The boat was heavy, but his bare brown arms worked the single oar over the stern like tireless little machines, and his body swung rhythmically from side to side to add its weight to his impulse.
He kept well out round Pente-a-Fouille with its jagged teeth and circles of sweltering foam. The tide was rushing south through the Gouliot Pass like a mill-race. It drove a bold furrow into the comparatively calm waters beyond, a furrow which leaped and writhed and spat like a tortured snake with the agonies of the narrow passage. And presently it sank into twisting coils, all spattered and marbled with foam, and came weltering up from conflict with the rocks below, and then hurried on to further torment along the teeth of Little Sark.
At the first lick of the Race on his boat's nose, the small boy drew in his oar without ever looking round, dropped it into the rowlock, fitted the other oar, and bent his sturdy back to the fight.
The twisting waters carried him away in a long swirling slant. He pulled steadily on and paid no heed, and in due course was spat out on the other side of the Race into the smooth water under lee of Longue Pointe. Then he turned his boat's nose to the north, and pulled through the slack in the direction of Havre Gosselin.
He was edging slowly round Pierre au Norman, where a whip of the current caught him for a moment, when a merry shout carried his chin to his shoulder in time to see, out of the corner of his eye, a small white body flash from a black ledge above the surf into the coiling waters beyond. He stood up facing the bows and held the boat, till a brown head bobbed up among the writhing coils. Then a slim white arm with a little brown hand swept the long hair away from a pair of dancing eyes, and the swimmer came slipping through the water like a seal.
But suddenly, some stronger coil of the waters below caught the glancing white limbs. They sprawled awry from their stroke, a startled look dimmed the dancing eyes with a strain of fear.
And in a moment the boy in the boat had drawn in his oars, and kicked off his shoes, and was ploughing sturdily through the belching coils.
"You're all right, Carette," he cried, as he drove up alongside, and the swimmer grasped hurriedly at his extended arm. "We've done stiffer bits than this. Now—rest a minute!—All right?—Come on then for the boat. Here you are!—Hang on till I get in!"
He drew himself up slowly, and hung for a moment while the water poured out of his clothes. Then, with a heave and a wild kick in the air, he was aboard, and turned to assist his companion. He grasped the little brown hands and braced his foot against the gunwale. "Now!" and she came up over the side like a lovely white elf, and sank panting among the golden-brown coils of vraic.
"It was silly of you to jump in there, you know," said the boy over his shoulder, as he sat down to his oars and headed for Pierre au Norman again. "The Race is too strong for you. I've told you so before."
"You do it yourself," she panted.
"I'm a boy and I'm stronger than you."
"I can swim as fast as you."
"But I can last longer, and the Race is too strong for me sometimes."
"B'en! I knew you'd pick me up."
"Well, don't you ever do it when I'm not here, or some day the black snake will get you and you'll never come up again."
He was pulling steadily now through the backwater of Havre Gosselin;—past the iron clamps let into the face of the rock, up and down which the fishermen climbed like flies;—past the moored boats;—avoiding hidden rocks by the instinct of constant usage, till his boat slid up among the weed-cushioned boulders of the shore, and he drew in his oars and laid them methodically along the thwarts.
The small girl jumped out and wallowed in the warm lip of the tide, and finally squatted in it with her brown hands clasped round her pink-white knees,—unabashed, unashamed, absolutely innocent of any possible necessity for either,—as lovely a picture as all those coasts could show.
Her long hair, dark with the water, hung in wet rats' tails on her slim white shoulders, which were just flushed with the nip of the sea. The clear drops sparkled on her pretty brown face like pearls and diamonds, and seemed loth to fall. Her little pink toes curled up out of the creamy wash to look at her.
"Where are your things?" asked the boy.
"In the cave yonder."
"Go and get dressed," he said, looking down at her with as little thought of unseemliness as she herself.
"Not at all. I'm quite warm."
"Well, I'm going to dry my things," and he began to wriggle out of his knitted blue guernsey. "Also," he said, following up a previous train of thought, "let me tell you there are devil-fish about here. One came up with one of our pots yesterday."
"Pooh! I killed one with a stick this morning. They're only baby ones; comme ca," and she measured about two inches between her little pink palms.
"This one was so big," and he indicated a yard or so, between the flapping sleeves of the guernsey in which his head was still involved.
"I don't believe you, Phil Carre," she said with wide eyes. "You're just trying to frighten me."
"All right! Just you wait till one catches hold of your leg when you're out swimming all by yourself. If I'd known you'd be so silly I'd never have taught you."
"You didn't teach me. You only dared me in and showed me how."
"Well then! And if I hadn't you'd never have learnt."
"Maybe I would. Someone else would have taught me."
And to that she had no answer. For if the good God intends a man to drown it is going against His will to try to thwart him by learning to swim,—such, at all events, was the very prevalent belief in those parts, and is to this day.
As soon as the boy was free of his clothes, he spread them neatly to the sun on a big boulder, and with a whoop went skipping over the stones into the water, till he fell full length with a splash and began swimming vigorously seawards. The small girl sat watching him for a minute and then skipped in after him, and the cormorants ceased their diving and the seagulls their wheelings and mewings, and all gathered agitatedly on a rock at the farther side of the bay, and wondered what such shouts and laughter might portend.
But suddenly the boy broke off short in his sporting, and paddled noiselessly, with his face straining seawards.
"What is it then, Phil? Has the big pieuvre got hold of your leg?" cried the girl, as she splashed up towards him.
He raised a dripping hand to silence her, and while the dark eyes were still widening with surprise, a dull boom came rolling along the wind over the cliffs of Brecqhou.
"A gun," said the boy, and turned and headed swiftly for the shore.
"Wait for me, Phil!" cried the girl, as she skipped over the stones like a sunbeam and disappeared into the black mouth of the cave.
"Quick then!" as he wrestled with his half-dried clothes, still sticky with the sea-water.
He was fixing the iron bar, which served as anchor for his boat, under a big boulder, when she joined him, still buttoning her skirt, and they sped together up the hazardous path which led up to La Fregondee. He gave her a helping hand now and again over difficult bits, but they had no breath for words. They reached the top panting like hounds, but the boy turned at once through the fields to the left and never stopped till he dropped spent on the short turf of the headland by Saut de Juan.
"Ah!" he gasped, and sighed with vast enjoyment, and the girl stared wide-eyed.
Down Great Russel, between them and Herm, two great ships were driving furiously, with every sail at fullest stretch and the white waves boiling under their bows. Farther out, beyond the bristle of reefs and islets which stretch in a menacing line to the north of Herm, another stately vessel was manoeuvring in advance of—
"One—two—three—four—five—six," counted the boy, "and each one as big as herself."
Every now and again came the sullen boom of her guns and answering booms from her pursuers.
"Six to one!" breathed the boy, quivering like a pointer. "And she's terrible near the rocks. Bon Gyu! but she'll be on them! She'll be on them sure," and he jumped up and danced in his excitement. "You can't get her through there!—Ay-ee!" and he funnelled his hands to shout a warning across three miles of sea in the teeth of a westerly breeze.
"Silly!" said the girl from the turf where she sat with her hands round her knees. "They can't hear you!"
"Oh, guyabble! Oh, bon Gyu!" and he stood stiff and stark, as the great ship narrowed as she turned towards them suddenly, and came threading her way through the bristling rocks, in a way that passed belief and set the hair in the nape of the boy's neck crawling with apprehension.
"Platte Boue!" he gasped, as she came safely past that danger. "Grand Amfroque!" and he began to dance.
"Founiais!" and she came out into Great Russel with a glorious sweep, shook herself proudly to the other tack, and went foaming past the Equetelees and the Grands Bouillons, swept round the south of Jethou, and began short tacking for Peter Port in wake of her consorts.
Since the guns, the drama out there had unfolded itself in silence, and silence was unnatural when such goings-on were toward. The small boy danced and waved his arms and cheered frantically. The ships beyond the reefs were streaming away discomfited to the north-east, in the direction of La Hague.
The small girl nursed her knees, and watched, with only partial understanding of it all in her looks.
"Why are you so crazy about it?" she asked.
"Because we've won, you silly!"
"Of course! We're English. But all the same we ran away."
"We're English"—and there was a touch of the true insular pride in her voice, but they spoke in French, and not very good French at that, and scarce a word of English had one of them at that time.
"Pooh! Three little corvettes from two men-o'-war and four big frigates! And let me tell you there's not many men could have brought that ship through those rocks like that. I wonder who it is? A Guernsey man for sure!" [A very similar story is told of Sir James Saumarez in the Crescent off Vazin Bay in Guernsey. His pilot was Jean Breton, who received a large gold medal for the feat.]
His war-dance came to a sudden stop with the fall of a heavy hand on his shoulder, and he jerked round in surprise. It was a stout, heavily-built man in blue cloth jacket and trousers, and a cap such as no Island man ever wore in his life, and a sharp ratty face such as no Island man would have cared to wear.
"Now, little corbin, what is it you are dancing at?" he asked, in a tongue that was neither English nor French nor Norman, but an uncouth mixture of all three, and in a tone which was meant to imply joviality but carried no conviction to the boy's mind.
But the boy had weighed him up in a moment and with one glance, and he was too busy thinking to speak.
"Come then! Art dumb?" and he shook the boy roughly.
