The Three Necklaces by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

“A great nation!” said the little Cure. “But yes, indeed, the English are a very great nation. And now I have seen them at home! But it passes expression, monsieur, what a traveller I find myself!”

We stood together on the deck of the steamer, watching–after an eight hours’ passage from Plymouth–the Breton coast as it loomed out of the afternoon haze. Our crossing had been smooth, yet sea-sickness had prostrated all his compatriots on board–five or six priests, as many religieuses, and maybe a dozen peasants, whom I supposed to be attached in some way to the service of the religious orders the priests represented. (Of late years, since the French Government expelled them, quite a number of these orders have found a home in our West Country.) On my way to the docks that morning I had overtaken and passed them straggling by twos and threes to the steamer, the men in broad-brimmed hats with velvet ribbons, the women coifed and bodiced after the fashion of their country, each group shepherded by a priest; and I had noted how strange and almost forlorn a figure they cut in the grey English streets. If some of the strangeness had worn off, they certainly appeared no less forlorn as they sat huddled in physical anguish, dumb, immobile, staring at the sea.

The little Cure, however, was vivacious enough for ten. It was impossible to avoid making friends with him. He had nothing to do, he told me, with his companions, but was just a plain parish priest returning from an errand of business.

He announced this with a fine roll of the voice.

“Of business,” he repeated. “The English are a great nation for business. But how warm of heart, notwithstanding!”

“That is not always reckoned to us,” said I.

“But I reckon it . . . Tenez, that will be Ile Vierge–there, with the lighthouse standing white–as it were, beneath the cliffs; but the cliffs belong in fact to the mainland. . . . And now in a few minutes we come abreast of my parish–the Ile Lezan. . . . See, see!” He caught my arm as the tide raced us down through the Passage du Four. “My church–how her spire stands up!” He turned to me, his voice shaking with emotion. “You English are accustomed to travel. Probably you do not guess, monsieur, with what feelings I see again Ile Lezan–I, who have never crossed the Channel before nor indeed have visited any foreign land. But I am glad: it spreads the mind.” Here he put his hands together and drew them apart as though extending a concertina. “I have seen you English at home. If monsieur, who is on tour, could only spare the time to visit me on Ile Lezan!”

Well, the end of it was that before we parted on the quay at Brest I found myself under half a promise, and a week later, having (as I put it to myself) nothing better to do, I took the train to a little wind-swept terminus, whence a ramshackle cart jolted me to Port Lezan, on the coast, whence again by sail and oar a ferry-boat conveyed me over to the Island.

My friend the Cure greeted me with something not far short of ecstasy.

“But this is like you English–you keep your word. . . . You will hardly believe,” he confided, as I shared his admirable dejeuner– soup, langouste, an incomparable omelet, stuffed veal, and I forget what beside–“you will hardly believe with what difficulty I bring myself back to this horizon.” He waved a hand to the blue sea-line beyond his window. “When one has tasted progress–” He broke off. “But, thanks be to God, we too, on Ile Lezan, are going to progress. You will visit my church and see how much we have need.”

He took me to it: a bleak, decayed building, half ruinated, the slated pavement uneven as the waves of the sea, the plastered walls dripping with saline ooze. From the roof depended three or four rudely carved ships, hung there ex voto by parishioners preserved from various perils of the deep. He narrated their histories at length.

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“The roof leaks,” he said, “but we are to remedy that. At length the blessed Mary of Lezan will be housed, if not as befits her, at least not shamefully.” He indicated a niched statue of the Virgin, with daubed red cheeks and a robe of crude blue overspread with blotches of sea-salt. “Thanks to your England,” he added.

“Why ‘thanks to England’?”

He chuckled–or perhaps I had better say chirruped.

“Did I not say I had been visiting your country on business? Eh? You shall hear the story–only I tell no names.”

He took snuff.

“We will call them,” he said, “only by their Christian names, which are Lucien and Jeanne. . . . I am to marry them next month, when Lucien gets his relief from the lighthouse on Ile Ouessant.

“They are an excellent couple. As between them, the wits are with Lucien, who will doubtless rise in his profession. He has been through temptation, as you shall hear. For Jeanne, she is un coeur simple, as again you will discover; not clever at all–oh, by no means!–yet one of the best of my children. It is really to Jeanne that we owe it all. . . . I have said so to Lucien, and just at the moment Lucien was trying to say it to me.

