, apparently
hardly conscious of what she was doing. Geoffroi took her in his arms
and kissed her. The act was so loathsome in its deliberate effrontery,
that Antoine felt as if he was merely crushing a serpent when he struck
him to the ground and tore Marie from his hold. But he was dealing with
something which he did not understand for Marie, finding herself in his
grasp, opened her eyes on his face with a look of speechless terror, and
breaking from him, fled down the ravine, springing from rock to rock
with the security of recklessness.

Antoine followed her, stumbling through the darkness, but his speed was
no match for the madness of fear, and his steps were still to be heard
crashing through the furze bushes and loose stones, when the white
coiffe had flitted, like some bird of night, round the projecting
boulders of the sea-coast, and disappeared.


PART II.

Old Jeanne Le Gall was leaning on her stick in her solitary way beside
the arched wellhead at the top of the lane, when she heard flying steps
along the pathway of rock that bordered the sea, and peered through the
twilight with her cunning old eyes, alert for something uncanny, or
perchance out of which she could make some profit for herself. Already
that day, she had earned a sou by carrying a bit of a letter, and
telling one or two little lies. As the steps came nearer, a kind of
moaning and sobbing was heard, and the old woman, muttering to
herself--"It is the voice of Marie. What has the devil's imp been doing
to her?"--hobbled as fast as she could to the turning that led to the
sea, and just as the flying figure appeared, put out her skinny hand to
arrest it. There was a sudden scream, a fall, and Marie lay in the road,
like one dead.

The cry brought to their doors, one after another, the occupants of the
neighbouring cottages; and as the dark-shawled, free-stepping Breton
women gathered round, for the clattering of sabots and of tongues, it
might have been a group of black sea-fowl clamouring over some
'trouvaille' of the sea, thrown up among their rocks.

They raised her painfully, with kind but ungentle hands, wept and called
on the saints, availing little in any way, till the heavy tramp of a
fisherman's nailed boots was heard on the rocks, and Antoine thrust the
throng aside, and bending over, took her up in his arms, as a mother
might her child, and without a word bore her along the road towards her
home.

But he had scarcely placed her on the settle beside the bed, when her
eyes opened, and as they rested on him, again the look of terror came
into them: she flung herself away from him with a scream, and sobbing
and uttering strange sounds of fear and aversion, was hardly to be held
by the other women.

"She has lost her wits!" they cried. "Our Blessed Lady help her!"

White with fear themselves, and half believing it to be some
supernatural visitation, they clung round her, supporting her till the
fit had passed, and she lay back on the bed exhausted and half
unconscious: her fresh, young lips drawn with an unnatural expression of
suffering, and her frank, blue eyes heavy and lifeless. Antoine was
turned out of the cottage, lest the sight of him should excite her
again, and he marched away across the low rocks to his own home on the
solitary foreland. As he passed the chapel on the shore, he saw through
the open door, a single taper burning before the shrine of St. Nicholas,
and just serving to show the gloom and emptiness of the place; and it
seemed to him as though the Saints had deserted it.

He never saw Marie again. Once during her illness, the kind, clever old
Aimée, wrung by the sight of her boy's haggard face, as he went to and
fro about the boats, without food or sleep, took her way to the Pierrés'
cottage, with the present of a fine fresh "dorade" for the invalid; and
when she had stood for a minute by the bedside leaning on her stick, and
looking on the face of the half-unconscious girl, she began with her
natty old hand to pat Marie's shoulder, and with coaxing words to get
her to say that she would see Antoine. But at the first sound of the
name, the limp figure started up from the pillows, and from the
innocent, childish lips came a stream of strange, eager speech, as she
poured forth her conviction, like a cherished secret, that Antoine was
possessed of the Evil One: for Jeanne, the sorceress, had told her so:
that he was one of _Them_, and by night in the valley you could see him
in his own shape. Then she grew more wild, crying out that Antoine
would kill her: that he had bewitched her, and she must die.

Anyone unaware of the hold which superstition has over the Breton mind,
would perhaps hardly believe that the women stood round awe-struck at
this revelation, seeing nothing improbable in it. In spite of her
dangerous state of excitement, they eagerly pressed her with questions
as to what she had seen, and what Jeanne had said, but she had become
too incoherent to satisfy them, and only flung herself wildly about,
crying, "Let me go--he will kill me--let me go:" till she suddenly sank
down motionless on the pillow, was silent for a few moments, and then
began to murmur over and over in an awe-struck, eager whisper, "Go to
the Black Stone this night, and you shall see. Go to the Black Stone
this night, and you shall see."

While the old cronies shook their heads, muttering that it was true,
there had always been something uncanny about Antoine: and see the way
he would draw the fish into his net, against their own better sense: it
was plain there was something in Antoine they dared not resist:--old
Aimée hobbled out with her stick and sabots, without saying a word, went
round to the open door of the next cottage, and peered round the rough
wooden partition that screened off the inner half of the room. On a
settle beside the hearth, where a cauldron was boiling, sat Jeanne, the
sorceress, with her absorbed, concentrated air, as though her thoughts
were fixed on something which she could communicate to no one: she
turned her strange, bright eyes on the figure in the entrance, without
change of expression, and waited for Aimée to speak.

Aimée's face was like a cut diamond, so keen and bright was it, as
leaning on her stick, which she struck on the floor from time to time
with the emphasis of her speech, she said in her shrill Breton tones:--

"Mademoiselle Jeanne, I have come to ask of you what evil lie it is that
you have told to the child Marie, that lies on her death-bed yonder.
Come. You have been bribed by Geoffroi, that I know, and a son will
purchase snuff, and for that you will sell your soul. Good--It is for
you to do what you will with your own affairs: but when you cause an
injury to my belle-fille, so that she becomes like a mad woman and dies,
I come to ask you for an account of what you have done, Mademoiselle:
that you may undo what you have done, while there is yet time,
Mademoiselle."

