Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Across the sands




That was a happy week which I spent at Avranches eleven years since, in the midst of the preparations and pleasing bustle which even the humblest wedding seldom fails to call forth. It was to attend Emma’s wedding that I had, with some difficulty, obtained a brief leave of absence. Emma was my sister, and she and I were alone in the world, with no nearer relation than the kind old aunt with whom Emma had lived since our mother died. This aunt’s name was Pearson, and she was one of the English residents at Avranches, whom economical living had allured to the coast of Normandy. At Avranches, then, Emma had lived for two years, and in that bleak air the early delicacy of her health grew more and more perceptible, until aunt Pearson became alarmed, and consulted a physician. The physician looked grave, and talked of the seeds of consumption, of prudence, and of a warmer climate. It was one of those prescriptions easier to give than to follow.

For Aunt Pearson was poor, Emma had nothing, or next to nothing, and I, her brother, a second lieutenant of Marines, possessed little more than my pay. We were the children of a clergyman, who had been too good a parish priest to die rich, and the kind aunt herself had but a modest annuity whereon to maintain her niece and herself, while a migration to the south would have overtasked her slender purse. Under these circumstances, I was rejoiced to hear that Emma’s long engagement to Henry Hilton was at last to be brought to a happy close. Harry, who had been a school-friend of mine, and visited at the Vicarage when we were all children together, was a good fellow and a clever one, though a little fiery of temper and stubborn of will. He loved Emma very fondly and faithfully, and they had been long troth-plighted, conditionally on the young man’s getting his father’s consent. And, by degrees, old Mr. Hilton, a rich merchant at Bordeaux, senior partner in the great house of Hilton and Vaillant, had been won over to receive as his daughter-in-law a girl who had no portion but a sweet nature and a fair face. The young folks were to be married at once, and to set up house at Bordeaux, with Mr. Hilton, who was a widower, with no other child than Henry, already a junior partner in the firm.

Dr. Briggs, the English physician who played the part of Galen to the little British colony, and who accommodated himself with a pretty good grace to the five-franc fees that in that needy community were the substitutes for guineas, congratulated me on my sister’s prospects.

“Miss Lethbridge,” said the worthy old man, “has a good constitution, apart from the hereditary predisposition to phthisis, and she has youth on her side. In the mild air of the southern coast, she may recover her strength, and live long and happily. But another winter in this cold and rainy climate would——Well, never mind that now. I have said enough, at any rate, to assure you that my congratulations on your sister’s marriage are not a mere compliment.”

My leave of absence, as I have said, was short, since H.M.S. ——, on board of which I was junior marine officer, was to sail very soon for the West Indies, and I had only obtained permission to attend my sister’s wedding, as an especial favour, and even my brother-in-law was anxious to get back to Bordeaux and his desk, as early as possible. His father and his senior partner were more than commonly deep in business details; the young man had a good head for accounts and considerable abilities, and he was desirous of proving to his father that he was not ungrateful for the latter’s compliance with his wishes as related to the marriage itself. Therefore it had been arranged that after a brief tour among the Pyrenees, the newly-married pair were to proceed to Bordeaux, and that Harry was to make up for lost time by redoubled assiduity in serving the interests of the firm of Hilton and Vaillant.

The wedding was fixed for Wednesday, and my place was bespoken in the malle-poste for the evening of that very day, an arrangement which gave me time to sleep a night in Paris, and to see a few of the wonders of the French capital before I scampered back to Portsmouth. And on the Saturday preceding it, we planned an excursion to Kervaen, a small town on the Breton side of the river Couësnon, and formerly a frontier post belonging to the old Celtic duchy.

Our party was rather a large one. Mrs. Pearson had many friends in Avranches, and as soon as it was mentioned that we designed an excursion to the Breton borders, several of the English residents had expressed a wish to accompany us. There were, therefore, four or five carriages, besides two or three boys, who were home for their holidays, and were wild with excitement as they galloped on their shaggy and sure-footed ponies. Hilton rode a fine English horse, a new purchase which he had made in Paris, and which he intended to take down with them to the south. And I drove Emma in a queer little jangling pony-chaise of native construction, while Aunt Pearson shared a voiture de louage with three friends.

