In the southwest point of Normandy, separated from Brittany only by a narrow and straight river, like the formal canals of Holland, stands the curious granite rock which is called Mont St. Michel. It is an isolated peak, rising abruptly out of a vast plain of sand to the height of nearly four hundred feet, and so precipitous toward the west that scarcely a root of grass finds soil enough in its weather-beaten clefts. At the very summit is built that wonderful church, the rich architecture and flying buttresses of which strike the eye leagues and leagues away, either on the sea or the mainland. Below the church, and supporting it by a solid masonry, is a vast pile formerly a fortress, castle, and prison; with caverns and dungeons hewn out of the living rock, and vaulted halls and solemn crypts; all desolate and solitary now, except when a party of pilgrims or tourists pass through them, ushered by a guide. Still lower down the rock, along its eastern and southern face, there winds a dark and narrow street, with odd, antique houses on either side. The only conveyance that can pass along it is the water-cart which supplies the town with fresh water from the mainland. The whole place is guarded by a strong and high rampart, with bastions and battlemented walls; and the only entrance is through three gateways, one immediately behind the other, with a small court between. The second of these strong gateways is protected by two old cannon, taken from the English in 1423, and still pointed out to visitors with inextinguishable pride by the natives of Mont. St. Michel.
A great plain of sand stretches around the Mont for miles every way—of sand or sea, for the water covers it at flood-tides, beating up against the foot of the granite rocks and the granite walls of the ramparts. But at neap tides and eaux mortes, as the French say, there is nothing but a desert of brown, bare sand, with ripple-marks lying across it, and with shallow, ankle-deep pools of salt water here and there. Afar off on the western sky-line a silver fringe of foam, glistening in the sunshine, marks the distant boundary to which the sea has retreated. On every other side of the horizon rises a belt of low cliffs, bending into a semicircle, with sweeping outlines of curves miles in length, drawn distinctly against the clear sky.
The only way to approach the Mont is across the sands. Each time the tide recedes a fresh track must be made, like the track along snowy roads; and every traveller, whether on foot or in carriage, must direct his steps by this scarcely beaten path. Now and then he passes a high, strong post, placed where there is any dangerous spot upon the plain; for there are perilous quicksands, imperceptible to any eye, lurking in sullen and patient treachery for any unwary footstep. The river itself, which creeps sluggishly in a straight black line across the brown desert, has its banks marked out by rows of these high stakes, with a bush of leafless twigs at the top of each. A dreary, desolate, and barren scene it is, with no life in it except the isolated life upon the Mont.
This little family of human beings, separated from the great tide of life like one of the shallow pools which the ebbing sea has left upon its sands, numbers scarcely a hundred and a half. The men are fishers, for there is no other occupation to be followed on the sterile rock. Every day also the level sweep of sands is wandered over by the women and children, who seek for cockles in the little pools; the babble of whose voices echoes far through the quiet air, and whose shadows fall long and unbroken on the brown wilderness. Now and then the black-robed figure of a priest, or of one of the brothers dwelling in the monument on the top of the rock, may be seen slowly pacing along the same dead level, and skirting the quicksands where the warning posts are erected. In the summer months bands of pilgrims are also to be seen marching in a long file like travellers across the desert; but in winter these visits cease almost wholly, and the inhabitants of the Mont are left to themselves.
Having so little intercourse with the outer world, and living on a rock singled out by supernatural visitants, the people remain more superstitious than even the superstitious Germans and Bretons who are their neighbours. Few of them can read or write. The new thoughts, opinions, and creeds of the present century do not reach them. They are contented with the old faith, bound up for them in the history of their patron, the archangel St. Michel, and with the minute interest taken in every native of the rock. Each person knows the history of every other inhabitant, but knows little else.