Jeanne's thin, stern lips trembled, almost as if in fear, as she
listened to Aimée. She turned her shaking head slowly towards her, then
fixed her deep eyes on hers, and said:

"I have warned your belle-fille, that she may be saved. It was my love
for her. Let her have nought to do with Them that dwell in the rocks and
the trunks of the great trees."

Old Aimée shook her stick on the floor with rage.

"Impious and wicked woman! Confess, I say, or I will tell the good curé,
who knows your tricks, and he will not give you absolution; and then
the Evil Ones will have their way with you yourself, for what shall
save you from them?"

The thin lips in the strange face trembled more. "The old sorceress
dwells alone, abandoned of all," she murmured. "If she take not a sou
when one or another will give it her, how shall she contrive to live?"

"What is it," demanded Aimée, with increasing shrillness, "that you have
told the child Marie about my grandson?"

A look of cunning suddenly drove away the expression of conscious guilt
in Jeanne's face. She dropped her eyes on the floor, mumbled
inarticulately a moment, and then said shiftily, "You have perhaps a few
sous in your pocket, Madame, to show good-will to the sorceress; for
without good-will she cannot tell you what you seek to know."

Aimée's keen eyes flashed, as drawing forth two sous from her pocket,
she said in a tone of incisive contempt, "You shall have these,
Mademoiselle, but not till you have told me the whole truth, as you
would to the curé at confession. Come then--say."

The sorceress began with shuffling tones and glances, which grew more
sure as she went on:

"I watched for the little one returning on the afternoon of Sunday--_he_
told me to do so. I was to give her the message that Antoine desired to
meet with her at the entrance of the Dwarf's Valley: I had but to give
the message: it was not my fault. I am but a poor old woman that does
the bidding of others."

"Well, well," said Aimée, impatiently, "what else did you tell her?"

Jeanne looked at her interlocutor again, and a strange expression grew
in her eyes.

"It is Jeanne that knows the Evil Ones, that knows their shape and their
speech. She knows them when they walk among men, and she knows them in
their homes in the dark valley."

"Chut, chut," cried Aimée, the more irritably that her maternal feelings
had to overcome her natural inclination to superstition. "It is only one
thing you have to tell--how did you frighten Marie so that she is ready
to go out of her wits at the sight of Antoine?"

"Nay, it was Geoffroi that frightened her, as they went up the ravine
together. I had but told her not to go alone, for that They were abroad
that night." The old woman broke into a curious chuckle. "How she
shivered, like a chicken in the wind! H'ch, h'ch! Then _he_ took hold of
her arm and led her away, for I had told her _he_ was a safe protector
against the spirits, not like some that wear the face of man and go up
and down in the village, saying that the people should not believe in
Jeanne the sorceress, for that she tells that which is untrue--while
they themselves have dealings such as none can know with the Evil Ones."

Aimée looked at her keenly for some moments with a curious expression on
her tightly-folded lips.

"You would have me believe that Marie went into the ravine when she knew
the spirits were about, and went on the arm of Geoffroi?"

"I tell you, Grandmère, that she did so. It was Jeanne that compelled
her. For Jeanne knows when a man is in league with Them, and she said to
Marie, 'Thou wilt wed Antoine, but thou knowest not what he is; go to
the Black Stone to-night, and thou shalt see.' H'ch! Jeanne knows
nothing, does she? But Marie went, for she knew that Jeanne was wise.
And what she saw, she saw."

It was strange to see the conflict between superstition and natural
affection in the face of Aimée. Her thoughts seemed to be rapidly
scanning the past, and there was fear as well as anger in her look.
Could it be that this child, flung into her arms, as it were, from the
shipwreck, born before his time of sorrow, the very offspring of
death,--that had always lived apart from the other lads, with strange,
quiet ways of his own--that had astonished her by his wise sayings as a
child--and that, growing up had brought unnatural prosperity to the
home, as though some higher hand were upon him--could it be that there
was something in him more than of this earth? Her hand trembled so that
it shook the stick on which she leant: she made one or two attempts to
speak, then dropped the two halfpence on the table, as if they burnt
her, and went out.

When Marie was a little better, they sent her away to her married
sister's at Cherbourg, for the doctor said that the only chance of
recovering her balance of mind, lay in removing her from everything that
would remind her of her fright, or of Antoine. News travels slowly in
those parts, especially among the poor and illiterate, and for months
Antoine heard nothing of her, except for an occasional message brought
by some chance traveller from Cherbourg, to the effect that she was
still ill: while his own troubles at home grew and gathered as time went
on. For since that night in the ravine everything seemed to have gone
wrong. A superstitious fear had associated itself with the idea of
Antoine in the minds of the other villagers. The Kaudrens' cottage was
more and more avoided, and the fishing business was injured, for people
chose rather to buy their fish of those of whom no evil things were
hinted. The Pierrés themselves were infected with this feeling, and
Marie's father would go partner with Jean no longer. Jean could not
support a fishing smack by himself, and gave up the distant voyages,
confining himself to the long-shore fishing, and disposing of his
oysters, crayfish and prawns as best he could in the more remote
villages. Meanwhile, old Aimée, getting older and more feeble, would sit
knitting in the cottage by a cheerless hearth, and as the supply of
potatoes, chestnuts and black bread grew scantier and scantier, would
furtively watch Antoine, with anxious, awe-struck glances, and then
would sometimes cross herself, and wipe a tear away unseen.

