Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Not a ripple on the sea
NOT A RIPPLE ON THE SEA.
Where Normandy bares its weather-beaten brow to meet the north-west winds lies the village of Orbec. A merry brook hurrying from the inland hills marks the middle of a ravine between the tall tawny cliffs; and the little hamlet nestles just where the clear fresh water soaks into the smooth sea sand, or meets the highest sweep of mounting tide. To the right and left rise wide undulating downs. Behind, dull straight roads and hedgeless fields stretch far away in gradual ascent to the forest that fringes the horizon. In front is the sea. At high water the waves rise to the very threshold of the three or four cottages which occupy the narrow extremity of the ravine. The last bound of the brook from the rough pebbly causeway that has been built for it through the village into the rude sea eager to absorb it, is lost and hidden in the dancing spray. Orbec should always be seen at low tide. Then the sand and rock lie open to the sky for many score of yards. At eve the sun casts deep violet shadows on the yellow cliffs, and wakes in every lingering pool among the rocks a hundred glowing colours. The sand shines smooth and clear, catching the sloping rays with its myriad tiny particles, dotted here and there with stones and bright green moss,—more rarely with the opal and sapphire mass of some torn jellyfish. From the southern side of the village stretches out a long rock rampart, rising over sand and sea for nearly half a mile, and crowned, just where it seems to be sinking under the surface, by a huge battered fort, riven by the strokes of a hundred storms; glorious to be seen when great gales toss the spray high above its grey old height, and liken it to the head of some mighty Viking sinking into the sea, his white hair beaten backwards and forwards by the wind. From the beach little of Orbec can be seen, for the cliffs nearly meet at the rivulet’s mouth. But three or four cottages, and the roofs of twenty more, are enough to give signs of life to the scene; or rather would give signs of life if life itself were absent. Only on the Jour des Morts is nobody to be seen. Then all Orbec is at church. On other days half-a-dozen sturdy boys and girls, with close-cropped yellow hair and bright brown limbs, are sure to be dabbling on the shore; and it is more than probable that several of their mothers and their sisters will be at the same time cleansing and destroying the linen of their respective families in the running brook. Round ruddy nets will be grouped some bigger boys and men. Nor is there wanting at Orbec the symbol of death as well as the personifications of strong healthy life. The symbol of death is there; speaking, however, not only of the death that will crumble away those lusty forms and still those cheery voices, but also of a better life. High over the housetops, and within sight of the homeward or outward bound fishermen for many a mile, is reared a tall rude crucifix of wood.
Round the higher course of the running stream is clustered a bewildering maze of narrow lanes, all passing between rows of fishermen’s cottages—cottages bright with stucco of yellow and pink and pale blue and white; each stamped with the glittering badge of some insurance company, and each veiled by a thick drapery of nets hung out to dry.
Some years ago I trudged into Orbec in the course of a long walk. I was passing part of the winter with friends who inhabited a quaint old Norman chateau, distant some ten or a dozen miles from the coast. It chanced to be the second of November, the “Commemoration des Morts” of the Roman Calendar. The narrow streets were empty. Save here and there a young child at a window, not a soul was to be seen. I made my way to the church crowning the high ground at the back of the village. Terrible to a heart full of taste for the Puginesque is that church at Orbec; for nowhere does a more hideous example of the most hideous eighteenth century style insult the ground it occupies. But the interior is richly characteristic. On that Jour des Morts it was all hung with black. The solemn drone of the priest at the altar sounded sadly through clouds of incense. But it was not the chant, or the candles, or the smoke, or the rude paintings, or the little ship models hung to the roof—votive offerings for the safety of those that travel by water—that most moved the heart. It was the dense mass of kneeling worshippers. There was all Orbec—men, women, and children—save the helpless old and the helpless young—all kneeling on their knees. The crowd reached to the door, and I could scarcely find a square foot of tile unoccupied. We less impulsive islanders may moralise as we will about popery and superstition, but it is a very solemn service—that Commemoration of the Dead. Think of all the love, and all the sorrow, and all the hope welling out of the souls of those simple Orbec fishermen! How many memories in that church were helping to bind the Communion of Saints!
This old woman at my side, I thought, of how many dead must not she be pondering! She looks as if she had been living here since the duchy was our kings’! She must be the original Vieille Femme de Normandie, miraculously kept alive since the days when the print was struck! What a store of legends must be hidden under that speckless cap! I waited long; till the old dame left the church. She was bent low with years, but with her stout stick she walked bravely. High over her head rose a great wall of fluted linen, starched to the consistency of steel. From her ears two huge gold drops—heirlooms of her clan—fell on cheeks as yellow and wrinkled as the skin of an apple forgotten in a store-room. She plodded on through the village, and entered one of the five cottages at the mouth of the brook.
