THE BLUE PAVILIONS
THE GALLEY "L'HEUREUSE."
The archers, or constables, in charge of the slaves took them through Ypres and Furnes; and as the distance is about twelve leagues, it was not till the third day that Tristram saw the spires and fortifications of Dunkirk rising against the greyish sea. But in that time he learnt much, being tied to a brisk rotund Burgundian, the cheerfullest of the gang, who had made two campaigns with the English Foot Guards in Turenne's time, and had picked up a smattering of their language. He knew, at any rate, enough English to teach Tristram some rudiments of French on the road, and gave him much information that went far to alter his notions of the world.
Tristram was deeply shocked at the sight of one or two of the men whom he had left in the hands of M. de Lambertie. He now ceased to wonder at the agony of apprehension they had exhibited, and, while compassionating their horrible case, did not forget to thank God for having interposed to save him from a similar fate.
"Ah, yes," said his comrade tranquilly; "they are deserters. Formerly they used to have their noses cut off, as well as their ears; but this was found to breed infection, and now they are merely slit—besides, of course, being branded with the fleur-de-lis on either cheek. But what matters their appearance to them, seeing that their sentence is for life?"
Tristram shuddered. "This King of yours," said he, "must be the first-cousin to the devil."
"They are all alike, mon cher. What, for instance, has your King done for you? But speak not so loud." He took a few steps in silence, and added: "After all, one must distinguish between crimes. If the poor faussoniers are treated to the galleys it is absurd to suppose that nothing worse must befall a deserter."
"What is a faussonier?"
"There is one yonder, comrade—that young peasant who walks like a calf and seems to know not whither he is bound. He is condemned because he bought some salt for his young wife, who was ill."
"Is that a crime?"
"It depends where you buy it. You must know, my friend, that in most of the provinces of France salt is very dear. A pint will cost you four francs and a little over. Therefore the poor cannot afford it for their soup, and some, for lack of it, go fasting most of the week. So they starve and languish and fall sick, as did this young man's wife. But in my native Burgundy—blessed be its name!—and also in the country of Doubs, salt is cheap enough. Now this young man dwelt close on the frontier of Burgundy—I have seen him times and again at the vintage work—and because he was very fond of his wife, and could not bear to see her die, he ventured across the frontier to buy salt cheaply; and, being taken, he has been condemned to the galleys for six years. In the meantime his wife will perish. But the King's taxes must be paid. Else how shall we exterminate his enemies?"
"But," Tristram exclaimed, trembling with indignation, "how can you be cheerful in this fearful land?"
"What! I? Well, I am cheerful, to begin with, because my nose is not slit."
"That appears to me a very slight reason."
"You would not say so if you had run so near it as I."
"Are you a deserter, then?"
"Thanks for your good opinion, comrade! No. I was never guilty of disloyalty to King Lewis, But I killed my wife's mother, pardieu!— which the judge seemed to think almost as vile, till I sent a friend to grease his palm with the last sou of my patrimony. And, by good fortune, it became greasy enough to let me slip out of the worst."
"A murderer!" gasped our innocent youth, drawing away from his side.
"She was talkative," the little man explained, with composure. "But let us converse upon other subjects. Only I must warn you that on board the galleys, whither we are bound, a man can recoil from his neighbour but just so far as his chain allows."
In such converse they beguiled the way, talking low whenever an archer drew near, and whispering together at night until they dropped asleep in the filthy stables where they were packed, their chains secured at either end to the wall, and so tightly that they had barely liberty to lie down, and none to turn, or even stir, in their sleep. By degrees Tristram grew even to like this volatile and disreputable comrade, whose conscience was none of his own growing, but of the laws he lived under.
On reaching Dunkirk, however, they were parted, Tristram being assigned to the galley L'Heureuse, while the Burgundian was told off to La Merveille, then commanded by the Chevalier de Sainte-Croix.
