The Rover, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 15

Catherine, going downstairs, found Peyrol still at the well. He seemed to be looking into it with extreme interest.

“Your coffee is ready, Peyrol,” she shouted to him from the doorway.

He turned very sharply like a man surprised and came along smiling.

“That's pleasant news, Mademoiselle Catherine,” he said. “You are down early.”

“Yes,” she admitted, “but you too, Peyrol. Is Michel about? Let him come and have some coffee too.”

“Michel's at the tartane. Perhaps you don't know that she is going to make a little voyage.” He drank a mouthful of coffee and took a bite out of a slice of bread. He was hungry. He had been up all night and had even had a conversation with Citizen Scevola. He had also done some work with Michel after daylight; however, there had not been much to do because the tartane was always kept ready for sea. Then after having again locked up Citizen Scevola, who was extremely concerned as to what was going to happen to him but was left in a state of uncertainty, he had come up to the farm, had gone upstairs where he was busy with various things for a time, and then had stolen down very cautiously to the well, where Catherine, whom he had not expected downstairs so early, had seen him before she went into Lieutenant Réal's room. While he enjoyed his coffee he listened without any signs of surprise to Catherine's comments upon the disappearance of Scevola. She had looked into his den. He had not slept on his pallet last night, of that she was certain, and he was nowhere to be seen, not even in the most distant field, from the points of vantage around the farm. It was inconceivable that he should have slipped away to Madrague, where he disliked to go, or to the village, where he was afraid to go. Peyrol remarked that whatever happened to him he was no great loss, but Catherine was not to be soothed.

“It frightens a body,” she said. “He may be hiding somewhere to jump on one treacherously. You know what I mean, Peyrol.”

“Well, the lieutenant will have nothing to fear, as he's going away. As to myself, Scevola and I are good friends. I had a long talk with him quite recently. You two women can manage him perfectly; and then, who knows, perhaps he has gone away for good.”

Catherine stared at him, if such a word as stare can be applied to a profound contemplative gaze. “The lieutenant has nothing to fear from him,” she repeated cautiously.

“No, he is going away. Didn't you know it?” The old woman continued to look at him profoundly. “Yes, he is on service.”

For another minute or so Catherine continued silent in her contemplative attitude. Then her hesitation came to an end. She could not resist the desire to inform Peyrol of the events of the night. As she went on Peyrol forgot the half-full bowl of coffee and his half-eaten piece of bread. Catherine's voice flowed with austerity. She stood there, imposing and solemn like a peasant-priestess. The relation of what had been to her a soul-shaking experience did not take much time, and she finished with the words, “The lieutenant is an honest man.” And after a pause she insisted further: “There is no denying it. He has acted like an honest man.”

For a moment longer Peyrol continued to look at the coffee in the bowl, then without warning got up with such violence that the chair behind him was thrown back upon the flagstones.

“Where is he, that honest man?” he shouted suddenly in stentorian tones which not only caused Catherine to raise her hands, but frightened himself, and he dropped at once to a mere forcible utterance. “Where is that man? Let me see him.”

Even Catherine's hieratic composure was disturbed. “Why,” she said, looking really disconcerted, “he will be down here directly. This bowl of coffee is for him.”

Peyrol made as if to leave the kitchen, but Catherine stopped him. “For God's sake, Monsieur Peyrol,” she said, half in entreaty and half in command, “don't wake up the child. Let her sleep. Oh, let her sleep! Don't wake her up. God only knows how long it is since she has slept properly. I could not tell you. I daren't think of it.” She was shocked by hearing Peyrol declare: “All this is confounded nonsense.” But he sat down again, seemed to catch sight of the coffee bowl and emptied what was left in it down his throat.

“I don't want her on my hands more crazy than she has been before,” said Catherine, in a sort of exasperation but in a very low tone. This phrase in its selfish form expressed a real and profound compassion for her niece. She dreaded the moment when that fatal Arlette would wake up and the dreadful complications of life which her slumbers had suspended would have to be picked up again. Peyrol fidgeted on his seat.

“And so he told you he was going? He actually did tell you that?” he asked.

“He promised to go before the child wakes up. . . . At once.”

“But, sacré nom d'un chien, there is never any wind before eleven o'clock,” Peyrol exclaimed in a tone of profound annoyance, yet trying to moderate his voice, while Catherine, indulgent to his changing moods, only compressed her lips and nodded at him soothingly. “It is impossible to work with people like that,” he mumbled.

“Do you know, Monsieur Peyrol, that she has been to see the priest?” Catherine was heard suddenly, towering above her end of the table. The two women had had a talk before Arlette had been induced by her aunt to lie down. Peyrol gave a start.

“What? Priest? . . . Now look here, Catherine,” he went on with repressed ferocity, “do you imagine that all this interests me in the least?”

“I can think of nothing but that niece of mine. We two have nobody but each other in the world,” she went on, reproducing the very phrase Arlette had used to Réal. She seemed to be thinking aloud, but noticed that Peyrol was listening with attention. “He wanted to shut her up from everybody,” and the old woman clasped her meagre hands with a sudden gesture. “I suppose there are still some convents about the world.”

“You and the patronne are mad together,” declared Peyrol. “All this only shows what an ass the curé is. I don't know much about these things, though I have seen some nuns in my time, and some very queer ones too, but it seems to me that they don't take crazy people into convents. Don't you be afraid. I tell you that.” He stopped because the inner door of the kitchen came open and Lieutenant Réal stepped in. His sword hung on his forearm by the belt, his hat was on his head. He dropped his little valise on the floor and sat down in the nearest chair to put on his shoes which he had brought down in his other hand. Then he came up to the table. Peyrol, who had kept his eyes on him, thought: “Here is one who looks like a moth scorched in the fire.” Réal's eyes were sunk, his cheeks seemed hollowed and the whole face had an arid and dry aspect.

