The Rover, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 12

Upright and deliberate, Catherine left the kitchen, and in the passage outside found Arlette waiting for her with a lighted candle in her hand. Her heart was filled with sudden desolation by the beauty of that young face enhaloed in the patch of light, with the profound darkness as of a dungeon for a background. At once her niece led the way upstairs muttering savagely through her pretty teeth: “He thinks I could go to sleep. Old imbecile!”

Peyrol did not take his eyes off Catherine's straight back till the door had closed after her. Only then he relieved himself by letting the air escape through his pursed lips and rolling his eyes freely about. He picked up the lamp by the ring on the top of the central rod and went into the salle, closing behind him the door of the dark kitchen. He stood the lamp on the very table on which Lieutenant Réal had had his midday meal. A small white cloth was still spread on it and there was his chair askew as he had pushed it back when he got up. Another of the many chairs in the salle was turned round conspicuously to face the table. These things made Peyrol remark to himself bitterly: “She sat and stared at him as if he had been gilt all over, with three heads and seven arms on his body” — a comparison reminiscent of certain idols he had seen in an Indian temple. Though not an iconoclast, Peyrol felt positively sick at the recollection, and hastened to step outside. The great cloud had broken up and the mighty fragments were moving to the westward in stately flight before the rising moon. Scevola, who had been lying extended full length on the bench, swung himself up suddenly, very upright.

“Had a little nap in the open?” asked Peyrol, letting his eyes roam through the luminous space under the departing rearguard of the clouds jostling each other up there.

“I did not sleep,” said the sans-culotte. “I haven't closed my eyes-not for one moment.”

“That must be because you weren't sleepy,” suggested the deliberate Peyrol, whose thoughts were far away with the English ship. His mental eye contemplated her black image against the white beach of the Salins describing a sparkling curve under the moon, and meantime he went on slowly: “For it could not have been noise that kept you awake.” On the level of Escampobar the shadows lay long on the ground while the side of the lookout hill remained yet black but edged with an increasing brightness. And the amenity of the stillness was such that if softened for a moment Peyrol's hard inward attitude towards all mankind, including even the captain of the English ship. The old rover savoured a moment of serenity in the midst of his cares.

“This is an accursed spot,” declared Scevola suddenly.

Peyrol, without turning his head, looked at him sideways. Though he had sprung up from his reclining posture smartly enough, the citizen had gone slack all over and was sitting all in a heap. His shoulders were hunched up, his hands reposed on his knees. With his staring eyes he resembled a sick child in the moonlight.

“It's the very spot for hatching treacheries. One feels steeped in them up to the neck.”

He shuddered and yawned a long irresistible nervous yawn with the gleam of unexpected long canines in a retracted, gaping mouth giving away the restless panther lurking in the man.

“Oh, yes, there's treachery about right enough. You couldn't conceive that, citoyen?”

“Of course I couldn't,” assented Peyrol with serene contempt. “What is this treachery that you are concocting?” he added carelessly, in a social way, while enjoying the charm of a moonlit evening. Scevola, who did not expect that turn, managed, however, to produce a rattling sort of laugh almost at once.

“That's a good one. Ha! ha! ha! . . . Me! . . . concocting! . . . Why me?”

“Well,” said Peyrol carelessly, “there are not many of us to carry out treacheries about here. The women are gone upstairs; Michel is down at the tartane. There's me, and you would not dare suspect me of treachery. Well, there remains only you.”

Scevola roused himself. “This is not much of a jest,” he said. “I have been a treason-hunter. I. . .”

He checked that strain. He was full of purely emotional suspicions. Peyrol was talking like this only to annoy him and to get him out of the way; but in the particular state of his feelings Scevola was acutely aware of every syllable of these offensive remarks. “Aha,” he thought to himself, “he doesn't mention the lieutenant.” This omission seemed to the patriot of immense importance. If Peyrol had not mentioned the lieutenant it was because those two had been plotting some treachery together, all the afternoon on board that tartane. That's why nothing had been seen of them for the best part of the day. As a matter of fact, Scevola too had observed Peyrol returning to the farm in the evening, only he had observed him from another window than Arlette. This was a few minutes before his attempt to open the lieutenant's door, in order to find out whether Réal was in his room. He had tiptoed away, uncertain, and going into the kitchen had found only Catherine and Peyrol there. Directly Arlette joined them a sudden inspiration made him run upstairs and try the door again. It was open now! A clear proof that it was Arlette who had been locked up in there. The discovery that she made herself at home like this in the lieutenant's room gave Scevola such a sickening shock that he thought he would die of it. It was beyond doubt now that the lieutenant had been conspiring with Peyrol down on board that tartane; for what else could they have been doing there? “But why had not Réal come up in the evening with Peyrol?” Scevola asked himself, sitting on the bench with his hands clasped between his knees. . . . It's their cunning,” he concluded suddenly. “Conspirators always avoid being seen together. Ha!”

