Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book I. The History of a Bad Reputation.
IV. An Unpopular Man.
GILLIATT, as we have said, was not popular in the parish. Nothing could be more natural than that antipathy among his neighbours. The reasons for it were abundant. To begin with, as we have already explained, there was the strange house he lived in; then there was his mysterious origin. Who could that woman have been? and what was the meaning of this child? Country people do not like mysteries when they relate to strange sojourners among them. Then his clothes were the clothes of a workman, while he had, although certainly not rich, sufficient to live without labour. Then there was his garden, which he succeeded in cultivating, and from which he produced crops of potatoes, in spite of the stormy equinoxes; and then there were the big books which he kept upon a shelf, and read from time to time.
More reasons: why did he live that solitary life? The Bu de la Rue was a kind of lazaretto, in which Gilliatt was kept in a sort of moral quarantine. This, in the popular judgment, made it quite simple that people should be astonished at his isolation, and should hold him responsible for the solitude which society had made around his home.
He never went to chapel. He often went out at night-time. He held converse with sorcerers. He had been seen on one occasion sitting on the grass with an expression of astonishment on his features. He haunted the Druidical stones of the Ancresse, and the fairy caverns which are scattered about in that part. It was generally believed that he had been seen politely saluting the Roque qui Chante, or Crowing Rock. He bought all birds which people brought to him, and having bought them, set them at liberty. He was civil to the worthy folks in the streets of St. Sampson, but willingly turned out of his way to avoid them if he could. He often went out on fishing expeditions, and always returned with fish. He trimmed his garden on Sundays. He had a bagpipe which he had bought from one of the Highland soldiers who are sometimes in Guernsey, and on which he played occasionally at twilight, on the rocks by the seashore. He had been seen to make strange gestures, like those of one sowing seeds. What kind of treatment could be expected for a man like that?
As regards the books left by the deceased woman, which he was in the habit of reading, the neighbours were particularly suspicious. The Reverend Jaquemin Herode, rector of St. Sampson, when he visited the house at the time of the woman's funeral, had read on the backs of these books the titles "Rosier's Dictionary," "Candide" by Voltaire, "Advice to the People on Health," by Tissot. A French noble, an emigre, who had retired to St. Sampson, remarked that this Tissot "must have been the Tissot who carried the head of the Princess de Lamballe upon a pike."
The reverend gentleman had also remarked upon one of these books the highly fantastic and terribly significant title, "De Rhubarbaro."
In justice to Gilliatt, however, it must be added that this volume being in Latin-a language which it is doubtful if he understood-the young man had possibly never read it.
But it is just those books which a man possesses, but does not read, which constitute the most suspicious evidence against him. The Spanish Inquisition have deliberated on that point, and have come to a conclusion which places the matter beyond further doubt.
The book in question, however, was no other than the Treatise of Doctor Tilingius upon the Rhubarb plant, published in Germany in 1679.
It was by no means certain that Gilliatt did not prepare philtres and unholy decoctions. He was undoubtedly in possession of certain phials.
Why did he walk abroad at evening, and sometimes even at midnight, on the cliffs? Evidently to hold converse with the evil spirits who, by night, frequent the seashores, enveloped in smoke.
On one occasion he had aided a witch at Torteval to clean her chaise: this was an old woman named Moutonne Gahy.
When a census was taken in the island, in answer to a question about his calling, he replied, "Fisherman, when there are fish to catch." Imagine yourself in the place of Gilliatt's neighbours, and admit that there is something unpleasant in answers like this.
Poverty and wealth are comparative terms. Gilliatt had some fields and a house, his own property; compared with those who had nothing, he was not poor. One day, to test this, and perhaps also as a step towards a correspondence-for there are base women who would marry a demon for the sale of riches-a young girl of the neighbourhood said to Gilliatt, "When are you going to take a wife, neighbour? " He answered, "I will take a wife when the Roque qui Chante takes a husband."
