In the long grass bordering the road a face glided past the carriage
Sunday, January 24, 2016
SUNDAY REVIEW / “THE IDIOTS” / BY JOSEPH CONRAD
INTERNATIONALLY ACCLAIMED SHORT FICTION
In the long grass bordering the road a face glided past the carriage
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We were driving along the road from Treguier to Kervanda. We passed at a smart trot between the hedges topping an earth wall on each side of
the road; then at the foot of the steep ascent before Ploumar the horse
dropped into a walk, and the driver jumped down heavily from the box.
He flicked his whip and climbed the incline, stepping clumsily uphill
by the side of the carriage, one hand on the footboard, his eyes on the
ground. After a while he lifted his head, pointed up the road with the
end of the whip, and said–
The sun was shining violently upon the undulating surface of the land.
The rises were topped by clumps of meager trees, with their branches
showing high on the sky as if they had been perched upon stilts. The
small fields, cut up by hedges and stone walls that zigzagged over
the slopes, lay in rectangular patches of vivid greens and yellows,
resembling the unskillful daubs of a naive picture. And the landscape was
divided in two by the white streak of a road stretching in long loops
far away, like a river of dust crawling out of the hills on its way to
“Here he is,” said the driver, again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) Born a Ukrainian, Joseph Conrad is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the English language. He was granted British nationality in 1886 but always considered himself first and foremost an Eastern European.
In the long grass bordering the road a face glided past the carriage
at the level of the wheels as we drove slowly by. The imbecile face was
red, and the bullet head with close-cropped hair seemed to lie alone,
its chin in the dust. The body was lost in the bushes growing thick
along the bottom of the deep ditch.
It was a boy’s face. He might have been sixteen, judging from the
size–perhaps less, perhaps more. Such creatures are forgotten by
time, and live untouched by years till death gathers them up into its
compassionate bosom; the faithful death that never forgets in the press
of work the most insignificant of its children.
“Ah! there’s another,” said the man, with a certain satisfaction in his
tone, as if he had caught sight of something expected.
There was another. That one stood nearly in the middle of the road in
the blaze of sunshine at the end of his own short shadow. And he stood
with hands pushed into the opposite sleeves of his long coat, his head
sunk between the shoulders, all hunched up in the flood of heat. From a
distance he had the aspect of one suffering from intense cold.
“Those are twins,” explained the driver.
The idiot shuffled two paces out of the way and looked at us over his
shoulder when we brushed past him. The glance was unseeing and staring,
a fascinated glance; but he did not turn to look after us. Probably the
image passed before the eyes without leaving any trace on the misshapen
brain of the creature. When we had topped the ascent I looked over the
hood. He stood in the road just where we had left him.
The driver clambered into his seat, clicked his tongue, and we went
downhill. The brake squeaked horribly from time to time. At the foot he
eased off the noisy mechanism and said, turning half round on his box–
“We shall see some more of them by-and-by.”
“More idiots? How many of them are there, then?” I asked.
“There’s four of them–children of a farmer near Ploumar here. . . . The
parents are dead now,” he added, after a while. “The grandmother lives
on the farm. In the daytime they knock about on this road, and they come
home at dusk along with the cattle. . . . It’s a good farm.”
We saw the other two: a boy and a girl, as the driver said. They were
dressed exactly alike, in shapeless garments with petticoat-like skirts.
The imperfect thing that lived within them moved those beings to howl
at us from the top of the bank, where they sprawled amongst the tough
stalks of furze. Their cropped black heads stuck out from the bright
yellow wall of countless small blossoms. The faces were purple with
the strain of yelling; the voices sounded blank and cracked like a
mechanical imitation of old people’s voices; and suddenly ceased when we
turned into a lane.
I saw them many times in my wandering about the country. They lived on
that road, drifting along its length here and there, according to the
inexplicable impulses of their monstrous darkness. They were an
offence to the sunshine, a reproach to empty heaven, a blight on the
concentrated and purposeful vigour of the wild landscape. In time the
story of their parents shaped itself before me out of the listless
answers to my questions, out of the indifferent words heard in wayside
inns or on the very road those idiots haunted. Some of it was told by
an emaciated and sceptical old fellow with a tremendous whip, while we
trudged together over the sands by the side of a two-wheeled cart loaded
with dripping seaweed.
Then at other times other people confirmed and
completed the story: till it stood at last before me, a tale formidable
and simple, as they always are, those disclosures of obscure trials
endured by ignorant hearts.
When he returned from his military service Jean-Pierre Bacadou found the
old people very much aged. He remarked with pain that the work of the
farm was not satisfactorily done. The father had not the energy of
old days. The hands did not feel over them the eye of the master.
Jean-Pierre noted with sorrow that the heap of manure in the courtyard
before the only entrance to the house was not so large as it should
The fences were out of repair, and the cattle suffered from
neglect. At home the mother was practically bedridden, and the girls
chattered loudly in the big kitchen, unrebuked, from morning to night.
He said to himself: “We must change all this.” He talked the matter over
with his father one evening when the rays of the setting sun entering
the yard between the outhouses ruled the heavy shadows with luminous
Over the manure heap floated a mist, opal-tinted and odorous,
and the marauding hens would stop in their scratching to examine with
a sudden glance of their round eye the two men, both lean and tall,
talking in hoarse tones. The old man, all twisted with rheumatism and
bowed with years of work, the younger bony and straight, spoke without
gestures in the indifferent manner of peasants, grave and slow.