The day was a beautiful one. We spent some hours pleasantly enough at Kervaen, and dined among the ruins of the fort. The beauty of the day had faded, though very gradually. Clouds, like huge skeins of unravelled wool, that covered the violet sky, were not unwelcome as screening off the sun. We had started early, for, though the evening was fine, the road was a long one, winding among the curves and undulations of the bay.

“Are those Norman fellows never coming back with the carriages?” said Hilton, looking at his watch, impatiently. “I have letters to write that must go to England by to-night’s post.”

But nobody else was in any particular hurry to start, and we continued to lounge about the ruins. Even Emma did not seem, for once, to sympathise with Hilton’s wish to be moving, and she scolded him playfully for his impatience.

But Hilton was seriously bent on getting back to the town. He had received, that morning, two letters, bearing the London postmark, and it was absolutely necessary that the young merchant should write by return to his correspondents.

A bare-legged boy was induced, by the promise of a ten-sous piece, to run to the other end of the village and summon the lagging charioteers, who had put up their horses at an auberge of tolerable size, rejoicing under the title of the Soleil Levant. But this messenger did not return, and when Hilton and I went together to the road-side inn, we heard the sounds of the rustic music, which are the invariable accompaniments of a Breton festival, and found that a christening-feast was in progress. This sufficiently accounted for the truancy of our coachmen, who were in the thick of the merry-making, having recognised old friends among the company.

But there was something contagious in Harry’s uneasiness at the delay which this inopportune banquet had helped to occasion, and I saw, with some annoyance, that our Jehus had not failed to do justice to the contents of the huge pitchers of cider that were passed incessantly from hand to hand, and that their faces were red and their eyes dull from the effects of their potations. With a good deal of trouble we succeeded in half coaxing, half compelling the drivers to leave their hospitable friends, and impressing as many of the hangers-on of the auberge into our service as possible, we contrived to get the horses harnessed and the men upon their coach-boxes. Fortunately Norman heads are too strong to be utterly overflooded by even immoderate draughts of apple-juice, and no sooner were the laggards on their driving-seats, and in possession of whip and reins, than their instinctive knowledge of horses resumed its sway, and they prepared to conduct the vehicles homewards, with all proper gravity and steadiness.

Much time had, however, been wasted, and the sun was going down while we had many a kilometre of road to travel. The members of the party took their places in their different carriages, the schoolboys remounted their ponies, and it was pretty plain that the drivers were quite sober enough to pioneer their living freight to Avranches in safety. All was ready for a start when Harry, who had been chafing terribly at the delay, and who was apprehensive that we should reach the town long after the departure of the mail, proposed to strike across the sands, which were hard and firm, and thus to curtail the distance by nearly one-half. Indeed, to an impatient traveller, there was something provoking in the idea of crawling round the shores of the bay, when it was possible to make a short cut from point to point, a course doubly tempting when time was of such value.