It was as if somebody had let off a lot of fireworks in his brain. He was illuminated, dazzled, confused, with a hissing in his cars and showers of sparks before alone. Peyrol had vanished. Scevola seemed to remember that he had heard somebody pronounce the word “good-night” and the door of the salle slam. And sure enough the door of the salle was shut now. A dim light shone in the window that was next to it. Peyrol had extinguished three of the lamp flames and was now reclining on one of the long tables with that faculty of accommodating himself to a plank an old sea-dog never loses. He had decided to remain below simply to be handy, and he didn't lie down on one of the benches along the wall because they were too narrow. He left one wick burning, so that the lieutenant should know where to look for him, and he was tired enough to think that he would snatch a couple of hours' sleep before Réal could return from Toulon. He settled himself with one arm under his head as if he were on the deck of a privateer, and it never occurred to him that Scevola was looking through the panes; but they were so small and dusty that the patriot could see nothing. His movement had been purely instinctive. He wasn't even aware that he had looked in. He went away from there, walked to the end of the building, spun round and walked back again to the other end; and it was as if he had been afraid of going beyond the wall against which he reeled sometimes. “Conspiracy, conspiracy,” he thought. He was now absolutely certain that the lieutenant was still hiding in that tartane, and was only waiting till all was quiet to sneak back to his room in which Scevola had proof positive that Arlette was in the habit of making herself at home. To rob him of his right to Arlette was part of the conspiracy no doubt.

“Have I been a slave to those two women, have I waited all those years, only to see that corrupt creature go off infamously with a ci-devant, with a conspiring aristocrat?”

He became giddy with virtuous fury. There was enough evidence there for any revolutionary tribunal to cut all their heads off. Tribunal! There was no tribunal! No revolutionary justice! No patriots! He hit his shoulder against the wall in his distress with such force that he rebounded. This world was no place for patriots.

“If I had betrayed myself in the kitchen they would have murdered me in there.”

As it was he thought that he had said too much. Too much. “Prudence! Caution!” he repeated to himself, gesticulating with both arms. Suddenly he stumbled and there was an amazing metallic clatter made by something that fell at his feet.

“They are trying to kill me now,” he thought, shaking with fright. He gave himself up for dead. Profound silence reigned all round. Nothing more happened. He stooped fearfully to look and recognized his own stable fork lying on the ground. He remembered he had left it at noon leaning against the wall. His own foot had made it fall. He threw himself upon it greedily. “Here's what I need,” he muttered feverishly. “I suppose that by now the lieutenant would think I am gone to bed.”

He flattened himself upright against the wall with the fork held along his body like a grounded musket. The moon clearing the hill-top flooded suddenly the front of the house with its cold light, but he didn't know it; he imagined himself still to be ambushed in the shadow and remained motionless, glaring at the path leading towards the cove. His teeth chattered with savage impatience.

He was so plainly visible in his death-like rigidity that Michel, coming up out of the ravine, stopped dead short, believing him an apparition not belonging to this earth. Scevola, on his side, noticed the moving shadow cast by a man — that man! — and charged forward without reflection, the prongs of the fork lowered like a bayonet. He didn't shout. He came straight on, growling like a dog, and lunged headlong with his weapon.

Michel, a primitive, untroubled by anything so uncertain as intelligence, executed an instantaneous sideways leap with the precision of a wild animal; but he was enough of a man to become afterwards paralyzed with astonishment. The impetus of the rush carried Scevola several yards down the hill, before he could turn round and assume an offensive attitude. Then the two adversaries recognized each other. The terrorist exclaimed: “Michel?” and Michel hastened to pick up a large stone from the ground.

“Hey, you, Scevola,” he cried, not very loud but very threatening. “What are these tricks? . . . Keep away, or I will heave that piece of rock at your head, and I am good at that.”

Scevola grounded the fork with a thud. “I didn't recognize you,” he said.

“That's a story. Who did you think I was? Not the other! I haven't got a bandaged head, have I?”

Scevola began to scramble up. “What's this?” he asked. “What head, did you say?”

“I say that if you come near I will knock you over with that stone,” answered Michel. “You aren't to be trusted when the moon is full. Not recognize! There's a silly excuse for flying at people like this. You haven't got anything against me, have you?”

“No,” said the ex-terrorist in a dubious tone and keeping a watchful eye on Michel, who was still holding the stone in his hand.