It was on a wild, stormy morning of January, that a letter at length
arrived for Antoine from Cherbourg. The news was blurted out with
tactless plainness. 'La pauvre petite' was no more. In proportion as she
grew calmer in mind, it appeared, Marie had grown weaker in body: and a
cold she had contracted soon after her arrival in Cherbourg, had settled
on her lungs, which were always delicate. For weeks she had not risen
from her bed, but had gradually pined away. There was a message for
Antoine. "Tell him," she had said, in one of her last intervals of
consciousness, "that I cannot bear to think of how I acted towards him.
Tell him I did not know what I was doing. Ask him to come--to come
quick. For I cannot die in peace, unless he forgives me." But she had
died before the message could be sent.

Antoine read the letter, crushed it in his great, trembling hand, and
looked round him as though searching blankly for the hostile power, that
had thus entangled, baffled and overthrown him. That voice from the
grave seemed to call on him to claim again the rights that had been
snatched from him. She was his, and he would see her face once more: he
would go to Cherbourg, and look on her dead face, that he might know it,
for she was his.

He would be in time, if he caught the night train (the funeral was the
following day). He would have to walk to St. Jean-du-Pied, the next
village along the coast, from which a _diligence_ started in the
afternoon to the nearest railway station. Old Aimée did up a little
packet of necessaries for him, and borrowed money for the journey,
saying nothing as she watched his face, full of the inarticulate
suffering of the untaught. Antoine scarcely said farewell, as he walked
straight out of the cottage door towards the sea, to take the shortest
route to St. Jean-du-Pied by the coast. The rocks were white from the
sea-foam, as if with driven snow, and the black sea was lashed to
madness by a gale from the North East. The bitter wind tore across the
bleak country-side, scourging every rock, tree and living thing that
attempted to resist it, like the desolation of God descending in
judgment on the land. Wild, torn clouds chased each other across the
sky, and the deep roar of the sea among the rocks could be heard far
inland.

Antoine's thoughts meanwhile were whirling tumultuously round and round
one object--an object that had hovered fitfully before his mind for many
weeks--pressing closer and closer on it, till at length with triumphant
realization, they seized on it and made it the imperious necessity of
his will.

Ever since the night in the ravine, Antoine had been living in a strange
world: he had not known himself: his hand had seemed against every
man's, and every man's hand against his. He never went to mass, for he
felt that the good God had abandoned him.

Now he suddenly realised what it was he needed--the just punishment of
Geoffroi. The path of life would be straight again, and God on His
Throne in heaven, when Justice had been vindicated, and he had visited
his crime on the evil-doer. That he must do it himself, was plain to him.

He marched on, possessed with a feeling that it was Geoffroi whom he
was going to seek, towards the projecting foreland that shut in the
village on the east. He was drenched by the waves, as they dashed madly
against the walls of rock, and to get round the boulders under such
circumstances was a dangerous task even for a skilled climber: but
Antoine seemed borne forward by a force stronger than himself, and went
on without pause, or doubt, till in a small inlet on the other side of
the foreland, he discerned a figure clinging to a narrow ledge of rock,
usually out of reach of the tide, but towards which the mighty waves
were now rolling up more and more threateningly each moment. There was
no mistaking the lithe, cringing movements, the particular turn of the
head looking backward over the shoulder in terror at the menacing
waters: even if Antoine had not known beforehand that he must find
Geoffroi on that path, and that he had come to meet him.

Geoffroi's position was (for him) extremely dangerous. A bold climber
might have extricated himself; but for a lame man to reach safety across
the sea-scourged rocks was almost impossible. Could he hold on long
enough and the sea rose no higher, he might be saved: but there would
yet be an hour before the turn of the tide, and already the waves were
racing over the ledge on which he stood. Antoine sprang over the
intervening rocks, scrambling and wading through the water, as if not
seeing what he did, till he set foot on the ledge, and stood face to
face with his enemy.

Geoffroi's face was white with fear. He knew his hour was come. In the
mighty strife of the elements, within an inch of death on every side, he
was at Antoine's mercy.

"Don't kill me," he cried abjectly. "Have mercy, for the love of God."

Antoine grasped the writhing creature by the shoulder. The white face of
Marie rose up before him. Geoffroi shrieked. A huge, heaving billow
advanced, swept round the feet of both and sank boiling in the gulf
beneath. The next that came would leave neither of them there. Antoine
stood with his hand on Geoffroi's shoulder, as if he would crush it.
Somewhat higher, but within reach, was a narrow projection in the rock,
to which there was room for one to cling, and only for one: and Geoffroi
with his lame foot could not reach it alone.

"Let me go," he shrieked. "I will confess all: but save me, save me!"

Suddenly another wave of feeling surged up in the soul of Antoine. He
seemed to see the cross on the hill side, as it stood in light that
evening when he was to have met Marie there. He saw the good God on the
cross again, as he used to see Him in the chapel. He had a strange, deep
feeling that he was God, or that God was he. He seemed to be on that
cross himself. The great, green wave towered above them twenty feet in
air. He grasped Geoffroi by both shoulders, and flung him up to the
ledge above with a kind of scorn. The next moment the rolling sea
descended. Antoine clung with all his force to the rock, but he knew
that he should never see the light again.

So was he drawn out into the great deep, in whose arms his father lay:
and the fisher-folk, when they knew it, looked for no sign of him more,
for they said he had gone back to the sea, from whence he came. For,
though they never knew the true story of his death, they felt that a
spirit of a different mould from theirs had passed from among them in
his own way.


[Illustration:]



TWICE A CHILD.


Halfway up the mountain-side, overlooking a ravine, through which a
streamlet flowed to the lake, stood a woodman's cottage. In the room on
which the front door opened were two persons--an infant in a wooden
cradle, in the corner between the fire-place and the window; and, seated
on a stool in the flood of sunlight that streamed through the doorway,
an old man. His lips were moving slightly, and his face had the look of
one whose thoughts were far away. On the patch of floor in front of him
lay cross-bars of sunlight, which flowed in through the casement window.
The sky overhead was cloudless, while the murky belt on the horizon was
not visible from the cottage door. In the windless calm no leaf seemed
to stir in the forest around. The cottage clock in the corner ticked the
passing moments; the wild cry of the "curry fowl" was heard now and
again from the lake; there was no other sound in the summer afternoon,
and the deep heart of nature seemed at rest.

