THE FISHERMENThere they were, five huge, square-built seamen1, drinking awaytogether in the dismal2 cabin, which reeked3 of fish-pickle and bilge-water. The overhead beams came down too low for their tall statures,and rounded off at one end so as to resemble a gull's breast, seenfrom within. The whole rolled gently with a monotonous4 wail5, incliningone slowly to drowsiness6.

  Outside, beyond doubt, lay the sea and the night; but one could not bequite sure of that, for a single opening in the deck was closed by itsweather-hatch, and the only light came from an old hanging-lamp,swinging to and fro. A fire shone in the stove, at which theirsaturated clothes were drying, and giving out steam that mingled7 withthe smoke from their clay pipes.

  Their massive table, fitted exactly to its shape, occupied the wholespace; and there was just enough room for moving around and sittingupon the narrow lockers8 fastened to the sides. Thick beams ran abovethem, very nearly touching9 their heads, and behind them yawned theberths, apparently11 hollowed out of the solid timbers, like recesses13 ofa vault14 wherein to place the dead. All the wainscoting was rough andworn, impregnated with damp and salt, defaced and polished by thecontinual rubbings of their hands.

  They had been drinking wine and cider in their pannikins, and thesheer enjoyment15 of life lit up their frank, honest faces. Now, theylingered at table chatting, in Breton tongue, on women and marriage. Achina statuette of the Virgin16 Mary was fastened on a bracket againstthe midship partition, in the place of honour. This patron saint ofour sailors was rather antiquated17, and painted with very simple art;yet these porcelain18 images live much longer than real men, and her redand blue robe still seemed very fresh in the midst of the sombre greysof the poor wooden box. She must have listened to many an ardentprayer in deadly hours; at her feet were nailed two nosegays ofartificial flowers and a rosary.

  These half-dozen men were dressed alike; a thick blue woollen jerseyclung to the body, drawn19 in by the waist-belt; on the head was wornthe waterproof20 helmet, known as the sou'-wester. These men were ofdifferent ages. The skipper might have been about forty; the threeothers between twenty-five and thirty. The youngest, whom they calledSylvestre or "Lurlu," was only seventeen, yet already a man for heightand strength; a fine curly black beard covered his cheeks; still hehad childlike eyes, bluish-grey in hue21, and sweet and tender inexpression.

  Huddled against one another, for want of space, they seemed to feeldownright comfort, snugly22 packed in their dark home.

  Outside spread the ocean and night--the infinite solitude23 of darkfathomless waters. A brass24 watch, hung on the wall, pointed25 to eleveno'clock--doubtless eleven at night--and upon the deck pattered thedrizzling rain.

  Among themselves, they treated these questions of marriage verymerrily; but without saying anything indecent. No, indeed, they onlysketched plans for those who were still bachelors, or related funnystories happening at home at wedding-feasts. Sometimes with a happylaugh they made some rather too free remarks about the fun in love-making. But love-making, as these men understand it, is always ahealthy sensation, and for all its coarseness remains26 tolerablychaste.

  But Sylvestre was worried, because a mate called Jean (which Bretonspronounce "Yann") did not come down below. Where could Yann be, by theway? was he lashed27 to his work on deck? Why did he not come below totake his share in their feast?

  "It's close on midnight, hows'ever," observed the captain; and drawinghimself up he raised the scuttle28 with his head, so as to call Yannthat way.

  Then a weird29 glimmer30 fell from above.

  "Yann! Yann! Look alive, matey!""Matey" answered roughly from outside while through the half-openedhatchway the faint light kept entering like that of dawn. Nearlymidnight, yet it looked like a peep of day, or the light of the starrygloaming, sent from afar through mystic lenses of magicians.

  When the aperture31 closed, night reigned32 again, save for the smalllamp, "sended" now and again aside, which shed its yellow light. A manin clogs33 was heard coming down the wooden steps.

  He entered bent34 in two like a big bear, for he was a giant. At firsthe made a wry35 face, holding his nose, because of the acrid36 smell ofthe souse.

  He exceeded a little too much the ordinary proportions of man,especially in breadth, though he was straight as a poplar. When hefaced you the muscles of his shoulders, moulded under his blue jersey,stood out like great globes at the tops of his arms. His large browneyes were very mobile, with a grand, wild expression.

  Sylvestre threw his arms round Yann, and drew him towards himtenderly, after the fashion of children. Sylvestre was betrothed37 toYann's sister, and he treated him as an elder brother, of course. AndYann allowed himself to be pulled about like a young lion, answeringby a kind smile that showed his white teeth. These were somewhat farapart, and appeared quite small. His fair moustache was rather short,although never cut. It was tightly curled in small rolls above hislips, which were most exquisitely38 and delicately modelled, and thenfrizzed off at the ends on either side of the deep corners of hismouth. The remainder of his beard was shaven, and his highly colouredcheeks retained a fresh bloom like that of fruit never yet handled.

