WHO IS HE?
Attempts to unravel the mystery of a forty years silence
“Have you heard about Gérôme?” was one of the responses to a request for information concerning the neighborhood. The place was the little French village of Saulnierville, on St. Mary’s Bay, an arm on the Nova Scotia side of the Bay of Fundy. Apart from the beaten track, Saulnierville stands in the heart of the district now occupied by the “returned Acadians,” descendants of those compatriots of Evangeline who found their way back to the part of their adopted country after the expulsion by the English in 1755.
“No? It is a strange story,” continued the St. John lady at the table of the little boarding house, or “hotel,” and there was a stir of interest among her few listeners as they requested the telling. “About forty years ago,” this lady proceeded, “a large ship was seen sailing along close to the little strip of land out there which forms St. Mary’s Bay. This ship was different from those usually seen hereabout and at once attracted attention. Some say she was a man-o’-war, others a pirate, but whether or not there is any truth in these rumors this much seems certain – a ship of some kind hove to in plain sight of that strip of land, the ship’s boat put off and made for the shore, and there, above the high tide line, it apparently deposited something and then hurried back to the ship, which immediately sailed away. This incident was seen by some fishermen.
“The next morning, as I understand it, one of the fishermen went down to the shore where the boat had landed to see what it had been about. As he approached the spot he saw an object which he at first thought was a bundle of clothes. As he looked, this object seemed to move. The fisherman, alarmed, returned for a companion, and together they went to investigate. The object was then seen to be a man. By his side was a jug of water and a package of ship’s biscuit.
“Near him, according to one report, were the remains of a fire. At any rate, the night had been cold and the man had suffered severely from the exposure, particularly because of the fact that both of his legs had been freshly amputated. He only moaned in answer to the questions of the fishermen. They took him to a house, wrapped in blankets and soon, apparently, had restored him to a comparatively normal condition. They again asked him who he was and why he had been left there that way.
“He then made one reply, a word—or it may have been two words—which sounded like Gérôme. He either would or could not say anything else. He was treated by a surgeon and visited by a French priest, but, they too, were unable to get him to speak. Finally when he had sufficiently recovered, he was taken across the Bay to some French settlers in the hope that some one might be found who could converse with him. Attempts have been made in many languages. All have failed. In a word, he has been taken care of by these people ever since, and the mystery of who he is and why he was abandoned, apparently so wantonly, is as deep as ever. When the case became known the Nova Scotia government made an allowance to a French family to take care of him. He must now be nearly eighty years of age. He is known by the name which they thought he pronounced after being found, “Gérôme.”
The desire to learn more of this strange happening was altogether natural. Nor could the impulse to go see the man himself be dismissed as idle curiosity. The next morning as we drove toward the house where Gérôme lived, along the bare but beautiful shores of St. Mary’s Bay, where over three centuries ago watchers of another race saw other strange ships, those of De Montes and Champlain, I asked our driver, a very intelligent French Acadian, who had always lived in the neighborhood, what he thought of the story and if he had any idea of its solution.
Hint of Mafia Revenge
“Well, now, it is hard to say,” he replied, nodding his head slowly for emphasis. “Some say one thing and some another. Some say Gérôme was found away back about 1862, so some say he was a spy in your war, then I hear he belong to what they call the Mafia and tell secrets and was tortured, but his life was spared when he promise never to speak again. I don’t know. I have seen him many times. He lives now with one of the Comeau families. At first he lived with a man they call ‘the Russian’—though he was a Corsican. The Russian’s real name was John Nicolas and they called him ‘the Russian’ because he escaped from that war and came to this country. He is dead now. I often think perhaps Gérôme could speak. I don’t know. Maybe, he speak just at the last, before he die.”
We wound slowly along the bay. There was something dramatic to the situation. The truth might be almost commonplace; not to know it opened the door to limitless speculation. It seemed cruel in a way to force one’s self on this man’s attention, to make a spectacle of him. He might be a man of intelligence and refinement, who, though silent, would resent intrusion. On the other hand, there was the possibility that he might speak: that the truth might be learned and an awful wrong partly righted. Then the long years of silence might have numbed him to such an extent that he was beyond suffering. He was no doubt but a mummy, the shell of a man.
