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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Sailor’s Wife
By Pierre Loti (1850–1923)
 
From ‘An Iceland Fisherman: A Story of Love on Land and Sea’: Translation from the French of Clara Cadiot

THE ICELANDERS were all returning now. Two ships came in the second day, four the next, and twelve during the following week. And all through the country, joy returned with them; and there was happiness for the wives and mothers, and junkets in the taverns where the beautiful barmaids of Paimpol served out drink to the fishers.  1
  The Léopoldine was among the belated; there were yet another ten expected. They would not be long now; and allowing a week’s delay so as not to be disappointed, Gaud waited in happy, passionate joy for Yann, keeping their home bright and tidy for his return. When everything was in good order there was nothing left for her to do; and besides, in her impatience, she could think of nothing else but her husband.  2
  Three more ships appeared; then another five. There were only two lacking now.  3
  “Come, come,” they said to her cheerily, “this year the Léopoldine and the Marie-Jeanne will be the last, to pick up all the brooms fallen overboard from the other craft.”  4
  Gaud laughed also. She was more animated and beautiful than ever, in her great joy of expectancy.  5
  But the days succeeded one another without result.  6
  She still dressed up every day, and with a joyful look went down to the harbor to gossip with the other wives. She said that this delay was but natural: was it not the same event every year? These were such safe boats, and had such capital sailors.  7
  But when at home alone, at night, a nervous anxious shiver of apprehension would run through her whole frame.  8
  Was it right to be frightened already? Was there even a single reason to be so? But she began to tremble at the mere idea of grounds for being afraid.  9
  The 10th of September came. How swiftly the days flew by!  10
  One morning—a true autumn morning, with cold mist falling over the earth in the rising sun—she sat under the porch of the chapel of the shipwrecked mariners, where the widows go to pray; with eyes fixed and glassy, and throbbing temples tightened as by an iron band.  11
  These sad morning mists had begun two days before; and on this particular day Gaud had awakened with a still more bitter uneasiness, caused by the forecast of advancing winter. Why did this day, this hour, this very moment, seem to her more painful than the preceding? Often ships are delayed a fortnight; even a month, for that matter.  12
  But surely there was something different about this particular morning; for she had come to-day for the first time to sit in the porch of this chapel and read the names of the dead sailors, perished in their prime.
  
IN MEMORY OF
GAOS YVON
Lost at Sea
NEAR THE NORDEN-FJORD
  13
  Like a great shudder, a gust of wind rose from the sea, and at the same time something fell like rain upon the roof above. It was only the dead leaves, though;—many were blown in at the porch; the old wind-tossed trees of the graveyard were losing their foliage in this rising gale, and winter was marching nearer.
  
Lost at Sea
NEAR THE NORDEN-FJORD
In the storm of the 4th and 5th of August, 1880
  14
  She read mechanically under the arch of the doorway; her eyes sought to pierce the distance over the sea. That morning it was untraceable under the gray mist, and a dragging drapery of clouds overhung the horizon like a mourning veil.  15
  Another gust of wind, and other leaves danced in whirls. A stronger gust still; as if the western storm which had strewn those dead over the sea wished to deface the very inscriptions which kept their names in memory with the living.  16
  Gaud looked with involuntary persistency at an empty space upon the wall which seemed to yawn expectant. By a terrible impression, she was pursued by the thought of a fresh slab which might soon perhaps be placed there,—with another name which she did not even dare think of in such a spot.  17
  She felt cold, and remained seated on the granite bench, her head reclining against the stone wall.
  
NEAR THE NORDEN-FJORD
In the storm of the 4th and 5th of August, 1880
At the age of 23 years
Requiescat in pace!
