The Rover, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 3

The affectation common to seamen of never being surprised at anything that sea or land can produce had become in Peyrol a second nature. Having learned from childhood to suppress every sign of wonder before all extraordinary sights and events, all strange people, all strange customs, and the most alarming phenomena of nature (as manifested, for instance, in the violence of volcanoes or the fury of human beings), he had really become indifferent — or only perhaps utterly inexpressive. He had seen so much that was bizarre or atrocious, and had heard so many astounding tales, that his usual mental reaction before a new experience was generally formulated in the words, “J'en ai vu bien d'autres.” The last thing which had touched him with the panic of the supernatural had been the death under a heap of rags of that gaunt, fierce woman, his mother; and the last thing that had nearly overwhelmed him at the age of twelve with another kind of terror was the riot of sound and the multitude of mankind on the quays in Marseilles, something perfectly inconceivable from which he had instantly taken refuge behind a stack of wheat sacks after having been chased ashore from the tartane. He had remained there quaking till a man in a cocked hat and with a sabre at his side (the boy had never seen either such a hat or such a sabre in his life) had seized him by the arm close to the armpit and had hauled him out from there; a man who might have been an ogre (only Peyrol had never heard of an ogre) but at any rate in his own way was alarming and wonderful beyond anything he could have imagined — if the faculty of imagination had been developed in him then. No doubt all this was enough to make one die of fright, but that possibility never occurred to him. Neither did he go mad; but being only a child, he had simply adapted himself, by means of passive acquiescence, to the new and inexplicable conditions of life in something like twenty-four hours. After that initiation the rest of his existence, from flying fishes to whales and on to black men and coral reefs, to decks running with blood, and thirst in open boats, was comparatively plain sailing. By the time he had heard of a Revolution in France and of certain Immortal Principles causing the death of many people, from the mouths of seamen and travellers and year-old gazettes coming out of Europe, he was ready to appreciate contemporary history in his own particular way. Mutiny and throwing officers overboard. He had seen that twice and he was on a different side each time. As to this upset, he took no side. It was too far — too big — also not distinct enough. But he acquired the revolutionary jargon quickly enough and used it on occasion, with secret contempt. What he had gone through, from a spell of crazy love for a yellow girl to the experience of treachery from a bosom friend and shipmate (and both those things Peyrol confessed to himself he could never hope to understand), with all the graduations of varied experience of men and passions between, had put a drop of universal scorn, a wonderful sedative, into the strange mixture which might have been called the soul of the returned Peyrol.

Therefore he not only showed no surprise but did not feel any when he beheld the master, in the right of his wife, of the Escampobar Farm. The homeless Peyrol, sitting in the bare salle with a bottle of wine before him, was in the act of raising the glass to his lips when the man entered, ex-orator in the sections, leader of red-capped mobs, hunter of the ci-devants and priests, purveyor of the guillotine, in short a blood-drinker. And Citizen Peyrol, who had never been nearer than six thousand miles as the crow flies to the realities of the Revolution, put down his glass and in his deep unemotional voice said: “Salut.”

The other returned a much fainter “Salut,” staring at the stranger of whom he had heard already. His almond-shaped, soft eyes were noticeably shiny and so was to a certain extent the skin on his high but rounded cheekbones, coloured red like a mask of which all the rest was but a mass of clipped chestnut hair growing so thick and close around the lips as to hide altogether the design of the mouth which, for all Citizen Peyrol knew, might have been of a quite ferocious character. A careworn forehead and a perpendicular nose suggested a certain austerity proper to an ardent patriot. He held in his hand a long bright knife which he laid down on one of the tables at once. He didn't seem more than thirty years old, a well-made man of medium height, with a lack of resolution in his bearing. Something like disillusion was suggested by the set of his shoulders. The effect was subtle, but Peyrol became aware of it while he explained his case and finished the tale by declaring that he was a seaman of the Republic and that he had always done his duty before the enemy.

The blood-drinker had listened profoundly. The high arches of his eyebrows gave him an astonished look. He came close up to the table and spoke in a trembling voice.

