Chapter I
 

A misty February twilight is descending over the ocean. The newly fallen snow has melted and the warm air is heavy and damp. The northwestern wind from the sea is driving it silently toward the mainland, bringing in its wake a sharply fragrant mixture of brine, of boundless space, of undisturbed, free and mysterious distances.

In the sky, where the sun is setting, a noiseless destruction of an unknown city, of an unknown land, is taking place; structures, magnificent palaces with towers, are crumbling; mountains are silently splitting asunder and, bending slowly, are tumbling down. But no cry, no moan, no crash of the fall reaches the earth--the monstrous play of shadows is noiseless; and the great surface of the ocean, as though ready for something, as though waiting for something, reflecting it faintly, listens to it in silence.

Silence reigns also in the fishermen's settlement. The fishermen have gone fishing; the children are sleeping and only the restless women, gathered in front of the houses, are talking softly, lingering before going to sleep, beyond which there is always the unknown.

The light of the sea and the sky behind the houses, and the houses and their bark roofs are black and sharp, and there is no perspective: the houses that are far and those that are near seem to stand side by side as if attached to one another, the roofs and the walls embracing one another, pressing close to one another, seized with the same uneasiness before the eternal unknown.

Right here there is also a little church, its side wall formed crudely of rough granite, with a deep window which seems to be concealing itself.

A cautious sound of women's voices is heard, softened by uneasiness and by the approaching night.

"We can sleep peacefully to-night. The sea is calm and the rollers are breaking like the clock in the steeple of old Dan."

"They will come back with the morning tide. My husband told me that they will come back with the morning tide."

"Perhaps they will come back with the evening tide. It is better for us to think they will come back in the evening, so that our waiting will not be in vain.

"But I must build a fire in the stove."

"When the men are away from home, one does not feel like starting a fire. I never build a fire, even when I am awake; it seems to me that fire brings a storm. It is better to be quiet and silent."

"And listen to the wind? No, that is terrible."

"I love the fire. I should like to sleep near the fire, but my husband does not allow it."

"Why doesn't old Dan come here? It is time to strike the hour."

"Old Dan will play in the church to-night; he cannot bear such silence as this. When the sea is roaring, old Dan hides himself and is silent--he is afraid of the sea. But, as soon as the waves calm down, Dan crawls out quietly and sits down to play his organ."

The women laugh softly.

"He reproaches the sea."

"He is complaining to God against it. He knows how to complain well. One feels like crying when he tells God about those who have perished at sea. Mariet, have you seen Dan to-day? Why are you silent, Mariet?"

Mariet is the adopted daughter of the abbot, in whose house old Dan, the organist, lives. Absorbed in thought, she does not hear the question.

"Mariet, do you hear? Anna is asking you whether you have seen Dan to-day."

"Yes, I think I have. I don't remember. He is in his room. He does not like to leave his room when father goes fishing."

"Dan is fond of the city priests. He cannot get used to the idea of a priest who goes fishing, like an ordinary fisherman, and who goes to sea with our husbands."

"He is simply afraid of the sea."

"You may say what you like, but I believe we have the very best priest in the world."

"That's true. I fear him, but I love him as a father."

"May God forgive me, but I would have been proud and always happy, if I were his adopted daughter. Do you hear, Mariet?"

The women laugh softly and tenderly.

"Do you hear, Mariet?"

"I do. But aren't you tired of always laughing at the same thing? Yes, I am his daughter--Is it so funny that you will laugh all your life at it?"

The women commence to justify themselves confusedly.

"But he laughs at it himself."

"The abbot is fond of jesting. He says so comically: 'My adopted daughter,' and then he strikes himself with his fist and shouts: 'She's my real daughter, not my adopted daughter. She's my real daughter.'"

"I have never known my mother, but this laughter would have been unpleasant to her. I feel it," says Mariet.

The women grow silent. The breakers strike against the shore dully with the regularity of a great pendulum. The unknown city, wrapped with fire and smoke, is still being destroyed in the sky; yet it does not fall down completely; and the sea is waiting. Mariet lifts her lowered head.

"What were you going to say, Mariet?"

"Didn't he pass here?" asks Mariet in a low voice.

Another woman answers timidly:

"Hush! Why do you speak of him? I fear him. No, he did not pass this way."

"He did. I saw from the window that he passed by."

"You are mistaken; it was some one else."

"Who else could that be? Is it possible to make a mistake, if you have once seen him walk? No one walks as he does."

"Naval officers, Englishmen, walk like that."

"No. Haven't I seen naval officers in the city? They walk firmly, but openly; even a girl could trust them."