“Well, you are in a fine state for the work of deceiving the enemy,” Peyrol observed. “Why, to look at you, nobody would believe a word you said. You are not going to be ill, I hope. You are on service. You haven't got the right to be ill. I say, Mademoiselle Catherine, produce the bottle — you know, my private bottle . . . .” He snatched it from Catherine's hand, poured some brandy into the lieutenant's coffee, pushed the bowl towards him and waited. “Nom de nom!” he said forcibly, “don't you know what this is for? It's for you to drink.” Réal obeyed with a strange, automatic docility. “And now,” said Peyrol, getting up, “I will go to my room and shave. This is a great day — the day we are going to see the lieutenant off.”

Till then Réal had not uttered a word, but directly the door closed behind Peyrol he raised his head.

“Catherine!” His voice was like a rustle in his throat. She was looking at him steadily and he continued: “Listen, when she finds I am gone you tell her I will return soon. To-morrow. Always to-morrow.”

“Yes, my good Monsieur,” said Catherine in an unmoved voice but clasping her hands convulsively. “There is nothing else I would dare tell her!”

“She will believe you,” whispered Réal wildly.

“Yes! She will believe me,” repeated Catherine in a mournful tone.

Réal got up, put the sword-belt over his head, picked up the valise. There was a little flush on his cheeks.

“Adieu,” he said to the silent old woman. She made no answer, but as he turned away she raised her hand a little, hesitated, and let it fall again. It seemed to her that the women of Escampobar had been singled out for divine wrath. Her niece appeared to her like the scapegoat charged with all the murders and blasphemies of the Revolution. She herself too had been cast out from the grace of God. But that had been a long time ago. She had made her peace with Heaven since. Again she raised her hand and, this time, made in the air the sign of the cross at the back of Lieutenant Réal.

Meanwhile upstairs Peyrol, scraping his big flat cheek with an English razor-blade at the window, saw Lieutenant Réal on the path to the shore; and high above there, commanding a vast view of sea and land, he shrugged his shoulders impatiently with no visible provocation. One could not trust those epaulette-wearers. They would cram a fellow's head with notions either for their own sake or for the sake of the service. Still, he was too old a bird to be caught with chaff; and besides, that long-legged stiff beggar going down the path with all his officer airs, was honest enough. At any rate he knew a seaman when he saw one, though he was as cold-blooded as a fish. Peyrol had a smile which was a little awry.

Cleaning the razor-blade (one of a set of twelve in a case) he had a vision of a brilliantly hazy ocean and an English Indiaman with her yards braced all ways, her canvas blowing loose above her bloodstained decks overrun by a lot of privateersmen and with the island of Ceylon swelling like a thin blue cloud on the far horizon. He had always wished to own a set of English blades and there he had got it, fell over it as it were, lying on the floor of a cabin which had been already ransacked. “For good steel — it was good steel,” he thought looking at the blade fixedly. And there it was, nearly worn out. The others too. That steel! And here he was holding the case in his hand as though he had just picked it up from the floor. Same case. Same man. And the steel worn out.

He shut the case brusquely, flung it into his sea-chest which was standing open, and slammed the lid down. The feeling which was in his breast and had been known to more articulate men than himself, was that life was a dream less substantial than the vision of Ceylon lying like a cloud on the sea. Dream left astern. Dream straight ahead. This disenchanted philosophy took the shape of fierce swearing. “Sacré nom de nom de nom. . . . Tonnerre de bon Dieu!”

While tying his neckcloth he handled it with fury as though he meant to strangle himself with it. He rammed a soft cap on to his venerable locks recklessly, seized his cudgel — but before leaving the room walked up to the window giving on the east. He could not see the Petite Passe on account of the lookout hill, but to the left a great portion of the Hyères roadstead lay spread out before him, pale grey in the morning light, with the land about Cape Blanc swelling in the distance with all its details blurred as yet and only one conspicuous object presenting to his sight something that might have been a lighthouse by its shape, but which Peyrol knew very well was the English corvette already under way and with all her canvas set.

This sight pleased Peyrol mainly because he had expected it. The Englishman was doing exactly what he had expected he would do, and Peyrol looked towards the English cruiser with a smile of malicious triumph as if he were confronting her captain. For some reason or other he imagined Captain Vincent as long-faced, with yellow teeth and a wig, whereas that officer wore his own hair and had a set of teeth which would have done honour to a London belle and was really the hidden cause of Captain Vincent appearing so often wreathed in smiles.

That ship at this great distance and steering in his direction held Peyrol at the window long enough for the increasing light of the morning to burst into sunshine, colouring and filling-in the flat outline of the land with tints of wood and rock and field, with clear dots of buildings enlivening the view. The sun threw a sort of halo around the ship. Recollecting himself, Peyrol left the room and shut the door quietly. Quietly too he descended the stairs from his garret. On the landing he underwent a short inward struggle, at the end of which he approached the door of Catherine's room and opening it a little, put his head in. Across the whole width of it he saw Arlette fast asleep. Her aunt had thrown a light coverlet over her. Her low shoes stood at the foot of the bed. Her black hair lay loose on the pillow; and Peyrol's gaze became arrested by the long eyelashes on her pale cheek. Suddenly he fancied she moved, and he withdrew his head sharply, pulling the door to. He listened for a moment as if tempted to open it again, but judging it too risky, continued on his way downstairs. At his reappearance in the kitchen Catherine turned sharply. She was dressed for the day, with a big white cap on her head, a black bodice and a brown skirt with ample folds. She had a pair of varnished sabots on her feet over her shoes.

“No signs of Scevola,” she said, advancing towards Peyrol. “And Michel too has not been here yet.”

Peyrol thought that if she had been only shorter, what with her black eyes and slightly curved nose she would have looked like a witch. But witches can read people's thoughts, and he looked openly at Catherine with the pleasant conviction that she could not read his thoughts. He said:

“I took good care not to make any noise upstairs, Mademoiselle Catherine. When I am gone the house will be empty and quiet enough.”

She had a curious expression. She struck Peyrol suddenly as if she were lost in that kitchen in which A she had reigned for many years. He continued:

“You will be alone all the morning.”

