Astern of the tartane, the sun, about to set, kindled a streak of dull crimson glow between the darkening sea and the overcast sky. The peninsula of Giens and the islands of Hyères formed one mass of land detaching itself very black against the fiery girdle of the horizon; but to the north the long stretch of the Alpine coast continued beyond sight its endless sinuosities under the stooping clouds.
The tartane seemed to be rushing together with the run of the waves into the arms of the oncoming night. A little more than a mile away on her lee quarter, the Amelia, under all plain sail, pressed to the end of the chase. It had lasted now for a good many hours, for Peyrol, when slipping away, had managed to get the advantage of the Amelia from the very start. While still within the large sheet of smooth water which is called the Hyères roadstead, the tartane, which was really a craft of extraordinary speed, managed to gain positively on the sloop. Afterwards, by suddenly darting down the eastern passage between the two last islands of the group, Peyrol actually got out of sight of the chasing ship, being hidden by the Ile du Levant for a time. The Amelia having to tack twice in order to follow, lost ground once more. Emerging into the open sea, she had to tack again, and then the position became that of a stern chase, which proverbially is known as a long chase. Peyrol's skilful seamanship had twice extracted from Captain Vincent a low murmur accompanied by a significant compression of lips. At one time the Amelia had been near enough the tartane to send a shot ahead of her. That one was followed by another which whizzed extraordinarily close to the mastheads, but then Captain Vincent ordered the gun to be secured again. He said to his first lieutenant, who, his speaking trumpet in hand, kept at his elbow: “We must not sink that craft on any account. If we could get only an hour's calm, we would carry her with the boats.”
The lieutenant remarked that there was no hope of a calm for the next twenty-four hours at least.
“No,” said Captain Vincent, “and in about an hour it will be dark, and then he may very well give us the slip. The coast is not very far off and there are batteries on both sides of Fréjus, under any of which he will be as safe from capture as though he were hove up on the beach. And look,” he exclaimed after a moment's pause, “this is what the fellow means to do.”
“Yes, sir,” said the lieutenant, keeping his eyes on the white speck ahead, dancing lightly on the short Mediterranean waves, “he is keeping off the wind.”
“We will have him in less than an hour,” said Captain Vincent, and made as if he meant to rub his hands, but suddenly leaned his elbow on the rail. “After all,” he went on, “properly speaking, it is a race between the Amelia and the night.”
“And it will be dark early to-day,” said the first lieutenant, swinging the speaking trumpet by its lanyard. “Shall we take the yards off the back-stays, sir?”
“No,” said Captain Vincent. “There is a clever seaman aboard that tartane. He is running off now, but at any time he may haul up again. We must not follow him too closely, or we shall lose the advantage which we have now. That man is determined on making his escape.”
If those words by some miracle could have been carried to the ears of Peyrol, they would have brought to his lips a smile of malicious and triumphant exultation. Ever since he had laid his hand on the tiller of the tartane every faculty of his resourcefulness and seamanship had been bent on deceiving the English captain, that enemy whom he had never seen, the man whose mind he had constructed for himself from the evolutions of his ship. Leaning against the heavy tiller he addressed Michel, breaking the silence of the strenuous afternoon.
“This is the moment,” his deep voice uttered quietly. “Ease off the mainsheet, Michel. A little now, only.”
When Michel returned to the place where he had been sitting to windward, the rover noticed his eyes fixed on his face wonderingly. Some vague thoughts had been forming themselves slowly, incompletely, in Michel's brain. Peyrol met the utter innocence of the unspoken inquiry with a smile that, beginning sardonically on his manly and sensitive mouth, ended in something resembling tenderness.
“That's so, camarade,” he said with particular stress and intonation, as if those words contained a full and sufficient answer. Most unexpectedly Michel's round and generally staring eyes blinked as if dazzled. He too produced from somewhere in the depths of his being a queer, misty smile from which Peyrol averted his gaze.
“Where is the citizen?” he asked, bearing hard against the tiller and staring straight ahead. “He isn't gone overboard, is he? I don't seem to have seen him since we rounded the land near Porquerolles Castle.”
Michel, after craning his head forward to look over the edge of the deck, announced that Scevola was sitting on the keelson.
“Go forward,” said Peyrol, “and ease off the fore-sheet now a little. This tartane has wings,” he added to himself.
Alone on the after-deck Peyrol turned his head to look at the Amelia. That ship, in consequence of holding her wind, was now crossing obliquely the wake of the tartane. At the same time she had diminished the distance. Nevertheless, Peyrol considered that had he really meant to escape, his chances were as eight to ten — practically an assured success. For a long time he had been contemplating the lofty pyramid of canvas towering against the fading red belt on the sky, when a lamentable groan made him look round. It was Scevola. The citizen had adopted the mode of progression on all fours, and while Peyrol looked at him he rolled to leeward, saving himself rather cleverly from going overboard, and holding on desperately to a cleat, shouted in a hollow voice, pointing with the other hand as if he had made a tremendous discovery: “La terre! La terre!”
