Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book V. The Revolver.
VIII. A "Cannon" off the Red Ball and the Black.
ON the morrow, which was a Thursday, a tragic circumstance occurred at a short distance from St. Malo, near the peak of the "Decolle," a spot where the cliff is high and the sea deep.
A line of rocks in the form of the top of a lance, and connecting themselves with the land by a narrow isthmus, stretch out there into the water, ending abruptly with a large peak-shaped breaker. Nothing is commoner in the architecture of the sea. In attempting to reach the plateau of the peaked rock from the shore it was necessary to follow an inclined plane, the ascent of which was here and there somewhat steep.
It was upon a plateau of this kind, towards four o'clock in the afternoon, that a man was standing, enveloped in a large military cape, and armed; a fact easy to be perceived from certain straight and angular folds in his mantle. The summit on which this man was resting was a rather extensive platform, dotted with large masses of rock, like enormous paving-stones, leaving between them narrow passages. This platform, on which a kind of thick, short grass grew here and there, came to an end on the seaside in an open space, leading to a perpendicular escarpment. The escarpment, rising about sixty feet above the level of the sea, seemed cut down by the aid of a plumb-line. Its left angle, however, was broken away, and formed one of those natural staircases common to granite cliffs worn by the sea, the steps of which are somewhat inconvenient, requiring sometimes the strides of a giant or the leaps of an acrobat. These stages of rock descended perpendicularly to the sea, where they were lost. It was a breakneck place. However, in case of absolute necessity, a man might succeed in embarking there, under the very wall of the cliff.
A breeze was sweeping the sea. The man wrapped in his cape and standing firm, with his left hand grasping his right shoulder, closed one eye, and applied the other to a telescope. He seemed absorbed in anxious scrutiny. He had approached the edge of the escarpment, and stood there motionless, his gaze immovably fixed on the horizon. The tide was high; the waves were beating below against the foot of the cliffs.
The object which the stranger was observing was a vessel in the offing, and which was manoeuvring in a strange manner. The vessel, which had hardly left the port of St Malo an hour, had stopped behind the Banquetiers. It had not cast anchor, perhaps because the bottom would only have permitted it to bear to leeward on the edge of the cable, and because the ship would have strained on her anchor under the cutwater. Her captain had contented himself with lying-to.
The stranger, who was a coast-guardman, as was apparent from his uniform cape, watched all the movements of the three-master, and seemed to note them mentally. The vessel was lying-to, a little off the wind, which was indicated by the backing of the small topsail and the bellying of the main topsail. She had squared the mizzen, and set the topmast as close as possible, and in such a manner as to work the sails against each other, and to make little way either on or off shore. Her captain evidently did not care to expose his vessel much to the wind, for he had only braced up the small mizzen topsail. In this way, coming crossway on, he did not drift at the utmost more than half a league an hour.
It was still broad daylight, particularly on the open sea, and on the heights of the cliff. The shores below were becoming dark.
The coast-guardman, still engaged in his duty, and carefully scanning the offing, had not thought of observing the rocks at his side and at his feet. He turned his back towards the difficult sort of causeway which formed the communication between his resting-place and the shore. He did not, therefore, remark that something was moving in that direction. Behind a fragment of rock, among the steps of that causeway, something like the figure of a man had been concealed, according to all appearances, since the arrival of the coast-guardman. From time to time a head issued from the shadow behind the rock, looked up, and watched the watcher. The head, surmounted by a wide-brimmed American hat, was that of the Quaker-looking man, who, ten days before, was talking among the stones of the Petit-Bey to Captain Zuela.
Suddenly the curiosity of the coast-guardman seemed to be still more strongly awakened. He polished this glass of his telescope quickly with his sleeve, and brought it to bear closely upon the three-master.
A little black spot seemed to detach itself from her side.
The black spot, looking like a small insect upon the water, was a boat.
The boat seemed to be making for the shore. It was manned by several sailors, who were pulling vigorously.
