The north wind was blowing a hurricane, driving through the sky big, black, heavy clouds from which the rain poured down on the earth with terrific violence.
A high sea was raging and dashing its huge, slow, foamy waves along the coast with the rumbling sound of thunder. The waves followed each other close, rolling in as high as mountains, scattering the foam as they broke.
The storm engulfed itself in the little valley of Yport, whistling and moaning, tearing the shingles from the roofs, smashing the shutters, knocking down the chimneys, rushing through the narrow streets in such gusts that one could walk only by holding on to the walls, and children would have been lifted up like leaves and carried over the houses into the fields.
The fishing smacks had been hauled high up on land, because at high tide the sea would sweep the beach. Several sailors, sheltered behind the curved bottoms of their boats, were watching this battle of the sky and the sea.
Then, one by one, they went away, for night was falling on the storm, wrapping in shadows the raging ocean and all the battling elements.
Just two men remained, their hands plunged deep into their pockets, bending their backs beneath the squall, their woolen caps pulled down over their ears; two big Normandy fishermen, bearded, their skin tanned through exposure, with the piercing black eyes of the sailor who looks over the horizon like a bird of prey.
One of them was saying:
“Come on, Jeremie, let’s go play dominoes. It’s my treat.”
The other hesitated a while, tempted on one hand by the game and the thought of brandy, knowing well that, if he went to Paumelle’s, he would return home drunk; held back, on the other hand, by the idea of his wife remaining alone in the house.
“Any one might think that you had made a bet to get me drunk every night. Say, what good is it doing you, since it’s always you that’s treating?”
Nevertheless he was smiling at the idea of all this brandy drunk at the expense of another. He was smiling the contented smirk of an avaricious Norman.
Mathurin, his friend, kept pulling him by the sleeve.
“Come on, Jeremie. This isn’t the kind of a night to go home without anything to warm you up. What are you afraid of? Isn’t your wife going to warm your bed for you?”
“The other night I couldn’t find the door—I had to be fished out of the ditch in front of the house!”
He was still laughing at this drunkard’s recollection, and he was unconsciously going toward Paumelle’s Cafe, where a light was shining in the window; he was going, pulled by Mathurin and pushed by the wind, unable to resist these combined forces.
The low room was full of sailors, smoke and noise. All these men, clad in woolens, their elbows on the tables, were shouting to make themselves heard. The more people came in, the more one had to shout in order to overcome the noise of voices and the rattling of dominoes on the marble tables.
Jeremie and Mathurin sat down in a corner and began a game, and the glasses were emptied in rapid succession into their thirsty throats.
Then they played more games and drank more glasses. Mathurin kept pouring and winking to the saloon keeper, a big, red-faced man, who chuckled as though at the thought of some fine joke; and Jeremie kept absorbing alcohol and wagging his head, giving vent to a roar of laughter and looking at his comrade with a stupid and contented expression.
All the customers were going away. Every time that one of them would open the door to leave a gust of wind would blow into the cafe, making the tobacco smoke swirl around, swinging the lamps at the end of their chains and making their flames flicker, and suddenly one could hear the deep booming of a breaking wave and the moaning of the wind.
Jeremie, his collar unbuttoned, was taking drunkard’s poses, one leg outstretched, one arm hanging down and in the other hand holding a domino.
They were alone now with the owner, who had come up to them, interested.
“Well, Jeremie, how goes it inside? Feel less thirsty after wetting your throat?”
“The more I wet it, the drier it gets inside.”
The innkeeper cast a sly glance at Mathurin. He said:
“And your brother, Mathurin, where’s he now?”
The sailor laughed silently:
“Don’t worry; he’s warm, all right.”
And both of them looked toward Jeremie, who was triumphantly putting down the double six and announcing:
Then the owner declared:
“Well, boys, I’m goin’ to bed. I will leave you the lamp and the bottle; there’s twenty cents’ worth in it. Lock the door when you go, Mathurin, and slip the key under the mat the way you did the other night.”
