Having sailed from Havre on the 3rd of May, 1882, for a voyage in the China seas, the square-rigged three-master, Notre Dame des Vents, made her way back into the port of Marseilles, on the 8th of August, 1886, after an absence of four years. When she had discharged her first cargo in the Chinese port for which she was bound, she had immediately found a new freight for Buenos Ayres, and from that place had conveyed goods to Brazil.
Other passages, then damage repairs, calms ranging over several months, gales which knocked her out of her course — all the accidents, adventures, and misadventures of the sea, in short — had kept far from her country, this Norman three-master, which had come back to Marseilles with her hold full of tin boxes containing American preserves.
At her departure, she had on board, besides the captain and the mate, fourteen sailors, eight Normans and six Britons. On her return, there were left only five Britons and four Normans; the other Briton had died while on the way; the four Normans having disappeared under various circumstances, had been replaced by two Americans, a negro, and a Norwegian carried off, one evening, from a tavern in Singapore.
The big vessel, with reefed sails and yards crossed over her masts, drawn by a tug from Marseilles, rocking over a sweep of rolling waves which subsided gently on becoming calm, passed in front of the Château d’If, then under all the gray rocks of the roadstead, which the setting sun covered with a golden vapor; and she entered the ancient port, in which are packed together, side by side, ships from every part of the world, pell mell, large and small, of every shape and every variety of rigging, soaking like a “bouillabaise” of boats in this basin too limited in extent, full of putrid water, where shells touch each other, rub against each other, and seem to be pickled in the juice of the vessels.
Notre Dame des Vents took up her station between an Italian brig and an English schooner, which made way to let this comrade slip in between them; then, when all the formalities of the custom-house and of the port had been complied with, the captain authorized the two-thirds of his crew to spend the night on shore.
It was already dark. Marseilles was lighted up. In the heat of this summer’s evening a flavor of cooking with garlic floated over the noisy city, filled with the clamor of voices, of rolling vehicles, of the crackling of whips, and of southern mirth.
As soon as they felt themselves on shore, the ten men, whom the sea had been tossing about for some months past, proceeded along quite slowly with the hesitating steps of persons who are out of their element, unaccustomed to cities, two by two, procession.
They swayed from one side to another as they walked, looked about them, smelling out the lanes opening out on the harbor, rendered feverish by the amorous appetite which had been growing to maturity in their bodies during their last sixty-six days at sea. The Normans strode on in front, led by Célestin Duclos, a tall young fellow, sturdy and waggish, who served as a captain for the others every time they set forth on land. He divined the places worth visiting, found out by-ways after a fashion of his own, and did not take much part in the squabbles so frequent among sailors in seaport towns. But, once he was caught in one, he was afraid of nobody.
After some hesitation as to which of the obscure streets which lead down to the waterside, and from which arise heavy smells, a sort of exhalation from closets, they ought to enter, Célestin gave the preference to a kind of winding passage, where gleamed over the doors projecting lanterns bearing enormous numbers on their rough colored glass. Under the narrow arches at the entrance to the houses, women wearing aprons like servants, seated on straw chairs, rose up on seeing them coming near, taking three steps towards the gutter which separated the street into two halves, and which cut off the path from this file of men, who sauntered along at their leisure, humming and sneering, already getting excited by the vicinity of those dens of prostitutes.
Sometimes, at the end of a hall, appeared, behind a second open door, which presented itself unexpectedly, covered over with dark leather, a big wench, undressed, whose heavy thighs and fat calves abruptly outlined themselves under her coarse white cotton wrapper. Her short petticoat had the appearance of a puffed out girdle; and the soft flesh of her breast, her shoulders, and her arms, made a rosy stain on a black velvet corsage with edgings of gold lace. She kept calling out from her distant corner, “Will you come here, my pretty boys?” and sometimes she would go out herself to catch hold of one of them, and to drag him towards her door with all her strength, fastening on to him like a spider drawing forward an insect bigger than itself. The man, excited by the struggle, would offer a mild resistance, and the rest would stop to look on, undecided between the longing to go in at once and that of lengthening this appetizing promenade. Then when the woman, after desperate efforts, had brought the sailor to the threshold of her abode, in which the entire band would be swallowed up after him, Célestin Duclos, who was a judge of houses of this sort, suddenly exclaimed: “Don’t go in there, Marchand! That’s not the place.”
