The Rover, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 9

On losing sight of the perplexed lieutenant, Peyrol discovered that his own mind was a perfect blank. He started to get down to his tartane after one side-long look at the face of the house which contained quite a different problem. Let that wait. His head feeling strangely empty, he felt the pressing necessity of furnishing it with some thought without loss of time. He scrambled down steep places, caught at bushes, stepped from stone to stone, with the assurance of long practice, with mechanical precision and without for a moment relaxing his efforts to capture some definite scheme which he could put into his head. To his right the cove lay full of pale light, while the rest of the Mediterranean extended beyond it in a dark, unruffled blue. Peyrol was making for the little basin where his tartane had been hidden for years, like a jewel in a casket meant only for the secret rejoicing of his eye, of no more practical use than a miser's hoard — and as precious! Coming upon a hollow in the ground where grew a few bushes and even a few blades of grass, Peyrol sat down to rest. In that position his visible world was limited to a stony slope, a few boulders, the bush against which he leaned and the vista of a piece of empty sea-horizon. He perceived that he detested that lieutenant much more when he didn't see him. There was something in the fellow. Well, at any rate he had got rid of him for say eight or ten hours. An uneasiness came over the old rover, a sense of the endangered stability of things, which was anything but welcome. He wondered at it, and the thought “I am growing old,” intruded on him again. And yet he was aware of his sturdy body. He could still creep stealthily like an Indian and with his trusty cudgel knock a man over with a certain aim at the back of his head, and with force enough to fell him like a bullock. He had done that thing no further back than two o'clock the night before, not twelve hours ago, as easy as easy and without an undue sense of exertion. This fact cheered him up. But still he could not find an idea for his head. Not what one could call a real idea. It wouldn't come. It was no use sitting there.

He got up and after a few strides came to a stony ridge from which he could see the two white blunt mastheads of his tartane. Her hull was hidden from him by the formation of the shore, in which the most prominent feature was a big flat piece of rock. That was the spot on which not twelve hours before Peyrol, unable to rest in his bed and coming to seek sleep in his tartane, had seen by moonlight a man standing above his vessel and looking down at her, a characteristic forked black shape that certainly had no business to be there. Peyrol, by a sudden and logical deduction, had said to himself. “Landed from an English boat.” Why, how, wherefore, he did not stay to consider. He acted at once like a man accustomed for many years to meet emergencies of the most unexpected kind. The dark figure, lost in a sort of attentive amazement, heard nothing, suspected nothing. The impact of the thick end of the cudgel came down on its head like a thunderbolt from the blue. The sides of the little basin echoed the crash. But he could not have heard it. The force of the blow flung the senseless body over the edge of the flat rock and down headlong into the open hold of the tartane, which received it with the sound of a muffled drum. Peyrol could not have done the job better at the age of twenty. No. Not so well. There was swiftness, mature judgment — and the sound of the muffled drum was followed by a perfect silence, without a sigh, without a moan. Peyrol ran round a little promontory to where the shore shelved down to the level of the tartanes rail and got on board. And still the silence remained perfect in the cold moonlight and amongst the deep shadows of the rocks. It remained perfect because Michel, who always slept under the half-deck forward, being wakened by the thump which had made the whole tartane tremble, had lost the power of speech. With his head just protruding from under the half-deck, arrested on all fours and shivering violently like a dog that had been washed with hot water, he was kept from advancing further by his terror of this bewitched corpse that had come on board flying through the air. He would not have touched it for anything.

The “You there, Michel,” pronounced in an undertone, acted like a moral tonic. This then was not the doing of the Evil One; it was no sorcery! And even if it had been, now that Peyrol was there, Michel had lost all fear. He ventured not a single question while he helped Peyrol to turn over the limp body. Its face was covered with blood from the cut on the forehead which it had got by striking the sharp edge of the keelson. What accounted for the head not being completely smashed and for no limbs being broken was the fact that on its way through the air the victim of undue curiosity had come in contact with and had snapped like a carrot one of the foremast shrouds. Raising his eves casually Peyrol noticed the broken rope, and at once put his hand on the man's breast.

“His heart beats yet,” he murmured. “Go and light the cabin lamp, Michel.”

“You going to take that thing into the cabin?”

