A single cover having been laid at the end of a long table in the salle for the lieutenant, he had his meal there while the others sat down to theirs in the kitchen, the usual strangely assorted company served by the anxious and silent Catherine. Peyrol, thoughtful and hungry, faced Citizen Scevola in his working clothes and very much withdrawn within himself. Scevola's aspect was more feverish than usual, with the red patches on his cheekbones very marked above the thick beard. From time to time the mistress of the farm would get up from her place by the side of old Peyrol and go out into the salle to attend to the lieutenant. The other three people seemed unconscious of her absences. Towards the end of the meal Peyrol leaned back in his wooden chair and let his gaze rest on the ex-terrorist who had not finished yet, and was still busy over his plate with the air of a man who had done a long morning's work. The door leading from the kitchen to the salle stood wide open, but no sound of voices ever came from there.
Till lately Peyrol had not concerned himself very much with the mental states of the people with whom he lived. Now, however, he wondered to himself what could be the thoughts of the ex-terrorist patriot, that sanguinary and extremely poor creature occupying the position of master of the Escampobar Farm. But when Citizen Scevola raised his head at last to take a long drink of wine there was nothing new on that face which in its high colour resembled so much a painted mask. Their eyes met.
“Sacrebleu!” exclaimed Peyrol at last. “If you never say anything to anybody like this you will forget how to speak at last.”
The patriot smiled from the depths of his beard, a smile which Peyrol for some reason, mere prejudice perhaps, always thought resembled the defensive grin of some small wild animal afraid of being cornered.
“What is there to talk about?” he retorted. “You live with us; you haven't budged from here; I suppose you have counted the bunches of grapes in the enclosure and the figs on the fig-tree on the west wall many times over . . . .” He paused to lend an ear to the dead silence in the salle, and then said with a slight rise of tone, “You and I know everything that is going on here.”
Peyrol wrinkled the corners of his eyes in a keen, searching glance. Catherine clearing the table bore herself as if she had been completely deaf. Her face, of a walnut colour, with sunken cheeks and lips, might have been a carving in the marvellous immobility of its fine wrinkles. Her carriage was upright and her hands swift in their movements. Peyrol said: “We don't want to talk about the farm. Haven't you heard any news lately?”
The patriot shook his head violently. Of public news he had a horror. Everything was lost. The country was ruled by perjurers and renegades. All the patriotic virtues were dead. He struck the table with his fist and then remained listening as though the blow could have roused an echo in the silent house. Not the faintest sound came from anywhere. Citizen Scevola sighed. It seemed to him that he was the only patriot left, and even in his retirement his life was not safe.
“I know,” said Peyrol. “I saw the whole affair out of the window. You can run like a hare, citizen.”
“Was I to allow myself to be sacrificed by those superstitious brutes?” argued Citizen Scevola in a high-pitched voice and with genuine indignation which Peyrol watched coldly. He could hardly catch the mutter of “Perhaps it would have been just as well if I had let those reactionary dogs kill me that time.”
The old woman washing up at the sink glanced uneasily towards the door of the salle.
“No!” shouted the lonely sans-culotte. “It isn't possible! There must be plenty of patriots left in France. The sacred fire is not burnt out yet.”
For a short time he presented the appearance of a man who is sitting with ashes on his head and desolation in his heart. His almond-shaped eyes looked dull, extinguished. But after a moment he gave a sidelong look at Peyrol as if to watch the effect and began declaiming in a low voice and apparently as if rehearsing a speech to himself: “No, it isn't possible. Some day tyranny will stumble and then it will be time to pull it down again. We will come out in our thousands and-ça ira!”