"You are in luck, comrade," he said, as they parted under the Rice-bank fort, beside the pier; "L'Heureuse is the Commodore's galley, and the only one in which a poor devil of a slave has an awning above his head to keep the rain and sun off. Ah, what it is to have six feet of stature and a pair of shoulders!"
It turned out as he said. L'Heureuse, commanded by the Commodore de la Pailletine, was the head of a squadron of six galleys then quartered in the port of Dunkirk. But it is necessary here to say a word or two about these strange vessels which the Count de Tourville had recently brought round to the north coast of France from Marseilles and the ports of the Mediterranean. They were narrow craft, ranging from 120 feet to 150 feet long, and from eighteen feet to twenty feet by the beam. In the hold they were not more than seven feet deep; so that, with a full crew on board, the deck stood less than a couple of feet from the water's edge; for the number of men they held was prodigious. The Commodore's galley alone was manned by 336 slaves, and 150 men of all sorts, either officers, soldiers, seamen, or servants. This, however, was the biggest complement of all; for while L'Heureuse had fifty-six oars, with six slaves to tug at each, none of the rest carried more than fifty, with five rowers apiece. The prow of each galley was of iron, pointed like a beak, and so sharp that when rowed at full speed against a hostile ship it was like to sink her, or at least to drive deep and hold on while the boarders poured up and over her side. In addition to this formidable weapon, each carried four guns right forward, besides a heavier piece which was worked on a circular platform amidships, and when not required for service was stowed by the mainmast for ballast. Each galley had two masts, though they were next to useless, for it is easy to see that vessels so laden and open at the decks were fit only for the lightest breezes, and in foul weather must run to harbour for their lives.
Before embarking in the boat which was to take him on board, Tristram was led up to the Rice-bank, where a barber shaved his head, and where he was forced to exchange the suit he wore for a coarse canvas frock, a canvas shirt and a little jerkin of red serge, sleeveless, and slit on either side up to the arm-holes. The design of this (as a warder explained to him) was to allow his muscles free play, which Tristram pronounced very considerate, repeating this remark when he received a small scarlet cap to keep the cold from his shaven head. He was next offered a porringer of soup, consisting chiefly of oil, with a dozen lentils floating on the top; and having consumed it, was rowed off to be introduced to his new companions. On considering his circumstances, he found but one which could be called consoling. It was that he had been allowed to retain and stow in his waist-belt his little packet of pepper-cress seed—a favour for which he thanked his persecutors with tears in his eyes.
It happened that his galley was bound that afternoon on a cruise of a few miles along the coast and indeed was lifting anchor as he was hauled up the side. He had, therefore, but a hasty view of his surroundings before he was chained to his bench, facing the great oar. He saw only a long chamber, crossed by row upon row of white, desperate faces. Down the middle, by the ends of the benches, ran a gangway, along which three overseers paced leisurably, each with a tall, flexible wand in his hand. The stench in the place was overpowering, and Tristram was on the point of swooning when the fellow who was chained beside him growled a word of advice:
"Look sharp and slip your jacket off."
Tristram obeyed without understanding. He saw that all the figures around him were naked to the waist, and therefore pulled off shirt as well as jacket, but not quickly enough to prevent a stroke, which hissed down on his shoulders and made him set his teeth with anguish. The man beside him uttered a sharp cry. He too had felt the cut, or part of it; for the overseer's wand did not discriminate.