"Mon dou donc, yes, that is it!" said Carette, dancing round them with apprehension for her companion. "He's dumb."
"He was shouting loud enough a minute ago," and he pinched the boy's ear smartly between his big thumb and finger.
"It's only sometimes," said Carette lamely. "You let him go and maybe he'll speak."
"See, my lad," said the burly one, letting go the boy's ear but keeping a grip on his shoulder. "I'm not going to harm you. All I want to know is whether you've seen any sizable ships banging about here lately.—You know what I mean!"
The small boy knew perfectly what he meant, and his lip curled at thought of being mistaken for the kind of boy who would open his mouth to a preventive man. He shook his head, however.
"Not, eh? Well, you know the neighbourhood anyway. Take me to the Boutiques."
"The Boutiques?" cried Carette.
"Ah! The Boutiques. You know where the Boutiques are, I can see."
They both knew the Boutiques. It would be a very small child on Sercq who did not know that much. The small boy knew, too, that both the Boutiques and the Gouliot caves had nooks and niches in their higher ranges, boarded off and secured with stout padlocked doors, where goods were stored for transfer to the cutters and chasse-marees as occasion offered, just as they were in the great warehouses of the Guernsey merchants. He had vague ideas that so long as the goods were on dry land the preventive men could not touch them, but of that he was not perfectly certain. These troublesome Customs' officers were constantly having new powers conferred on them. He had overheard the men discussing them many a time, and the very fact of this man trying to find the Boutiques was in itself suspicious. But the man was a stranger. That was evident from his uncouth talk and foolish ways, and the small boy's mind was made up in a moment.
Carette was watching anxiously, with a wild idea in her mind that if she flung herself at the preventive man's feet and held them tightly, the boy might wriggle away and escape.
But the boy had a brighter scheme than that. He turned and led the way inland, and dropped a wink to Carette as he did so, and her anxious little brain jumped to the fact that the stranger was to be misled.
Her sharpened faculties perceived that the best way to second his efforts was to pretend a vehement objection to his action and so lend colour to it.
"Don't you do it, Phil!" she cried, dancing round them. "Don't you do it, or I'll never speak to you again as long as I live."
Phil marched steadily on with the heavy hand gripping his shoulder.
"Sensible boy!" said the preventive man.
As everyone knows, the Boutiques lie hid among the northern cliffs by the Eperquerie. But, once lose sight of the sea, amid the tangle of wooded lanes which traverse the Island, and, without the guidance of the sun, it needs a certain amount of familiarity with the district to know exactly where one will come out.
The small boy stolidly led the way past Beaumanoir, and Carette wailed like a lost soul alongside. Jeanne Falla looked out as they passed and called out to know what was happening.
"This wicked man is making Phil show him the way to the Boutiques," cried Carette, and the wicked man chuckled, and so did Jeanne Falla.
They passed the cottages at La Vauroque. The women and children crowded the doors.
"What is it then, Carette?" they cried. "Where is he taking him?"
"He is making him show him the way to the Boutiques," cried Carette, crumpling her pretty face into hideous grimaces by way of explanation.
"Oh, my good!" cried the women, and the procession passed on along the road that led past Dos d'Ane. The steamy haze lay thicker here. The wind drove it past in slow coils, but its skirts seemed to cling to the heather and bracken as though reluctant to loose its hold on the Island.
They passed down a rough rock path with ragged yellow sides, and stood suddenly looking out, as it seemed, on death.
In front and all around—a fathomless void of mist, which curled slowly past in thin white whorls. The only solid thing—the raw yellow path on which they stood. It stretched precariously out into the void and seemed to rest on nothing. From somewhere down below came the hoarse low growl of sea on rock. Otherwise the stillness of death.—The Coupee!
Sorely trying to stranger nerves at best of times was that wonderful narrow bone of a neck which joins Little Sercq to Sercq,—six hundred feet long, three hundred feet high, four feet wide at its widest at that time, and in places less, and with nothing between the crumbling edges of the path and the growling death below but ragged falls of rock, almost sheer on the one side and little better on the other. On a clear day the unaccustomed eye swam with the welter of the surf below on both sides at once; the unaccustomed brain reeled at thought of so precarious a passage; and the unaccustomed body, unless tenanted by a fool, or possessed of nerves beyond the ordinary or of no nerves at all, turned as a rule at the sight and thanked God for the feel of solid rock behind, or else went humbly down on hands and knees and so crossed in safety with lowered crest.
To the eyes of the rat-faced man the path seemed but a wavering line in the wavering mist. His hand gripped the boy's shoulder, grateful for something solid to hang on to. And gripped it the harder when Carette skipped past them and disappeared along that knife-edge of a dancing path.
"Come on!" said the boy,—the first words he had spoken.
But the preventive man's eyes were still fixed in horror on the place where the girl had vanished.
"Come on!" said the boy again, and shook himself free, and went on along the path.
"Aren't you coming?" he asked,—a shadow in the mist.
But the preventive man was feeling cautiously backwards for solid rock.
"Then I can't show you the Boutiques," said the boy, and passed out of sight into the mist.
HOW I WENT THE FIRST TIME TO BRECQHOU
Are the later days ever quite as full of the brightness and joy of life as the earlier ones? Wider, and deeper, and fuller both of joys and sorrows they are, but the higher lights hold also the darker shadows, and experience teaches, as Jeanne Falla used to say—"N'y a pas de rue sans but." Neither lights nor shadows last, and the only thing one may count upon with absolute certainty is the certainty of change.
But in the earlier days one's horizon is limited, and so long as it is clear and bright one does not trouble about possible storms;—wherein, I take it, the spirit of childhood is wiser than the spirit of the grown, until the latter learn that wisdom which men like my grandfather call faith, and so draw near again to the trustful simplicity of the earlier days.
Altogether bright and very clear are my recollections of those days when Carette and I, and Krok whenever he could manage it, roamed about that western coast of our little Island, till we knew every rock and stone, and every nook and cranny of the beetling cliffs, and were on such friendly terms with the very gulls and cormorants that we knew many of them by sight, and were on visiting terms, so to speak, though perhaps never very acceptable visitors, among their homes and families.
Krok knew it all like a book, only better; for actual books were of late acquaintance with him, and these other things he had studied, in his way, for half his life.
In the hardest working life there are always off times, and Krok's Sundays, outside the simple necessities of farm life, had always been his own. His one enjoyment had been to scramble and poke and peer—without knowledge, indeed, or even understanding, save such as came of absorbed watchfulness, but still with the most perfect satisfaction—among the hidden things of nature which lay in pools, and under stones, and away in dark caves where none but he had been.
And all these things he introduced us to with very great enjoyment, revealing to us at a stroke, as it were, the wonders which had taken him years to find out for himself.
With him we lay gazing into the wonderful rock gardens under the Autelets when the tide was out;—watching the phosphorescent seaweeds flame in the darker pools; seeking out the haunts where the sea anemones lay in thousands, waving their long pale arms hungrily for food and closing them hopefully on anything that offered, even on one's fingers, which they presently rejected as unsatisfying.
He would silently point out to us the beauties of the sea ferns and flowers, and the curious ways and habits of the tiny creeping things and fishes, and we three would lie by the hour, flat on the rocks, chin in fist, watching the comedies and tragedies and the strange chancy life of the pools. And they were absorbing enough to keep even Carette quiet, although her veins seemed filled with quicksilver and her life went on springs.
And at times he would take us up the cliffs, to points of vantage from which we could look down into the sea-birds' nests and watch them tending their young.
And—greatest wonder of all, and only when we had solemnly promised, finger on lip, never to disclose the matter under any conditions to anyone whatsoever—he led us right into the granite cliffs themselves, sometimes through dark mouths that gaped on the shore, sometimes by narrow clefts half-way up, sometimes down strange rough chimneys from the heights above.
Hand in hand we would creep, stumbling and slipping, clinging tightly to one another for protection against ghosts, spirits, and fairies, in all of which we half believed in spite of all wiser teaching, and never daring to speak above a whisper for fear of we knew not what, but always in mortal terror of losing Krok, and so being left to wander till we died, or fell into some, dark pool and were drowned, or, more horrible still, were caught by the tide and driven back step by step into far dark corners till the end came.
I can hear, now as I write, the uncouth croak from which Krok got his name, but which to us, in those awesome places, was sweeter than music. And I can hear the beating of his stick on the rocks to guide us in the dark,—one blow to tell us where he was; two, to look out for difficulties; three, water. But at times he would bring with him a torch made of tar and grease and rope, and then we would go in greater comfort and wax almost bold at times, though never without scared glances over our shoulders at the black mouths which gaped hungrily for us at every turn and corner.
We were, I believe, the very first—of our time at all events—to penetrate into some of the caves which have since become a wonder to many, and if we did not understand how very wonderful they really were, they were to us treasure-houses of delight and a never-failing enjoyment.
