Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book V. The Revolver.
V. The Birds'-Nesters
IT was near the period of that Saturday which was passed by Sieur Clubin at Torteval that a curious incident occurred, which was little heard of at the time, and which did not generally transpire till a long time afterwards. For many things, as we have already observed, remain undivulged simply by reason of the terror which they have caused in those who have witnessed them
In the night-time between Saturday and Sunday-we are exact in the matter of the date, and we believe it to be correct-three boys climbed up the hill at Pleinmont. The boys returned to the village: they came from the seashore. They were what are called, in the corrupt French of that part, "deniquoiseaux," or birds'-nesters. Wherever there are cliffs and cleft rocks over-hanging the sea, the young birds'-nesters abound. The reader will remember that Gilliatt interfered in this matter for the sake of the birds as well as for the sake of the children.
The "deniquoiseaux" are a sort of sea-urchins, and are not a very timid species.
The night was very dark. Dense masses of cloud obscured the zenith. Three o'clock had sounded in the steeple of Torteval, which is round and pointed like a magician's hat.
Why did the boys return so late? Nothing more simple. They had been searching for sea-gulls' nests in the Tas de Pois d'Aval. The season having been very mild, the pairing of the birds had begun very early. The children watching the fluttering of the male and female about their nests, and excited by the pursuit, had forgotten the time. The waters had crept up around them, they had no time to regain the little bay in which they had moored their boat, and they were compelled to wait upon one of the peaks of the Tas de Pois for the ebb of the tide. Hence their late return. Mothers wait on such occasions in feverish anxiety for the return of their children, and when they find them safe, give vent to their joy in the shape of anger, and relieve their tears by dealing them a sound drubbing. The boys accordingly hastened their steps, but in fear and trembling. Their haste was of that sort which is glad of an excuse for stopping, and which is not inconsistent with a reluctance to reach their destination; for they had before them the prospect of warm embraces, to be followed with an inevitable thrashing.
One only of the boys had nothing of this to fear. He was an orphan: a French boy, without father or mother, and perfectly content just then with his motherless condition; for nobody taking any interest in him, his back was safe from the dreaded blows. The two others were natives of Guernsey, and belonged to the parish of Torteval.
Having climbed the grassy hill, the three birds'-nesters reached the tableland on which was situate the haunted house.
They began by being in fear, which is the proper frame of mind of every passer-by; and particularly of every child at that hour and in that place.
They had a strong desire to take to their heels as fast as possible, and a strong desire, also, to stay and look.
They did stop.
They looked towards the solitary building.
It was all dark and terrible.
It stood in the midst of the solitary plain-an obscure block, a hideous but symmetrical excrescence; a high square mass with right-angled corners, like an immense altar in the darkness.
The first thought of the boys was to run: the second was to draw nearer. They had never seen this house before. There is such a thing as a desire to be frightened arising from curiosity. They had a little French boy with them, which emboldened them to approach.
It is well known that the French have no fear.
Besides, it is reassuring to have company in danger; to be frightened in the company of two others is encouraging.
And then they were a sort of hunters accustomed to peril. They were children; they were used to search, to rummage, to spy out hidden things. They were in the habit of peeping into holes; why not into this hole? Hunting is exciting. Looking into bird's nests perhaps gives an itch for looking a little into a nest of ghosts. A rummage in the dark regions. Why not?
From prey to prey, says the proverb, we come to the devil. After the birds, the demons. The boys were on the way to learn the secret of those terrors of which their parents had told them. To be on the track of hobgoblin tales-nothing could be more attractive. To have long stories to tell like the good housewives, The notion was tempting.
All this mixture of ideas, in their state of half-confusion half-instinct, in the minds of the Guernsey birds'-nesters, finally screwed their courage to the point. They approached the house.
The little fellow who served them as a sort of moral support in the adventure was certainly worthy of their confidence. He was a bold boy-an apprentice to a ship-caulker; one of those children who have already become men. He slept on a little straw in a shed in the ship-caulker's yard, getting his own living, having red hair, and a loud voice, climbing easily up walls and trees, not encumbered with prejudices in the matter of property in the apples within his reach; a lad who had worked in the repairing-dock for vessels of war-a child of chance, a happy orphan, born in France, no one knew exactly where; ready to give a centime to a beggar; a mischievous fellow, but a good one at heart; one who had talked to Parisians. At this time he was earning a shilling a day by caulking the fishermen's boats under repair at the Pequeries. When he felt inclined he gave himself a holiday, and went birds'-nesting. Such was the little French
The solitude of the place impressed them with a strange feeling of dread. They felt the threatening aspect of the silent house. It was wild and savage. The naked and deserted plateau terminated in a precipice at a short distance from its steep incline. The sea below was quiet. There was no wind. Not a blade of grass stirred.
