though it were attending the baptism of one of its skiffs in a mood of quiet contemplation, barely breaking on the shore in wavelets no larger than a finger, with the faint sound of a rake scraping the shingle. And the great white seagulls, their wings outstretched, wheeled past in the blue sky, soaring away and returning in long, curved flight above the kneeling crowd, as if they too wanted to see what was going on.
But the singing drew to a close after a rousing amen that lasted fully five minutes; and the priest, in a thick voice, gurgled a few words in Latin of which only the sonorous endings were audible.
Then he walked round the boat sprinkling it with holy-water and began to murmur prayers, having now taken up a position beside the hull and facing the 'godfather' and 'godmother' who stood quite still, hand in hand.
The young man retained the serious expression of a handsome swain, but the young lady, suddenly overcome with emotion and feeling faint, began to tremble so violently that her teeth were chattering. The dream which had been haunting her for some time had just assumed, all at once and somewhat in the manner of a hallucination, the appearance of reality. There had been talk of weddings, and here was a priest, who was giving his blessing, with people in surplices chanting prayers. Was she not the bride?
Had her fingers twitched nervously? Had her own heart's obsession coursed through her veins and communicated itself to the heart of the man standing next to her? Did he understand? Did he guess? Had he, too, been overwhelmed by this seeming intoxication of love? Or was it rather that he simply knew from experience that no one could resist him? She suddenly realized that he was squeezing her hand, gently at first, then firmly, and more firmly still, almost crushing it. And without any change of expression or anyone noticing, he said, oh yes, most certainly, he quite distinctly said:
'Oh, Jeanne, if you wished it, this might be the moment of our betrothal.'
She bent her head very slowly, which perhaps meant 'yes'. And the priest, who was still sprinkling holy-water, cast a few drops on their fingers.
It was over. The women stood up. The return journey was a rout. The cross, still in the choirboy's hands, had lost its dignity; away it flew, swaying to right and left, or pitching forwards as if it were about to land flat on the ground. The priest, his praying at an end, was trotting along behind; the cantors and the serpent-player had disappeared up a side-street, in a hurry to get changed, and the fishermen hastened along in groups. As though kitchen smells were wafting through their brains, one single thought was causing them to lengthen their stride and their mouths to water, reaching down to the pit of their stomach and setting their stomachs rumbling.
A good lunch was waiting for them at Les Peuples.
The big table had been laid in the courtyard beneath the apple-trees. Sixty persons took their place; fishermen and farmworkers. The Baroness, in the middle, had the two priests on either side, the one from Yport and the one from Les Peuples. The Baron, opposite her, was flanked by the mayor and his wife, a thin and already elderly woman of peasant stock, who kept acknowledging people with little waves of the hand to right and left. Her narrow face was tightly framed in her large Norman bonnet, just like the head of a white-crested hen, and her eyes were round and permanently astonished; she ate in short, rapid bursts as if she were pecking at her plate with her nose.
Jeanne, seated beside the 'godfather', was afloat with happiness. She saw nothing, thought nothing, said nothing, as her head swam with joy.
'But what is your Christian name?', she asked.
'Julien,' he replied. 'Didn't you know?'
But she did not answer, thinking:
'How often I shall be saying that name in future!'
When the meal was over, they left the courtyard to the fishermen and went to the other side of the house. The Baroness began