An irresistible impulse drove me to make the acquaintance of this ancient dame. I longed to fathom her depths of folklore.
I forget precisely how my object was achieved. The Norman peasantry are not afflicted with British spleen; and I have no doubt that my overtures were not deemed impertinent. By whatever pretext, I was soon installed in the cottage of the old lady, free to contemplate her big walnut press, her clock in the corner, her paper flowers on the chimney, her bed drapery of gaudy chintz, and, best of all, her grandæval self.
“It is in truth a charming place.”
“Monsieur has reason. We love well our village, we.”
“Madame has inhabited it since very long time?”
“Ah, Monsieur, do not ask it of me! They call me the Old Mother of Orbec. I have—I do not know how many years. Hein, Monsieur! But I am strong yet! Thanks to Saint Anthony and the good God!”
And at the thanksgiving she crossed herself, and at the boast she struck her stick with a sharp crack upon the floor.
“Madame has probably many kinsfolk in Orbec? It is all that there is of happiest to see one’s children grow and prosper.”
“Ah! Ah! But Monsieur does not know; does not know. They are here no more, they are here no more. I pray for them up there. I go soon to join them. Pardon, Monsieur, if I weary you. Monsieur is without doubt tired. I beg you to seat yourself.”
At my mention of children she drew a sudden gasping breath, and gazed out at the sea, whitened merrily under wind and sun. As she spoke of prayer for them she pointed in the direction of the church. Then, with more than the delicacy of Saint German’s Faubourg, she apologised for obtruding her memories on me.
Of course I longed to hear the tale thus hinted at. I hope I did not requite the old lady’s delicacy with unwarrantable curiosity in inducing her to tell it.
I will not repeat it in her words, for the idiom would be tedious. I sat in the cottage doorway as I listened, looking out on the sparkling sand, the merry urchins rambling down to the breakers, the crumbling fort, and the far sea.
Somewhere about the year of our Lord 1785, Marie Giguet was the brightest, prettiest, most loveable lass in all Orbec. All the youths of Orbec looked longingly on that dainty figure, always freshly clad, poised so truly on those little sun-browned feet. All the youths of Orbec worshipped that yellow hair and those dark brown eyes. Of course, with one exception all the youths of Orbec were doomed to disappointment and (temporary) despair. That one was Charles Barjac, sprung of a family which had come to Orbec from the South. Charles Barjac (the old dame’s eyes kindled as she spoke in passing of his sturdy frame and crisp black hair) won the prize, was married at the church behind the village, and became a loving husband. In some four or five years three stout boys came into the world to perpetuate the Barjac name. Never was wife or mother happier than Marie. Her only trouble was that her lord’s seafaring life led him for long intervals away from home; and that she knew her boys must one day in their turn go down to the sea in ships.
It was to be gathered from the narrative that Monsieur Barjac’s voyages were not mere paltry fishing excursions; that he visited various parts of the coasts of Albion; that he at least could with no good face cast at Albion the common charge of perfidy, for that he himself kept little faith with the customs regulations of King George III.; that whatever perfidy stained the subjects of that virtuous monarch was rather to their sovereign than to their neighbours; and was, moreover, a source of much gain to himself. Righteously or unrighteously, Barjac the skipper made many voyages and much profit. Charles, Antoine, and Jules, the three lads aforementioned, grew up stout-hearted, straight-limbed, and strong; and as each reached the age of ten, each sailed for the first time with his sire. When the time came for Charles to go, Antoine and little Jules were still left with their mother. Antoine went: but Jules stayed behind. When the time came for Jules to go too, the mother’s heart was sore and sad; but her heart was brave though it sorrowed. Her lads must not be milksops. She wept in secret, and parted from her Benjamin with a cheery smile.