“You may have! But you may all the same be corrupt. The seamen of the Republic were eaten up with corruption paid for with the gold of the tyrants. Who would have guessed it? They all talked like patriots. And yet the English entered the harbour and landed in the town without opposition. The armies of the Republic drove them out, but treachery stalks in the land, it comes up out of the ground, it sits at our hearthstones, lurks in the bosom of the representatives of the people, of our fathers, of our brothers. There was a time when civic virtue flourished, but now it has got to hide its head. And I will tell you why: there has not been enough killing. It seems as if there could never be enough of it. It's discouraging. Look what we have come to.”

His voice died in his throat as though he had suddenly lost confidence in himself.

“Bring another glass, citoyen,” said Peyrol, after a short pause, “and let's drink together. We will drink to the confusion of traitors. I detest treachery as much as any man, but. . .”

He waited till the other had returned, then poured out the wine, and after they had touched glasses and half emptied them, he put down his own and continued:

“But you see I have nothing to do with your politics. I was at the other side of the world, therefore you can't suspect me of being a traitor. You showed no mercy, you other sans-culottes, to the enemies of the Republic at home, and I killed her enemies abroad, far away. You were cutting off heads without much compunction . . . .”

The other most unexpectedly shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them very wide. “Yes, yes,” he assented very low. “Pity may be a crime.”

“Yes. And I knocked the enemies of the Republic on the head whenever I had them before me without inquiring about the number. It seems to me that you and I ought to get on together.”

The master of Escampobar farmhouse murmured, however, that in times like these nothing could be taken as proof positive. It behoved every patriot to nurse suspicion in his breast. No sign of impatience escaped Peyrol. He was rewarded for his self-restraint and the unshaken good-humour with which he had conducted the discussion by, carrying his point. Citizen Scevola Bron (for that appeared to be the name of the master of the farm), an object of fear and dislike to the other inhabitants of the Giens peninsula, might have been influenced by a wish to have some one with whom he could exchange a few words from time to time. No villagers ever came up to the farm, or were likely to, unless perhaps in a body and animated with hostile intentions. They resented his presence in their part of the world sullenly.

“Where do you come from?” was the last question he asked.

“I left Toulon two days ago.”

Citizen Scevola struck the table with his fist, but this manifestation of energy was very momentary.

“And that was the town of which by a decree not a stone upon another was to be left,” he complained, much depressed.

“Most of it is still standing,” Peyrol assured him calmly. “I don't know whether it deserved the fate you say was decreed for it. I was there for the last month or so and I know it contains some good patriots. I know because I made friends with them all.” Thereupon Peyrol mentioned a few names which the retired sans-culotte greeted with a bitter smile and an ominous silence, as though the bearers of them had been only good for the scaffold and the guillotine.

“Come along and I will show you the place where you will sleep,” he said with a sigh, and Peyrol was only too ready. They entered the kitchen together. Through the open back door a large square of sunshine fell on the floor of stone flags. Outside one could see quite a mob of expectant chickens, while a yellow hen postured on the very doorstep, darting her head right and left with affectation. All old woman holding a bowl full of broken food put it down suddenly on a table and stared. The vastness and cleanliness of the place impressed Peyrol favourably.

“You will eat with us here,” said his guide, and passed without stopping into a narrow passage giving access to a steep flight of stairs. Above the first landing a narrow spiral staircase led to the upper part of the farmhouse; and when the sans-culotte flung open the solid plank door at which it ended he disclosed to Peyrol a large low room containing a four-poster bedstead piled up high with folded blankets and spare pillows. There were also two wooden chairs and a large oval table.

“We could arrange this place for you,” said the master, “but I don't know what the mistress will have to say,” he added.

Peyrol, struck by the peculiar expression of his face, turned his head and saw the girl standing in the doorway. It was as though she had floated up after them, for not the slightest sound of rustle or footfall had warned Peyrol of her presence. The pure complexion of her white cheeks was set off brilliantly by her coral lips and the bands of raven-black hair only partly covered by a muslin cap trimmed with lace. She made no sign, uttered no sound, behaved exactly as if there had been nobody in the room; and Peyrol suddenly averted his eyes from that mute and unconscious face with its roaming eyes.