She seemed to be listening to some distant sound, and after Peyrol had added, “Everything is all right now,” she nodded and after a moment said in a manner that for her was unexpectedly impulsive:

“Monsieur Peyrol, I am tired of life.”

He shrugged his shoulders and with somewhat sinister jocosity remarked:

“I will tell you what it is; you ought to have been married.”

She turned her back on him abruptly.

“No offence,” Peyrol excused himself in a tone of gloom rather than of apology. “It is no use to attach any importance to things. What is this life? Phew! Nobody can remember one-tenth of it. Here I am; and, you know, I would bet that if one of my old-time chums came along and saw me like this, here with you — I mean one of those chums that stand up for a fellow in a scrimmage and look after him should he be hurt — well, I bet,” he repeated, “he wouldn't know me. He would say to himself perhaps, `Hullo! here's a comfortable married couple.' ”

He paused. Catherine, with her back to him and calling him, not “Monsieur,” but “Peyrol,” tout court, remarked, not exactly with displeasure, but rather with an ominous accent that this was no time for idle talk. Peyrol, however, continued, though his tone was very far from being that of idle talk:

“But you see, Mademoiselle Catherine, you were not like the others. You allowed yourself to be struck all of a heap, and at the same time you were too hard on yourself.”

Her long thin frame, bent low to work the bellows under the enormous overmantel, she assented: “Perhaps! We Escampobar women were always hard on ourselves.”

“That's what I say. If you had had things happen to you which happened to me . . . .”

“But you men, you are different. lt doesn't matter what you do. You have got your own strength. You need not be hard on yourselves. You go from one thing to another thoughtlessly.”

He remained looking at her searchingly with something like a hint of a smile on his shaven lips, but she turned away to the sink where one of the women working about the farm had deposited a great pile of vegetables. She started on them with a broken-bladed knife, preserving her sibylline air even in that homely occupation.

“It will be a good soup, I see, at noon to-day,” said the rover suddenly. He turned on his heels and went out through the salle. The whole world lay open to him, or at any rate the whole of the Mediterranean, viewed down the ravine between the two hills. The bell of the farm's milch-cow, which had a talent for keeping herself invisible, reached him from the right, but he could not see as much as the tips of her horns, though he looked for them. He stepped out sturdily. He had not gone twenty yards down the ravine when another sound made him stand still as if changed into stone. It was a faint noise resembling very much the hollow rumble an empty farm-cart would make on a stony road, but Peyrol looked up at the sky, and though it was perfectly clear, he did not seem pleased with its aspect. He had a hill on each side of him and the placid cove below his feet. He muttered “H'm! Thunder at sunrise. It must be in the west. It only wanted that!” He feared it would first kill the little breeze there was and then knock the weather up altogether. For a moment all his faculties seemed paralyzed by that faint sound. On that sea ruled by the gods of Olympus he might have been a pagan mariner subject to Jupiter's caprices; but like a defiant pagan he shook his fist vaguely at space which answered him by a short and threatening mutter. Then he swung on his way till he caught sight of the two mastheads of the tartane, when he stopped to listen. No sound of any sort reached him from there, and he went on his way thinking, “Go from one thing to another thoughtlessly! Indeed! . . . That's all old Catherine knows about it.” He had so many things to think of that he did not know which to lay hold of first. He just let them lie jumbled up in his head. His feelings too were in a state of confusion, and vaguely he felt that his conduct was at the mercy of an internal conflict. The consciousness of that fact accounted perhaps for his sardonic attitude towards himself and outwardly towards those whom he perceived on board the tartane; and especially towards the lieutenant whom he saw sitting on the deck leaning against the head of the rudder, characteristically aloof from the two other persons on board. Michel, also characteristically, was standing on the top of the little cabin scuttle, obviously looking out for his “maître.” Citizen Scevola, sitting on deck, seemed at first sight to be at liberty, but as a matter of fact he was not. He was loosely tied up to a stanchion by three turns of the mainsheet with the knot in such a position that he could not get at it without attracting attention; and that situation seemed also somewhat characteristic of Citizen Scevola with its air of half liberty, half suspicion and, as it were, contemptuous restraint. The sans-culotte, whose late experiences had nearly unsettled his reason, first by their utter incomprehensibility and afterwards by the enigmatical attitude of Peyrol, had dropped his head and folded his arms on his breast. And that attitude was dubious too. It might have been resignation or it might have been profound sleep. The rover addressed himself first to the lieutenant.

“Le moment approche,” said Peyrol with a queer twitch at a corner of his lip, while under his soft woollen cap his venerable locks stirred in the breath of a suddenly warm air. “The great moment — eh?”

He leaned over the big tiller, and seemed to be hovering above the lieutenant's shoulder.

“What's this infernal company?” murmured the latter without even looking at Peyrol.

“All old friends — quoi?” said Peyrol in a homely tone. “We will keep that little affair amongst ourselves. The fewer the men the greater the glory. Catherine is getting the vegetables ready for the noonday soup and the Englishman is coming down towards the Passe where he will arrive about noon too, ready to have his eye put out. You know, lieutenant, that will be your job. You may depend on me for sending you off when the moment comes. For what is it to you? You have no friends, you have not even a petite amie. As to expecting an old rover like me — oh no, lieutenant! Of course liberty is sweet, but what do you know of it, you epaulette-wearers? Moreover, I am no good for quarter-deck talks and all that politeness.”

“I wish, Peyrol, you would not talk so much,” said Lieutenant Réal, turning his head slightly. He was struck by the strange expression on the old rover's face. “And I don't see what the actual moment matters. I am going to look for the fleet. All you have to do is to hoist the sails for me and then scramble ashore.”

“Very simple,” observed Peyrol through his teeth, and then began to sing:

“Quoique leurs chapeaux sont bien laids
God-dam! Moi, j'aime les Anglais
Ils ont un si bon caractère!”

but interrupted himself suddenly to hail Scevola:

“Hé! Citoyen!” and then remarked confidentially to Réal: “He isn't asleep, you know, but he isn't like the English, he has a sacré mauvais caractère. He got into his head,” continued Peyrol, in a loud and innocent tone, “that you locked him up in this cabin last night. Did you notice the venomous glance he gave you just now?”

