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Ch. 3: Devotion

 

 

 

    "There glides a step through the foliage thick,
    And her cheek grows pale and her heart beats quick,
    There whispers a voice through the rustling leaves,
    And her blush returns, and her bosom heaves;
    A moment more--and they shall meet.
    'Tis past--her lover's at her feet."--Parasina.--BYRON.

 

 

 

 

After visiting all the accessible parts of the island Jean satisfied himself that it was useless to search further in them for traces of the strangers. Persons so remarkable could not, it was clear, conceal themselves from the knowledge of the inhabitants. He must therefore either admit that the monk's surmise was correct, or must search in quarters hitherto unexplored. Though his rejection of the former alternative was a foregone conclusion, his adoption of the latter was a remarkable proof of the strength of his passion. There was only one district unexplored, and that was practically unapproachable.

Early in the sixth century some piratical vessels had entered Rocquaine Bay in a shattered condition; the crews succeeded in landing, but the ships, for seagoing purposes, were beyond repair. The pirates penetrated inland, driving out the inhabitants from Torteval and some of the adjoining valleys. Here they settled; and being skilled in hunting and fishing, having a fair knowledge of husbandry, and finding the position peculiarly adapted for their marauding pursuits, throve and prospered: so much so that when, some years afterwards, they had an opportunity of leaving, the majority elected to remain. Their descendants had continued to occupy the same district. Who they were, whether pure Northmen or of some mixed race, it would be idle to conjecture: they were originally put down by the islanders as Sarrazins, that being the name under which the simple people classed all pirates; the strangers, however, resented this description, and had consequently come to be spoken of as Les Voizins, a definition to which no exception could be taken. Hardy and warlike, quick of temper and rough of speech, they had an undisputed ascendancy over the natives, to whom, though dangerous if provoked, they had often given powerful aid in times of peril. On the whole they made not bad neighbours, but a condition was imposed by them the violation of which was never forgiven: no native was permitted, under any pretext, to enter their territory; death was the sure fate of an intruder found in Rocquaine Bay or setting foot in the Voizin hills or valleys. Whatever may have been the cause of this regulation the result had been to keep the race as pure as it was on the day of the first landing.

Now it was in the Terre des Voizins that Jean had resolved to seek his beloved, and his resolution was unalterable. He knew the danger; he wished to avoid death if possible; he meant to employ to the full the resources at his command; foolhardy as his enterprise seemed it was long and carefully planned. He knew that in the summer evenings it was the custom of the Voizin women to visit the sunny shores of the bay: this he had seen from Lihou; could he then succeed in landing unperceived, and in concealing himself in one of the many clefts of the rocks, he felt sure that if the well-known form were there he would descry it; what would follow afterwards was a question which had taken many fantastic shapes in his imagination, none of which had assumed a definite form.

Towards the close of July the conditions were favourable for his attempt. In the night a strong tide would be running into the bay; the wind was south-westerly, the moon set early. He prepared to start. He had selected a small and light boat, which would travel fast under his powerful strokes, and might be so handled as not to attract attention; in it he had stored provisions which would last for a few days and a small cask of fresh water. Towards evening he shaped his course for Lihou.

He had seen but little of the monk since the day of the feast, but he was yearning to see him now. His love for the man, his reverence for the truths he taught, his thought of his own future if he lost his life in his rash expedition, all urged him to seek a parting interview.

The brothers received him affectionately and bade him join their frugal meal. The monks were five in number: they had been six, but one had recently been drowned while returning from a pious mission to Herm. Jean knew them all; they were honest, God-fearing men, trustful and truthful. If their reasoning powers were not great, their faith was unswerving. Their life was a prolonged asceticism, and they had fair reason to expect that martyrdom would be their earthly crown.

The only exceptional feature of the repast was the appearance of one who had never yet been seated there in Jean's presence; this guest was the hermit who dwelt on the extreme point, against which the Atlantic waves dashed in their fiercest fury. The recluse did not seem to cultivate the duty of abstemiousness, but he maintained silence. Jean could not forbear furtively scanning his appearance, which was indeed remarkable. He would have been of large stature in any country; compared with the natives his proportions were gigantic. His broad shoulders and muscular arms betokened enormous strength; his hair and beard were fair; his blue eyes had a clear, frank, expression; there was firmness of purpose in his massive jaw; he seemed between forty and fifty, and would have been strikingly handsome but for three deep scars which totally marred the expression of his features. As Jean eyed him he returned the compliment, but the meal was soon over and the youth accompanied Father Austin to his cell.



Roque du Guet and Cobo Bay. Sketched in 1839.


