Marcel Schwob
The Amber-trader
1891 (1982)
translated by Iain White in
The King in the Golden Mask
Original French

The Amber-trader

The glaciers had still not invaded the Alps; the brown-and-black mountains were less snow-capped; the corries did not glitter with so dazzling a whiteness. Where today one sees desolate moraines, uniformly frozen snowfields with, here and there, the fissures of liquid crevasses, there were occasional flowering clumps of heather and less sterile heathlands, still-warm earth, blades of grass and the winged creatures that alighted there. There were the round and flickering sheets of blue lakes, their basins hollowed in the high plateaux; whilst today they have the disquieting and bleak gaze of those enormous and glassy mountain's-eyes where the foot, fearing the abyss, seems to slide over the frozen depths of fathomless dead pupils. The rocks encircling the lakes were of basalt, a vigorous black in colour; the beds of granite were moss-covered and the sun lit up all their flecks of mica; today, like stone eyebrows, the ridges of blocks, obscurely piled-up, confusedly thrown together, under the seamless mantle of rime, protect their eye-sockets, filled with sombre ice.

In the hollow of a high massif, between two very green flanks, ran a long valley with a sinuous lake. Along the banks, and to the very centre, rose strange constructions, some leaning together, two-by-two, others isolated in the middle of the water. They were like a multitude of pointed straw hats on a forest of sticks. On all sides, at a certain distance from the bank, the heads of poles could be seen rising above the water, forming a pilework — rough trunks, many of them rotten, stripped of their bark, that held back the lapping of the little waves. Set immediately on top of the tree-trunks, the huts were fashioned of branches and the dried mud of the lake. Because of the smoke-holes — so that the wind might not blow the smoke back into the interior — the conical roofs could be turned in all directions. Some barnlike structures were more spacious; there were rungs of a sort leading down into the water, and narrow catwalks joining many of the pile-islets.

Large beings, heavy-jowled and silent, moved about among the huts, descending to the water, dragging nets weighted with polished stones bored with holes, snapping up fish and sometimes guzzling the raw fry. Others, patiently crouched at a wooden frame, threw from their left to their right hand a hollowed, funnel-shaped flint, olive-shaped, with two longitudinal grooves, carrying a shaggy thread bristling with twigs. With their knees they gripped two fluted uprights that slipped over the frame; thus, by an alternating movement, a web was made in which the strands crossed at intervals. Of those who worked stones, splitting them with scraper-blades of hardened wood, none were to be seen there, nor were there any of the polishers who used a flat grindstone with a central depression for the palm of the hand, nor were there any of the skilful hafters who travelled from place to place with perforated antlers and who, using reindeer-leather thongs, would fix therein beautiful basalt axe-heads or elegant blades of jade or serpentine brought from the lands where the sun rises. There were no women skilled in threading the white teeth of beasts and beads of polished marble to make necklaces and bracelets, nor were there any of the craftsmen with a sharp burin who engraved curved lines on scapulae and carved the leaders' staves of office.

Living far from the lands that engender useful skills, the pile-villagers were an impoverished people, lacking tools and ornaments. They procured those they wanted by bartering them for dried fish with the wandering traders who came in dug-out canoes. They clothed themselves in the skins they purchased; they were obliged to wait for the arrival of those who provided them with weights for their nets and stone hooks; they had neither dogs nor reindeer; living isolated, with their swarm of mud-spattered children splashing about among the piles, they existed miserably in their dens that were open to the skies, protected by the water.

As night fell, the summits of the mountains about the lake still palely lit, there was a sound of paddles and the shock of a boat was felt against the piles. Standing out against the grey mist, three men and a woman advanced towards the ladders. They had hunting-spears in their hands and the father swung two stone balls on a stretched cord from which they hung by two hollowed grooves. In a canoe which she moored to a plunging tree a stranger-woman stood up, richly garbed in furs, holding aloft a basket woven of reeds. Vaguely, in the distance, they saw that the basket had in it a heap of yellow things, and shining. It seemed heavy, for in it were also to be glimpsed worked stones. The stranger-woman nonetheless climbed up nimbly, the basket clinking, held in her sinewy arms; then, like a swallow entering its nest under a roof, with a bound she was in the hut and crouched by the turf fire.