“People have been saying for years that you are a kind of lunatic,” Michel criticized fearlessly, because the other's discomfiture was evident enough to put heart into the timid hare. “If a fellow cannot come up now to get a snooze in the shed without being run at with a fork, well. . .”

“I was only going to put this fork away,” Scevola burst out volubly. “I had left it leaning against the wall, and as I. was passing along I suddenly saw it, so I thought I would put it in the stable before I went to bed. That's all.”

Michel's mouth fell open a bit.

“Now what do you think I would want with a stable fork at this time of night, if it wasn't to put it away?” argued Scevola.

“What indeed!” mumbled Michel, who began to doubt the evidence of his senses.

“You go about mooning like a fool and imagine a lot of silly things, you great, stupid imbecile. All I wanted to do was to ask whether everything was all right down there, and you, idiot, bound to one side like a goat and pick up a stone. The moon has affected your head, not mine. Now drop it.”

Michel, accustomed to do what he was told, opened his fingers slowly, not quite convinced but thinking there might be something in it. Scevola, perceiving his advantage, scolded on:

“You are dangerous. You ought to have your feet and hands tied every full moon. What did you say about a head just now? What head?”

“I said that I didn't have a broken head.”

“Was that all?” said Scevola. He was asking himself what on earth could have happened down there during the afternoon to cause a broken head. Clearly, it must have been either a fight or an accident, but in any case he considered that it was for him a favourable circumstance, for obviously a man with a bandaged head is at a disadvantage. He was inclined to think it must have been some silly accident, and he regretted profoundly that the lieutenant had not killed himself outright. He turned sourly to Michel.

“Now you may go into the shed. And don't try any of your tricks with me any more, because next time you pick up a stone I will shoot you like a dog.”

He began to move towards the yard gate which stood always open, throwing over his shoulder an order to Michel: “Go into the salle. Somebody has left a light in there. They all seem to have gone crazy to-day. Take the lamp into the kitchen and put it out and see that the door into the yard is shut. I am going to bed.” He passed through the gateway, but he did not penetrate into the yard very far. He stopped to watch Michel obeying the order. Scevola, advancing his head cautiously beyond the pillar of the gate, waited till he had seen Michel open the door of the salle and then bounded out again across the level space and down the ravine path. It was a matter of less than a minute. His fork was still on his shoulder. His only desire was not to be interfered with, and for the rest he did not care what they all did, what they would think and how they would behave. The fixed idea had taken complete possession of him. He had no plan, but he had a principle on which to act; and that was to get at the lieutenant unawares, and if the fellow died without knowing what hand had struck him, so much the better. Scevola was going to act in the cause of virtue and justice. It was not to be a matter of personal contest at all. Meantime, Michel, having gone into the salle, had discovered Peyrol fast asleep on a table. Though his reverence for Peyrol was unbounded, his simplicity was such that he shook his master by the shoulder as he would have done any common mortal. The rover passed from a state of inertia into a sitting posture so quickly that Michel stepped back a pace and waited to be addressed. But as Peyrol only stared at him, Michel took the initiative in a concise phrase:

“He's at it!”

Peyrol did not seem completely awake: “What is it you mean?” he asked.

“He is making motions to escape.”

Peyrol was wide awake now. He even swung his feet off the table.

“Is he? Haven't you locked the cabin door?”

Michel, very frightened, explained that he had never been told to do that.

“No?” remarked Peyrol placidly. “I must have forgotten.” But Michel remained agitated and murmured: “He is escaping.”

“That's all right,” said Peyrol. “What are you fussing about? How far can he escape, do you think?”

A slow grin appeared on Michel's face. “If he tries to scramble over the top of the rocks, he will get a broken neck in a very short time,” he said. “And he certainly won't get very far, that's a fact.”

“Well — you see,” said Peyrol.

“And he doesn't seem strong either. He crawled out of the cabin door and got as far as the little water cask and he dipped and dipped into it. It must be half empty by now. After that he got on to his legs. I cleared out ashore directly I heard him move,” he went on in a tone of intense self-approval. “I hid myself behind a rock and watched him.;;

“Quite right,” observed Peyrol. After that word of commendation, Michel's face wore a constant grin.

“He sat on the after-deck,” he went on as if relating an immense joke, “with his feet dangling down the hold, and may the devil take me if I don't think he had a nap with his back against the cask. He was nodding and catching himself up, with that big white head of his. Well, I got tired of watching that, and as you told me to keep out of his way, I thought I would come up here and sleep in the shed. That was right, wasn't it?”

“Quite right,” repeated Peyrol. “Well, you go now into the shed. And so you left him sitting on the after-deck?”

“Yes,” said Michel. “But he was rousing himself. I hadn't got away more than ten yards when I heard an awful thump on board. I think he tried to get up and fell down the hold.”