Those words, and even the passionate energy of the tone, left Peyrol unmoved. With his head sustained by his thick brown hand he was thinking of something else so obviously as to depress again the feebly struggling spirit of terrorism in the lonely breast of Citizen Scevola. The glow of reflected sunlight in the kitchen became darkened by the body of the fisherman of the lagoon, mumbling a shy greeting to the company from the frame of the doorway. Without altering his position Peyrol turned his eyes on him curiously. Catherine, wiping her hands on her apron, remarked: “You come late for your dinner, Michel.” He stepped in then, took from the old woman's hand an earthenware pot and a large hunk of bread and carried them out at once into the yard. Peyrol and the sans-culotte got up from the table. The latter, after hesitating like somebody who has lost his way, went brusquely into the passage, while Peyrol, avoiding Catherine's anxious stare, made for the back-yard. Through the open door of the salle he obtained a glimpse of Arlette sitting upright with her hands in her lap gazing at somebody he could not see, but who could be no other than Lieutenant Réal.
In the blaze and heat of the yard the chickens, broken up into small groups, were having their siesta in patches of shade. But Peyrol cared nothing for the sun. Michel, who was eating his dinner under the pent roof of the cart shed, put the earthenware pot down on the ground and joined his master at the well encircled by a low wall of stones and topped by an arch of wrought iron on which a wild fig-tree had twined a slender offshoot. After his dog's death the fisherman had abandoned the salt lagoon, leaving his rotting punt exposed on the dismal shore and his miserable nets shut up in the dark hut. He did not care for another dog, and besides, who was there to give him a dog? He was the last of men. Somebody must be last. There was no place for him in the life of the village. So one fine morning he had walked up to the farm in order to see Peyrol. More correctly, perhaps, to let himself be seen by Peyrol. That was exactly Michel's only hope. He sat down on a stone outside the gate with a small bundle, consisting mainly of an old blanket, and a crooked stick lying on the ground near him, and looking the most lonely, mild and harmless creature on this earth. Peyrol had listened gravely to his confused tale of the dog's death. He, personally, would not have made a friend of a dog like Michel's dog, but he understood perfectly the sudden breaking up of the establishment on the shore of the lagoon. So when Michel had concluded with the words, “I thought I would come up here,” Peyrol, without waiting for a plain request, had said: “Très bien. You will be my crew,” and had pointed down the path leading to the seashore. And as Michel, picking up his bundle and stick, started off, waiting for no further directions, he had shouted after him: “You will find a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine in a locker aft, to break your fast on.”
These had been the only formalities of Michel's engagement to serve as “crew” on board Peyrol's boat. The rover indeed had tried without loss of time to carry out his purpose of getting something of his own that would float. It was not so easy to find anything worthy. The miserable population of Madrague, a tiny fishing hamlet facing towards Toulon, had nothing to sell. Moreover, Peyrol looked with contempt on all their possessions. He would have as soon bought a catamaran of three logs of wood tied together with rattans as one of their boats; but lonely and prominent on the beach, lying on her side in weather-beaten melancholy, there was a two-masted tartane with her sun-whitened cordage hanging in festoons and her dry masts showing long cracks. No man was ever seen dozing under the shade of her hull on which the Mediterranean gulls made themselves very much at home. She looked a wreck thrown high up on the land by a disdainful sea. Peyrol, having surveyed her from a distance, saw that the rudder still hung in its place. He ran his eye along her body and said to himself that a craft with such lines would sail well. She was much bigger than anything he had thought of, but in her size, too, there was a fascination. It seemed to bring all the shores of the Mediterranean within his reach, Baleares and Corsica, Barbary and Spain. Peyrol had sailed over hundreds of leagues of ocean in craft that were no bigger. At his back in silent wonder a knot of fishermen's wives, bareheaded and lean, with a swarm of ragged children clinging to their skirts, watched the first stranger they had seen for years.