The birds'-nesters advanced by slow steps, the French boy at their head, and looking towards the house.
One of them, afterwards relating the story, or as much of it as had remained in his head, added, "It did not speak."
They came nearer, holding their breath, as one might approach a savage animal.
They had climbed the hill at the side of the house which descended to seaward towards a little isthmus of rocks almost inaccessible. Thus they had come pretty near to the building; but they saw only the southern side, which was all walled up. They did not dare to approach by the other side, where the terrible windows were.
They grew bolder, however; the caulker's apprentice whispered, "Let's veer to larboard. That's the handsome side. Let's have a look at the black windows."
The little band accordingly "veered to larboard," and came round to the other side of the house.
The two windows were lighted up.
The boys took to their heels.
When they had got to some distance, the French boy, however, returned.
"Hello!" said he, "the lights have vanished."
The light at the windows had, indeed, disappeared. The outline of the building was seen as sharply defined as if stamped out with a punch against the livid sky.
Their fear was not abated, but their curiosity had increased. The birds'-nesters approached.
Suddenly the light reappeared at both windows at the same moment.
The two young urchins from Torteval took to their heels and vanished. The daring French boy did not advance, but he kept his ground.
He remained motionless, confronting the house and watching it.
The light disappeared, and appeared again once more. Nothing could be more horrible. The reflection made a vague streak of light upon the grass, wet with the night dew. All of a moment the light cast upon the walls of the house two huge dark profiles, and the shadows of enormous heads.
The house, however, being without ceilings, and having nothing left but its four walls and roof, one window could not be lighted without the other.
Perceiving that the caulker's apprentice kept his ground, the other birds'-nesters returned, step by step, and one after the other, trembling and curious. The caulker's apprentice whispered to them, "There are ghosts in the house. I have seen the nose of one." The two Torteval boys got behind their companion, standing tiptoe against his shoulder; and thus sheltered, and taking him for their shield, felt bolder and watched also.
The house on its part seemed also to be watching them. There it stood in the midst of that vast darkness and silence, with its two glaring eyes. These were its upper windows. The light vanished, reappeared, and vanished again, in the fashion of these unearthly illuminations. These sinister intermissions had probably some connection with the opening and shutting of the infernal regions. The air-hole of a sepulchre has thus been seen to produce effects like those from a dark lantern.
Suddenly a dark form, like that of a human being ascended to one of the windows, as if from without, and plunged into the interior of the house.
To enter by the window is the custom with spirits
The light was for a moment more brilliant, then went out, and appeared no more. The house became dark. The noises resembled voices. This is always the case. When there was anything to be seen it is silent. When all became invisible again, noises were heard.
There is a silence peculiar to night-time at sea. The repose of darkness is deeper on the water than on the land. When there is neither wind nor wave in that wild expanse, over which, in ordinary time, even the flight of eagles makes no sound, the movement of a fly could be heard. This sepulchral quiet gave a dismal relief to the noises which issued from the house.
"Let us look," said the French boy.
And he made a step towards the house.
The others were so frightened that they resolved to follow him. They did not dare even to run away alone.
Just as they had passed a heap of fagots, which for some mysterious reason seemed to inspire them with a little courage in that solitude, a white owl flew towards them from a bush. The owls have a suspicious sort of flight, a sidelong skim which is suggestive of mischief afloat. The bird passed near the boys, fixing upon them its round eyes, bright amidst the darkness
A shudder ran through the group behind the French boy.
He looked up at the owl and said,-
"Too late, my bird; I will look."
And he advanced.
The crackling sound made by his thick-nailed boots among the furse bushes did not prevent his hearing the noise in the house, which rose and fell with the continuousness and the calm accent of a dialogue.
A moment afterwards the boy added,- "Besides, it is only fools who believe in spirits."
Insolence in the face of danger rallies the cowardly, and inspirits them to go on.
The two Torteval lads resumed their march, quickening their steps behind the caulker's apprentice.
The haunted house seemed to them to grow larger before their eyes. This optical illusion of fear is founded in reality. The house did indeed grow larger, for they were coming nearer to it.
Meanwhile the voices in the house took a tone more and more distinct. The children listened. The ear, too, has its power of exaggerating. It was different to a murmur, more than a whispering, less than an uproar. Now and then one or two words, clearly articulated, could be caught. These words, impossible to be understood, sounded strangely. The boys stopped and listened; then went forward again.
"It's the ghosts talking," said the caulker's apprentice; "but I don't believe in ghosts."
The Torteval boys were sorely tempted to shrink behind the heap of fagots, but they had already left it far behind; and their friend the caulker continued to advance towards the house. They trembled at remaining with him; but they dared not leave him
Step by step, and perplexed, they followed. The caulker's apprentice turned towards them and said,- "You know it isn't true. There are no such things."
