The Rover, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 4

In a tiny bit of a looking-glass hung on the frame of the east window, Peyrol, handling the unwearable English blade, was shaving himself — for the day was Sunday. The years of political changes ending with the proclamation of Napoleon as Consul for life had not touched Peyrol except as to his strong thick head of hair, which was nearly all white now. After putting the razor away carefully, Peyrol introduced his stockinged feet into a pair of sabots of the very best quality and clattered downstairs. His brown cloth breeches were untied at the knee and the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to his shoulders. That sea-rover turned rustic was now perfectly at home in that farm which, like a lighthouse, commanded the view of two roadsteads and of the open sea. He passed through the kitchen. It was exactly as he had seen it first, sunlight on the floor, red copper utensils shining on the walls, the table in the middle scrubbed snowy white; and it was only the old woman, Aunt Catherine, who seemed to have acquired a sharper profile. The very hen manoeuvring her neck pretentiously on the doorstep, might have been standing there for the last eight years. Peyrol shooed her away, and going into the yard washed himself lavishly at the pump. When he returned from the yard he looked so fresh and hale that old Catherine complimented him in a thin voice on his “bonne mine.” Manners were changing, and she addressed him no longer as citoyen but as Monsieur Peyrol. He answered readily that if her heart was free he was ready to lead her to the altar that very day. This was such an old joke that Catherine took no notice of it whatever, but followed him with her eyes as he crossed the kitchen into the salle, which was cool, with its tables and benches washed clean, and no living soul in it. Peyrol passed through to the front of the house, leaving the outer door open. At the clatter of his clogs a young man sitting outside on a bench turned his head and greeted him by a careless nod. His face was rather long, sunburnt and smooth, with a slightly curved nose and a very well-shaped chin. He wore a dark blue naval jacket open on a white shirt and a black neckerchief tied in a slip-knot with long ends. White breeches and stockings and black shoes with steel buckles completed his costume. A brass-hilted sword in a black scabbard worn on a cross-belt was lying on the ground at his feet. Peyrol, silver-headed and ruddy, sat down on the bench at some little distance. The level piece of rocky ground in front of the house was not very extensive, falling away to the sea in a declivity framed between the rises of two barren hills. The old rover and the young seaman with their arms folded across their chests gazed into space, exchanging no words, like close intimates or like distant strangers. Neither did they stir when the master of the Escampobar Farm appeared out of the yard gate with a manure fork on his shoulder and started to cross the piece of level ground. His grimy hands, his rolled-up shirt sleeves, the fork over the shoulder, the whole of his working-day aspect had somehow an air of being a manifestation; but the patriot dragged his dirty clogs low-spiritedly in the fresh light of the young morning, in a way no real worker on the land would ever do at the end of a day of toil. Yet there were no signs of debility about his person. His oval face with rounded cheek-bones remained unwrinkled except at the corners of his almond-shaped, shiny, visionary's eyes, which had not changed since the day when old Peyrol's gaze had met them for the first time. A few white hairs on his tousled head and in the thin beard alone had marked the passage of years, and you would have had to look for them closely. Amongst the unchangeable rocks at the extreme end of the Peninsula, time seemed to have stood still and idle while the group of people poised at that southernmost point of France had gone about their ceaseless toil, winning bread and wine from a stony-hearted earth.

The master of the farm, staring straight before him, passed before the two men towards the door of the salle, which Peyrol had left open. He leaned his fork against the wall before going in. The sound of a distant bell, the bell of the village where years ago the returned rover had watered his mule and had listened to the talk of the man with the dog, came up faint and abrupt in the great stillness of the upper space. The violent slamming of the salle door broke the silence between the two gazers on the sea.

“Does that fellow never rest?” asked the young man in a low indifferent voice which covered the delicate tinkling of the bell, and without moving his head.

“Not on Sunday anyhow,” answered the rover in the same detached manner. “What can you expect? The church bell is like poison to him. That fellow, I verily believe, has been born a sans-culotte. Every `décadi' he puts on his best clothes, sticks a red cap on his head and wanders between the buildings like a lost soul in the light of day. A Jacobin, if ever there was one.”

“Yes. There is hardly a hamlet in France where there isn't a sans-culotte or two. But some of them have managed to change their skins if nothing else.”

“This one won't change his skin, and as to his inside he never had anything in him that could be moved. Aren't there some people that remember him in Toulon? It isn't such a long time ago. And yet. . .” Peyrol turned slightly towards the young man . . . “And yet to look at him. . .”