We finally drew rein before a neat little house standing some distance back from the road on the top of a hill overlooking the bay. Our driver went to inquire if Gérôme could be seen. The front door of the house stood open and in the hall beyond two little children could be seen playing. Their laughter tended to accentuate the silent tragedy within.
The driver emerged from the house and nodded. We could go in. We were received at the door by a pleasant spoken, placid young woman, the mother of the two children. Her mother-in-law and her husband, who completed the household, were then absent. This young woman had lived there with Gérôme since her marriage to young Mr. Comeau, six years previous. As she now greeted us she led the way into a neat though rather bare kitchen at the end of the hall. A large cook stove occupied the centre of the room. A table and one chair completed the furniture. We were not at first aware of the presence of Gérôme and started to question Mrs. Comeau about him. We had walked past the stove, but now, as we turned toward it, we saw with a start that he was sitting there beside it, so close that he had been from the entrance. The sight of him was a double shock, for not only had we not expected to see him there, but we were quite unprepared for his appearance and attitude. He sat on the floor, his head bowed, his eyes gazing fixedly at his hands, which were folded in his lap. Both legs were amputated just above the knees. He was neatly dressed in homespun blouse and trousers. But the striking thing was his appearance of intelligence. He looked for all the world like a normal human being. He might speak, and wisely, at any moment. Such was the first impression. In age he seemed less than seventy years. He was almost bald.
The back hair from the temples and the small moustache and pointed beard were gray. The head was large and impressed us as well formed. The contour of the face was very good, the nose in particular being strong and straight. The eyes were apparently large and dark, though as he held them resolutely down during this first visit they could not be seen very clearly.
The weak feature of the face at first seemed to be the chin, which appeared short from the mouth down, but by looking at his profile I saw that the bowed position of the head tended to thrust the chin in, and that it might really be of normal size. The fingers were noticeably long and slender. There were no decisive racial characteristics. He might be an American. We learned, however, that the skin had formerly been very dark, in which case he easily could be pictured as an Italian or a Spaniard. His expression of countenance was severe. It might have indicated hopeless dejection and resignation, or it might have been interpreted as dogged resolution and determination. With all due respect to some of the other opinions hereinafter given, a sincere and honest treatment of the subject requires it to be here said that the effect created on the three persons who comprised our party by this apparently intelligent man sitting there by the fire, with bowed head and austere look, was so impressive, not to say awe inspiring, that it was found impossible to talk freely about him in his presence. We turned for relief to a pretence at play with the little children who romped about the floor, entirely oblivious to anything disquieting in the carved figure by the stove. As we left the room I said, “ Goodbye, Gérôme,” and paused an instant to regard him. There was no response nor any change in the fixed expression.
Silent in All the Years
The young woman told us that she had heard Gérôme mumble slightly on a number of occasions, but had never heard him speak or laugh. Once or twice he had been observed to smile a little at the children, of whom he seemed fond. He had never been sick, except for two days, when he would not eat. He would never look at strangers, but would keep his face half hidden, as above explained. Even our driver had never seen him more clearly. His head and general appearance of intelligence were often commented upon.
Mrs. Comeau, with whom Gérôme now lives, could really tell us very little about him; nor, we were assured, could the elder members of her family. Evidently his habits of silence and self-effacement had been formed during the first few years after he had been found. Whether or not these habits were formed of his own volition, he undoubtedly had become set, as it were, in a mould. The suffering and shock to which he had been subjected immediately before being found might explain his condition, at least partly. What kind of a man he had previously been it seemed almost hopeless to inquire. The most feasible plan was to investigate the period immediately following his finding. This period, before his mind had closed in, if closed it has, might give some slight clue to what had gone before, and it was to this task that we addressed ourselves.