“Fell down the hold?” repeated Peyrol sharply.

“Yes, notre maître. I thought at first I would go back and see, but you had warned me against him, hadn't you? And I really think that nothing can kill him.”

Peyrol got down from the table with an air of concern which would have astonished Michel, if he had not been utterly incapable of observing things.

“This must be seen to,” murmured the rover, buttoning the waistband of his trousers. “My cudgel there, in the corner. Now you go to the shed. What the devil are you doing at the door? Don't you know the way to the shed?” This last observation was caused by Michel remaining in the doorway of the salle with his head out and looking to right and left along the front of the house. “What's come to you? You don't suppose he has been able to follow you so quick as this up here?”

“Oh no, notre maître, quite impossible. I saw that sacré Scevola promenading up and down here. I don't want to meet him again.”

“Was he promenading outside?” asked Peyrol, with annoyance. “Well, what do you think he can do to you? What notions have you got in your silly head? You are getting worse and worse. Out you go.”

Peyrol extinguished the lamp and, going out, closed the door without the slightest noise. The intelligence about Scevola being on the move did not please him very much, but he reflected that probably the sans-culotte had fallen asleep again and after waking up was on his way to bed when Michel caught sight of him. He had his own view of the patriot's psychology and did not think the women were in any danger. Nevertheless he went to the shed and heard the rustling of straw as Michel settled himself for the night.

“Debout,” he cried low. “Sh, don't make any noise. I want you to go into the house and sleep at the bottom of the stairs. If you hear voices, go up, and if you see Scevola about, knock him down. You aren't afraid of him, are you?”

“No, if you tell me not to be,” said Michel, who, picking up his shoes, a present from Peyrol, walked barefoot towards the house. The rover watched him slipping noiselessly through the salle door. Having thus, so to speak, guarded his base, Peyrol proceeded down the ravine with a very deliberate caution. When he got as far as the little hollow in the ground from which the mastheads of the tartane could be seen, he squatted and waited. He didn't know what his prisoner had done or was doing and he did not want to blunder into the way of his escape. The day-old moon was high enough to have shortened the shadows almost to nothing and all the rocks were inundated by a yellow sheen, while the bushes by contrast looked very black. Peyrol reflected that he was not very well concealed. The continued silence impressed him in the end. “He has got away,” he thought. Yet he was not sure. Nobody could be sure. He reckoned it was about an hour since Michel had left the tartane; time enough for a man, even on all fours, to crawl down to the shore of the cove. Peyrol wished he had not hit so hard. His object could have been attained with half the force. On the other hand all the proceedings of his prisoner, as reported by Michel, seemed quite rational. Naturally the fellow was badly shaken. Peyrol felt as though he wanted to go on board and give him some encouragement, and even active assistance.

The report of a gun from seaward cut his breath short as he lay there meditating. Within a minute there was a second report, sending another wave of deep sound among the crags and hills of the peninsula. The ensuing silence was so profound that it seemed to extend to the very inside of Peyrol's head, and lull all his thoughts for a moment. But he had understood. He said to himself that after this his prisoner, if he had life enough left in him to stir a limb, would rather die than not try to make his way to the seashore. The ship was calling to her man.

In fact those two guns had proceeded from the Amelia. After passing beyond Cape Esterel, Captain Vincent dropped an anchor under foot off the beach just as Peyrol had surmised he would do. From about six o'clock till nine the Amelia lay there with her unfurled sails hanging in the gear. Just before the moon rose the captain came up on deck and after a short conference with his first lieutenant, directed the master to get the ship under way and put her head again for the Petite Passe. Then he went below, and presently word was passed on deck that the captain wanted Mr. Bolt. When the master's mate appeared in his cabin, Captain Vincent motioned him to a chair.

“I don't think I ought to have listened to you,” he said. “Still, the idea was fascinating, but how it would strike other people it is hard to say. The losing of our man is the worst feature. I have an idea that we might recover him. He may have been captured by the peasants or have met with an accident. It's unbearable to think of him lying at the foot of some rock with a broken leg. I have ordered the first and second cutters to be manned, and I propose that you should take command of them, enter the cove and, if necessary, advance a little inland to investigate. As far as we know there have never been any troops on that peninsula. The first thing you will do is to examine the coast.”

He talked for some time, giving more minute instructions, and then went on deck. The Amelia, with the two cutters towing alongside, reached about half-way down the Passe and then the boats were ordered to proceed. just before they shoved off, two guns were fired in quick succession.

“Like this, Bolt,” explained Captain Vincent, “Symons will guess that we are looking for him; and if he is hiding anywhere near the shore he will be sure to come down where he can be seen by you.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06