The Rover, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 6

By that time the Amelia had been towed half a mile or so away from Cape Esterel. This change had brought her nearer to the two watchers on the hillside, who would have been plainly visible to the people on her deck, but for the head of the pine which concealed their movements. Lieutenant Réal, bestriding the rugged trunk as high as he could get, had the whole of the English ship's deck open to the range of his pocket-glass which he used between the branches. He said to Peyrol suddenly:

“Her captain has just come on deck.”

Peyrol, sitting at the foot of the tree, made no answer for a long while. A warm drowsiness lay over the land and seemed to press down his eyelids. But inwardly the old rover was intensely awake. Under the mask of his immobility, with half-shut eyes and idly clasped hands, he heard the lieutenant, perched up there near the head of the tree, mutter counting something: “One, two, three,” and then a loud “Parbleu!” after which the lieutenant in his trunk-bestriding attitude began to jerk himself backwards. Peyrol got up out of his way, but could not restrain himself from asking: “What's the matter now?”

“I will tell you what's the matter,” said the other excitedly. As soon as he got his footing he walked up to old Peyrol and when quite close to him folded his arms across his chest.

“The first thing I did was to count the boats in the water. There was not a single one left on board. And now I just counted them again and found one more there. That ship had a boat out last night. How I missed seeing her pull out from under the land I don't know. I was watching the decks, I suppose, and she seems to have gone straight up to the tow-rope. But I was right. That Englishman had a boat out.”

He seized Peyrol by both shoulders suddenly. “I believe you knew it all the time. You knew it, I tell you.” Peyrol, shaken violently by the shoulders, raised his eyes to look at the angry face within a few inches of his own. In his worn gaze there was no fear or shame, but a troubled perplexity and obvious concern. He remained passive, merely remonstrating softly:

“Doucement. Doucement.'

The lieutenant suddenly desisted with a final jerk which failed to stagger old Peyrol, who, directly he had been released, assumed an explanatory tone.

“For the ground is slippery here. If I had lost my footing I would not have been able to prevent myself from grabbing at you, and we would have gone down that cliff together; which would have told those Englishmen more than twenty boats could have found out in as many nights.”

Secretly Lieutenant Réal was daunted by Peyrol's mildness. It could not be shaken. Even physically he had an impression of the utter futility of his effort, as though he had tried to shake a rock. He threw himself on the ground carelessly saying:

“As for instance?”

Peyrol lowered himself with a deliberation appropriate to his grey hairs. “You don't suppose that out of a hundred and twenty or so pairs of eyes on board that ship there wouldn't be a dozen at least scanning the shore. Two men falling down a cliff would have been a startling sight. The English would have been interested enough to send a boat ashore to go through our pockets, and whether dead or only half dead we wouldn't have been in a state to prevent them. It wouldn't matter so much as to me, and I don't know what papers you may have in your pockets, but there are your shoulder-straps, your uniform coat.”

“I carry no papers in my pocket, and. . .” A sudden thought seemed to strike the lieutenant, a thought so intense and far-fetched as to give his mental effort a momentary aspect of vacancy. He shook it off and went on in a changed tone: “The shoulder-straps would not have been much of a revelation by themselves.”

“No. Not much. But enough to let her captain know that he had been watched. For what else could the dead body of a naval officer with a spyglass in his pocket mean? Hundreds of eyes may glance carelessly at that ship every day from all parts of the coast, though I fancy those landsmen hardly take the trouble to look at her now. But that's a very different thing from being kept under observation. However I don't suppose all this matters much.”

The lieutenant was recovering from the spell of that sudden thought. “Papers in my pocket,” he muttered to himself. “That would be a perfect way.” His parted lips came together in a slightly sarcastic smile with which he met Peyrol's puzzled, sidelong glance provoked by the inexplicable character of these words.

“I bet,” said the lieutenant, “that ever since I came here first you have been more or less worrying your old head about my motives and intentions.”

Peyrol said simply: “You came here on service at first and afterwards you came again because even in the Toulon fleet an officer may get a few days' leave. As to your intentions, I won't say anything about them. Especially as regards myself. About ten minutes ago anybody looking on would have thought they were not friendly to me.”

The lieutenant sat up suddenly. By that time the English sloop, getting away from under the land, had become visible even from the spot on which they sat.

“Look!” exclaimed Réal. “She seems to be forging ahead in this calm.”

