Eugène Sue.

The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death online

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bank which commanded the mouth of the Loire, where a tent had been set
up for him. From this place the sea and its dangerous shores, strewn
with sand-bars and rocks level with the water, could be seen in the
distance. The wind was blowing a gale. Moored to the bank was a
fisherman's boat, at once solid and light, rigged Gallic fashion, with
one square sail with flaps cut in its lower edge. To this craft Albinik
and Meroë were forthwith conducted.

"It is stormy, the sea is menacing," said the interpreter to them. "Will
you dare to venture it alone with your wife? There are some fishermen
here who have been taken prisoners - do you want their help?"

"My wife and I have before now braved tempests alone in our boat, when
we made for my ship, anchored far out from shore on account of bad

"But now you are maimed," answered the interpreter. "How will you be
able to manage!"

"One hand is enough for the tiller. My companion will raise the
sail - the woman's business, since it is a sort of cloth," gaily added
the mariner to give the Romans faith in him.

"Go ahead then," said the interpreter. "May the gods direct you."

The bark, pushed into the waves by several soldiers, rocked a minute
under the flappings of the sail, which had not yet caught the wind. But
soon, held by Meroë, while her husband managed the tiller, the sail
filled, and bellied out to the blast. The boat leaned gently, and seemed
to fly over the crests of the waves like a sea-bird. Meroë, dressed in
her mariner's costume, stayed at the prow, her black hair streaming in
the wind. Occasionally the white foam of the ocean, bursting from the
prow of the boat, flung its stinging froth in the young woman's noble
face. Albinik knew these coasts as the ferryman of the solitary moors of
Brittany knows their least detours. The bark seemed to play with the
high waves. From time to time the couple saw in the distance the tent of
Caesar, recognizable by its purple flaps, and saw gleaming in the sun
the gold and silver which decked the armor of his generals.

"Oh, Caesar! - scourge of Gaul - the most cruel, the most debauched of
men!" exclaimed Meroë. "You do not know that this frail bark, which at
this moment you are following in the distance with your eyes, bears two
of your most desperate enemies. You do not know that they have
beforehand given over their lives to Hesus in the hope of making to
Teutates, god of journeys by land and by sea, an offering worthy of
him - an offering of several thousand Romans, sinking in the depths of
the sea. It is with hands raised to you, thankful and happy, O, Hesus,
that we shall disappear in the bottom of the deep, with the enemies of
our sacred Gaul!"

The bark of Albinik and Meroë, almost grazing the rocks and glancing
over the surges along the dangerous ashore, sometimes drew away from,
sometimes approached the bank. The mariner's companion, seeing him sad
and thoughtful, said:

"Still brooding, Albinik! Everything favors our projects. The Roman
general is no longer suspicious; your skill this morning will decide him
to accept your services; and to-morrow, mayhap, you will pilot the
galleys of our enemies - - "

"Yes, I will pilot them to the bottom, where they will be swallowed up,
and we with them."

"What a magnificent offering to the gods! Ten thousand Romans, perhaps!"

"Meroë," answered Albinik with a sigh, "then, after ending our lives
here, even as the soldiers, brave warriors after all, we shall be
resurrected elsewhere with them. They will say to me: 'It was not
through bravery, with the lance and the sword, that you overcame us. No,
you slew us without a combat, by treason. You watched at the rudder, we
slept in peace and confidence. You steered us on the rocks - in an
instant the sea swallowed us. You are like a cowardly poisoner, who
would send us to our death by putting poison in our food. Is that an act
of valor? No, no longer do you know the open boldness of your fathers,
those proud Gauls who fought us half naked, who railed at us in our iron
armor, asking why we fought if we were afraid of wounds or death.'"

"Ah!" exclaimed Meroë, sadly and bitterly, "Why did the druidesses teach
me that a woman ought to escape the last outrage by death! Why did your
mother Margarid tell us so often, as a noble example to follow, the
deed of your grandmother Syomara, who cut off the head of the Roman who
ravished her, and carrying the head under the skirt of her robe to her
husband, said to him these proud and chaste words: 'No two men living
can boast of having possessed me!' Why did I not yield to Caesar?"


"Perhaps you would then have been avenged! faint heart! weak spirit!
Must then the outrage be completed, the ignominy swallowed, before your
anger is kindled?"