Both Lieutenant Réal and the innocent Michel appeared surprised at his boisterousness; but all the time Peyrol was thinking: “I wish to goodness I knew how that thunderstorm is getting on and what course it is shaping. I can't find that out unless I go up to the farm and get a view to the westward. It may be as far as the Rhône Valley; no doubt it is and it will come out of it too, curses on it. One won't be able to reckon on half an hour of steady wind from any quarter.” He directed a look of ironic gaiety at all the faces in turn. Michel met it with a faithful-dog gaze and innocently open mouth. Scevola kept his chin buried on his chest. Lieutenant Réal was insensible to outward impressions and his absent stare made nothing of Peyrol. The rover himself presently fell into thought. The last stir of air died out in the little basin, and the sun clearing Porquerolles inundated it with a sudden light in which Michel blinked like an owl.

“It's hot early,” he announced aloud but only because he had formed the habit of talking to himself. He would not have presumed to offer an opinion unless asked by Peyrol.

His voice having recalled Peyrol to himself, he proposed to masthead the yards and even asked Lieutenant Réal to help in that operation which was accomplished in silence except for the faint squeaking of the blocks. The sails, however, were kept hauled up in the gear.

“Like this,” said Peyrol, “you have only to let go the ropes and you will be under canvas at once.”

Without answering Réal returned to his position by the rudder-head. He was saying to himself — “I am sneaking off. No, there is honour, duty. And of course I will return. But when? They will forget all about me and I shall never be exchanged. This war may last for years, — ” and illogically he wished he could have had a God to whom he could pray for relief in his anguish. “She will be in despair,” he thought, writhing inwardly at the mental picture of a distracted Arlette. Life, however, had embittered his spirit early, and he said to himself: “But in a month's time will she even give me a thought?” Instantly he felt remorseful with a remorse strong enough to lift him to his feet as if he were morally obliged to go up again and confess to Arlette this sacrilegious cynicism of thought. “I am mad,” he muttered, perching himself on the low rail. His lapse from faith plunged him into such a depth of unhappiness that he felt all his strength of will go out of him. He sat there apathetic and suffering. He meditated dully: “Young men have been known to die suddenly; why should not I? I am, as a matter of fact, at the end of my endurance. I am half dead already. Yes! but what is left of that life does not belong to me now.”

“Peyrol,” he said in such a piercing tone that even Scevola jerked his head up; but he made an effort to reduce his shrillness and went on speaking very carefully: “I have left a letter for the Secretary General at the Majorité to pay twenty-five hundred francs to Jean — you are Jean, are you not? — Peyrol, price of the tartane in which I sail. Is that right?”

“What did you do that for?” asked Peyrol with an extremely stony face. “To get me into trouble?”

“Don't be a fool, gunner, nobody remembers your, name. It is buried under a stack of blackened paper. I must ask you to go there and tell them that you have seen with your own eyes Lieutenant Réal sail away on his mission.”

The stoniness of Peyrol persisted but his eyes were full of fury. “Oh, yes, I see myself going there. Twenty-five hundred francs! Twenty-five hundred fiddlesticks.” His tone changed suddenly. “I heard some one say that you were an honest man, and I suppose this is a proof of it. Well, to the devil with your honesty.” He glared at the lieutenant and then thought: “He doesn't even pretend to listen to what I say” — and another sort of anger, partly contemptuous and with something of dim sympathy in it, replaced his downright fury. “Pah!” he said, spat over the side, and walking up to Réal with great deliberation, slapped him on the shoulder. The only effect of this proceeding was to make Réal look up at him without any expression whatever.

Peyrol then picked up the lieutenant's valise and carried it down into the cuddy. As he passed by, Citizen Scevola uttered the word “Citoyen” but it was only when he came back again that Peyrol condescended to say, “Well?”

“What are you going to do with me?” asked Scevola.

“You would not give me an account of how you came on board this tartane,” said Peyrol in a tone that sounded almost friendly, “therefore I need not tell you what I will do with you.”

A low muttering of thunder followed so close upon his words that it might have come out of Peyrol's own lips. The rover gazed uneasily at the sky. It was still clear overhead, and at the bottom of that little basin surrounded by rocks there was no view in any other direction; but even as he gazed there was a sort of flicker in the sunshine succeeded by a mighty but distant clap of thunder. For the next half hour Peyrol and Michel were busy ashore taking a long line from the tartane to the entrance of the little basin where they fastened the end of it to a bush. This was for the purpose of hauling the tartane out into the cove. Then they came aboard again. The bit of sky above their heads was still clear, but while walking with the hauling line near the cove Peyrol had got a glimpse of the edge of the cloud. The sun grew scorching all of a sudden, and in the stagnating air a mysterious change seemed to come over the quality and the colour of the light. Peyrol flung his cap on the deck, baring his head to the subtle menace of the breathless stillness of the air.

“Phew! Ca chauffe,' he muttered, rolling up the sleeves of his jacket. He wiped his forehead with his mighty forearm upon which a mermaid with an immensely long fishtail was tattooed. Perceiving the lieutenant's belted sword lying on the deck, he picked it up and without any ceremony threw it down the cabin stairs. As he was passing again near Scevola, the sans-culotte raised his voice.

“I believe you are one of those wretches corrupted by English gold,” he cried like one inspired. His shining eyes, his red cheeks, testified to the fire of patriotism burning in his breast, and he used that conventional phrase of revolutionary time, a time when, intoxicated with oratory, he used to run about dealing death to traitors of both sexes and all ages. But his denunciation was received in such profound silence that his own belief in it wavered. His words had sunk into an abysmal stillness and the next sound was Peyrol speaking to Réal.