From Pontorson to the Mont the road lies along the old Bay of St. Michel, with low hedge-rows of feathery tamarind-trees on each side as far as the beach. It is not at all a solitary road, for hundreds of long, heavy carts, resembling artillery waggons, encumber it, loaded with a gray shaly deposit dug out of the bay: a busy scene of men and women digging in the heavy sand, while the shaggy horses stand by, hanging their heads patiently under the blue-stained sheepskins about their necks.
Two or three persons are at work at every cart; one of them, often a woman, standing on the rising pile, and beating it flat with a spade, while a cheerful clatter of voices is heard on every hand.
But at one time a man might have been seen there working alone, quite alone. Even a space was left about him, as if an invisible circle were drawn, within which no person would venture. If a word were flung at him across this imaginary cordon, it was nothing but a taunt or a curse, and it was invariably spoken by a man. No woman so much as glanced at him. He toiled on doggedly, and in silence, with a weary-looking face, until his task was ended, and the waggon driven off by the owner, who had employed him at a lower rate than his comrades. Then he would throw his blue blouse over his shoulders, and tramp away with heavy tread along the faintly marked trail leading across the beach to Mont St. Michel.
Neither was there any voice to greet him as he gained the gateway, where the men of the Mont congregated, as they always congregate about the entrance to a walled town. Rather, the scornful silence which had surrounded him at his work was here deepened into a personal hatred. Within the gate the women, who were chattering over their nets of cockles, shrank away from him, or broke into a contemptuous laugh. Along the narrow street the children fled at the sight of him, and hid behind their mothers, from whose protection they could shout after him. If the cure met him, he would turn aside into the first house rather than come in contact with him. He was under a ban which no one dared to defy.
The only voice that spoke to him was the fretful, querulous voice of an old, bedridden woman as he lifted the latch and opened the door of a poor house upon the ramparts, which had no entrance into the street; and where he lived alone with his mother, cut off from all accidental intercourse with his neighbours.
“Michel! Michel! how late thou art!” she exclaimed; “if thou hadst been a good son thou wouldst have returned before the hour it is.”
“I returned as soon as my work was finished,” he answered, in a patient voice; “I have not lost a minute by the way.”
“Bah! because no one will ask thee to turn in with them anywhere!” she continued. “If thou wert like everybody else thou wouldst have many a friend to pass thy time with. It is hard for me, thy mother, to have brought thee into the world that all the world should despise and hate thee, as they do this day. Monsieur le Cure says there is no hope for thee if thou art so obstinate; thou must go to hell, though I named thee after our great archangel St. Michel, and brought thee up as a good Christian. Quel malheur! How hard it is for me to lie in bed all day, and think of my son in the flames of hell!”
Very quietly, as if he had heard such complainings hundreds of times before, did Michel set about kindling a few sticks upon the open hearth. This was so common a welcome home that he scarcely heard it, and had ceased to heed it. The room, as the flickering light fell upon it, was one of the cheerless and comfortless chambers to be seen in any peasant’s house: a pile of wood in one corner, a single table with a chair or two, a shelf with a few pieces of brown crockery, and the bed on which the paralytic woman was lying, her hands crossed over her breast, and her bright black eyes glistening in the gloom. Michel brought her the soup he had made, and fed her carefully and tenderly, before thinking of satisfying his own hunger.
“It is of no good, Michel,” she said, when he laid her down again upon the pillow he had made smooth for her; “it is of no good. Thou mayest as well leave me to perish; it will not weigh for thee. Monsieur le Cure says if thou hadst been born a heretic perhaps the good God might have taken it into account. But thou wert born a Christian, as good a Christian as all the world, and thou hast sold thy birthright to the devil. Leave me then, and take thy pleasure in this life, for thou wilt have nothing but misery in the next.”
“I will not leave thee—never!” he answered, briefly. “I have no fear of the next world.”