"Meroë, Meroë!"

"It is not enough for you, then, that the Roman has proposed to your
wife to sell herself, to deliver herself to him for gifts? It is to your
wife - do you hear! - to your wife, that Caesar made that offer of shame!"

"You speak true," answered the mariner, feeling anger fire his heart at
the memory of these outrages, "I was a spiritless fellow - - "

But his companion went on with redoubled bitterness:

"No, I see it now. This is not enough. I should have died. Then perhaps
you would have sworn vengeance over my body. Oh, they arouse pity in
you, these Romans, of whom we wish to make an offering to the gods! They
are not accomplices to the crime which Caesar attempted, say you?
Answer! Would they have come to my aid, these soldiers, these brave
warriors, if, instead of relying on my own courage and drawing my
strength from my love for you, I had cried, implored, supplicated,
'Romans, in the name of your mothers, defend me from the lust of your
general'? Answer! Would they have come at my call? Would they have
forgotten that I was a Gaul - that Caesar was Caesar? Would the 'generous
hearts' of these brave fellows have revolted? After rape, do not they
themselves drown the infants in the blood of their mothers? - - "

Albinik did not allow his companion to finish. He blushed at his lack of
heart. He blushed at having an instant forgotten the horrible deeds
perpetrated by the Romans in their impious war. He blushed at having
forgotten that the sacrifice of the enemies of Gaul was above all else
pleasing to Hesus. In his anger, he rang out, for answer, the war song
of the Breton seamen, as if the wind could carry his words of defiance
and death to Caesar where he stood on the bank:

Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn![4]
As I was lying in my vessel I heard
The sea-eagle calling, in the dead of night.
He called his eaglets and all the birds of the shore.
He said to them as he called:
'Arise ye, all - come - come.
It is no longer the putrid flesh of the dog or sheep we must have -
It is Roman flesh.'

"Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn!
Old sea-raven, tell me, what have you there?
The head of the Roman leader I clutch;
I want his eyes - his two red eyes!'
And you, sea-wolf, what have you there?

'The heart of the Roman leader I hold -
I am devouring it.'
And you, sea-serpent, what are you doing there,
Coiled 'round that neck, your flat head so close
To that mouth, already cold and blue?
'To hear the soul of the Roman leader
Take its departure am I here!'
Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn!"

Stirred up, like her husband, by the song of war, Meroë repeated with
him, seeming to defy Caesar, whose tent they discerned in the distance:

"Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn! Tor-e-benn!"

Still the bark of Albinik and Meroë played with the rocks and surges of
those dangerous roads, sometimes drawing off shore, sometimes in.

"You are the best and most courageous pilot I have ever met with, I, who
have in my life traveled so much on the sea," said Caesar to Albinik
when he had regained dry land, and, with Meroë, had left the boat.
"To-morrow, if the weather is fair, you will guide an expedition, the
destination of which you will know at the moment of setting sail."



The following day, at sunrise, the wind being favorable and the sea
smooth, the Roman galleys were to sail. Caesar wished to be present at
the embarkment. He had Albinik brought to him. Beside the general was a
soldier of great height and savage mien. A flexible armor, made of
interwoven iron links, covered him from head to foot. He stood
motionless, a statue of iron, one might say. In his hand he held a
short, heavy, two-edged axe. Pointing out this man, the interpreter said
to Albinik:

"You see that soldier. During the sail he will stick to you like your
shadow. If through your fault or by treason, a single one of the galleys
grates her keel, he has orders to kill you and your companion on the
instant. If, on the contrary, you carry the fleet to harbor safely, the
general will overwhelm you with gifts. You will then give the most happy
mortals cause for envy."

"Caesar shall be satisfied," answered Albinik.

Followed by the soldier with the axe, he and Meroë went up into the
galley Pretoria which was to lead the fleet. She was distinguished from
the other ships by three gilded torches placed on the poop.

Each galley carried seventy rowers, ten sailors to handle the sails,
fifty light-armed archers and slingers, and one hundred and fifty
soldiers cased in iron from top to toe.

