A Modern Telemachus - Part 8

Part 8

Hebert had not the least hope that they could be saved, but he would not grieve the child by saying so, and his present object was to get her dressed before any one was awake to watch, and perhaps appropriate her upper garments. He was a fatherly old man, and she let him help her with her fastenings, and comb out her hair with the tiny comb in her _etui_.

Indeed, _friseurs_ were the rule in France, and she was not unused to male attendants at the toilette, so that she was not shocked at being left to his care.

For the rest, the child had always dwelt in an imaginary world, a curious compound of the Lives of the Saints and of Telemaque. Martyrs and heroes alike had been shipwrecked, taken captive, and tormented; and there was a certain sense of realised day-dream about her, as if she had become one of the number and must act up to her part. She asked Hebert if there were a Sainte Estelle, what was the day of the month, and if she should be placed in the Calendar if she never complained, do what these barbarians might to her. She hoped she should hold out, for she would like to be able to help all whom she loved, poor papa and all. But it was hard that mamma, who was so good, could not be a martyr too; but she was a saint in Paradise all the same, and thus Estelle made her little prayer in hope. There was no conceit or over confidence in the tone, though of course the poor child little knew what she was ready to accept; but it was a spark of the martyr's trust that gleamed in her eye, and gave her a sense of exaltation that took off the sharpest edge of grief and fear.

By this time, however, the animals were stirring, and with them the human beings who had lain down in their clothes. Peace was over; the Abbe awoke, and began to call for Laurent and his clothes and his beads; but this aroused the master of the house, who started up, and threatening with a huge stick, roared at him what must have been orders to be quiet.

Estelle indignantly flew between and cried, 'You shall not hurt my uncle.'

The commanding gesture spoke for itself; and, besides, poor Phelim cowered behind her with an air that caused a word and sign to pa.s.s round, which the captives found was equivalent to innocent or imbecile; and the Mohammedan respect and tenderness for the demented spared him all further violence or molestation, except that he was lost and miserable without the attentions of his foster-brother; and indeed the shocks he had undergone seemed to have mobbed him of much of the small degree of sense he had once possessed.

Coming into the s.p.a.ce before the doorway, Estelle found herself the object of universal gaze and astonishment, as her long fair hair gleamed in the sunshine, every one coming to touch it, and even pull it to see if it was real. She was a good deal frightened, but too high-spirited to show it more than she could help, as the dark-skinned, bearded men crowded round with cries of wonder. The other two prisoners likewise appeared: Victorine looking wretchedly ill, and hardly able to hold up her head; Lanty creeping towards the Abbe, and trying to arrange his remnant of clothing. There was a short respite, while the Arabs, all turning eastwards, chanted their morning devotions with a solemnity that struck their captives. The scene was a fine one, if there had been any heart to admire. The huts were placed on the verge of a fine forest of chestnut and cork trees--and beyond towered up mountain peaks in every variety of dazzling colour--red and purple beneath, glowing red and gold where the snowy peaks caught the morning sun, lately broken from behind them. The slopes around were covered with rich gra.s.s, flourishing after the summer heats, and to which the herds were now betaking themselves, excepting such as were detained to be milked by the women, who came pouring out of some of the other huts in dark blue garments; and in front, still shadowed by the mountain, lay the bay, deep, beautiful, pellucid green near the land, and shut in by fantastic and picturesque rocks--some bare, some clothed with splendid foliage, winter though it was--while beyond lay the exquisite blue stretching to the horizon.

Little recked the poor prisoners of the scene so fair; they only saw the remnant of the wreck below, the sea that parted them from hope, the savage rocks behind, the barbarous people around, the squalor and dirt of the adowara, as the hamlet was called.

{Estelle: p96.jpg}

Comparatively, the Moor who had swum ash.o.r.e to reconnoitre seemed like a friend when he came forward and saluted Estelle and the Abbe respectfully. Moreover the _lingua Franca_ Lanty had picked up established a very imperfect double system of interpretation by the help of many gestures. This was Lanty's explanation to the rest: in French, of course, but, like all his speech, Irish-English in construction.