But before the sun had set the father had submitted to the sensible
arguments of the son.
“It is not for me that I am speaking,” insisted
Jean-Pierre. “It is for the land. It’s a pity to see it badly used. I am
not impatient for myself.”
The old fellow nodded over his stick. “I dare say; I dare say,” he muttered. “You may be right. Do what you like. It’s the mother that will be pleased.”
The mother was pleased with her daughter-in-law. Jean-Pierre brought
the two-wheeled spring-cart with a rush into the yard. The gray horse
galloped clumsily, and the bride and bridegroom, sitting side by side,
were jerked backwards and forwards by the up and down motion of the
shafts, in a manner regular and brusque.
On the road the distanced wedding guests straggled in pairs and groups. The men advanced with heavy steps, swinging their idle arms. They were clad in town clothes; jackets cut with clumsy smartness, hard black hats, immense boots, polished highly. Their women all in simple black, with white caps and shawls of faded tints folded triangularly on the back, strolled lightly by their side. In front the violin sang a strident tune, and the biniou snored and hummed, while the player capered solemnly, lifting high his heavy clogs.
The somber procession drifted in and out of the narrow
lanes, through sunshine and through shade, between fields and hedgerows,
scaring the little birds that darted away in troops right and left. In
the yard of Bacadou’s farm the dark ribbon wound itself up into a mass
of men and women pushing at the door with cries and greetings. The
wedding dinner was remembered for months. It was a splendid feast in the
orchard. Farmers of considerable means and excellent repute were to be
found sleeping in ditches, all along the road to Treguier, even as late
as the afternoon of the next day.
All the countryside participated in the happiness of Jean-Pierre. He remained sober, and, together with his quiet wife, kept out of the way, letting father and mother reap their due of honor and thanks. But the next day he took hold strongly, and the old folks felt a shadow–precursor of the grave–fall upon them finally. The world is to the young.
When the twins were born there was plenty of room in the house, for the
mother of Jean-Pierre had gone away to dwell under a heavy stone in the
cemetery of Ploumar. On that day, for the first time since his son’s
marriage, the elder Bacadou, neglected by the cackling lot of strange
women who thronged the kitchen, left in the morning his seat under the
mantel of the fireplace, and went into the empty cow-house, shaking his
white locks dismally.
Grandsons were all very well, but he wanted his soup at midday. When shown the babies, he stared at them with a fixed gaze, and muttered something like: “It’s too much.” Whether he meant too
much happiness, or simply commented upon the number of his descendants, it is impossible to say. He looked offended–as far as his old wooden face could express anything; and for days afterwards could be seen, almost any time of the day, sitting at the gate, with his nose over his
knees, a pipe between his gums, and gathered up into a kind of raging
concentrated sulkiness. Once he spoke to his son, alluding to the
newcomers with a groan: “They will quarrel over the land.” “Don’t bother
about that, father,” answered Jean-Pierre, stolidly, and passed, bent
double, towing a recalcitrant cow over his shoulder.
He was happy, and so was Susan, his wife. It was not an ethereal joy
welcoming new souls to struggle, perchance to victory. In fourteen years
both boys would be a help; and, later on, Jean-Pierre pictured two big
sons striding over the land from patch to patch, wringing tribute from
the earth beloved and fruitful.
Susan was happy too, for she did not want to be spoken of as the unfortunate woman, and now she had children no one could call her that. Both herself and her husband had seen something of the larger world–he during the time of his service; while she had spent a year or so in Paris with a Breton family; but had been too home-sick to remain longer away from the hilly and green country, set in a barren circle of rocks and sands, where she had been born.
She thought that one of the boys ought perhaps to be a priest, but said
nothing to her husband, who was a republican, and hated the “crows,”
as he called the ministers of religion. The christening was a splendid
affair. All the commune came to it, for the Bacadous were rich
and influential, and, now and then, did not mind the expense. The
grandfather had a new coat.
Some months afterwards, one evening when the kitchen had been swept,
and the door locked, Jean-Pierre, looking at the cot, asked his wife:
“What’s the matter with those children?” And, as if these words, spoken
calmly, had been the portent of misfortune, she answered with a loud
wail that must have been heard across the yard in the pig-sty; for
the pigs (the Bacadous had the finest pigs in the country) stirred and
grunted complainingly in the night.
The husband went on grinding his bread and butter slowly, gazing at the wall, the soup-plate smoking under his chin. He had returned late from the market, where he had overheard (not for the first time) whispers behind his back. He revolved the words in his mind as he drove back.
“Simple! Both of them. . . .Never any use! . . . Well! May be, may be. One must see. Would ask his wife.” This was her answer.
He felt like a blow on his chest, but said only: “Go, draw me some cider. I am thirsty!”
She went out moaning, an empty jug in her hand. Then he arose, took up
the light, and moved slowly towards the cradle. They slept. He looked at
them sideways, finished his mouthful there, went back heavily, and sat
down before his plate. When his wife returned he never looked up,
but swallowed a couple of spoonfuls noisily, and remarked, in a dull
“When they sleep they are like other people’s children.”
She sat down suddenly on a stool near by, and shook with a silent
tempest of sobs, unable to speak. He finished his meal, and remained
idly thrown back in his chair, his eyes lost amongst the black rafters
of the ceiling. Before him the tallow candle flared red and straight,
sending up a slender thread of smoke. The light lay on the rough,
sunburnt skin of his throat; the sunk cheeks were like patches of
darkness, and his aspect was mournfully stolid, as if he had ruminated
with difficulty endless ideas. Then he said, deliberately–
“We must see . . . consult people. Don’t cry. . . . They won’t all be
like that . . . surely! We must sleep now.”