When the galleys had pulled out from shore, the praetor, military
commandant of the fleet, told Albinik, through an interpreter, to steer
for the lower part of the bay of Morbihan, in the neighborhood of the
town of Vannes, where the Gallic army was assembled. Albinik with his
hand at the tiller was to convey to the interpreter his orders to the
master of the rowers. The latter beat time for the rowers, according to
the pilot's orders, with an iron hammer with which he rapped on a gong
of brass. As the speed of the Pretoria, whose lead the rest of the Roman
fleet followed, needed quickening or slackening, he indicated it by
quickening or slowing the strokes of the hammer.

The galleys, driven by a fair wind, sailed northward. As the interpreter
had done before, so now the oldest sailors admired the bold manoeuvre
and quick sight of the Gallic pilot. After a sail of some length, the
fleet found itself near the southern point of the bay of Morbihan, and
knew that now it was to enter into those channels, the most dangerous on
all the coast of Brittany because of the great number of small islands,
rocks and sand banks, and above all, because of the undercurrents, which
ran with irresistible violence.

A little island situated in the mouth of the bay, which was still more
constricted by two points of land, divided the inlet into two narrow
lanes. Nothing in the surface of the sea, neither breakers nor foam nor
change in the color of the waters gave token of the slightest difference
between the two passes. Nevertheless, in one lay not a rock, while the
other was strewn with danger. In the latter channel, after a hundred
strokes of the oars, the ships in single file, led by the Pretoria,
would have been dragged by a submarine current toward a reef of rocks
which was visible in the distance, and over which the sea, calm
everywhere else, broke tumultuously. The commanders of the several
galleys could perceive their peril only one by one; each would be made
aware of it only by the rapid drifting of the galley ahead of him. Then
it would be too late. The violence of the current would drag and hurl
vessel upon vessel. Whirling in the abyss, fouling the bottom, and
crashing into one another, their timbers would part and they would sink
into the watery depths with all on board, or else dash themselves on the
rocky reef. A hundred more strokes of the oar, and the fleet would be
annihilated in this channel of ruin.

The sea was so calm and beautiful that not one of the Romans had any
suspicion of danger. The rowers accompanied with songs the measured fall
of their oars. Of the soldiers some were cleaning their arms; some were
stretched out in the bow asleep; others were playing at huckle-bones. A
short distance from Albinik, who was still at the helm, a white haired
veteran with battle-scarred face was seated on one of the benches in the
poop, between his two sons, fine young archers of eighteen or twenty
years. They were conversing with their father, each with one arm
familiarly laid on a shoulder of the old warrior, whom they thus held
tight in their embrace; all three seemed to be talking in pleasant
confidence, and to love one another tenderly. In spite of the hatred he
entertained for the Romans, Albinik could not help sighing with pity
when he thought of the fate of these three soldiers, who did not imagine
they were so near the jaws of death.

Just then one of those light boats used by the Irish seamen shot out
from the bay of Morbihan by the safe channel. Albinik had, on his
journeys, made frequent voyages to the coast of Ireland, an island that
is inhabited by people of Gallic stock. They speak a language almost the
same as that of the Gauls, yet difficult to understand for one who had
not been as often on their coast as Albinik had.

The Irishman, either because he feared that he would be pursued and
caught by one of the men-of-war which he saw approaching, and wished to
avoid that danger by coming up to the fleet of his own accord, or else
because he had useful information to give, steered straight toward the
Pretoria. Albinik shuddered. Perhaps the interpreter would question the
Irishman, and he might point out the danger which the fleet ran in
taking one of the passages. Albinik therefore gave orders to bend to the
oars, in order to get inside the channel of destruction before the
Irishman could join the galleys. But after a few words exchanged between
the military commandant and the interpreter, the latter ordered them to
wait for the boat which was drawing near, so as to ask for tidings of
the Gallic fleet. Albinik obeyed; he did not dare to oppose the
commandant for fear of arousing suspicion. Before long the little Irish
shallop was within hailing distance of the Pretoria. The interpreter,
stepping forward, hailed the Irishman in Gallic:

"Where do you come from, and where are you bound to? Have you met any
vessels at sea?"

At these questions the Irishman motioned that he did not understand.
Then he began in his own half-Gallic tongue:

"I am coming to the fleet to give you news."

"What language does the man speak?" said the interpreter to Albinik. "I
do not catch his meaning, although his language does not seem entirely

"He speaks half Irish, half Gallic," answered Albinik. "I have often
trafficked on the coasts of his country. I understand the tongue. The
fellow says he has steered up to us to give us important news."