Indeed, when I looked at the wide stretch of smooth sand, gleaming wet in places that lay far out to seaward, but in general as dry and flat as a billiard-table, I felt disposed to comply with Harry’s desire. We had but to ford the shallow stream of Couësnon, a little river only note-worthy as the old barrier between France and Bretagne, and our way lay clear before us. So at least I, in my innocence, opined; but I was startled at the vehemence with which the old residents combated the project. The sands, they said, were notoriously treacherous and insecure; they were full of shifting quicksands of fabulous depth and tenacity; the tide, at certain states of wind and sea, ran in over those flats with a speed that even well-mounted horsemen could not evade; fifty persons, on an average, perished yearly on that fatal coast, through some imprudent confidence in their own judgment or activity, &c. In short, even with a guide, the Grêve de St. Michel was best avoided, and without a guide it was madness to venture upon it. I did not exactly believe all this chorus of evil; but I put sufficient faith in the popular opinion to consider that the tempting sands had better be left in possession of the sea-crows that were solemnly walking to and fro beside the pools, digging ever and anon with their sharp bills into the soft surface, in quest of worms or shellfish. Not so, however, did my brother-in-law elect. His lip curled scornfully, and he could hardly listen with patient politeness to the Cassandra-like predictions of the old ladies who were the chief speakers. He had, in fact, been too long on the Continent not to be aware how prone to the marvellous, and to exaggeration of the peculiarities of the country, English residents are apt to be. He was of a bold spirit, too, and not easily turned from anything by the mere notion of problematic peril. Thus he persisted; the others demurred; and the result was an animated discussion, in which Harry was in the minority. He was only backed by the schoolboys, who were wild with delight at the idea of such “jolly fun” as a race homewards across the sands, all the more attractive because their elders held them in such horror. Emma, indeed, would willingly have gone by that route, though she was sorely puzzled between Aunt Pearson’s boding remarks and her lover’s confidence that there was no risk, and that the dangers of the Grêve, at low-water, must be purely fanciful.

I don’t say that Hilton was a perfect character. He was, as I have hinted, rather hot of temper and excessively obstinate, though of a generous and kindly nature. His petulance increased with the well-meant but injudicious efforts of our friends to dissuade him from the wild idea of crossing the sands. He would, I do not doubt, have given up the plan, though not perhaps with a very good grace, had Emma asked him at first to stay for her sake. But she did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, she was disposed to side with him, and when the rest vowed that for untold gold they would not tempt Providence by such an act of folly, she was still inclined to hearken to her lover’s voice, had I not interposed.

“No, no, Emma,” said I, turning it off with a laugh. “After Monday next, when you have promised to love and obey our headstrong friend on the chestnut charger, of course you may risk your life as much as you please. Till then I am your lawful guardian, and shall not stir one yard from the Prince President’s highway; so you must submit to go home in safety.”

Hilton declared in dudgeon that he would go alone, write his letters, and have time to smoke a cigar and play a game at billiards at the Cuercle, before we returned. He would not listen to a word of advice, though two or three old Breton fishermen, and some shrill-voiced fisherwomen added their warnings to those of our company.

“There are many dead Christians in the cimetière of Kervaen,” said one white-haired old sailor, speaking in a thin and piping voice, but solemnly and impressively enough; “but there are more who sleep in unblessed graves, without shroud or coffin, under the lises of the Bay. The tide has turned, too, and the wind is westerly.”

“Ah, ah! it is wrong to tempt Heaven’s mercy thus,” cried the women, crowding round Hilton’s horse. “In the name of our Lady of Sorrows, monsieur, take the advice of the poor.”

Hilton merely shrugged his shoulders, made some good-humoured but contemptuous rejoinder, and tightened his horse’s girths. The good horse neighed and pawed the beach impatiently.

“Harry,” said my sister, now alarmed for the first time, and with imploring eyes fixed on her lover’s face, “Harry, to please me——

It was too late. Had Emma spoken before, her influence would have carried the day, but now Hilton was piqued and nettled by so much opposition to his proposal, and his mind was made up. He was, as I have said, a brave man, but he had also that sensitive shrinking from the slightest imputation of fear which is only felt by the young, and which wears off with experience of the world’s ways. To recoil now, when everyone was busy in conjuring up perils and obstacles in store for him, would have been a bitter pill for his proud and hasty nature to swallow. Yet he hesitated for an instant as he saw the tears in Emma’s gentle eyes; but most unluckily one of the Norman coachmen broke in with tipsy gravity, and in the nasal drawl of his native province:

“C’est bien dangereuse, monsieur, savez-vous——

The spell was snapped at once. Hilton, who had finished adjusting his girths, angrily told the man to hold his tongue, gathered up his reins, and spurred off, waving his hand in adieu to Emma, and drily remarking that we gave ourselves a great deal of unnecessary anxiety about the safety of a person so insignificant as himself, but that the laugh would be against us, when we met at Avranches, by tea-time. So saying, he rode off at a brisk canter, splashed into the Couësnon, and, fording the shallow water with perfect ease, gained the opposite bank, and took his way across the sands. Twice he looked back to us, with a half-playful gesture of leave-taking, and then a rising headland concealed him from our view.