“Yes,” said Peyrol. “The cabin is used to that kind of thing,” and suddenly he felt very bitter. “It has been a death-trap for better people than this fellow, whoever he is.”

While Michel was away executing that order Peyrol's eyes roamed all over the shores of the basin, for he could not divest himself of the idea that there must be more Englishmen dodging about. That one of the corvette's boats was still in the cove he had not the slightest doubt. As to the motive of her coming, it was incomprehensible. Only that senseless form lying at his feet could perhaps have told him: but Peyrol had little hope that it would ever speak again. If his friends started to look for their shipmate there was just a bare chance that they would not discover the existence of the basin. Peyrol stooped and felt the body all over. He found no weapon of any kind on it. There was only a common clasp-knife on a lanyard round its neck.

That soul of obedience, Michel, returning from aft, was directed to throw a couple of bucketfuls of salt water upon the bloody head with its face upturned to the moon. The lowering of the body down into the cabin was a matter of some little difficulty. It was heavy. They laid it full length on a locker and after Michel with a strange tidiness had arranged its arms along its sides it looked incredibly rigid. The dripping head with soaked hair was like the head of a drowned man with a gaping pink gash on the forehead.

“Go on deck to keep a lookout,” said Peyrol. “We may have to fight yet before the night's out.”

After Michel left him Peyrol began by flinging off his jacket and, without a pause, dragging his shirt off over his head. It was a very fine shirt. The Brothers of the Coast in their hours of ease were by no means a ragged crowd, and Peyrol the gunner had preserved a taste for fine linen. He tore the shirt into long strips, sat down on the locker and took the wet head on his knees. He bandaged it with some skill, working as calmly as though he had been practising on a dummy. Then the experienced Peyrol sought the lifeless hand and felt the pulse. The spirit had not fled yet. The rover, stripped to the waist, his powerful arms folded on the grizzled pelt of his bare breast, sat gazing down at the inert face in his lap with the eyes closed peacefully under the white band covering the forehead. He contemplated the heavy jaw combined oddly with a certain roundness of cheek, the noticeably broad nose with a sharp tip and a faint dent across the bridge, either natural or the result of some old injury. A face of brown clay, roughly modelled, with a lot of black eyelashes stuck on the closed lids and looking artificially youthful on that physiognomy forty years old or more. And Peyrol thought of his youth. Not his own youth; that he was never anxious to recapture. It was of that man's youth that he thought, of how that face had looked twenty years ago. Suddenly he shifted his position, and putting his lips to the ear of that inanimate head, yelled with all the force of his lungs:

“Hullo! Hullo! Wake up, shipmate!”

It seemed enough to wake up the dead. A faint “Voilà! Voilà!” was the answer from a distance, and presently Michel put his head into the cabin with an anxious grin and a gleam in the round eyes.

“You called, maître?”

“Yes,” said Peyrol. “Come along and help me to shift him.”

“Overboard?” murmured Michel readily.

“No,” said Peyrol, “into that bunk. Steady! Don't bang his head," he cried with unexpected tenderness. “Throw a blanket over him. Stay in the cabin and keep his bandages wetted with salt water. I don't think anybody will trouble you to-night. I am going to the house.”

“The day is not very far off,” remarked Michel.

This was one reason the more why Peyrol was in a hurry to get back to the house and steal up to his room unseen. He drew on his jacket over his bare skin, picked up his cudgel, recommended Michel not to let that strange bird get out of the cabin on any account. As Michel was convinced that the man would never walk again in his life, he received those instructions without particular emotion.

The dawn had broken some time before Peyrol, on his way up to Escampobar, happened to look round and had the luck to actually see with his own eyes the English man-of-war's boat pulling out of the cove. This confirmed his surmises but did not enlighten him a bit as to the causes. Puzzled and uneasy, he approached the house through the farmyard — Catherine, always the first up, stood at the open kitchen door. She moved aside and would have let him pass without remark, if Peyrol himself had not asked in a whisper: “Anything new?” She answered him in the same tone: “She has taken to roaming at night.” Peyrol stole silently up to his bedroom, from which he descended an hour later as though he had spent all the night in his bed up there.