The man, thereupon, obeying this direction, freed himself with a brutal shake; and the comrades formed themselves into a band once more, pursued by the filthy insults of the exasperated wench, while other women, all along the alley, in front of them, came out past their doors, attracted by the noise, and in hoarse voices threw out to them invitations coupled with promises. They went on, then, more and more stimulated, from the combined effects of the coaxings and the seductions held out as baits to them by the choir of portresses of love all over the upper part of the street, and the ignoble maledictions hurled at them by the choir at the lower end — the despised choir of disappointed wenches. From time to time, they met another band — soldiers marching along with spurs jingling at their heels — sailors again — isolated citizens — clerks in business houses. On all sides might be seen fresh streets, narrow, and studded all over with those equivocal lanterns. They pursued their way still through this labyrinth of squalid habitation, over those greasy pavements through which putrid water was oozing, between those walls filled with women’s flesh.
At last, Duclos made up his mind, and, drawing up before a house of rather attractive exterior, made all his companions follow him in there.
Then followed a scene of thorough going revelry. For four hours the six sailors gorged themselves with love and wine. Six months’ pay was thus wasted.
In the principal room in the tavern they were installed as masters, gazing with malignant glances at the ordinary customers, who were seated at the little tables in the corners, where one of the girls, who was left free to come and go, dressed like a big baby or a singer at a café-concert, went about serving them, and then seated herself near them. Each man, on coming in, had selected his partner, whom he kept all the evening, for the vulgar taste is not changeable. They had drawn three tables close up to them; and, after the first bumper, the procession divided into two parts, increased by as many women as there were seamen, had formed itself anew on the staircase. On the wooden steps, the four feet of each couple kept tramping for some time, while this long file of lovers got swallowed up behind the narrow doors leading into the different rooms.
Then they came down again to have a drink, and, after they had returned to the rooms descended the stairs once more.
Now, almost intoxicated, they began to howl. Each of them, with bloodshot eyes, and his chosen female companion on his knee, sang or bawled, struck the table with his fist, shouted while swilling wine down his throat, set free the human brute. In the midst of them, Célestin Duclos, pressing close to him, a big damsel with red cheeks, who sat astride over his legs, gazed at her ardently. Less tipsy than the others, not that he had taken less drink, he was as yet occupied with other thoughts, and, more tender than his comrades, he tried to get up a chat. His thoughts wandered a little, escaped him, and then came back, and disappeared again, without allowing him to recollect exactly what he meant to say.
“What time — what time — how long are you here?”
“Six months,” the girl answered.
He seemed to be satisfied with her, as if this were a proof of good conduct, and he went on questioning her:
“Do you like this life?”
She hesitated, then in a tone of resignation.
“One gets used to it. It is not more worrying than any other kind of life. To be a servant-girl or else a scrub is always a nasty occupation.”
He looked as if he also approved of the truthful remark.
“You are not from this place?” said he.
She answered merely by shaking her head.
“Do you come from a distance?”
She nodded, still without opening her lips.
“Where is it you come from?”
She appeared to be thinking, to be searching her memory, then said falteringly:
He was once more perfectly satisfied, and said:
In her turn she asked:
“And you, are you a sailor?”
“Yes, my beauty.”
“Do you come from a distance?”
“Ah! yes. I have seen countries, ports, and everything.”
“You have been round the world, perhaps?”
“I believe you, twice rather than once.”
Again she seemed to hesitate, to search in her brain for something that she had forgotten, then, in a tone somewhat different, more serious:
“Have you met many ships in your voyages?”
“I believe you, my beauty.”
“You did not happen to see the Notre Dame des Vents?”
“No later than last week.”
She turned pale, all the blood leaving her cheeks, and asked:
“Is that true, perfectly true?”
“’Tis true as I tell you.”
“Honor bright! you are not telling me a lie?”
He raised his hand.
“Before God, I’m not!” said he.
“Then do you know whether Célestin Duclos is still on her?”
He was astonished, uneasy, and wished, before answering, to learn something further.
“Do you know him?”
She became distrustful in turn.
“Oh! ’tis not myself — ’tis a woman who is acquainted with him.”
“A woman from this place?”
“No, from a place not far off.”
“In the street?”
“What sort of a woman?”
“Why, then, a woman — a woman like myself.”
“What has she to say to him, this woman?”
“I believe she is a country-woman of his.”
They stared into one another’s hand, watching one another, feeling, divining that something of a grave nature was going to arise between them.
“I could see her there, this woman.”
“What would you say to her?”
“I would say to her — I would say to her — that I had seen Célestin Duclos.”
“He is quite well — isn’t he?”
“As well as you or me — he is a strapping young fellow.”
She became silent again, trying to collect her ideas; then slowly:
“Where has the Notre Dame des Vents gone to?”
“Why, just to Marseilles.”
She could not repress a start.
“Is that really true?”
“’Tis really true.”
“Do you know Duclos?”
“Yes, I do know him.”
She still hesitated; then in a very gentle tone:
“Good! That’s good!”
“What do you want with him?”
“Listen! — you will tell him — nothing!”