He was a man of few words evidently. Perhaps the silence maintained around him had partly frozen his power of speech. Even to his mother he spoke but little, though her complaining went on without ceasing, until he extinguished both fire and lamp, and climbed the rude ladder into the loft overhead, where her voice never failed to rouse him from his sleep, if she only called “Michel!” He could not clearly explain his position even to himself. He had gone to Paris many years before, where he came across some Protestants, who had taught him to read the Testament, and instructed him in their religion. The new faith had taken hold of him, and thrust deep roots into his simple and constant nature; though he had no words at command to express the change to others, and scarcely to himself. So long as he had been in Paris there had been no need of this.
But now his father’s death had compelled him to return to his native place, and to the little knot of people who knew him as old Pierre Lorio’s son, a fisherman like themselves, with no more right to read or think than they had. The fierceness of the persecution he encountered filled him with dismay, though it had not shaken his fidelity to his new faith. But often a dumb, inarticulate longing possessed him to make known to his old neighbours the reason of the change in him, but speech failed him. He could only stammer out his confession, “I am no longer a Catholic, I am a Protestant, I cannot pray to the saints, not even to the archangel St. Michel or the Blessed Virgin. I pray only to God.” For anything else, for explanation, and for all argument, he had no more language than the mute, wistful language one sees in the eyes of dumb creatures, when they gaze fully at us.
Perhaps there is nothing more pitiful than the painful want of words to express that which lies deepest within us; a want common to us all, but greatest in those who have had no training in thus shaping and expressing their inmost thoughts.
There was not much to fear from a man like this. Michel Lorio was a living lesson against apostasy. As he went up and down the street, and in and out of the gate, his loneliness and dejection spoke more eloquently for the old faith than any banishment could have done. Michel was suffered to remain under a ban, not formal and ceremonial, but a tacit ban, which quite as effectively set him apart, and made his life more solitary than if he had been dwelling alone on a desert rock out at sea.
Michel accepted his lot without complaint and without bitterness. He never passed Monsieur le Cure without a salutation. When he went daily for water to the great cistern of the monastery, he was always ready to carry the brimful pails too heavy for the arms of the old women and children. If he had leisure he mounted the long flights of grass-grown steps three or four times for his neighbours, depositing his burden at their doors, without a word of thanks for his help being vouchsafed to him. Now and then he overheard a sneer at his usefulness; and his mother taunted him often for his patience and forbearance. But he went on his way silently with deeper yearning for human love and sympathy than he could make known.
If it had not been that, when he was kneeling at the rude dormer-window of his loft and gazing dreamily across the wide sweep of sand, with the moon shining across it and the solemn stars lighting up the sky, he was at times vaguely conscious of an influence, almost a presence, as of a hand that touched him and a voice that spoke to him, he must have sunk under this intense longing for love and fellowship. Had he been a Catholic still, he would have believed that the archangel St. Michel was near and about to manifest himself as in former times in his splendid shrine upon the Mont. The new faith had not cast out all the old superstitious nature; yet it was this vague spiritual presence which supported him under the crushing and unnatural conditions of his social life. He endured, as seeing one who is invisible.
Yet at other times he could not keep his feet away from the little street where all the life there was might be found. At night he would creep cautiously along the ramparts and descend by a quiet staircase into an angle of the walls, where he could look on unseen upon the gathering of townsfolk in the inn where he had often gone with his father in earlier days. The landlord, Nicolas, was a most bitter enemy now. There was the familiar room filled with bright light from an oil-lamp and the brighter flicker of a wood fire where the landlord’s wife was cooking. A deep, low recess in the corner, with a crimson valance stretched across it, held a bed with snow-white pillows, upon one of which rested a child’s curly head with eyes fast sealed against the glare of the lamp. At a table close by sat the landlord and three or four of the wealthier men of the Mont busily and seriously eating the omelets and fried fish served to them from the pan over the fire.
The copper and brass cooking utensils glittered in the light from the walls where they hung. It was a cheery scene, and Michel would stand in his cold, dark corner, watching it until all was over and the guests ready to depart.