It was a voyage of no ordinary importance, this. The days when the eighteenth century lay a-dying and the days when the nineteenth was in its babyhood were not days of great order in France. Every man did that which was right in his own eyes. And when the new century was not yet three years old, there was a lull in the fight between the Jack and the Tricolor, and Commerce took advantage of the slumber of War. So Monsieur Barjac made a great venture; not only with his three boys, but also with such commodities as used to acquire a richer flavour with freedom from duty. And when the Belle Marie sailed from the Harbour of Grace, she carried with her a freight which was destined to make the skipper quite a wealthy man. The mother left at home in Orbec thought little of the freight, and much of her goodman and her boys. There was Charles, nearly as tall as his father, and already beginning to smile meaningly on the successors to the realm of beauty once reigned over by Marie Giguet. There was Antoine, hardy and strong. And little Jules was the merriest fellow who ever prisoned his lusty little limbs in big stiff bags of breeches, or ever covered his cropped curls with a long red bag of a cap.
Nor were Madame Barjac’s the only eyes which were with her “heart, and that was far away there, where” the Belle Marie sailed over the sea. Other Orbec folk had kinsmen on board the jaunty little craft. There was old Widow Nodier, whose only son Jacques was Captain Barjac’s right hand; and there was Thérèse Fanjeaux, who had promised to become Thérèse Nodier when the ship came back. Thibaud le Roy was the oldest sailor on the Belle Marie; such an ancient Triton that he looked more like a piece of seaweed than a man, but whose experience, Madame Barjac rejoiced to know, was invaluable to the skipper—and his old wife Manon used to trudge every day to the Barjac house and ask, “Is it that Madame has news of our husbands?” There were several more, but I forget them. It is enough to say that the Belle Marie was freighted with the hopes and the fears of many of the people of Orbec.
Time went on. The friends of the sailors began to say “It is time for the Belle Marie to be starting home again.” The names of the places whither she was bound their lips could hardly shape. It may be presumed, from mention made by old Madame Barjac of Scarrebourre, Vitebi, and Yorkéchire, that her destination was the north-east coast of England.
And now, said the old dame, I was about to hear a marvellous tale. She did not expect that I should believe it. But she would tell what was indeed the truth.
Often in the night she lay long awake, thinking on her husband and their boys. On one special night she felt more anxious than at other times. It was very late before she retired to her bed. The sight of the sea had a strange fascination for her, and she could not tear herself away. It was autumn. The day had been sultry and oppressive. The crimson sun had sunk into the sea without a cloud to veil his retreat. Not a breath of wind had cooled the parched air. The sea was smooth and oily. It rose and fell in long unbroken heavings in the offing. In-shore it was still and calm, without a ripple on its surface.
The mother watched the rising of the moon, watched it light up the silent scene with a ghastly radiance, and at last shut herself in her room.
She had lain long awake, and had at last sunk into an uneasy slumber, when she was roused by hearing cries as of a vessel in distress. She fancied she was dreaming. There could be no wreck on a night so calm. She turned her head to sleep. Again the cries broke on her ear. She started up to assure herself of her delusion. Hastily flinging on some scanty clothing, she ran to the door, and looked out from the very spot on which I stood.
The moon was still shining coldly and clearly on the sea. The scene was still unruffled. But the sea had gone down. She ran towards the brink of the water, and soon saw that she was not alone upon the sand. Old Manon le Roy was gazing eagerly seaward. Widow Nodier was imploring a group of three or four sailors to haul down a boat and pull out behind the rocks where now the fort was standing. Thérèse Fanjeaux was hurrying her brother down to the sea. Altogether some score of people were gathered on the beach. It was not only Madame Barjac who heard the cries. It was evident that they were no figment of her brain. No, in truth, they were only too real; for hark! once more came that sad sound, “nearer, clearer, deadlier than before,” the sound of men shouting shrilly in extremity of peril.
The cries seemed to come from close in-shore. Every eye on the sands was gazing intently to seaward, but gazing in vain. Down from the dark slate-coloured heaven of a clear night the moon poured a flood of light which was scarcely broken as it fell upon the sea, so calm was the unrippled surface. Far out to sea a broken spar would not have floated by unseen on such a night. But no floating thing could be descried. The sea was a desert.
Then again the shout of distress rang through the air. And so near was it that different voices could be clearly distinguished. They sounded through a dismal accompaniment, the loud clap of rent canvas, the crash of shivered woodwork, and the noise of angry breakers. Through all the din of wreck and wretchedness one voice was easily recognised. Commanding in no tremulous tones, exhorting to effort and endurance, at times even cheerful in the midst of peril, Madame Barjac knew her husband’s voice. The sounds came yet nearer. The band on the beach stood rooted to the place, gazing in wondering horror at the blank unruffled sea, listening in rapt attention to the ghostly din. Louder roared the shreds of sailcloth; louder crashed the wreck upon the rocks. And in every cadence of prayer and of despair the listeners heard the voices of their friends. A moment of yet louder noise, and the deep tones of the captain were silent. Then the tragedy seemed so near at hand, that Madame Barjac could distinguish even words. She heard old Thibaud le Roy’s rough tones commanding in the stead of the deeper voice that was still. Then came the loudest crash of all. Madame Barjac heard distinctly a childish voice call “Mother! mother!” She knew the cry of her last-born and her dearest boy, and swooned away.