“Follow him, George; oh, pray let us follow him!” exclaimed Emma, struggling to keep back her tears, but to this I decidedly objected. To overtake Hilton, well-mounted as he was, was out of the question, even had there been any good object to be attained by sharing his danger, if he were indeed in danger. Of this I felt by no means assured. Popular tradition is generally vague and full of exaggeration, and I did not repose unlimited faith in the appalling statements I had just heard. Heartily I wished that Harry had been wise enough to avoid what might prove a very ugly scrape; but, for all that, I counted on finding him, flushed with victory, puffing his cigar at the door of the Hôtel de Londres.

We started at a good round pace, glad to get away from the croaking of the Breton peasants, whose dismal predictions had anything but a reassuring effect upon my poor sister. Our little pony chaise was much lighter than the cumbrous four-wheeled carriages, and as Emma was eager to get back to Avranches and assure herself of the safety of our rash knight-errant, I drove fast, and we soon outstripped the rest of the party. As for the youngsters on their ponies, they were somewhat sulky at the parental prohibition, sternly reiterated, to accompany Hilton across the Bay, and therefore kept aloof from the train of vehicles, scampering up by-lanes, leaping any fence where a gap afforded a tempting passage, or tearing along the road in a breakneck race that usually ended in a harmless tumble.

For some time after quitting Kervaen the road trended somewhat inland, and it was only now and then that, between the gnarled boughs of the orchards, or across the weedy ridges of the fallows, we could catch a glimpse of the sea. But presently we found ourselves skirting the coast line, winding among sand-hills and frequently crossing the narrow bridge that crossed some brooklet on its way to ocean. To the left was the broad sea, to the right were the bare sands, and far away loomed the rock-cradled fort of Mont St. Michel, and the twin islet of Tombelaine, and even Avranches, clinging to and crowning the crest of its steeply scarped hill—but of Hilton we saw nothing. This was the less surprising as, owing to the twists in the road and the many sandy bluffs that stood out between us and the sky-line, our view of the strand was limited to that portion immediately before us.

Emma was excessively agitated, though she did her best to hide her fears, and was perpetually standing up in the carriage to gaze forth over the yellow stretch of sand, dappled already by the flickering shadows of evening. The sun was sinking, and the wind rising. The white clouds overhead had grown thicker and darker, growing like the web of the Parcæ, till they covered the whole sky. I felt uncomfortable, and the more so because, for Emma’s sake, I felt it necessary to keep a cheerful countenance, but I began to recognise the signs of an approaching gale. The wind, as the old fisherman had remarked, was westerly, and it came every minute in stronger and angrier gusts, sweeping the dead leaves from the trees, and making a melancholy sighing among the sedges and tamarisks of the lonely shore. I looked out to sea, and even at that distance I fancied I could see the dark blue line of the advancing tide gaining, still gaining, on the shore, and rushing on, swift and smooth, over the level strand where neither rock nor shingle barred its way.

“Where can Harry be? I don’t see him. O, George, your eyes are better than mine!” said Emma, trembling, as she stood up for the tenth time to strain her gaze across the yellow flats.

“I see nothing,” answered I. “Stop, there is something in the distance, a dark object, but it cannot be a man and horse, it is so small, and so near the water, where no sane person would venture, with the tide coming in at such a rate. Some sea-bird, driven in by the storm.”

“Then there is going to be a storm?” asked Emma, with such white lips, and such evident distress, that I could have bitten off my tongue for my lack of caution.