Some of the higher caves were used as secret storehouses for goods which a far-away Government—with which our people had little to do and which did not greatly concern them—chose to embargo in various Ways. And it was in the secret shipment of these to various ports in England and France that the special—trade of the Islands largely consisted. So absolutely free of all restrictions had our people always been, indeed so specially privileged in this way above all other lands, that it took many years to bring them under what they looked upon as the yoke. And some of them never could, or would, understand why it should be considered unlawful for them to do what their fathers had always done without let or hindrance. Whatever the outside world might say, they saw no wrong, except on the part of those who tried to stop them, and whom therefore they set themselves to circumvent by every means in their power, and were mightily successful therein. Moreover, the Island spirit resented somewhat this interference in their affairs by what was, after all, a conquered people. For the privileges of the Islands were granted them originally by the sovereigns of their own race who captured England from the Saxon kings. We of the Islands never have been conquered. At Hastings we were on the winning side, and we have been a race to ourselves ever since, though loyal always to that great nation which sprang like a giant out of the loins of the struggle.
Foremost among the free-traders were Carette's father and brothers on Brecqhou, whereby, as I have said, Carette spent much of her time on Sercq with her aunt Jeanne Falla, which was all for her good, and much to her and my enjoyment.
When, by rights of flotsam and jetsam and gift and trover, she became the proud possessor of her little yellow boat, the day rarely passed without her flitting across to spend part of it at Beaumanoir or Belfontaine, unless the weather bottled her up on Brecqhou.
One time, however, is very clear in my memory, when two whole days passed, and fine days too, without any sign of her, and Aunt Jeanne Falla knew nothing more of her than I did.
My grandfather was out fishing in our smaller boat, and Krok was bringing home vraic in the larger, but it was not lack of a boat that could keep me from news of Carette. I scrambled down the rocks by Saut de Juan, strapped my guernsey and trousers on to my head with my belt, and swam across through the slack of the tide without much difficulty.
As I drew in to the Gale de Jacob I saw the yellow cockleshell hanging from its beam, and, between fear and wonder as to what could have taken Carette, I scrambled in among the boulders and clambered quickly up the back stairs into Brecqhou.
The Le Marchants discouraged visitors, and I had never been ashore there except on the outer rocks after vraic. Carette never talked much about her home affairs, and except that the house was built of wood I knew very little about it. When I reached the top and stood on Beleme cliff, the sight of Sercq as I had never seen it before filled me with a very great delight. From Bec du Nez at one end to Moie de Bretagne at the other, every cleft and chasm in the long line of cliffs was bared to my sight. Some stood naked, shoulder high; and some were clothed with softest green to their knees. Here were long green slides almost to the water's edge; and here grim heaps of black rock flung together and awry in wildest confusion.
Up above was the work of man, the greenery of fields and trees, soft and beautiful in the sunshine, but these reached only to the cliff edge. Wherever the land had fallen away, the wind and the sea had worked their will, and the scarred and bitten rocks bore witness to it. The black tumbled masses of the Gouliot were right before me, and in the gloomy channel between, the tide, through which I had come, writhed and rolled like a wounded snake, even at the slack.
I had seen Sercq from the outside many times before, but only from water level, which limits one's view, though the towering cliffs are always wondrous fine, and more striking perhaps from below than from above. But Brecqhou always cut the view on one side or the other, whereas now, for the first time, I saw the whole western side of the Island at a glance, and, boy as I was, it impressed me deeply and made me swell with pride. For, you see, thanks to my grandfather and my mother and Krok, my eyes were opening, even then, to the wonders and beauties among which I lived.
I turned at last and tramped through the heather and ferns and the breast-high golden-rod, stumbling among the rabbit holes with which the ground was riddled, towards the house which stood in a hollow in the centre of the Island. And I stared hard at it, for I had never seen the like before.
It was not like our Sercq houses, granite-built, thick-walled, low in the sides and high in the roof. It stood facing Sercq—that is, with its back to the south and west—and the far end of it seemed to start out of the ground and come sloping up to the front, till, above the doorway, it was perhaps ten feet high. As a matter of fact cunning advantage had been taken of a dip in the ground, and the house, built against the inside of the hollow and sloping very gradually upwards, left nothing for the wild winter gales from the south-west to lay hold of. The wildest wind that ever blew leaped off the edge of the hollow and went shrieking up the black sky, but never struck down at the squat gray house below. It was a good-sized house, wide-spread, and all on one floor, and though it was only built of wood it looked very strong and lasting, and to my thinking very comfortable. Coming towards it from the front, it looked as though a great ship had run head on into the hollow and sunk partly into the ground, leaving her stern high and dry. For the front was in fact built up of fragments of an East Indiaman, and the windows were her bulging stern windows, carved and ornamented, though now all weathered to an ashen gray, and on each side of the doorway ran a stout carved wooden railing which had come from a ship's poop.
When I had done staring at all this, I went rather doubtfully to the door, with my eyes playing about all round, for the Le Marchants, as I have said, did not favour visitors, and I was not sure of my welcome.
There seemed no one about, however, and at last I summoned courage to knock gently on the door, which was of thick, heavy wood of a kind quite new to me, and had once been polished.
"Hello, then! Who's there?" said a voice inside.
I waited, but no one came. It was no good talking through a door, so I lifted the latch doubtfully and put in my head.
It was a large wide room, larger than Jeanne Falla's kitchen at Beaumanoir, and though there was no fern-bed—and it was the first living-room I had seen without one—there was a look of great warmth and comfort about it. There was a fire of driftwood smouldering in a wide clay chimneyplace, and a sweet warm smell of wood smoke in the air. There were a number of wooden chairs, and a table, and several great black oaken chests curiously carved, and a great rack hanging from the roof, on which I saw hams, and guns, and tarpaulin hats, and oars, and coils of rope. The far end of the room was dark to one coming in out of the sunshine, but, in some way, and I can hardly tell how, it seemed to me that when the winter gales screamed over Brecqhou that would be a very comfortable room to live in.
I could still see no one, till the voice cried out at sight of me—
"Now, who in the name of Satan are you, and what do you want here?" And then, in a ship's bunk at the far end of the room, I saw a face lifted up and scowling at me.
It was the face of a young man, and but for the black scowl on it, and a white cloth tied round above the scowl, it might have been good-looking, for all the Le Marchants were that.
"I'm Phil Carre," I faltered. "I've come to look for Carette."
And at that, Carette's voice came, like a silver pipe, from some hidden place—
"Phil, mon p'tit, is that you? I'm here, but you mustn't come in. I'm in bed. I've got measles. Father's gone across to see Aunt Jeanne about it."
"I was afraid you'd got drowned, or hurt, or something," I said. "If it's only measles—"
"Just that—only measles, and it doesn't hurt the least bit."
"How long will it be before you're better?"
"Oh, days and days, they say."
"Oh!... And have you got it too?" I asked of the man in the bunk.
And he looked at me for a minute, and then laughed, and said, "Yes, I've got it too. Don't you come near me," for I had come into the room at sound of Carette's voice, and he looked very much nicer when he laughed.
"Oh—Hilaire!" cried the unseen Carette. "What a great big—"
"Ta-ta!" laughed her brother. "Little yellow heels should keep out of sight,"—which was not meant in rudeness, but only, according to an Island saying, that little people should not express opinions on matters which don't concern them.
Before he could say more, the door behind me swung open and a surprised voice cried—
"Diantre! What is this? And who are you, mon gars?" and I was facing Carette's father, Jean Le Marchant, of whose doings I had heard many a wild story on Sercq.
He was a very striking-looking man, tall and straight, and well-built. His face was keen as a hawk's, and tanned and seamed and very much alive. His eyes were very sharp and dark, under shaggy white eyebrows. They seemed to go through me like a knife, and made me wish I had not come. His hair was quite white, and was cut so short that it bristled all over, and added much to his fierce wide-awake look, as though he scented dangers all round and was ready to tackle them with a firm hand. He had a long white moustache and no other hair on his face.
While I was still staring at him, Carette's voice came from its hiding-place—
"It is Phil Carre come to look for me, father. He is my good friend. You will give him welcome."
"Ah-ha! Mademoiselle commands," and the keen face softened somewhat and broke into a smile, which was still somewhat grim. "Monsieur Phil Carre, I greet you! I can hardly say you are welcome, as I do not care for visitors. But since you came to get news of the little one, I promise not to kill and eat you, as you seem to expect."
"Merci, monsieur!" I faltered. For, from all accounts, he was quite capable of the first, though the second had not actually suggested itself to me.
"How did you come? I did not see any boat."
"By the Gale de Jacob. I swam across."
"Ma foi! Swam across! You have courage, mon gars;" and I saw that I had risen in his estimation.
"He swims like a fish and he has no fear," chirped Carette from her hiding-place.
"All the same, bon Dieu, the Gouliot is no pond," and he looked through me again. "How old are you, mon gars?"
"Thirteen next year."
"And what are you going to make of yourself when you grow up?"
"I don't know."
"For boys of spirit there are always openings," he said, and I knew very well what he meant, and shook my head.
"Ah, so! You are not free-traders at Belfontaine," he laughed. At which I shook my head again, feeling a trifle ashamed of our uncommon virtue, which could not, I thought, commend itself to so notorious a defier of preventive law.
"All the same, he is a fine man, your grandfather, and a seaman beyond most. You will follow the sea?—or are you for the farming?"
"The sea sure, but it will be in the trading, I expect."
"It is larger than the farming, but not very large after all."
"When will I be able to see Carette, m'sieur?"
"Not for ten days or so. As soon as she is well enough I shall carry her over to Mistress Falla's. Then you can see her."