The officer nodded, and for a moment his face wore a troubled expression which did not escape the notice of Peyrol who went on speaking easily:

“Some time ago, when the priests began to come back to the parishes, he, that fellow” — Peyrol jerked his head in the direction of the salle door — “would you believe it? — started for the village with a sabre hanging to his side and his red cap on his head. He made for the church door. What he wanted to do there I don't know. It surely could not have been to say the proper kind of prayers. Well, the people were very much elated about their reopened church, and as he went along some woman spied him out of a window and started the alarm. `Eh, there! look! The jacobin, the sans-culotte, the blood-drinker! Look at him.' Out rushed some of them, and a man or two that were working in their home patches vaulted over the low walls. Pretty soon there was a crowd, mostly women, each with the first thing she could snatch up — stick, kitchen knife, anything. A few men with spades and cudgels joined them by the water-trough. He didn't quite like that. What could he do? He turned and bolted up the hill, like a hare. It takes some pluck to face a mob of angry women. He ran along the cart track without looking behind him, and they after him, yelling: `A mort! A mort le buveur de sang!' He had been a horror and an abomination to the people for years, what with one story and another, and now they thought it was their chance. The priest over in the presbytery hears the noise, comes to the door. One look was enough for him. He is a fellow of about forty but a wiry, long-legged beggar, and agile — what? He just tucked up his skirts and dashed out, taking short cuts over the walls and leaping from boulder to boulder like a blessed goat. I was up in my room when the noise reached me there. I went to the window and saw the chase in full cry after him. I was beginning to think the fool would fetch all those furies along with him up here and that they would carry the house by boarding and do for the lot of us, when the priest cut in just in the nick of time. He could have tripped Scevola as easy as anything, but he lets him pass and stands in front of his parishioners with his arms extended. That did it. He saved the patron all right. What he could say to quieten them I don't know, but these were early days and they were very fond of their new priest. He could have turned them round his little finger. I had my head and shoulders out of the window — it was interesting enough. They would have massacred all the accursed lot, as they used to call us down there — and when I drew in, behold there was the patronne standing behind me looking on too. You have been here often enough to know how she roams about the grounds and about the house, without a sound. A leaf doesn't pose itself lighter on the ground than her feet do. Well, I suppose she didn't know that I was upstairs, and came into the room just in her way of always looking for something that isn't there, and noticing me with my head stuck out, naturally came up to see what I was looking at. Her face wasn't any paler than usual, but she was clawing the dress over her chest with her ten fingers — like this. I was confounded. Before I could find my tongue she just turned round and went out with no more sound than a shadow.”

When Peyrol ceased, the ringing of the church bell went on faintly and then stopped as abruptly as it had begun.

“Talking about her shadow,” said the young officer indolently, “I know her shadow.”

Old Peyrol made a really pronounced movement. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Where?”

“I have got only one window in the room where they put me to sleep last night and I stood at it looking out. That's what I am here for — to look out, am I not? I woke up suddenly, and being awake I went to the window and looked out.”

“One doesn't see shadows in the air,” growled old Peyrol.

“No, but you see them on the ground, pretty black too when the moon is full. It fell across this open space here from the corner of the house.”

“The patronne,” exclaimed Peyrol in a low voice, “impossible!”

“Does the old woman that lives in the kitchen roam, do the village women roam as far as this?” asked the officer composedly. “You ought to know the habits of the people. It was a woman's shadow. The moon being to the west, it glided slanting from that corner of the house and glided back again. I know her shadow when I see it.”

“Did you hear anything?” asked Peyrol after a moment of visible hesitation.

“The window being open I heard somebody snoring. It couldn't have been you, you are too high. Moreover, from the snoring,” he added grimly, “it must have been somebody with a good conscience. Not like you, old skimmer of the seas, because, you know, that's what you are, for all your gunner's warrant.” He glanced out of the corner of his eyes at old Peyrol. “What makes you look so worried?”

“She roams, that cannot be denied,” murmured Peyrol, with an uneasiness which he did not attempt to conceal.

“Evidently. I know a shadow when I see it, and when I saw it, it did not frighten me, not a quarter as much as the mere tale of it seems to have frightened you. However, that sans-culotte friend of yours must be a hard sleeper. Those purveyors of the guillotine all have a first-class fireproof Republican conscience. I have seen them at work up north when I was a boy running barefoot in the gutters . . . .”

“The fellow always sleeps in that room,” said Peyrol earnestly.

“But that's neither here nor there,” went on the officer, “except that it may be convenient for roaming shadows to hear his conscience taking its ease.”

Peyrol, excited, lowered his voice forcibly. “Lieutenant,” he said, “if I had not seen from the first what was in your heart I would have contrived to get rid of you a long time ago in some way or other.”