The old man's eyes rested on the bars of sunlight, but he saw another
scene. On his face, in which the simplicity of childhood seemed to have
reappeared, was a knowing, amused look, expressing infinite relish of
some inward thought, the simple essence of mischief. Bars of sunlight,
just like those, used to lie on the schoolroom floor when he was a
little boy, and was sent to Dame Gartney's school to be kept out of
harm's way, and to learn what he might. He saw himself, an urchin of
five or six years, seated on a stool beside the Dame's great arm-chair.
She was slowly, with dim eyes, threading a needle for the tiny maiden
standing before her, clutching in her hot little hand the unhemmed
duster on which she was to learn to sew. The thread approached the
needle's eye; it was nearly in, when the arm-chair gave a very little
shake, apparently of its own accord; the old lady missed her aim, and
the needle and the thread were as far apart as ever, while the small imp
sitting quiet at her side was unsuspected. Not once nor twice only was
this little game successfully played. It used to enliven the hot, sleepy
afternoon, while the bars of light were crawling slowly--oh! so
slowly--across the floor. He knew school would be over when the outer
edge of sunlight touched the corner of the box-bed against the wall,
where the little girl that lived there and called the dame "Granny" was
put to sleep of a night.

His school experience was short, consisting, indeed, of but six bright
summer weeks, after which it had become his business to mind the baby,
while his mother went out to work. But the most vivid of the impressions
of his childhood were connected with that brief school career. Distinct
above the rest stood out the memory of one afternoon, when sitting on
his low stool he had seen dark smudges of shadow come straying, curling,
whirling across the squares of sunlight; when shouts had arisen in the
yard, and just as the dame had made Effie May hold out her hand for
dropping her thimble the third time, the back-door was burst open by
Ebenezer, the milkman, who cried out that the Dame's cow-house was on
fire. He could see the old lady now, with the child's shrinking fingers
firmly gripped in hers, her horny old hand arrested in the act of
descending on the little pink palm (which escaped scot-free in the
confusion) while she gazed for a moment, open-mouthed, at the speaker,
as though she had come to a word which _she_ couldn't spell, then jumped
up with surprising quickness and hobbled across the floor without her
stick, the point of her mob-cap nodding to every part of the room, while
she moved the whole of herself first to one side and then to the other
as she walked, like one of the geese waddling across the common.

"Goo back and mind yerr book!" cried the old lady to the sharp-eyed
little boy, who was peeping round her skirts. But he did not go back.
Who could, when they saw those tongues of flame shooting up, and the
volumes of smoke darkening the summer sky, as the wooden shed and the
palings near it caught and smoked and crackled, and heard the cries of
men and boys shouting for water and more water, which old Jack Foster,
and idiot Tom, and some women, with baskets hastily deposited by the
roadside, and even boys not much bigger than himself, were toiling to
bring as fast as possible in pails from the brook, before the flames
should spread to the row of cottages so perilously near? No earthly
power could have kept the mite out of the fray. Before the old dame knew
where he was, his little hands were clenched round the handle of a heavy
iron pail, and he was struggling up the yard to where the men were
tearing down the connecting fences, in a desperate endeavour to stay the
onrush, of the flames. To and fro, to and fro, the child toiled,
begrimed by falling blacks, scorched by the blaze, his whole mind intent
on one thing--to stop the burning of that charred and tottering mass.

It was done at last, and the cottages were saved. The rescue party
dispersed, and the dirty, tired boy strayed slowly homeward down the
village street. He could see himself now arriving soot-covered, and
well-nigh speechless with fatigue, at his mother's door, could hear the
cries and exclamations that arose at the sight of him, could feel the
tender hands that removed the clothes from his hot little body, and
washed him, and put him to bed. It took him several days to recover from
the fever into which he had put himself, and it was then he had begun to
mind the baby instead of going to school. Praise was liberally bestowed
in the county paper on Mr. Ebenezer Rooke and his assistants, who by
their energy and forethought had saved the village from destruction but
no one had noticed the efforts of the tiny child, working beyond his
strength; and, indeed, he himself had had no idea of being noticed.

As he sat now on the stool in the sunny doorway, and looked up the
mountain-valley, to which he had been brought in his declining years to
share his married daughter's home, the detail in that tragedy of his
childhood, which pictured itself in his mind's eye more clearly than any
other, was the shadow of the spreading, coiling puffs of smoke, which
had first caught his childish attention, blurring the bars of sunlight
on the floor of the Dame's kitchen. Perhaps it was on account of the
likeness to the pattern now made by the sun, as it shone through the
casement between him and the baby's cradle. For the gentle, domestic old
man was often now, as in his docile childhood, charged to "mind the
baby," and one of the quiet pleasures of his latter days was the sight
of the little floweret, that grew so sweetly beside his sere and
withered life. An uncultured sense of beauty within him was appealed to
by the rounded limbs, the silent, dimpled laugh, the tottering feet
feeling their unknown way, and all the sweet curves and softnesses, the
innocent surprises and _naïve_ desires, which made up for him the image
of "the baby." He would have said she was "prutty," implying much by the
word.

As he gazed at his precious charge, and watched the sunlight pattern
slowly but surely creeping towards the foot of the cradle, he had an odd
feeling that school would soon be over. A moment after he rubbed his
eyes and looked again. Was it true, or was he dreaming? Were those
shadowy whirls of smoke, dimming the sunshine, a vision of the past, or
did he actually see them before him, as of old, coiling about and around
the bars of light on the floor? It was certainly there, the shadow of
smoke, and came he could not tell whence; for in all the unpeopled
valley there were, of human beings, as far as he knew at that moment,
only himself and the baby. To his mind, so full of the past, it seemed
the herald of another danger.

