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Part 1 On The Icy Sea Chapter 5

Their second meeting was at a wedding-feast. Young Gaos had beenchosen to offer her his arm. At first she had been rather vexed, notliking the idea of strolling through the streets with this tallfellow, whom everybody would stare at, on account of his excessiveheight, and who, most probably, would not know what to speak to herabout. Besides, he really frightened her with his wild, lofty look.

  At the appointed hour all were assembled for the wedding processionsave Yann, who had not appeared. Time passed, yet he did not come, andthey talked of giving up any further waiting for him. Then it was shediscovered that it was for his pleasure, and his alone, that she haddonned her best dress; with any other of the young men present at theball, the evening's enjoyment would be spoiled.

  At last he arrived, in his best clothes also, apologizing, without anyembarrassment, to the bride's party. The excuse was, that someimportant shoals of fish, not at all expected, had been telegraphedfrom England, as bound to pass that night a little off Aurigny; and soall the boats of Ploubazlanec hastily had set sail. There was greatexcitement in the villages, women rushing about to find their husbandsand urging them to put off quickly, and struggling hard themselves tohoist the sails and help in the launching; in fact, a regular"turnout" throughout the places, though in the midst of the companyYann related this very simply; he had been obliged to look out for asubstitute and warrant him to the owner of the boat to which hebelonged for the winter season. It was this that had caused him to belate, and in order not to miss the wedding, he had "turned up"(abandoned) his share in the profits of the catch. His plea wasperfectly well understood by his hearers, no one thinking of blaminghim; for well all know that, in this coast life, all are more or lessdependent upon the unforeseen events at sea, and the mysteriousmigrations of the fishy regions. The other Icelandes present weredisappointed at not having been warned in time, like the fishers ofPloubazlanec, of the fortune that was skirting their very shores.

  But it was too late now, worse luck! So they gave their arms to thelasses, the violins began to play, and joyously they all tramped out.

  At first Yann had only paid her a few innocent compliments, such asfall to a chance partner met at a wedding, and of whom one knows butlittle. Amidst all the couples in the procession, they formed the onlyone of strangers, the others were all relatives or sweethearts.

  But during the evening while the dancing was going on, the talkbetween them had again turned to the subject of the fish, and lookingher straight in the eyes, he roughly said to her:

  "You are the only person about Paimpol, and even in the world, forwhom I would have missed a windfall; truly, for nobody else would Ihave come back from my fishing, Mademoiselle Gaud."At first she was rather astonished that this fisherman should dare soto address her who had come to this ball rather like a young queen,but then delighted, she had ended by answering:

  "Thank you, Monsieur Yann; and I, too, would rather be with you thanwith anybody else."That was all. But from that moment until the end of the dancing, theykept on chatting in a different tone than before, low and soft-voiced.

  The dancing was to the sound of a hurdy-gurdy and violin, the samecouples almost always together. When Yann returned to invite heragain, after having danced with another girl for politeness' sake,they exchanged a smile, like friends meeting anew, and continued theirinterrupted conversation, which had become very close. Simply enough,Yann spoke of his fisher life, its hardships, its wage, and of hisparents' difficulties in former years, when they had fourteen littleGaoses to bring up, he being the eldest. Now, the old folks were outof the reach of need, because of a wreck that their father had foundin the Channel, the sale of which had brought in 10,000 francs,omitting the share claimed by the Treasury. With the money they builtan upper story to their house, which was situated at the point ofPloubazlanec, at the very land's end, in the hamlet of Pors-Even,overlooking the sea, and having a grand outlook.

  "It is mighty tough, though," said he, "this here life of anIcelander, having to start in February for such a country, where it isawful cold and bleak, with a raging, foaming sea."Gaud remembered every phrase of their conversation at the ball, as ifit had all happened yesterday, and details came regularly back to hermind, as she looked upon the night falling over Paimpol. If Yann hadhad no idea of marriage, why had he told her all the items of hisexistence, to which she had listened, as only an engaged sweetheartwould have done; he did not seem a commonplace young man, prone tobabbling his business to everybody who came along.

  "The occupation is pretty good, nevertheless," he said, "and I shallnever change my career. Some years we make eight hundred francs, andothers twelve hundred, which I get upon my return, and hand over tothe old lady.""To your mother, Monsieur Yann, eh?""Yes, every penny of it, always. It's the custom with us Icelanders,Mademoiselle Gaud." He spoke of this as a quite ordinary and naturalcourse.

  "Perhaps you'll hardly believe it, but I scarcely ever have anypocket-money. Of a Sunday mother gives me a little when I come intoPaimpol. And so it goes all the time. Why, look 'ee here, this year myfather had these clothes made for me, without which treat I nevercould have come to the wedding; certain sure, for I never should havedared offer you my arm in my old duds of last year."For one like her, accustomed to seeing Parisians, Yann's habilimentswere, perhaps, not very stylish; a short jacket open over the old-fashioned waistcoat; but the build of their wearer was irreproachablyhandsome, so that he had a noble look withal.