The lieutenant glanced sideways again and Peyrol let his raised fist fall heavily on his thigh. “I am old Peyrol and this place, as lonely as a ship at sea, is like a ship to me and all in it are like shipmates. Never mind the patron. What I want to know is whether you heard anything? Any sound at all? Murmur, footstep?” A bitterly mocking smile touched the lips of the young man.

“Not a fairy footstep. Could you hear the fall of a leaf — and with that terrorist cur trumpeting right above my head? . . .” Without unfolding his arms he turned towards Peyrol, who was looking at him anxiously. . . . “You want to know, do you? Well, I will tell you what I heard and you can make the best of it. I heard the sound of a stumble. It wasn't a fairy either that stubbed its toe. It was something in a heavy shoe. Then a stone went rolling down the ravine in front of us interminably, then a silence as of death. I didn't see anything moving. The way the moon was then, the ravine was in black shadow. And I didn't try to see.”

Peyrol, with his elbow on his knee, leaned his head in the palm of his hand. The officer repeated through his clenched teeth: “Make the best of it.”

Peyrol shook his head slightly. After having spoken, the young officer leaned back against the wall, but next moment the report of a piece of ordnance reached them as it were from below, travelling around the rising ground to the left in the form of a dull thud followed by a sighing sound that seemed to seek an issue amongst the stony ridges and rocks near by.

“That's the English corvette which has been dodging in and out of Hyères Roads for the last week,” said the young officer, picking up his sword hastily. He stood up and buckled the belt on, while Peyrol rose more deliberately from the bench, and said:

“She can't be where we saw her at anchor last night. That gun was near. She must have crossed over. There has been enough wind for that at various times during the night. But what could she be firing at down there in the Petite Passe? We had better go and see.”

He strode off, followed by Peyrol. There was not a human being in sight about the farm and not a sound of life except for the lowing of a cow coming faintly from behind a wall. Peyrol kept close behind the quickly moving officer who followed the footpath marked faintly on the stony slope of the hill.

“That gun was not shotted,” he observed suddenly in a deep steady voice.

The officer glanced over his shoulder.

“You may be right. You haven't been a gunner for nothing. Not shotted, eh? Then a signal gun. But who to? We have been observing that corvette now for days and we know she has no companion.”

He moved on, Peyrol following him on the awkward path without losing his wind and arguing in a steady voice: “She has no companion but she may have seen a friend at daylight this morning.”

“Bah!” retorted the officer without checking his pace. “You talk now like a child or else you take me for one. How far could she have seen? What view could she have had at daylight if she was making her way to the Petite Passe where she is now? Why, the islands would have masked for her two-thirds of the sea and just in the direction too where the English inshore squadron is hovering below the horizon. Funny blockade that! You can't see a single English sail for days and days together, and then when you least expect them they come down all in a crowd as if ready to eat us alive. No, no! There was no wind to bring her up a companion. But tell me, gunner, you who boast of knowing the bark of every English piece, what sort of gun was it?”

Peyrol growled in answer:

“Why, a twelve. The heaviest she carries. She is only a corvette.”

“Well, then, it was fired as a recall for one of her boats somewhere out of sight along the shore. With a coast like this, all points and bights, there would be nothing very extraordinary in that, would there?”

“No,” said Peyrol, stepping out steadily. “What is extraordinary is that she should have had a boat away at all.”

“You are right there.” The officer stopped suddenly. “Yes, it is really remarkable, that she should have sent a boat away. And there is no other way to explain that gun.”

Peyrol's face expressed no emotion of any sort.

“There is something there worth investigating,” continued the officer with animation.

“If it is a matter of a boat,” Peyrol said without the slightest excitement, “there can be nothing very deep in it. What could there be? As likely as not they sent her inshore early in the morning with lines to try to catch some fish for the captain's breakfast. Why do you open your eyes like this? Don't you know the English? They have enough cheek for anything.”

After uttering those words with a deliberation made venerable by his white hair, Peyrol made the gesture of wiping his brow, which was barely moist.

“Let us push on,” said the lieutenant abruptly.

“Why hurry like this?” argued Peyrol without moving. “Those heavy clogs of mine are not adapted for scrambling on loose stones.”

“Aren't they?” burst out the officer. “Well, then, if you are tired you can sit down and fan yourself with your hat. Good-bye.” And he strode away before Peyrol could utter a word.

