“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.”