“I am afraid you will get very wet, lieutenant, before long,” and then, looking at Réal, he thought with great conviction: “Wet! He wouldn't mind getting drowned.” Standing stock-still he fretted and fumed inwardly, wondering where precisely the English ship was by this time and where the devil that thunderstorm had got to: for the sky had become as mute as the oppressed earth. Réal asked:

“Is it not time to haul out, gunner?” And Peyrol said:

“There is not a breath of wind anywhere for miles.” He was gratified by the fairly loud mutter rolling apparently along the inland hills. Over the pool a little ragged cloud torn from the purple robe of the storm floated, arrested and thin like a bit of dark gauze.

Above at the farm Catherine had heard too the ominous mutter and came to the door of the salle. From there she could see the purple cloud itself, convoluted and solid, and its sinister shadow lying over the hills. The oncoming of the storm added to her sense of uneasiness at finding herself all alone in the house. Michel had not come up. She would have welcomed Michel, to whom she hardly ever spoke, simply as a person belonging to the usual order of things. She was not talkative, but somehow she would have liked somebody to speak to just for a moment. This cessation of all sound, voices or footsteps, around the buildings was not welcome; but looking at the cloud, she thought that there would be noise enough presently. However, stepping back into the kitchen, she was met by a sound that made her regret the oppressive silence, by its piercing and terrifying character; it was a shriek in the upper part of the house where, as far as she knew, there was only Arlette asleep. In her attempt to cross the kitchen to the foot of the stairs the weight of her accumulated years fell upon the old woman. She felt suddenly very feeble and hardly able to breathe. And all at once the thought, “Scevola! Was he murdering her up there?” paralyzed the last remnant of her physical powers. What else could it be? She fell, as if shot, into a chair under the first shock and found herself unable to move. Only her brain remained active, and she raised her hands to her eyes as if to shut out the image of the horrors upstairs. She heard nothing more from above. Arlette was dead. She thought that now it was her turn. While her body quailed before the brutal violence, her weary spirit longed ardently f or the end. Let him come! Let all this be over at last, with a blow on the head or a stab in the breast. She had not the courage to uncover her eyes. She waited. But after about a minute — it seemed to her interminable — she heard rapid footsteps overhead. Arlette was running here and there. Catherine uncovered her eyes and was about to rise when she heard at the top of the stairs the name of Peyrol shouted with a desperate accent. Then, again, after the shortest of pauses, the cry of: “Peyrol, Peyrol!” and then the sound of feet running downstairs. There was another shriek, “Peyrol!” just outside the door before it flew open. Who was pursuing her? Catherine managed to stand up. Steadying herself with one hand on the table she presented an undaunted front to her niece who ran into the kitchen with loose hair flying and the appearance of wildest distraction in her eyes.

The staircase door had slammed to behind her. Nobody was pursuing her; and Catherine, putting forth her lean brown arm, arrested Arlette's flight with such a jerk that the two women swung against each other. She seized her niece by the shoulders.

“What is this, in Heaven's name? Where are you rushing to?” she cried, and the other, as if suddenly exhausted, whispered:

“I woke up from an awful dream.”

The kitchen grew dark under the cloud that hung over the house now. There was a feeble flicker of lightning and a faint crash, far away.

The old woman gave her niece a little shake.

“Dreams are nothing,” she said. “You are awake now . . . .” And indeed Catherine thought that no dream could be so bad as the realities which kept hold of one through the long waking hours.

“They were killing him,” moaned Arlette, beginning to tremble and struggle in her aunt's arms. “I tell you they were killing him.”

“Be quiet. Were you dreaming of Peyrol?”

She became still in a moment and then whispered: “No. Eugène.”

She had seen Réal set upon by a mob of men and women, all dripping with blood, in a livid cold light, in front of a stretch of mere shells of houses with cracked walls and broken windows, and going down in the midst of a forest of raised arms brandishing sabres, clubs, knives, axes. There was also a man flourishing a red rag on a stick, while another was beating a drum which boomed above the sickening sound of broken glass falling like rain on the pavement. And away round the corner of an empty street came Peyrol whom she recognized by his white head, walking without haste, swinging his cudgel regularly. The terrible thing was that Peyrol looked straight at her, not noticing anything, composed, without a frown or a smile, unseeing and deaf, while she waved her arms and shrieked desperately to him for help. She woke up with the piercing sound of his name in her ears and with the impression of the dream so powerful that even now, looking distractedly into her aunt's face, she could see the bare arms of that murderous crowd raised above Réal's sinking head. Yet the name that had sprung to her lips on waking was the name of Peyrol. She pushed her aunt away with such force that the old woman staggered backwards and to save herself had to catch hold of the overmantel above her head. Arlette ran to the door of the salle, looked in, came back to her aunt and shouted: “Where is he?”

Catherine really did not know which path the lieutenant had taken. She understood very well that “he” meant Réal.

She said: “He went away a long time ago” grasped her niece's arm and added with an effort to steady her voice: “He is coming back, Arlette — for nothing will keep him away from you.”

Arlette, as if mechanically, was whispering to herself the magic name, “Peyrol, Peyrol!” then cried: “I want Eugène now. This moment.”

Catherine's face wore a look of unflinching patience. “He has departed on service,” she said. Her niece looked at her with enormous eyes, coal-black, profound, and immovable, while in a forcible and distracted tone she said: “You and Peyrol have been plotting to rob me of my reason. But I will know how to make that old man give him up. He is mine!” She spun round wildly like a person looking for a way of escape from a deadly peril, and rushed out blindly.

About Escampobar the air was murky but calm, and the silence was so profound that it was possible to hear the first heavy drops of rain striking the ground. In the intimidating shadow of the storm-cloud, Arlette stood irresolute for a moment, but it was to Peyrol, the man of mystery and power, that her thoughts turned. She was ready to embrace his knees, to entreat and to scold. “Peyrol, Peyrol!” she cried twice, and lent her ear as if expecting an answer. Then she shouted: “I want him back.”

Catherine, alone in the kitchen, moving with dignity, sat down in the armchair with the tall back, like a senator in his curule chair awaiting the blow of a barbarous fate.

Arlette flew down the slope. The first sign of her coming was a faint thin scream which really the rover alone heard and understood. He pressed his lips in a particular way, showing his appreciation of the coming difficulty. The next moment he saw, poised on a detached boulder and thinly veiled by the first perpendicular shower, Arlette, who, catching sight of the tartane with the men on board of her, let out a prolonged shriek of mingled triumph and despair: “Peyrol! Help! Pey ——— rol!”