The path following the contour of the hill took a turn towards its sea-face and very soon the lieutenant passed out of sight with startling suddenness. Then his head reappeared for a moment, only his head, and that too vanished suddenly. Peyrol remained perplexed. After gazing in the direction in which the officer had disappeared, he looked down at the farm buildings, now below him but not at a very great distance. He could see distinctly the pigeons walking on the roof ridges. Somebody was drawing water from the well in the middle of the yard. The patron, no doubt; but that man, who at one time had the power to send so many luckless persons to their death, did not count for old Peyrol. He had even ceased to be an offence to his sight and a disturber of his feelings. By himself he was nothing. He had never been anything but a creature of the universal blood-lust of the time. The very doubts about him had died out by now in old Peyrol's breast. The fellow was so insignificant that had Peyrol in a moment of particular attention discovered that he cast no shadow, he would not have been surprised. Below there he was reduced to the shape of a dwarf lugging a bucket away from the well. But where was she? Peyrol asked himself, shading his eyes with his hand. He knew that the patronne could not be very far away, because he had a sight of her during the morning; but that was before he had learned she had taken to roaming at night. His growing uneasiness came suddenly to an end when, turning his eyes away from the farm buildings, where obviously she was not, he saw her appear, with nothing but the sky full of light at her back, coming down round the very turn of the path which had taken the lieutenant out of sight.

Peyrol moved briskly towards her. He wasn't a man to lose time in idle wonder, and his sabots did not seem to weigh heavy on his feet. The fermière, whom the villagers down there spoke of as Arlette as though she had been a little girl, but in a strange tone of shocked awe, walked with her head drooping and her feet (as Peyrol used to say) touching the ground as lightly as falling leaves. The clatter of the clogs made her raise her black, clear eyes that had been smitten on the very verge of womanhood by such sights of bloodshed and terror, as to leave in her a fear of looking steadily in any direction for long, lest she should see coming through the empty air some mutilated vision of the dead. Peyrol called it trying not to see something that was not there; and this evasive yet frank mobility was so much a part of her being that the steadiness with which she met his inquisitive glance surprised old Peyrol for a moment. He asked without beating about the bush:

“Did he speak to you?”

She answered with something airy and provoking in her voice, which also struck Peyrol as a novelty: “He never stopped. He passed by as though he had not seen me” — and then they both looked away from each other.

“Now, what is it you took into your head to watch for at night?”

She did not expect that question. She hung her head and took a pleat of her skirt between her fingers, embarrassed like a child.

“Why should I not,” she murmured in a low shy note, as if she had two voices within her.

“What did Catherine say?”

“She was asleep, or perhaps, only lying on her back with her eyes shut.”

“Does she do that?” asked Peyrol with incredulity.

“Yes.” Arlette gave Peyrol a queer, meaningless smile with which her eyes had nothing to do. “Yes, she often does. I have noticed that before. She lies there trembling under her blankets till I come back.”

“What drove you out last night?” Peyrol tried to catch her eyes, but they eluded him in the usual way. And now her face looked as though it couldn't smile.

“My heart,” she said. For a moment Peyrol lost his tongue and even all power of motion. The fermière having lowered her eyelids, all her life seemed to have gone into her coral lips, vivid and without a quiver in the perfection of their design, and Peyrol, giving up the conversation with an upward fling of his arm, hurried up the path without looking behind him. But once round the turn of the path, he approached the lookout at an easier gait. It was a piece of smooth ground below the summit of the hill. It had quite a pronounced slope, so that a short and robust pine growing true out of the soil yet leaned well over the edge of the sheer drop of some fifty feet or so. The first thing that Peyrol's eyes took in was the water of the Petite Passe with the enormous shadow of the Porquerolles Island darkening more than half of its width at this still early hour. He could not see the whole of it, but on the part his glance embraced there was no ship of any kind. The lieutenant, leaning with his chest along the inclined pine, addressed him irritably.

“Squat! Do you think there are no glasses on board the Englishman?”

Peyrol obeyed without a word and for the space of a minute or so presented the bizarre sight of a rather bulky peasant with venerable white locks crawling on his hands and knees on a hillside for no visible reason. When he got to the foot of the pine he raised himself on his knees. The lieutenant, flattened against the inclined trunk and with a pocket-glass glued to his eye, growled angrily:

“You can see her now, can't you?”

Peyrol in his kneeling position could see the ship now. She was less than a quarter of a mile from him up the coast, almost within hailing effort of his powerful voice. His unaided eyes could follow the movements of the men on board like dark dots about her decks. She had drifted so far within Cape Esterel that the low projecting mass of it seemed to be in actual contact with her stern. Her unexpected nearness made Peyrol draw a sharp breath through his teeth. The lieutenant murmured, still keeping the glass to his eye:

“I can see the very epaulettes of the officers on the quarter-deck.”

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