The handle of the great oar swung towards Tristram. Noting how his neighbour's hands were laid upon it, and copying his example, he began to tug with the rest, rising from his bench and falling back upon it at each stroke; and at the end of each stroke, where ordinarily a boat's oars rattle briskly against the tholepins, the time was marked with a loud clash of chains, and often enough with a sharp cry from some poor wretch who had been caught lagging and thwacked across the bare shoulders. The fatigue after a time grew intolerably heavy. While the sun smote down through the awning, the heat of their exercise seemed never to pass up through it, but beat back upon their faces in sickening waves, stopping their breath. Of the world outside their den they could see nothing but a small patch of grey sea beyond the hole in which their oar worked. The sweat poured off their chests and backs in streams, until their waist-bands clung to the flesh like soaked sponges. Some began to moan and sob; others to entreat Heaven for a respite, as if God were directing their torture and taking delight in it; others again broke out into frightful imprecations, cursing their Maker and the hour of their birth. And while the oars swung and the chains clashed and the cries redoubled their volume, the three keepers moved imperturbably up and down the gangway, flicking their whips to left and right, and drawing blood with every second stroke. At length, when Tristram's head was reeling and the backs of the bench-full just in front were melting before his eyes and swimming in a blood-red haze, the order was yelled to easy. The men dropped their faces forward on the oars, and rested them there while they panted and coughed, catching the breath again into their heaving bodies. Then one or two began to laugh and utter some poor drolleries; presently the sound spread, and within three minutes the whole pit was full of chatter and uproar. They seemed to forget their miseries even as they wiped the blood off their shoulders.
And now, while the cold wind began to creep underneath the awning and dry the sweat around their loins, Tristram had time to take stock of his companions, and even to ask a question or two of the slave that had spoken to him. They were all stalwart fellows, the Commodore having the pick of all the forçats drafted to his port, and exercising it with some care, because he prided himself on the speed of his vessel. Not a few wore on their cheeks the ghastly red fleur-de-lis, which he now knew for the mark of deserters, murderers, and the more flagrant criminals; others, he learned, were condemned for the pettiest thefts, and a large proportion for having no better taste than to belong to the Protestant religion. The man beside him, for instance, was a poor Huguenot from Perigord, who had been caught on the frontier in the act of escaping to a country in which he had a slightly better chance of calling his soul his own. All these were white men; but at the end of each bench, next the gangway, sat a Turk or Moor. These were bought slaves, procured expressly to manage the stroke of the oar, and for their skill treated somewhat better than the Christians. They earned the same pay as the soldiers, and were not chained, like other slaves, to the benches, but carried only a ring on the foot as a badge of servitude. Indeed, when not engaged in service, they enjoyed a certain amount of liberty, being allowed to go on shore and trade, purchasing meat for such of the white men as had any money or were willing to earn some by clearing their neighbours' clothes of vermin—a common trade on board these galleys, where the confined space, the dirt and profuse sweating at the oar bred all manner of loathsome pests.
It was by degrees that Tristram learnt all this, as during the week that followed he found time to chat with the Huguenot and improve his acquaintance with the French tongue. By night he was provided with a board, a foot and a half wide, on which to stretch himself; and as he lay pretty far aft, was warned against scratching himself, lest the rattle of his chains should disturb the officers, whose quarters were divided from the slaves' by the thinnest of wooden partitions. By day, indeed, these officers, as well as the chaplain, had the use of the Commodore's room, a fairly spacious chamber in the stern, shaped on the outside like a big cradle, with bulging windows and a couple of lanterns on the taffrail above, that were lit when evening closed in. But at night, or in foul weather, M. de la Pailletine reserved this apartment for his own use.
At six o'clock every morning the slaves were roused up and began their day with prayers, which the chaplain conducted, taking particular care that the Huguenots were hearty in their responses. The Turks—or Vogue-avants as they were called—were never molested on the score of religion; but while Mass was being said were put out of the galley into a long-boat, where they diverted themselves by smoking and talking till the Christians were through with their exercises.