Peyrol borrowed a short ladder in the hamlet (he knew better than to trust his weight to any of the ropes hanging over the side) and carried it down to the beach followed at a respectful distance by the staring women and children: a phenomenon and a wonder to the natives, as it had happened to him before on more than one island in distant seas. He clambered on board the neglected tartane and stood on the decked forepart, the centre of all eyes. A gull flew away with an angry scream. The bottom of the open hold contained nothing but a little sand, a few broken pieces of wood, a rusty hook, and some few stalks of straw which the wind must have carried for miles before they found their rest in there. The decked after-part had a small skylight and a companion, and Peyrol's eyes rested fascinated on an enormous padlock which secured its sliding door. It was as if there had been secrets or treasures inside — and yet most probably it was empty. Peyrol turned his head away and with the whole strength of his lungs shouted in the direction of the fishermen's wives who had been joined by two very old men and a hunchbacked cripple swinging between two crutches:
“Is there anybody looking after this tartane, a caretaker?”
At first the only answer was a movement of recoil. Only the hunchback held his ground and shouted back in an unexpectedly strong voice:
“You are the first man that has been on board her for years.”
The wives of the fishermen admired his boldness, for Peyrol indeed appeared to them a very formidable being.
“I might have guessed that,” thought Peyrol. “She is in a dreadful mess.” The disturbed gull had brought some friends as indignant as itself and they circled at different levels uttering wild cries over Peyrol's head. He shouted again:
“Who does she belong to?”
The being on crutches lifted a finger towards the circling birds and answered in a deep tone:
“They are the only ones I know.” Then, as Peyrol gazed down at him over the side, he went on: “This craft used to belong to Escampobar. You know Escampobar? It's a house in the hollow between the hills there.”
“Yes, I know Escampobar,” yelled Peyrol, turning away and leaning against the mast in a pose which he did not change for a long time. His immobility tired out the crowd. They moved slowly in a body towards their hovels, the hunchback bringing up the rear with long swings between his crutches, and Peyrol remained alone with the angry gulls. He lingered on board the tragic craft which had taken Arlette's parents to their death in the vengeful massacre of Toulon and had brought the youthful Arlette and Citizen Scevola back to Escampobar where old Catherine, left alone at that time, had waited for days for somebody's return. Days of anguish and prayer, while she listened to the booming of guns about Toulon and with an almost greater but different terror to the dead silence which ensued.
Peyrol, enjoying the sensation of some sort of craft under his feet, indulged in no images of horror connected with that desolate tartane. It was late in the evening before he returned to the farm, so that he had to have his supper alone. The women had retired, only the sans-culotte, smoking a short pipe out of doors, had followed him into the kitchen and asked where he had been and whether he had lost his way. This question gave Peyrol an opening. He had been to Madrague and had seen a very fine tartane lying perishing on the beach.
“They told me down there that she belonged to you, citoyen.”
At this the terrorist only blinked.
“What's the matter? Isn't she the craft you came here in? Won't you sell her to me?” Peyrol waited a little. “What objection can you have?”
It appeared that the patriot had no positive objections. He mumbled something about the tartane being very dirty. This caused Peyrol to look at him with intense astonishment.
“I am ready to take her off your hands as she stands.”
“I will be frank with you, citoyen. You see, when she lay at the quay in Toulon a lot of fugitive traitors, men and women, and children too, swarmed on board of her, and cut the ropes with a view of escaping, but the avengers were not far behind and made short work of them. When we discovered her behind the Arsenal, I and another man, we had to throw a lot of bodies overboard, out of the hold and the cabin. You will find her very dirty all over. We had no time to clear up.” Peyrol felt inclined to laugh. He had seen decks swimming in blood and had himself helped to throw dead bodies overboard after a fight; but he eyed the citizen with an unfriendly eye. He thought to himself: “He had a hand in that massacre, no doubt,” but he made no audible remark. He only thought of the enormous padlock securing that emptied charnel house at the stern. The terrorist insisted. “We really had not a moment to clean her up. The circumstances were such that it was necessary for me to get away quickly lest some of the false patriots should do me some carmagnole or other. There had been bitter quarrelling in my section. I was not alone in getting away, you know.”