She pulled crosswise by little and little, and appeared to be approaching the Pointe du Decolle.
The gaze of the coast-guardman seemed to have reached its most intense point. No movement of the boat escaped it. He had approached nearer still to the verge of the rock.
At that instant a man of large stature appeared on one of the rocks behind him. It was the Quaker. The officer did not see him.
The man paused an instant, his arms at his sides, but with his fists doubled; and with the eye of a hunter, watching for his prey, he observed the back of the officer.
Four steps only separated them. He put one foot forward, then stopped; took a second step, and stopped again. He made no movement except the act of walking; all the rest of his body was motionless as a statue. His foot fell upon the tufts of grass without noise. He made a third step, and paused again. He was almost within reach of the coastguard, who stood there still motionless with his telescope. The man brought his two closed fists to a level with his collar-bone, then struck out his arms sharply, and his two fists, as if thrown from a sling, struck the coast-guardman on the two shoulders. The shock was decisive. The coast-guardman had not the time to utter a cry. He fell head first from the height of the rock into the sea. His boots appeared in the air about the time occupied by a flash of lightning. It was like the fall of a stone in the sea, which instantly closed over him.
Two or three circles widened out upon the dark water.
Nothing remained hut the telescope, which had dropped from the hands of the man, and lay upon the turf.
The Quaker leaned over the edge of the escarpment a moment, watched the circles vanishing on the water, waited a few minutes, and then rose again, singing in a low voice,-
"The captain of police is dead,
He knelt down a second time. Nothing reappeared. Only, at the spot where the officer had been engulfed, he observed on the surface of the water a sort of dark spot, which became diffused with the gentle lapping of the waves. It seemed probable that the coast-guardman had fractured his skull against some rock under water, and that his blood caused the spot in the foam. The Quaker, while considering the meaning of this spot, began to sing again,-
"Not very long before he died,
He heard an extremely soft voice behind him, which said,-
"Is that you, Rantaine? Good-day. You have just killed a man!"
He turned. About fifteen paces behind him, in one of the passages between the rocks, stood a little man holding a revolver in his hand.
The Quaker answered,-
"As you see. Good-day, Sieur Clubin."
The little man started.
"You know me?"
"You knew me very well," replied Rantaine.
Meanwhile they could hear a sound of oars on the sea. It was the approach of the boat which the officer had observed.
Sieur Clubin said in a low tone, as if speaking to himself.-
"It was done quickly."
"What can I do to oblige you?" asked Rantaine.
"Oh, a trifling matter! It is very nearly ten years since I saw you. You must have been doing well. How are you?"
"Well enough," answered Rantaine.
"Very well, " replied Clubin.
Rantaine advanced a step towards Clubin.
A little sharp click caught his ear. It was Sieur Clubin who was cocking his revolver.
"Rantaine, there are about fifteen paces between us. It is a nice distance. Remain where you are."
"Very well," said Rantaine. "What do you want with me?"
"I! Oh, I have come to have a chat with you."
Rantaine did not offer to move again. Sieur Clubin continued,-
"You assassinated a coast-guardman just now."
Rantaine lifted the flap of his hat, and replied,-
"You have already done me the honour to mention it."
"Exactly; but in terms less precise. I said a man: I say now, a coast-guardman. The man wore the number 619. He was the father of a family; leaves a wife and five children."
"That is no doubt correct," said Rantaine.
There was a momentary pause.
"They are picked men-those coastguard people," continued Clubin; "almost all old sailors."
"I have remarked," said Rantaine, "that people generally do leave a wife and five children."
Sieur Clubin continued,-
"Guess how much this revolver cost me?"
"It is a pretty tool," said Rantaine.
"What do you guess it at?"
"I should guess it at a good deal."
"It cost me one hundred and forty-four francs."
"You must have bought that," said Rantaine, "at the shop in the Ruelle Coutanchez."
"He did not cry out. The fall stopped his voice, no doubt."
"Sieur Clubin, there will be a breeze to-night."
"I am the only one in the secret."