“They were betrothed, you understand. Lucien was nineteen, and Jeanne maybe a year younger. From the beginning, it had been an understood thing: to this extent understood, that Lucien, instead of sailing to the fishery (whither go most of the young men of Ile Lezan and the coast hereabouts) was destined from the first to enter the lighthouse service under Government. The letters I have written to Government on his behalf! . . . I am not one of those who quarrel with the Republic. Still–a priest, and in this out-of-the-way spot–what is he?

“However, Lucien got his appointment. The pay? Enough to marry on, for a free couple. But the families were poor on both sides–long families, too. Folk live long on Ile Lezan–women-folk especially; accidents at the fishery keep down the men. Still, and allowing for that, the average is high. Lucien had even a great-grandmother alive–a most worthy soul–and on Jeanne’s side the grandparents survived on both sides. Where there are grandparents they must be maintained.

“No one builds on Ile Lezan. Luden and Jeanne–on either side their families crowded to the very windows. If only the smallest hovel might fall vacant! . . . For a week or two it seemed that a cottage might drop in their way; but it happened to be what you call picturesque, and a rich man snapped it up. He was a stranger from Paris, and called himself an artist; but in truth he painted little, and that poorly–as even I could see. He was fonder of planning what he would have, and what not, to indulge his mood when it should be in the key for painting. Happening here just when the cottage fell empty, he offered a price for it far beyond anything Lucien could afford, and bought it. For a month or two he played with this new toy, adding a studio and a veranda, and getting over many large crates of furniture from the mainland. Then by and by a restlessness overtook him–that restlessness which is the disease of the rich–and he left us, yet professing that it delighted him always to keep his little pied-a-terre in Ile Lezan. He has never been at pains to visit us since.

“But meanwhile Lucien and Jeanne had no room to marry and set up house. It was a heavy time for them. They had some talk together of crossing over and finding a house on the mainland; but it came to nothing. The parents on both sides would not hear of it, and in truth Jeanne would have found it lonely on the mainland, away from her friends and kin; for Lucien, you see, must in any case spend half his time on the lighthouse on Ile Ouessant. So many weeks on duty, so many weeks ashore–thus it works, and even so the loneliness wears them; though our Bretons, being silent men by nature, endure it better than the rest.

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“Lucien and Jeanne must wait–wait for somebody to die. In plain words it came to that. Ah, monsieur! I have heard well-to-do folk talk of our poor as unfeeling. That is an untruth. But suppose it were true. Where would the blame lie in such a story as this? Like will to like, and young blood is hot. . . . Lucien and Jeanne, however, were always well conducted. . . . Yes, yes, my story? Six months passed, and then came word that our rich artist desired to sell his little pied-a-terre; but he demanded the price he had given for it, and, moreover, what he called compensation for the buildings he had added. Also he would only sell or let it with the furniture; he wished, in short, to disencumber himself of his purchase, and without loss. This meant that Lucien less than ever could afford to buy; and there are no money-lenders on Ile Lezan. The letter came as he was on the point of departing for another six weeks on Ile Ouessant: and that evening the lovers’ feet took them to the nest they had so often dreamed of furnishing. There is no prettier cottage on the island–I will show it to you on our way back. Very disconsolately they looked at it, but there was no cure. Lucien left early next morning.

“That was last autumn, a little before the wreck of your great English steamship the Rougemont Castle. Days after, the tides carried some of the bodies even here, to Ile Lezan; but not many– four or five at the most–and we, cut off from shore around this corner of the coast, were long in hearing the terrible news. Even the lighthouse-keepers on Ile Ouessant knew nothing of it until morning, for she struck in the night, you remember, attempting to run through the Inner Passage and save her time.

“I believe–but on this point will not be certain–that the alarm first came to Lucien, and in the way I shall tell you. At any rate he was walking alone in the early morning, and somewhere along the shore to the south of the lighthouse, when he came on a body lying on the seaweed in a gully of the rocks.

“It was the body of a woman, clad only in a nightdress. As he stooped over her, Lucien saw that she was exceeding beautiful; yet not a girl, but a well-developed woman of thirty or thereabouts, with heavy coils of dark hair, well-rounded shoulders, and (as he described it to me later on) a magnificent throat.

“He had reason enough to remark her throat, for as he turned the body over–it lay on its right side–to place a hand over the heart, if perchance some life lingered, the nightdress, open at the throat, disclosed one, two, three superb necklaces of diamonds. There were rings of diamonds on her fingers, too, and afterwards many fine gems were found sewn within a short vest or camisole of silk she wore under her nightdress. But Lucien’s eyes were fastened on the three necklaces.