In some way or other, however, the sans-culotte seemed to have ascertained her mind, for he said in a final tone:

“That's all right then,” and there was a short silence, during which the woman shot her dark glances all round the room again and again, while on her lips there was a half-smile, not so much absent-minded as totally unmotived, which Peyrol observed with a side glance, but could not make anything of. She did not seem to know him at all.

“You have a view of salt water on three sides of you,” remarked Peyrol's future host.

The farmhouse was a tall building, and this large attic with its three windows commanded on one side the view of Hyères roadstead on the first plan, with further blue undulations of the coast as far as Fréjus; and on the other the vast semicircle of barren high hills, broken by the entrance to Toulon harbour guarded by forts and batteries, and ending in Cape Cépet, a squat mountain, with sombre folds and a base of brown rocks, with a white spot gleaming on the very summit of it, a ci-devant shrine dedicated to Our Lady, and a ci-devant place of pilgrimage. The noonday glare seemed absorbed by the gemlike surface of the sea perfectly flawless in the invincible depth of its colour.

“It's like being in a lighthouse,” said Peyrol. “Not a bad place for a seaman to live in.” The sight of the sails dotted about cheered his heart. The people of landsmen with their houses and animals and activities did not count. What made for him the life of any strange shore were the craft that belonged to it: canoes, catamarans, ballahous, praus, lorchas, mere dug-outs, or even rafts of tied logs with a bit of mat for a sail from which naked brown men fished along stretches of white sand crushed under the tropical skyline, sinister in its glare and with a thunder-cloud crouching on the horizon. But here he beheld a perfect serenity, nothing sombre on the shore, nothing ominous in the sunshine. The sky rested lightly on the distant and vaporous outline of the hills; and the immobility of all things seemed poised in the air like a gay mirage. On this tideless sea several tartanes lay becalmed in the Petite Passe between Porquerolles and Cape Esterel, yet theirs was not the stillness of death but of light slumber, the immobility of a smiling enchantment, of a Mediterranean fair day, breathless sometimes but never without life. Whatever enchantment Peyrol had known in his wanderings it had never been so remote from all thoughts of strife and death, so full of smiling security, making all his past appear to him like a chain of lurid days and sultry nights. He thought he would never want to get away from it, as though he had obscurely felt that his old rover's soul had been always rooted there. Yes, this was the place for him; not because expediency dictated, but simply because his instinct of rest had found its home at last.

He turned away from the window and found himself face to face with the sans-culotte, who had apparently come up to him from behind, perhaps with the intention of tapping him on the shoulder, but who now turned away his head. The young woman had disappeared.

“Tell me, patron,” said Peyrol, “is there anywhere near this house a little dent in the shore with a bit of beach in it perhaps where I could keep a boat?”

“What do you want a boat for?”

“To go fishing when I have a fancy to,” answered Peyrol curtly.

Citizen Bron, suddenly subdued, told him that what he wanted was to be found a couple of hundred yards down the hill from the house. The coast, of course, was full of indentations, but this was a perfect little pool. And the Toulon blood-drinker's almond-shaped eyes became strangely sombre as they gazed at the attentive Peyrol. A perfect little pool, he repeated, opening from a cove that the English knew well. He paused. Peyrol observed without much animosity but in a tone of conviction that it was very difficult to keep off the English whenever there was a bit of salt water anywhere; but what could have brought English seamen to a spot like this he couldn't imagine.

“It was when their fleet first came here,” said the patriot in a gloomy voice, “and hung round the coast before the anti-revolutionary traitors let them into Toulon, sold the sacred soil of their country for a handful of gold. Yes, in the days before the crime was consummated English officers used to land in that cove at night and walk up to this very house.”

“What audacity!” commented Peyrol, who was really surprised. “But that's just like what they are.” Still, it was hard to believe. But wasn't it only a tale?