After the third child, also a boy, was born, Jean-Pierre went about his
work with tense hopefulness. His lips seemed more narrow, more tightly
compressed than before; as if for fear of letting the earth he tilled
hear the voice of hope that murmured within his breast. He watched the
child, stepping up to the cot with a heavy clang of sabots on the stone
floor, and glanced in, along his shoulder, with that indifference which
is like a deformity of peasant humanity.
Like the earth they master and serve, those men, slow of eye and speech, do not show the inner fire; so that, at last, it becomes a question with them as with the earth, what there is in the core: heat, violence, a force mysterious and terrible–or nothing but a clod, a mass fertile and inert, cold and unfeeling, ready to bear a crop of plants that sustain life or give
The mother watched with other eyes; listened with otherwise expectant
ears. Under the high hanging shelves supporting great sides of bacon
overhead, her body was busy by the great fireplace, attentive to the pot
swinging on iron gallows, scrubbing the long table where the field hands
would sit down directly to their evening meal. Her mind remained by the
cradle, night and day on the watch, to hope and suffer.
That child, like the other two, never smiled, never stretched its hands to her, never spoke; never had a glance of recognition for her in its big black eyes, which could only stare fixedly at any glitter, but failed hopelessly to
follow the brilliance of a sun-ray slipping slowly along the floor.
When the men were at work she spent long days between her three idiot
children and the childish grandfather, who sat grim, angular, and
immovable, with his feet near the warm ashes of the fire. The feeble
old fellow seemed to suspect that there was something wrong with his
grandsons. Only once, moved either by affection or by the sense of
proprieties, he attempted to nurse the youngest.
He took the boy up from the floor, clicked his tongue at him, and essayed a shaky gallop of his bony knees. Then he looked closely with his misty eyes at the child’s face and deposited him down gently on the floor again. And he sat, his lean shanks crossed, nodding at the steam escaping from the cooking-pot with a gaze senile and worried.
Then mute affliction dwelt in Bacadou’s farmhouse, sharing the breath
and the bread of its inhabitants; and the priest of the Ploumar parish
had great cause for congratulation. He called upon the rich landowner,
the Marquis de Chavanes, on purpose to deliver himself with joyful
unction of solemn platitudes about the inscrutable ways of Providence.
In the vast dimness of the curtained drawing-room, the little man,
resembling a black bolster, leaned towards a couch, his hat on
his knees, and gesticulated with a fat hand at the elongated,
gracefully-flowing lines of the clear Parisian toilette from which the
half-amused, half-bored marquise listened with gracious languor. He was
exulting and humble, proud and awed. The impossible had come to pass.
Jean-Pierre Bacadou, the enraged republican farmer, had been to mass
last Sunday–had proposed to entertain the visiting priests at the next
festival of Ploumar! It was a triumph for the Church and for the good
“I thought I would come at once to tell Monsieur le Marquis. I
know how anxious he is for the welfare of our country,” declared the
priest, wiping his face. He was asked to stay to dinner.
The Chavanes returning that evening, after seeing their guest to the
main gate of the park, discussed the matter while they strolled in
the moonlight, trailing their long shadows up the straight avenue of
chestnuts. The marquise, a royalist of course, had been mayor of the
commune which includes Ploumar, the scattered hamlets of the coast, and
the stony islands that fringe the yellow flatness of the sands. He had
felt his position insecure, for there was a strong republican element in
that part of the country; but now the conversion of Jean-Pierre made
him safe. He was very pleased.
“You have no idea how influential those people are,” he explained to his wife. “Now, I am sure, the next communal election will go all right. I shall be re-elected.”
“Your ambition is perfectly insatiable, Charles,” exclaimed the marquise,
“But, ma chere amie,” argued the husband, seriously, “it’s most
important that the right man should be mayor this year, because of the
elections to the Chamber. If you think it amuses me . . .”
Jean-Pierre had surrendered to his wife’s mother. Madame Levaille was
a woman of business, known and respected within a radius of at least
15 miles. Thick-set and stout, she was seen about the country, on
foot or in an acquaintance’s cart, perpetually moving, in spite of her
fifty-eight years, in steady pursuit of business. She had houses in all
the hamlets, she worked quarries of granite, she freighted coasters
with stone–even traded with the Channel Islands.
She was broad-cheeked, wide-eyed, persuasive in speech: carrying her point with the placid and invincible obstinacy of an old woman who knows her own mind. She very seldom slept for two nights together in the same house; and the wayside inns were the best places to inquire in as to her whereabouts.
She had either passed, or was expected to pass there at six; or somebody, coming in, had seen her in the morning, or expected to meet her that evening.
After the inns that command the roads, the churches were the buildings
she frequented most. Men of liberal opinions would induce small children
to run into sacred edifices to see whether Madame Levaille was there,
and to tell her that so-and-so was in the road waiting to speak to her
about potatoes, or flour, or stones, or houses; and she would curtail
her devotions, come out blinking and crossing herself into the sunshine;
ready to discuss business matters in a calm, sensible way across a table
in the kitchen of the inn opposite.
Latterly she had stayed for a few days several times with her son-in-law, arguing against sorrow and misfortune with composed face and gentle tones. Jean-Pierre felt the convictions imbibed in the regiment torn out of his breast–not by arguments but by facts. Striding over his fields he thought it over.
