A Drama on the Seashore

Honore de Balzac

A Drama on the Seashore Page 02

The loveliest scenery is that we make ourselves. What man with any poesy in him does not remember some mere mass of rock, which holds, it may be, a greater place in his memory than the celebrated landscapes of other lands, sought at great cost. Beside that rock, tumultuous thoughts! There a whole life evolved; there all fears dispersed; there the rays of hope descended to the soul! At this moment, the sun, sympathizing with these thoughts of love and of the future, had cast an ardent glow upon the savage flanks of the rock; a few wild mountain flowers were visible; the stillness and the silence magnified that rugged pile, --really sombre, though tinted by the dreamer, and beautiful beneath its scanty vegetation, the warm chamomile, the Venus' tresses with their velvet leaves. Oh, lingering festival; oh, glorious decorations; oh, happy exaltation of human forces! Once already the lake of Brienne had spoken to me thus. The rock of Croisic may be perhaps the last of these my joys. If so, what will become of Pauline?

"Have you had a good catch to-day, my man?" I said to the fisherman.

"Yes, monsieur," he replied, stopping and turning toward us the swarthy face of those who spend whole days exposed to the reflection of the sun upon the water.

That face was an emblem of long resignation, of the patience of a fisherman and his quiet ways. The man had a voice without harshness, kind lips, evidently no ambition, and something frail and puny about him. Any other sort of countenance would, at that moment, have jarred upon us.

"Where shall you sell your fish?"

"In the town."

"How much will they pay you for that lobster?"

"Fifteen sous."

"And the crab?"

"Twenty sous."

"Why so much difference between a lobster and a crab?"

"Monsieur, the crab is much more delicate eating. Besides, it's as malicious as a monkey, and it seldom lets you catch it."

"Will you let us buy the two for a hundred sous?" asked Pauline.

The man seemed petrified.

"You shall not have it!" I said to her, laughing. "I'll pay ten francs; we should count the emotions in."

"Very well," she said, "then I'll pay ten francs, two sous."

"Ten francs, ten sous."

"Twelve francs."

"Fifteen francs."

"Fifteen francs, fifty centimes," she said.

"One hundred francs."

"One hundred and fifty francs."

I yielded. We were not rich enough at that moment to bid higher. Our poor fisherman did not know whether to be angry at a hoax, or to go mad with joy; we drew him from his quandary by giving him the name of our landlady and telling him to take the lobster and the crab to her house.

"Do you earn enough to live on?" I asked the man, in order to discover the cause of his evident penury.

"With great hardships, and always poorly," he replied. "Fishing on the coast, when one hasn't a boat or deep-sea nets, nothing but pole and line, is a very uncertain business. You see we have to wait for the fish, or the shell-fish; whereas a real fisherman puts out to sea for them. It is so hard to earn a living this way that I'm the only man in these parts who fishes along-shore. I spend whole days without getting anything. To catch a crab, it must go to sleep, as this one did, and a lobster must be silly enough to stay among the rocks. Sometimes after a high tide the mussels come in and I grab them."

"Well, taking one day with another, how much do you earn?"

"Oh, eleven or twelve sous. I could do with that if I were alone; but I have got my old father to keep, and he can't do anything, the good man, because he's blind."

At these words, said simply, Pauline and I looked at each other without a word; then I asked,--

"Haven't you a wife, or some good friend?"

He cast upon us one of the most lamentable glances that I ever saw as he answered,--

"If I had a wife I must abandon my father; I could not feed him and a wife and children too."

"Well, my poor lad, why don't you try to earn more at the salt marshes, or by carrying the salt to the harbor?"

"Ah, monsieur, I couldn't do that work three months. I am not strong enough, and if I died my father would have to beg. I am forced to take a business which only needs a little knack and a great deal of patience."

"But how can two persons live on twelve sous a day?"

"Oh, monsieur, we eat cakes made of buckwheat, and barnacles which I get off the rocks."

"How old are you?"


"Did you ever leave Croisic?"

"I went once to Guerande to draw for the conscription; and I went to Savenay to the messieurs who measure for the army. If I had been half an inch taller they'd have made me a soldier. I should have died of my first march, and my poor father would to-day be begging his bread."

I had thought out many dramas; Pauline was accustomed to great emotions beside a man so suffering as myself; well, never had either of us listened to words so moving as these. We walked on in silence, measuring, each of us, the silent depths of that obscure life, admiring the nobility of a devotion which was ignorant of itself.

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