"Oh, look out!"

Frightened and cautious laughter.

"No, don't laugh. He walks without looking at the ground; he puts his feet down as if the ground itself must take them cautiously and place them."

"But if there's a stone on the road? We have many stones here."

"He does not bend down, nor does he hide his head when a strong wind blows."

"Of course not. Of course not. He does not hide his head."

"Is it true that he is handsome? Who has seen him at close range?"

"I," says Mariet.

"No, no, don't speak of him; I shall not be able to sleep all night. Since they settled on that hill, in that accursed castle, I know no rest; I am dying of fear. You are also afraid. Confess it."

"Well, not all of us are afraid."

"What have they come here for? There are two of them. What is there for them to do here in our poor land, where we have nothing but stones and the sea?"

"They drink gin. The sailor comes every morning for gin."

"They are simply drunkards who don't want anybody to disturb their drinking. When the sailor passes along the street he leaves behind him an odour as of an open bottle of rum."

"But is that their business--drinking gin? I fear them. Where is the ship that brought them here? They came from the sea."

"I saw the ship," says Mariet.

The women begin to question her in amazement.

"You? Why, then, didn't you say anything about it? Tell us what you know."

Mariet maintains silence. Suddenly one of the women exclaims:

"Ah, look! They have lit a lamp. There is a light in the castle!"

On the left, about half a mile away from the village, a faint light flares up, a red little coal in the dark blue of the twilight and the distance. There upon a high rock, overhanging the sea, stands an ancient castle, a grim heritage of grey and mysterious antiquity. Long destroyed, long ruined, it blends with the rocks, continuing and delusively ending them by the broken, dented line of its batteries, its shattered roofs, its half-crumbled towers. Now the rocks and the castle are covered with a smoky shroud of twilight. They seem airy, devoid of any weight, and almost as fantastic as those monstrous heaps of structures which are piled up and which are falling so noiselessly in the sky. But while the others are falling this one stands, and a live light reddens against the deep blue--and it is just as strange a sight as if a human hand were to kindle a light in the clouds.

Turning their heads in that direction, the women look on with frightened eyes.

"Do you see," says one of them. "It is even worse than a light on a cemetery. Who needs a light among the tombstones?"

"It is getting cold toward night and the sailor must have thrown some branches into the fireplace, that's all. At least, I think so," says Mariet.

"And I think that the abbot should have gone there with holy water long ago."

"Or with the gendarmes! If that isn't the devil himself, it is surely one of his assistants."

"It is impossible to live peacefully with such neighbours close by."

"I am afraid for the children."

"And for your soul?"

Two elderly women rise silently and go away. Then a third, an old woman, also rises.

"We must ask the abbot whether it isn't a sin to look at such a light."

She goes off. The smoke in the sky is ever increasing and the fire is subsiding, and the unknown city is already near its dark end. The sea odour is growing ever sharper and stronger. Night is coming from the shore.

Their heads turned, the women watch the departing old woman. Then they turn again toward the light.

Mariet, as though defending some one, says softly:

"There can't be anything bad in light. For there is light in the candles on God's altar."

"But there is also fire for Satan in hell," says another old woman, heavily and angrily, and then goes off. Now four remain, all young girls.

"I am afraid," says one, pressing close to her companion.

The noiseless and cold conflagration in the sky is ended; the city is destroyed; the unknown land is in ruins. There are no longer any walls or falling towers; a heap of pale blue gigantic shapes have fallen silently into the abyss of the ocean and the night. A young little star glances at the earth with frightened eyes; it feels like coming out of the clouds near the castle, and because of its inmost neighbourship the heavy castle grows darker, and the light in its window seems redder and darker.

"Good night, Mariet," says the girl who sat alone, and then she goes off.

"Let us also go; it is getting cold," say the other two, rising. "Good night, Mariet."

"Good night."

"Why are you alone, Mariet? Why are you alone, Mariet, in the daytime and at night, on week days and on merry holidays? Do you love to think of your betrothed?"

"Yes, I do. I love to think of Philipp."

The girl laughs.

"But you don't want to see him. When he goes out to sea, you look at the sea for hours; when he comes back--you are not there. Where are you hiding yourself?"

"I love to think of Philipp."

"Like a blind man he gropes among the houses, forever calling: 'Mariet! Mariet! Have you not seen Mariet?'"

They go off laughing and repeating:

"Good night, Mariet. 'Have you not seen Mariet! Mariet!'"

The girl is left alone. She looks at the light in the castle. She hears soft, irresolute footsteps.

