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The Nun's Story of Gabriel's Marriage

Wilkie Collins

  Gabriel’s Marriage

  By Wilkie Collins

  © 2007 by


  One night, during the period of the first French Revolution, the family of François Sarzeau, a fisherman of Brittany, were all waking and watching at a late hour in their cottage on the peninsula of Quiberon. Francois had gone out in his boat that evening, as usual, to fish. Shortly after his departure, the wind had risen, the clouds had gathered; and the storm, which had been threatening at intervals throughout the whole day, burst forth furiously about nine o’clock. It was now eleven; and the raging of the wind over the barren, heathy peninsula still seemed to increase with each fresh blast that tore its way out upon the open sea; the crashing of the waves on the beach was awful to hear; the dreary blackness of the sky terrible to behold. The longer they listened to the storm, the oftener they looked out at it, the fainter grew the hopes which the fisherman’s family still strove to cherish for the safety of Francois Sarzeau and of his younger son who had gone with him in the boat.

  There was something impressive in the simplicity of the scene that was now passing within the cottage.

  On one side of the great rugged black fireplace crouched two little girls; the younger half asleep, with her head in her sister’s lap. These were the daughters of the fisherman; and opposite to them sat their eldest brother Gabriel. His right arm had been badly wounded in a recent encounter at the national game of the Soule, a sport resembling our English football; but played on both sides in such savage earnest by the people of Brittany as to end always in bloodshed, often in mutilation, sometimes even in loss of life. On the same bench with Gabriel sat his betrothed wife—a girl of eighteen—clothed in the plain, almost monastic black and white costume of her native district. She was the daughter of a small farmer living at some little distance from the coast. Between the groups formed on either side of the fireplace, the vacant space was occupied by the foot of a truckle bed. In this bed lay a very old man, the father of Francois Sarzeau. His haggard face was covered with deep wrinkles; his long white hair flowed over the coarse lump of sacking which served him for a pillow, and his light grey eyes wandered incessantly, with a strange expression of terror and suspicion, from person to person, and from object to object, in all parts of the room. Whenever the wind and sea whistled and roared at their loudest, he muttered to himself and tossed his hands fretfully on his wretched coverlid. On these occasions his eyes always fixed themselves intently on a little delft image of the Virgin placed in a niche over the fireplace. Every time they saw him look in this direction Gabriel and the young girls shuddered and crossed themselves; and even the child, who still kept awake, imitated their example. There was one bond of feeling at least between the old man and his grandchildren, which connected his age and their youth unnaturally and closely together. This feeling was reverence for the superstitions which had been handed down to them by their ancestors from centuries and centuries back, as far even as the age of the Druids. The spirit-warnings of disaster and death which the old man heard in the wailing of the wind, in the crashing of the waves, in

  the dreary monotonous rattling of the casement, the young man and his affianced wife and the little child who cowered by the fireside, heard too. All differences in sex, in temperament, in years, Superstition was strong enough to strike down to its own dread level, in the fisherman’s cottage, on that stormy night.

  Besides the benches by the fireside and the bed, the only piece of furniture in the room was a coarse wooden table, with a loaf of black bread, a knife, and a pitcher of cider placed on it. Old nets, coils of rope, tattered sails, hung about the walls and over the wooden partition which separated the room into two compartments. Wisps of straw and ears of barley drooped down through the rotten rafters and gaping boards that made the floor of the granary above.

  These different objects, and the persons in the cottage, who composed the only surviving members of the fisherman’s family, were strangely and wildly lit up by the blaze of the fire and by the still brighter glare of a resin torch stuck into a block of wood in the chimney-corner. The red and yellow light played full on the weird face of the old man as he lay opposite to it, and glanced fitfully on the figures of the young girl, Gabriel, and the two children; the great gloomy shadows rose and fell, and grew and lessened in bulk about the walls like visions of darkness, animated by a supernatural spectre-life, while the dense obscurity outside spreading before the curtainless window seemed as a wall of solid darkness that had closed in for ever around the fisherman’s house. The night-scene within the cottage was almost as wild and as dreary to look upon as the night-scene without.