There a long and sleepless night was passed by both. The monk in vain endeavoured to combat Jean's resolution; he argued, prayed, indeed threatened, but without effect. Finding his efforts hopeless he abandoned them, and endeavoured to fortify his charge against the influence of the spell under which he believed him to have fallen. Then the young man was again the pupil; he listened humbly and reverently to the repetition of the great truths which the father strove to rivet on his mind, and joined earnestly in the prayers for truth and constancy. As daylight broke, and he at length laid himself down to rest, his latest vision was that of the good man kneeling by him with that rapt look of contemplation which seemed to foreshadow his immortality.

Jean slept profoundly for some hours. When night began to fall he received Austin's blessing, no further reference being made to his expedition, and when the moon was on the eve of disappearance he launched his boat. As he rounded Lihou point another boat shot out, the occupant of which hailed him. Recognizing the hermit, Jean paused. "You steer wrong," said the giant, speaking with an accent which at once reminded his hearer of that of the maiden; "your course is to the rising sun." "I go where I will," replied Jean, nettled at this unlooked-for interruption. "Youth," answered the other, "I have watched thee and wish thee well! rush not heedlessly to certain death!" "Stay me not!" resolutely answered Jean, wondering at the interest taken in him by this strange being. "Thou knowest not!" said the hermit sternly; "it is not only from death I wish to save thee, but from worse than death; I tell thee I--" He checked himself, as if fearful of saying too much, and bent his eyes searchingly into those of Jean, who murmured simply, "I am resolved." "Then God help thee and speed thee!" said the giant. Glancing into the boat he saw one of the curved and pierced shells then, as now, used by Guernsey seamen as signal-horns: pointing to it he said, "If in peril, where a blast may be heard on Lihou, sound the horn twice: it is a poor hope but may serve thee!" He was gone.

Jean paddled into the dreaded bay; the moon had now sunk and he was further favoured by a slight mist. Knowing the tides from infancy, he worked his way noiselessly till he approached where the Voizin fleet lay, then laid himself down and let the current take him. He passed several boats in safety; as far as he could judge, from the observations he had taken from Lihou, he was nearly past the anchorage when a crash, succeeded by a grating sound, warned him of danger. A curse, followed by an ejaculation of surprise and pleasure, enlightened him as to the nature of the collision: he was in contact with one of the anchored vessels. "Odin is good!" cried a voice; "ha! a skiff drifted from a wrecked vessel! and all eyes but mine sleeping!" The speaker threw over a small anchor and grappled the boat. Jean was prepared; without a moment's hesitation he cut the anchor-rope: his craft drifted onwards, leaving the fisherman grumbling at the rottenness of his tackle. He offered a short prayer of gratitude, and in a few minutes ventured cautiously to resume his oars. He heard the breaking of the waves, but seamanship on the unknown and indistinct coast was useless. Two sharp blows, striking the boat in rapid succession, told him that he had touched a submerged rock; the strong tide carried him off it, but the water poured in through a gaping rent. He was now, however, on a sandy bottom: he sprang out, pulled the boat up as far as possible, and sat down to wait for light.

The first break of dawn showed him his position: he was facing northward; he was therefore on the Hanois arm of the bay. Fortune had indeed been kind to him, for he had drifted into a small cleft sheltered by precipitous rocks, a place where concealment was fairly possible, as it was accessible only by land at the lowest tides. He examined his store of provisions, which was uninjured; storing it among the rocks he rested till the sun sank. He then cautiously climbed the cliff, and looked on the scene revealed by the moonlight. Seawards stood a rough round tower; no other building was visible on the point, which seemed deserted. The loneliness gave him courage; when the moon set, the night being clear, he explored further and satisfied himself that there were no human beings, except the occupants of the tower, living on these rocks. He retired to his hiding-place to rest; before dawn he again ascended and concealed himself among the bracken and brambles which formed the only available shelter. During the whole day he saw but one person, an elderly woman, whose dark features and bright kerchief showed her to be of southern or gipsy origin, and who passed backwards and forwards carrying water to the tower. His examination increased his confidence; he calculated, by measuring the time occupied by the old woman in passing with an empty and returning with a full pitcher, that the spring frequented by her could not be far distant; at night he found it just beyond the junction of the rocks with the mainland. The water was cool and fresh, and considerably revived him; he noticed too that the luxuriant brushwood, nourished by the moisture, offered a good place for concealment; he returned, removed thither what remained of his provisions, and ensconced himself in his new retreat.

