Tales of To-day and Other Days/The Drowned Man

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The Drowned Man.



EVERY one in Fécamp was acquainted with the story of Mother Patin. There could be no doubt that Mother Patin had not had a happy life of it with her man, for during his lifetime her man had used to thrash her as they thrash the wheat on the barn-floor.

He was captain of a fishing-boat, and had married her, long ago, although she was poor, for her good looks.

Patin, a good sailor, but very much of a brute, was a frequenter of Father Auban's pothouse, where, on ordinary days, he would drink four or five small glasses of tanglefoot, and on days when the luck was good out at sea eight or ten, and even more, according to his gayety of heart, as he used to say. The tanglefoot was served to the customers by Father Auban's daughter, a comely brunette of pleasing aspect, who attracted custom to the house by dint of her good looks alone, for she had never been the subject of scandal.

At the commencement of Patin's visits to the pothouse he would be content to gaze upon her, and his remarks to her would be simply such as were demanded by common politeness, the reasonable remarks of a modest young man. When he had taken his first glass of tanglefoot he began to discover that she was handsomer than before; at the second he would make eyes at her; at the third he would say: "If you were only so minded, Mam'zelle Désirée——" without ever concluding his sentence; at the fourth he would be pulling her by her petticoats and trying to kiss her; and when he reached his tenth, then it was Father Auban who waited on the customers.

The old wineseller, who was up to all the tricks of his trade, used to send Désirée around among the tables to keep the drinking up to a satisfactory pitch, and Désirée, who was Father Auban's own worthy daughter, would whisk her petticoats to and fro among the drinkers and exchange pleasantries with them, a smile on her lips and malice in her eye.

Through drinking many glasses of tanglefoot Désirée's image became so deeply imprinted on Patin's heart that he was thinking of her constantly, even while he was out at sea, while he was casting his nets into the water, away out on the broad ocean, on the nights when the wind blew and the nights when it was calm, on the nights when the moon shone and the nights when it was dark. He thought of her as he held the tiller in the stern of his boat, while his four shipmates were slumbering with their heads pillowed, on their arms. He always beheld her smiling on him, raising her shoulder to pour out the yellow brandy, and then going away, saying:

"There! Are you satisfied?"

And so, by reason of thus keeping her before his eyes and in his mind, he became possessed of such an inordinate desire of having her to wife that he asked her hand in marriage.

He was well to do, owning his vessel, his nets, and a house on the Retenue down by the end of the beach, while Father Auban had nothing. He was consequently accepted with avidity, and the wedding was celebrated at the earliest moment possible, both sides, for different reasons of their own, being desirous to have the matter over and ended.

When he had been married three days, however, Patin did not understand at all how he could ever have believed that Désirée was different from other women. True as gospel, he must have been a blockhead to saddle himself with a woman as poor as a church mouse, who had bewitched him with her brandy, that was as plain as a pikestaff, with brandy in which she had put some unclean nostrum to addle his brain. And he swore, and he swore, at all times of the tide, and he smashed his pipe between his teeth, and he blew up his crew; and when he had ripped and stormed, up hill and down, with all the hard words in the dictionary and against everything that he could think of, he would expectorate what bile was left in his stomach upon the fishes and the lobsters as he took them from the nets, one by one, and never consigned them to the hampers without a running accompaniment of insult and unseemly language.

Then when he got home, where his wife, old Auban's daughter, was at the mercy of his tongue and fist, it was not long before he began to treat her as the lowest of the low. Then, as she endured it all with resignation, accustomed as she had been to the outbursts of the paternal abode, her calmness only exasperated him the more, and one night he gave her a thumping. After that life became a terrible affair in his house.

For ten years all the talk on the Retenue was of the kicks and cuffs that Patin gave his wife, and how he never spoke to her without swearing at her, with or without occasion. He had, in truth, a way of swearing that was all his own, a redundancy of idiom and a stentorian lung power such as were possessed by no other man in Fécamp. The moment that his boat was sighted off the entrance of the harbor, returning from the fishing-ground, folks waited to hear the first volley that he would let fly from his deck upon the wharf so soon as he should catch the first glimpse of his helpmate's white cap.

On days when there was a heavy sea on he would be standing at the stern managing his vessel, one eye on the bow and one on the canvas, and notwithstanding the care that was necessitated by the narrow and difficult passage, notwithstanding the great waves that came rolling into the contracted channel, mountain-high, he would manage to keep an eye on the women who stood there, drenched by the spray of the breaking waves, waiting for their sailor lads, so that he might recognize his own wife, old Auban's daughter, the good-for-nothing huzzy!

