The shy, reclusive Gilliatt and his mother arrive on the Isle of Guernsey. From where they came, no one knows. They settle in an isolated house by the shore. The mother dies when Gilliatt is still a young man, and he remains alone. His superstitious neighbors fear him because of his uncanny skills at fishing, farming, and mechanics, and because of his extensive knowledge of medicinal plants. They believe he can communicate with evil spirits and can cure mysterious illness.
Meanwhile, based on Guernsey, the enterprising businessman Mess Lethierry loses his fortune when his partner, Rantaine, absconds with it. To recoup his losses, Lethierry establishes the first steamboat service in the English Channel. Although the local fishermen think the steam engine is an invention of the Devil, Lethierry nevertheless prospers by transporting passengers and goods and by shore-trading along the northern French coast. He loves two things above all else: the steamboat La Durande and Déruchette, the shallow, pretty, orphaned niece who is his ward.
On Christmas Day, Gilliatt sees Déruchette tracing some letters in the snow. When he reaches the spot, he sees his own name. Because she has already publicly defended Gilliatt against the false accusations of his neighbors, he thinks she must care about him, and he falls in love with her. He goes to her garden by night and serenades her with his bagpipes, but he lacks the courage to approach her or her uncle directly.
Meanwhile, a new rector, Ebenezer Caudray, arrives at the local parish. One day, while Gilliatt is fishing from his sloop, he rescues Caudray, who had climbed onto a rock exposed at low tide without realizing he would be trapped and would drown when the tide returned. Caudray then meets Déruchette and falls in love with her.
La Durande’s captain, Sieur Clubin, becomes widely respected as a scrupulously honest man, but he has been hiding behind a mask of virtue to await the opportunity to commit, undetected, a crime that will enrich him. Clubin tracks down Rantaine in France and forces him at gunpoint to return the money he stole from Lethierry. As Rantaine departs in a boat, he shouts to Clubin that he will write to tell Lethierry that the captain now has his employer’s money. To keep it, Clubin will have to stage an accident, during which he will seem to drown and disappear.
On the return to Guernsey, Clubin surreptitiously tempts his alcoholic helmsman with a bottle of brandy so that the man will become intoxicated and steer the boat onto a reef in a heavy fog. In the confusion, Clubin slips away and hides in a cave with the money. He has hired smugglers to meet him there later and to take him to South America. After the passengers of La Durande depart in lifeboats, Clubin looks out to discover that he has accidentally grounded the steamboat on the...
(The entire section is 964 words.)