There were three of them.
All alike! Why?
Such things did not happen to everybody–to nobody he ever heard of. One–might pass. But three! All three. Forever useless, to be fed while he lived and . . .
What would become of the land when he died? This must be seen to. He
would sacrifice his convictions. One day he told his wife: “See what your God will do for us. Pay for some masses.”
Susan embraced her man. He stood unbending, then turned on his heels and went out. But afterwards, when a black soutane darkened his doorway,
he did not object; even offered some cider himself to the priest.
He listened to the talk meekly; went to mass between the two women;
accomplished what the priest called “his religious duties” at Easter.
That morning he felt like a man who had sold his soul. In the afternoon
he fought ferociously with an old friend and neighbor who had remarked
that the priests had the best of it and were now going to eat the
He came home disheveled and bleeding, and happening to
catch sight of his children (they were kept generally out of the way),
cursed and swore incoherently, banging the table. Susan wept. Madame
Levaille sat serenely unmoved. She assured her daughter that “It will
pass;” and taking up her thick umbrella, departed in haste to see after
a schooner she was going to load with granite from her quarry.
A year or so afterwards the girl was born. A girl. Jean-Pierre heard of
it in the fields, and was so upset by the news that he sat down on the
boundary wall and remained there till the evening, instead of going home
as he was urged to do. A girl! He felt half cheated. However, when he
got home he was partly reconciled to his fate. One could marry her to
a good fellow–not to a good for nothing, but to a fellow with some
understanding and a good pair of arms.
Besides, the next may be a boy, he thought. Of course they would be all right. His new credulity knew of no doubt. The ill luck was broken. He spoke cheerily to his wife.
She was also hopeful. Three priests came to that christening, and Madame
Levaille was godmother. The child turned out an idiot too.
Then on market days Jean-Pierre was seen bargaining bitterly,
quarrelsome and greedy; then getting drunk with taciturn earnestness;
then driving home in the dusk at a rate fit for a wedding, but with a
face gloomy enough for a funeral. Sometimes he would insist on his wife
coming with him; and they would drive in the early morning, shaking side
by side on the narrow seat above the helpless pig, that, with tied legs,
grunted a melancholy sigh at every rut.
The morning drives were silent; but in the evening, coming home, Jean-Pierre, tipsy, was viciously muttering, and growled at the confounded woman who could not rear children that were like anybody else’s.
Susan, holding on against the erratic swayings of the cart, pretended not to hear. Once, as they were driving through Ploumar, some obscure and drunken impulse caused him to pull up sharply opposite the church.
The moon swam amongst light white clouds. The tombstones gleamed pale under the fretted shadows of the trees in the churchyard. Even the village dogs slept. Only the nightingales, awake, spun out the thrill of their song above the silence of graves. Jean-Pierre said thickly to his wife: “What do you think is there?”
He pointed his whip at the tower–in which the big dial of the clock
appeared high in the moonlight like a pallid face without eyes–and
getting out carefully, fell down at once by the wheel. He picked
himself up and climbed one by one the few steps to the iron gate of the
churchyard. He put his face to the bars and called out indistinctly–
“Hey there! Come out!”
“Jean! Return! Return!” entreated his wife in low tones.
He took no notice, and seemed to wait there. The song of nightingales
beat on all sides against the high walls of the church, and flowed back
between stone crosses and flat gray slabs, engraved with words of hope
“Hey! Come out!” shouted Jean-Pierre, loudly.
The nightingales ceased to sing.
“Nobody?” went on Jean-Pierre. “Nobody there. A swindle of the crows.
That’s what this is. Nobody anywhere. I despise it. _Allez! Houp!_”
He shook the gate with all his strength, and the iron bars rattled with
a frightful clanging, like a chain dragged over stone steps. A dog
near by barked hurriedly. Jean-Pierre staggered back, and after three
successive dashes got into his cart. Susan sat very quiet and still. He
said to her with drunken severity: “See? Nobody. I’ve been made a fool! _Malheur!_ Somebody will pay for it.
The next one I see near the house I will lay my whip on . . . on the
black spine . . . I will. I don’t want him in there . . . he only helps
the carrion crows to rob poor folk. I am a man. . . . We will see if
I can’t have children like anybody else . . . now you mind. . . . They
won’t be all . . . all . . . we see. . . .”
She burst out through the fingers that hid her face–
“Don’t say that, Jean; don’t say that, my man!”
He struck her a swinging blow on the head with the back of his hand
and knocked her into the bottom of the cart, where she crouched,
thrown about lamentably by every jolt.
He drove furiously, standing up, brandishing his whip, shaking the reins over the gray horse that galloped ponderously, making the heavy harness leap upon his broad quarters. The country rang clamorous in the night with the irritated barking of farm dogs, that followed the rattle of wheels all along the road.
A couple of belated wayfarers had only just time to step into the
ditch. At his own gate he caught the post and was shot out of the cart
head first. The horse went on slowly to the door. At Susan’s piercing
cries the farm hands rushed out. She thought him dead, but he was only
sleeping where he fell, and cursed his men, who hastened to him, for
disturbing his slumbers.
Autumn came. The clouded sky descended low upon the black contours
of the hills; and the dead leaves danced in spiral whirls under naked
trees, till the wind, sighing profoundly, laid them to rest in the
hollows of bare valleys. And from morning till night one could see all
over the land black denuded boughs, the boughs gnarled and twisted, as
if contorted with pain, swaying sadly between the wet clouds and
the soaked earth.