The patriot flung one arm up in a strained gesture. “I swore to its truth before the tribunal,” he said. “It was a dark story,” he cried shrilly, and paused. “It cost her father his life,” he said in a low voice . . . “her mother too — but the country was in danger,” he added still lower.

Peyrol walked away to the western window and looked towards Toulon. In the middle of the great sheet of water within Cape Cicié a tall two-decker lay becalmed and the little dark dots on the water were her boats trying to tow her head round the right way. Peyrol watched them for a moment, and then walked back to the middle of the room.

“Did you actually drag him from this house to the guillotine?” he asked in his unemotional voice.

The patriot shook his head thoughtfully with downcast eyes. “No, he came over to Toulon just before the evacuation, this friend of the English . . . sailed over in a tartane he owned that is still lying here at the Madrague. He had his wife with him. They came over to take home their daughter who was living then with some skulking old nuns. The victorious Republicans were closing in and the slaves of tyranny had to fly.”

“Came to fetch their daughter,” mused Peyrol. “Strange, that guilty people should. . .”

The patriot looked up fiercely. “It was justice,” he said loudly. “They were anti-revolutionists, and if they had never spoken to an Englishman in their life the atrocious crime was on their heads.”

“H'm, stayed too long for their daughter,” muttered Peyrol. “And so it was you who brought her home.”

“I did,” said the patron. For a moment his eyes evaded Peyrol's investigating glance, but in a moment he looked straight into his face. “No lessons of base superstition could corrupt her soul,” he declared with exaltation. “I brought home a patriot.”

Peyrol, very calm, gave him a hardly perceptible nod. “Well,” he said, “all this won't prevent me sleeping wery well in this room. I always thought I would like to live in a lighthouse when I got tired of roving about the seas. This is as near a lighthouse lantern as can be. You will see me with all my little affairs to-morrow,” he added, moving towards the stairs. “Salut, citoyen.”

There was in Peyrol a fund of self-command amounting to placidity. There were men living in the East who had no doubt whatever that Peyrol was a calmly terrible man. And they would quote illustrative instances which from their own point of view were simply admirable. But all Peyrol had ever done was to behave rationally, as it seemed to him in all sorts of dangerous circumstances without ever being led astray by the nature, or the cruelty, or the danger of any given situation. He adapted himself to the character of the event and to the very spirit of it, with a profound responsive feeling of a particularly unsentimental kind. Sentiment in itself was an artificiality of which he had never heard and if he had seen it in action would have appeared to him too puzzling to make anything of. That sort of genuineness in acceptance made him a satisfactory inmate of the Escampobar Farm. He duly turned up with all his cargo, as he called it, and was met at the door of the farmhouse itself by the young woman with the pale face and wandering eyes. Nothing could hold her attention for long amongst her familiar surroundings. Right and left and far away beyond you, she seemed to be looking for something while you were talking to her, so that you doubted whether she could follow what you said. But as a matter of fact she had all her wits about her. In the midst of this strange search for something that was not there she had enough detachment to smile at Peyrol. Then, withdrawing into the kitchen, she watched, as much as her restless eyes could watch anything, Peyrol's cargo and Peyrol himself passing up the stairs.

The most valuable part of Peyrol's cargo being strapped to his person, the first thing he did after being left alone in that attic room which was like the lantern of a lighthouse was to relieve himself of the burden and lay it on the foot of the bed. Then he sat down and leaning his elbow far on the table he contemplated it with a feeling of complete relief. That plunder had never burdened his conscience. It had merely on occasion oppressed his body; and if it had at all affected his spirits it was not by its secrecy but by its mere weight, which was inconvenient, irritating, and towards the end of a day altogether insupportable. It made a free-limbed, deep-breathing sailor-man feel like a mere overloaded animal, thus extending whatever there was of compassion in Peyrol's nature towards the four-footed beasts that carry men's burdens on the earth. The necessities of a lawless life had taught Peyrol to be ruthless, but he had never been cruel.