He raised himself with difficulty from his stool, and moved his stiff
limbs to the threshold. As he did so, he noticed that the smoke was
within the room as well as without; it was festooning about the baby's
cradle, it was filling the place, there was scarcely air to breathe. His
first idea, as he smelt the soot, and saw the blacks showering on the
hearth, was that the chimney was on fire. He went straight to the baby
in its cradle, and, his limbs forgetting their stiffness, lifted her in
his arms to carry her to a place of safety; when that was done he would
take off the embers from the grate, and sprinkle salt on the hearth to
quench the fire.

Not till he reached the door did he notice a sound that filled the
valley. A strange, high-pitched note, like a hundred curry-fowl crying
at once--a wail, as of spirits in hell. Now from one direction, now from
another; now rising, now falling, the weird, unearthly shriek seemed
everywhere at once, increasing each moment in force and shrillness. As
the old man, holding the baby close to him, looked up and listened, fear
struck his lips with a sudden trembling. Opposite to him he saw a
strange sight. Halfway up the mountain, on the other side of the valley,
not a leaf on the trees was stirring: the lower slopes lay basking in
the sunshine, and the shadows of fleeting clouds only added to the
peaceful beauty of the scene; while the trees above were raging
bacchanals, whirling, swaying, tossing their long arms in futile agony,
as though possessed by some unseen demoniacal power.

In a moment the old man knew what had befallen him. The bewitched smoke,
the shrieking spirits of the air, the motionless valley, and the
maddened trees, of all these he had heard before, for he had listened to
tales of the tornado in the valley, and knew what it meant to the
defenceless dwellers on the upper slopes. The skirts of the fury were
touching him even now; a sudden gust swept by; to draw breath for the
moment was impossible, and his unsteady balance would soon have been
overthrown; he was forced to cling to the doorpost, still holding the
baby close. But the quiet, comprehending expression never left his face;
he knew what was to be done, and he meant to do it; there might be time.

He set down the baby in the cradle, took off his coat, grasped a spade
in his shaking hand, and hobbled across the patch of open ground to a
spot as far distant as possible both from the cottage and from the
borders of the wood; the maddened wind was wailing itself away in the
distance, and happily for a few minutes there was a lull in the air. He
could hear the baby crying, left alone in the cottage. He never looked
off from his work, but went on digging a hole in the form of a little
grave. The surface of the ground was hard, and the old man was
short-winded; he could hardly gather enough force to drive the spade in.
Before long, however, a few inches of the upper crust were removed from
a space about three feet in length. The digging in the softer earth
would now be easier and more rapid. As he worked on, a few heavy drops
of rain fell. He looked up and saw the whole sky, lately full of
sunlight, a mass of driving, ink-black clouds, while the shriek of the
hurricane was heard again in the distance. The baby's cry was drowned by
it. The hole was as yet only half a foot deep. At the next thrust the
spade struck on a slanting ledge of slaty rock. No further progress
could be made there; the trench must be dug in a different direction.
Once more the old man, panting heavily, drove the spade into the hard
ground, and in two or three minutes had so far altered the position of
the hole that the rock was avoided. The gale was increasing every
moment, and at times he could hardly keep his feet.

Suddenly, through the roar of the wind, was heard another sound, a
rattling and rushing, as of loosened stones and of earth. All his senses
on the alert, the old man glanced swiftly up, and saw a row of four tall
fir trees, which stood out like sentinels, on a ridge of the mountain,
in the very path of the storm, turn over like nine-pins, one after the
other, and tearing up the soil with their roots, slip down the
mountain-side, dragging with them an avalanche of earth. His eye darted
to the cottage with a sudden fear. Even as he looked, the wind was
lifting some of the slates on the roof, rattling them, loosening them,
and in a few moments would scatter them around like chaff, chaff that
would bring death to any on whom it should chance to light. With an odd,
calculating look, the old man turned again to his digging, and,
breathless as before, shovelled out the earth from the hole, with a
speed of which his stiff and feeble frame would have been thought
incapable; while now and again, without ceasing his work, he darted a
backward glance at the doomed cottage. It ought to stand until the hole
was dug; and at least in the digging there was a chance of safety: in
going back to fetch the baby now, there was none.

After about five minutes, with a hideous yell, the demon tore in such
fury across the mountain-side, that the old man would have been carried
off his feet in a moment, and swept with the rest of the _débris_ into
the valley, but that he threw himself on the ground, clutching tightly
with his fingers the edge of the hole he had dug. In the bottom of the
hole a thistle-down lay unmoved. When the lull came, and he could raise
his head, having escaped injury or death from falling stocks and stones,
he darted over his shoulder a glance of awful anxiety at the cottage--of
such anxiety as a strong man may reach to the depths of but once or
twice in his prime. The roof of the cottage was gone; there were no
fragments, for the wind was a clean sweeper; it had bodily vanished. The
walls stood. He dragged himself unsteadily to his feet, and looked
about for his spade. It was nowhere to be seen; the besom of the gale
had whirled it to some unknown limbo.

The hole was still not quite a foot and a half deep, and would not
preserve the cradle, if placed therein, from the destroyer. He shuffled
back to the cottage with awkward, hasty steps. The baby had cried itself
to sleep, and lay in its cradle in the corner, unconscious of the ruin
of its home. The old man went to the hearth, on which the fire had been
blown out, and from under the ashes dragged out a battered fire-shovel,
its edge worn away, its handle loose. It was the nearest approach to a
spade that was left him. Just as he got back to the hole another blast
carried him off his feet, and he fell prostrate, this time clutching his
substitute spade beneath him. He rose again, stepped into the hole,
crouching down as low as possible, and rapidly raised out of it one
shovelful of earth after another; it was no sooner on the surface than
it was whisked away like dust. In the wood, a furlong to the right, some
dozen trees were prostrated between one thrust of the shovel and the
next; dark straight firs and silver birches, that slipped downwards to
the valley like stiff, gleaming snakes.