Peyrol waved his arm to cut short the explanation. But before he and the terrorist had parted for the night Peyrol could regard himself as the owner of the tragic tartane.
Next day he returned to the hamlet and took up his quarters there for a time. The awe he had inspired wore off, though no one cared to come very near the tartane. Peyrol did not want any help. He wrenched off the enormous padlock himself with a bar of iron and let the light of day into the little cabin which did indeed bear the trace's of the massacre in the stains of blood on its woodwork, but contained nothing else except a wisp of long hair and a woman's earring, a cheap thing which Peyrol picked up and looked at for a long time. The associations of such finds were not foreign to his past. He could without very strong emotion figure to himself the little place choked with corpses. He sat down and looked about at the stains and splashes which had been untouched by sunlight for years. The cheap little earring lay before him on the rough-hewn table between the lockers, and he shook his head at it weightily. He, at any rate, had never been a butcher.
Peyrol unassisted did all the cleaning. Then he turned con amore to the fitting out of the tartane. The habits of activity still clung to him. He welcomed something to do; this congenial task had all the air of preparation for a voyage, which was a pleasing dream, and it brought every evening the satisfaction of something achieved to that illusory end. He rove new gear, scraped the masts himself, did all the sweeping, scrubbing and painting single-handed, working steadily and hopefully as though he had been preparing his escape from a desert island; and directly he had cleaned and renovated the dark little hole of a cabin he took to sleeping on board. Once only he went up on a visit to the farm for a couple of days, as if to give himself a holiday. He passed them mostly in observing Arlette. She was perhaps the first problematic human being he had ever been in contact with. Peyrol had no contempt for women. He had seen them love, suffer, endure, riot, and even fight for their own hand, very much like men. Generally with men and women you had to be on your guard, but in some ways women were more to be trusted. As a matter of fact, his country-women were to him less known than any other kind. From his experience of many different races, however, he had a vague idea that women were very much alike everywhere. This one was a lovable creature. She produced on him the effect of a child, aroused a kind of intimate emotion which he had not known before to exist by itself in a man. He was startled by its detached character. “Is it that I am getting old?” he asked himself suddenly one evening, as he sat on the bench against the wall looking straight before him, after she had crossed his line of sight.
He felt himself an object of observation to Catherine, whom he used to detect peeping at him round corners or through half-opened doors. On his part he would stare at her openly — aware of the impression he produced on her: mingled curiosity and awe. He had the idea she did not disapprove of his presence at the farm, where, it was plain to him, she had a far from easy life. This had no relation to the fact that she did all the household work. She was a woman of about his own age, straight as a dart but with a wrinkled face. One evening as they were sitting alone in the kitchen Peyrol said to her: “You must have been a handsome girl in your day, Catherine. It's strange you never got married.”
She turned to him under the high mantel of the fireplace and seemed struck all of a heap, unbelieving, amazed, so that Peyrol was quite provoked. “What's the matter? If the old moke in the yard had spoken you could not look more surprised. You can't deny that you were a handsome girl.”
She recovered from her scare to say: “I was born here, grew up here, and early in my life I made up my mind to die here.”
“A strange notion,” said Peyrol, “for a young girl to take into her head.”
“It's not a thing to talk about,” said the old woman, stooping to get a pot out of the warm ashes. “I did not think, then,” she went on, with her back to Peyrol, “that I would live long. When I was eighteen I fell in love with a priest.”
“Ah, bah!” exclaimed Peyrol under his breath.
“That was the time when I prayed for death,” she pursued in a quiet voice. “I spent nights on my knees upstairs in that room where you sleep now. I shunned everybody. People began to say I was crazy. We have always been hated by the rabble about here. They have poisonous tongues. I got the nickname of `la fiancée du prêtre.' Yes, I was handsome, but who would have looked at me if I had wanted to be looked at? My only luck was to have a fine man for a brother. He understood. No word passed his lips, but sometimes when we were alone and not even his wife was by, he would lay his hand on my shoulder gently. From that time to this I have not been to church and I never will go. But I have no quarrel with God now.”