"Ask him what his news is."

"What information have you to give?" called Albinik to the Irishman.

"The Gallic vessels," answered he, "coming from various ports of
Brittany, joined forces yesterday evening in the bay I have just left.
They are in great number, well armed, well manned, and cleared for
action. They have chosen their anchorage at the foot of the bay, near
the harbor of Vannes. You will not be able to see them till after
doubling the promontory of A'elkern."

"The Irishman carries us favorable tidings," cried Albinik to the
interpreter. "The Gallic fleet is scattered on all sides; part of the
ships are in the river Auray; the others, still more distant, towards
the bay of Audiern, and Ouessant. At the foot of this bay, for the
defense of Vannes, are but five or six poor merchantmen, barely armed in
their haste."

"By Jupiter!" exclaimed the interpreter, "the gods, as always, are
favorable to Caesar!"

The praetor and the officers, to whom the interpreter repeated the false
news given by the pilot, seemed also overjoyed at the dispersion of the
fleet of Gaul. Vannes was thus delivered into the hands of the Romans
almost without defenses on the sea side.

Then Albinik said to the interpreter, indicating the soldier with the

"Caesar has suspected me. The gods have been kind to allow me to prove
the injustice of his suspicions. Do you see that islet, about a hundred
oar-lengths ahead?"

"I see it."

"In order to enter the bay, we must take one of two passages, one to the
right of the islet, the other to the left. The fate of the Roman fleet
is in my hands. I could pilot you by one of these passages, which to the
eye is exactly like the other, and an undercurrent would tow your
galleys onto a sunken reef. Not one would escape."

"What say you?" exclaimed the interpreter. As for Meroë, she gazed at
her husband in pained surprise, for, by his words, he seemed finally to
have renounced his vengeance.

"I speak the truth," answered Albinik. "I'll prove it to you. That
Irishman knows as well as I the dangers attendant upon entering the bay
he has just left. I shall ask him to go before us, as pilot, and in
advance I shall trace for you the route he will take. First he will
take the channel to the right of the islet; then he will advance till he
almost touches that point of land which you see furthest off; then he
will make a wide turn to the right until he is just off those black
rocks which tower over yonder; that pass behind us, those rocks shunned,
we shall be safely in the bay. If the Irishman executes this manoeuvre
from point to point, will you still suspect me?"

"No, by Jupiter!" answered the interpreter. "It would then be absurd to
entertain the least doubt of your good faith."

"Judge me then," said Albinik, and he addressed a few words to the
Irishman, who consented to pilot the ships. His manoeuvring tallied
exactly with what Albinik had foretold. The latter, having given to the
Romans this testimony of his truthfulness, deployed the fleet in three
files, and for some time he guided them among the little islands with
which the bay was dotted. Then he ordered the rowers to rest on their
oars. From this place they could not see the Gallic fleet, anchored at
the furthest part of the bay at almost two leagues' distance, and
screened from all eyes by a lofty promontory.

"Now," said Albinik to the interpreter, "We now run only one danger; it
is a great one. Before us are shifting sandbanks, occasionally displaced
by the high tides; the galleys might ground there. It is necessary,
then, that I reconnoitre the passage plummet in hand, before bringing
the fleet into it. Let them rest as they are on their oars. Order the
smallest boat your galley has to be launched, with two rowers. My wife
will take the tiller. If you have any suspicion, you and the soldier
with the axe may accompany us in the boat. Then, the passage
reconnoitred, I shall return on board to pilot the fleet even to the
mouth of the harbor of Vannes."

"I no longer suspect," answered the interpreter. "But according to
Caesar's order, neither the soldier nor I may leave you a single

"Let it be as you wish," assented Albinik.