It was difficult to find anybody who knew much about him in that first period. The priest who had first visited him and also, we were informed, the men who found him were dead. Dead too, were John Nicolas, “the Russian,” with whom Gérôme had first lived. The doctor who had attended him had moved away. It seemed impossible to find anyone who had been intimately connected with him. At last, and quite by chance, we discovered a Mrs. Doucet, a neighbor at Saulnierville, the stepdaughter of John Nicolas. The stage driver, who had lived near her for years, had not himself known this fact until he happened to mention to her our visit to Gérôme. Now a woman of fifty-six years and the mother of twelve children, Mrs. Doucet had been living with Nicolas when Gérôme was first taken to his house and had remained there until the household was broken up, five years later, and Gérôme had gone to live with the Comeaus. Mrs. Doucet is a typical French Acadian, and frankness and honesty appear in every line of her keen, kindly face. As a young woman she was a school teacher and she has a perfect command of English. It may here be stated that nine-tenths of the speech in this district is in French and that many of the children and a considerable number of the adults do not speak English at all. We were made welcome at the cosey farmhouse where Mrs. Doucet lives with her large family, and, the object of our visit stated, she was immediately intense with interest. Her native French vivacity was augmented by her personal interest in the subject, and our myriad questions fell upon sympathetic ears. Mrs. Doucet’s story is as follows: --
“I remember very well when Gérôme was brought to our house. I was a little girl of twelve and was living with my stepfather, John Nicolas. They called him “the Russian.” He escaped, with twenty other men, from a war prison and came to this country. I do not know if that was the Crimean War; I was very young when I heard about it. He had no money at first, and earned his living playing an organ around this district of Clare. He saved, and finally got a little hotel over there at Meteghan. Then he went back to Italy to visit his family and died there, but that was five years after Gérôme was found.”
“Why was Gérôme brought to your house in the first place?”
“Well, you see, my stepfather spoke Italian and also some other languages. He was known for his ability to speak different languages, but they thought particularly Gérôme was an Italian, he was so dark. When he arrived my stepfather tried to talk to him, but he would say nothing. His legs were still sore, and it took six months for them to heal. Even though my father could not make him talk he took him in and cared for him, at first for nothing, and then the government gave him $2 a week. They paid that also to the family of Didier Comeau, where Gérôme afterward went.”
“Did Gérôme never get to understand what was said to him?”
“Oh, yes; he understood, but he would not talk. My father spoke a dialect of Italian which Gérôme understood, and he could speak it too. Gérôme also understood French and English, and maybe some other languages. I have heard him pray in Latin. He must have been a Roman Catholic: he had a crucifix when he was found and he used to make the sign of the cross.”
“When you heard him say his prayers in Latin was his voice mumbling and weak or was it strong?”
“He had a good, clear voice. Oh, he could talk: there is no doubt about that; but he didn’t want to talk; why I could never understand. Several times when he was absent minded he spoke before he could catch himself. Once my father asked him suddenly where he came from, and he said “Trieste.” Then he turned pale and showed great fear and would not speak any more for a long time. He seemed frightened afterward of these few times he spoke, particularly one time. That was one night when he seemed quiet and happy and my father asked him what was the name of the ship he came in and he answered right away it was the Colombo. Then he turned ashy and trembled violently and showed much more fear even than before. For this reason we thought he had given the right name. With us children he would not be so careful about keeping silent. When we were alone together he would tell us the names of things in foreign languages. Water was agua, he once said to me, and blanco is another word I remember. I do not know if he could speak Spanish.
“I don’t think my stepfather could either. When Gérôme talked to us children that way we would tell our parents when they came in, and my father would say:-- ‘Now, Gérôme, you talk to the children, why won’t you talk to me?’ But he would only mutter ‘No.’ He was fond of children. We would put little children on his lap, and he would pat them on the head, but would not look up.
“At first he would sleep all day and stay up all night. He would go up to the roof or out of doors in the middle of the night and look at the ocean and then gaze for a long time at the stars. One night when he was looking at the stars my stepfather tried to frighten him. He put a sheet over some sticks, and put them alongside of him suddenly. Gérôme looked at the object quietly, then went into the house, but returned to regard it again. My father then went to him and said: “Gérôme, that is the devil.” Gérôme replied, “The devil is not white,” and then went into the house and stayed there. I do not think he ever came out to look at the stars after that.
“We thought his work must have been at night and to get him into this habit of sleeping in the daytime and staying up all night, but after a while he fell into our habits. Once I saw him asleep on the grass at noon and his eyes seemed to be open and staring right at the sun.”