“Doubtless the poor lady, aroused in her berth as the ship struck, had clasped these hurriedly about her throat before rushing on deck. So, might her life be spared, she would save with it many thousands of pounds. They tell me since that in moments of panic women always think first of their jewels.

“But here she lay drowned, and the jewels–as I said, Lucien could not unglue his eyes from them. At first he stared at them stupidly. Not for some minutes did his mind grasp that they represented great wealth; and even when the temptation grew, it whispered no more than that here was money–maybe even a hundred pounds–but enough, at all events, added to his savings, to purchase the cottage at home, and make him and Jeanne happy for the rest of their lives.

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“His fingers felt around to the clasps. One by one he detached the necklaces and slipped them into his trousers’ pocket.

“He also managed to pull off one of the rings; but found this a more difficult matter, because the fingers were swollen somewhat with the salt water. So he contented himself with one, and ran back to the lighthouse to give the alarm to his comrades.

“When his comrades saw the body there was great outcry upon the jewels on its fingers; but none attempted to disturb them, and Lucien kept his own counsel. They carried the poor thing to a store-chamber at the base of the lighthouse, and there before nightfall they had collected close upon thirty bodies. There was much talk in the newspapers afterwards concerning the honesty of our poor Bretons, who pillaged none of the dead, but gave up whatever they found. The relatives and the great shipping company subscribed a fund, of which a certain small portion came even to Ile Lezan to be administered by me.

“The poor lady with the necklaces? If you read the accounts in the newspapers, as no doubt you did, you will already have guessed her name. Yes, in truth, she was your great soprano, whom they called Madame Chiara, or La Chiara: so modest are you English, at least in all that concerns the arts, that when an incomparable singer is born to you she must go to Italy to borrow a name. She was returning from South Africa, where the finest of the three necklaces had been presented to her by subscription amongst her admirers. They say her voice so ravished the audiences at Johannesburg and Pretoria that she might almost, had she willed, have carried home the great diamond they are sending to your King. But that, no doubt, was an invention of the newspapers.

“For certain, at any rate, the necklace was a superb one; nor do I speak without knowledge, as you shall hear. Twenty-seven large stones–between each a lesser stone–and all of the purest water! The other two were scarcely less magnificent. It was a brother who came over and certified the body; for her husband she had divorced in America, and her father was an English clergyman, old and infirm, seldom travelling beyond the parish where he lives in a chateau and reigns as a king. It seems that these things happen in England. At first he was only a younger son, and dwelt in the rectory as a plain parish priest, and there he married and brought up his family; but his elder brother dying, he became seigneur of the parish too, and moved into a great house, yet with little money to support it until his only daughter came back from studying at Milan and conquered London. The old gentleman speaks very modestly about it. Oh, yes, I have seen and talked with him. And what a garden! The azaleas! the rhododendrons! But he is old, and his senses somewhat blunted. He lives in the past–not his own, but his family’s rather. He spoke to me of his daughter without emotion, and said that her voice was undoubtedly derived from three generations back, when an ancestor–a baronet–had married with an opera-singer.

“But we were talking of the necklaces and of the ring which Lucien had taken. . . . He told his secret to nobody, but kept them ever in his trousers’ pocket. Only, when he could escape away from his comrades to some corner of the shore, he would draw the gems forth and feast his eyes on them. I believe it weighed on him very little that he had committed a crime or a sin. Longshore folk have great ease of conscience respecting all property cast up to them by the sea. They regard all such as their rightful harvest: the feeling is in their blood, and I have many times argued in vain against it. Once while I argued, here in Ile Lezan, an old man asked me, ‘But, Father, if it were not for such chances, why should any man choose to dwell by the sea?’ If, monsieur, you lived among them and knew their hardships, you would see some rude sense in that question.

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“To Lucien, feasting his eyes by stealth on the diamonds and counting the days to his relief, the stones meant that Jeanne and happiness were now close within his grasp. There would be difficulty, to be sure, in disposing of them; but with Jeanne’s advice–she had a practical mind–and perhaps with Jeanne’s help, the way would not be hard to find. He was inclined to plume himself on the ease with which, so far, it had been managed. His leaving the rings, and the gems sewn within the camisole–though to be sure these were not discovered for many hours–had been a masterstroke. He and his comrades had been complimented together upon their honesty.