“Thou art Michel le diable!” said a childish voice to him one evening, and he felt a small, warm hand laid for an instant upon his own. It was Delphine, Nicolas’s eldest girl, a daring child, full of spirit and courage; yet even she shrank back a step or two after touching him, and stood as if ready to take flight.
“I am Michel Lorio,” he answered, in a quiet, pleasant voice, which won her back to his side. “Why dost thou call me Michel le diable?”
“All the world calls thee that,” answered Delphine; “thou art a heretic. See, I am a good Christian. I say my ave and paternoster every night; if thou wilt do the same thing, no one will call thee Michel le diable.”
“Thou art not afraid of me?” he asked, for the child put her hand again on his.
“No, no! thou art not the real devil!” she said, “and maman has put my name on the register of the monument; so the great archangel St. Michel will deliver me from all evil. What canst thou do? Canst thou turn children into cats? or canst thou walk across the sea without being drowned? or canst thou stand on the highest pinnacle of the church, where the golden image of St. Michel used to be, and cast thyself down without killing thyself? I will go back with thee to thy house and see what thou canst do.”
“I can do none of these things,” answered Michel, “not one; but thou shalt come home with me if thou wilt.”
“Carry me,” she said, “that I may feel how strong thou art.”
He lifted her easily into his arms, for he was strong and accustomed to bear heavier burdens. His heart beat fast as the child’s hand stole round his neck and her soft cheek touched his own. Delphine had never been upon the ramparts before when the stars were out and the distant circle of the cliffs hidden by the night, and several times he was compelled to stop and answer her eager questions; but she would not go into the house when they reached the door.
“Carry me back again, Michel,” she demanded. “I do not like thy mother. Thou shalt bring me again along the ramparts to-morrow night. I will always come to thee, always when I see thee standing in the dark corner by our house. I love thee much, Michel le diable.”
It was a strange friendship carried on stealthily. Michel could not put away from himself this one little tie of human love and fellowship. As for Delphine, she was as silent about her new friend as children often are of such things which affect them deeply. There was a mingling of superstitious feeling in her affection for Michel—a half-dread that gave their secret meetings a greater charm to the daring spirit of the child. The evening was a busy time at the inn, and if Delphine had been missed, but little wonder and no anxiety would have been aroused at her absence. The ramparts were deserted after dark, and no one guessed that the two dark figures sauntering to and fro were Michel and Delphine. When the nights were too cold they took refuge in a little overhanging turret projecting from one of the angles of the massive walls—a darksome niche with nothing but the sky to be seen through a narrow embrasure in the shape of a cross. In these haunts Michel talked in his simple untaught way of his thoughts and of his new faith, pouring into the child’s ear what he could never tell to any other. By day Delphine never seemed to see him; never cast a look toward him as he passed by amid the undisguised ill will of the town. She ceased to speak of him even, with the unconscious and natural dissimulation by which children screen themselves from criticism and censure.
The people of the Mont St. Michel are very poor, and the women and children are compelled to seek some means of earning money as well as the men. As long as the summer lasts the crowds of pilgrims and tourists, flocking to the wonderful fortress and shrine upon the summit, bring employment and gain to some portion of them; but in the winter there is little to do except when the weather is fine enough to search for shell-fish about the sands, and sell them in the villages of the mainland. As the tide goes down, bands of women and children follow it out for miles, taking care to retrace their steps before the sea rises again. From Michel’s cottage on the ramparts the whole plain toward Avranches was visible, and he could hear the busy hum of voices coming to his ear from afar through the quiet air. But on the western side of the Mont, where the black line of the river crosses the sands, they are more dangerous; and in this direction only the more venturesome seekers go—boys who love any risk, and widows who are the more anxious to fill their nets because they have no man to help them in getting their daily bread.