This Roque qui Chante is a great stone, standing in a field near Mons. Lemezurier de Fry's. It is a stone of a highly suspicious character. No one knows what deeds are done around it. At times you may hear there a cock crowing when no cock is near-an extremely disagreeable circumstance. Then it is commonly asserted that this stone was originally placed in the field by the elfin people known as Sarregousets, who are the same as the Sins.
At night, when it thunders, if you should happen to see men flying in the lurid light of the clouds, or on the rolling waves of the air, these are no other than the Sarregousets. A woman who lives at the Grand Mielles knows them well. One evening, when some Sarregousets happened to be assembled at a cross-road, this woman cried out to a man with a cart, who did not know which route to take, "Ask them your way. They are civil folks, and always ready to direct a stranger." There can be little doubt that this woman was a sorceress.
The learned and judicious King James I, had women of this kind boiled, and then tasting the water of the cauldron, was able to say from its flavour, "That was a sorceress; or "That was not one."
It is to be regretted that the kings of these latter days no longer possess a talent which placed in so strong a light the utility of monarchical institutions.
It was not without substantial grounds that Gilliatt lived in this odour of sorcery. One midnight, during a storm, Gilliatt being at sea alone in a bark, on the coast by La Somrneilleuse, he was heard to ask,-
"Is there a passage sufficient for me?"
And a voice cried from the heights above,-
"Passage enough; steer boldly."
To whom could he have been speaking, if not to those who replied to him? This seems something like evidence.
Another time, one stormy evening, when it was so dark that nothing could be distinguished, Gilliatt was near the Catiau Roque-a double row of rocks where witches, goats, and other diabolical creatures assemble and dance on Fridays-and here it is firmly believed that the voice of Gilliatt was heard mingling in the following terrible conversation:-
"How is Vesin Brovard?" (This was a mason who had fallen from the roof of a house.)
"He is getting better."
"Ver dia! he fell from a greater height than that of yonder peak. It is delightful to think that he was not dashed to pieces."
"Our folks had a fine time for the seaweed-gathering last week."
"Ay, finer than to-day."
"I believe you. There will be little fish at the market to-day."
"It blows too hard."
"They can't lower their nets."
"How is Catherine?"
"She is charming."
Catherine was evidently the name of a Sarregouset.
According to all appearance, Gilliatt had business on hand at night; at least none doubted it.
Sometimes he was seen with a pitcher in his hand, pouring water on the ground. Now water, cast upon the ground, is known to make a shape like that of devils.
On the road to Saint Sampson, opposite the Martello tower, number 1, stand three stones, arranged in the form of steps. Upon the platform of those stones, now empty, stood anciently a cross, or perhaps a gallows. These stones are full of evil influences.
Staid and worthy people, and perfectly credible witnesses, testified to having seen Gilliatt at this spot conversing with a toad. Now there are no toads at Guernsey, the share of Guernsey in the reptiles of the Channel Isles consisting exclusively of the snakes. It is Jersey that has all the toads. This toad, then, must have swam from the neighbouring island, in order to hold converse with Gilliatt. The converse was of a friendly kind.
These facts were clearly established, and the proof is that the three stones are there to this day. Those who doubt it may go and see them; and at a little distance there is also a house on which the passer-by may read this inscription:-
"DEALER IN CATTLE, ALIVE AND DEAD, OLD CORDAGE, IRON, BONES, AND TOBACCO FOR CHEWING. PROMPT PAYMENT FOR GOODS, AND EVERY ATTENTION GIVEN TO ORDERS."
A man must be sceptical indeed to contest the existence of those stones and of the house in question. Now both these circumstances were injurious to the reputation of Gilliatt.
