Mathias Sandorf/Page 11

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CHAPTER II.
THE LAUNCH OF THE TRABACOLO.
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And so this does not do?” asked Cape Matifou.

“What does not do?” replied Point Pescade.

“This business.”

“It might do better, it must be admitted, but it might do worse!”

“Pescade!”

“Matifou!”

“Don't you wish to hear what I am going to say?”

“I do wish, on the contrary, if it is worth wishing for.”

“Well—you ought to leave me,” said the giant.

“What do yon mean by leaving you? To leave you to yourself?” asked Point Pescade.

“Yes.”

“Continue, Hercules of my dreams! You interest me!”

“Yes—I am sure that if you were alone you would draw the people! I prevent you. It is my fault that you don't, and without me you would be able to—”

“Now, look here, Cape Matifou,” replied Pescade seriously. “You are big, are you not?”

“Yes.”

“And tall?”

“Yes.”

“Well, big and tall as you are, I do not understand how you could manage to hold such a huge stupidity as you have just uttered.”

“And why, Point Pescade?”

“Because it is bigger and taller than you are, Cape Matifou! Me to leave you! But if I was not here, with whom would you do the juggling?”

“With whom?”

“Whom would you have to do the dangerous jump on to your occiput?”

“I do not know—”

“Or the grand flight between your hands?”

“Booh!” answered the giant, embarrassed by these pressing questions.

“Yes—in presence of a delighted audience, when by chance there is an audience!”

“An audience!” murmured Matifou.

“There, shut up,” continued Pescade, “and just think of earning something for supper to-night.”

“I am not hungry.”

“You are always hungry, Cape Matifou; and even now you are hungry,” said Point Pescade, opening his companion's enormous jaws with his hands. “I see your canines as big as those of a bull-dog! You are hungry, I tell you; and when we have earned half a florin or a quarter of a florin you shall eat.”

“But you, my little Pescade?”

“Me? a grain of millet will be enough. I don't want to be strong like you, my son. This is how I look at it. The more you eat the more you grow. The more you grow the more you become a phenomenon—”

“A phenomenon—yes!”

“But with me, on the contrary, the less I eat the more I waste, and the more I waste the more I become a phenomenon. Is that true?”

“That is true,” answered Matifou, innocently. “And so, Point Pescade, in my own interest I ought to eat.”

“Just so, my big dog, and in mine I ought not to eat.”

“But suppose there is only enough for one?”

“Then it will be yours.”

“But suppose there is enough for two?”

“It would still be yours. *My dear Matifou, you are worth any two men.”

“Four—six—ten!” exclaimed the giant.

And putting aside the emphatic exaggeration so common to all giants, ancient and modern, Matifou had in truth thrown every wrestler hitherto opposed to him. Two facts were told of him which showed his prodigious strength. One evening in a circus at Nimes an upright supporting the wood-work began to give way. The cracking caused a good deal of alarm among the spectators, who were threatened with being crushed by the fall of the roof or crushed by one another as they thronged to the door. But Cape Matifou was there. He made a leap to the beam which was already out of the perpendicular, and as the frame-work sagged down he held it upon his shoulders as long as it was necessary to allow the audience to disperse. Then with another bound he jumped out, and the same moment the roof collapsed behind him. That was done by strength of shoulder. The following was done by strength of arm.

One day on the plains of Camargue a bull went mad and escaped from the inclosure and chased and injured several people, and would have done a great deal of damage had it not been for Cape Matifou. The giant ran at the animal, waited for it, and as it lowered its head for the rush he seized it by the horns, and with one twist of his arm he laid it on its back with its four hoofs kicking helplessly in the air.

Of his superhuman strength there had been other proofs, but these will serve to show not only Matifou's muscularity, but also his courage and devotion, for he never hesitated to risk his life when he could help his fellows. So that he was as good as he was strong. But that he should lose none of his strength it was necessary, as Pescade had said, that he should eat, and his companion obliged him to eat, stinting himself when there was only enough for one. This night, however, supper—even for one—had not yet appeared above the horizon.

“We are in a fog,” said Point Pescade.

And to dissipate it he returned to his jokes and grimaces.