“Certainly,” said Peyrol, steering with extreme nicety. “What of that?”
“I don't want to be drowned!” cried the citizen in his new hollow voice. Peyrol reflected a bit before he spoke in a serious tone:
“If you stay where you are, I assure you that you will. . .” he glanced rapidly over his shoulder at the Amelia . . . “not die by drowning.” He jerked his head sideways. “I know that man's mind.”
“What man? Whose mind?” yelled Scevola with intense eagerness and bewilderment. “We are only three on board.”
But Peyrol's mind was contemplating maliciously the figure of a man with long teeth, in a wig and with large buckles to his shoes. Such was his ideal conception of what the captain of the Amelia ought to look like. That officer, whose naturally good-humoured face wore then a look of severe resolution, had beckoned his first lieutenant to his side again.
“We are gaining,” he said quietly. “I intend to close with him to windward. We won't risk any of his tricks. It is very difficult to outmanoeuvre a Frenchman, as you know. Send a few armed marines on the forecastle-head. I am afraid the only way to get hold of this tartane is to disable the men on board of her. I wish to goodness I could think of some other. When we close with her, let the marines fire a well-aimed volley. You must get some marines to stand by aft as well. I hope we may shoot away his halliards; once his sails are down on his deck he is ours for the trouble of putting a boat over the side.”
For more than half an hour Captain Vincent stood silent, elbow on rail, keeping his eye on the tartane, while on board the latter Peyrol steered silent and watchful but intensely conscious of the enemy ship holding on in her relentless pursuit. The narrow red band was dying out of the sky. The French coast, black against the fading light, merged into the shadows gathering in the eastern board. Citizen Scevola, somewhat soothed by the assurance that he would not die by drowning, had elected to remain quiet where he had fallen, not daring to trust himself to move on the lively deck. Michel, squatting to windward, gazed intently at Peyrol in expectation of some order at any minute. But Peyrol uttered no word and made no sign. From time to time a burst of foam flew over the tartane, or a splash of water would come aboard with a scurrying noise.
It was not till the corvette had got within a long gunshot from the tartane that Peyrol opened his mouth.
“No!” he burst out, loud in the wind, as if giving vent to long anxious thinking, “No! I could not have left you behind with not even a dog for company. Devil take me if I don't think you would not have thanked me for it either. What do you say to that, Michel?”
A half-puzzled smile dwelt persistently on the guileless countenance of the ex-fisherman. He stated what he had always thought in respect of Peyrol's every remark: “I think you are right, maître.”
“Listen then, Michel. That ship will be alongside of us in less than half an hour. As she comes up they will open on us with musketry.”
“They will open on us. . .” repeated Michel, looking quite interested. “But how do you know they will do that, maître?”
“Because her captain has got to obey what is in my mind,” said Peyrol, in a tone of positive and solemn conviction. “He will do it as sure as if I were at his car telling him what to do. He will do it because he is a first-rate seaman, but I, Michel, I am just a little bit cleverer than he.” He glanced over his shoulder at the Amelia rushing after the tartane with swelling sails, and raised his voice suddenly. “He will do it because no more than half a mile ahead of us is the spot where Peyrol will die!”
Michel did not start. He only shut his eyes for a time, and the rover continued in a lower tone:
“I may be shot through the heart at once,” he said: “and in that case you have my permission to let go the halliards if you are alive yourself. But if I live I mean to put the helm down. When I do that you will let go the foresheet to help the tartane to fly into the wind's eye. This is my last order to you. Now go forward and fear nothing. Adieu.” Michel obeyed without a word.
Half a dozen of the _Amelia_'s marines stood ranged on the forecastle-head ready with their muskets. Captain Vincent walked into the lee waist to watch his chase. When he thought that the jibboom of the Amelia had drawn level with the stern of the tartane he waved his hat and the marines discharged their muskets. Apparently no gear was cut. Captain Vincent observed the white-headed man, who was steering, clap his hand to his left side, while he hove the tiller to leeward and brought the tartane sharply into the wind. The marines on the poop fired in their turn, all the reports merging into one. Voices were heard on the decks crying that they “had hit the white-haired chap.” Captain Vincent shouted to the master:
“Get the ship round on the other tack.”
The elderly seaman who was the master of the Amelia took a critical look before he gave the necessary orders; and the Amelia closed on her chase with her decks resounding to the piping of boatswain's mates and the hoarse shout: “Hands shorten sail. About ship.”
