Sunday, 14/07/2024 - 23:32

The old man slowly lifted his head.

He who had addressed him was about thirty years of age. The tan of the sea was upon his brow; there was something unusual about his eyes, as if the simple pupils of the peasant had taken on the keen expression of the sailor; he held his oars firmly in his hands. He looked gentle enough. In his belt he wore a dirk, two pistols, and a rosary.

“Who are you?” said the old man.

“I have just told you.”

“What do you wish?”

The man dropped the oars, folded his arms, and replied, –

“To kill you.”

“As you please!” replied the old man.

The man raised his voice.

“Prepare yourself.”

“For what?”

“To die.”

“Why?” inquired the old man.

A silence followed. For a moment the question seemed to abash the man. He continued, –

“I tell you that I mean to kill you.”

“And I ask of you the reason.”

The sailor’s eyes flashed.

“Because you killed my brother.”

The old man answered quietly, –

“I saved his life at first.”

“True. You saved him first, but you killed him afterwards.”

“It was not I who killed him.”

“Who was it, then?”

“His own fault.”

The sailor gazed on the old man open-mouthed; then once more his brows contracted savagely.

“What is your name?” asked the old man.

“My name is Halmalo, but I can kill you all the same, whether you know my name or not.”

Just then the sun rose; a ray struck the sailor full in the face, vividly illumining that wild countenance.

The old man studied it closely. The cannonading, though not yet ended, was no longer continuous. A dense smoke had settled upon the horizon. The boat, left to itself, was drifting to leeward.

With his right hand the sailor seized one of the pistols at his belt, while in his left he held his rosary.

The old man rose to his feet.

“Do you believe in God?” he asked.

“‘Our Father who art in heaven.'” replied the sailor.

Then he made the sign of the cross.

“Have you a mother?”

He crossed himself again, saying, –

“I have said all I have to say. I give you one minute longer, my lord.”

And he cocked the pistol.

“Why do you call me ‘My lord’?”

“Because you are one. That is evident enough.”

“Have you a lord yourself?”

“Yes, and a grand one too. Is one likely to be without a lord?”

“Where is he?”

“I do not know. He has left the country. His name is Marquis de Lantenac, Viscount de Fontenay, Prince in Brittany; he is lord of the Sept-Forêts. I never saw him, but he is my master all the same.”

“If you were to see him, would you obey him?”

“Of course I should be a heathen were I not to obey him! We owe obedience to God, and after that to the king, who is like unto God, and then to the lord, who is like the king. But that has nothing to do with the question; you have killed my brother, and I must kill you.”

The old man replied, –

“Let us say, then, that I did kill your brother; I did well.”

The sailor had closed more firmly upon his pistol.

“Come!” he said.

“So be it,” said the old man.

And he added composedly, –

“Where is the priest?”

The sailor looked at him.

“The priest?”

“Yes. I gave your brother a priest; therefore it is your duty to provide one for me.”

“But I have none,” replied the sailor.

And he continued, –

“How do you expect to find a priest here on the open sea?”

The convulsive explosions of the battle sounded more and more distant.

“Those who are dying yonder have their priest,” said the old man.

“I know it,” muttered the sailor; “they have the chaplain.”

The old man went on, –

“If you make me lose my soul, it will be a serious matter.”

The sailor thoughtfully bent his head.

“And if my soul is lost,” continued the old man, “yours will be lost also. Listen to me; I feel pity for you. You shall do as you like. For my part, I only fulfilled my duty when I first saved your brother’s life and afterwards took it from him; and at the present moment I am doing my duty in trying to save your soul. Reflect; for it is a matter that concerns you. Do you hear the cannon-shots? Men are dying over yonder; desperate men, in their last agony, husbands who will never see their wives, fathers who will never see their children, brothers who, like yourself, will never see their brothers. And who is to blame for it? Your own brother. You believe in God, do you not? If so, you know that God is suffering now. He is suffering in the person of his son, the most Christian king of France, who is a child like the child Jesus, and who is now imprisoned in the Temple; God is suffering in his Church of Brittany, in his desecrated cathedrals, in his Gospels torn to fragments, in his violated houses of prayer, in his murdered priests. What were we about to do with that ship which is perishing at this moment? We were going to the relief of the Lord. If your brother had been a trustworthy servant, if he had performed his duties faithfully, like a good and useful man, no misfortune would have happened to the carronade, the corvette would not have been disabled, she would not have got out of her course and fallen into the hands of that cursed fleet, and we should all now be landing in France, brave sailors and soldiers as we were, sword in hand, with our white banner unfurled, a multitude of contented, happy men, advancing to the rescue of the brave Vendean peasants, on our way to save France, the king, and Almighty God. That is what we were intending to do, what we should have done, and what I, the only one remaining, still propose to do. But you intend to prevent me. In this struggle of impious men against priests, in this conflict of regicides against the king, of Satan against God, you range yourself in the ranks of Satan. Your brother was the Devil’s first assistant, you are his second. What he began you mean to finish. You are for the regicides against the throne; you take sides with the impious against the Church. You take away the Lord’s last resource. For, as I shall not be there, – I, who represent the king, – villages will continue to burn, families to mourn, priests to bleed, Brittany to suffer, the king to remain imprisoned, and Jesus Christ to grieve over his people. And who will have caused all this? You. Well, you are carrying out your own plans. I expected far different things from you, but I was mistaken. It is true that I killed your brother. He played a brave part, for that I rewarded him; he was guilty, therefore I punished him. He failed in his duty; I have not failed in mine. What I did I would do again; and I swear by the great Saint Anne of Auray, who looks down on us, that under like circumstances I would shoot my own son just as I shot your brother. Now you are the master. Indeed, I pity you. You have broken your word to the captain, – you, Christian without faith; you, Breton without honor. I was intrusted to your loyalty, and you accepted the trust meaning to betray it; you offer my death to those to whom you have promised my life. Do you realize whom you are destroying here? It is your own self. You rob the king of my life, and you consign yourself forever to the Devil. Go on, commit your crime. You set a low value on your share in Paradise. Thanks to you, the Devil will conquer; thanks to you, the churches will fall; thanks to you, the heathen will go on turning bells into cannon, – men will be shot with the very instrument that once brought to mind the salvation of their souls. Perhaps at this moment, while I still speak to you, the same bell that pealed for your baptism is killing your mother. Go on with the Devil’s work. Do not pause. Yes, I have condemned your brother; but learn this, – I am but a tool in the hands of God. Ah I you pretend to judge God’s ways? You will next sit in judgment on the thunderbolt in the heavens. Wretched man, you will be judged by it. Beware what you do. Do you even know whether I am in a state of grace? No. Never mind, go on; do your will. You have the power to hurl me to perdition, and yourself likewise. Your own damnation, as well as mine, rests in your hands. You will be answerable before God. We are alone, face to face with the abyss; complete your work, make an end of it. I am old, and you are young; I have no weapons, you are armed: kill me.”

While the old man, standing erect, was uttering these words in a voice that rang above the tumult of the sea, the undulations of the waves showed him now in shadow, now in light. The sailor had turned ghostly pale; large drops of moisture fell from his brow; he trembled like a leaf; now and then he kissed his rosary. When the old man finished, he threw away his pistol and fell on his knees.

“Pardon, my lord! forgive me!” he cried. “You speak like our Lord himself. I have been wrong. My brother was guilty. I will do all I can to make amends for his crime. Dispose of me; command me: I will obey.”

“I forgive you,” said the old man.




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