The Book Lover

An Iceland Fisherman by Pierre Loti

An Iceland Fisherman by Pierre Loti

CHAPTER I—THE FISHERMEN

There they were, five huge, square-built seamen, drinking away together in the dismal cabin, which reeked 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, seen from within. The whole rolled gently with a monotonous wail, inclining one slowly to drowsiness.

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

Their massive table, fitted exactly to its shape, occupied the whole space; and there was just enough room for moving around and sitting upon the narrow lockers fastened to the sides. Thick beams ran above them, very nearly touching their heads, and behind them yawned the berths, apparently hollowed out of the solid timbers, like recesses of a vault wherein to place the dead. All the wainscoting was rough and worn, impregnated with damp and salt, defaced and polished by the continual rubbings of their hands.

They had been drinking wine and cider in their pannikins, and the sheer enjoyment of life lit up their frank, honest faces. Now, they lingered at table chatting, in Breton tongue, on women and marriage. A china statuette of the Virgin Mary was fastened on a bracket against the midship partition, in the place of honour. This patron saint of our sailors was rather antiquated, and painted with very simple art; yet these porcelain images live much longer than real men, and her red and blue robe still seemed very fresh in the midst of the sombre greys of the poor wooden box. She must have listened to many an ardent prayer in deadly hours; at her feet were nailed two nosegays of artificial flowers and a rosary.

These half-dozen men were dressed alike; a thick blue woollen jersey clung to the body, drawn in by the waist-belt; on the head was worn the waterproof helmet, known as the sou’-wester. These men were of different ages. The skipper might have been about forty; the three others between twenty-five and thirty. The youngest, whom they called Sylvestre or “Lurlu,” was only seventeen, yet already a man for height and strength; a fine curly black beard covered his cheeks; still he had childlike eyes, bluish-grey in hue, and sweet and tender in expression.

Huddled against one another, for want of space, they seemed to feel downright comfort, snugly packed in their dark home.

Outside spread the ocean and night—the infinite solitude of dark fathomless waters. A brass watch, hung on the wall, pointed to eleven o’clock—doubtless eleven at night—and upon the deck pattered the drizzling rain.

Among themselves, they treated these questions of marriage very merrily; but without saying anything indecent. No, indeed, they only sketched plans for those who were still bachelors, or related funny stories happening at home at wedding-feasts. Sometimes with a happy laugh they made some rather too free remarks about the fun in love-making. But love-making, as these men understand it, is always a healthy sensation, and for all its coarseness remains tolerably chaste.

But Sylvestre was worried, because a mate called Jean (which Bretons pronounce “Yann”) did not come down below. Where could Yann be, by the way? was he lashed to his work on deck? Why did he not come below to take his share in their feast?

“It’s close on midnight, hows’ever,” observed the captain; and drawing himself up he raised the scuttle with his head, so as to call Yann that way.

Then a weird glimmer fell from above.

“Yann! Yann! Look alive, matey!”

“Matey” answered roughly from outside while through the half-opened hatchway the faint light kept entering like that of dawn. Nearly midnight, yet it looked like a peep of day, or the light of the starry gloaming, sent from afar through mystic lenses of magicians.

When the aperture closed, night reigned again, save for the small lamp, “sended” now and again aside, which shed its yellow light. A man in clogs was heard coming down the wooden steps.

He entered bent in two like a big bear, for he was a giant. At first he made a wry face, holding his nose, because of the acrid smell of the souse.

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

Sylvestre threw his arms round Yann, and drew him towards him tenderly, after the fashion of children. Sylvestre was betrothed to Yann’s sister, and he treated him as an elder brother, of course. And Yann allowed himself to be pulled about like a young lion, answering by a kind smile that showed his white teeth. These were somewhat far apart, and appeared quite small. His fair moustache was rather short, although never cut. It was tightly curled in small rolls above his lips, which were most exquisitely and delicately modelled, and then frizzed off at the ends on either side of the deep corners of his mouth. The remainder of his beard was shaven, and his highly coloured cheeks retained a fresh bloom like that of fruit never yet handled.

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

The lighting of all the pipes was an excuse for the cabin boy to smoke a few wiffs himself. He was a robust little fellow, with round cheeks—a kind of little brother to them all, more or less related to one another as they were; otherwise his work had been hard enough for the darling of the crew. Yann let him drink out of his own glass before he was sent to bed. Thereupon the important topic of marriage was revived.

“But I say, Yann,” asked Sylvestre, “when are we going to celebrate your wedding?”

“You ought to be ashamed,” said the master; “a hulking chap like you, twenty-seven years old and not yet spliced; ho, ho! What must the lasses think of you when they see you roll by?”

Yann answered by snapping his thick fingers with a contemptuous look for the women folk. He had just worked off his five years’ government naval service; and it was as master-gunner of the fleet that he had learned to speak good French and hold sceptical opinions. He hemmed and hawed and then rattled off his latest love adventure, which had lasted a fortnight.

It happened in Nantes, a Free-and-Easy singer for the heroine. One evening, returning from the waterside, being slightly tipsy, he had entered the music hall. At the door stood a woman selling big bouquets at twenty francs apiece. He had bought one without quite knowing what he should do with it, and before he was much more than in had thrown it with great force at the vocalist upon the stage, striking her full in the face, partly as a rough declaration of love, partly through disgust for the painted doll that was too pink for his taste. The blow had felled the woman to the boards, and—she worshipped him during the three following weeks.