Réal jumped to his feet with an extremely scared face, but Peyrol extended an arresting arm. “She is calling to me,” he said, gazing at the figure poised on the rock. “Well leaped! Sacré nom! . . . Well leaped!” And he muttered to himself soberly: “She will break her legs or her neck.”

“I see you, Peyrol,” screamed Arlette, who seemed to be flying through the air. “Don't you dare.”

“Yes, here I am,” shouted the rover, striking his breast with his fist.

Lieutenant Réal put both his hands over his face. Michel looked on open-mouthed, very much as if watching a performance in a circus; but Scevola cast his eyes down. Arlette came on board with such an impetus that Peyrol had to step forward and save her from a fall which would have stunned her. She struggled in his arms with extreme violence. The heiress of Escampobar with her loose black hair seemed the incarnation of pale fury. “Misérable! Don't you dare!” A roll of thunder covered her voice, but when it had passed away she was heard again in suppliant tones. “Peyrol, my friend, my dear old friend. Give him back to me,” and all the time her body writhed in the arms of the old seaman. “You used to love me, Peyrol,” she cried without ceasing to struggle, and suddenly struck the rover twice in the face with her clenched fist. Peyrol's head received the two blows as if it had been made of marble, but he felt with fear her body become still, grow rigid in his arms. A heavy squall enveloped the group of people on board the tartane. Peyrol laid Arlette gently on the deck. Her eyes were closed, her hands remained clenched; every sign of life had left her white face. Peyrol stood up and looked at the tall rocks streaming with water. The rain swept over the tartane with an angry swishing roar to which was added the sound of water rushing violently down the folds and seams of the precipitous shore vanishing gradually from his sight, as if this had been the beginning of a destroying and universal deluge — the end of all things.

Lieutenant Réal, kneeling on one knee, contemplated the pale face of Arlette. Distinct, yet mingling with the faint growl of distant thunder, Peyrol's voice was heard saying:

“We can't put her ashore and leave her lying in the rain. She must be taken up to the house.” Arlette's soaked clothes clung to her limbs while the lieutenant, his bare head dripping with rain water, looked as if he had just saved her from drowning. Peyrol gazed down inscrutably at the woman stretched on the deck and at the kneeling man. “She has fainted from rage at her old Peyrol,” he went on rather dreamily. “Strange things do happen. However, lieutenant, you had better take her under the arms and step ashore first. I will help you. Ready? Lift.”

The movements of the two men had to be careful and their progress was slow on the lower, steep part of the slope. After going up more than two-thirds of the way, they rested their insensible burden on a flat stone. Réal continued to sustain the shoulders but Peyrol lowered the feet gently.

“Ha!” he said. “You will be able to carry her yourself the rest of the way and give her up to old Catherine. Get a firm footing and I will lift her and place her in your arms. You can walk the distance quite easily. There. . . . Hold her a little higher, or her feet will be catching on the stones.”

Arlette's hair was hanging far below the lieutenant's arm in an inert and heavy mass. The thunderstorm was passing away, leaving a cloudy sky. And Peyrol thought with a profound sigh: “I am tired.”

“She is light,” said Réal.

“Parbleu, she is light. If she were dead, you would find her heavy enough. Allons, lieutenant. No! I am not coming. What's the good? I'll stay down here. I have no mind to listen to Catherine's scolding.”

The lieutenant, looking absorbed into the face resting in the hollow of his arm, never averted his gaze — not even when Peyrol, stooping over Arlette, kissed the white forehead near the roots of the hair, black as a raven's wing.

“What am I to do?” muttered Réal.

“Do? Why, give her up to old Catherine. And you may just as well tell her that I will be coming along directly. That will cheer her up. I used to count for something in that house. Allez. For our time is very short.”

With these words he turned away and walked slowly down to the tartane. A breeze had sprung up. He felt it on his wet neck and was grateful for the cool touch which recalled him to himself, to his old wandering self which had known no softness and no hesitation in the face of any risk offered by life.

As he stepped on board, the shower passed away. Michel, wet to the skin, was still in the very same attitude gazing up the slope. Citizen Scevola had drawn his knees up and was holding his head in his hands; whether because of rain or cold or for some other reason, his teeth were chattering audibly with a continuous and distressing rattle. Peyrol flung off his jacket, heavy with water, with a strange air as if it was of no more use to his mortal envelope, squared his broad shoulders and directed Michel in a deep, quiet voice to let go the lines holding the tartane to the shore. The faithful henchman was taken aback and required one of Peyrol's authoritative “Allez” to put him in motion. Meantime the rover cast off the tiller lines and laid his hand with an air of mastery on the stout piece of wood projecting horizontally from the rudder-head about the level of his hip. The voices and the movements of his companions caused Citizen Scevola to master the desperate trembling of his jaw. He wriggled a little in his bonds and the question that had been on his lips for a good many hours was uttered again.

“What are you going to do with me?”

“What do you think of a little promenade at sea?” Peyrol asked in a tone that was not unkindly.

Citizen Scevola, who had seemed totally and completely cast down and subdued, let out a most unexpected screech.

“Unbind me. Put me ashore.”

Michel, busy forward, was moved to smile as though he had possessed a cultivated sense of incongruity. Peyrol remained serious.

“You shall be untied presently,” he assured the blood-drinking patriot, who had been for so many years the reputed possessor not only of Escampobar, but of the Escampobar heiress that, living on appearances, he had almost come to believe in that ownership himself. No wonder he screeched at this rude awakening. Peyrol raised his voice: “Haul on the line, Michel.”

As, directly the ropes had been let go, the tartane had swung clear of the shore, the movement given her by Michel carried her towards the entrance by which the basin communicated with the cove. Peyrol attended to the helm, and in a moment, gliding through the narrow gap, the tartane carrying her way, shot out almost into the middle of the cove.