“Did a surgeon ever examine him as to his sanity?’
“I don’t know. He was never ill and nobody knew what to make of him. Yes, he would do strange things sometimes. He would get mad when he wanted things, because he wouldn’t ask for them; that made him nervous. He was not always as quiet as when you saw him. Once I saw him cut his nails with a knife until they bled. Then another time, when he thought he was alone, I saw him hold his face in his hands as if he were suffering and then tear his hair. Another time I saw him put his hand on a red hot stove. It never occurred to me that he was torturing himself as explanation for his sins; but one hears of such things. Sometimes, too, he would have fits of rage.
“One night a cat jumped on his bed and he grabbed it and tore it right in two.”
“Was he strong physically?”
“As strong as two ordinary men, he would sometimes perform feats of strength before visitors. He would go out to the woodpile and put his arm out and we would heap it with wood. We could never put enough wood on his arm to make him take it down. Then he would walk into the house with the tremendous loads, holding his arm right out straight, but always looking down. Oh yeah, he could walk very well after his legs healed. When we were alone together he would play with me and could run as fast I could.”
“Did he ever laugh?”
“I saw him half laugh once, and that was one of the times he spoke, too. A young coloured woman in the neighbourhood who was going to be married stopped in at our house beforehand to show us how she looked. When Gérôme saw her I noticed him laughing. After the coloured woman had gone we asked him what he had laughed at, and he said, “The white flowers on the black face.” Another time he spoke when we were making candy. He said, ‘Give me some taffy.’ He always spoke as if he had forgotten himself, and always showed signs of fear afterward, but never so much, as I said before, as when he told us the name of the ship.”
“How were his manners in those first years?”
“He had good manners, particularly about eating. He always bowed when we gave him food at first. He was fond of soup. He would drink only clear water—never tea, coffee or liquor. A doctor once tried to give him whiskey to loosen his tongue, as they say. Gérôme would not touch it, muttering a word which my father said meant medicine. And he was always afraid of medicine.
“We thought possibly he had once been drugged—maybe it was something they gave him before the operation. And maybe the reason he was always so fond of the heat of the sun and of the stove was an account of his suffering so from the cold, the night he was left on the shore. He used to wash his hands a great deal. I have seen him wash and wash and wash. Gérôme once told me his legs had been hurt by chains and that they had been cut off on a table. No, I did not ask him whether the chains were those used in the working of the ship or whether he had been a prisoner in chains. Yes, in view of his great strength it is possible he may have injured himself trying to break away from chains. I do not know, the kind of clothes he had on when found. Some say an officer’s uniform. But I never believed that. He certainly held himself very erect, even when sitting. I couldn’t say if he had military training. They say so many things about Gérôme that I don’t know what to believe. Some say the ship he came on was very big, and that’s why they think it was a man-o’-war. I forgot to say that he seemed very fond of my mother. When she died he went to her bed and examined her feet and toes, and when he was satisfied she was really dead the tears rolled down his cheeks and he took the cross in his arms and sat by her a long time. He would never read or write. He must be now about seventy-five years old.”
“When did you last see Gérôme?”
“About ten years ago. I had not seen him before that for two years, but he at once knew me. He took my two hands in his and held them, as if he were glad to see me.”
Mrs. Doucet said she was perfectly willing to pay another visit to Gérôme, and we arranged to go together the following day. We wished to see if he would recognize this old friend, perhaps speak to her. The things Mrs. Doucet had told us served to dispel somewhat the awe with which one must regard a living Sphinx, though, after all, this unexpected information tended in only a slight degree to clear the atmosphere of mystery which surrounds this strange man.
With different feelings, therefore, though even greater interest, we entered for the second time the little farmhouse on the hill, beyond the door of which, Mrs. Comeau now told us, Gérôme had refused to stir for fifteen years. The little children still played about. The kitchen shone, bare and clean, at the end of the hall. On this occasion we first turned into a little sitting room at the left, from which another door led into the kitchen. It was planned that Mrs. Doucet should enter the latter room alone and speak to Gérôme. He was still by the stove, but in a position where he could be clearly seen from the other room.
