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La Belle Rosalie

( Originally Published 1917 )

WIND-SHELTERED by white cliffs and rock-perched beyond the grasp of channel waves nestles defiantly the quaint fishing town of Dieppe. Her cobbled streets run precipitously to her harbor, and when the fishing fleet is out the sweet calm of surrounding fields vies with the quiet of her ancient churchyards. Widows and wives and sweethearts of sailors live in the sturdy little houses, and the odor of fish and of cordage loiters in the smoke from their chimneys. It is a great day in Dieppe, for three ships are to sail for-the western fisheries and La Belle Rosalie, the beautiful new barkentine, the pride of the town, is to begin today her maiden voyage to the Azores. Sailmakers and riggers hurry busily about her decks. Caulkers' hammers resound from her planks and the yohos of stevedores echo from hold to lighter. François is there, proud of his new short jacket. To-morrow all Dieppe will see that he is no longer a fisherman's boy but an able seaman, a wheelman in the starboard watch of La Belle Rosalie. To-night he will say good-bye to Maria Batiste, proudly and confidently. He will tell her to make her wedding clothes and be ready to go with him to the altar of the little church when La Belle Rosalie returns.

And so the morning comes and all Dieppe gathers to see the little ship break out her canvas and begin her life. Casks of purple wine and sacks of fresh vegetables, bouquets of flowers and little gifts of apparel are hurried aboard in late boats, and as the ship warps out of the roadway, the busy mates hurry weeping mothers and sisters and proud fathers over the side into their boats. Sweet-hearts say farewell and exchange little icons of the heart and of the church, and as the sails fall from the brails and yards are mast-headed to the shrill pipe of the boatswain, La Belle Rosalie heels gently to leeward and is away. It is a proud moment for François, for he stands at the wheel where all may see him, and though he looks straight ahead, he sees out of the tail of his eye that Maria Batiste is there at the pier's end waving tremulous adieu amid the throng. Thus cheered by gifts of love and voices of proud encouragement, La Belle Rosalie wafted by favoring breezes draws away into the sunlit sea:

Months pass with coming and going of ships ; summer drifts by in the lap of sunny seas, and no word comes back from La Belle Rosalie. Day by day Maria wanders along the white cliffs and strains her eyes across the misty channel in quest of the trim hull and tapering spars. Daily she leaves her sewing to wander restlessly along the wharves and question the lounging mates and sailors, but no gossip of distant ports or scrap of forecastle yarn tells aught of the missing ship. Many ships come back broken and buffeted by the seven seas, and many homes are saddened by the grim reports of wreck and storm, but never a word from La Belle Rosalie. Bells are tolled and tapers burned for many a sturdy sailor and prayers for his soul are wafted to the dim rafters of the little church, but no prayers are said nor tapers burned for those sailors of the barkentine who might be dead for aught men know.

Maria, like some restless spirit, wanders from church to harbor, her white lips drawn with pain, her eyes lustrous and spiritual with the light of fasting and of prayer. November comes with falling leaves and the moaning of channel storms and still no news of the missing ship. The second day of that month is the day of the dead or All Souls' Day in the gentle English phrase. It is the day of the lost at sea, which the Roman church has set aside for intercession for the repose of the souls of the dead. While it is yet dark, Maria slips to the door of her cottage and stealthily throws back the bolt. But after her hastens a figure that stops her at the threshold and with tearful per-suasion seeks to bring her back. It is her sister, who day and night has sought to curb her restless wanderings and lead her mind away from ships and sailors back into the quiet channels of her former life.

"It is the day of the dead, sister," says Maria, "and I must watch for La Belle Rosalie. She will come back to-day and I must be waiting for François." And so shivering with cold and apprehension, the sister follows on down the cobbled street. Riding-lights wave spectrally in the breaking darkness, but there are no other signs of life in harbor or town. The misty stars are nestled deep in the close-drawn canopy of murky sky, and upon the gray beach the slender swell is breaking without light or sound. The great red eye of the port light opens and closes lazily and wanes into impotence at the coming of dawn, like some fabled monster of the night whose power ceases at the break of day. Shadow and form, hull and pier and sable, that in the darkness cast their mysterious forms across the sea, fade imperceptibly into the grayness of sea and sky and cliff, and the two silent figures by the shore draw their shawls about them and shiver in the damp shroud of all-enveloping dawn.

It is the hour of visions and of dread, when graves yawn forth their dead, when vampires and were-wolves flit abroad and witches brew their spells; but beyond is the dawn of the day of All Souls, and out of the darkness of preceding night should rise the star of a new and holy day, laying the spirits of the evil dead and wafting prayers for the righteous to the throne of heaven, rolling back the mists of doubt and despair and bathing the earth in the sunshine of arisen hope and faith.

There is no movement among the wan draperies of fog, the spectral sea seems to have vanished and all the universe to be resolved into impalpable and eerie vapors. Even the hoarse groan of steam whistles from far out in the channel seems to bring but a tenuous murmur to the ear, as though no voice of the material world might harshly penetrate that mystery. Silent gulls on spread wings soar by like birds upon some dim and ancient kakemono. It is the moment before dawn; the threshold of the mystery of birth. East-ward a dim effulgence radiates from somewhere in the unknown beyond, wavering, uncertain, and scarcely sensed, seeming but a thinning of the mist. Dim pathways of light run through it like candle lights on some dull pewter urn. Slowly the light grows, sluggish but irresistible, till each particle of suspended moisture seems to glow in iridescent sheen.

The two silent figures turn dilated eyes toward the dripping light and seem by contrast to stand in shadow, facing the coming of some unearthly transformation. Breathless and nerveless, wrapt in the mystery of the moment, Maria Batiste points a white finger toward the gateway of light. "There," she cries, "she is coming, La Belle Rosalie !" Her finger traces in the mist the outline of a graceful hull; tall, tapering spars emerge from shadow lines ; gossamer sails sown with myriad pearls of moisture float from shining yards. There is no sound of waters beneath her forefoot, no curl of broken spray, no line where hull and water meet, only a darkening of the grayness through which hull and spar and sail move spiritwise. The falls are rigged, a boat swings at the davits, and figures in glistening oilskins peer from the rail expectant for the familiar harbor. Soft blue lights seem to waver from truck and yard-arm, but there is no sound of creaking block or vibrant halyard.

With one bound the light of dawn leaps upward. Cliff and sea start into life. The misty pulse of the deep and the breath of the dawn wind stir slumberously. Maria has fallen on her knees. "There, there is François, he stands at the wheel. But see how pale he is !"

Of a sudden with the rush of dawn and the awakening of day comes the deep voice of the church, the call to early mass, the death knell of night and of doubt, the first summons of the day of All Souls. The mists roll back silently, and with them into tenuous space fades La Belle Rosalie.

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