"Thank you, m'sieur. I think I will go now."
"Going back same way?"
"I'll see you off. Sure you can manage it?"
"Oh yes. Good-bye, Carette!" as he moved towards the door.
"Good-bye, Phil! I'll be at Aunt Jeanne's just as soon as I can," piped Carette, out of the darkness of her inner room.
And Jean Le Marchant led me back across the Island to the Gale de Jacob, and stood watching me from Beleme till I scrambled in among the rocks at the foot of Saut de Juan.
That was the first time I visited Carette's home and met her father, though her brothers I had seen at times on Sercq, viewing them from a distance with no little awe on account of the many strange stories told about them. They were not in the habit of mixing much with the Island men, however. They kept their own counsel and their own ways, and this aloofness did not make for good comradeship when they did come across.
It was years before I set foot on Brecqhou again.
These brief glimpses of those bright early days I have set down that you might know us as we were. For myself I delight to recall them, but if I were to tell you one quarter of all our doings and sayings when we were boy and girl together, with but one will—and that Carette's—it would make a volume passing bounds.
And it is possible that my recollection of these things is coloured somewhat with the knowledge and feeling of the later times, for a man may no more fully enter again into the thoughts of his childhood than he may enter full grown into his childhood's clothes. I have told them, however, just as they are present in my own mind, and they are at all events true.
HOW WE BEGAN TO SPREAD OUR WINGS
Ten years make little change in the aspect of Sercq, nor ten times ten for that matter, though the learned men tell us that the sea and wind and weather take daily toll of the little land and are slowly and surely wearing it away. It has not changed much in my time, however, and I have no doubt it will still stand firm for those who are to follow.
But ten years in the life of a boy and girl—ten years, which about double in number those that have gone, and increase experiences tenfold—these indeed bring mighty changes.
In those ten years I grew from boy to man, and Carette Le Marchant grew into a gracious and beautiful woman, and—we grew a little apart.
That was inevitable, I suppose, and in the natural course of things, for even two saplings planted side by side will, as they grow into trees, be wider apart at the top than they are down below. And perhaps it is right, for if they grew too close together both would suffer. Growth needs space for full expansion if it is not to be lop-sided. And boy and girl days cannot last for ever.
Those ten years taught me much—almost all that I ever learned, until the bitterer experiences of life brought it all to the test, and sifted out the chaff, and left me knowledge of the grain.
And once again I would say that to my mother, Rachel Carre, and to my grandfather and Krok, and to William Shakespeare and John Bunyan and to my grandfather's great Bible, I owe in the first place all that I know. All those books he made me read very thoroughly, and parts of them over and over again, till I knew them almost by heart. And at the time I cannot say that this was much to my liking, but later, when I came to understand better what I read, no urging was needed, for they were our only books, except Foxe's Martyrs, in which I never found any very great enjoyment, though Krok revelled in it. And I suppose that a man might pass through life, and bear himself well in it, and never feel lonely, with those books for his companions.
I should not, however, omit mention of M. Rousselot, the schoolmaster, who took a liking to me because of the diligence which was at first none of my own, but only the outward showing of my mother's and grandfather's strict oversight. But, as liking begets liking, I came to diligence for M. Rousselot's sake also, and finally for the sake of learning itself. And also I learned no little from Mistress Jeanne Falla, who had the wisest head and the sharpest tongue and the kindest heart in all Sercq.
But I was never a bookworm, though the love of knowledge and the special love of those books I have named is with me yet.
"Whatever you come to be, Phil, though it be only a farmer-fisherman, you will be all the better man and the happier for knowing all you can," my grandfather would say to me, when we grew into closer fellowship with my growing years. "It is not what a man is in position but what he is in himself that makes for his happiness. And I think," he would add thoughtfully, "that the more a man understands of life and the more he thinks upon it—in fact, the more he has inside himself—the less he cares for the smaller things outside." And I believe he was right.
He taught me all he knew concerning the farm and the land and the crops, and taught me not by rule of thumb, but showed me the why and wherefore of things, and opened the eyes of my understanding to notice the little things of nature as well as the great, which many people, I have found, pass all through their lives without ever seeing at all.
The same with the fishing. He and Krok gave me all they had to give; and, without vainglory, but simply as grateful testimony to their goodness, I think that at two-and-twenty I knew as much as any of my age in Sercq, and more than most. I knew too that there were things I did not know, and did not care to know, and for that, and all the higher things, I have to thank my dear mother and my grandfather.
But growth in its very nature requires a widening sphere. Contentment comes of experience and satisfaction, and youth, to arrive at that, must needs have the experience, but craves it as a rule for itself alone.
Sercq is but a dot on the map, and not indeed that on most, and outside it lay all the great world, teeming with wonders which could only be seen by seeking them.
Up to the time I was sixteen, and Carette fourteen, we were comrades of the sea and shore and cliffs, and very great friends. Then Aunt Jeanne Falla insisted on her being sent to school in Peter Port—a grievous blow to us both, for which we lived to thank her. For Carette, clever as she was by nature, and wonderfully sharp at picking things up, had no inducements at home towards anything beyond bodily growth, except, indeed, when she was at Beaumanoir with Aunt Jeanne, and those times were spasmodic and were countered by her returns to the free and easy life on Brecqhou. And Aunt Jeanne loved her dearly and knew what was best for her, and so she insisted, and Carette went weeping to Peter Port to the Miss Maugers' school in George Road.
Her going made a great gap in my life, and the outer things began to call on me. My ideas respecting them were dim and distorted enough, as I afterwards found, but their call was all the more insistent for that. Lying flat on Tintageu, chin on fist, I would watch the white-sailed ships pushing eagerly to that wonderful outer world and long to be on them. There were great ships carrying wine and brandy to the West Indies, where the people were all black, and the most wonderful plants grew, and the palm trees. And to Canada and Newfoundland, where the great icebergs came down through the mist. And some carrying fish to the Mediterranean, whose shores were all alive with wonders, to say nothing of the chances of seeing some fighting on the way, for England was at war with France and Spain, and rumours of mighty doings reached us at times. And some taking tea and tobacco to Hamburg and Emden, where the people were all uncouth foreigners who spoke neither French nor English and so must offer mighty change from Sercq.
Then there were multitudes of smaller vessels, sloops and chasse-marees, bound on shorter and still more profitable, if more dangerous voyages. Wherever they were going, on whatsoever errand bent, it was into the great outside world, and they all cried, "Come!"
Those shorter flights to the nearer shores had a special appeal of their own, and the stories one heard among one's fellows—of the wild midnight runs into Cornish creeks and Devon and Dorset coves, of encounters now and again with the revenue men, of exhilarating flights and narrow escapes from Government cutters—these but added zest to the traffic in one's imagination which, in actual fact, might possibly have been found wanting.
The moral aspects of the free-trade business did not trouble me in the slightest in those days. It was the old-established and natural trade of the Islands, for which they had evidently been set just where they were with that special end in view. We looked upon it as very much akin to the running of cargoes into blockaded ports—a large profit for a large risk and no ill-feeling, though, indeed, at times, human nature would out, and attempts at the enforcement of laws in the making of which we had no hand, would result in collisions, and occasionally in the shedding of blood. Incidents of that kind were, of course, to be regretted, and were certainly not sought for by our Island men, though doubtless at times the wilder spirits would seek reprisal for the thwarting of their plans. But when even one of the great men in England, who made these laws against free-trading, could tell his fellow-lawmakers that the mind of man never could conceive of it as at all equalling in turpitude those acts which are breaches of clear moral virtue—how should it be expected that the parties chiefly interested should take a stricter view of the matter?
In course of time my longing for the wider life found expression, first in looks, and at last in words, which, indeed, were not needed, for my mother had seen and understood long before I spoke.
And when my words found vent she was ready for them, and I learned how firmly set upon her way may be a woman whom one had always looked upon as gentlest of the gentle and retiring beyond most.
"Not that, Phil, not that. Anything but that. I would sooner see you in your grave than a free-trader,"—which seemed to me an extreme view to take of the matter, but I know now that she had her reasons, and that they were all-sufficient for her.
My grandfather set his face against it also, though, indeed, my mother's strong feeling would have been enough for me. He, however, being a man, understood better, perhaps, what was in me, for he had been that way himself, and he set himself to further my craving.
The only other openings were in the legitimate trading to foreign parts, or service on a King's ship, or on a privateer, which latter business had come to be of very great importance in the Islands. And between those three there could not be any question which my mother and grandfather would favour. For the perils of the sea are considerable in themselves, and are never absent from any mother-heart in the Islands. But add to them the harshness of the King's service and the possibilities of sudden death at the hands of the King's enemies, and there was no doubt as to which way the mother-heart would incline.
For myself, so hungry was I for wider doings, I would have put my neck under the yoke sooner than not go at all, and when they saw that spread my wings I must, they consented to my shipping on one of the Guernsey traders to foreign parts, and my heart was lighter than it had been for many a day.
I was eighteen, tall and strong, and, thanks to my grandfather and Krok, a capable seaman, so far as the limited opportunities of our little Island permitted, and the rest would come easily, for all their teaching had given me a capacity to learn.