The early part of the winter is not cold in Normandy, especially by the sea. As long as the westerly winds sweep across the Atlantic, the air is soft though damp, with fine mists hanging in it, which shine with rainbow tints in the sunlight. Sometimes Christmas and the New Year find the air still genial, in spite of the short days and the long rainy nights. Strong gales may blow, but so long as they do not come from the dry east or frosty north there is no real severity of weather.
It was such a Christmas week that year. Not one of the women or children had yet been forced to stay away from the sands on account of the cold. Upon Christmas eve there was a good day, though, a short one, before them, for it was low water about noon, and the high tide would not be in before six. All the daylight would be theirs. It was a chance not to be missed, for as the tides grew later in the day their time for fishing would be cut shorter. Almost every woman and child turned out through the gate with their nets in their hands. By midday the plain was dotted over by them, and the wintry sun shone pleasantly down, and the quiet rock caught the echo of their voices. Farther away, out of sight and hearing, the men also were busy, Michel among them, casting nets upon the sea. As the low sun went down in the southern sky, the scattered groups came home by twos and threes, anxious to bring in their day’s fishing in time for the men to carry them across to the mainland before the Mont should be shut in by the tide.
A busy scene was that in the gateway.
All the town was there; some coming in from the sands, and those who had been left at home with babies or old folks running down from their houses. There was chaffing and bartering; exchanges agreed upon, and commissions innumerable to be intrusted to the men about to set out for Pontorson, the nearest town. Michel Lorio was going to sell his own fish, for who would carry it for him? Yet though he was the first who was ready to start, not a soul charged him with a single commission. He lingered wistfully and loitered just outside the gateway; but neither man, woman, nor child said, “Michel, bring me what I want from the town.”
He was treading slowly down the rough causeway under the walls of the town, when a woman’s shrill voice startled him. It was not far from sunset, and the sun was sinking round and red behind a bank of fog. A thin gray mist was creeping up from the sea. The latest band of stragglers, a cluster of mere children, were running across the sand to the gate. Michel turned round and saw Nicolas’s wife, a dark, stern-looking woman, beckoning vehemently to these children. He paused for a moment to look at his little Delphine. “Not there!” he said to himself, and was passing on, when the shrill voice again caught his attention.
“Where is Phine?” called the mother.
What was it the children said? What answer had they shouted back? Michel stood motionless, as if all strength had failed him suddenly. The children rushed past him in a troop. He lifted up his eyes, looking fearfully toward the sea hidden behind the deepening fog. Was it possible that he had heard them say that Delphine was lost?
“Where is Phine?” asked the mother; but though her voice was lower now, Michel heard every syllable loudly. It seemed as if he could have heard a whisper, though the chattering in the gateway was like the clamour of a fair. The eldest girl in the little band spoke in a hurried and frightened tone.
“Phine is so naughty, madame,” she said, “we could not keep her near us. She would go on and on to the sea. We could not wait for her. We heard her calling, but it was so far, we dared not go back. But she cannot be far behind us, for we shouted as we came along. She will be here soon, madame.”
“Mon Dieu!” cried the mother, sinking down on one of the great stones, either rolled up by the tide, or left by the masons who built the ramparts. “Call her father to me.”
It was Michel Lorio who found Nicolas, his greatest enemy. Nicolas had a number of errands to be done in the town, and he was busy impressing them on the memory of his messenger, who, like every one else, could neither read nor write. When Michel caught his arm in a sharp, fast grip, he turned round with a scowl, and tried, but in vain, to shake off his grasp.
“Come to thy wife,” said Michel, dragging him toward the gate; “Delphine, thy little one, is lost on the sands.”
The whole crowd heard the words, for Michel’s voice was pitched in a high, shrill key, which rang above the clamour and the babel. There was an instant hush, every one listening to Michel, and every eye fastened upon him. Nicolas stared blankly at him, as if unable to understand him, yet growing passive under his sense of bewilderment.