Old Dan, of small stature, slim, a coughing old man with a clean-shaven face, comes out from behind the church. Because of his irresoluteness, or because of the weakness of his eyes, he steps uncertainly, touching the ground cautiously and with a certain degree of fear.

"Oho! Oho!"

"Is that you, Dan?"

"The sea is calm, Dan. Are you going to play to-night?"

"Oho! I shall ring the bell seven times. Seven times I shall ring it and send to God seven of His holy hours."

He takes the rope of the bell and strikes the hour--seven ringing and slow strokes. The wind plays with them, it drops them to the ground, but before they touch it, it catches them tenderly, sways them softly and with a light accompaniment of whistling carries them off to the dark coast.

"Oh, no!" mutters Dan. "Bad hours, they fall to the ground. They are not His holy hours and He will send them back. Oh, a storm is coming! O Lord, have mercy on those who are perishing at sea!"

He mutters and coughs.

"Dan, I have seen the ship again to-day. Do you hear, Dan?"

"Many ships are going out to sea."

"But this one had black sails. It was again going toward the sun."

"Many ships are going out to sea. Listen, Mariet, there was once a wise king--Oh, how wise he was!--and he commanded that the sea be lashed with chains. Oho!"

"I know, Dan. You told me about it."

"Oho, with chains! But it did not occur to him to christen the sea. Why did it not occur to him to do that, Mariet? Ah, why did he not think of it? We have no such kings now."

"What would have happened, Dan?"

"Oho!"

He whispers softly:

"All the rivers and the streams have already been christened, and the cross of the Lord has touched even many stagnant swamps; only the sea remained--that nasty, salty, deep pool."

"Why do you scold it? It does not like to be scolded," Mariet reproaches him.

"Oho! Let the sea not like it--I am not afraid of it. The sea thinks it is also an organ and music for God. It is a nasty, hissing, furious pool. A salty spit of satan. Fie! Fie! Fie!"

He goes to the doors at the entrance of the church muttering angrily, threatening, as though celebrating some victory:

"Oho! Oho!"

"Dan!"

"Go home."

"Dan! Why don't you light candles when you play? Dan, I don't love my betrothed. Do you hear, Dan?"

Dan turns his head unwillingly.

"I have heard it long ago, Mariet. Tell it to your father."

"Where is my mother, Dan?"

"Oho! You are mad again, Mariet? You are gazing too much at the sea--yes. I am going to tell--I am going to tell your father, yes."

He enters the church. Soon the sounds of the organ are heard. Faint in the first, long-drawn, deeply pensive chords, they rapidly gain strength. And with a passionate sadness, their human melodies now wrestle with the dull and gloomy plaintiveness of the tireless surf. Like seagulls in a storm, the sounds soar amidst the high waves, unable to rise higher on their overburdened wings. The stern ocean holds them captive by its wild and eternal charms. But when they have risen, the lowered ocean roars more dully; now they rise still higher--and the heavy, almost voiceless pile of water is shaking helplessly. Varied voices resound through the expanse of the resplendent distances. Day has one sorrow, night has another sorrow, and the proud, ever rebellious, black ocean suddenly seems to become an eternal slave.

Her cheek pressed against the cold stone of the wall, Mariet is listening, all alone. She is growing reconciled to something; she is grieving ever more quietly.

Suddenly, firm footsteps are heard on the road; the cobblestones are creaking under the vigorous steps--and a man appears from behind the church. He walks slowly and sternly, like those who do not roam in vain, and who know the earth from end to end. He carries his hat in his hands; he is thinking of something, looking ahead. On his broad shoulders is set a round, strong head, with short hair; his dark profile is stern and commandingly haughty, and, although the man is dressed in a partly military uniform, he does not subject his body to the discipline of his clothes, but masters it as a free man. The folds of his clothes fall submissively.

Mariet greets him:

"Good evening."

He walks on quite a distance, then stops and turns his head slowly. He waits silently, as though regretting to part with his silence.

"Did you say 'Good evening' to me?" he asks at last.

"Yes, to you. Good evening."

He looks at her silently.

"Well, good evening. This is the first time I have been greeted in this land, and I was surprised when I heard your voice. Come nearer to me. Why don't you sleep when all are sleeping? Who are you?"

"I am the daughter of the abbot of this place."

He laughs:

"Have priests children? Or are there special priests in your land?"

"Yes, the priests are different here."

"Now, I recall, Khorre told me something about the priest of this place."

"Who is Khorre?"

"My sailor. The one who buys gin in your settlement."

He suddenly laughs again and continues:

"Yes, he told me something. Was it your father who cursed the Pope and declared his own church independent?"

"Yes."