Mrs. Doucet entered the kitchen. Gérôme was looking down, in the same attitude as on our first visit, and did not at first notice her. As she approached him she said, “Bon jour, Gérôme,” and, stooping close beside him, held out her hand.
Gérôme drew back and looked quickly up, at the same time raising his hand as if to strike, but he lowered the hand immediately, and, turning half way, resumed his former position.
Mrs. Doucet, not at all afraid, continued to address him, in French, saying, “Don’t you know me anymore, Gérôme?” Gérôme then turned toward her again and looked her full in the face. We in the other room could now see his face distinctly. The eyes, as we surmised, were large and dark. The chin was normal. The expression seemed one of intelligence. After looking at Mrs. Doucet a moment, he glanced quickly at us, then looked down, and then again looked at Mrs. Doucet as if to verify his first impression. This fact, taken with what immediately followed, clearly showed that Gérôme recognized his old friend. The circumstance which immediately followed, and which was observed carefully by every one present, was that Gérôme tried to speak. Of this there can be no question.
Mrs. Doucet, continuing to address him, had said, “Why don’t you talk to me Gérôme?”
Gérôme thereupon turned to her and, indistinctly and gutturally, mumbled several syllables, evidently trying to say something to her.
Mrs. Doucet said: “ I do not understand you, Gérôme. Speak louder.”
Gérôme thereupon leaned toward her, in the common attitude of one who is anxious to be clearly understood, and again mumbled, a little more clearly than before, making an evident effort to articulate distinctly. He then made a third attempt, but with no greater success except that it became obvious that he had tried to say the same thing each time. It is possible that desire led his listeners to read into Gérôme’s attempted utterances more intelligibility than was really there, but it was Mrs. Doucet’s opinion, as well as that of the others present, that he was trying to say “Je ne peux pas” (I cannot). The four syllables, the tone of finality, the whole situation, left little doubt of what he meant to say. That he tried to say something there is no doubt at all.
Mrs. Doucet made some further efforts to talk with him, and I addressed him in Spanish, but when the truth became evident and Gérôme, uneasy, turned again to the stove, it seemed the part of kindness to leave him to himself.
Our second visit to Gérôme thus proved conclusively that the long years of silence and disuse of the vocal organs had now incapacitated him from speaking. The vocal organs had lost their flexibility, become set, and what was true of them was no doubt true of the stifled brain. Our feeling during the first visit, based on the stories we had heard, namely, that he could speak if he would and the he might be a man of normal understanding was therefore seemingly groundless; but it was still impossible to realize, with the breathing victim there before us, that the tragedy was all in the past.
We learned that the first physician who had attended Gérôme, Dr. Patton, was now dead, but that there was living at Annapolis Royal a Dr. Robinson, who had formerly been the Meteghan physician who had seen Gérôme shortly after he was found. We heard too, that Judge Savary, the well known Nova Scotian jurist and historian, also lived in Annapolis, and that he had written about Gérôme and could even give some definite information. Even had not that most interesting of towns, the old Port Royal of the French and the second European settlement on the continent, attracted us before we had ever heard of Gérôme, this opportunity of adding to our record of a strange case would now have decided us to go to Annapolis.
On arriving at the old town we were told that Dr. Robinson had moved to the western part of Canada. In lieu of personal interview, therefore, the mails were resorted to, and in the course of time, the following courteous letter reached us:--
Your letter was received on Saturday, and I shall have pleasure in telling you all I can recollect about that mysterious Gérôme. I fear time has made some of his story a little uncertain, as I have not been in Meteghan for a good many years, but the main points are fairly clear in my memory.
I went to Meteghan to practice my profession. I think, in April 1862, and the village was then all excited over the queer incident. I do not remember how long before my arrival the poor fellow was found, but it must have been during the summer of 1861, or even earlier; at any rate the general topic of conversation was about the stranger. I was told that two children went out of their homes early in the morning and, standing on the shore, saw a man sitting on the rocks some distance from them. The tides, as you are probably aware, in the Bay of Fundy run out a long way, that is, where the slope of the shore is very gradual. Probably the distance from high water to low water mark is nearly a quarter of a mile. The tide was receding and the figure was about half way from high tide mark, where the children were standing, and the water. In the distance a ship was seen sailing away.
