Joseph Conrad.

Tales Of Hearsay online

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more solid than the earth. A cold brilliant sun glided low above an
undulating horizon of great folds of snow in which the villages of
Ukrainian peasants remained out of sight, like clusters of boats hidden
in the hollows of a running sea. And everything was very still.

"I don't know now how I had managed to escape at eleven o'clock in the
morning from the schoolroom. I was a boy of eight, the little girl,
my cousin, a few months younger than myself, though hereditarily more
quick-tempered, was less adventurous. So I had escaped alone; and
presently I found myself in the great stone-paved hall, warmed by a
monumental stove of white tiles, a much more pleasant locality than the
schoolroom, which for some reason or other, perhaps hygienic, was always
kept at a low temperature.

"We children were aware that there was a guest staying in the house. He
had arrived the night before just as we were being driven off to bed.
We broke back through the line of beaters to rush and flatten our noses
against the dark window panes; but we were too late to see him alight.
We had only watched in a ruddy glare the big travelling carriage on
sleigh-runners harnessed with six horses, a black mass against the snow,
going off to the stables, preceded by a horseman carrying a blazing ball
of tow and resin in an iron basket at the end of a long stick swung from
his saddle bow. Two stable boys had been sent out early in the afternoon
along the snow-tracks to meet the expected guest at dusk and light his
way with these road torches. At that time, you must remember, there
was not a single mile of railways in our southern provinces. My little
cousin and I had no knowledge of trains and engines, except from
picture-books, as of things rather vague, extremely remote, and not
particularly interesting unless to grownups who travelled abroad.

"Our notion of princes, perhaps a little more precise, was mainly
literary and had a glamour reflected from the light of fairy tales, in
which princes always appear young, charming, heroic, and fortunate. Yet,
as well as any other children, we could draw a firm line between the
real and the ideal. We knew that princes were historical personages. And
there was some glamour in that fact, too. But what had driven me to
roam cautiously over the house like an escaped prisoner was the hope of
snatching an interview with a special friend of mine, the head forester,
who generally came to make his report at that time of the day, I yearned
for news of a certain wolf. You know, in a country where wolves are to
be found, every winter almost brings forward an individual eminent by
the audacity of his misdeeds, by his more perfect wolfishness - so to
speak. I wanted to hear some new thrilling tale of that wolf - perhaps
the dramatic story of his death....

"But there was no one in the hall.

"Deceived in my hopes, I became suddenly very much depressed. Unable to
slip back in triumph to my studies I elected to stroll spiritlessly into
the billiard room where certainly I had no business. There was no one
there either, and I felt very lost and desolate under its high ceiling,
all alone with the massive English billiard table which seemed, in
heavy, rectilinear silence, to disapprove of that small boy's intrusion.

"As I began to think of retreat I heard footsteps in the adjoining
drawing room; and, before I could turn tail and flee, my uncle and his
guest appeared in the doorway. To run away after having been seen
would have been highly improper, so I stood my ground. My uncle looked
surprised to see me; the guest by his side was a spare man, of average
stature, buttoned up in a black frock coat and holding himself very
erect with a stiffly soldier-like carriage. From the folds of a soft
white cambric neck-cloth peeped the points of a collar close against
each shaven cheek. A few wisps of thin gray hair were brushed smoothly
across the top of his bald head. His face, which must have been
beautiful in its day, had preserved in age the harmonious simplicity
of its lines. What amazed me was its even, almost deathlike pallor. He
seemed to me to be prodigiously old. A faint smile, a mere momentary
alteration in the set of his thin lips acknowledged my blushing
confusion; and I became greatly interested to see him reach into the
inside breastpocket of his coat. He extracted therefrom a lead pencil
and a block of detachable pages, which he handed to my uncle with an
almost imperceptible bow.

"I was very much astonished, but my uncle received it as a matter
of course. He wrote something at which the other glanced and nodded
slightly. A thin wrinkled hand - the hand was older than the face - patted
my cheek and then rested on my head lightly. An un-ringing voice, a
voice as colourless as the face itself, issued from his sunken lips,
while the eyes, dark and still, looked down at me kindly.

"'And how old is this shy little boy?'"

"Before I could answer my uncle wrote down my age on the pad. I was
deeply impressed. What was this ceremony? Was this personage too great
to be spoken to? Again he glanced at the pad, and again gave a nod, and
again that impersonal, mechanical voice was heard: 'He resembles his
grandfather.'

"I remembered my paternal grandfather. He had died not long before. He,
too, was prodigiously old. And to me it seemed perfectly natural that
two such ancient and venerable persons should have known each other in
the dim ages of creation before my birth. But my uncle obviously had
not been aware of the fact. So obviously that the mechanical voice
explained: 'Yes, yes. Comrades in '31. He was one of those who knew.
Old times, my dear sir, old times....'

