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CHAPTER II.


OUR FIRST ROUGH SKETCHES FILLED IN.


WHILE the hooker was in the gulf of Portland, there was very little sea; the ocean, though gloomy, was almost still, and the sky was yet clear. The wind was very little felt on the vessel, for the hooker hugged the cliff as closely as possible, it serving as a screen to her.

There were ten on board the little Biscayan felucca, three men in the crew, and seven passengers, two of whom were women. In the light of the open sea (which changes twilight into day) all the figures on board were clearly visible. Besides, they were not hiding now; they were all at ease; each one resumed his natural manner, spoke in his own voice, showed his face: departure was to them a deliverance.

The motley nature of the group was apparent. The women were of an uncertain age. A wandering life produces premature old age, and indigence is made up of wrinkles. One of the women was a Basque of the Dry-ports; the other, with the large rosary, was an Irish woman. They wore that air of indifference common to the wretched. They had squatted down close to each other when they got on board, on chests at the foot of the mast. They talked to each other. Irish and Basque are, as we have said, kindred languages. The Basque woman's hair was scented with onions and basil. The skipper of the hooker was a Basque of Guipuzcoa. One sailor was a Basque from the northern slope of the Pyrenees; the other was from the southern slope,—that is to say, they were of the same race, although the first was Trench and the latter Spanish. The Basques acknowledge no official country. "My mother is called the mountain,"[1] as Zalareus, the muleteer, used to say. Of the five men on the hooker, one was a Frenchman of Languedoc, one a Frenchman of Provence, one a Genoese; one, the old man who wore a sombrero without a hole for a pipe, appeared to be a German. The fifth, the chief, was a Basque of the Landes from Biscarrosse. It was he who had with a kick of his heel cast the plank into the sea just as the child was going aboard the hooker. This man, robust, agile, quick in movement, covered, as may be remembered with trimmings, slashings, and glistening tinsel, could not keep still, but sat down, rose up, and continually walked to and fro from one end of the vessel to the other, as if debating uneasily on what had been done and what was going to happen.

This chief of the band, the captain, and the two sailors, all four Basques, spoke sometimes Basque, sometimes Spanish, sometimes French,—these three languages being common on both slopes of the Pyrenees. But generally speaking, all except the women talked something like French, which was the foundation of their slang. The French language, about this period, began to be chosen by the peoples as a happy medium between the excess of consonants in the north and the excess of vowels in the south. In Europe, French was the language of commerce, and also of felony. It will be remembered that Gibby, a London thief, understood Cartouche.

The hooker, a fine sailer, was making rapid progress; still, ten persons, besides their baggage, were a heavy cargo for a vessel of such light draught.

The fact of the vessel's aiding the escape of a band did not necessarily imply that the crew were accomplices. It was sufficient that the captain of the vessel was a Vascongado, and that the chief of the band was another. Among that race mutual assistance is a duty which admits of no exception. A Basque, as we have said, is neither Spanish nor French; he is a Basque, and always and everywhere he must succour a Basque. Such is Pyrenean fraternity.

While the hooker was in the gulf, the sky, although threatening, did not frown enough to cause the fugitives any uneasiness. They were flying swiftly along, they were escaping, and they were noisily gay. One laughed, another sang; the laugh was dry but free, the song was low but careless. The Languedocian cried, "Caoucagno!"[2] He was a longshore-man, a native of the waterside village of Gruissan, on the southern side of the Clappe,—a bargeman rather than a mariner, but accustomed to navigate the inlets of Bages, and to draw the drag-net full of fish over the salt sands of St. Lucie. He was of the race that wears a red cap, makes complicated signs of the cross after the Spanish fashion, drinks wine out of goat-skins, eats scraped ham, kneels down to blaspheme, and adjures his patron saint with threats: "Great saint! grant me what I ask, or I'll throw a stone at thy head,—ou té feg un pic!" He might at need prove a useful addition to the crew.

The Provençal in the caboose was punching a turf fire under an iron pot, and making broth. The broth was a kind of puchero, in which fish took the place of meat, and into which the Provençal threw peas, little bits of bacon cut in squares, and pods of red pimento,— concessions made by the eaters of bouillabaisse to the eaters of olla podrida. One of the bags of provisions lay beside him unpacked. Over his head he had lighted an iron lantern, glazed with talc, which swung on a hook from the ceiling; near it from another hook swung the weather-cock halcyon.[3] While he made the broth, the Provençal put the neck of a gourd into his mouth, and now and then swallowed a draught of aguardiente. It was one of those gourds covered with wicker, broad and flat, with handles, which used to be hung at the side by a strap, and which were then called hip-gourds. Between each gulp he mumbled one of those country songs about nothing in particular. One needs, to make such a song, no more than to see (even in imagination) a hollow road, a hedge; in a meadow, through a gap in the bushes, the shadow of a horse and cart, elongated in the sunset, and from time to time, above the hedge, the end of a fork loaded with hay appearing and disappearing.

According to the state of one's mind, a departure is either a relief or the reverse. All seemed lighter in spirits except the old man of the party. This old man, who looked more German than anything else, although he had one of those unfathomable faces in which nationality is lost, was bald; and he was so grave that his baldness might have been a tonsure. Every time he passed the Virgin on the prow he raised his felt hat, so that you could see the swollen and senile veins of his skull. A sort of full gown, torn and threadbare, of brown Dorchester serge, half hid his closely fitting coat, tight, compact, and hooked up to the neck like a cassock. His hands seemed inclined to cross each other, as if habituated to an attitude of prayer. He had what might be called a wan countenance; for the countenance is above all things a reflection, and it is an error to believe that an idea is colourless. That countenance was evidently the reflection of a strange mental state, the result of a composition of contradictions,—some tending to drift away in good, others in evil; and to an observer it was the revelation of one who was less and more than human, capable of falling below the scale of the tiger or of rising above that of man. Such chaotic souls exist. There was something inscrutable in this old man's face. In his impassibility, which was perhaps only on the surface, there was portrayed a twofold petrifaction,—the petrifaction of heart proper to the hangman, and the petrifaction of mind proper to the mandarin. One might have said (for the monstrous has its mode of being complete) that all things were possible to him, even emotion. In every savant there is something of the corpse, and this man was a savant. One saw science imprinted in the gestures of his body and in the folds of his dress. His was a fossil face, the serious cast of which was counteracted by that wrinkled mobility of the polyglot which verges on grimace. But he was a severe man withal,—nothing of the hypocrite, nothing of the cynic; a tragic dreamer also. He was one of those men whom crime leaves pensive. He had the brow of an incendiary tempered by the eyes of an archbishop; his sparse grey locks had turned to white over his temples. The Christian was evident in him, complicated with the fatalism of the Turk. Chalkstones deformed his fingers, which were skeleton-like in their thinness. The stiffness of his tall frame was grotesque. He had his sea-legs on; he walked slowly about the deck, not looking at any one, with an air at once stern and sinister. His eyeballs were filled with the fixed stare of a soul groping in darkness and afflicted with violent compunctions of conscience. From time to time the chief of the band, abrupt and alert, and making sudden turns about the vessel, came to the old man and whispered in his ear. He answered with a nod. It might have been the lightning consulting the night.

 

  1. Mi madre se llama Montaña.
  2. Cocagne expresses the highest pitch of satisfaction in Narbonne.
  3. There was a popular belief in those days that a dead halcyon hung by the beak always turned its breast to the quarter whence the wind was blowing.