That first parting from home and my mother and grandfather and Krok was a terrible wrench, full as I was of the wonderful world I was going out to see. I had never been away from them before, and the sight of my mother's woeful attempts at cheerfulness came near to breaking me down, and remained with me for many a day. In my eagerness for the wider life I had forgotten the hole my going must make in hers. And yet I do not think she would have had me stay, for she was as wise as she was gentle, and she ever set other people's wishes before her own. She had borne a man-child, and the inevitable Island penalty of parting with him she bore without a murmur, though the look on her face told its own tale at times.
"Change of pasture is good for young calves," was Jeanne Falla's characteristic comment when they were discussing the matter one evening. And when my mother, in a moment of weakness, urged the likelihood, if not the absolute certainty, of my never returning alive, Aunt Jeanne's trenchant retort, "Go where you can, die where you must," put an end to the discussion and helped me to my wishes.
My grandfather procured me a berth as seaman on the barque Hirondelle of Peter Port, Nicolle master, and in her I made three voyages—to the West Indies, then on to Gaspe in the St. Lawrence, and thence to the Mediterranean. That was our usual round, and what with contrary winds, and detentions in various ports, and the necessity of waiting and dodging the enemy's cruisers and privateers, the voyages were long ones, and not lacking in incident.
My story, however, is not concerned with them, except incidentally, and I will refer to them as little as possible.
My grandfather went across with me to Peter Port the first time. He had known George Nicolle many years, and felt me safe in his hands, and his confidence was well placed. The Hirondelle was a comfortable ship, and I never heard a real word of complaint aboard of her. Growling and grumbling there was occasionally, of course, or some of the older hands would never have been happy, but it amounted to nothing, and there was no real ground for it.
She was still only loading when we boarded her, and it was three days later before we cast off and headed up Little Russel for the open sea.
HOW I BEARDED LIONS IN THEIR DENS
That first night in Peter Port, when my grandfather had wrung my hand for the last time, looking at me with prayers in his eyes, and bidding me do my duty and keep clean, and had put off for home in his boat, and work was over for the day and I my own master, I decided on making a call which was much in my heart, and to which I had been looking forward for days past.
I cleaned myself up, and made myself as smart as possible, and set off for the Miss Maugers' school in George Road.
It was not until I saw the house that doubts began to trouble me as to the fitness of my intention. It was a much larger house than any I had ever been in, and there was a straightness and primness about it which somehow did not suggest any very warm welcome to a young sailorman, whose pride in his first appointment and in the spreading of his wings for his first flight underwent sudden shrinkage.
It took me a good half-hour's tramping to and fro, past the house and back again, eyeing it carefully each time as though I was trying to discover the best way to break into it, to screw my courage up to the point. There were two windows on each side of the door and two rows of five above, fourteen in all, and every window had its little curtains rigged up exactly alike to a hair's-breadth. If any one of them had been an inch awry I should have known it, and would have felt less of an intruder.
I had not seen Carette for over six months, and the last time she was home most of my time, when we met, had been spent in discovering and puzzling over the changes that had come over her. These ran chiefly towards a sobriety of behaviour which was not natural to her, and which seemed to me assumed for my special benefit and tantalisation, and I was expecting every minute to see the sober cloak cast aside and the laughing Carette of earlier days dance out into the sunshine of our old camaraderie.
Aunt Jeanne Falla's twinkling eyes furthered the hope. But it was not realised. Carette unbent, indeed, and we were good friends as ever, but there was always about her that new cloak of staidness and ladylike polish which became her prettily enough indeed, but which I could very well have done without. For, you see, in all our doings hitherto, she had always looked up to me as leader, even when she twirled my boyish strength about her finger and made me do her will. And now, though I was bigger and stronger than ever, she had, in some ways, gone beyond me. She was, in fact, seeing the world, such as it was in Guernsey in those days, and it made me feel more than ever how small a place Sercq was, and more than ever determined to see the world also.
I warped myself up to Miss Mauger's green front door at last and gave a valiant rap of the knocker, and hung on to it by sheer force of will to keep myself from running away when I had done it. And when a maid in a prim white cap opened the door, I had lost my tongue, and stood staring at her till she smiled encouragingly, as though she thought I might have come to ask her out for a walk.
"I've come to see Carette—Ma'm'zelle Le Marchant, I mean," I stammered, very red and awkward.
"If you'll come in, I'll tell Miss Mauger," she smiled; and I stepped inside, and was shown into one of the front rooms with the very straight curtains. The room inside was very stiff and straight also. It occurred to me that if all the other rooms were like it Carette must have found them a very great change from Brecqhou. Perhaps it was living among these things that had such an effect upon her that she could not shake it off when she came home for the holidays. The stiff, straight chairs offered me no invitation to be seated, and I stood waiting in the middle of the room. Then the door opened, and a little elderly lady came in, and saluted me very formally with a curtsey bow which rather upset me, for no one had ever done such a thing to me before. It made me feel awkward and ill at ease.
Miss Mauger seemed to me very like her drawing-room, straight and precise and stiff. Her face reminded me somewhat of Aunt Jeanne Falla's, but lacked the kindly twinkle of the eyes which redeemed Aunt Jeanne's shrewdest and sharpest speeches. She had little fiat rows of grey curls, tight to her head, on each side of her face, for all the world like little ormer shells sticking to a stone.
"Monsieur Le Marchant?" she asked.
"No, madame—ma'm'zelle. I am Phil Carre."
"Oh!... You are not then one of Mademoiselle Le Marchant's brothers?"
"We have always been friends since we were children," I explained stumblingly, for her bright little eyes were fixed on me, through her gold-rimmed spectacles, like little gimlets, and made me feel as if I was doing something quite wrong in being there.
"Ah!" which seemed to imply that she had suspected something of the kind, and it was a good thing for Carette that she was safely removed from such companionship in the future.
"And I am going off on my first voyage to the West Indies—"
"Ah!" in a tone that seemed to say that as far as she and her house were concerned it was to be hoped I would stop there.
"And I thought I would like to see Carette again before I went—"
"Ah!... And may I ask if you have sought permission from Mademoiselle Le Marchant's relatives before making this call?"
"Permission?—To see Carette? No, madame—ma'm'zelle. I never dreamt of such a thing. Permission to see Carette! Ma fe!"
"Ah!" ... ("What a strangely innocent young man!—or is it impudent boldness?"—That was what was going on in her mind, I think, as she bored at me with the little gimlets. But she said—) "We make it an inflexible rule not to allow our young ladies to see any but their own relations, except, of course, with the special permission of their relatives or guardians."
"If I had known, I would have got a letter from Aunt Jeanne Falla, but such a thing never entered into my head for a moment."
"You know Madame Le Marchant—Miss Jeanne Falla that was?"
"Know Aunt Jeanne?—Well, I should—I mean, yes, madame,—I mean ma'm'zelle. She has known me from the day I was born."
"Ah!... And you think she would have accorded you permission to see mademoiselle?"
"Why, of course she would. She would never dream of me being in Peter Port without calling to see Carette."
She looked me through and through again, and said at last—
"If you will excuse me for a moment, I will consult with my sisters. It is a matter which concerns them also, and I should wish them to share the responsibility," and she dropped me another frigid little salute and backed out of the door.
And I felt very sorry for Carette, and did not wonder so much now at the little stiffnesses of manner I had noticed in her the last time we met.
And presently the door opened, and the little lady stole in again with the same little formal greeting, and, after looking at me till I felt cold about the neck, said, "You wish to see Mademoiselle Le Marchant?" And then I noticed that the little ormer shell curls about this little lady's face were not all gray, but mixed gray and brown, and that this little face was, if anything, still more frigidly ungracious than the last, a regular little martinet of a face, and I knew that it must be another of the Miss Maugers.
"Yes, ma'm'zelle, with your permission."
"My sister states that you are acquainted with Madame Le Marchant, of Beaumanoir, whom we used to know intimately—"
"I have known Aunt Jeanne from the day I was born," I said, perhaps a trifle vehemently, for the absurdity of all these precautions between myself and Carette began to ruffle me. In fact, I began to feel almost as though there must be some grounds for their doubts about me which I had never hitherto recognised in myself, and it made me more decided than ever to have my own way in the matter.
"My grandfather is Philip Carre, of Belfontaine," I said, with a touch of the ruffle in my voice, "and he is a great friend of Mr. Claude Gray—"
"The Quaker," she said, with a pinch of the thin little lips.
And then the door opened, and, with the usual curtsey, still another Miss Mauger joined us, and her little ormer shells were all brown, and she wore no spectacles, and the corners of her mouth were on a level with the centre, and looked as if they might on occasion even go up instead of down. She looked at me half mistrustfully, like a bird which doubts one's intentions towards its bit of plunder, and then, just like the bird, seemed to gauge my innocence of evil, and bent and whispered into her sister's gray and brown ormer shells.
"My sister informs me that Mademoiselle Le Marchant has been apprised of your visit and has expressed a desire to see you, and so—"
"Under the circumstances," said the other.
"Under the circumstances, we will make an exception from our invariable rule and permit this interview."
"On the understanding—" began the other.
"On the understanding that it is not to form a precedent—"
"And also," said the younger sister hastily, "that one of us is present."
"Certainly, that one of us is present," said the elder.
"By all means," I said, "and I am very much obliged to you. I really do not mean to eat Carette, nor even to run away with her."
"We should certainly prevent any attempt of the kind," said the elder sister severely.