  When Yann was seated, the mugs were filled up anew.

  The lighting39 of all the pipes was an excuse for the cabin boy to smokea few wiffs himself. He was a robust40 little fellow, with round cheeks--a kind of little brother to them all, more or less related to oneanother as they were; otherwise his work had been hard enough for thedarling of the crew. Yann let him drink out of his own glass before hewas sent to bed. Thereupon the important topic of marriage wasrevived.

  "But I say, Yann," asked Sylvestre, "when are we going to celebrateyour wedding?""You ought to be ashamed," said the master; "a hulking chap like you,twenty-seven years old and not yet spliced41; ho, ho! What must thelasses think of you when they see you roll by?"Yann answered by snapping his thick fingers with a contemptuous lookfor the women folk. He had just worked off his five years' governmentnaval service; and it was as master-gunner of the fleet that he hadlearned to speak good French and hold sceptical opinions. He hemmedand hawed and then rattled42 off his latest love adventure, which hadlasted a fortnight.

  It happened in Nantes, a Free-and-Easy singer for the heroine. Oneevening, returning from the waterside, being slightly tipsy, he hadentered the music hall. At the door stood a woman selling big bouquetsat twenty francs apiece. He had bought one without quite knowing whathe should do with it, and before he was much more than in had thrownit with great force at the vocalist upon the stage, striking her fullin the face, partly as a rough declaration of love, partly throughdisgust for the painted doll that was too pink for his taste. The blowhad felled the woman to the boards, and--she worshipped him during thethree following weeks.

  "Why, bless ye, lads, when I left she made me this here present of areal gold watch."The better to show it them he threw it upon the table like a worthlesstoy.

  This was told with coarse words and oratorical43 flourishes of his own.

  Yet this commonplace of civilized44 life jarred sadly among such simplemen, with the grand solemnity of the ocean around them; in theglimmering of midnight, falling from above, was an impression of thefleeting summers of the far north country.

  These ways of Yann greatly pained and surprised Sylvestre. He was agirlish boy, brought up in respect for holy things, by an oldgrandmother, the widow of a fisherman in the village of Ploubazlanec.

  As a tiny child he used to go every day with her to kneel and tell hisbeads over his mother's grave. From the churchyard on the cliff thegrey waters of the Channel, wherein his father had disappeared in ashipwreck, could be seen in the far distance.

  As his grandmother and himself were poor he had to take to fishing inhis early youth, and his childhood had been spent out on the openwater. Every night he said his prayers, and his eyes still wore theirreligious purity. He was captivating though, and next to Yann thefinest-built lad of the crew. His voice was very soft, and its boyishtones contrasted markedly with his tall height and black beard; as hehad shot up very rapidly he was almost puzzled to find himself grownsuddenly so tall and big. He expected to marry Yann's sister soon, butnever yet had answered any girl's love advances.

  There were only three sleeping bunks46 aboard, one being double-berthed,so they "turned in" alternately.

  When they had finished their feast, celebrating the Assumption oftheir patron saint, it was a little past midnight. Three of them creptaway to bed in the small dark recesses that resembled coffin-shelves;and the three others went up on deck to get on with their ofteninterrupted, heavy labour of fish-catching; the latter were Yann,Sylvestre, and one of their fellow-villagers known as Guillaume.

  It was daylight, the everlasting47 day of those regions--a pale, dimlight, resembling no other--bathing all things, like the gleams of asetting sun. Around them stretched an immense colourless waste, andexcepting the planks49 of their ship, all seemed transparent50, ethereal,and fairy-like. The eye could not distinguish what the scene might be:

  first it appeared as a quivering mirror that had no objects toreflect; and in the distance it became a desert of vapour; and beyondthat a void, having neither horizon nor limits.

  The damp freshness of the air was more intensely penetrating51 than dryfrost; and when breathing it, one tasted the flavour of brine. All wascalm, and the rain had ceased; overhead the clouds, without form orcolour, seemed to conceal52 that latent light that could not beexplained; the eye could see clearly, yet one was still conscious ofthe night; this dimness was all of an indefinable hue.

  The three men on deck had lived since their childhood upon the frigidseas, in the very midst of their mists, which are vague and troubledas the background of dreams. They were accustomed to see this varyinginfinitude play about their paltry53 ark of planks, and their eyes wereas used to it as those of the great free ocean-birds.

  The boat rolled gently with its everlasting wail, as monotonous as aBreton song moaned by a sleeper54. Yann and Sylvestre had got their baitand lines ready, while their mate opened a barrel of salt, andwhetting his long knife went and sat behind them, waiting.