  For a long time the different persons in the room sat together without speaking, even without looking at each other. At last, the girl turned and whispered something into Gabriel’s ear.

  ‘Perrine, what were you saying to Gabriel?’ asked the child opposite, seizing the first opportunity of breaking the desolate silence—doubly desolate at her age—which was preserved by all around her.

  ‘I was telling him,’ answered Perrine simply, ‘that it was time to change the bandages on his arm; and I also said to him, what I have often said before, that he must never play at that terrible game of the Soule again.’

  The old man had been looking intently at Perrine and his grandchild as they spoke. His harsh, hollow voice mingled with the last soft tones of the young girl, repeating over and over again the same terrible words: ‘Drowned! drowned! Son and grandson, both drowned! both drowned!’

  ‘Hush! grandfather,’ said Gabriel, ‘we must not lose all hope for them yet. God and the Blessed Virgin protect them!’ He looked at the little delft image, and crossed himself the others imitated him, except the old man. He still tossed his hands over the coverljd, and still repeated ‘Drowned! drowned!’

  ‘Oh that accursed Soule!’ groaned the young man. ‘But for this wound I should have been with my father. The poor boy’s life might at least have been saved; for we should then have left him here.’

  ‘Silence!’ exclaimed the harsh voice from the bed. ‘The wail of dying men rises louder than the loud sea; the devil’s psalm-singing roars higher than the roaring wind! Be silent, and listen! Francois drowned! Pierre drowned! Hark! Hark!’

  A terrific blast of wind burst over the house as he spoke, shaking it to its centre, overpowering all other sounds, even to the deafening crash of the waves. The slumbering

  child awoke, and uttered a scream of fear. Perrine, who had been kneeling before her lover binding the fresh bandages on his wounded arm, aused in her occupation, trembling from head to foot. Gabriel looked towards ie window: his experience told him what must be the hurricane fury of that blast of wind out at sea, and he sighed bitterly as he murmured to himself, ‘God help them both—man’s help will be as nothing to them now!’

  ‘Gabriel!’ cried the voice from the bed in altered tones—very faint and trembling.

  He did not hear, or did not attend to the old man. He was trying to soothe and encourage the young girl at his feet.

  ‘Don’t be frightened, love,’ he said, kissing her very gently and tenderly on the forehead. ‘You are as safe here as anywhere. Was I not right in saying that it would be madness to attempt taking you back to the farm-house this evening? You can sleep in that room, Perrine, when you are tired—you can sleep with the two girls.’

  ‘Gabriel! brother Gabriel!’ cried one of the children. ‘O! look at grandfather!’

  Gabriel ran to the bedside. The old man had raised himself into a sitting position; his eyes were dilated, his whole face was rigid with terror, his hands were stretched out convulsively towards his grandson. ‘The White W
omen!’ he screamed. ‘The White Women! the grave-diggers of the drowned are out on the sea!’

  The children, with cries of terror, flung themselves into Perrine’s arms; even Gabriel uttered an exclamation of horror, and started back from the bedside.

  Still the old man reiterated, ‘The White Women! The White Women! Open the door, Gabriel! look out westward, where the ebb-tide has left the sand dry. You’ll see them bright as lightning in the darkness, mighty as the angels in stature, sweeping like the wind over the sea, in their long white garments, with their white hair trailing far behind them!

  Open the door, Gabriel! You’ll see them stop and hover over the place where your father and your brother have been drowned; you’ll see them come on till they reach the sand; you’ll see them dig in it with their naked feet, and beckon awfully to the raging sea to give up its dead. Open the door, Gabriel—or, though it should be the death of me, I will get up and open it myself!’

  Gabriel’s face whitened even to his lips, but he made a sign that he would obey. It required the exertion of his whole strength to keep the door open against the wind while he looked out.

  ‘Do you see them, grandson Gabriel? Speak the truth, and tell me if you see them,’

  cried the old man.