Peyrol, startled, raised his eyes and saw the Amelia clear of the edge of the cliff and heading across the Passe. All her boats were already alongside, and yet, as a minute or two of steady gazing was enough to convince Peyrol, she was not stationary.

“She moves! There is no denying that. She moves. Watch the white speck of that house on Porquerolles. There! The end of her jib-boom touches it now. In a moment her head sails will mask it to us.”

“I would never have believed it,” muttered the lieutenant, after a pause of intent gazing. “And look, Peyrol, look, there is not a wrinkle on the water.”

Peyrol, who had been shading his eyes from the sun, let his hand fall. “Yes,” he said, “she would answer to a child's breath quicker than a feather, and the English very soon found it out when they got her. She was caught in Genoa only a few months after I came home and got my moorings here.”

“I didn't know,” murmured the young man.

“Aha, lieutenant,” said Peyrol, pressing his finger to his breast, “it hurts here, doesn't it? There is nobody but good Frenchmen here. Do you think it is a pleasure to me to watch that flag out there at her peak? Look, you can see the whole of her now. Look at her ensign hanging down as if there were not a breath of wind under the heavens . . . .” He stamped his foot suddenly. “And yet she moves! Those in Toulon that may be thinking of catching her dead or alive would have to think hard and make long plans and get good men to carry them out.”

“There was some talk of it at the Toulon Admiralty,” said Réal.

The rover shook his head. “They need not have sent you on the duty,” he said. “I have been watching her now for a month, her and the man who has got her now. I know all his tricks and all his habits and all his dodges by this time. The man is a seaman, that must be said for him, but I can tell beforehand what he will do in any given case.”

Lieutenant Réal lay down on his back again, his clasped hands under his head. He thought that this old man was not boasting. He knew a lot about the English ship, and if an attempt to capture her was to be made, his ideas would be worth having. Nevertheless, in his relations with old Peyrol Lieutenant Réal suffered from contradictory feelings. Réal was the son of a ci-devant couple — small provincial gentry — who had both lost their heads on the scaffold, within the same week. As to their boy, he was apprenticed by order of the Delegate of the Revolutionary Committee of his town to a poor but pure-minded joiner, who could not provide him with shoes to run his errands in, but treated this aristocrat not unkindly. Nevertheless, at the end of the year the orphan ran away and volunteered as a boy on board one of the ships of the Republic about to sail on a distant expedition. At sea he found another standard of values. In the course of some eight years, suppressing his faculties of love and hatred, he arrived at the rank of an officer by sheer merit, and had accustomed himself to look at men sceptically, without much scorn or much respect. His principles were purely professional and he had never formed a friendship in his life — more unfortunate in that respect than old Peyrol, who at least had known the bonds of the lawless Brotherhood of the Coast. He was, of course, very self-contained. Peyrol, whom he had found unexpectedly settled on the peninsula, was the first human being to break through that schooled reserve which the precariousness of all things had forced on the orphan of the Revolution. Peyrol's striking personality had aroused Réal's interest, a mistrustful liking mixed with some contempt of a purely doctrinaire kind. It was clear that the fellow had been next thing to a pirate at one time or another — a sort of past which could not commend itself to a naval officer.

Still, Peyrol had broken through: and, presently, the peculiarities of all those people at the farm, each individual one of them, had entered through the breach.

Lieutenant Réal, on his back, closing his eyes to the glare of the sky, meditated on old Peyrol, while Peyrol himself, with his white head bare in the sunshine, seemed to be sitting by the side of a corpse. What in that man impressed Lieutenant Réal was the faculty of shrewd insight. The facts of Réal's connection with the farmhouse on the peninsula were much as Peyrol had stated. First on specific duty about establishing a signal station, then, when that project had been given up, voluntary visits. Not belonging to any ship of the fleet but doing shore duty at the Arsenal, Lieutenant Réal had spent several periods of short leave at the farm, where indeed nobody could tell whether he had come on duty or on leave. He personally could not — or perhaps would not — tell even to himself why it was that he came there. He had been growing sick of his work. He had no place in the world to go to, and no one either. Was it Peyrol he was coming to see? A mute, strangely suspicious, defiant understanding had established itself imperceptibly between him and that lawless old man who might have been suspected to have come there only to die, if the whole robust personality of Peyrol with its quiet vitality had not been antagonistic to the notion of death. That rover behaved as though he had all the time in the world at his command.

Peyrol spoke suddenly, with his eyes fixed in front of him as if he were addressing the Island of Porquerolles, eight miles away.

“Yes — I know all her moves, though I must say that this trick of dodging close to our peninsula is something new.”