'This Moor, Ha.s.san, wants to stand our friend in his own fashion, but he says they care not the value of an empty mussel-sh.e.l.l for the French, and no more for the Dey of Algiers than I do for the Elector of Hanover. He has told them that M. l'Abbe and Mademoiselle are brother and daughter to a great Bey--but it is little they care for that. Holy Virgin, they took Mademoiselle for a boy! That is why they are gazing at her so impudently. Would that I could give them a taste of my cane! Do you see those broken walls, and a bit of a castle on yonder headland jutting out into the sea? They are bidding Ha.s.san say that the French built that, and garrisoned it with the help of the Dey; but there fell out a war, and these fellows, or their fathers, surprised it, sacked it, and carried off four hundred prisoners into slavery. Holy Mother defend us! Here are all the rogues coming to see what they will do with us!'

For the open s.p.a.ce in front of the huts, whence all the animals had now been driven, was becoming thronged with figures with the haik laid over their heads, spear or blunderbuss in hand, fine bearing, and sometimes truculent, though handsome, browse countenances. They gazed at the captives, and uttered what sounded like loud hurrahs or shouts; but after listening to Ha.s.san, Lanty turned round trembling. 'The miserables! Some are for sacrificing us outright on the spot, but this decent man declares that he will make them sensible that their prophet was not out-and-out as bad as that. Never you fear, Mademoiselle.'

'I am not afraid,' said Estelle, drawing up her head. 'We shall be martyrs.'

Lanty was engaged in listening to a moan from his foster-brother for food, and Hebert joined in observing that they might as well be sacrificed as starved to death; whereupon the Irishman's words and gesticulations induced the Moor to make representations which resulted in some dry pieces of _samh_ cake, a few dates, and a gourd of water being brought by one of the women; a scanty amount for the number, even though poor Victorine was too ill to touch anything but the water; while the Abbe seemed unable to understand that the servants durst not demand anything better, and devoured her share and a quarter of Lanty's as well as his own. Meantime the Cabeleyzes had all ranged themselves in rows, cross-legged on the ground, opposite to the five unfortunate captives, to sit in judgment on them. As they kept together in one group, happily in the shade of a hut, Victorine, too faint and sick fully to know what was going on, lay with her head on the lap of her young mistress, who sat with her bright and strangely fearless eyes confronting the wild figures opposite.

Her uncle, frightened, though not comprehending the extent of his danger, crouched behind Lanty, who with Hebert stood somewhat in advance, the would-be guardians of the more helpless ones.

There was an immense amount of deafening shrieking and gesticulating among the Arabs. Ha.s.san was responding, and finally turned to Lanty, when the anxious watchers could perceive signs as if of paying down coin made interrogatively. 'Promise them anything, everything,' cried Hebert; 'M. le Comte would give his last sou--so would Madame la Marquise--to save Mademoiselle.'

'I have told him so,' said Laurence presently; 'I bade him let them know it is little they can make of us, specially now they have stripped us as bare as themselves, the rascals! but that their fortunes would be made--and little they would know what to do with them--if they would only send M. l'Abbe and Mademoiselle to Algiers safe and sound. There! he is trying to incense them. Never fear, Master Phelim, dear, there never was a rogue yet, black or white, or the colour of poor Madame's frothed chocolate, who did not love gold better than blood, unless indeed 'twas for the sweet morsel of revenge; and these, for all their rolling eyes and screeching tongues, have not the ghost of a quarrel with us.'

'My beads, my breviary,' sighed the Abbe. 'Get them for me, Lanty.'

'I wish they would end it quickly,' said Estelle. 'My head aches so, and I want to be with mamma. Poor Victorine! yours is worse,' she added, and soaked her handkerchief in the few drops of water left in the gourd to lay it on the maid's forehead.

The howling and shrieking betokened consultation, but was suddenly interrupted by some half-grown lads, who came running in with their hands full of what Lanty recognised to his horror as garments worn by his mistress and fellow-servants, also a big kettle and a handspike. They pointed down to the sea, and with yells of haste and exultation all the wild conclave started up to s.n.a.t.c.h, handle, and examine, then began rushing headlong to the beach. Ha.s.san's explanations were scarcely needed to show that they were about to ransack the ship, and he evidently took credit to himself for having induced them to spare the prisoners in case their a.s.sistance should be requisite to gain full possession of the plunder.