It was this nocturnal adventure which had affected the character of Peyrol's forenoon talk with the lieutenant. What with one thing and another he found it very trying. Now that he had got rid of Réal for several hours, the rover had to turn his attention to that other invader of the strained, questionable, and ominous in its origins, peace of the Escampobar Farm. As he sat on the flat rock with his eyes fixed idly on the few drops of blood betraying his last night's work to the high heaven, and trying to get hold of something definite that he could think about, Peyrol became aware of a faint thundering noise. Faint as it was it filled the whole basin. He soon guessed its nature, and his face lost its perplexity. He picked up his cudgel, got on his feet briskly, muttering to himself. “He's anything but dead,” and hurried on board the tartane.

On the after-deck Michel was keeping a lookout. He had carried out the orders he had received by the well. Besides being secured by the very obvious padlock, the cabin door was shored up by a spar which made it stand as firm as a rock. The thundering noise seemed to issue from its immovable substance magically. It ceased for a moment, and a sort of distracted continuous growling could be heard. Then the thundering began again. Michel reported: “This is the third time he starts this game.”

“Not much strength in this,” remarked Peyrol gravely.

“That he can do it at all is a miracle,” said Michel, showing a certain excitement. “He stands on the ladder and beats the door with his fists. He is getting better. He began about half an hour after I got back on board. He drummed for a bit and then fell off the ladder. I heard him. I had my ear against the scuttle. He lay there and talked to himself for a long time. Then he went at it again.” Peyrol approached the scuttle while Michel added his opinion: “He will go on like that for ever. You can't stop him.”

“Easy there,” said Peyrol in a deep authoritative voice. “Time you finish that noise.”

These words brought instantly a death-like silence. Michel ceased to grin. He wondered at the power of these few words of a foreign language.

Peyrol himself smiled faintly. It was ages since he had uttered a sentence of English. He waited complacently until Michel had unbarred and unlocked the door of the cabin. After it was thrown open he boomed out a warning: “Stand clear!” and, turning about, went down with great deliberation, ordering Michel to go forward and keep a lookout.

Down there the man with the bandaged head was hanging on to the table and swearing feebly without intermission. Peyrol, after listening for a time with an air of interested recognition as one would to a tune heard many years ago, stopped it by a deep-voiced:

“That will do.” After a short silence he added: “You look bien malade, hein? What you call sick,” in a tone which if not tender was certainly not hostile. “We will remedy that.”

“Who are you?” asked the prisoner, looking frightened and throwing his arm up quickly to guard his head against the coming blow. But Peyrol's uplifted hand fell only on his shoulder in a hearty slap which made him sit down suddenly on a locker in a partly collapsed attitude and unable to speak. But though very much dazed he was able to watch Peyrol open a cupboard and produce from there a small demijohn and two tin cups. He took heart to say plaintively: “My throat's like tinder,” and then suspiciously: “Was it you who broke my head?”

“It was me,” admitted Peyrol, sitting down on the opposite side of the table and leaning back to look at his prisoner comfortably.

“What the devil did you do that for?” inquired the other with a sort of faint fierceness which left Peyrol unmoved.

“Because you put your nose where you no business. Understand? I see you there under the moon, penché, eating my tartane with your eyes. You never hear me, hein?”

“I believe you walked on air. Did you mean to kill me?”

“Yes, in preference to letting you go and make a story of it on board your cursed corvette.”

“Well then, now's your chance to finish me. I am as weak as a kitten.”

“How did you say that? Kitten? Ha, ha, ha!” laughed Peyrol. “You make a nice petit chat.” He seized the demijohn by the neck and filled the mugs. “There,” he went on, pushing one towards the prisoner — “it's good drink — that.”

Symons' state was as though the blow had robbed him of all power of resistance, of all faculty of surprise and generally of all the means by which a man may assert himself except bitter resentment. His head was aching, it seemed to him enormous, too heavy for his neck and as if full of hot smoke. He took a drink under Peyrol's fixed gaze and with uncertain movements put down the mug. He looked drowsy for a moment. Presently a little colour deepened his bronze; he hitched himself up on the locker and said in a strong voice:

“You played a damned dirty trick on me. Call yourself a man, walking on air behind a fellow's back and felling him like a bullock?”