Only the most ignorant are unaware of the fact that the greatest danger of the coasts of the Channel Islands is the King of the Auxcriniers. No inhabitant of the seas is more redoubtable. Whoever has seen him is certain to be wrecked between one St. Michel and the other. He is little, being in fact a dwarf; and is deaf, in his quality of king. He knows the names of all those who have been drowned in the seas, and the spots where they lie. He has a profound knowledge of that great graveyard which stretches far and wide beneath the waters of the ocean. A head, massive in the lower part and narrow in the forehead; a squat and corpulent figure; a skull, covered with warty excrescences; long legs, long arms, fins for feet, claws for hands, and a sea green countenance-such are the chief characteristics of this king of the waves. His claws have palms like hands; his fins human nails. Imagine a spectral fish with the face of a human being. No power could check his career unless he could be exorcised, or mayhap fished up from the sea. Meanwhile he continues his sinister operations. Nothing is more unpleasant than an interview with this monster: amid the rolling waves and breakers, or in the thick of the mist, the sailor perceives sometimes a strange creature with a beetle brow, wide nostrils, flattened ears, an enormous mouth, gap-toothed jaws, peaked eyebrows, and great grinning eyes. When the lightning is livid, he appears red; when it is purple, he looks wan. He has a stiff, spreading beard, running with water, and overlapping a sort of pelerine, ornamented with fourteen shells, seven before and seven behind. These shells are curious to those who are learned in conchology. The King of the Auxcriniers is only seen in stormy seas. He is the terrible harbinger of the tempest. His hideous form traces itself in the fog, in the squall, in the tempest of rain. His breast is hideous. A coat of scales covers his sides like a vest. He rises above the waves which fly before the wind, twisting and curling like thin shavings of wood beneath the carpenter's plane. Then his entire form issues out of the foam, and if there should happen to be in the horizon any vessels in distress, pale in the twilight, or his face lighted up with a sinister smile, he dances, terrible and uncouth to behold. It is an evil omen indeed to meet him on a voyage.
At the period when the people of Saint Sampson were particularly excited on the subject of Gilliatt, the last persons who had seen the King of the Auxcriniers declared that his pelerine was now ornamented with only thirteen shells. Thirteen! He was only the more dangerous. But what had become of the fourteenth? Had he given it to some one? No one would say positively, and folks confined themselves to conjecture. But it was an undoubted fact that a certain Mons. Lupin Mabier of Godaines, a man of property, paying a good sum to the land tax, was ready to depose on oath that he had once seen in the hands of Gilliatt a very remarkable kind of shell.
It was not uncommon to hear dialogues like the following among the country people:-
"I have a fine bull here, neighbour; what do you say?"
"Very fine, neighbour? "
"It is a fact, tho' 'tis I who say it; he is better though for tallow than for meat."
"Are you sure that Gilliatt hasn't cast his eye upon it?"
Gilliatt would stop sometimes beside a field where some labourers were assembled, or near gardens in which gardeners were engaged, and would perhaps hear these mysterious words:-
"When the mors du diable1 flourishes, reap the winter rye."
"The ash tree is coming out in leaf. There will be no more frost."
"Summer solstice, thistle in flower."
"If it rain not in June, the wheat will turn white. Look out for mildew."
"When the wild cherry appears, beware of the full moon."
"If the weather on the sixth day of the new moon is like that of the fourth or like that of the fifth day, it will be the same nine times out of twelve in the first case, and eleven times out of twelve in the second, during the whole month."
"Keep your eye on neighbours who go to law with you. Beware of malicious influences. A pig which has had warm milk given to it will die. A cow which has had its teeth rubbed with leeks will eat no more."
"Spawning time with the smelts; beware of fevers."
"When frogs begin to appear, sow your melons".
"When the liverwort flowers, sow your barley."
"When the limes are in bloom, mow the meadows."
"When the elm tree flowers, open the hot-bed frames.'
"When tobacco fields are in blossom, close your greenhouses."
And, fearful to relate, these occult precepts were not without truth. Those who put faith in them could vouch for the fact.
One night, in the month of June, when Gilliatt was playing upon his bagpipe, Upon the sand-hills on the shore of the Demie de Fontenelle, it had happened that the mackerel fishing had failed.