When these were done the daily portion of biscuit—pretty good, though coarse—was doled out to each man, and at ten o'clock a porringer of soup. Also, on days when the galleys were taken for a cruise, each slave received something less than a pint of wine, morning and evening, to keep up his strength. But it must not be imagined from this that their work was light during the rest of the week. When the weather kept them in harbour, all such as knew any useful trade were taken off the galley to the town of Dunkirk, and there set to work under guard, some at the making of new clothes or the repairing of old ones; others at carpentry, plumbing, or shoemaking; others, again, at repairing the fortifications, and so on—thus allowing room for the residue to scrub out the galley, wash down the benches and decks, and set all ship-shape and in order: of which residue Tristram was one, being versed in no trade but that of gardening, for which there seemed to be no demand. But at length, having an eye for colour, he was given a paint-pot and brushes, slung over the galley's stern, and set to work to touch up the window-frames of the Commodore's cabin. The position was uncomfortable at first, since the board on which he was slung was but eight inches wide, and the galley's stern rose to a considerable height above the water. Looking down, he reflected that, with the heavy chain on his leg, he was safe to drown if he slipped; and in spite of his miserable situation, he had not the least desire to die, being full of trust in Providence and assured that, so long as he lived, there would always be a chance of regaining his beloved Sophia. And pretty soon he grew to delight in the work, not for its own sake alone, but because it separated him for a time from the sight of his companions and their misery. The paint was blue, which reminded him of the Pavilions at home, and he began to throw his soul into the job, with the result that the Commodore expressed much satisfaction with it, and gave him instructions to repaint the whole of the stern, including the magnificent board with the inscription L'HEUREUSE in gilt letters, and the royal arms of France surrounded with decorations in the flamboyant style.
Thus it happened that, one fine morning in the middle of June, he was hanging out over the stern in his usual posture, and, having finished the letters L'HEU, took a look around on the brightness of the day before dipping his brush and starting again. The galley with her five consorts lay in the Royal Basin under the citadel, and a mile in from the open sea, towards which the long line of the pier extended, its tall forts dominating the sand-dunes that stretched away to right and left. The sands shone; the sea was a silvery blue, edged with a dazzle where its breakers touched the shore; a clear northerly breeze came sweeping inland and hummed in the galley's rigging as it flew by. From the streets of Dunkirk sounded the cheerful bustle of the morning's business; and as Tristram glanced up at the glistening spire of the Jesuits' church, its clock struck out eleven o'clock as merrily as if it played a tune.
It was just at this moment, as he turned to dip his brush, that he caught sight of a small boat approaching across the basin. It was rowed by a waterman, and in the stern-sheets there sat a figure the sight of which caused Tristram's heart to stop beating for a moment, and then to resume at a gallop. He caught hold of the rope by which he hung, and looked again.
Beyond a doubt it was his father, Roderick Salt!
Now just as Tristram underwent this shock of surprise, from a point about three yards above his head another person was watching the boat with some curiosity. This was the Commodore, M. de la Pailletine, who stood on the poop with his feet planted wide and his hands clasped beneath his coat-tails. He was wondering who this visitor could be.
Captain Salt was elegantly dressed, and the cloak thrown back from his broad chest revealed a green suit, thick with gold lace, and a white waistcoat also embroidered with gold. The bullion twinkled in the sunshine as the boat drew near and, crossing under Tristram's dangling heels, dropped alongside the galley. And as it passed, the son, looking straight beneath him, determined in his heart that, bad as his present plight might be, he would endure it rather than trust himself in his father's hands again. The Captain stepped briskly up the ladder and gained the galley's deck. He had given the young man a glance and no more. It was not wonderful that he had failed to recognise in the young forçat with the shaven head and rough, stubbly beard the son whom he had abandoned more than a month before. Besides, he was busy composing in his mind an introductory speech to be let off on M. de la Pailletine, in whose manner of receiving him he anticipated some little frigidity.
However, he stepped on deck and advanced towards the officer on the poop with a pleasant smile, doffing his laced hat with one hand and holding forward a letter in the other. M. de la Pailletine took his hands from beneath his coat-tails and also advanced, returning the salute very politely.
"The Commodore de la Pailletine, I believe?"
"The same, monsieur."
The two gentlemen regarded each other narrowly for an instant; then, still smiling, Captain Salt presented his letter, and stood tapping the deck with the toe of his square-pointed shoe and looking amiably about him while the Commodore glanced at the seal, broke it, and began to read.