He strode along the platform, he gesticulated, he did a few dislocations, he walked on his hands when he did not walk on his feet, having observed that you do not feel so hungry with your head downward. He began again in his half Provençal, half Sclave lingo, that perpetual patter of the show-booth which the clown fires off at the crowd.

“Come in, gentlemen!” shouted Point Pescade. “There is nothing to pay till you go out—and then it's only a krentzer.”

But to go out it was necessary to go in, and although five or six people stopped, no one attempted to enter the arena.

Then Point Pescade with a long switch pointed out the ferocious animals depicted on the canvas. Not that he had a menagerie to show the public! But these terrible creatures existed in some parts of Africa and India, and if ever Cape Matifou met them on the road, why they would only make a mouthful for Cape Matifou!

And thus he chattered on, interrupted every now and then by the giant with a bang on the big drum that echoed like a cannon-shot.

“The hyena, gentlemen, the hyena comes from the Cape of Good Hope. Active and sanguinary, you see him clearing the walls of the grave-yard, on which he preys.”

Then turning to the other side of the stand he pointed at a daub of yellow in a clump of blue trees.

“Here you are! The young and interesting rhinoceros, only fifteen mouths old! He came from Sumatra, and nearly wrecked the ship he was brought over in by sticking his horn through the hull.”

Then to the other end he turned again to show the lion amidst a greenish mass of the bones of his victims.

“Behold, gentlemen! The terrible lion of the Atlas! He lives in the depths of the Sahara, in the burning sands of the desert! When the heat gets too much for him he hides in the caves! If he finds any water dropping he opens his mouth and drinks it as it drops! And that's why he's called an humidian!”

But all the attractions seemed to fail. Point Pescade shouted in vain. In vain Cape Matifou banged the big drum. Things were growing desperate.

However, a few Dalmatians—powerful-looking mountaineers—came at last, and stopped before the athletic Matifou and coolly examined him with the air of connoisseurs.

Point Pescade immediately challenged them.

“Walk up, gentlemen! Come in! Now's your time! Grand contest! Man to man ! A clear field! Cape Matifou will throw any amateur that honors him with his confidence! A pair of cotton tights as the prize for the conqueror! Are you game», gentlemen?” added Point Pescade, addressing these big fellows who stared at him with astonishment.

But the big fellows did not see the fun of accepting the challenge, and Point Pescade had to announce that as no amateurs were forthcoming the contest would take place between Cape Matifou and himself. Yes! “Skill shall be pitted against strength.”

“Walk up! Walk up! Don't all come at once!” vociferated poor Pescade. “You will see now what you never saw before! Point Pescade and Cape Matifou at it hammer and tongs! The twins of Provence! Yes-twins—but not of the same age, nor of the same mother! Eh? Aren't we like each other—me particularly!”

A young man stopped in front of the platform. He listened gravely to these threadbare pleasantries.

The young man was about twenty-two or a little older, and was above the middle height. His handsome features, with a certain severity about them, denoted a pensive nature, disciplined probably in the school of suffering. His large black eyes, his beard which he kept short, his mouth rarely accustomed to smile, but clearly cut beneath his silky mustache, proclaimed unmistakably his Hungarian origin and the preponderance of Magyar blood. He was dressed quietly in a modern suit, without any pretense of being in the fashion. His bearing could not be mistaken; the young man was already a man.

He listened, we have said, to the useless patter of Point Pescade. With some sympathy he looked at him showing off on the platform. Having suffered himself he probably could not remain indifferent to the sufferings of others.

“Two Frenchmen,” he said to himself. “Poor fellows! They have not done much to-day.”

And then the idea occurred to him to constitute himself an audience—an audience that paid. It was only a bit of charity, perhaps, but it was a bit of charity in disguise, and it might be welcome.

So he advanced toward the door—that is, toward the piece of canvas, which, on being raised, gave admittance to the ring.

“Walk in, sir! walk in!” said Pescade. “We are just going to commence!”

“But—I am alone—” said the young man goodnaturedly.

“Sir,” replied Point Pescade proudly, and somewhat chaffingly, “the true artist looks at the quality and not at the quantity of his audience.”

“However—you will allow me,” said the gentleman taking out his purse.