  18
  Then Iceland loomed up before her, with its little cemetery lighted up from below the sea-line by the midnight sun. Suddenly, in the same empty space on the wall, with horrifying clearness she saw the fresh slab she was thinking of; a clear white one, with a skull and crossbones, and in a flash of foresight a name,—the worshiped name of “Yann Gaos”! Then she suddenly and fearfully drew herself up straight and stiff, with a hoarse wild cry in her throat like a mad creature.  19
  Outside, the gray mist of the dawn fell over the land, and the dead leaves were again blown dancingly into the porch.  20
  Steps on the footpath! Somebody was coming? She rose, and quickly smoothed down her cap and composed her face. Nearer drew the steps. She assumed the air of one who might be there by chance; for above all, she did not wish to appear yet like the widow of a shipwrecked mariner.  21
  It happened to be Fante Floury, the wife of the second mate of the Léopoldine. She understood immediately what Gaud was doing there: it was useless to dissemble with her. At first each woman stood speechless before the other. They were angry and almost hated each other for having met holding a like sentiment of apprehension.  22
  “All the men of Tréguier and Saint-Brieuc have been back for a week,” said Fante at last, in an unfeeling, muffled, half-irritated voice.  23
  She carried a blessed taper in her hand, to offer up a prayer. Gaud did not wish yet to resort to that extreme resource of despairing wives. Yet silently she entered the chapel behind Fante, and they knelt down together side by side like two sisters.  24
  To the “Star of the Sea” they offered ardent imploring prayers, with their whole soul in them. A sound of sobbing was alone heard, as their rapid tears swiftly fell upon the floor. They rose together, more confident and softened. Fante held up Gaud, who staggered; and taking her in her arms, kissed her.  25
  Wiping their eyes and smoothing their disheveled hair, they brushed off the salt dust from the flag-stones which had soiled their gowns, and went away in opposite directions without another word.  26
  This end of September was like another summer, only a little less lively. The weather was so beautiful that had it not been for the dead leaves which fell upon the roads, one might have thought that June had come back again. Husbands and sweethearts had all returned, and everywhere was the joy of a second springtime of love.  27
  At last, one day, one of the missing ships was signaled. Which one was it?  28
  The groups of speechless and anxious women had rapidly formed on the cliff. Gaud, pale and trembling, was there, by the side of her Yann’s father.  29
  “I’m almost sure,” said the old fisher, “I’m almost sure it’s them. A red rail and a topsail that clews up,—it’s very like them, anyhow. What do you make it, Gaud?”  30
  “No, it isn’t,” he went on, with sudden discouragement: “we’ve made a mistake again; the boom isn’t the same, and ours has a jigger-sail. Well, well, it isn’t our boat this time, it’s only the Marie-Jeanne. Never mind, my lass, surely they’ll not be long now.”  31
  But day followed day, and night succeeded night, with uninterrupted serenity.  32
  Gaud continued to dress up every day; like a poor crazed woman, always in fear of being taken for the widow of a shipwrecked sailor, feeling exasperated when others looked furtively and compassionately at her, and glancing aside so that she might not meet those glances which froze her very blood.  33
  She had fallen into the habit of going at the early morning right to the end of the headland, on the high cliffs of Pors-Even; passing behind Yann’s old home, so as not to be seen by his mother or little sisters. She went to the extreme point of the Ploubazlanec land, which is outlined in the shape of a reindeer’s horn upon the gray waters of the Channel, and sat there all day long at the foot of the lonely cross which rises high above the immense waste of the ocean. There are many of these crosses hereabout; they are set up on the most advanced cliffs of the sea-bound land, as if to implore mercy, and to calm that restless mysterious power which draws men away, never to give them back, and in preference retains the bravest and noblest.  34
  Around this cross stretches the evergreen waste, strewn with short rushes. At this great height the sea air was very pure; it scarcely retained the briny odor of the weeds, but was perfumed with all the exquisite ripeness of September flowers.  35
  Far away, all the bays and inlets of the coast were firmly outlined, rising one above another; the land of Brittany terminated in jagged edges, which spread out far into the tranquil surface.  36
  Near at hand the reefs were numerous; but out beyond, nothing broke its polished mirror, from which arose a soft caressing ripple, light and intensified from the depths of its many bays. Its horizon seemed so calm, and its depths so soft! The great blue sepulchre of many Gaoses hid its inscrutable mystery; whilst the breezes, faint as human breath, wafted to and fro the perfume of the stunted gorse, which had bloomed again in the latest autumn sun.  37
  At regular hours the sea retreated, and great spaces were left uncovered everywhere, as if the Channel was slowly drying up; then with the same lazy slowness the waters rose again, and continued their everlasting coming and going without any heed of the dead.  38
  At the foot of the cross Gaud remained, surrounded by these tranquil mysteries, gazing ever before her until the night fell and she could see no more….  39
  September had passed. The sorrowing wife took scarcely any nourishment, and could no longer sleep.  40