There were no signs of watchfulness and care in her bearing now. She stood straight as an arrow before Peyrol and looked at him with a confident air. The rover was not yet ready to speak. He only nodded twice and Catherine turned away to put the pot to cool in the sink. “Yes, I wished to die. But I did not, and now I have got something to do,” she said, sitting down near the fireplace and taking her chin in her hand. “And I daresay you know what that is,” she added.
Peyrol got up deliberately.
“Well! bonsoir,” he said. “I am off to Madrague. I want to begin work again on the tartane at daylight.”
“Don't talk to me about the tartane, She took my brother away for ever. I stood on the shore watching her sails growing smaller and smaller. Then I came up alone to this farmhouse.”
Moving calmly her faded lips which no lover or child had ever kissed, old Catherine told Peyrol of the days and nights of waiting, with the distant growl of the big guns in her ears. She used to sit outside on the bench longing for news, watching the flickers in the sky and listening to heavy bursts of gunfire coming over the water. Then came a night as if the world were coming to an end. All the sky was lighted up, the earth shook to its foundations, and she felt the house rock, so that jumping up from the bench she screamed with fear. That night she never went to bed. Next morning she saw the sea covered with sails, while a black and yellow cloud of smoke hung over Toulon. A man coming up from Madrague told her that he believed that the whole town had been blown up. She gave him a bottle of wine and he helped her to feed the stock that evening. Before going home he expressed the opinion that there could not be a soul left alive in Toulon, because the few that survived would have gone away in the English ships. Nearly a week later she was dozing by the fire when voices outside woke her up, and she beheld standing in the middle of the salle, pale like a corpse out of a grave, with a blood-soaked blanket over her shoulders and a red cap on her head, a ghastly looking young girl in whom she suddenly recognized her niece. She screamed in her terror: “François, François!” This was her brother's name, and she thought he was outside. Her scream scared the girl, who ran out of the door. All was still outside. Once more she screamed “François!” and, tottering as far as the door, she saw her niece clinging to a strange man in a red cap and with a sabre by his side who yelled excitedly: “You won't see François again. Vive la République!”
“I recognized the son Bron,” went on Catherine. “I knew his parents. When the troubles began he left his home to follow the Revolution. I walked straight up to him and took the girl away from his side. She didn't want much coaxing. The child always loved me,” she continued, getting up from the stool and moving a little closer to Peyrol. “She remembered her Aunt Catherine. I tore the horrid blanket off her shoulders. Her hair was clotted with blood and her clothes all stained with it. I took her upstairs. She was as helpless as a little child. I undressed her and examined her all over. She had no hurt anywhere. I was sure of that — but of what more could I be sure? I couldn't make sense of the things she babbled at me. Her very voice distracted me. She fell asleep directly I had put her into my bed, and I stood there looking down at her, nearly going out of my mind with the thought of what that child may have been dragged through. When I went downstairs I found that good-for-nothing inside the house. He was ranting up and down the salle, vapouring and boasting till I thought all this must be an awful dream. My head was in a whirl. He laid claim to her, and God knows what. I seemed to understand things that made my hair stir on my head. I stood there clasping my hands with all the strength I had, for fear I should go out of my senses.”
“He frightened you,” said Peyrol, looking at her steadily. Catherine moved a step nearer to him.
“What? The son Bron, frighten me! He was the butt of all the girls, mooning about amongst the people outside the church on feast days in the time of the king. All the countryside knew about him. No. What I said to myself was that I mustn't let him kill me. There upstairs was the child I had just got away from him, and there was I, all alone with that man with the sabre and unable to get hold of a kitchen knife even.”
“And so he remained,” said Peyrol.