"And he makes his own prayers? And goes to sea with the fishermen? And punishes with his own hands those who disobey him?"

"Yes. I am his daughter. My name is Mariet. And what is your name?"

"I have many names. Which one shall I tell you?"

"The one by which you were christened."

"What makes you think that I was christened?"

"Then tell me the name by which your mother called you."

"What makes you think that I had a mother? I do not know my mother."

Mariet says softly:

"Neither do I know my mother."

Both are silent. They look at each other kindly.

"Is that so?" he says. "You, too, don't know your mother? Well, then, call me Haggart."

"Haggart?"

"Yes. Do you like the name? I have invented it myself--Haggart. It's a pity that you have been named already. I would have invented a fine name for you."

Suddenly he frowned.

"Tell me, Mariet, why is your land so mournful? I walk along your paths and only the cobblestones creak under my feet. And on both sides are huge rocks."

"That is on the road to the castle--none of us ever go there. Is it true that these stones stop the passersby with the question: 'Where are you going?'"

"No, they are mute. Why is your land so mournful? It is almost a week since I've seen my shadow. It is impossible! I don't see my shadow."

"Our land is very cheerful and full of joy. It is still winter now, but soon spring will come, and sunshine will come back with it. You shall see it, Haggart."

He speaks with contempt:

"And you are sitting and waiting calmly for its return? You must be a fine set of people! Ah, if I only had a ship!"

"What would you have done?"

He looks at her morosely and shakes his head suspiciously.

"You are too inquisitive, little girl. Has any one sent you over to me?"

"No. What do you need a ship for?"

Haggart laughs good-naturedly and ironically:

"She asks what a man needs a ship for. You must be a fine set of people. You don't know what a man needs a ship for! And you speak seriously? If I had a ship I would have rushed toward the sun. And it would not matter how it sets its golden sails, I would overtake it with my black sails. And I would force it to outline my shadow on the deck of my ship. And I would put my foot upon it this way!"

He stamps his foot firmly. Then Mariet asks, cautiously:

"Did you say with black sails?"

"That's what I said. Why do you always ask questions? I have no ship, you know. Good-bye."

He puts on his hat, but does not move. Mariet maintains silence. Then he says, very angrily:

"Perhaps you, too, like the music of your old Dan, that old fool?"

"You know his name?"

"Khorre told me it. I don't like his music, no, no. Bring me a good, honest dog, or beast, and he will howl. You will say that he knows no music--he does, but he can't bear falsehood. Here is music. Listen!"

He takes Mariet by the hand and turns her roughly, her face toward the ocean.

"Do you hear? This is music. Your Dan has robbed the sea and the wind. No, he is worse than a thief, he is a deceiver! He should be hanged on a sailyard--your Dan! Good-bye!"

He goes, but after taking two steps he turns around.

"I said good-bye to you. Go home. Let this fool play alone. Well, go."

Mariet is silent, motionless. Haggart laughs:

"Are you afraid perhaps that I have forgotten your name? I remember it. Your name is Mariet. Go, Mariet."

She says softly:

"I have seen your ship."

Haggart advances to her quickly and bends down. His face is terrible.

"It is not true. When?"

"Last evening."

"It is not true! Which way was it going?"

"Toward the sun."

"Last evening I was drunk and I slept. But this is not true. I have never seen it. You are testing me. Beware!"

"Shall I tell you if I see it again?"

"How can you tell me?"

"I shall come up your hill."

Haggart looks at her attentively.

"If you are only telling me the truth. What sort of people are there in your land--false or not? In the lands I know, all the people are false. Has any one else seen that ship?"

"I don't know. I was alone on the shore. Now I see that it was not your ship. You are not glad to hear of it."

Haggart is silent, as though he has forgotten her presence.

"You have a pretty uniform. You are silent? I shall come up to you."

Haggart is silent. His dark profile is stern and wildly gloomy; every motion of his powerful body, every fold of his clothes, is full of the dull silence of the taciturnity of long hours, or days, or perhaps of a lifetime.

"Your sailor will not kill me? You are silent. I have a betrothed. His name is Philipp, but I don't love him. You are now like that rock which lies on the road leading to the castle."

Haggart turns around silently and starts.

"I also remember your name. Your name is Haggart."

He goes away.

"Haggart!" calls Mariet, but he has already disappeared behind the house. Only the creaking of the scattered cobblestones is heard, dying away in the misty air. Dan, who has taken a rest, is playing again; he is telling God about those who have perished at sea.

The night is growing darker. Neither the rock nor the castle is visible now; only the light in the window is redder and brighter.

The dull thuds of the tireless breakers are telling the story of different lives.