The clear and gentle streams of summer days rushed discoloured and raging at the stones that barred the way to the sea, with the fury of madness bent upon suicide. From horizon to horizon the
great road to the sands lay between the hills in a dull glitter of empty
curves, resembling an unnavigable river of mud.
Jean-Pierre went from field to field, moving blurred and tall in the
drizzle, or striding on the crests of rises, lonely and high upon the
gray curtain of drifting clouds, as if he had been pacing along the very
edge of the universe. He looked at the black earth, at the earth
mute and promising, at the mysterious earth doing its work of life in
death-like stillness under the veiled sorrow of the sky. And it seemed
to him that to a man worse than childless there was no promise in
the fertility of fields, that from him the earth escaped, defied him,
frowned at him like the clouds, sombre and hurried above his head.
Having to face alone his own fields, he felt the inferiority of man who
passes away before the clod that remains. Must he give up the hope of
having by his side a son who would look at the turned-up sods with a
master’s eye? A man that would think as he thought, that would feel as
he felt; a man who would be part of himself, and yet remain to trample
masterfully on that earth when he was gone?
He thought of some distant relations, and felt savage enough to curse them aloud. They! Never! He turned homewards, going straight at the roof of his dwelling, visible between the enlaced skeletons of trees. As he swung his legs over the stile a cawing flock of birds settled slowly on the field; dropped down behind his back, noiseless and fluttering, like flakes of soot.
That day Madame Levaille had gone early in the afternoon to the house
she had near Kervanion. She had to pay some of the men who worked in her granite quarry there, and she went in good time because her little house contained a shop where the workmen could spend their wages without the trouble of going to town.
The house stood alone amongst rocks. A lane of mud and stones ended at the door. The sea-winds coming ashore on Stonecutter’s point, fresh from the fierce turmoil of the waves, howled violently at the unmoved heaps of black boulders holding up steadily short-armed, high crosses against the tremendous rush of the invisible.
In the sweep of gales the sheltered dwelling stood in a calm resonant
and disquieting, like the calm in the centre of a hurricane. On stormy
nights, when the tide was out, the bay of Fougere, 50 feet below the
house, resembled an immense black pit, from which ascended mutterings
and sighs as if the sands down there had been alive and complaining.
At high tide the returning water assaulted the ledges of rock in short
rushes, ending in bursts of livid light and columns of spray, that flew
inland, stinging to death the grass of pastures.
The darkness came from the hills, flowed over the coast, put out the red
fires of sunset, and went on to seaward pursuing the retiring tide. The
wind dropped with the sun, leaving a maddened sea and a devastated sky.
The heavens above the house seemed to be draped in black rags, held up
here and there by pins of fire. Madame Levaille, for this evening the
servant of her own workmen, tried to induce them to depart. “An old
woman like me ought to be in bed at this late hour,” she good-humouredly
The quarrymen drank, asked for more. They shouted over the
table as if they had been talking across a field. At one end four
of them played cards, banging the wood with their hard knuckles, and
swearing at every lead.
One sat with a lost gaze, humming a bar of some song, which he repeated endlessly. Two others, in a corner, were quarrelling confidentially and fiercely over some woman, looking close into one another’s eyes as if they had wanted to tear them out, but speaking in whispers that promised violence and murder discreetly, in a venomous sibillation of subdued words.
The atmosphere in there was thick enough to slice with a knife.
Three candles burning about the long room glowed red and dull like sparks expiring in ashes.
The slight click of the iron latch was at that late hour as unexpected
and startling as a thunder-clap. Madame Levaille put down a bottle
she held above a liqueur glass; the players turned their heads; the
whispered quarrel ceased; only the singer, after darting a glance at the
door, went on humming with a stolid face.
Susan appeared in the doorway, stepped in, flung the door to, and put her back against it, saying, half aloud: “Mother!”
Madame Levaille, taking up the bottle again, said calmly: “Here you are,
my girl. What a state you are in!” The neck of the bottle rang on the
rim of the glass, for the old woman was startled, and the idea that the
farm had caught fire had entered her head. She could think of no other
cause for her daughter’s appearance.
Susan, soaked and muddy, stared the whole length of the room towards the
men at the far end. Her mother asked: “What has happened? God guard us from misfortune!”
Susan moved her lips. No sound came. Madame Levaille stepped up to her
daughter, took her by the arm, looked into her face.
“In God’s name,” she said, shakily, “what’s the matter? You have been
rolling in mud. . . . Why did you come? . . . Where’s Jean?”
The men had all got up and approached slowly, staring with dull
surprise. Madame Levaille jerked her daughter away from the door, swung
her round upon a seat close to the wall. Then she turned fiercely to the
men: “Enough of this! Out you go–you others! I close.”
One of them observed, looking down at Susan collapsed on the seat: “She
is–one may say–half dead.”
Madame Levaille flung the door open.
“Get out! March!” she cried, shaking nervously.
They dropped out into the night, laughing stupidly. Outside, the two
Lotharios broke out into loud shouts. The others tried to soothe them,
all talking at once. The noise went away up the lane with the men,
who staggered together in a tight knot, remonstrating with one another
“Speak, Susan. What is it? Speak!” entreated Madame Levaille, as soon as
the door was shut.
Susan pronounced some incomprehensible words, glaring at the table. The
old woman clapped her hands above her head, let them drop, and stood
looking at her daughter with disconsolate eyes. Her husband had been
“deranged in his head” for a few years before he died, and now she began
to suspect her daughter was going mad. She asked, pressingly: “Does Jean know where you are? Where is Jean?”