Estelle and Victorine were committed to the charge of a forbidding-looking old hag, the mother of the sheyk of the party; the Abbe was allowed to stray about as he pleased, but the two men were driven to the sh.o.r.e by the eloquence of the club. Victorine revived enough for a burst of tears and a sobbing cry, 'Oh, they will be killed!

We shall never see them again!'

'No,' said Estelle, with her quiet yet childlike resolution, 'they are not going to kill any of us yet. They said so. You are so tired, poor Victorine! Now all the hubbub is over, suppose you lie still and sleep.

My uncle,' as he roamed round her, mourning for his rosary, 'I am afraid your beads are lost; but see here, these little round seeds, I can pierce them if you will gather some more for me, and make you another set. See, these will be the Aves, and here are sh.e.l.ls in the gra.s.s for the Paters.'

The long fibre of gra.s.s served for the string, and the sight of the Giaour girl's employment brought round her all the female population who had not repaired to the coast. Her first rosary was torn from her to adorn an almost naked baby; but the Abbe began to whimper, and to her surprise the mother restored it to him. She then made signs that she would construct another necklace for the child, and she was rewarded by a gourd being brought to her full of milk, which she was able to share with her two companions, and which did something to revive poor Victorine.

Estelle was kept threading these necklaces and bracelets all the wakeful hours of the day--for every one fell asleep about noon--though still so jealous a watch was kept on her that she was hardly allowed to shift her position so as to get out of the sun, which even at that season was distressingly scorching in the middle of the day.

Parties were continually coming up from the beach laden with spoils of all kinds from the wreck, Lanty, Hebert, and a couple of negroes being driven up repeatedly, so heavily burthened as to be almost bent double.

All was thrown down in a heap at the other end of the adowara, and the old sheyk kept guard over it, allowing no one to touch it. This went on till darkness was coming on, when, while the cattle were being collected for the night, the prisoners were allowed an interval, in which Hebert and Lanty told how the natives, swimming like ducks, had torn everything out of the wreck: all the bales and boxes that poor Maitre Hebert had secured with so much care, and many of which he was now forced himself to open for the pleasure of these barbarians.

That, however, was not the worst. Hebert concealed from his little lady what Lanty did not spare Victorine. 'And there--enough to melt the heart of a stone--there lay on the beach poor Madame la Comtesse, and all the three. Good was it for you, Victorine, my jewel, that you were not in the cabin with them.'

'I know not,' said the dejected Victorine; 'they are better off than we?'

'You would not say so, if you had seen what I have,' said Lanty, shuddering. 'The dogs!--they cut off Madame's poor white fingers to get at her rings, and not with knives either, lest her blessed flesh should defile them, they said, and her poor face was an angel's all the time.

Nay, nor that was not the worst. The villainous boys, what must they do but pelt the poor swollen bodies with stones! Ay, well you may scream, Victorine. We went down on our knees, Maitre Hebert and I, to pray they might let us give them burial, but they mocked us, and bade Ha.s.san say they never bury dogs. I went round the steeper path, for all the load at my back, or I should have been flying at the throats of the cowardly vultures, and then what would have become of M. l'Abbe?'

Victorine trembled and wept bitterly for her companions, and then asked if Lanty had seen the corpse of the little Chevalier.

'Not a sight of him or M. Arthur either,' returned Lanty; 'only the ugly face of the old Turk captain and another of his crew, and them they buried decently, being Moslem hounds like themselves; while my poor lady that is a saint in heaven--' and he, too, shed tears of hot grief and indignation, recovering enough to warn Victorine by no means to let the poor young girl know of this additional horror.

There was little opportunity, for they had been appropriated by different masters: Estelle, the Abbe, and Hebert to the sheyk, or headman of the clan; and Lanty and Victorine to a big, strong, fierce-looking fellow, of inferior degree but greater might.

This time Estelle was to be kept for the night among the sheyk's women, who, though too unsophisticated to veil their faces, had a part of the hut closed off with a screen of reeds, but quite as bare as the outside.