Peyrol nodded calmly and sipped from his mug.

“If I had met you anywhere else but looking at my tartane I would have done nothing to you. I would have permitted you to go back to your boat. Where was your damned boat?”

“How can I tell you? I can't tell where I am. I've never been here before. How long have I been here?”

“Oh, about fourteen hours,” said Peyrol.

“My head feels as if it would fall off if I moved,” grumbled the other. . . . “You are a damned bungler, that's what you are.”

“What for — bungler?”

“For not finishing me off at once.”

He seized the mug and emptied it down his throat. Peyrol drank too, observing him all the time. He put the mug down with extreme gentleness and said slowly:

“How could I know it was you? I hit hard enough to crack the skull of any other man.”

“What do you mean? What do you know about my skull? What are you driving at? I don't know you, you white-headed villain, going about at night knocking people on the head from behind. Did you do for our officer, too?”

“Oh yes! Your officer. What was he up to? What trouble did you people come to make here, anyhow?”

“Do you think they tell a boat's crew? Go and ask our officer. He went up the gully and our coxswain got the jumps. He says to me: `You are light-footed, Sam, says he; `you just creep round the head of the cove and see if our boat can be seen across from the other side. Well, I couldn't see anything. That was all right. But I thought 1 would climb a little higher amongst the rocks . . . .”

He paused drowsily.

“That was a silly thing to do,” remarked Peyrol in an encouraging voice.

“I would've sooner expected to see an elephant inland than a craft lying in a pool that seemed no bigger than my hand. Could not understand how she got there. Couldn't help going down to find out — and the next thing I knew 1 was lying on my back with my head tied up, in a bunk in this kennel of a cabin here. Why couldn't you have given me a hail and engaged me properly, yardarm to yardarm? You would have got me all the same, because all I had in the way of weapons was the clasp-knife which you have looted off me.”

“Up on the shelf there,” said Peyrol, looking round. “No, my friend, I wasn't going to take the risk of seeing you spread your wings and fly.”

“You need not have been afraid for your tartane. Our boat was after no tartane. We wouldn't have taken your tartane for a gift. Why, we see them by dozens every day — those tartanes.”

Peyrol filled the two mugs again. “Ah,” he said, “I daresay you see many tartanes, but this one is not like the others. You a sailor — and you couldn't see that she was something extraordinary.”

“Hellfire and gunpowder!” cried the other. “How can you expect me to have seen anything? I just noticed that her sails were bent before your club hit me on the head.” He raised his hands to his head and groaned. “Oh lord, I feel as though I had been drunk for a month.”

Peyrol's prisoner did look somewhat as though he had got his head broken in a drunken brawl. But to Peyrol his appearance was not repulsive. The rover preserved a tender memory of his freebooter's life with its lawless spirit and its spacious scene of action, before the change in the state of affairs in the Indian Ocean, the astounding rumours from the outer world, made him reflect on its precarious character. It was true that he had deserted the French flag when quite a youngster; but at that time that flag was white; and now it was a flag of three colours. He had known the practice of liberty, equality and fraternity as understood in the haunts open or secret of the Brotherhood of the Coast. So the change, if one could believe what people talked about, could not be very great. The rover had also his own positive notions as to what these three words were worth. Liberty — to hold your own in the world if you could. Equality — yes! But no body of men ever accomplished anything without a chief. All this was worth what it was worth. He regarded fraternity somewhat differently. Of course brothers would quarrel amongst themselves; it was during a fierce quarrel that flamed up suddenly in a company of Brothers that he had received the most dangerous wound of his life. But for that Peyrol nursed no grudge against anybody. In his view the claim of the Brotherhood was a claim for help against the outside world. And here he was sitting opposite a Brother whose head he had broken on sufficient grounds. There he was across the table looking dishevelled and dazed, uncomprehending and aggrieved, and that head of his proved as hard as ages ago when the nickname of Testa Dura had been given to him by a Brother of Italian origin on some occasion or other, some butting match no doubt; just as he, Peyrol himself, was known for a time on both sides of the Mozambique Channel as Poigne-de-Fer, after an incident when in the presence of the Brothers he played at arm's length with the windpipe of an obstreperous negro sorcerer with an enormous girth of chest. The villagers brought out food with alacrity, and the sorcerer was never the same man again. It had been a great display.