They whispered together for a moment, then she shook out her prim skirts and dropped me a curtsey, and went away to fetch Carette.
"You see we have to be very strict in such matters," said the younger Miss Mauger, settling herself very gracefully on a chair so that her skirts disposed themselves in nice straight lines. "With forty young ladies under one's charge one cannot be too careful."
"I am quite sure you are very careful of them, ma'm'zelle," I said, at which she actually smiled a very little bird-like smile. "I will tell Aunt Jeanne how very careful you are next time I see her, and she will laugh and say, 'Young maids and young calves thrive best under the eyes of their mistress.'"
"I do not know much about calves"—and then the door opened and Carette came in.
She ran up to me with both hands outstretched.
"Oh, Phil, I was so afraid I was not to see you! And you are going away? How big you're getting! How long will you be away?"
This was very delightful, for I had been fearing that the little touch of stiffness, which I had experienced the last time I saw her, and which I now quite understood, might have grown out of knowledge.
"We are going first to the West Indies and then on to Canada. It may be a long time before I'm back, and I did want to see you once more before I went. I began to fear I was not going to."
"'Oh, we're very strict here, you know, and we have rules. Oh, heaps of rules! But I knew dear Miss Maddy would manage it when she knew how I wanted to see you;" and she ran up to Miss Maddy and kissed the little brown ormer shells over her ears, and Miss Maddy patted them hastily lest the tiny kiss should have set them awry.
"And how did you leave them all in Sercq? And when did you see Aunt Jeanne last? And who's taking care of my boat? And—"
"Wait!" I laughed, "or I shall forget some of them. I saw Aunt Jeanne this morning just before I left. She thought we sailed at once. She would have sent you her love, and maybe some gache, if she had known—"
"Ah, ma fe! How I wish she had known!" sighed Carette longingly, for Aunt Jeanne Falla's gache had a name all over Sercq.
"And everybody is well except old Pere Guerin, and he is cutting a new tooth, they say, and it makes him sour in the temper."
"Why, he's over ninety!" exclaimed Carette.
"Ninety-two next January. That's why he's so annoyed about it. And your boat is safe in the top nook of Port du Moulin, all covered over with sailcloth and gorse. Krok and I did it, and he will soak it for ten days before you come home, and have it all ready for you."
"The dear old Krok!"
"Oh, we have taken very great care of it, I assure you. But maybe you will be too grown-up to care for it by the time you get back."
"Perhaps!" And oddly enough—though indeed it may have been only my own thought, and without reasonable foundation—thereupon there seemed to fall between us a slight veil of distance. So that, though we talked of Sercq and of our friends there, it seemed to me that we were not quite as we had been, and I could not for the life of me tell why, nor, indeed, for certain if it were so or not.
When I was leaving, however, Carette put both her hands in mine and gave me Godspeed as heartily as I could wish, and I made my best bow to Miss Maddy, and went back to the Hirondelle well pleased at having seen Carette and at her hearty greeting and farewell, but with a little wonder and doubt at my heart as to what the final effect of all this schooling might be.
HOW WE GREW, AND GROWING, GREW APART
As I said, I am not going to waste time telling you of my three long voyages, beyond what is absolutely necessary. These lie for the most part like level plains in my memory, though not without their out-jutting points. But the heights and depths lay beyond.
Very clear to me, however, is the fact that it was ever-growing thought of Carette, more even, I am bound to confess, than thought of my mother and grandfather, that kept me clear of pitfalls which were not lacking to the unwary in those days as in these. Thought of Carette, too, that braced me to the quiet facing of odds on more than one occasion.
Our second voyage was distinguished by a whole day's fierce fighting with a French privateer off the Caicos Islands, while proceeding peacefully on our way from the newly acquired island of Trinidad to the St. Lawrence. It was my first experience of fighting, and a hot one at that. Between killed and wounded we lost five men, but the Frenchman left ten dead on our deck the first time he boarded, and eight the second, and after that did not try again. But he dogged us all the rest of that day and did his best to cripple us, until a fortunate shot from a carronade, which Master Nicolle ran out astern, nipped his foremast and set us free. I got a cut from a cutlass in the left arm, but it healed readily, and Captain Nicolle was pleased to compliment me on my behaviour. But, to tell the truth, I was so angry at the Frenchman's insolent interference with us, that I thought of nothing at the time but taking it out of him with hearty thrust and blow whenever chance offered.
On our third voyage the Hirondelle went ashore in a gale off Cape Hatteras, and Captain Nicolle and half our crew were drowned. The rest of us scrambled ashore sans everything, but were well treated, and as soon as we could travel were forwarded to New York, and in time found a ship to take us to London.
So that, on the whole, I had seen a fair amount of life and death and the larger world outside, and felt my years almost doubled from what they were when I used to lie on Tintageu and watch the white-sailed ships pressing out to the great beyond.
But the things that stand out now most clearly in my memory are the homecomings and the partings and all they meant to me, but more especially the homecomings—the eager looking forward from the moment our bows pointed homewards; the joy of seeing my mother and grandfather and dear old Krok and George Hamon—Uncle George by adoption, failing that closer relationship which Providence had denied him—sympathetic listener to all our childish troubles and kindly rescuer from endless scrapes; the biting intensity of longing to meet Carette again, and to find out how things were with her and how things were between us, a longing that taught me the meaning of heartache.
For this was how matters stood between us—at least as I saw them. Each time I came home I managed, in one way or another, to get a sight, at all events, of Carette, though in some cases little more. Twice I stormed the maiden fortress in George Road, and ran the gauntlet of the Miss Maugers with less discomfiture than on the first occasion, through Miss Maddy's sympathy and my added weight of years and experience. And once Carette was making holiday with Aunt Jeanne, and Beaumanoir saw more of me than did Belfontaine.
And my very vivid recollection of all those times is this—that Carette grew more beautiful each time I saw her, both in mind and body; that my feeling for her grew in me beyond all other growth, though the years were building me solidly; and that a fear sprang up in me at last that she was perhaps going to grow out of my reach, as she certainly was growing out of my understanding.
Each time we met her greeting was of the warmest, and had in it the recollection of those earlier days. That, I said to myself, was the real Carette.
And then there would gradually come upon us that thin veil of distance, as though the years and the growth and the experiences of life were setting us a little apart. And that, I said, was the Miss Maugers.
For my part I would have had Carette as satisfied with my sole companionship as in the days when we romped bare-legged among the pools and rocks, and woke the basking gulls and cormorants with our shouts, and dared the twisting currents with unfettered limbs and no thought of wrong. These things in all their fulness of delight were, of course, no longer possible to us. But the joyous spirit of them I would fain have retained, and I found it slipping elusively away.
We were, in fact, and inevitably, putting away the things of our childhood and becoming man and woman, with all the wider and deeper feelings incident thereto. The changes were inevitable and—Carette grew in some ways more quickly than I did. So that, whereas I had always been undisputed leader in all things, even when it was the accomplishing of her wishes, now I found myself looking up to her as something above me, possibly beyond me, something certainly to strive after with all that was in me, and without which everything else would be nothing.
Perhaps I had been inclined to take things somewhat for granted. Jeanne Falla did not fail, in due course, to tell me so, and she was a very shrewd woman and understood her kind better than any man that ever was born. Now, taking things for granted is always, and under any circumstances, but most especially where the unknown is in question, a most unwise thing to do. And what can equal for unfathomableness the workings of a woman's heart?
I had never given a thought to any other girl than Carette, unless by way of unfavourable comparison. It is true I had never come across any girl so well worth thinking about. The merry dark eyes with their deepening depths; the sweet wide mouth that flashed so readily into laughter, and set one thinking of the glad little waves and little white shells on Herm beach; the mane of dark brown hair—she wore it primly braided at the Miss Maugers'—in which gleams of sunshine seemed to have become entangled and never been able to find their way out,—these went with me through the soft seductions of the Antilles, and the more experienced beguilements of the Mediterranean, and armed me sufficiently against them all;—these also that filled with rosy light many a long hour that for my comrades was dark and tedious, and kept my heart high and strong when the times were hard and bitter.
I had wondered at times, but always pleasurably, at the very unusual amount of education Carette was getting, for it was unusual at that time and under the circumstances, so far as I understood them. But I rejoiced at it, remembering my grandfather's saying in my own case; and even when the results of it seemed to drop little veils between us, I am certain I never wished things otherwise so far as Carette was concerned, though perhaps for my own sake I might.
Jean Le Marchant of Brecqhou had prospered in his business, I knew. His six stalwart sons had been too busy contributing to that prosperity to acquire any great book-learning. They were all excellent sailors, bold free-traders, and somewhat overbearing to their fellows. It was only slowly that the idea came to me that the blood that was in them might be of a different shade and kind from that which flowed so temperately in our cool Sercq veins.
It was much thinking of Carette and her ever-growing beauty and accomplishments which brought me to that. Truly there was no girl in all Sercq like her, nor on Guernsey I would wager, and her father and brothers also were very different from the other Island men. As likely as not they were French, come over to escape the troubles. That would account for many things, and the idea, once in my mind, took firm root there. Sometime, when opportunity offered, I would ask Jeanne Falla. She would certainly know all about her own husband's family. Whether she would tell me was quite another matter.