Then, as soon as he set eyes on her, unmindful of the roaring of the wind and waves, he would salute her with a deafening bellow of abuse, which detonated from his gullet with such explosive violence that every one laughed, though they all felt much compassion for her. When the boat had got up to the wharf, too, he had a way of discharging his ballast of politeness, to make use of his own expression, while at the same time discharging his load of fish, that attracted about his fasts all the blackguards and all the idlers of the harbor.

These things would pour from his mouth, at one time terrific and of short duration, like the report of a cannon, and again reverberating like thunder-claps, which for five minutes at a time would keep up such a rolling fire of bad language that it seemed as if all the tempests of the Everlasting Father must have their home within his breast.

When, after this performance, he had left his vessel and was face to face with her amid the throng of gaping idlers and fishwives, he would summon up from the mysterious recesses of his memory an entirely fresh assortment of outrages and insults, and in this way would conduct her home to their dwelling, she preceding, he following, she weeping, he shouting at the top of his voice.

Then, when the doors were closed and they were alone together, he would beat her upon the most trifling pretext. Anything sufficed him for an excuse for raising his hand to her, and when he had once begun he never stopped, brutally casting in her face at such times the true reasons of his hatred. At every slap, at every cuff he would roar: "Ah! you beggar, you! You scarecrow, you starveling! A pretty stroke of business I made of it the day when I washed my mouth with the vile stuff of that rascally old father of yours!"

She was living, now, poor woman, in a never-ceasing state of terror, in a continuous tremor of body and of mind, in the despairing expectation of indignities and blows.

And that went on for ten years. She was so entirely cowed that she never spoke to any one, no matter whom, without changing color; she could think of nothing but the beatings with which she was constantly threatened, and she had become yellower, leaner, and drier than a smoked herring.



One night, when her husband was away at sea, she was suddenly awakened by that growling, as of wild beasts, that the wind makes when it rushes upon us like a dog that has broken his chain. She was frightened and sat up in bed, then, hearing it no more, laid down again, but almost instantly there came a roaring in the chimney that seemed to make the whole house tremble, and it extended over all the heavens, as if a drove of maddened animals had passed, snorting and bellowing, through space.

Then she arose and hurried to the harbor. Other women came flocking there from every quarter, bearing lanterns. The men came running up, and they all stood looking out to sea, watching the foam on the crest of the waves as it shone in the darkness of the night.

The storm lasted fifteen hours. There were eleven sailors who never came back, and Patin was one of them.

What was left of his vessel, the Little Emily, was picked up over Dieppe way. The bodies of his men were recovered in the neighborhood of Saint Valéry, but his was never found. As the boat's hull seemed to have been cut in two, his wife for a long time expected, and feared, to see him come home, for if there had been a collision it might well be that the colliding vessel had taken him aboard, him alone of all the crew, and carried him off to distant parts.

By slow degrees she familiarized herself with the thought that she was a widow, but would never fail to be startled whenever a neighbor or a beggar or a vagrant peddler unexpectedly entered her house.

As she was passing along the Rue aux Juifs one afternoon, about four years after her husband's disappearance, she stopped in front of an old sea-captain's house who had died a short time before, and whose household goods were being auctioned off.

It so chanced that just at that moment they were bidding on a parrot, a green parrot with a blue head, who was considering the assemblage with an air of dejection and anxiety.

"Three francs!" exclaimed the auctioneer; "three francs, for a bird that can talk like a lawyer!"

A friend of the widow Patin gave her a nudge with her elbow:

"You've got plenty of money," she said; "you ought to buy that bird. It would be company for you; it's worth more than thirty francs, that bird is. You could get twenty or twenty-five for it, any time you wanted to sell it."

"Four francs! ladies, four francs!" the man continued. "He can sing vespers and preach as good a sermon as M. the curé. He is a wonder—a phenomenon!"

Madame Patin raised the bid fifty centimes and the hook-billed bird was knocked down to her, and she walked off, carrying it with her in a little cage.

When she got home she hung up the cage, and as she was opening the wire door to give the brute a drink he snapped at her finger with his beak and bit it so that the blood came.

"Ah! how cross he is," she said.

Nevertheless she gave him some hemp-seed and corn to eat and then left him to smooth down his rumpled feathers, which he did, casting meanwhile sly, stealthy glances upon his new abode and his new mistress.