Yes, no doubt it was Testa Dura; the young neophyte of the order (where and how picked up Peyrol never heard), strange to the camp, simpleminded and much impressed by the swaggering cosmopolitan company in which he found himself. He had attached himself to Peyrol in preference to some of his own countrymen of whom there were several in that band, and used to run after him like a little dog and certainly had acted a good shipmate's part on the occasion of that wound which had neither killed nor cowed Peyrol but merely had given him an opportunity to reflect at leisure on the conduct of his own life.

The first suspicion of that amazing fact had intruded on Peyrol while he was bandaging that head by the light of the smoky lamp. Since the fellow still lived, it was not in Peyrol to finish him off or let him lie unattended like a dog. And then this was a sailor. His being English was no obstacle to the development of Peyrol's mixed feelings in which hatred certainly had no place. Amongst the members of the Brotherhood it was the Englishmen whom he preferred. He had also found amongst them that particular and loyal appreciation, which a Frenchman of character and ability will receive from Englishmen sooner than from any other nation. Peyrol had at times been a leader, without ever trying for it very much, for he was not ambitious. The lead used to fall to him mostly at a time of crisis of some sort; and when he had got the lead it was on the Englishmen that he used to depend most.

And so that youngster had turned into this English man-of-war's man! In the fact itself there was nothing impossible. You found Brothers of the Coast in all sorts of ships and in all sorts of places. Peyrol had found one once in a very ancient and hopeless cripple practising the profession of a beggar on the steps of Manila cathedral; and had left him the richer by two broad gold pieces to add to his secret hoard. There was a tale of a Brother of the Coast having become a mandarin in China, and Peyrol believed it. One never knew where and in what position one would find a Brother of the Coast. The wonderful thing was that this one should have come to seek him out, to put himself in the way of his cudgel. Peyrol's greatest concern had been all through that Sunday morning to conceal the whole adventure from Lieutenant Réal. As against a wearer of epaulettes, mutual protection was the first duty between Brothers of the Coast. The unexpectedness of that claim coming to him after twenty years invested it with an extraordinary strength. What he would do with the fellow he didn't know. But since that morning the situation had changed. Peyrol had received the lieutenant's confidence and had got on terms with him in a special way. He fell into profound thought.

“Sacrée tête dure,” he muttered without rousing himself. Peyrol was annoyed a little at not having been recognized. He could not conceive how difficult it would have been for Symons to identify this portly deliberate person with a white head of hair as the object of his youthful admiration, the black-ringleted French Brother in the prime of life of whom everybody thought so much. Peyrol was roused by hearing the other declare suddenly:

“I am an Englishman, I am. I am not going to knuckle under to anybody. What are you going to do with me?”

“I will do what I please,” said Peyrol, who had been asking himself exactly the same question.

“Well, then, be quick about it, whatever it is. I don't care a damn what you do, but — be — quick — about it.”

He tried to be emphatic; but as a matter of fact the last words came out in a faltering tone. And old Peyrol was touched. He thought that if he were to let him drink the mugful standing there, it would make him dead drunk. But he took the risk. So he said only:

“Allons. Drink.” The other did not wait for a second invitation but could not control very well the movements of his arm extended towards the mug. Peyrol raised his on high.

“Trinquons, eh?” he proposed. But in his precarious condition the Englishman remained unforgiving.

“I'm damned if I do,” he said indignantly, but so low that Peyrol had to turn his ear to catch the words. “You will have to explain to me first what you meant by knocking me on the head.”

He drank, staring all the time at Peyrol in a manner which was meant to give offence but which struck Peyrol as so childlike that he burst into a laugh.

“Sacré imbécile, va! Did I not tell you it was because of the tartane? If it hadn't been for the tartane I would have hidden from you. I would have crouched behind a bush like a — what do you call them? — lièvre.”

The other, who was feeling the effect of the d stared with frank incredulity.

“You are of no account,” continued Peyrol. “Ah! if you had been an officer I would have gone for you anywhere. Did you say your officer went up the gully?”

Symons sighed deeply and easily. “That's the way he went. We had heard on board of a house thereabouts.”