  He did not have long to wait, or they either. They scarcely had throwntheir lines into the calm, cold water in fact, before they drew inhuge heavy fish, of a steel-grey sheen. And time after time thecodfish let themselves be hooked in a rapid and unceasing silentseries. The third man ripped them open with his long knife, spreadthem flat, salted and counted them, and piled up the lot--which upontheir return would constitute their fortune--behind them, all stillredly streaming and still sweet and fresh.

  The hours passed monotonously55, while in the immeasurably empty regionsbeyond the light slowly changed till it grew less unreal. What atfirst had appeared a livid gloaming, like a northern summer's eve,became now, without any intervening "dark hour before dawn," somethinglike a smiling morn, reflected by all the facets56 of the oceans infading, roseate-edged streaks57.

  "You really ought to marry, Yann," said Sylvestre, suddenly and veryseriously this time, still looking into the water. (He seemed to knowsomebody in Brittany, who had allowed herself to be captivated by thebrown eyes of his "big brother," but he felt shy upon so solemn asubject.)"Me! Lor', yes, some day I will marry." He smiled, did the alwayscontemptuous Yann, rolling his passionate58 eyes. "But I'll have none ofthe lasses at home; no, I'll wed12 the sea, and I invite ye all in thebarkey now, to the ball I'll give at my wedding."They kept on hauling in, for their time could not be lost in chatting;they had an immense quantity of fish in a traveling shoal, which hadnot ceased passing for the last two days.

  They had been up all night, and in thirty hours had caught more than athousand prime cods59; so that even their strong arms were tired andthey were half asleep. But their bodies remained active and theycontinued their toil60, though occasionally their minds floated off intoregions of profound sleep. But the free air they breathed was as pureas that of the first young days of the world, and so bracing61, thatnotwithstanding their weariness they felt their chests expand andtheir cheeks glow as at arising.

  Morning, the true morning light, at length came; as in the days ofGenesis, it had "divided from the darkness," which had settled uponthe horizon and rested there in great heavy masses; and by theclearness of vision now, it was seen night had passed, and that thatfirst vague strange glimmer was only a forerunner62. In the thickly-veiled heavens, broke out rents here and there, like side skylights ina dome63, through which pierced glorious rays of light, silver and rosy64.

  The lower-lying clouds were grouped round in a belt of intense shadow,encircling the waters and screening the far-off distance in darkness.

  They hinted as of a space in a boundary; they were as curtains veilingthe infinite, or as draperies drawn to hide the too majesticmysteries, which would have perturbed66 the imagination of mortals.

  On this special morning, around the small plank48 platform occupied byYann and Sylvestre, the shifting outer world had an appearance of deepmeditation, as though this were an altar recently raised; and thesheaves of sun-rays, which darted67 like arrows under the sacred arch,spread in a long glimmering45 stream over the motionless waves, as overa marble floor. Then, slowly and more slowly yet loomed68 still anotherwonder; a high, majestic65, pink profile--it was a promontory69 of gloomyIceland.

  Yann's wedding with the sea? Sylvestre was still thinking of it--afterresuming his fishing without daring to say anything more. He had feltquite sad when his big brother had so turned the holy sacrament ofmarriage into ridicule70; and it particularly had frightened him, as hewas superstitious71.

  For so long, too, he had mused72 on Yann's marriage! He had thought thatit might take place with Gaud Mevel, a blonde lass from Paimpol; andthat he would have the happiness of being present at the marriage-feast before starting for the navy, that long five years' exile, withits dubious73 return, the thought of which already plucked at his heart-strings.

  Four o'clock in the morning now. The watch below came up, all three,to relieve the others. Still rather sleepy, drinking in chestfuls ofthe fresh, chill air, they stepped up, drawing their long sea-bootshigher, and having to shut their eyes, dazzled at first by a light sopale, yet in such abundance.

  Yann and Sylvestre took their breakfast of biscuits, which they had tobreak with a mallet74, and began to munch75 noisily, laughing at theirbeing so very hard. They had become quite merry again at the idea ofgoing down to sleep, snugly and warmly in their berths10; and claspingeach other round the waist they danced up to the hatchway to an oldsong-tune.

  Before disappearing through the aperture they stopped to play withTurc, the ship's dog, a young Newfoundland with great clumsy paws.

  They sparred at him, and he pretended to bite them like a young wolf,until he bit too hard and hurt them, whereupon Yann, with a frown andanger in his quick-changing eyes, pushed him aside with an impatientblow that sent him flying and made him howl. Yann had a kind heartenough, but his nature remained rather untamed, and when his physicalbeing was touched, a tender caress76 was often more like a manifestationof brutal77 violence.