She was very pale; the hectic bloom on her cheeks came and went, and her eyes were strangely brilliant. In her delicate state of health, all agitation was hurtful, and I groaned inwardly at Hilton’s mad prank, though I did my best to put a good face on the matter. I laughed at the idea of any apprehension from the storm, whether of peril to Harry or ourselves, and spoke confidently of the adventurous horseman’s safety. I expressed myself sure that he had already reached Avranches, and would have the laugh on his side when we came in, with wet clothes, after a drive through the rain. In fact, I played my part admirably, in my own opinion, but I could not deceive a woman’s quick instinct, and my sister laid her hand on my arm with——

“Hush, George, pray. You frighten me, dear, for I see that you are afraid for him. Oh, it is all my fault; I should have begged him, urged him to stay with us, and if he, if he should——

Just then the eldest of the English schoolboys, who had raced past us some little time before with his noisy crew of young comrades, came tearing back with his pony in a lather of foam and heat.

“O, Captain Lethbridge,” said the boy, “we have seen a gentleman on horseback trying to escape from the sea, and I’m sure it’s Mr. Hilton, and the poor horse seems so tired, and the tide’s coming in dreadfully fast, like a millrace.”

I tried to stop the boy. It was of no use. The words were spoken, and Emma gave a scream so piercing and heart-broken in its agonised accents, that it haunts me to this hour, and will haunt me to my dying day. Lashing the vigorous little nag into a gallop, in an instant I gained the point whence our young informant had come, and there I sprang out, and assisted Emma to scramble up a steep ridge of sand that overlooked the whole of the desolate flat, now terribly encroached on by the advancing tide. A few drops of rain fell, and the wind whistled shrilly by, and the sea-gulls and gannets flew hoarsely screaming around, and fluttered off inland on their white wings. The muttering growl of distant thunder resounded, but we cared nothing for rain or thunder. Our eyes were riveted on a horseman who was making his way, slowly and painfully, through deep and moist sand in which his weary steed sank fetlock deep at every bound.

Hilton! There was no mistaking him; but how came he there, and how had he lingered so long among those dangerous wastes? No doubt he had missed the safe way, hardly to be found, even by natives of the country, and had wandered long among the treacherous quagmires and pools of sullen waters, for I could see that his noble horse flagged wearily, and that there were stains of mud and sand upon his heaving flanks, as if he had floundered through more than one of the lises, as they are locally called. The sea was behind him, swift and pitiless, like a low wall of dark blue water, crested with foam, and seeming to devour the shore as it swept onwards. Worse still, the coming tide was “quickening” the sands as it advanced, for we saw pools appear where dry banks had lately been, and the surface heaved and glistened, and the horse had to make desperate efforts to advance shorewards.

I shouted loudly, to encourage the poor fellow, but the wind drowned my voice; and now the thunder rolled, and the lightning flashed redly over the sea, and it seemed suddenly to grow dark, while torrents of rain came dashing down; but we did not heed them. If my own life had been trembling in the balance, I could scarcely have felt more cruel anxiety; and as for Emma, I hardly dared to steal one glance at her pale and anguish-wrung features, as she stood on the highest point of the rock, clinging to me for support, and waving her hankerchief, poor thing, while her eyes pierced the twilight, riveted on the figure of that lonely horseman on whom the sea was gaining with fearful rapidity.

“Why does he not head straight for the shore? Ah, now he takes the right course! but the horse can scarcely answer to the spur,” I muttered between my set teeth. “Oh, push on, for Heaven’s sake, press on!” I shouted with the full strength of my lungs, using my outspread hands as a trumpet, and Hilton heard the call, started, and knew us, for he gave an answering hail which only reached us as an inarticulate cry. But the voice of human sympathy, or the sight of her he loved, seemed to revive him, for he lifted his steed with the rein, and pressed on more steadily, while immediately afterwards the horse seemed to find firmer footing, for he no longer sank beneath the surface, and as he broke into a quicker pace he shook his head with a long neigh of triumph. The carriages had by this time arrived, and had come to a halt, but the horses were alarmed by the lightning, which was now almost incessant, and they were with difficulty kept under control, while two or three of the party came scrambling on foot up the bank, uttering exclamations of dismay and compassion.