Up to now, you see, Carette, as Carette, had sufficed, but now Carette was growing out of herself and her surroundings, and it was the why and wherefore of this that my thoughts went in search of. For if Carette grew out of her surroundings she might grow beyond me, and it behoved me to see to it, for she had grown to be a part of my life, and life without her would be a poor thing indeed.
And all these things I used to turn over and over in my heart during the sultry night-watches in the West Indies, when the heat lightnings gleamed incessantly all round the horizon, and it was too hot to sleep even when off duty; and during the grimmer watches round about Newfoundland, with the fog as thick as wool inside and outside one, and the smell of the floating bergs in the air; and most of all when we were plunging homeward as fast as we could make it, and the call of Carette drew my heart faster than my body, till my body fairly ached for sight and sound of her.
HOW AUNT JEANNE GAVE A PARTY
It was on my return from my fourth voyage—in the brig Sarnia—that things began to happen.
The voyage had been a disastrous one all through. We had bad weather right across to the Indies, and had to patch up there as best we could. It was when we were slowly making our way north that a hurricane, such as those seas know, caught us among the Bahamas and brought us to a sudden end.
The ship had been badly strained already on the voyage out, and the repairs had been none too well done. Our masts went like carrots and we were rolling helplessly in the grip of the storm, pumping doggedly but without hope against seams that gaped like a sieve, when the Providence that rules even hurricanes flung us high on a sandy coast and left us there to help ourselves.
Of our blind wanderings in that gruesome land of swamps and sand, which, when we at last escaped from it, we learned was Florida, I must not write here. It was months before such of us as were left crawled through into civilisation, and it is not too much to say that every day of the time after we parted from the wreck we carried our lives in our hands. It was sixteen months almost to a day before I set foot once more on Peter Port quay. For beggars cannot be choosers, and for the very clothes we stood in we were indebted to the kind hearts who took pity on us in the American States. We had had to wait at every point till means of forwarding us could be found, and we were welcomed in Peter Port as men returned from the dead. Within two hours I was scrambling up through the ferns and gorse above Port a la Jument to the welcome that awaited me at home.
I peeped through the window before going in, and saw the table laid for supper and my mother busy at the hearth. She turned when I entered, supposing it was my grandfather and Krok, and then with a cry she was on my neck.
Ah, how good it was to feel her there, and to find her unbroken by all the terrible waiting! She had hoped and hoped, and refused to give up hoping long after the others had done so. She told me, between smiles and tears, that each time I went she had felt that she had probably seen me for the last time. "But," she said quietly, "I left you in the good God's hands, and I believed that however it was with you it would be well."
Then my grandfather and Krok came in, and my grandfather said very fervently, "Now God be praised!" and wrung my right hand as if he could never wring it enough, while Krok wrung the other, with eyes that stood out of his head like marbles and yet were full of tears.
During supper I told them shortly what had befallen us, and I had so much to tell, and they so much to hear, that we none of us supped over well, yet none of us had probably ever enjoyed a supper like it.
Then in turn I was hungry for news, and began asking about this one and that, intending so to come presently to Carette without baring my heart. But my dear mother, guessing perhaps what was in me, gave me full measure.
"Jeanne Falla has a party to-night, my boy, and Carette is stopping with her. You should go down and give them a surprise."
"I will go," I said, and jumped up at once to see if, among the things I had left behind when I went away, I could find enough to rig myself out suitably to the occasion.
My mother had a new blue guernsey just finished for me, a wonderful guernsey, when you think of it. She had, I think, gone on working at it, after the others had given me up, just to show her trust in Providence, and her dear eyes shone when she saw me in it. Loans from my grandfather, whose full stature I had now attained, and whose contribution was of importance, and from Krok, who would have given me one of his eyes if I had needed it, filled all my requirements, and I set off for Beaumanoir about nine o'clock as glad a man as any in Sercq that night.
And oh, the sweetness of the night and all things in it. The solemn pulse of the great sea in Saut de Juan; the voices of many waters in the Gouliot Pass; the great dusky cushions of gorse studded with blooms that looked white under the moon; the mingling in the soft salt air of the scent of hedge-roses and honeysuckle, of dewy, trodden grass and the sweet breath of cows—ay, even the smell of the pigsties was good that night, and mightily refreshing after the dark Everglades of Florida.
Aunt Jeanne's hospitable door stood wide. She kept open house that night, for the old observances were dear to her ever-young heart. I walked right into her kitchen, and she met me with a cry of amazement and delight, and every wrinkle in the weather-browned face creased into a smile.
"Why, Phil, mon gars! Is it possible?" she cried. "You are welcome as one from the dead. Though, ma fe, I hoped all along, as your mother did. And, my good! what a big fellow it is! And not bad-looking either! I used to think you'd grow up square. You were the squarest boy I ever saw. But foreign parts have drawn you out like a ship's mast."
She was dragging me by the hand all the time, and now halted me in front of the great square fern-bed in the corner between the window and the hearth, and stood looking up into my face with the air of an artist awaiting approval of her latest masterpiece. A dear old face, sharp-featured, clever, all alive with the brightness of that which was in her, and with two bright dark eyes sparkling like a robin's under the black silk sun-bonnet which the gossips said she wore day and night.
I knew she looked just all that, but no eyes or thought had I for Aunt Jeanne or anyone else just then.
For here in front of me was the great green fern-bed, green no longer but transformed into a radiant shrine of flowers. Nine feet long it was, and not much less in width, and its solid oaken sides rose some two feet from the floor. It was heaped indeed with the bronze-green fronds and russet-gold stalks of fresh-cut bracken, but this was only the ordinary workaday foundation, and was almost hidden beneath a coverlet of roses—roses of every hue from damask-red to saffron-yellow and purest white, heaped and strewn in richest profusion and filling the room with perfume. From somewhere in the roof above, long sprays of creeping geranium and half-opened honeysuckle and branches of tree fuchsia hung down to the sides of the couch and formed a canopy, the most beautiful one could imagine. For the flowers of the honeysuckle looked like tiny baby-fingers reaching down for something below, and the red and purple fuchsias looked like a rain of falling stars. And beneath it sat the Queen of the Revels dressed all in white, her unbound hair rippling about her like a dark sunset cloud, till it lost itself among the creamy many-coloured petals below,—Carette, the loveliest flower of all.
She had shaken her hair over her face to veil her modesty at the very outspoken admiration of some of the earlier comers, but I caught the sparkle of her dark eyes as she looked up at me through the silken mesh, and the sweet slim figure set the flowery canopy shaking with its restrained eagerness. And my heart jumped within me at the lovely sight.
Disregardful of custom, I was stooping to speak to her, when Aunt Jeanne dragged me away with a gratified laugh, and a quick "Nenni, nenni! She may not speak till the time comes, or dear knows what will happen to us! Come away, mon gars, and tell me where you have been and what you have been doing," and she sat me down in a corner at the far end of the big dresser, and herself beside me so that I should not get away, and made me talk, but I could not take my eyes fora moment off the slim white figure on the radiant bed of roses.
A most delightful place at all times was that great kitchen at Beaumanoir, with its huge fireplace like a smaller room opening off the larger, and put to many other uses besides simply that of cooking;—its black oak presses and dressers and shelves all aglow with much polishing, and bright with crockery and pewter; its great hanging rack under the ceiling, laden with hams and sides of bacon and a hundred and one odds and ends of household use; and the great table in the corner weighted now with piles of currant-cake—Aunt Jeanne's gache had a name in Sercq—and more substantial faring still.
There were about a score of young men and girls there, with a sprinkling of older folk, and every minute brought fresh arrivals to add to the talk and laughter. Each new-comer on entering paid homage to the silent figure on the green bed, and gave me boisterous welcome home as they came to receive a word of greeting from the mistress of the house.
Everyone knew everyone else most intimately. Scarce one but was related to half the people in the room. And all were in the gayest of spirits, for there, in a far corner, old Nicholas Grut every now and again gave the strings of his fiddle an impatient twang, as an intimation that all this was sheer waste of time, and that the only proper business in life was dancing. And presently they would begin, and they would dance until the sun rose, and then—well, the new day had its own rites and ceremonies, and eyes were bright and pulses leaping, and hearts were all a-flutter with hopes and fears of what the day might bring.
"And who is this, Jeanne Falla?" I asked, as one came in whom I had never seen before—a young man, dark and well-looking, and very handsomely dressed compared with the rest of us. And he stood so long before the green-bed, gazing at Carette, that there sprang up in me a sudden desire to take him by the neck and drag him away, or, better still, to hurl him through the open door into outer darkness.
"Tiens!" said Aunt Jeanne softly, "it is the young Torode—"
"Torode? I do not know him. Who is he?"
"C'est ca. It is since you left. His father has settled himself on Herm. He is a great man in these parts nowadays. They do say—"
"They do say—?" I asked, as she stopped short.
"Bon dou! They say many strange things about M. Torode. But you know how folks talk," she murmured.
"And what kind of things do they say, Aunt Jeanne?"
"Oh, all kinds of things. He's making a fine streak of fat—"
"So much the better for him."