“The children who went out with Delphine this morning are come back,” continued Michel, in the same forced tone; “they are come back without her. She is lost on the sands. The night is falling, and there is a fog. I tell you the little one is alone, quite alone, upon the sands; and it will be high water at six o’clock. Delphine is alone and lost upon the sands!”
The momentary hush of the crowd was at an end. The children began crying, and the women calling loudly upon St. Michel and the Holy Virgin. The men gathered about Nicolas and Michel, and went down in a compact group to the causeway beyond the gate. There the lurid sun, shining dimly through the fog, made the most sanguine look grave and shake their heads hopelessly behind the father and mother. The latter sat motionless, looking out with straining eyes to see if Delphine were not coming through the thickening mist.
“Mais que faire! que faire!” cried Nicolas, catching at somebody’s shoulder for support without seeing whose it was. It was Michel’s, who had not stirred from his side since he had first clasped his arm. Michel’s face was as white as the mother’s; but there was a resolute light in his eyes that was not to be seen in hers.
“Nothing can be done,” answered one of the oldest men in answer to Nicolas’s cry, “nothing, nothing! We do not know where the child is lost. See! there are leagues and leagues of sand; and one might wander miles away from where the poor little creature is at this instant. The great archangel St. Michel protect her!”
“I will go,” said the mother, lifting herself up; and, raising her voice, she called loudly, with a cry that rang and echoed against the walls, “Phine! Phine! my little Phine, come back to thy poor mother!” But there was no answer, except the sobs and prayers of the women and children clustering behind her.
“Thou canst not go!” exclaimed Nicolas; “there are our other little ones to think of; nor can I leave thee and them. My God! is there then no one who will go and seek my little Delphine?”
“I will go,” answered Michel, standing out from among the crowd, and facing it with his white face and resolute eyes; “there is only one among you all upon the Mont who will miss me. I leave my mother to your care. There is no time for me to bid her adieu. If I come back alive, well! if I perish, that will be well also!”
Even then there was no cordiality of response on the hearts of his old friends and neighbours. The superstition and prejudice of long years could not be broken down in one moment and by one act of self-sacrifice. They watched Michel as he laid his full creel down from his shoulders, and threw across them the strong square net with which he fished in the ebbing tide. His silence was no less expressive than theirs. Without a sound he passed away barefooted down the rude causeway. His face, as the sun shone on it, was set and resolute with a determination to face the end, whatever the end might be. He might have so trodden the path to Calvary.
He longed to speak to them, to say adieu to them; but he waited in vain for one voice to break the silence. He turned round before he was too far away, and saw them still clustered without the gate; every one of them known to him from his boyhood, the story of whose lives had been bound up with his own and formed a part of his history. They were all there, except his mother, who would soon hear what peril of the sea and peril of the night he was about to face. Tears dimmed his eyes, and made the group grow indistinct, as though the mist had already gathered between him and them. Then he quickened his steps, and the people of Mont St. Michel lost sight of him behind a great buttress of the ramparts.
But for a time Michel could still see the Mont as he hurried along its base, going westward, where the most treacherous sands lie. His home was on the eastern side, and he could see nothing of it. But the great rock rose up precipitously above him, and the noble architecture upon its highest point glowed with a ruddy tint in the setting light. As he trampled along no sound could be heard but the distant sigh of the sea, and the low, sad sough of the sand as his bare feet trod it. The fog before him was not dense, only a light haze, deceptive and beguiling; for here and there he turned aside, fancying he could see Delphine, but as he drew nearer to the spot he discovered nothing but a post driven into the sand. There was no fear that he should lose himself upon the bewildering level, for he knew his way as well as if the sand had been laid out in well-defined tracks. His dread was lest he should not find Delphine soon enough to escape from the tide, which would surely overwhelm them both.