Peyrol, lying on his back under the swinging tiller, heard the calls shrilling and dying away; he heard the ominous rush of _Amelia_'s bow wave as the sloop foamed within ten yards of the tartane's stern; he even saw her upper yards coming down, and then everything vanished out of the clouded sky. There was nothing in his ears but the sound of the wind, the wash of the waves buffeting the little craft left without guidance, and the continuous thrashing of its foresail the sheet of which Michel had let go according to orders. The tartane began to roll heavily, but Peyrol's right arm was sound and he managed to put it round a bollard to prevent himself from being flung about. A feeling of peace sank into him, not unmingled with pride. Everything he had planned had come to pass. He had meant to play that man a trick, and now the trick had been played. Played by him better than by any other old man on whom age had stolen, unnoticed, till the veil of peace was torn down by the touch of a sentiment unexpected like an intruder and cruel like an enemy.
Peyrol rolled his head to the left. All he could see were the legs of Citizen Scevola sliding nervelessly to and fro to the rolling of the vessel as if his body had been jammed somewhere. Dead, or only scared to death? And Michel? Was he dead or dying, that man without friends whom his pity had refused to leave behind marooned on the earth without even a dog for company? As to that, Peyrol felt no compunction; but he thought he would have liked to see Michel once more. He tried to utter his name, but his throat refused him even a whisper. He felt himself removed far away from that world of human sounds, in which Arlette had screamed at him: “Peyrol, don't you dare!” He would never hear anybody's voice again! Under that grey sky there was nothing for him but the swish of breaking seas and the ceaseless furious beating of the tartane's foresail. His play-thing was knocking about terribly under him, with her tiller flying madly to and fro just clear of his head, and solid lumps of water coming on board over his prostrate body. Suddenly, in a desperate lurch which brought the whole Mediterranean with a ferocious snarl level with the slope of the little deck, Peyrol saw the Amelia bearing right down upon the tartane. The fear, not of death but of failure, gripped his slowing-down heart. Was this blind Englishman going to run him down and sink the dispatches together with the craft? With a mighty effort of his ebbing strength Peyrol sat up and flung his arm round the shroud of the mainmast.
The Ameleia, whose way had carried her past the tartane for a quarter of a mile, before sail could be shortened and her yards swung on the other tack, was coming back to take possession of her chase. In the deepening dusk and amongst the foaming seas it was a matter of difficulty to make out the little craft. At the very moment when the master of the man-of-war, looking out anxiously from the forecastle-head, thought that she might perhaps have filled and gone down, he caught sight of her rolling in the trough of the sea, and so close that she seemed to be at the end of the _Amelia_'s jibboom. His heart flew in his mouth. “Hard a starboard!” he yelled, his order being passed along the decks.
Peyrol, sinking back on the deck in another heavy lurch of his craft, saw for an instant the whole of the English corvette swing up into the clouds as if she meant to fling herself upon his very breast. A blown seatop flicked his face noisily, followed by a smooth interval, a silence of the waters. He beheld in a flash the days of his manhood, of strength and adventure. Suddenly an enormous voice like the roar of an angry sea-lion seemed to fill the whole of the empty sky in a mighty and commanding shout: “Steady!"” . . . And with the sound of that familiar English word ringing in his ears Peyrol smiled to his visions and died.
The Amelia, stripped down to her topsails and hove to, rose and fell easily while on her quarter about a cable's length away Peyrol's tartane tumbled like a lifeless corpse amongst the seas. Captain Vincent, in his favourite attitude of leaning over the rail, kept his eyes fastened on his prize. Mr. Bolt, who had been sent for, waited patiently till his commander turned round.
“Oh, here you are, Mr. Bolt. I have sent for you to go and take possession. You speak French, and there may still be somebody alive in her. If so, of course you will send him on board at once. I am sure there can be nobody unwounded there. It will anyhow be too dark to see much, but just have a good look round and secure everything in the way of papers you can lay your hands on. Haul aft the foresheet and sail her up to receive a tow line. I intend to take her along and ransack her thoroughly in the morning; tear down the cuddy linings and so on, should you not find at once what I expect . . . .” Captain Vincent, his white teeth gleaming in the dusk, gave some further orders in a lower tone, and Mr. Bolt departed in a hurry. Half an hour afterwards he was back on board, and the Amelia, with the tartane in tow, made sail to the eastward in search of the blockading fleet.
Mr. Bolt, introduced into a cabin strongly lighted by a swinging lamp, tendered to his captain across the table a sail-cloth package corded and scaled, and a piece of paper folded in four, which, he explained, seemed to be a certificate of registry, strangely enough mentioning no name. Captain Vincent seized the grey canvas package eagerly.