“Why, bless ye, lads, when I left she made me this here present of a real gold watch.”

The better to show it them he threw it upon the table like a worthless toy.

This was told with coarse words and oratorical flourishes of his own. Yet this commonplace of civilized life jarred sadly among such simple men, with the grand solemnity of the ocean around them; in the glimmering of midnight, falling from above, was an impression of the fleeting summers of the far north country.

These ways of Yann greatly pained and surprised Sylvestre. He was a girlish boy, brought up in respect for holy things, by an old grandmother, 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 his beads over his mother’s grave. From the churchyard on the cliff the grey waters of the Channel, wherein his father had disappeared in a shipwreck, could be seen in the far distance.

As his grandmother and himself were poor he had to take to fishing in his early youth, and his childhood had been spent out on the open water. Every night he said his prayers, and his eyes still wore their religious purity. He was captivating though, and next to Yann the finest-built lad of the crew. His voice was very soft, and its boyish tones contrasted markedly with his tall height and black beard; as he had shot up very rapidly he was almost puzzled to find himself grown suddenly so tall and big. He expected to marry Yann’s sister soon, but never yet had answered any girl’s love advances.

There were only three sleeping bunks aboard, one being double-berthed, so they “turned in” alternately.

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

It was daylight, the everlasting day of those regions—a pale, dim light, resembling no other—bathing all things, like the gleams of a setting sun. Around them stretched an immense colourless waste, and excepting the planks of their ship, all seemed transparent, 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 to reflect; and in the distance it became a desert of vapour; and beyond that a void, having neither horizon nor limits.

The damp freshness of the air was more intensely penetrating than dry frost; and when breathing it, one tasted the flavour of brine. All was calm, and the rain had ceased; overhead the clouds, without form or colour, seemed to conceal that latent light that could not be explained; the eye could see clearly, yet one was still conscious of the night; this dimness was all of an indefinable hue.

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

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

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

The hours passed monotonously, while in the immeasurably empty regions beyond the light slowly changed till it grew less unreal. What at first had appeared a livid gloaming, like a northern summer’s eve, became now, without any intervening “dark hour before dawn,” something like a smiling morn, reflected by all the facets of the oceans in fading, roseate-edged streaks.

“You really ought to marry, Yann,” said Sylvestre, suddenly and very seriously this time, still looking into the water. (He seemed to know somebody in Brittany, who had allowed herself to be captivated by the brown eyes of his “big brother,” but he felt shy upon so solemn a subject.)

“Me! Lor’, yes, some day I will marry.” He smiled, did the always contemptuous Yann, rolling his passionate eyes. “But I’ll have none of the lasses at home; no, I’ll wed the sea, and I invite ye all in the barkey 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 had not ceased passing for the last two days.

They had been up all night, and in thirty hours had caught more than a thousand prime cods; so that even their strong arms were tired and they were half asleep. But their bodies remained active and they continued their toil, though occasionally their minds floated off into regions of profound sleep. But the free air they breathed was as pure as that of the first young days of the world, and so bracing, that notwithstanding their weariness they felt their chests expand and their cheeks glow as at arising.

Morning, the true morning light, at length came; as in the days of Genesis, it had “divided from the darkness,” which had settled upon the horizon and rested there in great heavy masses; and by the clearness of vision now, it was seen night had passed, and that that first vague strange glimmer was only a forerunner. In the thickly-veiled heavens, broke out rents here and there, like side skylights in a dome, through which pierced glorious rays of light, silver and rosy. 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 veiling the infinite, or as draperies drawn to hide the too majestic mysteries, which would have perturbed the imagination of mortals.

On this special morning, around the small plank platform occupied by Yann and Sylvestre, the shifting outer world had an appearance of deep meditation, as though this were an altar recently raised; and the sheaves of sun-rays, which darted like arrows under the sacred arch, spread in a long glimmering stream over the motionless waves, as over a marble floor. Then, slowly and more slowly yet loomed still another wonder; a high, majestic, pink profile—it was a promontory of gloomy Iceland.

Yann’s wedding with the sea? Sylvestre was still thinking of it—after resuming his fishing without daring to say anything more. He had felt quite sad when his big brother had so turned the holy sacrament of marriage into ridicule; and it particularly had frightened him, as he was superstitious.

For so long, too, he had mused on Yann’s marriage! He had thought that it might take place with Gaud Mevel, a blonde lass from Paimpol; and that he would have the happiness of being present at the marriage-feast before starting for the navy, that long five years’ exile, with its dubious 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 of the fresh, chill air, they stepped up, drawing their long sea-boots higher, and having to shut their eyes, dazzled at first by a light so pale, yet in such abundance.

Yann and Sylvestre took their breakfast of biscuits, which they had to break with a mallet, and began to munch noisily, laughing at their being so very hard. They had become quite merry again at the idea of going down to sleep, snugly and warmly in their berths; and clasping each other round the waist they danced up to the hatchway to an old song-tune.

Before disappearing through the aperture they stopped to play with Turc, 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 and anger in his quick-changing eyes, pushed him aside with an impatient blow that sent him flying and made him howl. Yann had a kind heart enough, but his nature remained rather untamed, and when his physical being was touched, a tender caress was often more like a manifestation of brutal violence.

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