One evening, at low water, it came to pass that a cart filled with seaweed for manure overturned on the beach in front of Gilliatt's house. It is most probable that he was afraid of being brought before the magistrates, for he took considerable trouble in helping to raise the cart, and he filled it again himself.
A little neglected child of the neighbourhood being troubled with vermin, he had gone himself to St. Peter's Port, and had returned with an ointment, with which he rubbed the child's head. Thus Gilliatt had removed the pest from the poor child, which was an evidence that Gilliatt himself had originally given it; for everybody knows that there is a certain charm for giving vermin to people.
Gilliatt was suspected of looking into wells-a dangerous practice with those who have an evil eye; and, in fact, at Arculons, near St. Peter's Port, the water of a well became unwholesome. The good woman to whom this well belonged said to Gilliatt,-
"Look here at this water," and she showed him a glassful. Gilliatt acknowledged it.
"The water is thick," he said, "that is true."
The good woman, who dreaded him in her heart, said, "Make it sweet again for me."
Gilliatt asked her some questions: whether she had a stable? whether the stable had a drain? whether the gutter of the drain did not pass near the well? The good woman replied, "Yes." Gilliatt went into the stable, worked at the drain, turned the gutter in another direction, and the water became pure again. People in the country round might think what they pleased. A well does not become foul one moment and sweet the next without good cause; the bottom of the affair was involved in obscurity; and, in short, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that Gilliatt himself had bewitched the water.
On one occasion, when he went to Jersey, it was remarked that he had taken a lodging in the street called the Rue des Alleurs. Now the word alleurs signifies spirits from the other world.
In villages it is the custom to gather together all these little hints and indications of a man's career; and when they are gathered together, the total constitutes his reputation among the inhabitants.
It happened that Gilliatt was once caught with blood issuing from his nose. The circumstance appeared grave. The master of a barque who had sailed almost entirely round the world affirmed that among the Tongusians all sorcerers were subject to bleeding at the nose. In fact. when you see a man in those parts bleeding at the nose, you know at once what is in the wind. Moderate reasoners, however, remarked that the characteristics of sorcerers among the Tongusians may possibly not apply in the same degree to the sorcerers of Guernsey.
In the environs of one of the St. Michels he had been seen to stop in a close belonging to the Huriaux, skirting the highway from the Videclins. He whistled in the field, and a moment afterwards a crow alighted there; a moment later, a magpie. The fact was attested by a worthy man who has since been appointed to the office of Douzenier of the Douzaine, as those are called who are authorised to make a new survey and register of the fief of the king.
At Hamel, in the Vingtaine of L'Epine, there lived some old women who were positive of having heard one morning a number of swallows distinctly calling "Gilliatt."
Add to all this that he was of a malicious temper.
One day a poor man was beating an ass. The ass was obstinate. The poor man gave him a few kicks in the belly with his wooden shoe, and the ass fell. Gilliatt ran to raise the unlucky beast; but he was dead. Upon this Gilliatt administered to the poor man a sound thrashing.
Another day, Gilliatt seeing a boy come down from a tree with a brood of little birds, newly hatched and unfledged, he took the brood away from the boy, and carried his malevolence so far as even to take them back and replace them in the tree.
Some passers-by took up the boy's complaint; but Gilliatt made no reply, except to point to the old birds, who were hovering and crying plaintively over the tree. as they looked for their nest. He had a weakness for birds-another sign by which the people recognise a magician.
Children take a pleasure in robbing the nests of birds along the cliff. They bring home quantities of yellow, blue, and green eggs, with which they make rosaries for mantelpiece ornaments. As the cliffs are peaked, they sometimes slip and are killed. Nothing is prettier than shutters decorated with sea-birds' eggs. Gilliatt's mischievous ingenuity had no end. He would climb, at the peril of his own life, into the steep places of the sea rocks, and hang up bundles of hay, old hats, and all kinds of scarecrows, to deter the birds from building there' and, as a consequence, to prevent the children from visiting those spots.
These are some of the reasons why Gilliatt was disliked throughout the country. Perhaps nothing less could have been expected.