"Do you still stay at the Jean Auberge?"
"Yes; you are not badly served there."
"I remember getting some excellent sour-krout there."
"You must be exceedingly strong, Rantaine. What shoulders you have! I should be sorry to get a tap from you. I on the other hand, when I came into the world, looked so spare and sickly that they despaired of rearing me."
"They succeeded though; which was lucky."
"Yes; I still stay at the Jean Auberge."
"Do you know, Sieur Clubin, how I recognised you? It was from your having recognised me. I said to myself, there is nobody like Sieur Clubin for that."
And he advanced a step.
"Stand back where you were, Rantaine."
Rantaine fell back, and said to himself,-
"A fellow becomes like a child before one of those weapons."
Sieur Clubin continued,-
"The position of affairs is this: we have on our right, in the direction of St. Enogat, at about three hundred paces from here, another coast-guardman-his number is 618-who is still alive; and on our left, in the direction of St. Lunalre-a customs station. That makes seven armed men who could be here, if necessary, in five minutes. The rock would be surrounded; the way hither guarded. Impossible to elude them. There is a corpse at the foot of this rock."
Rantaine took a sideway glance at the revolver.
"As you say, Rantaine, it is a pretty tool. Perhaps it is only loaded with powder; but what does that matter? A report would be enough to bring an armed force-and I have six barrels here."
The measured sound of the oars became very distinct. The boat was not far off.
The tall man regarded the little man curiously. Sieur Clubin spoke in a voice more and more soft and subdued.
"Rantaine, the men in the boat which is coming, knowing what you did here just now, would lend a hand and help to arrest you. You are to pay Captain Zuela ten thousand francs for your passage. You would have made a better bargain, by the way, with the smugglers of Pleinmont; but they would only have taken you to England; and besides, you cannot risk going to Guernsey, where they have the pleasure of knowing you. To return then, to the position of affairs-if I fire, you are arrested. You are to pay Zuela for your passage ten thousand francs. You have already paid him five thousand in advance. Zuela would keep the five thousand and be gone. These are the facts. Rantaine, you have managed your masquerading very well. That hat-that queer coat-and those gaiters make a wonderful change. You forgot the spectacles; but did right to let your whiskers grow."
Rantaine smiled spasmodically. Clubin continued,-
"Rantaine, you have on a pair of American breeches, with a double fob. In one side you keep your watch. Take care of it."
"Thank you, Sieur Clubin."
"In the other is a little box made of wrought iron, which opens and shuts with a spring. It is an old sailor's tobacco-box. Take it out of your pocket, and throw it over to me."
"Why, this is robbery."
"You are at liberty to call the coast-guardman."
And Clubin fixed his eye on Rantaine.
"Stay, Mess Clubin," said Rantaine, making a slight forward movement, and holding out his open hand.
The title "Mess" was a delicate flattery.
"Stay where you are, Rantaine."
"Mess Clubin, let us come to terms. I offer you half."
Clubin crossed his arms, still showing the barrels of his revolver.
"Rantaine, what do you take me for? I am an honest man."
And he added after a pause,-
"I must have the whole."
Rantaine muttered between his teeth, "This fellow's of a stern sort."
The eye of Clubin lighted up, his voice became clear and sharp as steel. He cried,-
"I see that you are labouring under a mistake. Robbery is your name, not mine. My name is Restitution. Hark you, Rantaine. Ten years ago you left Guernsey one night, taking with you the cash-box of a certain partnership concern, containing fifty thousand francs which belonged to you, but forgetting to leave behind you fifty thousand francs which were the property of another. Those fifty thousand francs, the money of your partner, the excellent and worthy Mess Lethierry, make at present, at compound interest, calculated for ten years, eighty thousand six hundred and sixty-six francs. You went into a money-changer's yesterday. I'll give you his name-Rebuchet, in St. Vincent Street. You counted out to him seventy-six thousand francs in French banknotes; in exchange for which he gave you three notes of the Bank of England for one thousand pounds sterling each, plus the exchange. You put these banknotes in the iron tobacco-box, and the iron tobacco-box into your double fob on the right-hand side. On the part of Mess Lethierry, I shall be content with that. I start to-morrow for Guernsey, and intend to hand it to him. Rantaine, the three-master lying-to out yonder is the Tamaulipas. You have had your luggage put aboard there with the other things belonging to the crew. You want to leave France. You have your reasons. You are going to Arequipa. The boat is coming to fetch you. You are awaiting it. It is at hand. You can hear it. It depends on me whether you go or stay. No more words. Fling me the tobacco-box."