A small boat was lowered from the galley. Two rowers descended into it,
with the soldier and the interpreter; Albinik and Meroë embarked in
their turn; and the boat drew away from the Roman fleet, which was
disposed in a crescent, waiting on its oars, for the pilot's return.
Meroë, seated at the helm, steered the boat according to the directions
of her husband. He, kneeling and hanging over the prow, sounded the
passage by means of a ponderous lead fastened to a long stout cord.
Behind the little islet which the boat was then skirting stretched a
long sand-bar which the tide, then ebbing, was beginning to uncover.
Beyond the sand-bar were several rocks fringing the bank. Albinik was
just about to heave the lead anew; while seeming to be examining on the
cord the traces of the water's depth, he exchanged a rapid look with his
wife, indicating with a glance the soldier and the interpreter. Meroë
understood. The interpreter was seated near her on the poop; then came
the two rowers on their bench; and at the farther end stood the man with
the axe, behind Albinik, who was leaning at the bow, his lead in his
hand. Rising suddenly he made of the plummet a terrible weapon. He
imparted to it the rapid motion that a slinger imparts to his sling. The
heavy lead attached to the cord struck the soldier's helmet so violently
that the man sank to the bottom of the boat stunned with the blow. The
interpreter rushed forward to the aid of his companion, but Meroë seized
him by the hair and pulled him back; loosing his balance he toppled into
the sea. One of the two rowers, who had raised his oar at Albinik,
immediately rolled headlong overboard. The movement given to the rudder
by Meroë made the boat approach so close to the rocky islet that she and
her husband both leaped on it. Rapidly they climbed the steep rocks.
There was now but one obstacle to their reaching shore. That was the
sand-bar, one part of which, already uncovered by the sea, was in
motion, as could be seen from the air bubbles which continually rose to
the surface. To take that way to reach the rocks of the shore was to die
in the abyss hidden under the treacherous surface. Already the couple
heard, from the other side of the island, which hid them from view, the
cries and threats of the soldier, who had recovered from his daze, and
the voice of the interpreter, whom the rowers had doubtlessly pulled out
of the water. Thoroughly familiar with these coasts, Albinik discovered,
by the size of the gravel and the clearness of the water that covered
it, that the sand-bar some paces off was firm. At that point, he and
Meroë crossed, wading up to their waists. They reached the rocks on the
shore, clambered up nimbly, and then stopped a moment to see if they
were pursued.

The man with the axe, hampered by his heavy armor and being, no more
than the interpreter, accustomed to move upon slippery rocks covered
with seaweed, such as were those of the islet which they had to cross in
order to reach the fugitives, arrived after many efforts opposite the
quicksands, which were now left high and dry by the tide. Furious at the
sight of Albinik and his companion, from whom he saw himself separated
by only a narrow and level sand-bar, the soldier thought the passage
easy, and dashed on. At the first step he sank in the quicksand up to
his knees. He made a violent effort to clear himself but sank deeper
yet, up to his waist. He called his companions to his aid, but hardly
had he called when only his head was above the abyss. Then the head also
disappeared. The soldier raised his hands to heaven as he sank. A moment
later only one of his iron gauntlets was to be seen convulsively
quivering above the sand. Presently nothing was to be seen - nothing
except some bubbles of air on the surface of the quagmire.

The rowers and the interpreter, seized with fear, remained motionless,
not daring to risk certain death in the capture of the fugitives.
Feeling safe at last, Albinik addressed these words to the interpreter:

"Say thou to Caesar that I maimed myself to inspire him with confidence
in the sincerity of my offers of service. My design was to conduct the
Roman fleet to certain perdition, sacrificing my companion and myself.
Accident changed my plan. Just as I was piloting you into the channel of
destruction, whence not a galley would have come back, we met the
Irishman who informed me that the Gallic ships, since yesterday
assembled in great numbers and trimmed for fight, are anchored at the
foot of the bay, two leagues off. Learning that, I changed my plan. I no
longer wished to cast away the galleys. They will be annihilated just
the same, but not by a snare or by treachery; it will come about in
valorous combat, ship to ship, Gaul to Roman. Now, for the sake of the
fight to-morrow, listen well to this: I have purposely led your galleys
into the shallows, where in a few minutes they will be left high and dry
on the sands. They will stay there grounded, for the tide is falling. To
attempt to disembark is to commit suicide; you are surrounded on all
sides by moving quicksands like the one in which your soldier and his
axe have just been swallowed up. Remain on board of your ships.
To-morrow they will be floated again by the rising tide. And to-morrow,
battle - battle to the finish. The Gaul will have once more showed that
NEVER DID BRETON COMMIT TREASON, and that if he glories in the death of
his enemy, it is because he has killed his enemy fairly."

Then Albinik and Meroë, leaving the interpreter terrified by their

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Online LibraryEugène SueThe Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death → online text (page 3 of 9)