“This looks like the very thing, Bolt,” he said, turning it over in his hands. “What else did you find on board?”
Bolt said that he had found three dead men, two on the after-deck and one lying at the bottom of the open hold with the bare end of the foresheet in his hand — “shot down, I suppose, just as he had let it go,” he commented. He described the appearance of the bodies and reported that he had disposed of them according to orders. In the tartane's cabin there was half a demijohn of wine and a loaf of bread in a locker; also, on the floor, a leather valise containing an officer's uniform coat and a change of clothing. He had lighted the lamp and saw that the linen was marked “E. Réal.” An officer's sword on a broad shoulder-belt was also lying on the floor. These things could not have belonged to the old chap with the white hair, who was a big man. “Looks as if somebody had tumbled overboard,” commented Bolt. Two of the bodies looked nondescript, but there was no doubt about that fine old fellow being a seaman.
“By Heavens!” said Captain Vincent, “he was that! Do you know, Bolt, that he nearly managed to escape us? Another twenty minutes would have done it. How many wounds had he?”
“Three I think, sir. I did not look closely,” said Bolt.
“I hated the necessity of shooting brave men like dogs,” said Captain Vincent. “Still, it was the only way; and there may be something here,” he went on, slapping the package with his open palm, “that will justify me in my own eyes. You may go now.”
Captain Vincent did not turn in but only lay down fully dressed on the couch till the officer of the watch, appearing at the door, told him that a ship of the fleet was in sight away to windward. Captain Vincent ordered the private night signal to be made. When he came on deck the towering shadow of a line-of-battle ship that seemed to reach to the very clouds was well within hail and a voice bellowed from her through a speaking trumpet:
“What ship is that?”
“His Majesty's sloop Amelia,” hailed back Captain Vincent. “What ship is that, pray?”
Instead of the usual answer there was a short pause and another voice spoke boisterously through the trumpet:
“Is that you, Vincent? Don't you know the Superb when you see her?”
“Not in the dark, Keats. How are you? I am in a hurry to speak the Admiral.”
“The fleet is lying by,” came the voice now with painstaking distinctness across the murmurs, whispers and splashes of the black lane of water dividing the two ships. “The Admiral bears S.S.E. If you stretch on till daylight as you are, you will fetch him on the other tack in time for breakfast on board the Victory. Is anything up?”
At every slight roll the sails of the Amelia, becalmed by the bulk of the seventy-four, flapped gently against the masts.
“Not much,” hailed Captain Vincent. “I made a prize.”
“Have you been in action?” came the swift inquiry.
“No, no. Piece of luck.”
“Where's your prize?” roared the speaking trumpet with interest.
“In my desk,” roared Captain Vincent in reply. . . . “Enemy dispatches. . . . I say, Keats, fill on your ship. Fill on her, I say, or you will be falling on board of me.” He stamped his foot impatiently. “Clap some hands at once on the tow-line and run that tartane close under our stern,” he called to the officer of the watch, “or else the old Superb will walk over her without ever knowing anything about it.”
When Captain Vincent presented himself on board the Victory it was too late for him to be invited to share the Admiral's breakfast. He was told that Lord Nelson had not been seen on deck yet, that morning; and presently word came that he wished to see Captain Vincent at once in his cabin. Being introduced, the captain of the Amelia, in undress uniform, with a sword by his side and his hat under his arm, was received kindly, made his bow and with a few words of explanation laid the packet on the big round table at which sat a silent secretary in black clothes, who had been obviously writing a letter from his lordship's dictation. The Admiral had been walking up and down, and after he had greeted Captain Vincent he resumed his pacing of a nervous man. His empty sleeve had not yet been pinned on his breast and swung slightly every time he turned in his walk. His thin locks fell lank against the pale cheeks, and the whole face in repose had an expression of suffering with which the fire of his one eye presented a startling contrast. He stopped short and exclaimed while Captain Vincent towered over him in a respectful attitude:
“A tartane! Captured on board a tartane! How on earth did you pitch upon that one out of the hundreds you must see every month?”
“I must confess that I got hold accidentally of some curious information,” said Captain Vincent. “It was all a piece of luck.”
While the secretary was ripping open with a pen-knife the cover of the dispatches Lord Nelson took Captain Vincent out into the stern gallery. The quiet and sunshiny morning had the added charm of a cool, light breeze; and the Victory, under her three topsails and lower staysails, was moving slowly to the southward in the midst of the scattered fleet carrying for the most part the same sail as the Admiral. Only far away two or three ships could be seen covered with canvas trying to close with the flag. Captain Vincent noted with satisfaction that the first lieutenant of the Amelia had been obliged to brace by his afteryards in order not to overrun the Admiral's quarter.