The day was just breaking next morning when the widow heard a voice, as distinct as could be, a loud, ringing, resounding voice, old Patin's voice, shouting:

"Will you get up, carrion!"

Her fright was so great that she drew the sheets up over her head, for every morning, in the old days, as soon as he had fairly got his eyes open, her deceased husband had yelled in her ears those five words that were so familiar to her.

Trembling in every limb, curled up like a ball and her back made ready to receive the shower of blows that she already felt in anticipation, she murmured, sinking her face still deeper into the pillow:

"Holy Father, there he is! Holy Father, there he is! He is back again. Holy Father!"

The minutes passed; no further sound disturbed the silence of the chamber. Then, quaking still with her great fear, she protruded her head from the bedclothes in the certainty that she should behold him there, watching her, prepared to beat her.

She saw nothing, nothing but a sunbeam shining through the window-pane, and she thought:

"He has hidden himself away somewhere, depend on't."

She waited a long time, then, her fears being somewhat reassured, came to the conclusion:

"I must have been dreaming, since he don't come out and show himself."

She was just closing her eyes again, a little emboldened by this reflection, when, close to her ear, as it seemed, exploded the wrathful voice, the drowned man's voice of thunder, vociferating:

"Name of a name, of a name, of a name, will you get up, you——!"

She sprang from her bed, impelled by the instinct of obedience, by the blind obedience of a woman who has known many a beating, who remembers still, after four years have gone by, and who will always remember and always obey that dread voice. And she said:

"Here I am, Patin; what do you want?"

But Patin answered not.

Then she looked about her wildly, distractedly; then she searched the room through, every part of it, the closets, the fireplace, beneath the bed, and found no one; and at last she sank into a chair, beside herself with terror, certain that Patin's spirit, divested of its earthly garb, was there, at her side, returned again to earth to torment her.

All at once she thought of the garret, which could be reached from outside by means of a ladder. There could be no doubt of it, he had concealed himself up there the better to surprise her. It must have been that the savages had held him prisoner upon some distant coast and he had been unable to escape them until then, and now he was returned, more ruffianly than ever. The mere ring of his voice, was clear enough evidence of that.

Raising her face toward the ceiling, she asked:

"Are you up there, Patin?"

Patin made no answer.

Then she left the house, and, with a horrible fear that seemed to freeze her very heart, climbed the ladder, threw back the shutter of the window, looked into the room, saw nothing, entered, searched, and found nothing.

Seating herself upon a bundle of straw she gave way to tears, but while she sat there sobbing, transpierced by a weird and breathless terror, in her chamber below she heard Patin going over his story. His anger seemed to have subsided, he was calmer, and this was what he was saying:

"Dirty weather! High wind! Dirty weather! I've had no breakfast, name of a name!"

She shouted to him through the ceiling:

"Here I am, Patin; I'm going to make the soup for you. Don't be angry, I'm coming." And she hastened down the ladder. There was no one in the room.

She felt her strength failing her, as if Death had touched her with his finger, and was about to take to her heels and ask protection from the neighbors when the voice, right at her ear, shouted:

"I've had no breakfast, name of a name!"

And there was the parrot in his cage, watching her with his round, sly, wicked eye.

She looked at him, too, as if her senses were leaving her, muttering:

"Ah! it's you!"

The bird continued, with a movement of its head:

"Wait, wait, wait, I'll teach you to dawdle!"

What passed through her mind? She felt, she knew that it was no other than he, the dead man, who had returned; who had disguised himself in the feathers of this brute to begin afresh his old work of torment; that he would swear at her all day long, as he had done before, and bite her, and yell at her with taunting words to raise the neighbors and make them laugh. Then she made a wild rush, opened the cage, seized the bird, which tore her flesh with beak and claws in its struggle to defend itself; but she held him with all her strength, in both her hands, and throwing herself upon the floor she rolled upon him with the frenzy of one possessed, crushed him, reduced him to a rag of flesh, a small, green object, devoid of speech or movement and which dangled from her hand inanimate; then, taking a dish-clout, she wrapped the shapeless mass in it as in a shroud, went out by the door, barefooted, in her chemise, crossed the wharf, against which the sea was breaking in small waves, and, shaking out the cloth, let fall into the water that small dead object that was like nothing so much as a handful of grass; then she returned to the house, and throwing herself upon her knees before the empty cage, all wrought up by what she had done, sought forgiveness from God the Comforter, sobbing, the while, as if she had been guilty of some horrible crime.

Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1952, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.