At the first sentence the muscles of M. de la Pailletine's forehead contracted slightly.
"Just as I expected," said the Englishman to himself, as he stole a glance. But he continued to wear his air of good-fellowship, and his teeth, which were white as milk and quite even, showed all the time.
Meanwhile the Commodore's brow did not clear. He was a wiry, tall man, of beautiful manners and a singularly urbane demeanour, but he could not hide the annoyance which this letter caused him. He finished it, turned abruptly to the beginning, and read it through again; then looked at Captain Salt with a shade of severity on his face. "Sir," he said, in a carefully regulated voice, "you may count on my obeying his Majesty's commands to the letter." He laid some stress on the two words "commands" and "letter."
"I thank you, monsieur," answered the Englishman, without allowing himself to show that he perceived this.
"I am ordered"—again the word "ordered" was slightly emphasised—"I am ordered to make you welcome on board my galley. Therefore I must ask you to consider yourself at home here for so long as it may please you to stay."
He bowed again, but very stiffly, nor did he offer to shake hands. Captain Salt regarded him with his head tilted a little to one side, and his lips pursed up as if he were whistling silently. As a matter of fact he was whispering to himself, "You shall rue this, my gentleman!" But aloud he asked the somewhat puzzling question:
"Is that all, monsieur?"
"Why, yes," answered M. de la Pailletine, "except that you need have no doubt I shall treat you with the respect which is your due, or rather—"
"—Or rather, with the respect which his Majesty thinks is your due."
"And which you do not."
"Excuse me, sir; I do not venture to set up my opinion against that of King Lewis."
"Yes, yes, of course; but, monsieur, I was trying to get at your own feelings. You do not think that a man who enlists against his own country, even on the side of his rightful King, can be entitled to any respect?"
"Excuse me—" began the Commodore; but Captain Salt interrupted with a gentle wave of the hand.
"Tut, tut, my dear sir! Pray do not imagine that I resent this expression of your feelings. On the contrary, I am grateful to you for treating me so frankly. I have consolations. Your sovereign"— he pointed to the letter which M. de la Pailletine was folding up and placing in his breast-pocket—"has a more intelligent sense of my merits and my honour."
"Doubtless, monsieur," the Commodore answered; "but permit me to suggest that the discussion of these matters is out of place on deck. Suffer me, therefore, to conduct you to my cabin, which is at your disposal while you choose to honour us."
The Englishman bowed and followed his host below. Nor could Tristram, who had heard every sentence of their conversation, feel sufficiently thankful that he had finished painting the cabin windows three days before, and was not obliged to expose his face to the chance of recognition. And yet it is doubtful if he would have been recognised, so direly had tribulation altered him. He finished his work for the morning with less artistry than usual, and was drawn upon deck shortly before the dinner-hour, by which time the galley's complement was brought on board for a short cruise. As Tristram rose and fell to his oar, that afternoon, he heard his father's voice just over his head, and then the Commodore's answering it. Their tones were not cordial; but their feet were pacing side by side, and it was obvious that the Englishman had already in some measure abated the Commodore's dislike.
Indeed, in the course of the next week Tristram learnt enough to be sure that his father was making steady progress in the affections of the officers of the galley. At first there is little doubt that the Captain was moved to capture their good will from a merely vague desire, common to all men of his character, to stand well in the opinion of everybody he met. He had arrived at Saint Germains, and had ridden thence to meet King James, who was returning from Calais in a dog's temper over the failure of the mutinous ships to meet him at that port. Captain Salt presented the Earl's letter, and by depicting the mutiny in colours which his imagination supplied, laying stress on the enthusiasm of the crews, and declaring that the success of their plot was delayed rather than destroyed by the cunning of the usurper, he contrived to inspire hope again in the breast of the cantankerous and exiled monarch, who kept him at his side during the rest of the journey back to Paris, and there introduced him to the favour of King Lewis. The latter monarch, who happened to be bored, asked Captain Salt what he could do for him.
