Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book II. Mess Lethierry.
II. A Certain Predilection.
GILLIATT had in his nature something of the uncivilised man; Mess Lethierry had the same.
Lethierry's uncultivated nature, however, was not without certain refinements.
He was fastidious upon the subject of women's hands. In his early years, while still a lad, passing from the stage of cabin-boy to that of sailor, he had heard the Admiral de Suffren say, "There goes a pretty girl; but what horrible great red hands." An observation from an admiral on any subject is a command, a law, an authority far above that of an oracle. The exclamation of Admiral de Suffren had rendered Lethierry fastidious and exacting in the matter of small and white hands. His own hand, a large club fist of the colour of mahogany, was like a mallet or a pair of pincers for a friendly grasp, and, tightly closed, would almost break a paving-stone.
He had never married; he had either no inclination for matrimony, or had never found a suitable match. That, perhaps, was due to his being a stickler for hands like those of a duchess. Such hands are, indeed, somewhat rare among the fishermen's daughters at Portbail.
It was whispered, however, that at Rochefort, on the Charente, he had, once upon a time, made the acquaintance of a certain grisette, realising his ideal. She was a pretty girl with graceful hands; but she was a vixen, and had also a habit of scratching. Woe betide any one who attacked her! yet her nails, though capable at a pinch of being turned into claws, were of a whiteness which left nothing to be desired. It was these peculiarly bewitching nails which had first enchanted and then disturbed the peace of Lethierry, who, fearing that he might one day become no longer master of his mistress, had decided not to conduct that young lady to the nuptial altar.
Another time he met at Aurigny a country girl who pleased him. He thought of marriage, when one of the inhabitants of the place said to him, "I congratulate you; you will have for your wife a good fuel maker." Lethierry asked the meaning of this. It appeared that the country people at Aurigny have a certain custom of collecting manure from their cow-houses, which they throw against a wall, where it is left to dry and fall to the ground. Cakes of dried manure of this kind are used for fuel, and are called coipiaux. A country girl of Aurigny has no chance of getting a husband if she is not a good fuel maker; but the young ladies especial talent only inspired disgust in Lethierry.
Besides, he had in his love matters a kind of rough country folks' philosophy. a sailor-like sort of habit of mind. Always smitten but never enslaved, he boasted of having been in his youth easily conquered by a petticoat, or rather a cotillon; for what is nowadays called a crinoline, was in his time called a cotillon-a term which, in his use of it, signifies both something more and something less than a wife.
These rude seafaring men of the Norman Archipelago have a certain amount of shrewdness. Almost all can read and write. On Sundays, little cabin-boys may be seen in those parts, seated upon a coil of ropes, reading, with book in hand. From all time these Norman sailors have had a peculiar satirical vein, and have been famous for clever sayings. It was one of these men, the bold pilot Queripel, who said to Montgomery, when he sought refuge in Jersey after the unfortunate accident in killing Henry II at a tournament with a blow of his lance. "Tete folle a casse fête vide." Another one Touzeau, a sea-captain at Saint Brelade, was the author of that philosophical pun, erroneously attributed to Camus, Apres la mort, yes papes deviennent papillons, et les sires deviennent cirons."
The mariners of the Channel are the true ancient Gauls. The islands, which in these days become rapidly more and more English-preserved for many ages their old French character. The Peasant in Sark speaks the language of Louis XIV. Forty years ago, the old classical nautical language was to be found in the mouths of the sailors of Jersey and Aurigny. When amongst them, it was possible to imagine oneself carried back to the sea life of the seventeenth century. From that speaking-trumpet which terrified Admiral Hidde, a philologist might have learnt the ancient technicalities of manoeuvring and giving orders at sea, in the very words which were roared out to his sailors by Jean Bart. The old French maritime vocabulary is now almost entirely changed, but was still in use in Jersey in 1820.
It was with this uncouth sea dialect in his mouth that Duquesne beat De Ruyter, that Duguay Trouin defeated Wasnaer, and that Tourville in 1681 poured a broadside into the first galley which bombarded Algiers. It is now a dead language. The idiom of the sea is altogether different. Duperre would not be able to understand Suffren.
The language of French naval signals is not less transformed; there is a long distance between the four pennants, red, white, yellow and blue, of Labourdonraye, and the eighteen flags of these days, which, hoisted two and two, three and three, or four and four, furnish, for distant communication, sixty-six thousand combinations, are never deficient, and, so to speak, foresee the unforeseen.