  Smiling, he looked at her straight in the depths of her eyes each timehe spoke to her, so as to divine her opinion. And how good and honestwas his look, as he told her all these short-comings, so that shemight well understand that he was not rich!

  And she smiled also, as she gazed at him full in the face; answeringseldom, but listening with her whole soul, more and more astonishedand more and more drawn towards him. What a mixture of untamedroughness and caressing childishness he was! His earnest voice, shortand blunt towards others, became softer and more and more tender as hespoke to her; and for her alone he knew how to make it trill withextreme sweetness, like the music of a stringed instrument with themute upon it.

  What a singular and astonishing fact it was to see this man of brawn,with his free air and forbidding aspect, always treated by his familylike a child, and deeming it quite natural; having travelled over allthe earth, met with all sorts of adventures, incurred all dangers, andyet showing the same respectful and absolute obedience to his parents.

  She compared him to others, two or three dandies in Paris, clerks,quill-drivers, or what not, who had pestered her with theirattentions, for the sake of her money. He seemed to be the best, aswell as the most handsome, man she had ever met.

  To put herself more on an equality with him she related how, in herown home, she had not always been so well-off as at present; that herfather had begun life as a fisherman off Iceland, and always held theIcelanders in great esteem; and that she herself could clearlyremember as a little child, having run barefooted upon the beach,after her poor mother's death.

  Oh! the exquisite night of that ball, unique in her life! It seemedfar away now, for it dated back to December, and May had alreadyreturned. All the sturdy partners of that evening were out fishingyonder now, scattered over the far northern seas, in the clear palesun, in intense loneliness, while the dust thickened silently on theland of Brittany.

  Still Gaud remained at her window. The market-place of Paimpol, hedgedin on all sides by the old-fashioned houses, became sadder and sadderwith the darkling; everywhere reigned silence. Above the housetops thestill brilliant space of the heavens seemed to grow more hollow, toraise itself up and finally separate itself from all terrestrialthings: these, in the last hour of day, were entirely blended into thesingle dark outline of the gables of olden roofs.

  From time to time a window or door would be suddenly closed; some oldsailor, shaky upon his legs, would blunder out of the tavern andplunge into the small dark streets; or girls passed by, returning homelate after their walk and carrying nosegays of May-flowers. One ofthem who knew Gaud, calling out good-evening to her, held up a branchof hawthorn high towards her as if to offer it her to smell; in thetransparent darkness she could distinguish the airy tufts of its whiteblossoms. From the gardens and courts floated another soft perfume,that of the flowering honeysuckle along the granite walls, mingledwith a vague smell of seaweed in the harbour.

  Bats flew silently through the air above, like hideous creatures in adream.

  Many and many an evening had Gaud passed at her window, gazing uponthe melancholy market-place, thinking of the Icelanders who were faraway, and always of that same ball.

  Yann was a capital waltzer, as straight as a young oak, moving with agraceful yet dignified bearing, his head thrown well back, his brown,curled locks falling upon his brow, and floating with the motion ofthe dance. Gaud, who was rather tall herself, felt their contact uponher cap, as he bent towards her to grasp her more tightly during theswift movements.

  Now and then he pointed out to her his little sister Marie, dancingwith Sylvestre, who was her /fiance/. He smiled with a very tenderlook at seeing them both so young and yet so reserved towards oneanother, bowing gravely, and putting on very timid airs as theycommuned lowly, on most amiable subjects, no doubt.

  Of course, Yann would never have allowed it to be otherwise; yet itamused him, venturesome and bold as he was, to find them so coy; andhe and Gaud exchanged one of their confidential smiles, seeming tosay: "How pretty, but how funny /our/ little brother is!"Towards the close of the evening, all the girls received the breaking-up kiss; cousins, betrothed, and lovers, all, in a good frank, honestway, before everybody. But, of course, Yann had not kissed Gaud; nonemight take that liberty with the daughter of M. Mevel; but he seemedto strain her a little more tightly to him during the last waltzes,and she, trusting him, did not resist, but yielded closer still,giving up her whole soul, in the sudden, deep, and joyous attractionthat bound her to him.

  "Did you see the saucy minx, what eyes she made at him?" queried twoor three girls, with their own eyes timidly bent under their golden orblack brows, though they had among the dancers one or two lovers, tosay the least. And truly Gaud did look at Yann very hard, only she hadthe excuse that he was the first and only young man whom she ever hadnoticed in her life.

  At dawn, when the party broke up and left in confusion, they had takenleave of one another, like betrothed ones, who are sure to meet thefollowing day. To return home, she had crossed this same market-placewith her father, little fatigued, feeling light and gay, happy tobreathe the frosty fog, and loving the sad dawn itself, so sweet andenjoyable seemed bare life.

  The May night had long since fallen; nearly all the windows had closedwith a grating of their iron fittings, but Gaud remained at her place,leaving hers open. The last passers-by, who could distinguish thewhite cap in the darkness, might say to themselves, "That's surelysome girl, dreaming of her sweetheart." It was true, for she wasdreaming of hers, with a wild desire to weep; her tiny teeth bit herlips and continually opened and pursed up the deep dimple thatoutlined the under lip of her fresh, pure mouth. Her eyes remainedfixed on the darkness, seeing nothing of tangible things.