She was utterly different in aspect from the people of the pile-village. They were stocky, ponderous, with enormous muscles between which furrows ran the length of their arms and legs. They had oily black hair that hung to their shoulders in hard and straight locks. Their heads were large, coarse, with a flat forehead, distended at the temples and with massive jowls, whilst their eyes were small, deep-set and ill-humoured. The stranger-woman had long limbs and a graceful carriage, a shock of blonde hair and clear eyes of a provocative freshness. Whereas the pile-village people were almost mute, sometimes murmuring a syllable, but observing everything persistently and with a wandering gaze, the stranger-woman prattled endlessly in an unknown tongue, smiled, gesticulated, caressed the objects and the hands of others, fumbled them, prodded them, jokingly shoved them aside and, above all displayed an insatiable curiosity. She had a wide and open smile; the fisher-people had only a narrow grin. But they looked covetously upon the blonde trader-woman's basket.

She pushed it to the centre of the group and held the objects to the light of an ignited chip of resin. They were rods of worked amber, marvellously clear, like yellow translucent gold. She had spheres in which milky veins wandered, berry-sized pieces cut in facets, necklaces of rods and of little balls, bracelets cut from a single piece, large, through which the arm could be thrust to below the shoulder, flat rings, ear-rings with a little bone, hemp-hackles, sceptre-heads for the chiefs. She tossed the objects into a sounding, cup-shaped vessel. The old man, whose white beard hung in plaits to his belt, looked closely and ardently at that singular vessel, which must have been magical since it had the sound of an animated thing. The bronze goblet, offered in trade by a people who knew how to smelt metal, shone in the light.

But the amber too sparkled, and its price was inestimable. The yellow richness filled the darkness of the hut; and the old man kept his little eyes riveted upon it. The wife turned about the stranger-woman and, more familiar now, held the bracelets against her hair to compare the colours. As he cut the torn meshes of a net with a flint blade one of the young men shot furiously lustful glances at the blonde girl: he was the younger son. On a bed of dried herbs that creaked at his movements the elder son groaned piteously. His wife had just given birth; having tied her child to her back she was dragging a sort of trawl-net for night-fishing among the piles while her husband, laid low, cried like a sick man. Leaning his head to one side, turning his face, he regarded the basketful of amber every bit as avidly as his father, and his hands trembled with covetousness.

Before very long, with calm gestures they invited the amber-trader to cover her basket, huddling about the fire and feigning to take counsel. The old man spoke very urgently; he addressed his elder son, who blinked rapidly. This was their sole sign of the understanding of language; living closely in the dismal proximity of aquatic creatures had fixed the muscles of their faces in a bestial placidity.

At the extremity of the chamber of branches there was an unoccupied space, two balks of timber better squared than the rest. By signs they gave the amber-trader to understand that, after she had nibbled at some dried fish, she could sleep there. A simple bag-net close by must have served, by night, under the habitation, to capture the fish that followed the lake's very feeble current. But it seemed they were going to make no use of it. Reassuringly they placed the amber-filled basket at the sleeper's head, but not on the two planks upon which she was stretched out.

Then, after some grunting, the resin light was put out. The water could be heard moving beneath the poles. The current slapped languidly against the tree-trunks. Rather anxiously the old man spoke a few interrogative phrases; his two sons replied affirmatively, the younger, to be sure, with some hesitation. And then and there, amid the watery sounds, silence was established.

Suddenly, at the far end of the chamber there was a short struggle, a rustling of two bodies, groans, a few sharp cries and a long expiring breath. The old man rose gropingly, took the bag-net, threw it and, abruptly sliding in their grooves the planks where the amber-trader lay, he uncovered the aperture made for the night-fishing. A hole gaped; there was a double falling sound; a brief splashing; when it was lit and waved above the hole, the resin light revealed nothing. The old man seized the basket of amber and, on the elder son's bed, they divided the treasure, the woman scrabbling after the beads that rolled, scattered.

They did not retrieve the net until morning. They cut the hair from the amber-trader's corpse, then threw her body among the piles to feed the fish. As for the drowned man, the father cut a disc from his skull with a flint blade to serve as an amulet for the future life, and this he pressed into the brain. Then they laid him outside the hut, and the women scratched their cheeks and tore their hair, uttering solemn ululations.