“He is nearer, nearer now. The horse goes fast. He will be saved, he is safe! Harry! Harry!” cried Emma, taking hope as the firmer ground was reached; then, as the storm gathered, she turned wildly to me: “George, brother, say that he is safe!”

I said something, I do not remember what, to encourage Emma’s despair, perhaps, should her hopes be disappointed, but I meant it for the best, and the boys, who were excitedly watching the struggle, set up a cheer.

“Well done! he can gallop now. He is on firm ground. Mr. Hilton is safe, papa; he is out of reach of the sea! Hurrah!”

But the joyous shout died away on their young lips as, with an awful plunge, the good horse sank to the saddle-girths, snorting, plunging, rearing wildly, but in vain, for every effort served but to bury him deeper and deeper in the tenacious quicksand, and his neigh of distress changed to that horrid scream, seldom heard but on the battle-field, which nothing but extremity of pain or fear can elicit.

We shouted to Hilton to throw himself from the saddle—to fling himself flat upon the treacherous surface—as the only chance of life; but I do not think we were heard, so hoarsely did the thunder roar overhead, while the darkness deepened so much that it was only when a flash of lightning showed every detail of the scene that we could distinguish the sufferer.

Emma’s despair was fearful to witness, and in her passionate grief she upbraided us for allowing the victim to perish, unhelped, before our eyes; but human aid was useless there, and we could but remain spectators of what we were powerless to prevent. At every fresh flash we could see, by the vivid though momentary light, the horse sinking deeper and deeper. The moist sand was up to his withers now, a few short moments and it reached his neck; now the horse was wholly lost to sight, and the rider was waist-deep in the quagmire, sinking, still sinking, as if dragged down by some viewless monster below into a living grave. And the sea came on, triumphant, relentless, its blue wall curling and frothing as it ran, arrow-swift, over the strand, and already a foamy line of shallow water had reached to within a few yards of the spot where Harry remained, helpless.

Another flash. The line of foamy water crept snake-like on, reached Harry, passed him, and rolled on far to landward, and line after line, streak after streak, came in the deepening water, and then rolled on the low blue wall, and still the quicksand gaped, insatiate, for its prey. It was up to his armpits now, the water, and presently another flash showed the poor wretch, his head alone above the salt flood, with a face deadly pale, and eyes that glared, white and ghastly, in the lurid glow of the lightning, while the lips seemed to move, but whether in prayer to Heaven or a hopeless cry for aid, can never be known. No sound reached us. The rain was blindingly thick, and the wind raved as it swept the hurrying clouds before it. There was a longer pause than usual between the flashes. To our impatience it seemed as if the dreadful darkness endured for ages. At last it came, broad and bright, the fierce flare of white light, but nothing was visible; nothing but grey sea and white foam, where the little waves began to toss and curl, and the curving wall of blue ran far shoreward. We strained our eyes, but could see nothing more. Unwilling to trust our senses, anxiously we waited for the next flash, and it came; but we saw nothing but a waste of sea and sky. Harry Hilton was lost for ever to men’s sight until the Judgment Day.

In the agony of that suspense, I had almost forgotten my poor sister. Her voice had died away in sobs, and she had sunk at my feet, and lay there, crouching. But when I saw that the grave had closed over its victim, I bent to raise Emma, and thought at first that she was in a swoon, but a cry of dismay from one of the party aroused me to a new fear. We lifted Emma tenderly, and by the light of the carriage-lamps saw the signs of the mischief I had dreaded, only too plainly. Poor girl, the white handkerchief she had waved so long was pressed to her lips now, and stained with crimson drops that ran heavily down, and left a dark stain on the light muslin she wore, and on the small white wrist that lay passive between my hands.

Why linger on the sad story? Suffice it that Emma’s frail health had not been able to endure the anguish of that hideous scene. A blood-vessel had given way, and she never spoke more, and before we reached Avranches she was dead.

We buried poor Emma on the very day that was to have witnessed her union with him whom she had loved—loved too well to survive his fearful end.