"He made a gesture as if to put aside an importunate ghost. And now they
were both looking down at me. I wondered whether anything was expected
from me. To my round, questioning eyes my uncle remarked: 'He's
completely deaf.' And the unrelated, inexpressive voice said: 'Give me
your hand.'

"Acutely conscious of inky fingers I put it out timidly. I had never
seen a deaf person before and was rather startled. He pressed it firmly
and then gave me a final pat on the head.

"My uncle addressed me weightily: 'You have shaken hands with Prince
Roman S - - - - -. It's something for you to remember when you grow up.'

"I was impressed by his tone. I had enough historical information to
know vaguely that the Princes S - - - - - counted amongst the sovereign
Princes of Ruthenia till the union of all Ruthenian lands to the kingdom
of Poland, when they became great Polish magnates, sometime at the
beginning of the 15th Century. But what concerned me most was the
failure of the fairy-tale glamour. It was shocking to discover a prince
who was deaf, bald, meagre, and so prodigiously old. It never occurred
to me that this imposing and disappointing man had been young, rich,
beautiful; I could not know that he had been happy in the felicity of an
ideal marriage uniting two young hearts, two great names and two great
fortunes; happy with a happiness which, as in fairy tales, seemed
destined to last for ever....

"But it did not last for ever. It was fated not to last very long even
by the measure of the days allotted to men's passage on this earth where
enduring happiness is only found in the conclusion of fairy tales. A
daughter was born to them and shortly afterwards, the health of the
young princess began to fail. For a time she bore up with smiling
intrepidity, sustained by the feeling that now her existence was
necessary for the happiness of two lives. But at last the husband,
thoroughly alarmed by the rapid changes in her appearance, obtained an
unlimited leave and took her away from the capital to his parents in the
country.

"The old prince and princess were extremely frightened at the state
of their beloved daughter-in-law. Preparations were at once made for a
journey abroad. But it seemed as if it were already too late; and the
invalid herself opposed the project with gentle obstinacy. Thin and pale
in the great armchair, where the insidious and obscure nervous malady
made her appear smaller and more frail every day without effacing the
smile of her eyes or the charming grace of her wasted face, she clung to
her native land and wished to breathe her native air. Nowhere else could
she expect to get well so quickly, nowhere else would it be so easy for
her to die.

"She died before her little girl was two years old. The grief of
the husband was terrible and the more alarming to his parents because
perfectly silent and dry-eyed. After the funeral, while the immense
bareheaded crowd of peasants surrounding the private chapel on the
grounds was dispersing, the Prince, waving away his friends and
relations, remained alone to watch the masons of the estate closing the
family vault. When the last stone was in position he uttered a groan,
the first sound of pain which had escaped from him for days, and walking
away with lowered head shut himself up again in his apartments.

"His father and mother feared for his reason. His outward tranquillity
was appalling to them. They had nothing to trust to but that very youth
which made his despair so self-absorbed and so intense. Old Prince John,
fretful and anxious, repeated: 'Poor Roman should be roused somehow.
He's so young.' But they could find nothing to rouse him with. And the
old princess, wiping her eyes, wished in her heart he were young enough
to come and cry at her knee.

"In time Prince Roman, making an effort, would join now and again the
family circle. But it was as if his heart and his mind had been buried
in the family vault with the wife he had lost. He took to wandering in
the woods with a gun, watched over secretly by one of the keepers, who
would report in the evening that 'His Serenity has never fired a shot
all day.' Sometimes walking to the stables in the morning he would order
in subdued tones a horse to be saddled, wait switching his boot till it
was led up to him, then mount without a word and ride out of the gates
at a walking pace. He would be gone all day. People saw him on the
roads looking neither to the right nor to the left, white-faced, sitting
rigidly in the saddle like a horseman of stone on a living mount.

"The peasants working in the fields, the great unhedged fields, looked
after him from the distance; and sometimes some sympathetic old woman on
the threshold of a low, thatched hut was moved to make the sign of the
cross in the air behind his back; as though he were one of themselves, a
simple village soul struck by a sore affliction.

"He rode looking straight ahead seeing no one as if the earth were empty
and all mankind buried in that grave which had opened so suddenly in
his path to swallow up his happiness. What were men to him with their
sorrows, joys, labours and passions from which she who had been all the
world to him had been cut off so early?

"They did not exist; and he would have felt as completely lonely and
abandoned as a man in the toils of a cruel nightmare if it had not been
for this countryside where he had been born and had spent his happy
boyish years. He knew it well - every slight rise crowned with trees
amongst the ploughed fields, every dell concealing a village. The dammed
streams made a chain of lakes set in the green meadows. Far away to the
north the great Lithuanian forest faced the sun, no higher than a hedge;
and to the south, the way to the plains, the vast brown spaces of the
earth touched the blue sky.