He scarcely knew how the time sped by, but the sun had sunk below the horizon, and he had quite lost the Mont in the fog. The brown sand and the gray dank mist were all that he could see, yet still he plodded on westward, toward the sea, calling into the growing darkness. At last he caught the sound of a child’s sobs and crying, which ceased for a moment when he turned in that direction and shouted, “Phine!” Calling to one another, it was not long before he saw the child wandering forlornly and desolately in the mist. She ran sobbing into his open arms, and Michel lifted her up and held her to his heart with a strange rapture.
“It is thou that hast found me,” she said, clinging closely to him. “Carry me back to my mother. I am safe now, quite safe. Did the archangel St. Michel send thee?”
There was not a moment to be lost; Michel knew that full well. The moan of the sea was growing louder every minute, though he could not see its advancing line. There was no spot upon the sand that would not be covered before another hour was gone, and there was barely time, if enough, to get back to the Mont. He could not waste time or breath in talking to the child he held fast in his arms. A pale gleam of moonlight shone through the vapour, but of little use to him save to throw a ghostly glimmer across the sands. He strode hurriedly along, breathing hardly through his teeth and clasping Delphine so fast that she grew frightened at his silence and haste.
“Where art thou taking me, Michel le diable?” she said, beginning to struggle in his arms. “Let me down; let me down, I tell thee! Maman has said I must never look at thee. Thou shalt not carry me any farther.”
There was strength enough in the child and her vehement struggles to free herself to hinder Michel in his desperate haste. He was obliged to stand still for a minute or two to pacify her, speaking in his quiet, patient voice, which she knew so well.
“Be tranquil, my little Phine,” he said. “I am come to save thee. As the Lord Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost, so am I come to seek thee and carry thee back to thy mother. It is dark here, my child, and the sea is rising quickly, quickly. But thou shalt be safe. Be tranquil, and let me make haste back to the Mont.”
“Did the Lord save thee in this manner?” asked Delphine, eagerly.
“Yes, He saved me like this,” answered Michel. “He laid down His life for mine. Now thou must let me save thee.”
“I will be good and wise,” said the child, putting her arms again about his neck, while he strode on, striving if possible to regain the few moments that had been lost. But it was not possible. He knew that before he had gone another kilometre, when through the mist there rose before him the dark, colossal form of the Mont, but too far away still for them both to reach it in safety. Thirty minutes were essential for him to reach the gates with his burden, but in little more than twenty the sea would be dashing round the walls. The tide was yet out of sight and the sands were dry, but it would rush in before many minutes, and the swiftest runner with no weight to carry could not outrun it. Both could not be saved; could either of them? He had foreseen this danger and provided for it.
“My little Phine,” he said, “thou wilt not be afraid if I place thee where thou wilt be quite safe from the sea? See, here is my net! I will put thee within it, and hang it on one of these strong stakes, and I will stand below thee. Thou wilt be brave and good. Let us be quick, very quick. It will be like a swing for thee, and thou wilt not be afraid so long as I stand below thee.”
Even while he spoke he was busy fastening the corners of his net securely over the stake, hanging it above the reach of the last tide-mark. Delphine watched him laughing. It seemed only another pleasant adventure, like wandering with him upon the ramparts, or taking shelter in the turret. The net held her comfortably, and by stooping down she could touch with her outstretched hand the head of Michel. He stood below her, his arms fast locked about the stake, and his face uplifted to her in the faint light.
“Phine,” he said, “thou must not be afraid when the water lies below thee, even if I do not speak. Thou art safe.”
“Art thou safe also, Michel?” she asked.
“Yes, I am quite safe also,” he answered; “but I shall be very quiet. I shall not speak to thee. Yes; the Lord Christ is caring for me, as I for thee. He bound Himself to the cross as I bind myself here. This is my cross, Delphine. I understand it better now. He loved us and gave Himself for us. Tell them to-morrow what I say to thee. I am as safe as thou art, tranquil and happy.”