“H'm! Fish for the captain's breakfast,” mumbled Réal without opening his eyes. “Where is she now?”

“In the middle of the Passe, busy hoisting in her boats. And still moving! That ship will keep her way as long as the flame of a candle on her deck will not stand upright.”

“That ship is a marvel.”

“She has been built by French shipwrights,” said old Peyrol bitterly.

This was the last sound for a long time. Then the lieutenant said in an indifferent tone: “You are very positive about that. How do you know?”

“I have been looking at her for a month, whatever name she might have had or whatever name the English call her by now. Did you ever see such a bow on an English-built ship?”

The lieutenant remained silent, as though he had lost all interest and there had been no such thing as an English man-of-war within a mile. But all the time he was thinking hard. He had been told confidentially of a certain piece of service to be performed on instructions received from Paris. Not an operation of war, but service of the greatest importance. The risk of it was not so much deadly as particularly odious. A brave man might well have shrunk from it; and there are risks (not death) from which a resolute man might shrink without shame.

“Have you ever tasted of prison, Peyrol?” he asked suddenly, in an affectedly sleepy voice.

It roused Peyrol nearly into a shout. “Heavens! No! Prison! What do you mean by prison? . . . I have been a captive to savages,” he added, calming down, “but that's a very old story. I was young and foolish then. Later, when a grown man, I was a slave to the famous Ali-Kassim. I spent a fortnight with chains on my legs and arms in the yard of a mud fort on the shores of the Persian Gulf. There was nearly a score of us Brothers of the Coast in the same predicament in consequence of a shipwreck.”

“Yes. . . . The lieutenant was very languid indeed. . . . And I daresay you all took service with that bloodthirsty old pirate.”

“There was not a single one of his thousands of blackamoors that could lay a gun properly. But Ali-Kassim made war like a prince. We sailed, a regular fleet, across the gulf, took a town on the coast of Arabia somewhere, and looted it. Then I and the others managed to get hold of an armed dhow, and we fought our way right through the blackamoors' fleet. Several of us died of thirst later. All the same, it was a great affair. But don't you talk to me of prisons. A proper man if given a chance to fight can always get himself killed. You understand me?”

“Yes, I understand you,” drawled the lieutenant. “I think I know you pretty well. I suppose an English prison. . .”

“That is a horrible subject of conversation,” interrupted Peyrol in a loud, emotional tone. “Naturally, any death is better than a prison. Any death! What is it you have in your mind, lieutenant?”

“Oh, it isn't that I want you to die,” drawled Réal in an uninterested manner.

Peyrol, his entwined fingers clasping his legs, gazed fixedly at the English sloop floating idly in the Passe while he gave up all his mind to the consideration of these words that had floated out, idly too, into the peace and silence of the morning. Then he asked in a low tone:

“Do you want to frighten me?”

The lieutenant laughed harshly. Neither by word, gesture nor glance did Peyrol acknowledge the enigmatic and unpleasant sound. But when it ceased the silence grew so oppressive between the two men that they got up by a common impulse. The lieutenant sprang to his feet lightly. The uprising of Peyrol took more time and had more dignity. They stood side by side unable to detach their longing eyes from the enemy ship below their feet.

“I wonder why he put himself into this curious position,” said the officer.

“I wonder,” growled Peyrol curtly. “If there had been only a couple of eighteen-pounders placed on the rocky ledge to the left of us, we could have unrigged her in about ten minutes.”

“Good old gunner,” commented Réal ironically. “And what afterwards? Swim off, you and I, with our cutlasses in our teeth and take her by boarding, what?”

This sally provoked in Peyrol an austere smile. “No! No!” he protested soberly. “But why not let Toulon know? Bring out a frigate or two and catch him alive. Many a time have I planned his capture just to ease my heart. Often I have stared at night out of my window upstairs across the bay to where I knew he was lying at anchor, and thinking of a little surprise I could arrange for him if I were not only old Peyrol, the gunner.”

“Yes. And keeping out of the way at that, with a bad note against his name in the books of the Admiralty in Toulon.”

“You can't say I have tried to hide myself from you who are a naval officer,” struck in Peyrol quickly. “I fear no man. I did not run. I simply went away from Toulon. Nobody had given me an order to stay there. And you can't say I ran very far either.”

“That was the cleverest move of all. You knew what you were doing.”