Captain Salt, remembering the Earl's promise, suggested that a descent on the English coast might be made from Dunkirk, if his Majesty were still disposed to befriend the unfortunate House of Stuart.
King Lewis yawned, remembered that he had a certain number of galleys languishing at Dunkirk for want of exercise, and suggested that Captain Salt had better go and see for himself what they were likely to effect.
Captain Salt went. His main purpose was to live in comfortable quarters at the King's expense, while awaiting for the promised letter from the Earl of Marlborough. On the eighth day after his arrival, a small fishing-smack with a green pennant came racing past the two castles at the entrance of Dunkirk pier, slackened her main-sheet, spun down between the forts with the wind astern, rounded, and cast anchor in the Royal Basin. Her crew then lowered a little cockleshell of a dinghy, which she carried inboard, and a tanned, red-bearded man pulled straight for the Commodore's galley.
He bore a letter addressed to Captain Roderick Salt. It was written in cipher, but read as follows:
Dear S.,—Portland suspected you and had you followed. I saw his eye upon you during your last interview with William. It was clever to get through, nor can I discover how you managed it: for the account given by your pursuers is plainly absurd. I've been turning over their cock-and-bull story, which finds credence here, and cannot fit it with the probabilities. Yet they seem William's men. I find that the horse on which one of them returned is not the same as that upon which he rode away; nor does their narrative account for this. But the main point is that you are safe. By the way, I hope you have kept your son at your side; for I have now received the information about which I dropped you some hints. It appears that he inherits from a great-uncle (one Silvanus Tellworthy) certain American estates, of which you and a Captain Runacles, of Harwich, are the legal administrators. I fancy this has been kept from you; and, if so, a descent upon Harwich may be used to furnish you with a provision for your old age. Still, there is a present danger that you may be declared a traitor, and your goods confiscate, which would spoil all. This (since naught has been proved against you, and the aim of your journey not known) you may avert by keeping your eyes open at Dunquerque, and writing a report of it to Wm. Such a report, aptly drawn, may not only check Portland, but justify me, as knowing your intent from the start, and that it was a move for Wm's, good.—M.
On reading this Captain Salt cursed several times; and paced the deck in meditation for a whole afternoon. Then an idea struck him.
During the week that followed he made excellent progress in the affections of the officers of L'Heureuse. He had a face full of bonhomie, an engaging knack of seeming to flatter his companions while he merely listened to their talk, a fund of anecdote, and (as we know) a voice for singing that conciliated all who had an ear for music. All these advantages he used. For the next few days the officers came late to bed, and Tristram and his companions could allay the irritation of their skins as they listed. Night after night shouts of laughter came from the Commodore's room: and with the savour of delicate meats there now reached them the notes of a tenor voice that moved many of the most abandoned to tears.
The end was that the officers admitted him to their counsels, which may have been the reason that the galleys, that until now had taken but the shortest cruises, began to risk more daring expeditions, and once or twice adventured within a league of the English coast. But no occasion was found for landing and burning a town—which was the object continually debated at the officers' board. In fact, the weather did not favour it; and, moreover, the whole line of coast was guarded by patrolling parties, ready to give warning to the train-bands stationed at convenient distances, so that the crews ran no inconsiderable risk of being surprised and cut to pieces if they landed, not to speak of having their galleys taken behind them by the British cruisers. And none knew better than M. de la Pailletine that the slaves, if left without sufficient guard to coerce them, were as likely as not to murder their overseers and hand their galleys over to the first enemy they met.
Nothing of any consequence, therefore, was done for six weeks; and at the end of that time Captain Salt sought out the Commodore, and announced that he had received a letter from a friend in Paris summoning him thither on private business. The Commodore, who had really grown to like the Englishman, expressed his regret. He suspected nothing.