“Why!” exclaimed Lord Nelson suddenly, after looking at the sloop for a moment, “you have that tartane in tow!”
“I thought that your lordship would perhaps like to see a 40-ton lateen craft which has led such a chase to, I daresay, the fastest sloop in his Majesty's service.”
“How did it all begin?” asked the Admiral, continuing to look at the Amelia.
“As I have already hinted to your lordship, certain information came in my way,” began Captain Vincent, who did not think it necessary to enlarge upon that part of the story. “This tartane, which is not very different to look at from the other tartanes along the coast between Cette and Genoa, had started from a cove on the Giens Peninsula. An old man with a white head of hair was entrusted with the service and really they could have found nobody better. He came round Cape Esterel intending to pass through the Hyères roadstead. Apparently he did not expect to find the Amelia in his way. And it was there that he made his only mistake. If he had kept on his course I would probably have taken no more notice of him than of two other craft that were in sight then. But he acted suspiciously by hauling up for the battery on Porquerolles. This manoeuvre in connection with the information of which I spoke decided me to overhaul him and see what he had on board.” Captain Vincent then related concisely the episodes of the chase. “I assure your lordship that I never gave an order with greater reluctance than to open musketry fire on that craft; but the old man had given such proofs of his seamanship and determination that there was nothing else for it. Why! at the very moment he had the Amelia alongside of him he still made a most clever attempt to prolong the chase. There were only a few minutes of daylight left, and in the darkness we might very well have lost him. Considering that they all could have saved their lives simply by striking their sails on deck, I can not refuse them my admiration and especially to the white-haired man.”
The Admiral, who had been all the time looking absently at the Amelia keeping her station with the tartane in tow, said:
“You have a very smart little ship, Vincent. Very fit for the work I have given you to do. French built, isn't she?”
“Yes, my lord. They are great shipbuilders.”
“You don't seem to hate the French, Vincent,” said the Admiral, smiling faintly.
“Not that kind, my lord,” said Captain Vincent with a bow. “I detest their political principles and the characters of their public men, but your lordship will admit that for courage and determination we could not have found worthier adversaries anywhere on this globe.”
“I never said that they were to be despised,” said Lord Nelson. “Resource, courage, yes. . . . If that Toulon fleet gives me the slip, all our squadrons from Gibraltar to Brest will be in jeopardy. Why don't they come out and be done with it? Don't I keep far enough out of their way?” he cried.
Vincent remarked the nervous agitation of the frail figure with a concern augmented by a fit of coughing which came on the Admiral. He was quite alarmed by its violence. He watched the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean choking and gasping so helplessly that he felt compelled to turn his eyes away from the painful spectacle; but he noticed also how quickly Lord Nelson recovered from the subsequent exhaustion.
“This is anxious work, Vincent,” he said. “It is killing me. I aspire to repose somewhere in the country, in the midst of fields, out of reach of the sea and the Admiralty and dispatches and orders, and responsibility too. I have been just finishing a letter to tell them at home I have hardly enough breath in my body to carry me on from day to day. . . . But I am like that white-headed man you admire so much, Vincent,” he pursued, with a weary smile, “I will stick to my task till perhaps some shot from the enemy puts an end to everything. . . . Let us see what there may be in those papers you have brought on board.”
The secretary in the cabin had arranged them in separate piles.
“What is it all about?” asked the Admiral, beginning again to pace restlessly up and down the cabin.
“At the first glance the most important, my lord, are the orders for marine authorities in Corsica and Naples to make certain dispositions in view of an expedition to Egypt.”
“I always thought so,” said the Admiral, his eye gleaming at the attentive countenance of Captain Vincent. “This is a smart piece of work on your part, Vincent. I can do no better than send you back to your station. Yes . . . Egypt . . . the Easts. . . . Everything points that way,” he soliloquized under Vincent's eyes while the secretary, picking up the papers with care, rose quietly and went out to have them translated and to make an abstract for the Admiral.
“And, yet who knows!” exclaimed Lord Nelson, standing still for a moment. “But the blame or the glory must be mine alone. I will seek counsel from no man.” Captain Vincent felt himself forgotten, invisible, less than a shadow in the presence of a nature capable of such vehement feelings. “How long can he last?” he asked himself with sincere concern.