In the morning he saw two figures approaching from the tower; one was the same servant he had seen before, but the other!--his heart throbbed and leaped, his brain reeled, his eyes gazed hungrily; he could not be, he was not, mistaken!--the second figure was the heroine of his dreams! She walked silently. Jean saw that memory had not played him false: her beauty, her grace, were no freak of his imagination; would the holy father now say that she was a devil, while thus she moved in her loveliness, a woman to be loved and worshipped!--a very woman, too! not above the cares of life! Seating herself by the spring she despatched her companion on an errand to supply domestic wants, promising to await her return.

Jean's principal characteristic was rapid resolution: he reasoned that a small alarm might make the girl fly; that his chance of retaining her was an overpowering shock. He stepped boldly out and stood before her. The maiden sprang quickly to her feet; there was no terror in her face; she was of true blood; if she was afraid she did not show it; it was clear she recognized the apparition, but intense surprise, overpowering other emotions, kept her dumb. Jean had thus the chance of speaking first, and deftly he used his opportunity. In a few rapid sentences he told the tale of his search, of his adventures, of his selection of his hiding-place; then he paused. The maiden was not long in finding words. There was a flush on her cheek and a tear hanging on her eyelash which made Jean very happy. "You must go," she said, "but where? Your life is forfeit! forfeit to the Gods!" She shuddered as she said this. "In yonder tower lives my mother, on the shore are my people; there is no escape on either hand! A chance has saved you hitherto; none dare approach our home without my mother's permission, which is rarely given; but on this spot they may find you, may seize you, may--!" She stopped, with an expression of horror, and covered her face with her hands.

But Jean was not anxious; he was radiant with happiness. He seated himself and spoke of love, deep passionate love; so gentle was he, so soft, so courteous, and yet so ardent, that the maiden trembled; when he dared to take her hand she did not withdraw it. The moment of bliss was brief; a step was heard. "Hide yourself quickly," she whispered, "Tita is returning." Jean promptly obeyed the injunction. The old woman arrived with a well-filled wallet, and looked fondly at her young mistress. The signs of recent agitation struck her. "What has befallen thee, Hilda?" she cried anxiously. The girl took her arm and led her seawards. Jean, watching, could see the start and angry expression of the older, the coaxing, pleading attitude of the younger woman; he could satisfy himself that the resistance of the former was gradually being overcome, and as they returned he saw that the maiden's victory was indisputable. She summoned Jean, who was inspected by Tita at first with distrust, then with modified approval. "You must stay here," said the maiden earnestly, "closely hidden till nightfall; my absence has been already sufficiently long, and nothing can be done while daylight lasts." Bidding him farewell she sped with her guardian towards the tower, while Jean retired to his bushes a prey to fond thoughts and feverish hopes.

Before sundown he saw the tall figure of the sorceress wending landwards. She did not approach the spring. Hilda quickly followed with her former companion. "We have a long journey," she said, "and short time: we must start at once." Removing all traces of his lair he obeyed without hesitation. They ascended the steep cliff. The night was clear, the moon at this hour was bright and lustrous. "We have three hours," said the maiden, "ere we leave our guest!"--she looked archly at Jean as she thus described him--"it should suffice!" They were now on the heights of Pleinmont; no one was moving, though voices of men and beasts could be plainly heard in the distance. "They feast to-night to the Gods," said Hilda; "we need fear only some belated laggard!" The heather was not yet springing, but Jean could see that gorse was on the bloom, which he considered a favourable omen: they stepped out bravely on the short springy turf. Tita's steps were slower than those of the young pair, who were deaf to her calls for delay. Never to his dying day did Jean forget that happy night-walk. His soul was poured out in love, and he knew that his love was returned. He was steeped to the full in joy; no thought of future cares or perils crossed his mind. They had passed three or four headlands before the girl halted and waited for her attendant, who came up muttering to herself and grumbling; compliments from Jean and caresses from Hilda restored her good humour, and the work of the evening commenced. "Follow me closely," said the girl; "let your eye be keen and your step firm: the descent is no child's sport." Jean looked at the cliff, fitted for the flight of gull or cormorant rather than the foot of man, still less of gentle maiden: Hilda was already over the brink: Jean, following, saw that she was on a path no broader than a goat's track; the difficulties of the descent need not be described; it was possible for a clear head and practised foot, to the nervous or the unsteady the attempt must have been fatal. Arrived at the bottom the climbers found themselves in a small cleft strewn with huge boulders; the rocks towered high above them. Hilda glanced at the moon. "We must be quick," said she, showing him some deep caverns in the rock; "there," she said, "is your home. Here you are safe; my mother alone knows the secret of these caves. I must mount again; you must climb with me to mark the path more closely." She sprang to the rock and commenced to ascend as nimbly as she had come down. Jean saw the necessity of taking every precaution; he noted carefully each feature of the track. Arrived at the summit she bade him farewell. She pointed out a place where Tita would from time to time leave him provisions, and said that he would find water in the caves; she then tripped quickly off. Jean did not linger, seeing that if he did so light would fail him for his return. He crossed the track for the third time, reached the caves, and slept soundly till dawn.

