The hawkers’ cottage stood at the end of the Esplanade, on the little promontory where the jetty is, where all the winds, all the rain, and all the spray met. The hut, both walls and roof, was built of old planks, more or less covered with tar, whose chinks were stopped with oakum, and dry wreckage was heaped up against it. In the middle of the room an iron pot stood on two bricks, and served as a stove, when they had any coal, but as there was no chimney, it filled the room, which was ventilated only by a low door, with smoke, and there the whole crew lived, eighteen men and one woman. Some had undergone various terms of imprisonment, and nobody knew what the others were, but though they were all, more or less, suffering from some physical defect and were nearly old men, they were still all strong enough for hauling. For the “Chamber of Commerce” tolerated them there, and allowed them that hovel to live in, on condition that they should be ready to haul, by day and by night.
For every vessel they hauled, each got a penny by day and two-pence by night, but that was not certain, on account of the competition of retired sailors, fishermen’s wives, laborers who had nothing to do, but who were all stronger than those half-starved wretches in the hut.
And yet they lived there, those eighteen men and one woman. Were they happy? Certainly not. Hopeless? Not that, either; for they occasionally got a little besides their scanty pay, and then they stole occasionally, fish, lumps of coal, things without any value to those who lost them, but of great value to the poor, beggarly thieves.
The eighteen kept the woman, and there was no jealousy on her account. She had no special favorite among them.
She was a fat woman of about forty, chubby faced and puffy, and of whom Daddy La Bretagne, who was one of the eighteen, used to say: “She does us honor.”
If she had had a favorite among them, Daddy La Bretagne would certainly have had the greatest right to that privilege, for although he was one of the most crippled among them, as he was partially paralyzed in his legs, he showed himself skillful and strong-armed as any of them, and in spite of his infirmities, he always managed to secure a good place in the row of haulers. None of them knew as well as he did how to inspire visitors with pity during the season, and to make them put their hands into the pockets, and he was a past master at cadging, so that among those empty stomachs and penniless rascals he had windfalls of victuals and coppers more frequently than fell to his share. But he did not make use of them in order to monopolize their common mistress.
“I am just,” he used to say. “Let each of us have his spoonful in turn, and no more, when we are all eating out of the same dish.”
With the coal he picked up, he used to make a good fire for the whole band under the iron pot, in which he cooked whatever he brought home with him, without any complaining about it, for he used to say:
“It gives you a good fire in which to warm yourselves, for nothing, and the smell of my stew into the bargain.”
As for his money, he spent in drink with the trollop, and afterwards, what was left of it, with the other eighteen.
“You see,” he used to say, “I am just, and more than just. I give her up to you, because it is your right.”
The consequence was that they all liked Daddy La Bretagne, so that he gloried in it, and said proudly:
“What a pity that we are living under the Republic! These fellows would think nothing of making me king.”
And one day, when he said this, his trollop replied: “The king is here, old fellow!” And at the same time she presented a new comrade to them, who was no less ragged or wretched looking than the eighteen, but quite young by the size of him. He was a tall, thin fellow of about forty, and without a white streak in his long hair. He was dressed only in a pair of trousers and a shirt, which he wore outside them, like a blouse, and the trollop said:
“Here, Daddy La Bretagne, you have two knitted vests on, so just give him one.”
“Why should I?” the hauler asked.
“Because I choose you to,” the woman replied. “I have been living with you set of old men for a long time, so now I want to have a young one; there he is, so you must give him a vest, and keep him here, or I shall throw you up. You may take it or leave it, as you like. Do you understand me?”
The eighteen looked at each other open-mouthed, and good Daddy La Bretagne scratched his head, and then said:
“What she asks is quite right, and we must give way,” he replied.
Then they explained themselves, and came to an understanding. The poor devil did not come like a conqueror, for he was a wretched clown who had just been released from prison, where he had undergone three years’ hard labor for an attempted outrage on a girl, but, with one exception, the best fellow in the world, so the people declared.
“And something nice for me,” the trollop added, “for I can assure you that I mean him to reward me for anything I may do for him.”
From that time the household of eighteen persons consisted of nineteen, and at first all went well. The clown was very humble, and tried not to be burdensome to them. Fed, clothed and supplied with tobacco, he tried not to be too exacting in the other matter, and if needful, he would have hauled like the others, but the woman would not allow it.
“You shall not fatigue yourself, my little man,” she said. “You must reserve yourself entirely for me.”
And he did as she wished.
And soon, the eighteen, who had never been jealous of each other, grew jealous of the favored lover. Some tried to pick a quarrel with him. He resisted. The best fellow in the world, no doubt, but he was not going to be taken for a mussel shut up in its shell, for all that. Let them call him as lazy as a priest if they liked; he did not mind that, but when they put hairs into his coffee, armsful of rushes among his wreckage, and filth into his soup, they had better look out!
“None of that, all the lot of you, or you will see what I can do,” he used to say.
They repeated the practical jokes, however, and he thrashed them. He did not try to find out who the culprits were, but attacked the first one he met, so much the worse for him. With a kick from his wooden clog (it was his specialty) he smashed their noses into a pulp, and having thus acquired the knowledge of his strength, and urged on by his trollop, he soon became a tyrant. The eighteen felt that they were slaves, and their former paradise where concord and perfect equality had reigned, became a hell, and that state of things could not last.
“Ah!” Daddy La Bretagne growled, “if only I were twenty years younger I would nearly kill him! I have my Breton’s hot head still, but my confounded legs are no good any longer.”
And he boldly challenged the clown to a duel, in which the latter was to have his legs tied, and then both of them were to sit on the ground and hack at each other with knives.
“Such a duel would be perfectly fair!” he replied, kicking him in the side with one of his clogs, and the woman burst out laughing, and said:
“At any rate, you cannot compete with him on equal terms as regards myself, so do not worry yourself about it.”
Daddy La Bretagne was lying in his corner and spitting blood, and none of the rest spoke. What could the others do, when he, the blustering of them all, had been served so? The jade had been right when she had brought in the intruder, and said:
“The king is here, old fellow.”
Only, she ought to have remembered that, after all, she alone kept her subjects in check, and as Daddy La Bretagne said, by a right object. With her to console them, they would no doubt have borne anything, but she was foolish enough to cut down their food, and not to fill their common dish as full as it used to be. She wanted to keep everything for her lover, and that raised the exasperation of the eighteen to its height, and so one night when she and the clown were asleep, among all these fasting men, the eighteen threw themselves upon them. They wrapped the despot’s arms and legs up in tarpaulin, and in the presence of the woman, who was firmly bound, they flogged him till he was black and blue.
“Yes,” old Bretagne said to me, himself, “yes, Monsieur, that was our revenge. The king was guillotined in 1793, and so we guillotined our king also.”
And he concluded with a sneer, and said: “Ah! We wished to be just, and as it was not his head that had made him our king, so, by Jove, we settled him.”
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 13:40