“Don’t worry; it’ll be all right.”
Paumelle shook hands with his two customers and slowly went up the wooden stairs. For several minutes his heavy step echoed through the little house. Then a loud creaking announced that he had got into bed.
The two men continued to play. From time to time a more violent gust of wind would shake the whole house, and the two drinkers would look up, as though some one were about to enter. Then Mathurin would take the bottle and fill Jeremie’s glass. But suddenly the clock over the bar struck twelve. Its hoarse clang sounded like the rattling of saucepans. Then Mathurin got up like a sailor whose watch is over.
“Come on, Jeremie, we’ve got to get out.”
The other man rose to his feet with difficulty, got his balance by leaning on the table, reached the door and opened it while his companion was putting out the light.
As soon as they were in the street Mathurin locked the door and then said:
“Well, so long. See you to-morrow night!”
And he disappeared in the darkness.
Jeremie took a few steps, staggered, stretched out his hands, met a wall which supported him and began to stumble along. From time to time a gust of wind would sweep through the street, pushing him forward, making him run for a few steps; then, when the wind would die down, he would stop short, having lost his impetus, and once more he would begin to stagger on his unsteady drunkard’s legs.
He went instinctively toward his home, just as birds go to their nests. Finally he recognized his door, and began to feel about for the keyhole and tried to put the key in it. Not finding the hole, he began to swear. Then he began to beat on the door with his fists, calling for his wife to come and help him:
“Melina! Oh, Melina!”
As he leaned against the door for support, it gave way and opened, and Jeremie, losing his prop, fell inside, rolling on his face into the middle of his room, and he felt something heavy pass over him and escape in the night.
He was no longer moving, dazed by fright, bewildered, fearing the devil, ghosts, all the mysterious beings of darkness, and he waited a long time without daring to move. But when he found out that nothing else was moving, a little reason returned to him, the reason of a drunkard.
Gently he sat up. Again he waited a long time, and at last, growing bolder, he called:
His wife did not answer.
Then, suddenly, a suspicion crossed his darkened mind, an indistinct, vague suspicion. He was not moving; he was sitting there in the dark, trying to gather together his scattered wits, his mind stumbling over incomplete ideas, just as his feet stumbled along.
Once more he asked:
“Who was it, Melina? Tell me who it was. I won’t hurt you!”
He waited, no voice was raised in the darkness. He was now reasoning with himself out loud.
“I’m drunk, all right! I’m drunk! And he filled me up, the dog; he did it, to stop my goin’ home. I’m drunk!”
And he would continue:
“Tell me who it was, Melina, or somethin’ll happen to you.”
After having waited again, he went on with the slow and obstinate logic of a drunkard:
“He’s been keeping me at that loafer Paumelle’s place every night, so as to stop my going home. It’s some trick. Oh, you damned carrion!”
Slowly he got on his knees. A blind fury was gaining possession of him, mingling with the fumes of alcohol.
“Tell me who it was, Melina, or you’ll get a licking—I warn you!”
He was now standing, trembling with a wild fury, as though the alcohol had set his blood on fire. He took a step, knocked against a chair, seized it, went on, reached the bed, ran his hands over it and felt the warm body of his wife.
Then, maddened, he roared:
“So! You were there, you piece of dirt, and you wouldn’t answer!”
And, lifting the chair, which he was holding in his strong sailor’s grip, he swung it down before him with an exasperated fury. A cry burst from the bed, an agonizing, piercing cry. Then he began to thrash around like a thresher in a barn. And soon nothing more moved. The chair was broken to pieces, but he still held one leg and beat away with it, panting.
At last he stopped to ask:
“Well, are you ready to tell me who it was?”
Melina did not answer.
Then tired out, stupefied from his exertion, he stretched himself out on the ground and slept.
When day came a neighbor, seeing the door open, entered. He saw Jeremie snoring on the floor, amid the broken pieces of a chair, and on the bed a pulp of flesh and blood.