“Ah, Monsieur! I have lost them all; but I shall find them again. For so many years I have thought of them on this day up there,” and she pointed towards the church. “Soon the Holy Virgin and the good God will make me to rejoin them. You do not believe me, Monsieur? You think that I recount to you a dream! Was it a dream? Unhappily a dream which came true. But that was no dream. Monsieur can ask of the Widow Nodier; or of old Manon le Roy; or go to Thérèse Nodier, who lives in the third house from the—ah! what say I? They are dead—they are all dead. I alone—I stay yet.
“Monsieur will not perhaps believe. But all the world knew the history. Now it is I only who live to tell it. Monsieur will guess the rest?”
Then she told me how she was carried to her home again: how, when she was once more conscious, she talked of all that had happened with those who had seen as well as herself: how the time that elapsed between her rushing to the shore and her fainting fit could not have been more than five minutes; how of the neighbours some laughed, some wondered, and all doubted; how all those whom the mystic cries had summoned to the sand doubted nothing, but waited hopelessly for the confirmation of what they already knew.
It was long before the confirmation came. Many weeks went by, and nothing was heard of the fate of the Belle Marie, till one day all Orbec was roused by the arrival of Jacques Nodier. He (the sole survivor) told the tale of the Belle Marie’s ill-starred voyage. Her journey had been very profitable. The skipper’s coffers were well filled with English gold. They were sailing merrily homeward, when a strong north-east wind began to blow, and drove them on the lee-shore. The little vessel went to pieces on the rocks of “Scarrebourre.” Much was done by the good English folk, but nothing that was of avail to save the ship or the crew. The captain was washed off the deck before the craft broke. Le Roy tried to get a rope to the shore, but the rocks were too steep, and the waves were too high. Little Jules was clinging to the wreck to the last. Jacques himself was tossed on a shelving rock, bruised and bloody, but alive. And all this happened on the north-east coast of England, on the very night on which the Orbec people had been awakened by the cries at sea.
Such was the story I heard from Madame Barjac. It differed from ordinary ghost stories in this. Most ghosts are seen by only one person. This was a vision seen—no; there was nothing seen; nothing but the calm sea. This was an illusion represented as having been carried through their sense of hearing to some score of persons. But these were all dead, with the exception of old Marie Barjac. “Is there not one of your companions on that eventful night still living?” I asked.
“Not one, Monsieur. Thérèse Nodier died four years ago, and she was the last. She married Jacques, the survivor; but their son is living in Orbec. Monsieur can question him. He will tell Monsieur what he heard from his mother.”
It was now late in the afternoon. I had no time to make further inquiries. I bade farewell to La Vieille Femme de Normandie, and marched hastily inland. My host had heard the story, but had thought little of it. He had no idea that any of the actors in the tale survived. All the party to whom I repeated what I had heard were deeply interested; and several impulsive ladies, influenced as well by my description of the charms of the Orbec beach as by my incredible narration, determined to make a pilgrimage to the little port as soon as possible. For some cause or other it was a week before I was in Orbec again. We made a great commotion as we drove in to the little square by the church. We asked first for Jacques Nodier, found him, and I began to question him on the subject of the wreck.
“But let us go to the old woman first,” said one of the party, in English. “What’s her name? Barjac? Where is it? Come down to the sea.”
“Is it Widow Barjac that madame wishes to find? Ah! Madame is too late. The Widow Barjac was interred yesterday, madame. They did not know what age to put on her grave, Monsieur. She was very old. They called her the Old Mother of Orbec. She was the last of the hearers of the noise of the distant wreck. Monsieur can see her grave.”
So we went to the rude black and white wooden heading which covered the old woman’s corpse.
Ici reposent les depouilles mortelles de
Veuve de Charles Barjac,
Sainte Vierge Priez pour nous.
The pious hands of Jacques Nodier had hung a wreath on the tomb.
I added another; nor do I think I shall ever forget Orbec, or Widow Barjac, or her strange story.