A little wind could be felt, running light wrinkles over the water, but outside the overshadowed sea was already speckled with white caps. Peyrol helped Michel to haul aft the sheets and then went back to the tiller. The pretty spick-and-span craft that had been lying idle for so long began to glide into the wide world. Michel gazed at the shore as if lost in admiration. Citizen Scevola's head had fallen on his knees while his nerveless hands clasped his legs loosely. He was the very image of dejection.

“Hé, Michel! Come here and cast loose the citizen. It is only fair that he should be untied for a little excursion at sea.”

When his order had been executed, Peyrol addressed himself to the desolate figure on the deck.

“Like this, should the tartane get capsized in a squall, you will have an equal chance with us to swim for your life.”

Scevola disdained to answer. He was engaged in biting his knee with rage in a stealthy fashion.

“You came on board for some murderous purpose. Who you were after unless it was myself, God only knows. I feel quite justified in giving you a little outing at sea. I won't conceal from you, citizen, that it may not be without risk to life or limb. But you have only yourself to thank for being here.”

As the tartane drew clear of the cove, she felt more the weight of the breeze and darted forward with a lively motion. A vaguely contented smile lighted up Michel's hairy countenance.

“She feels the sea,” said Peyrol, who enjoyed the swift movement of his vessel. “This is different from your lagoon, Michel.”

“To be sure,” said Michel with becoming gravity.

“Doesn't it seem funny to you, as you look back at the shore, to think that you have left nothing and nobody behind?”

Michel assumed the aspect of a man confronted by an intellectual problem. Since he had become Peyrol's henchman he had lost the habit of thinking altogether. Directions and orders were easy things to apprehend; but a conversation with him whom he called “notre maître” was a serious matter demanding great and concentrated attention.

“Possibly,” he murmured, looking strangely self-conscious.

“Well, you are lucky, take my word for it,” said the rover, watching the course of his little vessel along the head of the peninsula. “You have not even a dog to miss you.”

“I have only you, Maître Peyrol.”

“That's what I was thinking,” said Peyrol half to himself, while Michel, who had good sea-legs, kept his balance to the movements of the craft without taking his eyes from the rover's face.

“No,” Peyrol exclaimed suddenly, after a moment of meditation, “I could not leave you behind.” He extended his open palm towards Michel.

“Put your hand in there,” he said.

Michel hesitated for a moment before this extraordinary proposal. At last he did so, and Peyrol, holding the bereaved fisherman's hand in a powerful grip, said:

“If I had gone away by myself, I would have left you marooned on this earth like a man thrown out to die on a desert island.” Some dim perception of the solemnity of the occasion seemed to enter Michel's primitive brain. He connected Peyrol's words with the sense of his own insignificant position at the tail of all mankind; and, timidly, he murmured with his clear, innocent glance unclouded, the fundamental axiom of his philosophy:

“Somebody must be last in this world.”

“Well, then, you will have to forgive me all that may happen between this and the hour of sunset.”

The tartane, obeying the helm, fell off before the wind, with her head to the eastward.

Peyrol murmured: “She has not forgotten how to walk the seas.” His unsubdued heart, heavy for so many days, had a moment of buoyancy — the illusion of immense freedom.

At that moment Réal, amazed at finding no tartane in the basin, was running madly towards the cove, where he was sure Peyrol must be waiting to give her up to him. He ran out on to the very rock on which Peyrol's late prisoner had sat after his escape, too tired to care, yet cheered by the hope of liberty. But Réal was in a worse plight. He could see no shadowy form through the thin veil of rain which pitted the sheltered piece of water framed in the rocks. The little craft had been spirited away. Impossible! There must be something wrong with his eyes! Again the barren hillsides echoed the name of “Peyrol,” shouted with all the force of Réal's lungs. He shouted it only once, and about five minutes afterwards appeared at the kitchen-door, panting, streaming with water as if he had fought his way up from the bottom of the sea. In the tall-backed armchair Arlette lay, with her limbs relaxed, her head on Catherine's arm, her face white as death. He saw her open her black eyes, enormous and as if not of this world; he saw old Catherine turn her head, heard a cry of surprise, and saw a sort of struggle beginning between the two women. He screamed at them like a madman: “Peyrol has betrayed me!” and in an instant, with a bang of the door, he was gone.

The rain had ceased. Above his head the unbroken mass of clouds moved to the eastward, and he moved in the same direction as if he too were driven by the wind up the hillside, towards the lookout. When he reached the spot and, gasping, flung one arm round the trunk of the leaning tree, the only thing he was aware of during the sombre pause in the unrest of the elements was the distracting turmoil of his thoughts. After a moment he perceived through the rain the English ship with her topsails lowered on the caps, forging ahead slowly across the northern entrance of the Petite Passe. His distress fastened insanely on the notion of there being a connection between that enemy ship and Peyrol's inexplicable conduct. That old man had always meant to go himself! And when a moment after, looking to the southward, he made out the shadow of the tartane coming round the land in the midst of another squall, he muttered to himself a bitter: “Of course!” She had both her sails set. Peyrol was indeed pressing her to the utmost in his shameful haste to traffic with the enemy. The truth was that from the position in which Réal first saw him, Peyrol could not yet see the English ship, and held confidently on his course up the middle of the strait. The man-of-war and the little tartane saw each other quite unexpectedly at a distance that was very little over a mile. Peyrol's heart flew into his mouth at finding himself so close to the enemy. On board the Amelia at first no notice was taken. It was simply a tartane making for shelter on the north side of Porquerolles. But when Peyrol suddenly altered his course, the master of the man-of-war, noticing the manoeuvre, took up the long glass for a look. Captain Vincent was on deck and agreed with the master's remark that “there was a craft acting suspiciously.” Before the Amelia could come round in the heavy squall, Peyrol was already under the battery of Porquerolles and, so far, safe from capture. Captain Vincent had no mind to bring his ship within reach of the battery and risk damage in his rigging or hull for the sake of a small coaster. However, the tale brought on board by Symons of his discovery of a hidden craft, of his capture, and his wonderful escape, had made every tartane an object of interest to the whole ship's company. The Amelia remained hove to in the strait while her officers watched the lateen sails gliding to and fro under the protecting muzzles of the guns. Captain Vincent himself had been impressed by Peyrol's manoeuvre. Coasting craft as a rule were not afraid of the Amelia. After taking a few turns on the quarter-deck he ordered Symons to be called aft.