Meanwhile the shovel had struck on a layer of stones, the remains of
some past landslip, since buried under flowering earth. With its
turned-back edge, it was hard to insert it below them, and again and
again it came up having raised nothing but a little gravel; but the old
man worked on still with his docile, child-like look, intent upon his
task. Presently the infirm handle came off, and the shovel dropped into
the bottom of the hole. At the same moment, with a wilder shriek and a
fiercer on-rush, the fury came tearing again along the mountain side;
the whole of the trees that yet remained in the patch of forest nearest
to the cottage were swept away at once, and the slope was left bare. The
old man crouched down in his hole, with his anxious eye fixed on the
four walls within which the baby was sheltered; they still stood, the
only object which the demon had not yet swept from his path. And even as
the old man looked, he saw the upper part of the back wall begin to
loosen, to totter, and give way. The baby was in the front room, but was
under the windward wall. In the teeth of the gale the old man crawled
out of the hole, extended his length on the ground, and began to drag
his stiff and trembling frame, with hands, elbows and knees, across the
fifty feet or so of barren soil that lay between the hole and the
cottage. He heard the crash of bricks before he had accomplished half
the distance; without pausing to look he crawled rapidly on till he
crossed the threshold, and saw the babe still sleeping safely in its
wooden cradle. There were two large iron dogs in the grate; he drew them
out and placed them--panting painfully with the effort, for they were
almost beyond his strength to lift--in the cradle, under the little
mattress, one at each end. The baby, disturbed in its slumber, stretched
its little limbs, smiled at him, and went to sleep again. He doubled a
sack over the coverlet, tied a rope round the cradle, fastened it by a
slip-knot underneath, pulled out the end at the back, and tightened it
till it dragged against the hood. The cradle went on its wheels well
enough to the door. Then the old man summoned his remaining strength,
and having knotted the rope round his waist, threw himself on the ground
again, and emerged with his precious charge into the roaring hurricane.
Across the barren mountain slope, far above the ken of any fellow-being,
in the teeth of death, the old man crept with the sleeping babe. Another
threatening of the deluge of rain, which would surely accompany the
tornado, added to the misery of the painful journey; the sudden downpour
of heavy drops drenched the grandfather to the skin, but the grandchild
was protected under the sacking.

They reached the hole at length, and raising himself to his knees, the
wind being somewhat less boisterous while the rain was falling, the old
man clutched the heavily-weighted cradle in both arms, and attempted to
force it into the haven of safety he had spent his strength in forming.
Alas! there was not room. The cradle was wider across than he had
calculated. To take the child out and place it with the bedding in the
hole would be leaving it to drown. Should the expected deluge descend,
the trench he had dug would but form a reservoir for water. He seized
the shovel, working it as well as he could without a handle, and
attempted to break down and widen the edges. Pushing, stamping, driving
with his make-shift spade, now clutching at the edges with his fingers
and loosening the stones, now forcing them in with his heel, he
succeeded in working through the hard upper surface; then breathless,
dizzy, spent, with hands that could scarce grasp the shovel, and
stumbling feet that each moment threatened to fail him, he spaded out
the softer earth below and scraped and tore at the sides, till the hole
was wide enough to contain the cradle, and deep enough to ensure its
safety.

The last shovelful was raised, and the old man was stooping down to lift
the cradle in, when the wildest war-cry yet uttered by the raging
elements rang round the mountain side; all the former blasts seemed to
have been but forerunners or skirmishers heralding the approach of the
elemental forces; but now with awful ferocity and determination advanced
the very centre of the fiendish host; while the horns were blown from
mountain to mountain, announcing utter destruction to whatsoever should
venture to obstruct the path of the army of the winds. In the shrieking
solitude it seemed as if chaos and the end of the world were come. The
poor old man crouched down, keeping his body between the gale and the
baby's cradle, while the last remaining wall of the cottage fell flat
before his eyes. But he felt himself being urged slowly but surely away
from the refuge of the trench, downwards, downwards. The cradle, in
spite of its iron ballast, was just overturning, when, with the strength
of despair, he threw his body across it, digging his feet into the
ground, and once more knotted the loose end of rope around his waist.
The downward slip was stayed. Pushing the cradle with knees and arms,
clutching the soil with hands and feet, he crept with his precious
charge nearer and nearer the widened hole. Once over the edge the baby
would be safe. The windy fiend seemed to be pursuing him with vindictive
hate. It shrieked and tore around that bare strip of mountain side, as
though the whole purpose of its fury was to destroy the old man and the
babe. With a superhuman effort he grasped the cradle in both arms and
lifted it in, then fell senseless across the opening.

Gradually the demon horns ceased to blow, the great guns died into
silence, and the army of the air dispersed. The rain fell in torrents,
but the old man never moved.

When the storm was over, and anxious steps hastened up the mountain
path, and horror-stricken faces gazed at the ruined home and the havoc
all around, there was broken-hearted lamentation for the old man and the
child, supposed to have perished in the tornado. At last the mother's
searching eye discerned in the sunshine that lay across the still
mountain-side an unfamiliar object; and hastening towards it with the
lingering hope of learning some news of her darling, she perceived the
old man lying in his last sleep, with the eternal Peace in his
child-like face, still stretched as if in protection across a trench, in
which the baby lay safe in its cradle, sleeping as peacefully as he.



THE ROAD BY THE SEA.

PART I.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PART II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Illustration:]



THE HALTING STEP.

CHAPTER I.


On 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.


[Illustration;]



TABITHA'S AUNT.