“We shall not be drowned!” said Delphine, half in confidence and half in dread of the sea, which was surging louder and louder through the darkness.
“Not thou!” he answered, cheerily. “But, Phine, tell them to-morrow that I shall nevermore be solitary and sad. I leave thee now, and then I shall be with Christ. I wish I could have spoken to them, but my heart and tongue were heavy. Hark! there is the bell ringing.”
The bell which is tolled at night, when travellers are crossing the sands, to guide them to the Mont, flung its clear, sharp notes down from the great indistinct rock, looming through the dusk.
“It is like a voice to me, the voice of a friend; but it is too late!” murmured Michel. “Art thou happy, Delphine, my little one? When I cease to speak to thee wilt thou not be afraid? I shall be asleep, perhaps. Say thy paternoster now, for it is growing late with me.”
The bell was still toiling, but with a quick, hurried movement, as if those who rang it were fevered with impatience. The roaring of the tide, as it now poured in rapidly over the plain, almost drowned its clang.
“Touch me with thy little hand, touch me quickly!” cried Michel. “Remember to tell them to-morrow that I loved them all always, and I would have given myself for them as I do for thee. Adieu, my little Phine. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”
The child told afterward that the water rose so fast that she dared not look at it, but shut her eyes as it spread, white and shimmering, in the moonlight all around her. She began to repeat her paternoster, but she forgot how the words came. But she heard Michel, in a loud clear voice, saying “Our Father”; only he also seemed to forget the words, for he did not say more than “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive—.” Then he became quite silent, and when she spoke to him, after a long while, he did not answer her. She supposed he had fallen asleep, as he had said, but she could not help crying and calling to him again and again. The sea-gulls flew past her screaming, but there was no sound of any voice to speak to her. In spite of what he had said to her beforehand she grew frightened, and thought it was because she had been unkind to Michel le diable that she was left there alone, with the sea swirling to and fro beneath her.
It was not for more than two or three hours that Delphine hung cradled in Michel’s net, for the tide does not lie long round the Mont St. Michel, and flows out again as swiftly as it comes in. The people followed it out, scattering over the sands in the forlorn hope of finding the dead bodies of Michel Lorio and the child, for they had no expectation of meeting with either of them alive. At last two or three of them heard the voice of Delphine, who saw the glimmer of their lanterns upon the sands, and called shrilly and loudly for succour.
They found her swinging safely in her net, untouched by the water. But Michel had sunk down upon his knees, though his arms were still fastened about the stake. His head had fallen forward upon his breast, and his thick wet hair covered his face. They lifted him without a word spoken. He had saved Delphine’s life at the cost of his own.
All the townspeople were down at the gate, waiting for the return of those who had gone out to seek for the dead. The moon had risen above the fog, and shone clearly down upon them. Delphine’s mother, with her younger children about her, sat on the stone where she had been sitting when Michel set out on his perilous quest. She and the other women could see a crowd of the men coming back, carrying some burden among them. But as they drew near to the gate, Delphine sprang forward from among them and ran and threw herself into her mother’s arms. “A miracle!” cried some voices amid the crowd; a miracle wrought by their patron St. Michel. If Michel Lorio were safe, surely he would become again a good Christian, and return to his ancient faith. But Michel Lorio was dead, and all that could be done for him was to carry his dead body home to his paralytic mother, and lay it upon his bed in the little loft where he had spent so many hours of sorrowful loneliness.
It was a perplexing problem to the simple people. Some said that Michel had been permitted to save the child by a diabolic agency which had failed him when he sought to save himself. Others maintained that it was no other than the great archangel St. Michel who had securely fastened the net upon the stake and so preserved Delphine, while the heretic was left to perish. A few thought secretly, and whispered it in fear, that Michel had done a noble deed, and won heaven thereby. The cure, who came to look upon the calm dead face, opened his lips after long and profound thought:
“If this man had been a Christian,” he said, “he would have been a saint and a martyr.”