Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book I. The History of a Bad Reputation.
III. For Your Wife: When You Marry.
WE must return to Gilliatt.
The country people told how, towards the close of the great Revolution, a woman, bringing with her a little child, came to live in Guernsey. She was an Englishwoman; at least, she was not French. She had a name which the Guernsey pronunciation and the country folks' bad spelling had finally converted into "Gilliatt." She lived alone with the child, which, according to some, was a nephew; according to others, a son; according to others, again, a strange child whom she was protecting. She had some means; enough to struggle on in a poor way. She had purchased a small plot of ground at La Sergentee, and another at La Roque Crespel, near Rocquaine. The house of the Bu de la Rue was haunted at this period. For more than thirty years no one had inhabited it. It was falling into ruins. The garden, so often invaded by the sea, could produce nothing. Besides noises and lights seen there at night-time, the house had this mysterious peculiarity: any one who should leave there in the evening, upon the mantelpiece, a ball of worsted, a few needles, and a plate filled with soup, would assuredly find in the morning the soup consumed, the plate empty, and a pair of mittens ready knitted. The house, demon included, was offered for sale for a few pounds sterling. The stranger woman became the purchaser, evidently tempted by the devil, or by the advantageous bargain.
She did more than purchase the house; she took up her abode there with the child; and from that moment peace reigned within its walls. The Bu de la Rue has found a fit tenant, said the country people. The haunting ceased. There was no longer any light seen there save that of the tallow candle of the newcomer. "Witch's candle is as good as devil's torch." The proverb satisfied the gossips of the neighbourhood.
The woman cultivated some acres of land which belonged to her. She had a good cow, of the sort which produces yellow butter. She gathered her white beans. cauliflowers, and "Golden drop" potatoes. She sold, like other people, her parsnips by the tonneau, her onions by the hundred, and her beans by the denerel. She did not go herself to market, but disposed of her crops through the agency of Guilbert Falliot at the sign of the Abreveurs of St. Sampson. The register of Falliot bears evidence that Falliot sold for her, on one occasion, as much as twelve bushels of rare early potatoes.
The house had been meanly repaired, but sufficiently to make it habitable. It was only in very bad weather that the raindrops found their way through the ceilings of the rooms. The interior consisted of a ground-floor suite of rooms, and a granary overhead. The ground-floor was divided into three rooms: two for sleeping, and one for meals. A ladder connected it with the granary above. The woman attended to the kitchen and taught the child to read. She did not go to church or chapel, which, all things considered, led to the conclusion that she must be French not to go to a place of worship. The circumstance was grave. In short, the newcomers were a puzzle to the neighbourhood.
That the woman was French seemed probable. Volcanoes cast forth stones, and revolutions men, so families are removed to distant places; human beings come to pass their lives far from their native homes; groups of relatives and friends disperse and decay; strange people fall, as it were, from the clouds-some in Germany, some in England, some in America. The people of the country view them with surprise and curiosity. Whence come these strange faces? Yonder mountain, smoking with revolutionary fires, casts them out. These barren aerolites, these famished and ruined people, these footballs of destiny, are known as refugees, emigres, adventurers. If they sojourn among strangers, they are tolerated; if they depart, there is a feeling of relief. Sometimes these wanderers are harmless, inoffensive people, strangers-at least, as regards the women-to the events which have led to their exile, objects of persecution, helpless and astonished at their fate. They take root again somewhere as they can. They have done no harm to any one, and scarcely comprehend the destiny that has befallen them. So thus I have seen a poor tuft of grass uprooted and carried away by the explosion of a mine. No great explosion was ever followed by more of such strays than the first French Revolution.
The strange woman whom the Guernsey folks called "Gilliatt" was possibly one of these human strays.
The woman grew older; the child became a youth. They lived alone and avoided by all; but they were sufficient for each other. Louve et louveteau se pourlechent. This was another of the generous proverbs which the neighbourhood applied to them. Meanwhile, the youth grew to manhood; and then, as the old and withered bark falls from the tree, the mother died. She left to her son the little field of Sergentee, the small property called La Roque Crespel, and the house known as the Bu de la Rue; with the addition, as the official inventory said, of "one hundred guineas in gold in the pid d'une cauche-that is to say, in the foot of a stocking." The house was already sufficiently furnished with two oaken chests, two beds, six chairs, and a table, besides necessary household utensils. Upon a shelf were some books, and in the corner a trunk, by no means of a mysterious character, which had to be opened for the inventory. This trunk was of drab leather, ornamented with brass nails and little stars of white metal, and it contained a bride's outfit, new and complete, of beautiful Dunkirk linen-chemises and petticoats, and some silk dresses-with a paper on which was written, in the handwriting of the deceased,-
"For your wife: when you marry."
The loss of his mother was a terrible blow for the young man. His disposition had always been unsociable; he became now moody and sullen. The solitude around him was complete. Hitherto it had been mere isolation; now his life was a blank. While we have only one companion, life is endurable; left alone, it seems as if it is impossible to struggle on, and we fall back in the race, which is the first sign of despair. As time rolls on, however, we discover that duty is a series of compromises; we contemplate life, regard its end, and submit; but it is a submission which makes the heart bleed.
Gilliatt was young, and his wound healed with time. At that age sorrows cannot be lasting. His sadness, disappearing by slow degrees, seemed to mingle itself with the scenes around him, to draw him more and more towards the face of nature, and farther and farther from the need of social converse and, finally, to assimilate his spirit more completely to the solitude in which he lived.