“He knows . . . he is dead.”
“What!” cried the old woman. She came up near, and peering at her
daughter, repeated three times: “What do you say? What do you say? What
do you say?”
Susan sat dry-eyed and stony before Madame Levaille, who contemplated
her, feeling a strange sense of inexplicable horror creep into the
silence of the house. She had hardly realised the news, further than to
understand that she had been brought in one short moment face to face
with something unexpected and final. It did not even occur to her to ask
for any explanation. She thought: accident–terrible accident–blood to
the head–fell down a trap door in the loft. . . . She remained there,
distracted and mute, blinking her old eyes.
Suddenly, Susan said: “I have killed him.”
For a moment the mother stood still, almost unbreathing, but with
composed face. The next second she burst out into a shout–
“You miserable madwoman . . . they will cut your neck. . . .”
She fancied the gendarmes entering the house, saying to her: “We want
your daughter; give her up:” the gendarmes with the severe, hard faces
of men on duty. She knew the brigadier well–an old friend, familiar
and respectful, saying heartily, “To your good health, Madame!” before
lifting to his lips the small glass of cognac–out of the special bottle
she kept for friends. And now! . . . She was losing her head. She rushed
here and there, as if looking for something urgently needed–gave that
up, stood stock still in the middle of the room, and screamed at her
daughter: “Why? Say! Say! Why?”
The other seemed to leap out of her strange apathy.
“Do you think I am made of stone?” she shouted back, striding towards
“No! It’s impossible . . .” said Madame Levaille, in a convinced tone.
“You go and see, mother,” retorted Susan, looking at her with blazing
eyes. “There’s no money in heaven–no justice. No! . . . I did not know.
. . . Do you think I have no heart? Do you think I have never heard
people jeering at me, pitying me, wondering at me?
“Do you know how some of them were calling me? The mother of idiots–that was my nickname!
“And my children never would know me, never speak to me. They would know nothing; neither men–nor God.
“Haven’t I prayed! But the Mother of God herself would not hear me. A mother! . . . Who is accursed–I, or the man who is dead?
“Eh? Tell me. I took care of myself. Do you think I would defy the anger of God and have my house full of those things–that are worse than animals who know the hand that feeds them? Who blasphemed in the night at the very church door?
“Was it I? . . . I only wept and prayed for mercy . . . and I feel the curse at every moment of the day–I see it round me from morning to night . . . I’ve got to keep them alive–to take care of my misfortune and shame. And he would come.
“I begged him and Heaven for mercy. . . . No! . . . Then we shall see. . . .
He came this evening. I thought to myself: ‘Ah! again!’ . . . I had
my long scissors. I heard him shouting . . . I saw him near. . . . I
must–must I? . . . Then take! . . .
“And I struck him in the throat above the breastbone. . . . I never heard him even sigh. . . . I left him standing. . . . It was a minute ago. How did I come here?”
Madame Levaille shivered. A wave of cold ran down her back, down her
fat arms under her tight sleeves, made her stamp gently where she stood.
Quivers ran over the broad cheeks, across the thin lips, ran amongst the
wrinkles at the corners of her steady old eyes. She stammered–
“You wicked woman–you disgrace me. But there! You always resembled your father. What do you think will become of you . . . in the other world?
In this . . . Oh misery!”
She was very hot now. She felt burning inside. She wrung her perspiring
hands–and suddenly, starting in great haste, began to look for her big
shawl and umbrella, feverishly, never once glancing at her daughter, who
stood in the middle of the room following her with a gaze distracted and
“Nothing worse than in this,” said Susan.
Her mother, umbrella in hand and trailing the shawl over the floor,
“I must go to the priest,” she burst out passionately. “I do not know
whether you even speak the truth! You are a horrible woman. They will
find you anywhere. You may stay here–or go. There is no room for you in
Ready now to depart, she yet wandered aimlessly about the room, putting
the bottles on the shelf, trying to fit with trembling hands the covers
on cardboard boxes. Whenever the real sense of what she had heard
emerged for a second from the haze of her thoughts she would fancy that
something had exploded in her brain without, unfortunately, bursting her
head to pieces–which would have been a relief. She blew the candles
out one by one without knowing it, and was horribly startled by the
darkness. She fell on a bench and began to whimper. After a while she
ceased, and sat listening to the breathing of her daughter, whom she
could hardly see, still and upright, giving no other sign of life. She
was becoming old rapidly at last, during those minutes. She spoke in
tones unsteady, cut about by the rattle of teeth, like one shaken by a
deadly cold fit of ague.
“I wish you had died little. I will never dare to show my old head in
the sunshine again. There are worse misfortunes than idiot children. I
wish you had been born to me simple–like your own. . . .”
She saw the figure of her daughter pass before the faint and livid
clearness of a window. Then it appeared in the doorway for a second, and
the door swung to with a clang. Madame Levaille, as if awakened by the
noise from a long nightmare, rushed out.
“Susan!” she shouted from the doorstep.
She heard a stone roll a long time down the declivity of the rocky beach
above the sands. She stepped forward cautiously, one hand on the wall
of the house, and peered down into the smooth darkness of the empty bay.
Once again she cried–
“Susan! You will kill yourself there.”
The stone had taken its last leap in the dark, and she heard nothing
now. A sudden thought seemed to strangle her, and she called no more.