From the very hour that Tabitha set foot in my house, I conceived a
dislike for her Aunt. In the first place I did not see why she should
have an Aunt. Tabitha was going to belong to me: and why an old, invalid
lady, whose sons were scattered over the face of the earth, and who had
never had a daughter of her own: who had been clever enough to discover
a distant relationship to Tabitha, and had promptly matured a plan by
which Tabitha was to remain always with her; to take the vacant chair
opposite and pour out tea, and be coddled and kissed and looked
after--why she might not have Tabitha herself for her whole and sole
property, I could not understand. But this Aunt was always turning up:
not visibly, I mean, but in conversation. I could never say which way I
liked Tabitha's veil to be fastened but I was told Aunt Rennie's opinion
on the matter--(Tabitha always absurdly shortened her Aunt's surname,
which was Rensworth). I never could mention a book I liked but Aunt
Rennie had either read it or not read it. It did not matter which to me,
the least. But the climax came when Aunt Rennie sent Tabitha a bicycle.
Now I know that young women bicycle nowadays; but that is no reason why
Tabitha should. I always turn away my eyes when I see a young girl pass
the window on one of those ugly, muddy, dangerous machines, with her
knees working like pumps, her skirt I don't know where, and an
expression of self-satisfied determination on her face. I don't think I
am old-fashioned, but I am sure my own dear little girl, if she had ever
come to me, would not have bicycled; and though I had no wish to put any
unfair restraint on Tabitha, still I did not want her to have a bicycle.
And that this Aunt Rennie, as Tabitha would call her, without a word of
warning, should send her one of those hideous things, as if it was _her_
business to arrange for Tabitha's exercise--I do think it was rather
uncalled for.

When Tabitha came into the room to tell me about it, with that bright,
affectionate smile she has, and her dear, plain, pale face--only that
nobody would think her plain who knew her, for everybody loves her--she
saw quickly enough that I did not like it: and then she was so sweet,
looking so disappointed, and yet ready to give up the horrid thing if I
wished, that I hardly knew what to do. Tabitha works on one in a way
that I believe nobody else can. She has such a generous, warm heart, and
is so responsive, and so quick to understand, and then she is so easily
pleased, and so free from self-consciousness, you seem to know her all
at once, and you feel as if it would be wicked to hurt her. So I don't
know how it was exactly, but I began to give in about the bicycle;
though I could not help mentioning that it was rather unnecessary for
Aunt Rennie to have taken the trouble: for Tabitha might have told me if
she wanted a bicycle so much. And Tabitha said that Aunt Rennie thought
bicycling was good for her, and, when she lived with her, a year ago,
her Aunt used to take her on her tours round the villages, distributing,
what she called "political literature." This did make me shudder, I
confess. Fancy Tabitha turning into one of those canvassing women, with
their uncivilised energy, their irritating superiority, and their entire
want of decent respect for you and your own opinions! I knew that Aunt
Rennie belonged to a Woman Suffrage Committee, but I did think she had
left the child uncontaminated. It made me more thankful than ever that I
had rescued her from the hands of such a person. However, as you see, I
could not refuse to let Tabitha ride that bicycle; but I always knew
that harm would come of it.

And it came just in the way of which my inner consciousness had warned
me. Now, of course, I never really expected to have Tabitha with me all
her life: but I did want just for a little while to make-believe, as it
were, that I had a daughter, and to feel as if she were happy and
content with me. So it was rather hard that such a thing should happen,
only the second time that she went out on that hideous machine. I can
see her telling me about it now, kneeling down in her affectionate way
by my sofa, all flushed and dishevelled after her ride, and with quite a
new expression on her face. It seemed that she had punctured her
bicycle (whatever that means) and could not get on: and then an "awfully
nice man" (she will use the modern slang; in my days we should merely
have said "a gentleman") came up with his tools and things, and put it
right for her: and ended by claiming acquaintance and proposing to call,
"Because, Mammy dear," said Tabitha, "isn't it funny, but he knows Aunt
Rennie!"

Now, kind reader, I must confess that this was a little too much for me.
To have Aunt Rennie (in spirit) perpetually between me and Tabitha was
bad enough: to have her demoralising Tabitha by sending her bicycles was
still worse: but to have her introducing, (I had nearly said intruding)
young men into the privacy of my home, and into dangerous proximity with
Tabitha was, for a moment, more than I could stand.

"Well, my child," said I, "No doubt Miss Rensworth and her friends were
more amusing than your poor sick Mammy. I suppose it was selfish of me
to want to have you all to myself. If you would like to go back to your
Aunt Rennie again, dear child." I added, "you have only to say so."

What Tabitha said in reply I shall never forget; but neither, friendly
reader, shall I tell it to you. So you must be content with knowing that
we were friends again; and that the end of it was that I gave in about
John Chambers--as his name turned out to be--just as I had given in
about the bicycle.

He came in just as we were having tea the next day, and the worst of it
was, I had to admit at once that he _was_ nice. Of course this proved
nothing in regard to Aunt Rennie and her friends: and it was just as
unreasonable that I should be expected to receive whoever happened to
know her, as if he had turned out to be vulgar or odious. But, as it
was, he introduced himself in a sensible, straightforward way, looked
one straight in the face when he spoke, had a deep, hearty laugh that
sounded manly and true, and evidently entertained the friendliest
sentiments for Tabitha.