"Maybe! But, mon dou, when a man gets along too quickly, the others will talk, you know. They say he has the devil's own luck in all he undertakes. He has three of the fastest chasse-marees in the Islands, and they say he's never lost a cargo yet. And they say he has dealings with the devil and Bonaparte and all the big merchants in Havre and Cherbourg. But of late he's gone in for privateering, and the streak's growing a fat one, I can tell you. He's got the finest schooner in these waters, and, ma fe, broth and soup are both alike to him, I trow! Oh yes, he can see through a fog, can Monsieur Torode."
"And what does Peter Port say to it all?"
"Pergui! Peter Port didn't like having its bread taken out of its mouth,—not that it's bread contents Monsieur Torode, not by a very long way. Fine doings there are on Herm, they say, when they're all at home there. But he's too big and bold a man to interfere with. He pays for the island, they say, and a good price too. Some say he's a wealthy emigre turning his talents to account. For myself—" and the black sun-bonnet nodded knowingly.
"You don't care for him over much, Aunt Jeanne?" and I felt unreasonably glad that it was so.
"Ma fe, I've never set eyes on the man and never wish to! But such luck is not too natural, you understand. The devil's flour has a way of turning to bran, and what comes with the flood goes out with the ebb sometimes."
"All the same you invite the young one here."
"The door of Beaumanoir is wide to-night, and everyone who chooses to come is welcome. Though I wouldn't say but what some are more welcome than others.... Brecqhou and Herm have dealings together, you understand," she murmured presently. "That is how this youngster finds himself here—Bernel, they call him. The old one is much away and the young one does his business hereabouts. And see the airs he puts on! One would think the Island belonged to him, and he hasn't had the grace to come and say how d'ye do to me yet. For myself—"
"For yourself, Aunt Jeanne?"
"Eh b'en!" with a twinkle. "One likes one's own calves best, oui gia!" and I felt like kissing the little old brown hand.
Young Torode had joined the others, and was laughing and joking with the girls, though it seemed to me that the men received him somewhat coldly. Then some remark among them directed his attention to Jeanne Falla and myself in the corner behind the dresser, and he came over at once.
"Pardon, Mistress Falla!" he said,—I think I have said before that Aunt Jeanne was more generally called by her maiden name of Falla than by her married one of Le Marchant, and she preferred it so,—"I was wondering where you were. You have given us a most charming surprise,"—with a nod towards the flower-decked green-bed. "But why is the goddess condemned to silence?"
"Because it's the rule. And, ma fe, it is good for a girl's tongue to be tied at times." Then, in answer to the enquiring looks he was casting at me, she said, "This is Phil Carre of Belfontaine, whom some folks thought dead. But I never did, and he's come back to show I was right. This is M. Bernel Torode of Herm, Phil, mon gars."
And young Torode and I looked into one another's eyes and knew that we were not to be friends. What he saw amiss in me I do not know, but to me there was about him something overmasterful which roused in me a keen desire to master it, or thwart it.
"You are but just home, then, M. Carre?" he asked.
"From Florida last by way of New York."
"Ah! Many ships about?"
"Not many but our own."
"There will be no bones left to pick soon," he laughed, "and the appetite grows. And what with the preventive men and their new powers it will soon be difficult to pick up an honest living."
"From all accounts M. Torode manages it one way or another," I said.
"All the same it gets more difficult. It's a case of too many pots and not enough lobsters."
And then Jeanne Falla, who had gone across to the others, suddenly clapped her hands, and Nicholas Grut's hungry bow dashed into a quick step that set feet dancing in spite of themselves.
And Carette sprang up from her seat and stepped out of her bower, and her face, radiant at her release, had in it all the loveliness of all the flowers from among which she came. The roses clung to her white gown as though loth to let her go, and strewed the ground as she passed, and no man's heart but must have jumped the quicker at sight of her coming towards him with welcomes in her eyes and hands.
She came straight across to us, and the other girls watched eagerly to see which of us she would speak to first—for Midsummer Eve is as full of signs and omens as Aunt Jeanne's gache of currants.
She gave a hand to each of us, the left to me and the right to young Torode, and the left is nearer the heart, said I to myself.
"Phil, mon cher," she cried joyously. "It is good to see you alive and home again. And some foolish ones said you were gone for good! And you are bigger and browner than ever—" and she held me off at arm's length for inspection. "And when did you arrive?"
"I reached home just in time for supper."
"Ah, how glad your mother would be! She and Aunt Jeanne and I were the only ones who hoped still, I do believe."
"May I beg the first dance, mademoiselle?" broke in young Torode, for the couples were whirling past us and he had waited impatiently while we talked.
"I must go and tie up my hair first. It looks like a tangle of vraic," she laughed, and slipped away by the sides of the room and disappeared through the doorway. And young Torode immediately took up his post there to claim his dance as soon as she returned.
I was vexed with myself for giving him first chance. But truly my thoughts had not been on the dancing, but only on Carette herself, and I would have been content to look at her and listen to her all the evening without a thought of anything more.
Young Torode's visible intention of keeping to himself as much of her company as possible put me on my mettle, however, and when he dropped her into a seat after that dance, I immediately claimed the next.
I could dance as well, I think, as any man in Sercq at that time, but I felt myself but a clumsy sailorman after watching young Torode. For his easy grace and confidence put us all into the shade, and did not, I am afraid, tend to goodwill and fellowship on our part.
The other men, I noticed, had but little to say to him or he to them. He danced now and then with one or other of the girls, and they seemed to regard it more as an honourable experience than as matter of great enjoyment. And the man with whose special belle-amie he was dancing would sit and eye the pair gloomily the while, and remain silent and sulky for a time afterwards.
But, except for such little matters as that, we had a right merry time of it. Aunt Jeanne saw to that as energetically as though the hospitality of Beaumanoir had had doubts cast upon it, a thing that never could have happened. But Aunt Jeanne was energetic in all things, and this was her own special yearly feast. And, ma fe, one may surely do what one likes with one's own, and though one cannot recover one's youth one can at all events live young again with those who are young.
The lively spirits of the younger folk worked so upon their elders, that Uncle Henry Vaudin, who was seventy if he was a day, actually caught hold of Aunt Jeanne, as she was flitting to and fro, and tried to dance her into the whirling circle. But the result was only many collisions and much laughter, as the youngsters nearly galloped over them, and Aunt Jeanne and her partner stood in the centre laughing, till that dance was over.
Then she immediately challenged him to the hat dance, as being less trying to the legs and requiring more brain, and calling on Carette to make their third, they danced between three caps laid on the floor, in a way that earned a storm of applause.
Then two of the men danced the broom dance—each holding one end of the broom and passing it neatly under their arms, and over their heads, and under their legs, as they danced in quick step to the music.
And, in the intervals of such hard work, we ate—cold meats, cunningly cooked, and of excellent quality because Aunt Jeanne had bred them herself; and the best made bread and the sweetest butter in Sercq, and heaps of spicy gache, all of Aunt Jeanne's own making. And we drank cider of Aunt Jeanne's own pressing, and equal to anything you could get in Guernsey. And now and again the men-folk smoked in the doorway, and if the very excellent tobacco she provided for them was not of her own growing, it was only because she had not so far undertaken its cultivation, and because tobacco could be got very cheap when you knew how to get it.
And then we danced again till the walls spun round quicker than ourselves, and even Uncle Nico's seasoned arms began to feel the strain. And still—"Faster! Faster!" cried the men, and the girls would not be beaten. And the ropes of flowers above the green-bed swung as though in a summer gale, and the roses leaped out and joined in the dance, till the smell of them, as they were trampled by the flying feet, filled all the room.
Then, while we lay spent and panting, the men mopping themselves with their kerchiefs, and the girls fanning themselves with theirs, Aunt Jeanne, who had had time to recover from her unwonted exertions with Uncle Henry Vaudin, recited some of the old-time poems, of which she managed to carry a string in her head in addition to all the other odds and ends which it contained.
She gave us "L' R'tou du Terre-Neuvi opres San Prumi Viage"—
"Mais en es-tu bain seu, ma fille? Not' Jean est-i don bain r'v'nu? Tu dis que nou l'a veu en ville, I m'etonn' qu'i n'sait deja v'nu"—
eighteen long verses, full of tender little touches telling of the hysterical upsetting in the mother's heart at the safe return of her boy from the perils of the sea.
And to me, who had just seen it all in my own mother's heart, it struck right home, and came near to making me foolish in the matter of wet eyes. And, besides, Aunt Jeanne would keep looking at me, as she reeled it off in her sharp little voice, which was softer than I had ever heard it before, and that made Carette and all the other girls look at me also, till I was glad when she was done, I was getting so uncomfortable.
Then, when at last the poor sailor-boy in the story was so full that he could not take another bite—not even a bite of pancake on which his mother in her upsetting had sprinkled salt instead of sugar—that poem came to an end, and by way of a change Aunt Jeanne plunged headlong into—
"Ma Tante est une menagere Coum je cre qu'i gn'y'en a pouit"—
hitting off in another twenty long verses the strong and weak points of an old and very managing Auntie, not unlike herself in her good points, and very unlike her in her bad ones. And we joyfully pointed them all back at the managing Auntie in front of us, good and bad points alike, and laughed ourselves almost black in the face at the most telling strokes; all except young Torode, who laughed, indeed, but not heartily like the rest,—rather as though he thought us an uncommonly childish set of people for our ages. And so we were that night, and enjoyed ourselves mightily.