“The relief came duly; and in this frame of mind–a little sly, but more than three parts triumphant–he returned to Ile Lezan and was made welcome as something of a hero. (To do him credit, he had worked hard in recovering the bodies from the wreck.) At all times it is good to arrive home after a spell on the lighthouse. The smell of nets drying and of flowers in the gardens, the faces on the quay, and the handshakes, and the first church-going–they all count. But to Lucien these things were for once as little compared with the secret he carried. His marriage now was assured, and that first evening–the Eve of Noel–he walked with Jeanne up the road to the cottage, and facing it, told her his secret. They could be married now. He promised it, and indicated the house with a wave of the hand almost proprietary.

“But Jeanne looked at him as one scared, and said: ‘Shall I marry a thief?’

“Then, very quietly, she asked for a look at the jewels, and he handed them to her. She had never set eyes on diamonds before, but all women have an instinct for jewels, and these made her gasp. ‘Yes,’ she owned, ‘I could not have believed that the world contained such beautiful things. I am sorry thou hast done this wickedness, but I understand how they tempted thee.’

“‘What is this you are chanting?’ demanded Lucien. ‘The stones were nothing to me. I thought only that by selling them we two could set up house as man and wife.’

“‘My dear one,’ said Jeanne, ‘what happiness could we have known with this between us?’ What with the diamonds in her hand and the little cottage there facing her, so long desired, she was forced to shut her eyes for a moment; but when she opened them again her voice was quite firm. ‘We must restore them where they belong. It may be that Pere Thomas can help us; but I must think of a way. Give them to me, and let me keep them while I think of a way.’

“‘You do not love me as I love you,’ said Lucien in his anger and disappointment; but he knew, all the same, that he spoke an untruth.

“Jeanne took the diamonds home with her, to her bedroom, and sat for some time on the edge of her bed, thinking out a way. In the midst of her thinking she stood up, walked over to the glass, and clasped the finest of the necklaces about her throat. . . . I suppose no woman of this country ever wore the like of it–no, not in the days when there were kings and queens of Leon. . . . Jeanne was not beautiful, but she gazed at herself with eyes like those of a patient in a fever. . . . Then of a sudden she felt the stones burning her as though they had been red-hot coals. She plucked them off, and cast herself on her knees beside the bed.”

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“You will remember that this was the Eve of Noel, when the children of the parish help me to deck the creche for the infant Christ. We take down the images–see, there is St. Joseph, and there yonder Our Lady, in the side chapel; the two oxen and a sheep are put away in the vestry, in a cupboard full of camphor. We have the Three Kings too. . . . In short, we put our hearts into the dressing-up. By nightfall all is completed, and I turn the children out, reserving some few last touches which I invent to surprise them when they come again on Christmas morning. Afterwards I celebrate the Mass for the Vigil, and then always I follow what has been a custom in this parish, I believe, ever since the church was built. I blow out all the candles but two, and remain here, seated, until the day breaks, and the folk assemble to celebrate the first Mass of Noel. Eh? It is discipline, but I bring rugs, and I will not say that all the time my eyes are wide open.

“Certainly I closed them on this night of which I am telling. For I woke up with a start, and almost, you might say, in trepidation, for it seemed to me that someone was moving in the church. My first thought was that some mischievous child had crept in, and was playing pranks with my creche, and to that first I made my way. Beyond the window above it rode the flying moon, and in the rays of it what did I see?

“The figures stood as I had left them. But above the manger, over the shoulders of the Virgin, blazed a rope of light–of diamonds such as I have never seen nor shall see again–all flashing green and blue and fieriest scarlet and piercing white. Of the Three Kings, also each bore a gift, two of them a necklace apiece, and the third a ring. I stood before the miracle, and my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth, and then a figure crept out of the shadows and knelt in the pool of moonlight at my feet. It was Jeanne. She caught at the skirt of my soutane, and broke into sobbing.

“‘My father, let the Blessed One wear them ever, or else help me to give them back!’

“You will now guess, monsieur, on what business I have been visiting England. It is a great country. The old clergyman sat among his azaleas and rhododendrons and listened to all my story. Then he took the box that held his daughter’s jewels, and, emptying it upon the table, chose out one necklace and set it aside. ‘This one,’ said he, ‘shall be sold, my friend, and with the money you shall, after giving this girl a marriage portion, re-adorn your church on Ile Lezan to the greater glory of God!’”

On our way back to his lodging the little Cure halted me before the cottage. Gay curtains hung in the windows, and the veranda had been freshly painted.

“At the end of the month Lucien gets his relief, and then they are to be married,” said the little Cure.

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