Sprawling in the chair, stripped to the waist, robust and grey-haired, his head with a Roman profile propped up on a mighty and tattooed forearm, he remained at ease, with his eyes fixed on his treasure with an air of meditation. Yet Peyrol was not meditating (as a superficial observer might have thought) on the best place of concealment. It was not that he had not had a great experience of that sort of property which had always melted so quickly through his fingers. What made him meditative was its character, not of a share of a hard-won booty in toil, in risk, in danger, in privation, but of a piece of luck personally his own. He knew what plunder was and how soon it went; but this lot had come to stay. He had it with him, away from the haunts of his lifetime, as if in another world altogether. It couldn't be drunk away, gambled away, squandered away in any sort of familiar circumstances, or even given away. In that room, raised a good many feet above his revolutionized native land where he was more of a stranger than anywhere else in the world, in this roomy garret full of light and as it were surrounded by the sea, in a great sense of peace and security, Peyrol didn't see why he should bother his head about it so very much. It came to him that he had never really cared for any plunder that fell into his hands. No, never for any. And to take particular care of this for which no one would seek vengeance or attempt recovery would have been absurd. Peyrol got up and opened his big sandalwood chest secured with an enormous padlock, part, too, of some old plunder gathered in a Chinese town in the Gulf of Tonkin, in company of certain Brothers of the Coast, who having boarded at night a Portuguese schooner and sent her crew adrift in a boat, had taken a cruise on their own account, years and years and years ago. He was young then, very young, and the chest fell to his share because nobody else would have anything to do with the cumbersome thing, and also for the reason that the metal of the curiously wrought thick hoops that strengthened it was not gold but mere brass. He, in his innocence, had been rather pleased with the article. He had carried it about with him into all sorts of places, and also he had left it behind him — once for a whole year in a dark and noisome cavern on a certain part of the Madagascar coast. He had left it with various native chiefs, with Arabs, with a gambling-hell keeper in Pondicherry, with his various friends in short, and even with his enemies. Once he had lost it altogether.

That was on the occasion when he had received a wound which laid him open and gushing like a slashed wine-skin. A sudden quarrel broke out in a company of Brothers over some matter of policy complicated by personal jealousies, as to which he was as innocent as a babe unborn. He never knew who gave him the slash. Another Brother, a chum of his, an English boy, had rushed in and hauled him out of the fray, and then he had remembered nothing for days. Even now when he looked at the scar he could not understand why he had not died. That occurrence, with the wound and the painful convalescence, was the first thing that sobered his character somewhat. Many years afterwards, when in consequence of his altered views of mere lawlessness he was serving as quartermaster on board the Hirondelle, a comparatively respectable privateer, he caught sight of that chest again in Port Louis, of all places in the world, in a dark little den of a shop kept by a lone Hindoo. The hour was late, the side street was empty, and so Peyrol went in there to claim his property, all fair, a dollar in one hand and a pistol in the other, and was entreated abjectly to take it away. He carried off the empty chest on his shoulder, and that same night the privateer went to sea; then only he found time to ascertain that he had made no mistake, because, soon after he had got it first, he had, in grim wantonness, scratched inside the lid, with the point of his knife, the rude outline of a skull and cross-bones into which he had rubbed afterwards a little Chinese vermilion. And there it was, the whole design, as fresh as ever.

In the garret full of light of the Escampobar farmhouse, the grey-haired Peyrol opened the chest, took all the contents out of it, laying them neatly on the floor, and spread his treasure — pockets downwards — over the bottom, which it filled exactly. Busy on his knees he repacked the chest. A jumper or two, a fine cloth jacket, a remnant piece of Madapolam muslin, costly stuff for which he had no use in the world — a quantity of fine white shirts. Nobody would dare to rummage in his chest, he thought, with the assurance of a man who had been feared in his time. Then he rose, and looking round the room and stretching his powerful arms, he ceased to think of the treasure, of the future and even of to-morrow, in the sudden conviction that he could make himself very comfortable there.

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