He stared at her, more and more perplexed. At last, he put this question to her:
“Do you know him, too, yourself?”
“No,” said she.
“Then what do you want with him?”
Suddenly, she made up her mind what to do, left her seat, rushed over to the bar where the landlady of the tavern presided, seized a lemon, which she tore open, and shed its juice into a glass, then she filled this glass with pure water, and carrying it across to him:
“To make it pass for wine. I will talk to you afterwards.”
He drank it without further protest, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, then observed:
“That’s all right. I am listening to you.”
“You will promise not to tell him you have seen me, or from whom you learned what I am going to tell you. You must swear not to do so.”
He raised his hand.
“All right. I swear I will not.”
“Well, you will tell him that his father died, that his mother died, that his brother died, the whole three in one month, of typhoid fever, in January, 1883 — three years and a half ago.”
In his turn, he felt all his blood set in motion through his entire body, and for a few seconds he was so much overpowered that he could make no reply; then he began to doubt what she had told him, and asked:
“Are you sure?”
“I am sure.”
“Who told it to you?”
She laid her hands on his shoulders, and looking at him out of the depths of her eyes:
“You swear not to blab?”
“I swear that I will not.”
“I am his sister!”
He uttered that name in spite of himself:
She contemplated him once more with a fixed stare, then, excited by a wild feeling of terror, a sense of profound horror, she faltered in a very low tone, almost speaking into his mouth:
“Oh! oh! it is you, Célestin.”
They no longer stirred, their eyes riveted in one another.
Around them, his comrades were still yelling. The sounds made by glasses, by fists, by heels keeping time to the choruses, and the shrill cries of the women, mingled with the roar of their songs.
He felt her leaning on him, clasping him, ashamed and frightened, his sister. Then, in a whisper, lest anyone might hear him, so hushed that she could scarcely catch his words:
“What a misfortune! I have made a nice piece of work of it!”
The next moment, her eyes filled with tears, and she faltered:
“Is that my fault?”
But, all of a sudden, he said:
“So then, they are dead?”
“They are dead.”
“The father, the mother, and the brother?”
“The three in one month, and I told you. I was left by myself with nothing but my clothes, for I was in debt to the apothecary and the doctor and for the funeral of the three, and had to pay what I owed with the furniture.”
“After that I went as a servant to the house of Mait’e Cacheux — you know him well — the cripple. I was just fifteen at the time, for you went away when I was not quite fourteen. I tripped with him. One is so senseless when one is young. Then I went as a nursery-maid to the notary who debauched me also, and brought me to Havre, where he took a room for me. After a little while, he gave up coming to see me. For three days I lived without eating a morsel of food; and then, not being able to get employment, I went to a house, like many others. I, too, have seen different places — ah! and dirty places! Rouen, Evreux, Lille, Bordeaux, Perpignan, Nice, and then Marseilles, where I am now!”
The tears started from her eyes, flowed over her nose, wet her cheeks, and trickled into her mouth.
She went on:
“I thought you were dead, too? — my poor Cèlestin.”
“I would not have recognized you myself — you were such a little thing then, and here you are so big! — but how is it that you did not recognize me?”
She answered with a despairing movement of her hands:
“I see so many men that they all seem to me alike.”
He kept his eyes still fixed on her intently, oppressed by an emotion that dazed him, and filled him with such pain as to make him long to cry like a little child that has been whipped. He still held her in his arms, while she sat astride on his knees, with his open hands against the girl’s back; and now by sheer dint of looking continually at her, he at length recognized her, the little sister left behind in the country with all those whom she had seen die, while he had been tossing on the seas. Then, suddenly taking between his big seaman’s paws this head found once more, he began to kiss her, as one kisses kindred flesh. And after that, sobs, a man’s deep sobs, heaving like great billows, rose up in his throat, resembling the hiccoughs of drunkenness.
“And this is you — this is you, Francoise — my little Francoise!” —
Then, all at once, he sprang up, began swearing in an awful voice, and struck the table such a blow with his fists that the glasses were knocked down and smashed. After that, he advanced three steps, staggered, stretched out his arms, and fell on his face. And he rolled on the ground, crying out, beating the floor with his hands and feet, and uttering such groans that they seemed like a death-rattle.
All those comrades of his stared at him, and laughed.
“He’s not a bit drunk,” said one.
“He ought to be put to bed,” said another. “If he goes out, we’ll all be run in together.”
Then, as he had money in his pockets, the landlady offered to let him have a bed, and his comrades, themselves so much intoxicated that they could not stand upright, hoisted him up the narrow stairs to the apartment of the woman who had just been in his company, and who remained sitting on a chair, at the foot of that bed of crime, weeping quite as freely as he had wept, until the morning dawned.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11