“What would you have had me to do?” asked Catherine steadily. “He had brought the child back out of those shambles. It was a long time before I got an idea of what had happened. I don't know everything even yet and I suppose I will never know. In a very few days my mind was more at case about Arlette, but it was a long time before she would speak and then it was never anything to the purpose. And what could I have done single-handed? There was nobody I would condescend to call to my help. We of the Escampobar have never been in favour with the peasants here,” she said, proudly. “And this is all I can tell you.”
Her voice faltered, she sat down on the stool again and took her chin in the palm of her hand. As Peyrol left the house to go to the hamlet he saw Arlette and the patron come round the corner of the yard wall walking side by side but as if unconscious of each other.
That night he slept on board the renovated tartane and the rising sun found him at work about the hull. By that time he had ceased to be the object of awed contemplation to the inhabitants of the hamlet who still, however, kept up a mistrustful attitude. His only intermediary for communicating with them was the miserable cripple. He was Peyrol's only company, in fact, during his period of work on the tartane. He had more activity, audacity, and intelligence, it seemed to Peyrol, than all the rest of the inhabitants put together. Early in the morning he could be seen making his way on his crutches with a pendulum motion towards the hull on which Peyrol would have been already an hour or so at work. Peyrol then would throw him over a sound rope's end and the cripple, leaning his crutches against the side of the tartane, would pull his wretched little carcass, all withered below the waist, up the rope, hand over hand, with extreme ease. There, sitting on the small foredeck, with his back against the mast and his thin, twisted legs folded in front of him, he would keep Peyrol company, talking to him along the whole length of the tartane in a strained voice and sharing his midday meal, as of right, since it was he generally who brought the provisions slung round his neck in a quaint flat basket. Thus were the hours of labour shortened for Peyrol by shrewd remarks and bits of local gossip. How the cripple got hold of it it was difficult to imagine, and the rover had not enough knowledge of European superstitions to suspect him of flying through the night on a broomstick like a sort of male witch — for there was a manliness in that twisted scrap of humanity which struck Peyrol from the first. His very voice was manly and the character of his gossip was not feminine. He did indeed mention to Peyrol that people used to take him about the neighbourhood in carts for the purpose of playing a fiddle at weddings and other festive occasions; but this seemed hardly adequate, and even he himself confessed that there was not much of that sort of thing going on during the Revolution when people didn't like to attract attention and everything was done in a hole-and-corner manner. There were no priests to officiate at weddings, and if there were no ceremonies how could there be rejoicings? Of course children were born as before, but there were no christenings — and people got to look funny somehow or other. Their countenances got changed somehow; the very boys and girls seemed to have something on their minds.
Peyrol, busy about one thing and another, listened without appearing to pay much attention to the story of the Revolution, as if to the tale of an intelligent islander on the other side of the world talking of bloody rites and amazing hopes of some religion unknown to the rest of mankind. But there was something biting in the speech of that cripple which confused his thoughts a little. Sarcasm was a mystery which he could not understand. On one occasion he remarked to his friend the cripple as they sat together on the foredeck munching the bread and figs of their midday meal:
“There must have been something in it. But it doesn't seem to have done much for you people here.”
“To be sure,” retorted the scrap of man vivaciously, “it hasn't straightened my back or given me a pair of legs like yours.”
Peyrol, whose trousers were rolled up above the knee because he had been washing the hold, looked at his calves complacently. “You could hardly have expected that,” he remarked with simplicity.
“Ah, but you don't know what people with properly made bodies expected or pretended to,” said the cripple. “Everything was going to be changed. Everybody was going to tie up his dog with a string of sausages for the sake of principles.” His long face which, in repose, had an expression of suffering peculiar to cripples, was lighted up by an enormous grin. “They must feel jolly well sold by this time,” he added. “And of course that vexes them, but I am not vexed. I was never vexed with my father and mother. While the poor things were alive I never went hungry — not very hungry. They couldn't have been very proud of me.” He paused and seemed to contemplate himself mentally. “I don't know what I would have done in their place. Something very different. But then, don't you see, I know what it means to be like I am. Of course they couldn't know, and I don't suppose the poor people had very much sense. A priest from Almanarre — Almanarre is a sort of village up there where there is a church . . . .”