“Here you go again, hinting at something crooked like that fellow with big epaulettes at the Port Office that seemed to be longing to put me under arrest just because I brought a prize from the Indian Ocean, eight thousand miles, dodging clear of every Englishmen that came in my way, which was more perhaps than he could have done. I have my gunner's warrant signed by Citizen Renaud, a chef d'escadre. It wasn't given me for twirling my thumbs or hiding in the cable tier when the enemy was about. There were on board our ships some patriots that weren't above doing that sort of thing, I can tell you. But republic or no republic, that kind wasn't likely to get a gunner's warrant.”

“That's all right,” said Réal, with his eyes fixed on the English ship, the head of which was swung to the northward now. . . . “Look, she seems to have lost her way at last,” he remarked parenthetically to Peyrol, who also glanced that way and nodded. . . . “That's all right. But it's on record that you managed in a very short time to get very thick with a lot of patriots ashore. Section leaders. Terrorists . . . .”

“Why, yes. I wanted to hear what they had to say. They talked like a drunken crew of scallywags that had stolen a ship. But at any rate it wasn't such as they that had sold the Port to the English. They were a lot of bloodthirsty landlubbers. I did get out of town as soon as I could. I remembered I was born around here. I knew no other bit of France, and I didn't care to go any further. Nobody came to look for me.”

“No, not here. I suppose they thought it was too near. They did look for you, a little, but they gave it up. Perhaps if they had persevered and made an admiral of you we would not have been beaten at Aboukir.”

At the mention of that name Peyrol shook his fist at the serene Mediterranean sky. “And yet we were no worse men than the English,” he cried, “and there are no such ships as ours in the world. You see, lieutenant, the republican god of these talkers would never give us seamen a chance of fair play.”

The lieutenant looked round in surprise. “What do you know about a republican god?” he asked. “What on earth do you mean?”

“I have heard of and seen more gods than you could ever dream of in a long night's sleep, in every corner of the earth, in the very heart of forests, which is an inconceivable thing. Figures, stones, sticks. There must be something in the idea. . . . And what I meant,” he continued in a resentful tone, “is that their republican god, which is neither stick nor stone, but seems to be some kind of lubber, has never given us seamen a chief like that one the soldiers have got ashore.”

Lieutenant Réal looked at Peyrol with unsmiling attention, then remarked quietly, “Well, the god of the aristocrats is coming back again and it looks as if he were bringing an emperor along with him. You've heard something of that, you people in the farmhouse? Haven't you?”

“No,” said Peyrol. “I have heard no talk of an emperor. But what does it matter? Under one name or another a chief can be no more than a chief, and that general whom they have been calling consul is a good chief — nobody can deny that.”

After saying those words in a dogmatic tone, Peyrol looked up at the sun and suggested that it was time to go down to the farmhouse “pour manger la soupe.” With a suddenly gloomy face Réal moved off, followed by Peyrol. At the first turn of the path they got the view of the Escampobar buildings with the pigeons still walking on the ridges of the roofs, of the sunny orchards and yards without a living soul in them. Peyrol remarked that everybody no doubt was in the kitchen waiting for his and the lieutenant's return. He himself was properly hungry. “And you, lieutenant?”

The lieutenant was not hungry. Hearing this declaration made in a peevish tone, Peyrol gave a sagacious movement of his head behind the lieutenant's back. Well, whatever happened, a man had to eat. He, Peyrol, knew what it was to be altogether without food; but even half-rations was a poor show, very poor show for anybody who had to work or to fight. For himself he couldn't imagine any conjuncture that would prevent him having a meal as long as there was something to eat within reach.

His unwonted garrulity provoked no response, but Peyrol continued to talk in that strain as though his thoughts were concentrated on food, while his eyes roved here and there and his ears were open for the slightest sound. When they arrived in front of the house Peyrol stopped to glance anxiously down the path to the coast, letting the lieutenant enter the café. The Mediterranean, in that part which could be seen from the door of the café, was as empty of all sail as a yet undiscovered sea. The dull tinkle of a cracked bell on the neck of some wandering cow was the only sound that reached him, accentuating the Sunday peace of the farm. Two goats were lying down on the western slope of the hill. It all had a very reassuring effect and the anxious expression on Peyrol's face was passing away when suddenly one of the goats leaped to its feet. The rover gave a start and became rigid in a pose of tense apprehension. A man who is in such a frame of mind that a leaping goat makes him start cannot be happy. However, the other goat remained lying down. There was really no reason for alarm, and Peyrol, composing his features as near as possible to their usual placid expression, followed the lieutenant into the house.

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