The house grew taller and taller. The voice, became more and more distinct.
They drew nearer.
And now they could perceive within the house something like a muffled light. It was a faint glimmer, like one of those effects produced by dark lanterns, already referred to, and which are common at the midnight meetings of witches.
When they were close to the house they halted.
One of the two Torteval boys ventured on an observation:-
"It isn't spirits; it is ladies dressed in white."
"What's that hanging from the widow?" asked the other.
"It looks like a rope."
"It's a snake."
"It is only a hangman's rope," said the French boy authoritatively. "That's what they use. Only I don't believe in them."
And in three bounds, rather than steps, he found himself against the wall of the building.
The two others, trembling, imitated him, and came pressing against him, one on the right side, the other on his left. The boys applied their ears to the wall. The sounds continued.
The following was the conversation of the phantoms:-
"So that is understood?"
"As is arranged? "
"As is arranged."
"A man will wait here, and can accompany Blasquito to England."
"Paying the expense? "
"Paying the expense."
"Blasquito will take the man in his bark."
"Without seeking to know what country he belongs
"That is no business of ours."
"Without asking his name?"
"We do not ask for names; we only feel the weight of the purse."
"Good; the man shall wait in this house."
"He must have provisions."
"He will be furnished with them."
"From this bag which I have brought."
"Can I leave this bag here?"
"Smugglers are not robbers."
"And when do you go?"
To-morrow morning. If your man was ready he could come with us."
"He is not prepared."
"That is his affair."
"How many days will he have to wait in this house?"
"Two, three, or four days-more or less."
"Is it certain that Blasquito will come?"
"Here to Pleinmont? "
"Friday, Saturday, or Sunday."
"May he not fail?"
"He is my Tocayo."
"Will he come in any weather?"
"At any time. He has no fear. My name is Blasco, his Blasquito."
"So he cannot fail to come to Guernsey?"
"I come one month-he the other."
"Counting from Saturday last, one week from to-day, five days cannot elapse without bringing Blasquito."
"But if there is much sea?"
"Blasquito will not come so quickly, but he will come."
"Whence will he come?"
"Where will he be going?"
"Or to Torbay."
"Your man may rest easy."
"Blasquito will betray nothing?"
"Cowards are the only traitors. We are men of courage. The sea is the church of winter. Treason is the church of hell."
"No one hears what we say?"
"It is impossible to be seen or overheard. The people's fear of this spot makes it deserted."
"I know it."
"Who is there who would dare to listen here?"
"Besides, if they listened, none would understand. We speak a wild language of our own, which nobody knows hereabouts As you know it, you are one of us."
"I came only to make these arrangements with you."
"I must now take my leave."
"Be it so."
"Tell me: suppose the passenger should wish Blasquito to take him anywhere else than to Portland or Torbay?"
"Let him bring some gold coins."
"Will Blasquito consult the stranger's convenience?"
"Blasquito will do whatever the gold coins command."
"Does it take long to go to Torbay? "
"That is as it pleases the winds."
"More or less."
"Will Blasquito obey the passenger?"
"If the sea will obey Blasquito."
"He will be well rewarded."
"Gold is gold, and the sea is the sea."
"That is true."
"Man with his gold does what he can. Heaven with its winds does what it will."
"The man who is to accompany Blasquito will be here on Friday."
"At what hour will Blasquito appear.?"
"In the night. We arrive by night, and sail by night. We have a wife who is called the sea, and a sister called night. The wife betrays sometimes; but the sister never."
"All is settled, then. Good-night, my men."
"Good-night. A drop of brandy first?"
"That is better than a syrup."
"I have your word."
"My name is Point-of-Honour."
"You are a gentleman; I am a caballero."
It was clear that only devils could talk in this way. The children did not listen long. This time they took to flight in earnest; the French boy, convinced at last, running even quicker than the others.
On the Tuesday following this Saturday, Sieur Clubin returned to St. Malo, bringing back the Durande.
The Tamaulipas was still at anchor in the roads.
Sleur Clubin, between the whiffs of his pipe, said to the landlord of the Jean Auberge,-
"Well; and when does the Tamaulipas get under way?"
"The day after to-morrow-Thursday," replied the landlord.
On that evening Clubin supped at the coastguard officers' table; and, contrary to his habit, went out after his supper. The consequence of his absence was that he could not attend to the office of the Durande, and thus lost a little in the matter of freights. This fact was remarked in a man ordinarily punctual.
It appeared that he had chatted a few moments with his friend the money-changer.
He returned two hours after Noguette had sounded the Curfew bell. The Brazilian bell sounds at ten o'clock. It was therefore midnight.