Well, as you will imagine, kind reader, that tea was not the last he had
with us. He fell into our ways with delightful readiness; indeed, he was
rather "old-fashioned," as I call it. He would pour out my second cup of
tea, if Tabitha happened to be out of the room, as nicely as she herself
could have done, carefully washing the tea-leaves out of the cup first;
and he would tell Tabitha if a piece of braid were hanging down from her
skirt, when they were going bicycling together. We got quite used to
being kept in order by him in all kinds of little ways, and he grew to
be so associated with the idea of Tabitha in my mind, that my affection
for her became in a sort of way an affection for them both. The only
thing was that, as the months went on, I began to wonder why more did
not come of it. Sometimes I fancied I noted a reflection of my own
perplexed doubts crossing Tabitha's sweet, expressive face, and I
questioned within myself whether I ought (like the fathers in books) to
ask the young man about his "intentions," and imply that he could not
expect an unlimited supply of my cups of tea, unless they were made
clear: but I think that my own delicacy as well as common sense
prevented my taking such a course, and things were still _in statu quo_,
when one morning, as I was peacefully mending Tabitha's gloves (she
_will_ go out with holes in them) a ring at the front door bell was
followed by the advance of someone in rustling silk garments up the
stairs: the drawing-room door was opened, and there appeared a
young-looking, fair lady, who advanced brightly to greet me, with a
finished society manner, and an expression in her kind, blue eyes of
unmixed pleasure at the meeting. The name murmured at the door had not
reached my ears, and I was still wondering which of my child-friends had
developed into this charming and fashionable young lady, when Tabitha
burst into the room, flung her arms round the new-comer's neck, and
exclaimed, "You darling, who would have expected you to turn up so
charmingly, just when we didn't expect you!"

The light slowly dawned on my amazed intelligence. Could _this_--_this_
be the formidable, grey-haired woman, with whom I had been expecting,
and somewhat dreading, sooner or later, an encounter? Could _this_ be
the spectacled Committee-woman--the rampant bicyclist--the corrupter of
the youth of Tabitha? I looked at her immaculate dress, and pretty, neat
hair; I noted the winning expression of her eyes, and her sweetness of
manner; and instead of entrenching myself in the firm, though unspoken
hostility, which I had secretly cherished towards the idea of Aunt
Rennie, I felt myself yielding to the charm of a personality, whose
richness and sweetness were to me like a new experience of life.

I thought I had grasped the outlines of that personality in the first
interview, as we often do on forming a new acquaintance; but surprises
were yet in store for me. Aunt Rennie needed but little pressing to stay
the night, and then to add a second and a third day to her visit: she
was staying with some friends in the neighbourhood, and, it appeared,
could easily transfer herself to us. And as the time went on, I began to
feel that she had some secondary object in coming and in staying: I
thought I perceived a kind of diplomatic worldliness in Aunt Rennie,
which jarred with my first impression of her. I felt sure that her
purpose was in some way connected with Tabitha and John. She had, of
course, heard of Tabitha's friendship for him from her own letters, and
John she had known before we did. Well, it was on the fourth day that
Aunt Rennie, sitting cosily beside me, startled me by suddenly and
lightly remarking, that if I would consent, she wished to take Tabitha
back with her, at any rate for a time, to her home in the South of
England; she was almost necessary to her in her work at the present
juncture: no one could act as her Secretary so efficiently as Tabitha
could.

"Besides, to tell you a little secret," she added, with a charming air
of confidence and humour, "there is someone besides me that wants
Tabitha back: there is an excellent prospect for her, if she could only
turn her thoughts in that direction. You have heard of Horace Wetherell,
my second cousin--a rising barrister? Ah, well, a little bird has
whispered things to me. His prospects are now very different from what
they were when she was with me before, or I don't think she would ever
have come to you, to say the truth! We must not let her get involved in
anything doubtful. As you know, I have been acquainted with this John
Chambers and his family all my life. He is a good fellow enough, but
will never set the Thames on fire. She is exactly suited to my cousin,
who is a man of the highest and noblest character, and could not fail to
make her happy. It is only to take her away for a time, and I feel sure
all will be well. I knew, my dear friend, that a word to you was enough,
for Tabitha's sake: and so we will settle it between us."

I said little in reply, for I was suffering keenly. I felt as if this
fair, clever woman had struck a deliberate blow at my happiness, and in
a way to leave me resistless. I could not deny that it might be for
Tabitha's good to go away. Certainly John was poor, and in fact I had
thought lately that that might be the reason the engagement was delayed.
Tabitha was only twenty-two, and she might change her mind. I murmured
that I would leave it to Tabitha to decide; and as Aunt Rennie turned
away, I remember thinking that she was rather young to decide another
woman's destiny in such a matter. She was only six years older than
Tabitha.

       *       *       *       *       *

Tabitha often says that she owes her present happiness to Aunt Rennie,
for if it had not been for the misery of the approaching separation,
John, oppressed by the sense of his poverty and humble prospects, would
never have had courage to tell her of his love. And I have sometimes
amused myself by reflecting how Aunt Rennie's shrewdness, intelligence
and determination, instead of working out her own ends, were all the
time furthering the thing that was most opposed to her wishes.

When, after those few days that followed--days for me of heart-breaking
conflict of feeling, and for my two children of tears, silent misery and
struggling passion, culminating at last, when the storm burst, in
complete mutual understanding, and a joint determination that carried
all before it--when, I say, Aunt Rennie, defeated, prepared to take her
leave, she said a word to me which I often thought of afterwards. "She
is choosing blindfold, tinsel for gold." I thought of it, not on account
of the expression, but of Aunt Rennie herself. There was something in
the pallor of her face, and in her tone, that made me ask myself whether
there could be anything in this matter that concerned Aunt Rennie
herself more closely than we thought--and, for the moment, a new and
motherly feeling rose up in my heart towards her.

Well, she has left me my two children, and though John is only "in
business," and they live on three hundred a year, they are very happy,
and I am happy in their happiness.

It was a year after their marriage, that the news came that Aunt Rennie
was engaged to be married to her cousin. Horace Wetherell. And, as I
pondered on it. I doubted whether I had, after all, quite understood the
nobility of Aunt Rennie's character.

Horace Wetherell has become an M.P., and he and his wife write books
together on social problems.

Poor John will never be an M.P., but I am glad that Tabitha loved him.


[Illustration:]





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