Rantaine dipped his hand in the fob, drew out a little box, and threw it to Clubin. It was the iron tobacco-box. It fell and rolled at Clubin's feet.
Clubin knelt without lowering his gaze; felt about for the box with his left hand, keeping all the while his eyes and the six barrels of the revolver fixed upon Rantaine.
Then he cried,-
"Turn your back my friend."
Rantaine turned his back.
Sieur Clubin put the revolver under one arm, and touched the spring of the tobacco-box. The lid flew open.
It contained four banknotes; three of a thousand pounds, and one of ten pounds.
He folded up the three banknotes of a thousand pounds each, replaced them in the iron tobacco-box. shut the lid again, and put it in his pocket.
Then he picked up a stone, wrapped it in the ten-pound rote, and said,-
"You may turn round again."
Sieur Clubin continued,-
"I told you I would be contented with three thousand pounds. Here, I return you ten pounds."
And he threw to Rantaine the note enfolding the stone.
Rantaine, with a movement of his foot, sent the bank-note and the stone into the sea.
"As you please," said Clubin. "You must be rich. I am satisfied."
The noise of oars, which had been continually drawing nearer during the dialogue, ceased. They knew by this that the boat had arrived at the base of the cliff.
"Your vehicle waits below. You can go, Rantaine."
Rantaine advanced towards the steps of stones, and rapidly disappeared.
Clubin moved cautiously towards the edge of the escarpment, and watched him descending.
The boat had stopped near the last stage of the rocks, at the very spot where the coast-guardman had fallen.
Still observing Rantaine stepping from stone to stone, Clubin muttered,-
"A good number-619. He thought himself alone. Rantaine thought there were only two there. I alone knew that there were three."
He perceived at his feet the telescope which had dropped from the hands of the coast-guardman.
The sound of oars was heard again. Rantaine had stepped into the boat, and the rowers had pushed out to sea.
When Rantaine was safely in the boat, and the cliff was beginning to recede from his eyes, he arose again abruptly. His features were convulsed with rage; he clenched his fist and cried,-
"Ha! he is the devil himself; a villain!"
A few seconds later, Clubin, from the top of the rock, while bringing his telescope to bear upon the boat, heard distinctly the following words articulated by a loud voice, and mingling with the noise of the sea,-
"Sieur Clubin, you are an honest man; but you will not be offended if I write to Lethierry to acquaint him with this matter; and we have here in the boat a sailor from Guernsey, who is one of the crew of the Tamaulipas; his name is Ahier-Tostevin, and he will return to St. Malo on Zuela's next voyage, to bear testimony to the fact of my having returned to you, on Mess Lethierry's account, the sum of three thousand pounds sterling."
It was Rantaine's voice.
Clubin rarely did things by halves. Motionless as the coast-guardman had been, and in the exact same place, his eye still at the telescope, he did not lose sight of the boat for one moment. He saw it growing less amidst the waves; watched it disappear and reappear, and approach the vessel, which was lying-to; finally, he recognised the tall figure of Rantaine on the deck of the Tamaulipas.
When the boat was raised, and slung again to the davits, the Tamaulipas was in motion once more. The land-breeze was fresh, and she spread all her sails. Clubin's glass continued fixed upon her outline growing more and more indistinct, until half an hour later, when the Tamaulipas had become only a dark shape upon the horizon, growing smaller and smaller against the pale twilight in the sky.