  ‘I see nothing but darkness—pitch darkness,’ answered Gabriel, letting the door close again.

  ‘Ah! Woe! Woe!’ groaned his grandfather, sinking back exhausted on the pillow.

  ‘Darkness toyou; but bright as lightning to the eyes that are allowed to see them.

  Drowned! drowned! Pray for their souls, Gabriel—I see the White Women even where I lie, and dare not pray for them. Son and grandson drowned! both drowned!’

  The young man went back to Perrine and the children.

  ‘Grandfather is very ill to-night,’ he whispered.

  ‘You had better all go into the bedroom, and leave me alone to watch by him.’

  They rose as he spoke, crossed themselves before the image of the Virgin, kissed him one by one, and, without uttering a word, softly entered the little room on the other side of the partition. Gabriel looked at his grandfather, and saw that he lay quiet now, with his

  eyes closed as if he were already dropping asleep. The young man then heaped some fresh logs on the fire, and sat down by it to watch till morning.

  Very dreary was the moaning of the night-storm; but it was not more dreary than the thoughts which now occupied him in his solitude—thoughts darkened and distorted by the terrible superstitions of his country and his race. Ever since the period of his mother’s death he had been oppressed by the conviction that some curse hung over the family. At first they had been prosperous, they had got money, a little legacy had been left them. But this good fortune had availed only for a time; disaster on disaster strangely and suddenly succeeded. Losses, misfortunes, poverty, want itself had overwhelmed them; his father’s temper had become so soured, that the oldest friends of Francois Sarzeau declared he was changed beyond recognition. And now, all this past misfortune—the steady, withering, household blight of many years—had ended in the last worst misery of all—in death. The fate of his father and his brother admitted no longer of a doubt—he knew it, as he listened to the storm, as he reflected on his grandfather’s words, as he called to mind his own experience of the perils of the sea. And this double bereavement had fallen on him just as the time was approaching for his marriage with Perrine; just when misfortune was most ominous of evil, just when it was hardest to bear! Forebodings which he dared not realize began now to mingle with the bitterness of his grief, whenever his thoughts wandered from the present to the future; and as he sat by the lonely fireside, murmuring from time to time the Church prayer for the repose of the dead, he almost involuntarily mingled with it another prayer, expressed only in his own simple words, for the safety of the living—for the young girl whose love was his sole earthly treasure; for the motherless children who must now look for protection to him alone.

  He had sat by the hearth a long, long time, absorbed in his thoughts, not once looking round towards the bed, when he was startled by hearing the sound of his grandfather’s voice once more.

  ‘Gabriel,’ whispered the old man, trembling and shrinking as he spoke, ‘Gabriel, do you hear a dripping of water—now slow, now quick again—on the floor at the foot of my bed?’

  ‘I hear nothing, grandfather, but the crackling of the fire, and the roaring of the storm outside.’

  ‘Drip, drip, drip! Faster and faster; plainer and plainer. Take the torch, Gabriel; look down on the floor—look with all your eyes. Is the place wet there? Is it the rain from heaven that is dropping through the roof?’

  Gabriel took the torch with trembling fingers, and knelt down on the floor to examine it closely. He started back from the place, as he saw that it was quite dry—the torch dropped upon the hearth—he fell on his knees before the statue of the Virgin and hid his face.

  ‘Is the floor wet? Answer me, I command you—Is the floor wet?’—asked the old man quickly and breathlessly.

  Gabriel rose, went back to the bedside, and whispered to him that no drop of rain had fallen inside the cottage. As he spoke the words, he saw a change pass over his grandfather’s face—the sharp features seemed to wither up on a sudden; the eager expression to grow vacant and death-like in an instant. The voice too altered; it was harsh and querulous no more; its tones became strangely soft, slow, and solemn, when the old man spoke again.

  ‘I hear it still,’ he said, ‘drip! drip! faster and plainer than ever. That ghostly dropping of water is the last and the surest of the fatal signs which have told of your father’s and your brother’s deaths to-night, and I know from the place where I hear it—the foot of the bed I lie on—that it is a warning to me of my own approaching end. I am called where my son and my grandson have gone before me: my weary time in this world is over at last. Don’t let Perrine and the children come in here, if they should awake—they are too young to look at death.’