They went to the house and told their parents and they proceeded to the beach.
They found a man sitting on a rock, his legs cut off above the knees. Beside him was a jug of water and a loaf of black bread. He was apparently dazed, and they could get nothing out of him to explain how he had come to be there in that plight. I know nothing about what was done with him immediately. People flocked to see him from every direction. All was surmise. One thing, however, they ascertained—a priest of the Roman Catholic Church visited him, whereupon Gérôme crossed himself, thus leading to the conclusion that he was a Romanist. When I saw him first in April, 1862, he had been unable to say a word. Sometimes he would make some guttural sounds, but quite indistinct. And now to answer your questions seriatim.
*** I think he was found in the summer or autumn of 1861.*** He did not give me the impression that he was a sailor. It never occurred to me that he was at all refined or educated. From his appearance and the shape of his head and other signs you can understand better than I can describe. I think he never was an intelligent man; rather weak, I think. It appeared to me that he was an Italian who had probably been in the hands of some of those numerous secret societies, such as the Mafia, and that he had in some way become possessed of some information that made him dangerous and that he had been disposed of in this way. This was my impression, but as I came to think about it I asked myself if such was the case could they not have more easily disposed of him, having in view the old saying, “Dead men tell no tales.”
To finish this part of my story, I believe he was frightened out of what little sense he was ever possessed of. You ask, did I ever have any conversation with him? To my knowledge, up to the time I left Meteghan, and for a long time after, he never spoke one intelligible sentence or word, although I believe he can make his wants known when he chooses. There was little or no change in his appearance or manner from year to year. I remained in practice in Meteghan five years, and, as he lived with John Nicolas, whose house was within fifty yards of mine, I, of course, saw him every day during the fine weather in the doorway. He seemed to take no notice of the passerby. I was called to see him professionally for some trifling ailment, and when I wished to see his tongue I, of course, told him to put it out. He would not know enough to put it out, and so I had to put my fingers on his chin, at the same time pressing it down to open his mouth, and thrusting my own tongue out. He would then do it in a faltering way. This of course, was partly due to his ignorance of our language, but he was naturally dull and stupid. I do not think his silence was intentional. Of course, the idea was always present that he was or had been a member of some secret society and, consequently, under a vow. For many years after my removal to Annapolis Royal, in the next county, I was in the habit of paying visits to Meteghan, being sent for professionally, and I almost always saw the poor creature sitting in the doorway, and I was told by his attendants that he often gave way to violent fits of temper. My friend Judge Savary of Annapolis Royal, wrote up his case.
*** If you wrote to the parish priest at Meteghan I am quite sure he would gladly give you details of his present life and condition. My old friends, Father Blanchest and Father Darby, have gone the way of all flesh. I do not know the name of the priest now resident, but I feel sure he would ascertain any more details.***
Any further information that I can give you will afford me much pleasure. Meanwhile I am, dear sir, yours very truly,
Carstairs, Alberta, Sept. 10, 1906.
The diversity of opinion as to Gérôme’s ability to speak is curious. His present appearance of intelligence, before described, may be partly accounted for by the touch of age; though if there is any truth in the theory that the later years of life tend to blur purely individual characteristics and accentuate those of heredity. Gérôme’s present appearance would rather indicate that he had come of good stock. The question of whether or not he was a “gentleman” and “a person of consequence” is, of course, important mainly as suggesting the degree of complexity in the events leading up to his abandonment. He was a man, in any event, and the crime, if crime there was, is as great in the one case as in the other.
Judge Savary, who kindly placed himself at our disposal, was also of the opinion that Gérôme had not been a person far up in the social scale—probably a common sailor. However, the Judge continued, “he most likely had friends or a family somewhere who suffered when he did not return, and I regret that an investigation was not made immediately after the event. I was living in Digby at the time, which is in the same county, but I did not hear of it until a year later. No, I have not written about him, except a letter now and then to deny or modify some newspaper story.” This delay in hearing of the matter may be explained by the fact that the French people along St. Mary’s Bay form a distinct community.