Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 4



A CLOSE observer might have noticed that all wore long cloaks, torn and patched, but covering them, and if need be concealing them up to the very eyes,—useful alike against the north wind and curiosity. They moved with ease under these cloaks. The greater number wore a handkerchief tied round the head,—a sort of rudiment which marks the commencement of the turban in Spain. This head-dress was nothing unusual in England. At that time the South was in fashion in the North; perhaps this was connected with the fact that the North was beating the South. It conquered and admired. After the defeat of the Armada, Castilian was considered in the halls of Elizabeth as the court language. To speak English in the palace of the Queen of England was deemed almost an impropriety. To adopt partially the manners of those upon whom we impose our laws is very common. It was thus that Castilian fashions penetrated into England; while as an offset, English interests crept into Spain.

One of the men in the group embarking appeared to be a chief. He had sandals on his feet, and was bedizened with gold-lace tatters and a tinsel waistcoat, shining under his cloak like the belly of a fish. Another pulled down over his face a huge piece of felt, cut like a sombrero; this felt had no hole for a pipe, thus indicating the wearer to be a man of letters.

On the principle that a man's vest is a child's cloak, the child was clad in a sailor's jacket, which reached to his knees. By his height you would have supposed him to be a boy of ten or eleven; his feet were bare.

The crew of the hooker was composed of a captain and two sailors. The hooker had apparently come from Spain, and was about to return thither. She was beyond a doubt engaged in a stealthy service from one coast to the other. The persons embarking in her whispered among themselves. The whisperings interchanged by these creatures was a composite sound,—now a word of Spanish, then of German, then of French, then of Gaelic, at times of Basque. It was either a patois or a slang. They appeared to be of all nationalities, and yet to belong to the same band. The motley group appeared to be a company of comrades, perhaps a gang of accomplices. The crew probably belonged to the same brotherhood.

If there had been a little more light, and if one could have seen more distinctly, one might have perceived under the rags of these people rosaries and scapulars half-hidden. One of the women in the group had a rosary almost equal in the size of its beads to that of a dervish, and easy to recognize for an Irish one made at Llanymthefry, which is also called Llanandriffy. One might also have seen, had it not been so dark, a gilded figure of Our Lady and Child on the bow of the hooker. It was probably that of the Basque Notre Dame,—a sort of Panagia of the old Cantabri. Under this image, which occupied the position of a figurehead, was a lantern, which at this moment was not lighted,—an excess of caution which implied an extreme desire of concealment. This lantern was evidently for two purposes: when lighted, it burned before the Virgin, and at the same time illumined the sea,—a beacon doing duty as a taper. Under the bowsprit the cut-water, long, curved, and sharp, projected in front like the horn of a crescent. At the top of the cut-water, and at the feet of the Virgin, a kneeling angel, with folded wings, leaned her back against the stem, and gazed out through a spy-glass at the horizon. The angel was gilded like Our Lady. In the cut-water were holes and openings to let the waves pass through, which afforded an opportunity for more gilding and arabesques. Under the figure of the Virgin was written, in gilt capitals, the word "Matutina,"—the name of the vessel, invisible just now on account of the darkness.

Amid the confusion of departure there were thrown down in disorder, at the foot of the cliff, the goods which the voyagers were to take with them, and which, by means of the plank serving as a bridge across, were being passed rapidly from the shore to the boat. Bags of biscuit, a cask of fish, a case of portable soup, three barrels (one of fresh water, one of malt, one of tar), four or five bottles of ale, an old portmanteau buckled up by straps, trunks, boxes, a ball of tow for torches and signals,—such was the lading. These ragged people had valises, which seemed to indicate a roving life. Wandering rascals are obliged to own something; at times they would prefer to fly away like the birds, but they cannot do so without abandoning the means of earning a livelihood. They necessarily possess boxes of tools and instruments of labour, whatever their trade may be. Those of whom we speak were taking their baggage with them. No time was lost; there was one continued passing to and fro from the shore to the vessel, and from the vessel to the shore. Each one did his share of the work; one carried a bag, another a chest. Those of the promiscuous company who were possibly or probably women, worked like the rest. They overloaded the child.

It was doubtful if the child's father or mother were in the group, for no sign of interest was vouchsafed him. They made him work; but that was all. He appeared not a child in a family, but a slave in a tribe. He waited on every one, and no one even spoke to him. Still he laboured diligently, and like all the other members of this strange party he seemed to have but one thought,—to embark as quickly as possible. Did he know why? Probably not; he hurried mechanically because he saw the others hurry.

The stowing of the cargo in the hold was soon finished, and the moment to put off arrived. The last case had been carried over the gangway, and nothing was left on shore but the men. The two persons in the group who seemed to be women were already on board; six persons, the child among them, were still on the low platform of the cliff. Preparations for immediate departure were apparent on the vessel; the captain seized the helm, a sailor took up an axe to cut the hawser: to cut is an evidence of haste; when there is time it is unknotted.

"Andamos," said, in a low voice, he who appeared to be chief of the six, and who had the spangles on his tattered clothes. The child rushed towards the plank in order to be the first aboard. As he placed his foot on it, two of the men hurried by, at the risk of throwing him into the water, got in before him, and passed on; the fourth drove him back with his fist, and followed the third; the fifth, who was the chief, bounded into rather than sprang aboard the vessel, and as he jumped in kicked the plank, which fell into the sea; a stroke of the hatchet cut the moorings, the helm was put up, the vessel left the shore, and the child remained on land.