Peyrol interrupted him by remarking that he knew all about Almanarre. This, on his part, was a simple delusion because in reality he knew much less of Almanarre than of Zanzibar or any pirate village from there up to Cape Guardafui. And the cripple contemplated him with his brown eyes which had an upward cast naturally.
“You know. . .! For me,” he went on, in a tone of quiet decision, “you are a man fallen from the sky. Well, a priest from Almanarre came to bury them. A fine man with a stern face. The finest man I have seen from that time till you dropped on us here. There was a story of a girl having fallen in love with him some years before. I was old enough then to have heard something of it, but that's neither here nor there. Moreover, many people wouldn't believe the tale.”
Peyrol, without looking at the cripple, tried to imagine what sort of child he might have been — what sort of youth? The rover had seen staggering deformities, dreadful mutilations which were the cruel work of man; but it was amongst people with dusky skins. And that made a great difference. But what he had heard and seen since he had come back to his native land, the tales, the facts, and also the faces, reached his sensibility with a particular force, because of that feeling that came to him so suddenly after a whole lifetime spent amongst Indians, Malagashes, Arabs, blackamoors of all sorts, that he belonged there, to this land, and had escaped all those things by a mere hair's breadth. His companion completed his significant silence, which seemed to have been occupied with thoughts very much like his own, by saying:
“All this was in the king's time. They didn't cut off his head till several years afterwards. It didn't make my life any easier for me, but since those Republicans had deposed God and flung Him out of all the churches I have forgiven Him all my troubles.”
“Spoken like a man,” said Peyrol. Only the misshapen character of the cripple's back prevented Peyrol from giving him a hearty slap. He got up to begin his afternoon's work. It was a bit of inside painting and from the foredeck the cripple watched him at it with dreamy eyes and something ironic on his lips.
It was not till the sun had travelled over Cape Cicié, which could be seen across the water like dark mist in the glare, that he opened his lips to ask: “And what do you propose to do with this tartane, citoyen?”
Peyrol answered simply that the tartane was fit to go anywhere now, the very moment she took the water.
“You could go as far as Genoa and Naples and even further,” suggested the cripple.
“Much further,” said Peyrol.
“And you have been fitting her out like this for a voyage?”
“Certainly,” said Peyrol, using his brush steadily.
“Somehow I fancy it will not be a long one.”
Peyrol never checked the to-and-fro movement of his brush, but it was with an effort. The fact was that he had discovered in himself a distinct reluctance to go away from the Escampobar Farm. His desire to have something of his own that could float was no longer associated with any desire to wander. The cripple was right. The voyage of the renovated tartane would not take her very far. What was surprising was the fellow being so very positive about it. He seemed able to read people's thoughts.
The dragging of the renovated tartane into the water was a great affair. Everybody in the hamlet, including the women, did a full day's work and there was never so much coin passed from hand to hand in the hamlet in all the days of its obscure history. Swinging between his crutches on a low sand-ridge the cripple surveyed the whole of the beach. It was he that had persuaded the villagers to lend a hand and had arranged the terms for their assistance. It was he also who through a very miserable-looking pedlar (the only one who frequented the peninsula) had got in touch with some rich persons in Fréjus who had changed for Peyrol a few of his gold pieces for current money. He had expedited the course of the most exciting and interesting experience of his life, and now planted on the sand on his two sticks in the manner of a beacon he watched the last operation. The rover, as if about to launch himself upon a track of a thousand miles, walked up to shake hands with him and look once more at the soft eyes and the ironic smile.
“There is no denying it — you are a man.”