And he picked out two florins and placed them on a tin plate in a corner of the platform.

“Bravo!” said Pescade.

Then he turned to his companion with:

“To the rescue, Matifou, to the rescue! We'll give him something for his money.”

But as he was about to step in, the sole spectator of the French and Provençal arena, he stopped abruptly. He had just caught sight of the girl and her father, who a quarter of an hour before had been listening to the guzlar. Both he and she had had the same thought and done a charitable action. The one had given an alms to the gipsy, the other had given an alms to the acrobats.

But evidently the meeting in this way was not enough for him—for as soon as be saw the lady he forgot all about the arena and the money he had paid for his place, and dashed off toward the spot where she had again mixed with the crowd.

“Hi! sir!—sir!” shouted Pescade. “Your money! We haven't earned it! What's up? Where are you going? Vanished! Sir!”

But he sought to find his “audience” in vain. It had been eclipsed. Then he looked at Matifou, who, with bis mouth wide open, was quite as much astonished as he was.

“Just as we were going to commence!” said the giant. “We are unlucky.”

“Let us commence all the same!” said Pescade, running down the steps into the ring.

But at this moment there was a great shouting in the direction of the harbor. The crowd was growing excited, and moving toward the sea-side, and then was heard above the din of words:

“The trabacolo! the trabacolo!”

The time had come for the launch of the small vessel, The sight, always an attractive one, was of a kind to excite the public curiosity. And the quays where the people had gathered were soon deserted for the yard in which the launch was to take place.

Point Pescade and Matifou saw that there was no chance of an audience at present, and being anxious to find the solitary stranger who had failed to fill their arena, they left it without even stopping to shut the door—and why should they shut it?—and walked off to the yard.

This yard was situated at the end of a point just beyond the harbor, where the beach sloped gradually to the sea. Pescade and his companion after a good deal of elbowing found themselves in the front row of spectators. Never, even on a benefit night, had they had such an audience.

The shores had been cleared away from the trabacolo, and she was now ready for the ceremony. The anchor was ready to be let go as soon as the hull entered the water, so as to stop her running too far out into the channel. Although the trabacolo measured only about fifty tons, the mass was considerable enough for every precaution to be taken against accident. Two of the workmen of the yard were on deck aft near the flagstaff that bore the Dalmatian colors, and two others were forward standing by the anchor.

The trabacolo was to be sent into the water stern first, as is done in all other launches. Her keel resting on the soaped slide was kept in its place by a key. When the key was removed the boat should begin to slip, and then with increasing swiftness she would rush down the ways into her natural element.

Half a dozen carpenters with sledge hammers were knocking in wedges under the keel forward, so as to increase the speed at which she would take the sea. Every one followed the operation with the greatest interest amidst general silence.

At this moment from behind the point to the south there suddenly glided into view a yacht. She was a schooner of about three hundred and fifty tons. She was keeping on past the point so as to open the entrance into the harbor. As the breeze was from the north-west, she was close-hauled on the port tack, so as to take her straight to her anchorage. In ten minutes after she had been sighted she had come up rapidly, as if she had been looked at through a telescope with continually lengthening tube.

To enter the harbor the schooner would have to pass in front of the yard where the trabacolo was ready for launching; and as soon as she was sighted it was thought best to suspend operations for a time, and wait until she had gone by. A collision between the two vessels, one broadside on, the other coming at great speed, would have caused a catastrophe on board the yacht.

The workmen then stopped driving in the wedges, and the man in charge of the key was then told to wait. It would only be for a minute or two. On came the schooner. She could be seen to be getting ready to anchor. Two of the jibs were taken in and the foresail hauled up. But she went on at a good speed under her fore, staysail and Spanish reefed mainsail.

All eyes were turned on this graceful vessel whose white sails were now gilded by the oblique rays of the sun. Her sailors, in Levantine uniform, with red caps, were running about at their various duties, while the captain, near the man at the helm, gave his orders in a quiet voice.

Very soon the schooner was abreast of the building-yard. Suddenly a shout arose. The trabacolo began to move. For some reason the key had given way, and she began to slide at the moment the yacht was passing with starboard side toward her.