She turned her back upon the black silence of the pit and went up the
lane towards Ploumar, stumbling along with sombre determination, as if
she had started on a desperate journey that would last, perhaps, to the
end of her life. A sullen and periodic clamour of waves rolling over
reefs followed her far inland between the high hedges sheltering the
gloomy solitude of the fields.
Susan had run out, swerving sharp to the left at the door, and on the
edge of the slope crouched down behind a boulder. A dislodged stone went
on downwards, rattling as it leaped.
When Madame Levaille called out, Susan could have, by stretching her hand, touched her mother’s skirt, had she had the courage to move a limb. She saw the old woman go away, and she remained still, closing her eyes and pressing her side to the hard and rugged surface of the rock.
After a while a familiar face with fixed eyes and an open mouth became visible in the intense obscurity amongst the boulders. She uttered a low cry and stood up. The face vanished, leaving her to gasp and shiver alone in the wilderness of stone heaps. But as soon as she had crouched down again to rest, with her head against the rock, the face returned, came very near, appeared eager to finish the speech that had been cut short by death, only amoment ago.
She scrambled quickly to her feet and said: “Go away, or I
will do it again.” The thing wavered, swung to the right, to the left.
She moved this way and that, stepped back, fancied herself screaming
at it, and was appalled by the unbroken stillness of the night. She
tottered on the brink, felt the steep declivity under her feet, and
rushed down blindly to save herself from a headlong fall.
The shingle seemed to wake up; the pebbles began to roll before her, pursued her from above, raced down with her on both sides, rolling past with an increasing clatter. In the peace of the night the noise grew, deepening to a rumour, continuous and violent, as if the whole semicircle of the stony beach had started to tumble down into the bay.
Susan’s feet hardly touched the slope that seemed to run down with her. At the bottom she stumbled, shot forward, throwing her arms out, and fell heavily. She jumped up at once and turned swiftly to look back, her clenched hands full of sand she had clutched in her fall. The face was there, keeping its distance, visible in its own sheen that made a pale stain in the
She shouted, “Go away!”–she shouted at it with pain, with fear,
with all the rage of that useless stab that could not keep him quiet,
keep him out of her sight. What did he want now? He was dead. Dead
men have no children. Would he never leave her alone? She shrieked
at it–waved her outstretched hands. She seemed to feel the breath of
parted lips, and, with a long cry of discouragement, fled across the
level bottom of the bay.
She ran lightly, unaware of any effort of her body. High sharp rocks
that, when the bay is full, show above the glittering plain of blue
water like pointed towers of submerged churches, glided past her,
rushing to the land at a tremendous pace. To the left, in the distance,
she could see something shining: a broad disc of light in which narrow
shadows pivoted round the centre like the spokes of a wheel. She heard
a voice calling, “Hey! There!” and answered with a wild scream.
So, he could call yet! He was calling after her to stop. Never! . . . She tore
through the night, past the startled group of seaweed-gatherers who
stood round their lantern paralysed with fear at the unearthly screech
coming from that fleeing shadow. The men leaned on their pitchforks
staring fearfully. A woman fell on her knees, and, crossing herself,
began to pray aloud. A little girl with her ragged skirt full of slimy
seaweed began to sob despairingly, lugging her soaked burden close to
the man who carried the light.
Somebody said: “The thing ran out towards
Another voice exclaimed: “And the sea is coming back! Look at
the spreading puddles. Do you hear–you woman–there! Get up!”
Several voices cried together. “Yes, let us be off! Let the accursed thing go to the sea!” They moved on, keeping close round the light. Suddenly a man
swore loudly. He would go and see what was the matter. It had been a
woman’s voice. He would go. There were shrill protests from women–but
his high form detached itself from the group and went off running. They
sent an unanimous call of scared voices after him. A word, insulting and
mocking, came back, thrown at them through the darkness. A woman moaned.
An old man said gravely: “Such things ought to be left alone.” They went
on slower, shuffling in the yielding sand and whispering to one another
that Millot feared nothing, having no religion, but that it would end
badly some day.
Susan met the incoming tide by the Raven islet and stopped, panting,
with her feet in the water. She heard the murmur and felt the cold
caress of the sea, and, calmer now, could see the somber and confused
mass of the Raven on one side and on the other the long white streak of
Molene sands that are left high above the dry bottom of Fougere Bay
at every ebb. She turned round and saw far away, along the starred
background of the sky, the ragged outline of the coast.
Above it, nearly facing her, appeared the tower of Ploumar Church; a slender and tall pyramid shooting up dark and pointed into the clustered glitter of the stars. She felt strangely calm. She knew where she was, and began to remember how she came there–and why. She peered into the smooth obscurity near her. She was alone. There was nothing there; nothing near her, either living or dead.
The tide was creeping in quietly, putting out long impatient arms of
strange rivulets that ran towards the land between ridges of sand. Under
the night the pools grew bigger with mysterious rapidity, while
the great sea, yet far off, thundered in a regular rhythm along the
indistinct line of the horizon.
Susan splashed her way back for a few yards without being able to get clear of the water that murmured tenderly all around and, suddenly, with a spiteful gurgle, nearly took her off her feet. Her heart thumped with fear. This place was too big and too empty to die in. Tomorrow they would do with her what they liked. But before she died she must tell them–tell the gentlemen in black clothes that there are things no woman can bear. She must explain how it happened. . . .
She splashed through a pool, getting wet to the waist, too preoccupied to care. . . .
She must explain. “He came in the same way as ever and said, just so: ‘Do you think I am going to leave the land to those people from Morbihan that I do not know? Do you? We shall see!”
