short story

by Robert W. Chambers

The afternoon sun etched our shadows on the whitewashed wall behind us.  Acres of grain and gorse turned the moorland golden under a windy blue sky.  In front of us the Bay of Biscay burned sapphire to the horizon.

"You men of the sea," I said, "attain a greater growth of soul than do we whose roots are in the land.  You are men of wider spiritual vision, of deeper capacity than are we."

The coastguard's weather-beaten visage altered subtly.

"How can that be, Monsieur?  Our sins stalk us like vast red shadows.  We live violently, we men of the sea."

"But you really LIVE--spiritually and physically.  You attain a spiritual growth, a vision, an understanding, a depth seldom reached by us:--a wide kindness, a charity, a noble humanity outside the circumference of our experience."

He said, looking seaward out of vague, sea-gray eyes:  "We drink too deeply.  We love too often.  We men of the sea have great need of intercession and of prayer."

"Not YOU."

"There was a girl at Rosporden....  And one at Bannalec....  And others...from the ends of the earth to the ends of it...We Icelanders drank deep.  And afterwards...in the China seas...."

His gray Breton eyes brooded on the flowing sapphire of the sea; the low sun painted his furrowed face red.

"Not one among you but lays down his life for others as quietly and simply as he fills his pipe.  From the rocking mizzen you look down calmly upon the world of men tossing with petty and complex passions--look down with the calm, kindly comprehension of a mature soul which has learned something of Immortal toleration.  The scheme of things is clearer to you than to us; your pity, wiser; our faith more logical."

"We are children," he muttered, "we men of the sea."

I have tried to say so--in too many words," said I.

My dog looked up at me, then with a slight sigh settled himself again beside the game bag and tucked his nose under his flank.  On the whitewashed walls of the ancient, ruined fort behind us our shadows towered in the red sunset.

I turned and looked at the roofless, crumbling walls, then at the coast where jeweled surf tumbled, stained with crimson.

These shores had been washed with a redder stain in years gone by:  these people were forever stamped with the eradicable scar of suffering borne by generations dead.  The centuries had never spared them.

And, as I brooded there, watching two peasants, father and son, grubbing out the gorse below us to make a place for future wheat, the rose surf beyond seemed full of little rosy children and showy women, species of the endless massacres that this sad land had endlessly endured.

"They struck you hard and deep," I said, thinking of the past.

"Deep, Monsieur," he replied, understanding me.  "Deep as your people's hatred."

"Oh, poor ?a"--he made a vague gesture.  "The dead are dead," he said, leaning over and opening my game bag to look into it and sort and count the few braces of partridge, snipe and widgeon.

Presently, from below, the peasants at work in the gorse, shouted up to us something that I did not understand.

They were standing close together, leaning on mattock and spade, grouped around something in the gorse.

"What do they say?" I asked.

"They have found a soldier's body."

"A body?"

"Long dead, Monsieur.  The skeleton of one of these who scourged this coast in the old days."

He rose and started leisurely down through the flowering gorse.  I followed, and my dog followed me.

In the shallow excavation there lay a few bones and shreds and bits of tarnished metal.

I stooped and picked up a button and a belt buckle.  The royal arms and the Regimental number were decipherable on the brasses.  One of the peasants said:

"In Quimper lives a rich man who pays for relics.  God, in his compassion, sends us poor men these bones."

The coastguard said:  "God sends them to you for decent internment. Not to sell."

"But," retorted the peasant, "these bones and bits of brass belonged to one of those who came here with fire and sword.  Need we respect our enemies who slew without pity young and old?  And these bones
are very ancient."

"The living must respect the dead, Jean Le Locard."

"I am poor," muttered Le Locard.  "We Bretons are born to misery and sorrow.  Life is very hard.  Is it any harm if I sell these bones and brasses to a rich man, and buy a little bread for my wife and little ones?"

The coastguard shook his head gravely:  "We Bretons may go hungry and naked, but we cannot traffic in death.  Here lies a soldier, a hundred years hidden under the gorse.  Nevertheless--"

He touched his cap in salute.  Slowly the peasants lifted their caps and stood staring down at the bones, uncovered.

"Make a grave," said the coastguard simply.  He pointed up at the old graveyard on the cliff above us.  Then, touching my elbow, he turned away with me toward the little hamlet across the moors.

"Let us find the Cur?," he murmured.  "We men of the sea should salute the death God sends with the respect we owe to all His gifts to man."

Our three gigantic shadows led us back across the moor,--my dog, myself, and the gray-eyed silent man who knew the sea,--and something perhaps, of the sea's Creator:--and much of his fellow men.

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