When he awoke he inspected his strange retreat. He was in a large hall, two hundred feet long, and some fifty feet high and broad; this chamber was entered by a small orifice of no great length, through which he had passed on the preceding night; it was warm, and dry except where the stream of which Hilda had spoken trickled through to the sea. It was the fissure now known as the Creux Mahie, and to which an easy access has been arranged for the benefit of the curious. Here Jean passed three months. Hilda frequently visited him, and always kept him supplied with food; she warned him also when he might safely roam on the cliffs above. There was no obstacle to her visits, even when they extended to a considerable length, as the mother seemed always to be satisfied as to her absences when Tita accompanied her; and the latter, whose infirmities prevented her from descending, had no means of shortening the interviews.

Thus the lovers had opportunity to study each other's characters. The maiden's pure heart knew no distrust, and Jean was faithful and chivalrous as Sir Galahad. They spoke not always of love: words were unnecessary to explain what every look betokened. Jean found her skilled in strange, mystical, lore, but ignorant of all that sways and rules mankind. The history of the selfish struggles of human interests and passions was to her a sealed book. She had been carefully shrouded from the knowledge of evil; but, in order to protect her in the rough turbulent little world in which she lived, it had been necessary to keep her from association with her countrymen, and so she had never mingled with them except under the charge of her mother, in whose presence the fiercest were submissive. Jean, therefore, in speaking to her of family intercourse, of the intermingling of members of the household, of bright chat with friends, opened up to her views of life of which she had formed no conception. Then he told her of his own people; described the three generations living under one roof; depicted the daily round, the care of the old and the young, the work, the return of the workers to their wives, sisters, and children, the love of the mothers for their infants, the reverence for age, the strong mutual affection of husband and wife, brother and sister. To these descriptions she listened with a happy smile, the mission of woman dawning on her; and many were the questions she asked, till she seemed to have mastered the pictures painted for her. Above all, Jean strained to bring her to the knowledge of the God of the Christian, for he himself was an earnest, intelligent disciple. He found her mind clearer than he had expected. Judith (this he now knew was the mother's name) was a remarkable woman; her mind was lofty, if darkened. While others were satisfied with the grossness of a material creed her spirit soared aloft. Her Gods commanded her implicit faith, her unswerving allegiance. Seated on the storm-clouds, sweeping through space, they represented to her infinite force. She attributed to them no love for mankind, which was in her creed rather their plaything, but she credited them with the will and the power to scatter good and ill before they claimed the soul of the hero to their fellowship, or cast into a lower abyss that of the coward or the traitor. She believed that she saw their giant forms half bending from their vapoury thrones, and she thought that she read their decrees. Sorceress she may have been; in those days sorcery was attributed to many who had obtained a knowledge of laws of nature, then considered occult, now recognized among the guiding principles from which scientific deductions are drawn. She believed in the power of magic, which she was universally understood to possess; but she was no vulgar witch: rather was she a worthy priestess of her not ignoble deities. The effect upon Hilda's mind of the teachings of such a woman is easy to conceive. She had been allowed to know little of the wild orgies of the barbaric feasts offered to the Gods by her countrymen, of their brutal excesses, of their human sacrifices: from this knowledge she had been as far as possible shielded: she knew only of the dim mystic beings, half men, half Gods, from whose wrath she shrank with terror. To a mind so constituted and trained the revelation of the story of the infant Christ was a passionate pleasure. She never tired of listening to the tale of the birth in the stable of Bethlehem; but she loved not to dwell on the history of the passion and death, which was at that time beyond her understanding. She drank in with parted lips all that concerned the Holy Mother, of whom she was never weary of hearing. Jean had a rude drawing of the Madonna and Child, given him by Father Austin: the figures had the angularity and rigidity of Byzantine art, but the artist had represented his subject with reverence, and no lack of skill, and she loved to dwell on the pure mother's face, and on the longing look in the eyes of the Child. She accepted wholly the idea of a God who loved mankind, of infinite goodness and mercy: if she could not as yet enter into the subtlety of doctrine she could give that childlike faith which is the envy of doctrinarians.

 

 

 

 

 

 Anonymous

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