“Come along, you creature of mischance!” And he put his arms
Then, Messieurs, I said: ‘Before God–never!’
And he said, striding at me with open palms: ‘There is no God to hold me! Do you understand, you useless carcass. I will do what I like.
And he took me by the shoulders. Then I, Messieurs, called to God for help, and next minute, while he was shaking me, I felt my long scissors in my hand. His shirt was unbuttoned, and, by the candle-light, I saw the hollow of his throat. I cried: ‘Let go!’ He was crushing my shoulders. He was strong, my man was! Then I thought: No! . . . Must I? . . . Then take!–and I
struck in the hollow place. I never saw him fall. . . .
The old father never turned his head. He is deaf and childish, gentlemen. . . Nobody saw him fall. I ran out . . . Nobody saw. . . .”
She had been scrambling amongst the boulders of the Raven and now found herself, all out of breath, standing amongst the heavy shadows of the
rocky islet. The Raven is connected with the main land by a natural pier
of immense and slippery stones. She intended to return home that way.
Was he still standing there? At home. Home! Four idiots and a corpse.
She must go back and explain. Anybody would understand. . . .
Below her the night or the sea seemed to pronounce distinctly–
“Aha! I see you at last!”
She started, slipped, fell; and without attempting to rise, listened,
terrified. She heard heavy breathing, a clatter of wooden clogs. It
“Where the devil did you pass?” said an invisible man, hoarsely.
She held her breath. She recognized the voice. She had not seen him
fall. Was he pursuing her there dead, or perhaps . . . alive?
She lost her head. She cried from the crevice where she lay huddled,
“Ah! You are still there. You led me a fine dance. Wait, my beauty, I
must see how you look after all this. You wait. . . .”
Millot was stumbling, laughing, swearing meaninglessly out of
pure satisfaction, pleased with himself for having run down that
fly-by-night. “As if there were such things as ghosts! Bah! It took an
old African soldier to show those clodhoppers. . . . But it was curious.
Who the devil was she?”
Susan listened, crouching. He was coming for her, this dead man. There
was no escape. What a noise he made amongst the stones. . . . She saw
his head rise up, then the shoulders. He was tall–her own man! His long
arms waved about, and it was his own voice sounding a little strange
. . . because of the scissors. She scrambled out quickly, rushed to the
edge of the causeway, and turned round. The man stood still on a high
stone, detaching himself in dead black on the glitter of the sky.
“Where are you going to?” he called, roughly.
She answered, “Home!” and watched him intensely. He made a striding,
clumsy leap on to another boulder, and stopped again, balancing himself,
“Ha! ha! Well, I am going with you. It’s the least I can do. Ha! ha!
She stared at him till her eyes seemed to become glowing coals that
burned deep into her brain, and yet she was in mortal fear of making
out the well-known features. Below her the sea lapped softly against the
rock with a splash continuous and gentle.
The man said, advancing another step–
“I am coming for you. What do you think?”
She trembled. Coming for her! There was no escape, no peace, no hope.
She looked round despairingly. Suddenly the whole shadowy coast, the
blurred islets, the heaven itself, swayed about twice, then came to a
rest. She closed her eyes and shouted–
“Can’t you wait till I am dead!”
She was shaken by a furious hate for that shade that pursued her in this
world, unappeased even by death in its longing for an heir that would be
like other people’s children.
“Hey! What?” said Millot, keeping his distance prudently. He was saying
to himself: “Look out! Some lunatic. An accident happens soon.”
She went on, wildly–
“I want to live. To live alone–for a week–for a day. I must explain
to them. . . . I would tear you to pieces, I would kill you 20 times
over rather than let you touch me while I live. How many times must I
kill you–you blasphemer! Satan sends you here. I am damned too!”
“Come,” said Millot, alarmed and conciliating. “I am perfectly alive!
. . . Oh, my God!”
She had screamed, “Alive!” and at once vanished before his eyes, as if
the islet itself had swerved aside from under her feet. Millot rushed
forward, and fell flat with his chin over the edge. Far below he saw the
water whitened by her struggles, and heard one shrill cry for help that
seemed to dart upwards along the perpendicular face of the rock, and
soar past, straight into the high and impassive heaven.
Madame Levaille sat, dry-eyed, on the short grass of the hill side, with
her thick legs stretched out, and her old feet turned up in their black
cloth shoes. Her clogs stood near by, and further off the umbrella
lay on the withered sward like a weapon dropped from the grasp of a
The Marquis of Chavanes, on horseback, one gloved hand on thigh, looked down at her as she got up laboriously, with groans. On the narrow track of the seaweed-carts four men were carrying inland Susan’s body on a hand-barrow, while several others straggled listlessly behind. Madame Levaille looked after the procession. “Yes,Monsieur le Marquis,” she said dispassionately, in her usual calm tone of a reasonable old woman. “There are unfortunate people on this earth. I had only one child. Only one! And they won’t bury her in consecratedground!”
Her eyes filled suddenly, and a short shower of tears rolled down the
broad cheeks. She pulled the shawl close about her. The Marquis leaned
slightly over in his saddle, and said: “It is very sad. You have all my sympathy. I shall speak to the Cure. She was unquestionably insane, and the fall was accidental. Good-day, Madame.”
And he trotted off, thinking to himself: “I must get this old woman
appointed guardian of those idiots, and administrator of the farm.
It would be much better than having here one of those other Bacadous,
probably a red republican, corrupting my commune.”