  She remained at home now, crouching low with her hands between her knees, her head thrown back and resting against the wall behind. What was the good of getting up or going to bed now? When she was thoroughly exhausted she threw herself, dressed, upon her bed. Otherwise she remained in the same position, chilled and benumbed; in her quiescent state, only her teeth chattered with the cold; she had that continual impression of a band of iron round her brows; her cheeks looked wasted; her mouth was dry, with a feverish taste, and at times a painful hoarse cry rose from her throat and was repeated in spasms, whilst her head beat backwards against the granite wall. Or else she called Yann by his name in a low, tender voice, as if he were quite close to her, whispering words of love to her.  41
  Sometimes she occupied her brain with thoughts of quite insignificant things; for instance, she amused herself by watching the shadow of the china Virgin lengthen slowly over the high woodwork of the bed, as the sun went down. And then the agonized thoughts returned more horribly, and her wailing cry broke out again as she beat her head against the wall.  42
  All the hours of the day passed; and all the hours of evening, and of night; and then the hours of the morning. When she reckoned the time he ought to have been back, she was seized with a still greater terror; she wished to forget all dates and the very names of the days.  43
  Generally, there is some information concerning the wrecks off Iceland; those who return have seen the tragedy from afar, or else have found some wreckage or bodies, or have an indication to guess the rest. But of the Léopoldine nothing had been seen, and nothing was known. The Marie-Jeanne men—the last to have seen it on the 2d of August—said that she was to have gone on fishing farther towards the north; and beyond that the secret was unfathomable.  44
  Waiting, always waiting, and knowing nothing! When would the time come when she need wait no longer? She did not even know that; and now she almost wished that it might be soon. Oh! if he were dead, let them at least have pity enough to tell her so!  45
  Oh to see her darling, as he was at this very moment,—that is, what was left of him! If only the much-implored Virgin, or some other power, would do her the blessing to show her by second-sight her beloved! either living and working hard to return a rich man, or else as a corpse surrendered by the sea, so that she might at least know a certainty.  46
  Sometimes she was seized with the thought of a ship appearing suddenly upon the horizon; the Léopoldine hastening home. Then she would suddenly make an instinctive movement to rise, and rush to look out at the ocean, to see whether it were true.  47
  But she would fall back. Alas! where was this Léopoldine now? Where could she be? Out afar, at that awful distance of Iceland,—forsaken, crushed, and lost.  48
  All ended by a never-fading vision appearing to her,—an empty, sea-tossed wreck, slowly and gently rocked by the silent gray and rose-streaked sea; almost with soft mockery, in the midst of the vast calm of deadened waters.  49
  Two o’clock in the morning.  50
  It was at night especially that she kept attentive to approaching footsteps; at the slightest rumor or unaccustomed noise her temples vibrated: by dint of being strained to outward things, they had become fearfully sensitive.  51
  Two o’clock in the morning. On this night as on others, with her hands clasped and her eyes wide open in the dark, she listened to the wind sweeping in never-ending tumult over the heath.  52
  Suddenly a man’s footsteps hurried along the path! At this hour who would pass now? She drew herself up, stirred to the very soul, her heart ceasing to beat.  53
  Some one stopped before the door, and came up the small stone steps.  54
  He!—O God!—he! Some one had knocked,—it could be no other than he! She was up now, barefooted; she, so feeble for the last few days, had sprung up as nimbly as a kitten, with her arms outstretched to wind round her darling. Of course the Léopoldine had arrived at night, and anchored in Pors-Even Bay, and he had rushed home; she arranged all this in her mind with the swiftness of lightning. She tore the flesh off her fingers in her excitement to draw the bolt, which had stuck.  55
  “Eh?”  56
  She slowly moved backward, as if crushed, her head falling on her bosom. Her beautiful insane dream was over. She could just grasp that it was not her husband, her Yann, and that nothing of him, substantial or spiritual, had passed through the air; she felt plunged again into her deep abyss, to the lowest depths of her terrible despair.  57
  Poor Fantec—for it was he—stammered many excuses: his wife was very ill, and their child was choking in its cot, suddenly attacked with a malignant sore throat; so he had run over to beg for assistance on the road to fetch the doctor from Paimpol.  58
  What did all this matter to her? She had gone mad in her own distress, and could give no thoughts to the troubles of others. Huddled on a bench, she remained before him with fixed glazed eyes, like a dead woman’s; without listening to him, or even answering at random or looking at him. What to her was the speech the man was making?  59
  He understood it all, and guessed why the door had been opened so quickly to him; and feeling pity for the pain he had unwittingly caused, he stammered out an excuse.  60
  “Just so: he never ought to have disturbed her—her in particular.”  61
  “I!” ejaculated Gaud quickly, “why should I not be disturbed particularly, Fantec?”  62
  Life had suddenly come back to her; for she did not wish to appear in despair before others. Besides, she pitied him now; she dressed to accompany him, and found the strength to go and see to his little child.  63