A collision seemed inevitable. There was neither the time nor the means to prevent it. Nothing could be done. To the cries of the spectators there had come in reply a shout of alarm from the schooner's crew.

The captain put down his helm, but it was impossible for his ship to get by in time to avoid the shock.

The trabacolo was slipping down the ways. A white smoke rose from the friction forward, and the stern had already plunged into the waters of the bay.

Suddenly a man jumped out from the crowd. He seized a rope which hung from the fore part of the trabacolo. But in vain he tried to hold it back at the risk of being dragged away. Close by them was an iron cannon stuck into the ground like a post. In an instant he slipped the rope over it, and let it out hand over hand at the risk of being dragged round with it. He kept it back, and with superhuman strength he checked it for ten seconds.

Then the rope broke. But the ten seconds were enough. The trabacolo had plunged into the waves and recovered as from a dive. She shot across the channel, grazing by hardly a foot the schooner's stern, just as the anchor dropped into the depths, and brought her sharply up by the tension of the chain.

The schooner was saved.

The hero of this daring maneuver was no other than Cape Matifou.

“Well done! Very well done!” exclaimed Point Pescade, running up to the giant, who lifted him in his arms, not to juggle with him, but to embrace him as he always embraced him—that is, almost to the point of suffocation.

And then the applause resounded from all sides. Five minutes later the schooner had taken up her position in the center of the harbor; then an elegant whale-boat with six oars brought the owner ashore.

He was a tall man, about sixty, with almost white hair, and gray beard cut in the Oriental fashion. Large black eyes lit up his face and a curious vivacity displayed itself in his healthily brown face. The most striking thing about him was the air of nobility which distinguished him. As soon as he set foot on the shore he walked up to the two acrobats, whom the crowd was greeting and applauding.

The people stood back as he advanced. As soon as he reached Cape Matifou his first action was not to open his purse and take something from it. No! he held out his hand to the giant, and said to him in Italian:

“Thank you, my friend, for what you did.”

Cape Matifou was too bashful to notice the compliment.

“Yes! It was good! It was superb!” said Pescade, with all the redundance of the Provençal idiom.

“You are Frenchmen?” asked the stranger.

“French of the French!” answered Pescade. “French of the south of France.”

The stranger looked at them with sympathy and feeling. Their misery was too apparent for him to pass over. Before him were two mountebanks, one of whom at the risk of his life had done him a great service, for a collision between the trabacolo and the schooner would have meant several victims.

“Come and see me on board!” he said.

“And when?” asked Pescade, with a most gracious salute.

“To-morrow morning.”

“To-morrow morning!” answered Pescade, while Matifou gave sign of consent by nodding his head.

But the crowd had not ceased to surround the hero of the adventure. He would have been carried about in triumph had he not been too big. But Point Pescade, always wide awake, thought he could make some money out of the public excitement. And as soon as the stranger after a gesture of friendship had left for the jetty, he broke out with—

“The match, sirs, the match between Pescade and Cape Matifou. Walk up, gentlemen, walk up. You don't pay till you go out—or you can pay as you come in—just as you please.”

This time he was listened to and followed by a public he had never dreamed of before.

The ring was too small! They even had to refuse money!

The stranger passed on, but scarcely had he advanced a step in the direction of the quay when he found him near the young lady and her father who had been present throughout the scene.

Close by was the young man who had followed them, and to whose salute the father only had given a very haughty acknowledgment.

In this man's presence the stranger experienced a movement he could hardly suppress. It was as if his whole body was repelled, while his eye flashed like the lightning.

The girl's father stepped up to him and said,

“You have just escaped a great danger, sir, thanks to the courage of that acrobat.”

“Quite so,” replied the stranger, whose voice voluntarily not was masked by emotion.

Then addressing his interlocutor he asked—

“To whom may I have the honor to speak?”

“To Silas Toronthal of Ragusa,” answered the old banker of Trieste. “And may I ask who is the owner of the yacht?”

“Dr. Antekirtt!” replied the stranger.

Then they parted, while shouts of applause were heard from the distant ring of the French gymnasts.

And that evening not only did Cape Matifou have enough to eat,—that is, to eat as much as four ordinary people,—but enough was left for one. And that did for the supper of his comrade, Point Pescade.