  Gabriel’s blood curdled, when he heard these words—when he touched his

  grandfather’s hand, and felt the chill that it struck to his own—when he listened to the raging wind, and knew that all help was miles and miles away from the cottage. Still, in spite of the storm, the darkness, and the distance, he thought not for a moment of neglecting the duty that had been taught him from his childhood—the duty of summoning the priest to the bedside of the dying. ‘I must call Perrine,’ he said, ‘to watch by you while I am away.

  ‘Stop!’ cried the old man, ‘Stop, Gabriel; I implore, I command you not to leave me!’

  ‘The priest, grandfather—your confession—’

  ‘It must be made to you. In this darkness and this hurricane no man can keep the path across the heath. Gabriel! I am dying—I should be dead before you got back, Gabriel!

  For the love of the Blessed Virgin, stop here with me till I die—my time is short—I have a terrible secret that I must tell to somebody before I draw my last breath! Your ear to my mouth—quick! quick!’

  As he spoke the last words, a slight noise was audible on the other side of the partition, the door half opened, and Perrine appeared at it, looking affrightedly into the room. The vigilant eyes of the old man—suspicious even in death—caught sight of her directly.

  ‘Go back!’ he exclaimed faintly, before she could utter a word, ‘go back—push her back, Gabriel, and nail down the latch in the door, if she won’t shut it of herself!’

  ‘Dear Perrine! go in again,’ implored Gabriel. ‘Go in and keep the children from disturbing us. You will only make him worse—you can be of no use here!’

  She obeyed without speaking, and shut the door again.

  While the old man clutched him by the arm, and repeated, ‘Quick! quick!—your ear close to my mouth,’ Gabriel heard her say to the children (who were both awake), ‘Let us pray for grandfather.’ And as he knelt down by the bedside, there stole on his ear the sweet, childish tones of his little sisters, and
the soft, subdued voice of the young girl who was teaching them the prayer, mingling divinely with the solemn wailing of wind and sea, rising in a still and awful purity over the hoarse, gasping whispers of the dying man.

  ‘I took an oath not to tell it, Gabriel—lean down closer! I’m weak, and they mustn’t hear a word in that room—I took an oath not to tell it; but death is a warrant to all men for breaking such an oath as that. Listen; don’t lose a word I’m saying! Don’t look away into the room: the stain of blood-guilt has defiled it for ever!—Hush! Hush! Hush! Let me speak. Now your father’s dead, I can’t carry the horrid secret with me into the grave.

  Just remember, Gabriel—try if you can’t remember the time before I was bedridden—ten years ago and more—it was about six weeks, you know, before your mother’s death; you can remember it by that. You and all the children were in that room with your mother; you were all asleep, I think; it was night, not very late—only nine o’clock. Your father and I were standing at the door, looking out at the heath in the moonlight. He was so poor at that time, he had been obliged to sell his own boat, and none of the neighbours would

  take him out fishing with them—your father wasn’t liked by any of the neighbours. Well; we saw a stranger coming towards us; a very young man, with a knapsack on his back.

  He looked like a gentleman, though he was but poorly dressed. He came up, and told us he was dead tired, and didn’t think he could reach the town that night, and asked if we would give him shelter till morning. And your father said yes, if he would make no noise, because the wife was ill, and the children were asleep. So he said all he wanted was to go to sleep himself before the fire. We had nothing to give him but black bread. He had better food with him than that, and undid his knapsack to get at it—and—and Gabriel!

  I’m sinking—drink! something to drink—I’m parched with thirst.’

  Silent and deadly pale, Gabriel poured some of the cider from the pitcher on the table into a drinking-cup, and gave it to the old man. Slight as the stimulant was, its effect on him was almost instantaneous. His dull eyes brightened a little, and he went on in the same whispering tones as before.