The hero of a unique and mysterious adventure, which had been the only subject of talk on board the corvette for the last twenty-four hours, came along rolling, hat in hand, and enjoying a secret sense of his importance.

“Take the glass,” said the captain, “and have a look at that vessel under the land. Is she anything like the tartane that you say you have been aboard of?”

Symons was very positive. “I think I can swear to those painted mastheads, your honour. It is the last thing I remember before that murderous ruffian knocked me senseless. The moon shone on them. I can make them out now with the glass.” As to the fellow boasting to him that the tartane was a dispatch-boat and had already made some trips, well, Symons begged his honour to believe that the beggar was not sober at the time. He did not care what he blurted out. The best proof of his condition was that he went away to fetch the soldiers and forgot to come back. The murderous old ruffian! “You see, your honour,'continued Symons, “he thought I was not likely to escape after getting a blow that would have killed nine out of any ten men. So he went away to boast of what he had done before the people ashore; because one of his chums, worse than himself, came down thinking he would kill me with a dam big manure fork, saving your honour's presence. A regular savage he was.”

Symons paused, staring, as if astonished at the marvels of his own tale. The old master, standing at his captain's elbow, observed in a dispassionate tone that, anyway, that peninsula was not a bad jumping-off place for a craft intending to slip through the blockade. Symons, not being dismissed, waited hat in hand while Captain Vincent directed the master to fill on the ship and stand a little nearer to the battery. It was done, and presently there was a flash of a gun low down on the water's edge and a shot came skipping in the direction of the Amelia. It fell very short, but Captain Vincent judged the ship was close enough and ordered her to be hove to again. Then Symons was told to take a look through the glass once more. After a long interval he lowered it and spoke impressively to his captain:

“I can make out three heads aboard, your honour, and one is white. I would swear to that white head anywhere.”

Captain Vincent made no answer. All this seemed very odd to him; but after all it was possible. The craft had certainly acted suspiciously. He spoke to the first lieutenant in a half-vexed tone.

“He has done a rather smart thing. He will dodge here till dark and then get away. lt is perfectly absurd. I don't want to send the boats too close to the battery. And if I do he may simply sail away from them and be round the land long before we are ready to give him chase. Darkness will be his best friend. However, we will keep a watch on him in case he is tempted to give us the slip late in the afternoon. In that case we will have a good try to catch him. If he has anything aboard I should like to get hold of it. It may be of some importance, after all.”

On board the tartane Peyrol put his own interpretation on the ship's movements. His object had been attained. The corvette had marked him for her prey. Satisfied as to that, Peyrol watched his opportunity and taking advantage of a long squall, with rain thick enough to blur the form of the English ship, he left the shelter of the battery to lead the Englishman a dance and keep up his character of a man anxious to avoid capture.

Réal, from his position on the lookout, saw in the thinning downpour the pointed lateen sails glide round the north end of Porquerolles and vanish behind the land. Some time afterwards the Amelia made sail in a manner that put it beyond doubt that she meant to chase. Her lofty canvas was shut off too presently by the land of Porquerolles. When she had disappeared Réal turned to Arlette.

“Let us go,” he said.

Arlette, stimulated by the short glimpse of Réal at the kitchen door, whom she had taken for a vision of a lost man calling her to follow him to the end of the world, had torn herself out of the old woman's thin, bony arms which could not cope with the struggles of her body and the fierceness of her spirit. She had run straight to the lookout, though there was nothing to guide her there except a blind impulse to seek Réal wherever he might be. He was not aware of her having found him until she seized hold of his arm with a suddenness, energy and determination of which no one with a clouded mind could have been capable. He felt himself being taken possession of in a way that tore all his scruples out of his breast. Holding on to the trunk of the tree, he threw his other arm round her waist, and when she confessed to him that she did not know why she had run up there, but that if she had not found him she would have thrown herself over the cliff, he tightened his clasp with sudden exultation, as though she had been a gift prayed for instead of a stumbling block for his pedantic conscience. Together they walked back. In the failing light the buildings awaited them, lifeless, the walls darkened by rain and the big slopes of the roofs glistening and sinister under the flying desolation of the clouds. In the kitchen Catherine heard their mingled footsteps, and rigid in the tall armchair awaited their coming. Arlette threw her arms round the old woman's neck while Réal stood on one side, looking on. Thought after thought flew through his mind and vanished in the strong feeling of the irrevocable nature of the event handing him to the woman whom, in the revulsion of his feelings, he was inclined to think more sane than himself Arlette, with one arm over the old woman's shoulders, kissed the wrinkled forehead under the white band of linen that, on the erect head, had the effect of a rustic diadem.

“To-morrow you and I will have to walk down to the church.”

The austere dignity of Catherine's pose seemed to be shaken by this proposal to lead before the God, with whom she had made her peace long ago, that unhappy girl chosen to share in the guilt of impious and unspeakable horrors which had darkened her mind.

Arlette, still stooping over her aunt's face, extended a hand towards Réal, who, making a step forward, took it silently into his grasp.

“Oh, yes, you will, Aunt,” insisted Arlette. “You will have to come with me to pray for Peyrol, whom you and I shall never see any more.”

Catherine's head dropped, whether in assent or grief; and Réal felt an unexpected and profound emotion, for he, too, was convinced that none of the three persons in the farm would ever see Peyrol again. It was as though the rover of the wide seas had left them to themselves on a sudden impulse of scorn, of magnanimity, of a passion weary of itself. However come by, Réal was ready to clasp for ever to his breast that woman touched by the red hand of the Revolution; for she, whose little feet had run ankle-deep through the terrors of death, had brought to him the sense of triumphant life.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/conrad/joseph/c75ro/chapter15.html

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