The Admiral, however, soon remembered his presence, and at the end of another ten minutes Captain Vincent left the Victory, feeling, like all officers who approached Lord Nelson, that he had been speaking with a personal friend; and with a renewed devotion for the great sea-officer's soul dwelling in the frail body of the Commander-in-Chief of his Majesty's ships in the Mediterranean. While he was being pulled back to his ship a general signal went up in the Victory for the fleet to form line, as convenient, ahead and astern of the Admiral; followed by another to the Amelia to part company. Vincent accordingly gave his orders to make sail, and, directing the master to shape a course for Cape Cicié, went down into his cabin. He had been up nearly the whole of the last three nights and he wanted to get a little sleep. His slurnbers, however, were short and disturbed. Early in the afternoon he found himself broad awake and reviewing in his mind the events of the day before. The order to shoot three brave men in cold blood, terribly distasteful at the time, was lying heavily on him. Perhaps he had been impressed by Peyrol's white head, his obstinacy to escape him, the determination shown to the very last minute, by something in the whole episode that suggested a more than common devotion to duty and a spirit of daring defiance. With his robust health, simple good nature, and sanguine temperament touched with a little irony, Captain Vincent was a man of generous feelings and of easily moved sympathies.
“Yet,” he reflected, “they have been asking for it. There could be only one end to that affair. But the fact remains that they were defenceless and unarmed and particularly harmless-looking, and at the same time as brave as any. That old chap now . . . .'
He wondered how much of exact truth there was in Symons tale of adventure. He concluded that the facts must have been true but that Symons' interpretation of them made it extraordinarily difficult to discover what really there was under all that. That craft certainly was fit for blockade running. Lord Nelson had been pleased. Captain Vincent went on deck with the kindliest feelings towards all men, alive and dead.
The afternoon had turned out very fine. The British Fleet was just out of sight with the exception of one or two stragglers, under a press of canvas. A light breeze in which only the Amelia could travel at five knots, hardly ruffled the profundity of the blue waters basking in the warm tenderness of the cloudless sky. To south and west the horizon was empty except for two specks very far apart, of which one shone white like a bit of silver and the other appeared black like a drop of ink. Captain Vincent, with his purpose firm in his mind, felt at peace with himself. As he was easily accessible to his officers his first lieutenant ventured a question to which Captain Vincent replied:
“He looks very thin and worn out, but I don't think he is as ill as he thinks he is. I am sure you all would like to know that his lordship is pleased with our yesterday's work — those papers were of some importance you know — and generally with the Amelia. It was a queer chase, wasn't it?” he went on. “That tartane was clearly and unmistakably running away from us. But she never had a chance against the Amelia.”
During the latter part of that speech the first lieutenant glanced astern as if asking himself how long Captain Vincent proposed to drag that tartane behind the Amelia. The two keepers in her wondered also as to when they would be permitted to get back on board their ship. Symons, who was one of them, declared that he was sick and tired of steering the blamed thing. Moreover, the company on board made him uncomfortable; for Symons was aware that in pursuance of Captain Vincent's orders, Mr. Bolt had had the three dead Frenchmen carried into the cuddy which he afterwards secured with an enormous padlock that, apparently, belonged to it, and had taken the key on board the Amelia. As to one of them, Symons' unforgiving verdict was that it would have served him right to be thrown ashore for crows to peck his eyes out. And anyhow, he could not understand why he should have been turned into the coxswain of a floating hearse, and be damned to it. . . . He grumbled interminably.
Just about sunset, which is the time of burials at sea, the Amelia was hove to and, the rope being manned, the tartane was brought alongside and her two keepers ordered on board their ship. Captain Vincent, leaning over with his elbows on the rail, seemed lost in thought. At last the first lieutenant spoke.
“What are we going to do with that tartane, sir? Our men are on board.”
“We are going to sink her by gunfire,” declared Captain Vincent suddenly. “His ship makes a very good coffin for a seaman, and those men deserve better than to be thrown overboard to roll on the waves. Let them rest quietly at the bottom of the sea in the craft to which they had stuck so well.”
The lieutenant, making no reply, waited for some more positive order. Every eye on the ship was turned on the captain. But Captain Vincent said nothing and seemed unable or unwilling to give it yet. He was feeling vaguely, that in all his good intentions there was something wanting.
“Ah! Mr. Bolt,” he said, catching sight of the master's-mate in the waist. “Did they have a flag on board that craft?”
“I think she had a tiny bit of ensign when the chase began, sir, but it must have blown away. It is not at the end of her mainyard now.” He looked over the side. “The halliards are rove, though,” he added.
“We must have a French ensign somewhere on board,” said Captain Vincent.
“Certainly, sir,” struck in the master, who was listening.
“Well, Mr. Bolt,” said Captain Vincent, “you have had most to do with all this. Take a few men with you, bend the French ensign on the halliards and sway his mainyard to the masthead.” He smiled at all the faces turned towards him. “After all they never surrendered and, by heavens, gentlemen, we will let them go down with their colours flying.”