  At four o’clock in the morning, when she returned to throw herself on the bed, sleep subdued her, for she was tired out. But that moment of excessive joy had left an impression on her mind, which in spite of all was permanent; she awoke soon with a shudder, rising a little and partially recollecting—she knew not what. News had come to her about her Yann. In the midst of her confusion of ideas, she sought rapidly in her mind what it could be; but there was nothing save Fantec’s interruption.  64
  For the second time she fell back into her terrible abyss, nothing changed in her morbid, hopeless waiting.  65
  Yet in that short, hopeful moment, she had felt him so near to her that it was as if his spirit had floated over the sea unto her,—what is called a foretoken (pressigne) in Breton land; and she listened still more attentively to the steps outside, trusting that some one might come to her to speak of him.  66
  Just as the day broke, Yann’s father entered. He took off his cap, and pushed back his splendid white locks, which were in curls like Yann’s, and sat down by Gaud’s bedside.  67
  His heart ached heavily too; for Yann, his tall, handsome Yann, was his first-born, his favorite and his pride: but he did not despair yet. He comforted Gaud in his own blunt, affectionate way. To begin with, those who had last returned from Iceland spoke of the increasing dense fogs, which might well have delayed the vessel; and then too an idea struck him,—they might possibly have stopped at the distant Faroe Islands on their homeward course, whence letters were so long in traveling, This had happened to him once forty years ago, and his own poor dead and gone mother had had a mass said for his soul. The Léopoldine was such a good boat,—next to new,—and her crew were such able-bodied seamen.  68
  Granny Moan stood by them shaking her head: the distress of her granddaughter had almost given her back her own strength and reason. She tidied up the place, glancing from time to time at the faded portrait of Sylvestre, which hung upon the granite wall with its anchor emblems and mourning-wreath of black bead-work. Ever since the sea had robbed her of her own last offspring, she believed no longer in safe returns; she only prayed through fear, bearing Heaven a grudge in the bottom of her heart.  69
  But Gaud listened eagerly to these consoling reasonings; her large sunken eyes looked with deep tenderness out upon this old sire, who so much resembled her beloved one: merely to have him near her was like a hostage against death having taken the younger Gaos; and she felt reassured, nearer to her Yann. Her tears fell softly and silently, and she repeated again her passionate prayers to the “Star of the Sea.”  70
  A delay out at those islands to repair damages was a very likely event. She rose and brushed her hair, and then dressed as if she might fairly expect him. All then was not lost, if a seaman, his own father, did not yet despair. And for a few days she resumed looking out for him again.  71
  Autumn at last arrived,—a late autumn too,—its gloomy evenings making all things appear dark in the old cottage; and all the land looked sombre too.  72
  The very daylight seemed a sort of twilight; immeasurable clouds, passing slowly overhead, darkened the whole country at broad noon. The wind blew constantly with the sound of a great cathedral organ at a distance, but playing profane, despairing dirges; at other times the noise came close to the door, like the howling of wild beasts.  73
  She had grown pale,—aye, blanched,—and bent more than ever; as if old age had already touched her with its featherless wing. Often did she finger the wedding clothes of her Yann, folding them and unfolding them again and again like some maniac,—especially one of his blue woolen jerseys which still had preserved his shape: when she threw it gently on the table, it fell with the shoulders and chest well defined; so she placed it by itself in a shelf of their wardrobe, and left it there, so that it might forever rest unaltered.  74
  Every night the cold mists sank upon the land, as she gazed over the depressing heath through her little window, and watched the thin puffs of white smoke arise from the chimneys of other cottages scattered here and there on all sides. There the husbands had returned, like wandering birds driven home by the frost. Before their blazing hearths the evenings passed, cozy and warm; for the springtime of love had begun again in this land of North Sea fishermen.  75
  Still clinging to the thought of those islands where he might perhaps have lingered, she was buoyed up by a kind hope, and expected him home any day.
*        *        *
  76
  But he never returned. One August night, out off gloomy Iceland, mingled with the furious clamor of the sea, his wedding with the sea was performed. It had been his nurse; it had rocked him in his babyhood and had afterwards made him big and strong; then, in his superb manhood, it had taken him back again for itself alone. Profoundest mystery had surrounded this unhallowed union. While it went on, dark curtains hung pall-like over it as if to conceal the ceremony, and the ghoul howled in an awful, deafening voice to stifle his cries. He, thinking of Gaud, his sole, darling wife, had battled with giant strength against this deathly rival, until he at last surrendered, with a deep death-cry like the roar of a dying bull, through a mouth already filled with water; and his arms were stretched apart and stiffened forever.  77
  All those he had invited in days of old were present at his wedding. All except Sylvestre, who had gone to sleep in the enchanted gardens far, far away, at the other side of the earth.  78
 
 
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