  But, after the ball, why had he not returned? What change had comeover him? Meeting him by chance, he seemed to avoid her, turning asidehis look, which was always fleeting, by the way. She had often debatedthis with Sylvestre, who could not understand either.

  "But still, he's the lad for you to marry, Gaud," said Sylvestre, "ifyour father allowed ye. In the whole country round you'd not find hislike. First, let me tell 'ee, he's a rare good one, though he mayn'tlook it. He seldom gets tipsy. He sometimes is stubborn, but is verypliable for all that. No, I can't tell 'ee how good he is! And such anA.B. seaman! Every new fishing season the skippers regularly fight tohave him."She was quite sure of her father's permission, for she never had beenthwarted in any of her whims. And it mattered little to her whetherYann were rich or not. To begin with, a sailor like him would need buta little money in advance to attend the classes of the coastnavigation school, and might shortly become a captain whom allshipowners would gladly intrust with their vessels. It also matteredlittle to her that he was such a giant; great strength may become adefect in a woman, but in a man is not prejudicial to good looks.

  Without seeming to care much, she had questioned the girls of thecountry round about, who knew all the love stories going; but he hadno recognized engagement with any one, he paid no more attention toone than another, but roved from right to left, to Lezardrieux as wellas to Paimpol, to all the beauties who cared to receive his address.

  One Sunday evening, very late, she had seen him pass under herwindows, in company with one Jeannie Caroff, whom he tucked under hiswing very closely; she was pretty, certainly, but had a very badreputation. This had pained Gaud very much indeed. She had been toldthat he was very quick-tempered: one night being rather tipsy in atavern of Paimpol, where the Icelanders held their revels, he hadthrown a great marble table through a door that they would not open tohim. But she forgave him all that; we all know what sailors aresometimes when the fit takes them. But if his heart were good, why hadhe sought one out who never had thought of him, to leave herafterward; what reason had he had to look at her for a whole eveningwith his fair, open smile, and to use his softest, tenderest voice tospeak to her of his affairs as to a betrothed? Now, it was impossiblefor her to become attached to another, or to change. In this samecountry, when quite a child, she was used to being scolded whennaughty and called more stubborn than any other child in her ideas;and she had not altered. Fine lady as she was now, rather serious andproud in her ways, none had refashioned her, and she remained alwaysthe same.

  After this ball, the past winter had been spent in waiting to see himagain, but he had not even come to say good-bye before his departurefor Iceland. Since he was no longer by, nothing else existed in hereyes; slowly time seemed to drag until the return in autumn, when shehad made up her mind to put an end to her doubts.

  The town-hall clock struck eleven, with that peculiar resonance thatbells have during the quiet spring nights. At Paimpol eleven o'clockis very late; so Gaud closed her window and lit her lamp, to go tobed.

  Perhaps it was only shyness in Yann, after all, or was it because,being proud also, he was afraid of a refusal, as she was so rich? Shewanted to ask him this herself straightforwardly, but Sylvestrethought that it would not be the right thing, and it would not lookwell for her to appear so bold. In Paimpol already her manners anddress were sufficiently criticised.

  She undressed slowly as if in a dream; first her muslin cap, then hertown-cut dress, which she threw carelessly on a chair. The littlelamp, alone to burn at this late hour, bathed her shoulders and bosomin its mysterious light, her perfect form, which no eye ever hadcontemplated, and never could contemplate if Yann did not marry her.

  She knew her face was beautiful, but she was unconscious of the beautyof her figure. In this remote land, among daughters of fishers, beautyof shape is almost part of the race; it is scarcely ever noticed, andeven the least respectable women are ashamed to parade it.

  Gaud began to unbraid her tresses, coiled in the shape of a snail-shell and rolled round her ears, and two plaits fell upon hershoulders like weighty serpents. She drew them up into a crown on thetop of her head--this was comfortable for sleeping--so that, by reasonof her straight profile, she looked like a Roman vestal.

  She still held up her arms, and biting her lip, she slowly ran herfingers through the golden mass, like a child playing with a toy,while thinking of something else; and again letting it fall, shequickly unplaited it to spread it out; soon she was covered with herown locks, which fell to her knees, looking like some Druidess.

  And sleep having come, notwithstanding love and an impulse to weep,she threw herself roughly in her bed, hiding her face in the silkenmasses floating round her outspread like a veil.

  In her hut in Ploubazlanec, Granny Moan, who was on the other anddarker side of her life, had also fallen to sleep--the frozen sleep ofold age--dreaming of her grandson and of death.

  And at this same hour, on board the /Marie/, on the Northern Sea,which was very heavy on this particular evening, Yann and Sylvestre--the two longed-for rovers--sang ditties to one another, and went ongaily with their fishing in the everlasting daylight.



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