Hebert, who could not endure to think of her sleeping on the ground, and saw a large heap of gra.s.s or straw provided for a little brown cow, endeavoured to take an armful for her. Unluckily it belonged to Lanty's master, Eyoub, who instantly flew at him in a fury, dragged him to a log of wood, caught up an axe, and had not Estelle's screams brought up the sheyk, with Ha.s.san and one or two other men, the poor Maitre d'Hotel's head would have been off. There was a sharp altercation between the sheyk and Eyoub, while Estelle held the faithful servant's hand, saying, 'You did it for me! Oh, Hebert, do not make them angry again. It would be beautiful to die for one's faith, but not for a handful of hay.'

'Ah! my dear _demoiselle_, what would my poor ladies say to see you sleeping on the bare ground in a filthy hut?'

'I slept well last night,' returned Estelle; 'indeed, I do not mind! It is only the more like the dungeon at Lyon, you know! And I pray you, Hebert, do not get yourself killed for nothing too soon, or else we shall not all stand out and confess together, like St. Blandina and St.

Ponticus and St Epagathius.'

'Alas, the dear child! The long names run off her tongue as glibly as ever,' sighed Hebert, who, though determined not to forsake his faith, by no means partook her enthusiasm for martyrdom. Ha.s.san, however, having explained what the purpose had been, Hebert was pardoned, though the sheyk scornfully observed that what was good enough for the daughters of a Hadji was good enough for the unclean child of the Frankish infidels.

The hay might perhaps have spared a little stiffness, but it would not have ameliorated the chief annoyances--the closeness, the dirt, and the vermin. It was well that it was winter, or the first of these would have been far worse, and, fortunately for Estelle, she was one of those whom suffocating air rather lulls than rouses.

Eyoub's hovel did not rejoice in the refinement of a part.i.tion, but his family, together with their animals, lay on the rocky floor as best they might; and Victorine's fever came on again, so that she lay in great misery, greeted by a growl from a great white dog whenever she tried to relieve her restless aching limbs by the slightest movement, or to reach one of the gourds of water laid near the sleepers, like Saul's cruse at his pillow.

Towards morning, however, Lanty, who had been sitting with his back against the wall, awoke from the sleep well earned by acting as a beast of burthen. The dog growled a little, but Lanty--though his leg still showed its teeth-marks--had made friends with it, and his hand on its head quieted it directly, so that he was able cautiously to hand a gourd to Victorine. The Arabs were heavy sleepers, and the two were able to talk under their breath; as, in reply to a kind word from Lanty, poor Victorine moaned her envy of the fate of Rosette and Babette; and he, with something of their little mistress's spirit, declared that he had no doubt but that 'one way or the other they should be out of it: either get safe home, or be blessed martyrs, without even a taste of purgatory.'

'Ah! but there's worse for me,' sighed Victorine. 'This demon brought another to stare in my face--I know he wants to make me his wife! Kill me first, Laurent.'

'It is I that would rather espouse you, my jewel,' returned a tender whisper.

'How can you talk of such things at such a moment?'

''Tis a pity M. l'Abbe is not a priest,' sighed Lanty. 'But, you know, Victorine, who is the boy you always meant to take.'

'You need not be so sure of that,' she said, the coy coquetry not quite extinct.

'Come, as you said, it is no time for fooling. Give me your word and troth to be my wife so soon as we have the good luck to come by a Christian priest by our Lady's help, and I'll outface them all--were it Mohammed the Prophet himself, that you are my espoused and betrothed, and woe to him that puts a finger on you.'

'You would only get yourself killed.'

'And would not I be proud to be killed for your sake? Besides, I'll show them cause not to kill me if I have the chance. Trust me, Victorine, my darling--it is but a chance among these murdering villains, but it is the only one; and, sure, if you pretended to turn the back of your hand to me when there were plenty of Christian men to compliment you, yet you would rather have poor Lanty than a thundering rogue of a pagan Mohammedan.'

'I hope I shall die,' sighed poor Victorine faintly. 'It will only be your death!'

'That is my affair,' responded Lanty. 'Come, here's daylight coming in; reach me your hand before this _canaille_ wakes, and here's this good beast of a dog, and yonder grave old goat with a face like Pere Michel's for our witnesses--and by good luck, here's a bit of gilt wire off my shoulder-knot that I've made into a couple of rings while I've been speaking.'

The strange betrothal had barely taken place before there was a stir, and what was no doubt a yelling imprecation on the 'dog Giaours' for the noise they made.