A profound but not disapproving silence reigned over the decks of the ship while Mr. Bolt with three or four hands was busy executing the order. Then suddenly above the topgallant rail of the Amelia appeared the upper curve of a lateen yard with the tricolour drooping from the point. A subdued murmur from all hands greeted this apparition. At the same time Captain Vincent ordered the line holding the tartane alongside to be cast off and the mainyard of the Amelia to be swung round. The sloop shooting ahead of her prize left her stationary on the sea, then putting the helm up, ran back abreast of her on the other side. The port bow-gun was ordered to fire a round, aiming well forward. That shot, however, went just over, taking the foremast out of the tartane. The next was more successful, striking the little hull between wind and water, and going out well under water on the other side. A third was fired, as the men said, just for luck, and that too took effect, a splintered hole appearing at the bow. After that the guns were secured and the Amelia, with no brace being touched, was brought to her course towards Cape Cicié. All hands on board of her with their backs to the sunset sky, clear like a pale topaz above the hard blue gem of the sea, watched the tartane give a sudden dip, followed by a slow, unchecked dive. At last the tricolour flag alone remained visible for a tense and interminable moment, pathetic and lonely, in the centre of a brimful horizon. All at once it vanished, like a flame blown upon, bringing to the beholders the sense of having been left face to face with an immense, suddenly created solitude. On the decks of the Amelia a low murmur died out.
When Lieutenant Réal sailed away with the Toulon fleet on the great strategical cruise which was to end in the battle of Trafalgar, Madame Réal returned with her aunt to her hereditary house at Escampobar. She had only spent a few weeks in town where she was not much seen in public. The lieutenant and his wife lived in a little house near the western gate, and the lieutenant's official position, though he was employed on the staff to the last, was not sufficiently prominent to make her absence from official ceremonies at all remarkable. But this marriage was an object of mild interest in naval circles. Those — mostly men — who had seen Madame Réal at home, told stories of her dazzling complexion, of her magnificent black eyes, of her personal and attractive strangeness, and of the Arlesian costume she insisted on wearing, even after her marriage to an officer of the navy, being herself sprung from farmer stock. It was also said that her father and mother had fallen victims in the massacres of Toulon after the evacuation of the town; but all those stories varied in detail and were on the whole very vague. Whenever she went abroad Madame Réal was attended by her aunt who aroused almost as much curiosity as herself: a magnificent old woman with upright carriage and an austere, brown, wrinkled face showing signs of past beauty. Catherine was also seen alone in the streets where, as a matter of fact, people turned round to look after the thin and dignified figure, remarkable amongst the passers-by, whom she, herself, did not seem to see. About her escape from the massacres most wonderful tales were told, and she acquired the reputation of a heroine. Arlette's aunt was known to frequent the churches, which were all open to the faithful now, carrying even into the house of God her sibylline aspect of a prophetess and her austere manner. It was not at the services that she was seen most. People would see her oftener in an empty nave, standing slim and as straight as an arrow in the shade of a mighty pillar as if making a call on the Creator of all things with whom she had made her peace generously, and now would petition only for pardon and reconciliation with her niece Arlette. For Catherine for a long time remained uncertain of the future. She did not get rid of her involuntary awe of her niece as a selected object of God's wrath, until towards the end of her life. There was also another soul for which she was concerned. The pursuit of the tartane by the Amelia had been observed from various points of the islands that close the roadstead of Hyères, and the English ship had been seen from the Fort de la Vigie opening fire on her chase. The result, though the two vessels soon ran out of sight, could not be a matter of doubt. There was also the story told by a coaster that got into Fréjus, of a tartane being fired on by a square-rigged man-of-war; but that apparently was the next day. All these rumours pointed one way and were the foundation of the report made by Lieutenant Réal to the Toulon Admiralty. That Peyrol went out to sea in his tartane and was never seen again, was of course an incontrovertible fact.
The day before the two women were to go back to Escampobar, Catherine approached a priest in the church of Ste Marie Majeure, a little unshaven fat man with a watery eye, in order to arrange for some masses to be said for the dead.
“But for whose soul are we to pray?” mumbled the priest in a wheezy low tone.
“Pray for the soul of Jean,” said Catherine. “Yes, Jean. There is no other name.”
Lieutenant Réal, wounded at Trafalgar, but escaping capture, retired with the rank of Capitaine de Frégate and vanished from the eyes of the naval world in Toulon and indeed from the world altogether. Whatever sign brought him back to Escampobar on that momentous night, was not meant to call him to his death but to a quiet and retired life, obscure in a sense but not devoid of dignity. In the course of years he became the Mayor of the Commune in that very same little village which had looked on Escampobar as the abode of iniquity, the sojourn of blood-drinkers and of wicked women.