“Don't talk like this to me, citoyen,” said the cripple in a trembling voice. Till then, suspended between his two sticks and with his shoulders as high as his ears, he had not looked towards the approaching Peyrol. “This is too much of a compliment!”
“I tell you,” insisted the rover roughly, and as if the insignificance of mortal envelopes had presented itself to him for the first time at the end of his roving life, “I tell you that there is that in you which would make a chum one would like to have alongside one in a tight place.”
As he went away from the cripple towards the tartane, while the whole population of the hamlet disposed around her waited for his word, some on land and some waist-deep in the water holding ropes in their hands, Peyrol had a slight shudder at the thought: “Suppose I had been born like that.” Ever since he had put his foot on his native land such thoughts had haunted him. They would have been impossible anywhere else. He could not have been like any blackamoor, good, bad, or indifferent, hale or crippled, king or slave; but here, on this Southern shore that had called to him irresistibly as he had approached the Straits of Gibraltar on what he had felt to be his last voyage, any woman, lean and old enough, might have been his mother; he might have been any Frenchman of them all, even one of those he pitied, even one of those he despised. He felt the grip of his origins from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet while he clambered on board the tartane as if for a long and distant voyage. As a matter of fact he knew very well that with a bit of luck it would be over in about an hour. When the tartane took the water the feeling of being afloat plucked at his very heart. Some Madrague fishermen had been persuaded by the cripple to help old Peyrol to sail the tartane round to the cove below the Escampobar Farm. A glorious sun shone upon that short passage and the cove itself was full of sparkling light when they arrived. The few Escampobar goats wandering on the hillside pretending to feed where no grass was visible to the naked eye never even raised their heads. A gentle breeze drove the tartane, as fresh as paint could make her, opposite a narrow crack in the cliff which gave admittance to a tiny basin, no bigger than a village pond, concealed at the foot of the southern hill. It was there that old Peyrol, aided by the Madrague men, who had their boat with them, towed his ship, the first really that he ever owned.
Once in, the tartane nearly filled the little basin, and the fishermen, getting into their boat, rowed away for home. Peyrol, by spending the afternoon in dragging ropes ashore and fastening them to various boulders and dwarf trees, moored her to his complete satisfaction. She was as safe from the tempests there as a house ashore.
After he had made everything fast on board and had furled the sails neatly, a matter of some time for one man, Peyrol contemplated his arrangements which savoured of rest much more than of wandering, and found them good. Though he never meant to abandon his room at the farmhouse he felt that his true home was in the tartane, and he rejoiced at the idea that it was concealed from all eyes except perhaps the eyes of the goats when their arduous feeding took them on the southern slope. He lingered on board, he even threw open the sliding door of the little cabin, which now smelt of fresh paint, not of stale blood. Before he started for the farm the sun had travelled far beyond Spain and all the sky to the west was yellow, while on the side of Italy it presented a sombre canopy pierced here and there with the light of stars. Catherine put a plate on the table, but nobody asked him any questions.
He spent a lot of his time on board, going down early, coming up at midday “pour manger la soupe,” and sleeping on board almost every night. He did not like to leave the tartane alone for so many hours. Often, having climbed a little way up to the house, he would turn round for a last look at her in the gathering dusk, and actually would go back again. After Michel had been enlisted for a crew and had taken his abode on board for good, Peyrol found it a much easier matter to spend his nights in the lantern-like room at the top of the farmhouse.
Often waking up at night he would get up to look at the starry sky out of all his three windows in succession, and think: “Now there is nothing in the world to prevent me getting out to sea in less than an hour.” As a matter of fact it was possible for two men to manage the tartane. Thus Peyrol's thought was comfortingly true in every way, for he loved to feel himself free, and Michel of the lagoon, after the death of his depressed dog, had no tie on earth. It was a fine thought which somehow made it quite easy for Peyrol to go back to his four-poster and resume his slumbers.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48