“Oh, he went to the house!” said Peyrol. “Well, if he did get there he must be very sorry for himself. There is half a company of infantry billeted in the farm.”

This inspired fib went down easily with the English sailor. Soldiers were stationed in many parts of the coast as any seaman of the blockading fleet knew very well. To the many expressions which had passed over the face of that man recovering from a long period of unconsciousness, there was added the shade of dismay.

“What the devil have they stuck soldiers on this piece of rock for?” he asked.

“Oh, signalling post and things like that. I am not likely to tell you everything. Why! you might escape.”

That phrase reached the soberest spot in the whole of Symons' individuality. Things were happening, then. Mr. Bolt was a prisoner. But the main idea evoked in his confused mind was that he would be given up to those soldiers before very long. The prospect of captivity made his heart sink and he resolved to give as much trouble as he could.

“You will have to get some of these soldiers to carry me up. I won't walk. I won't. Not after having had my brains nearly knocked out from behind. I tell you straight! I won't walk. Not a step. They will have to carry me ashore.”

Peyrol only shook his head deprecatingly.

“Now you go and get a corporal with a file of men,” insisted Symons obstinately. “I want to be made a proper prisoner of. Who the devil are you? You had no right to interfere. I believe you are a civilian. A common marinero, whatever you may call yourself. You look to me a pretty fishy marinero at that. Where did you learn English? In prison — eh? You ain't going to keep me in this damned dog-hole, on board your rubbishy tartane. Go and get that corporal, I tell you.”

He looked suddenly very tired and only murmured: “I am an Englishman, I am.”

Peyrol's patience was positively angelic.

“Don't you talk about the tartane,” he said impressively, making his words as distinct as possible. “I told you she was not like the other tartanes. That is because she is a courier boat. Every time she goes to sea she makes a pied-de-nez, what you call thumb to the nose, to all your English cruisers. I do not mind telling you because you are my prisoner. You will soon learn French now.”

“Who are you? The caretaker of this thing or what?” asked the undaunted Symons. But Peyrol's mysterious silence seemed to intimidate him at last. He became dejected and began to curse in a languid tone all boat expeditions, the coxswain of the gig and his own infernal luck.

Peyrol sat alert and attentive like a man interested in an experiment, while after a moment Symons' face began to look as if he had been hit with a club again, but not as hard as before. A film came over his round eyes and the words “fishy mariners” made their way out of his lips in a sort of death-bed voice. Yet such was the hardness of his head that he actually rallied enough to address Peyrol in an ingratiating tone.

“Come, grandfather!” He tried to push the mug across the table and upset it. “Come! Let us finish what's in that tiny bottle of yours.”

“No,” said Peyrol, drawing the demijohn to his side of the table and putting the cork in.

“No?” repeated Symons in an unbelieving voice and looking at the demijohn fixedly . . . “You must be a tinker” . . . He tried to say something more under Peyrol's watchful eyes, failed once or twice, and suddenly pronounced the word “cochon” so correctly as to make old Peyrol start. After that it was no use looking at him any more. Peyrol busied himself in locking up the demijohn and the mugs. When he turned round most of his prisoner's body was extended over the table and no sound came from it, not even a snore.

When Peyrol got outside, pulling to the door of the cuddy behind him, Michel hastened from forward to receive the master's orders. But Peyrol stood so long on the after-deck meditating profoundly with his hand over his mouth that Michel became fidgety and ventured a cheerful: “It looks as if he were not going to die.”

“He is dead,” said Peyrol with grim jocularity. “Dead drunk. And you very likely will not see me till to-morrow sometime.”

“But what am I to do?” asked Michel timidly.

“Nothing,” said Peyrol. “Of course you must not let him set fire to the tartane.”

“But suppose,” insisted Michel, “he should give signs of escaping.”

“If you see him trying to escape,” said Peyrol with mock solemnity, “then, Michel, it will be a sign for you to get out of his way as quickly as you can. A man who would try to escape with a head like this on him would just swallow you at one mouthful.”

He picked up his cudgel and, stepping ashore, went off without as much as a look at his faithful henchman. Michel listened to him scrambling amongst the stones, and his habitual amiably vacant face acquired a sort of dignity from the utter and absolute blankness that came over it.

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