One of the earliest excitements breaking the monotony of the Escampobar life was the discovery at the bottom of the well, one dry year when the water got very low, of some considerable obstruction. After a lot of trouble in getting it up, this obstruction turned out to be a garment made of sail-cloth, which had armholes and three horn buttons in front, and looked like a waistcoat; but it was lined, positively quilted, with a surprising quantity of gold pieces of various ages, coinages and nationalities. Nobody but Peyrol could have put it there. Catherine was able to give the exact date; because she remembered seeing him doing something at the well on the very morning before he went out to sea with Michel, carrying off Scevola. Captain Réal could guess easily the origin of that treasure, and he decided with his wife's approval to give it up to the Government as the hoard of a man who had died intestate with no discoverable relations, and whose very name had been a matter of uncertainty, even to himself. After that event the uncertain name of Peyrol found itself oftener and oftener on Monsieur and Madame Réal's lips, on which before it was but seldom heard; though the recollection of his white-headed, quiet, irresistible personality haunted every corner of the Escampobar fields. From that time they talked of him openly, as though he had come back to live again amongst them.
Many years afterwards, one fine evening, Monsieur and Madame Réal sitting on the bench outside the salle (the house had not been altered at all outside except that it was now kept whitewashed), began to talk of that episode and of the man who, coming from the seas, had crossed their lives to disappear at sea again.
“How did he get all that lot of gold?” wondered Madame Réal innocently. “He could not possibly want it; and, Eugène, why should he have put it down there?”
“That, ma chère amie,” said Réal, “is not an easy question to answer. Men and women are not so simple as they seem. Even you, fermière (he used to give his wife that name jocularly, sometimes), are not so simple as some people would take you to be. I think that if Peyrol were here he could not perhaps answer your question himself.”
And they went on, reminding each other in short phrases separated by long silences, of his peculiarities of person and behaviour, when above the slope leading down to Madrague, there appeared first, the pointed ears, and then the whole body of a very diminutive donkey of a light grey colour with dark points. Two pieces of wood, strangely shaped, projected on each side of his body as far as his head, like very long shafts of a cart. But the donkey dragged no cart after him. He was carrying on his back on a small pack saddle the torso of a man who did not seem to have any legs. The little animal, beautifully groomed and with an intelligent and even impudent physiognomy, stopped in front of Monsieur and Madame Réal. The man, balancing himself cleverly on the pack saddle with his withered legs crossed in front of him, slipped off, disengaged his crutches from each side of the donkey smartly, propped himself on them, and with his open palm gave the animal a resounding thwack which sent it trotting into the yard. The cripple of the Madrague in his quality of Peyrol's friend (for the rover had often talked of him both to the women and to Lieutenant Réal with great appreciation — “C'est un homme, ça”) had become a member of the Escampobar community. His employment was to run about the country on errands, most unfit, one would think, for a man without legs. But the donkey did all the walking while the cripple supplied the sharp wits and an unfailing memory. The poor fellow, snatching off his hat and holding it with one hand alongside his right crutch, approached to render his account of the day in the simple words: “Everything has been done as you ordered, madame”; then lingered, a privileged servant, familiar but respectful, attractive with his soft eyes, long face, and his pained smile.
“We were just talking of Peyrol,” remarked Captain Réal.
“Ah, one could talk a long time of him,” said the cripple. “He told me once that if I had been complete — with legs like everybody else, I suppose he meant — I would have made a good comrade away there in the distant seas. He had a great heart.”
“Yes,” murmured Madame Réal thoughtfully. Then turning to her husband, she asked: “What sort of man was he really, Eugène?” Captain Réal remained silent. “Did you ever ask yourself that question?” she insisted.
“Yes,” said Réal. “But the only certain thing we can say of him is that he was not a bad Frenchman.”
“Everything's in that,” murmured the cripple, with fervent conviction in the silence that fell upon Réal's words and Arlette's faint sigh of memory.
The blue level of the Mediterranean, the charmer and the deceiver of audacious men, kept the secret of its fascination — hugged to its calm breast the victims of all the wars, calamities and tempests of its history, under the marvellous purity of the sunset sky. A few rosy clouds floated high up over the Esterel range. The breath of the evening breeze came to cool the heated rocks of Escampobar; and the mulberry tree, the only big tree on the head of the peninsula, standing like a sentinel at the gate of the yard, sighed faintly in a shudder of all its leaves, as if regretting the Brother of the Coast, the man of dark deeds, but of large heart, who often at noonday would lie down to sleep under its shade.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52