"And this familiar landscape associated with the days without thought
and without sorrow, this land the charm of which he felt without even
looking at it soothed his pain, like the presence of an old friend who
sits silent and disregarded by one in some dark hour of life.

"One afternoon, it happened that the Prince after turning his horse's
head for home remarked a low dense cloud of dark dust cutting off
slantwise a part of the view. He reined in on a knoll and peered.
There were slender gleams of steel here and there in that cloud, and it
contained moving forms which revealed themselves at last as a long line
of peasant carts full of soldiers, moving slowly in double file under
the escort of mounted Cossacks.

"It was like an immense reptile creeping over the fields; its head
dipped out of sight in a slight hollow and its tail went on writhing and
growing shorter as though the monster were eating its way slowly into
the very heart of the land.

"The Prince directed his way through a village lying a little off
the track. The roadside inn with its stable, byre, and barn under one
enormous thatched roof resembled a deformed, hunch-backed, ragged giant,
sprawling amongst the small huts of the peasants. The innkeeper, a
portly, dignified Jew, clad in a black satin coat reaching down to his
heels and girt with a red sash, stood at the door stroking his long
silvery beard.

"He watched the Prince approach and bowed gravely from the waist, not
expecting to be noticed even, since it was well known that their young
lord had no eyes for anything or anybody in his grief. It was quite a
shock for him when the Prince pulled up and asked:

"'What's all this, Yankel?'

"'That is, please your Serenity, that is a convoy of footsoldiers they
are hurrying down to the south.'

"He glanced right and left cautiously, but as there was no one near but
some children playing in the dust of the village street, he came up
close to the stirrup.

"'Doesn't your Serenity know? It has begun already down there. All the
landowners great and small are out in arms and even the common people
have risen. Only yesterday the saddler from Grodek (it was a tiny
market-town near by) went through here with his two apprentices on his
way to join. He left even his cart with me. I gave him a guide through
our neighbourhood. You know, your Serenity, our people they travel a lot
and they see all that's going on, and they know all the roads.'

"He tried to keep down his excitement, for the Jew Yankel, innkeeper and
tenant of all the mills on the estate, was a Polish patriot. And in a
still lower voice:

"'I was already a married man when the French and all the other nations
passed this way with Napoleon. Tse! Tse! That was a great harvest for
death, _nu!_ Perhaps this time God will help.'

"The Prince nodded. 'Perhaps' - and falling into deep meditation he let
his horse take him home.

"That night he wrote a letter, and early in the morning sent a mounted
express to the post town. During the day he came out of his taciturnity,
to the great joy of the family circle, and conversed with his father
of recent events - the revolt in Warsaw, the flight of the Grand Duke
Constantine, the first slight successes of the Polish army (at that time
there was a Polish army); the risings in the provinces. Old Prince John,
moved and uneasy, speaking from a purely aristocratic point of view,
mistrusted the popular origins of the movement, regretted its democratic
tendencies, and did not believe in the possibility of success. He was
sad, inwardly agitated.

"'I am judging all this calmly. There are secular principles of
legitimity and order which have been violated in this reckless
enterprise for the sake of most subversive illusions. Though of course
the patriotic impulses of the heart....'

"Prince Roman had listened in a thoughtful attitude. He took advantage
of the pause to tell his father quietly that he had sent that morning a
letter to St. Petersburg resigning his commission in the Guards.

"The old prince remained silent. He thought that he ought to have been
consulted. His son was also ordnance officer to the Emperor and he
knew that the Tsar would never forget this appearance of defection in a
Polish noble. In a discontented tone he pointed out to his son that as
it was he had an unlimited leave. The right thing would have been to
keep quiet. They had too much tact at Court to recall a man of his
name. Or at worst some distant mission might have been asked for - to the
Caucasus for instance - away from this unhappy struggle which was wrong
in principle and therefore destined to fail.

"'Presently you shall find yourself without any interest in life and
with no occupation. And you shall need something to occupy you, my poor
boy. You have acted rashly, I fear.'

"Prince Roman murmured.

"'I thought it better.'

"His father faltered under his steady gaze.

"'Well, well - perhaps! But as ordnance officer to the Emperor and in
favour with all the Imperial family....'

"'Those people had never been heard of when our house was already
illustrious,' the young man let fall disdainfully.

"This was the sort of remark to which the old prince was sensible.

"'Well - perhaps it is better,' he conceded at last.

"The father and son parted affectionately for the night. The next
day Prince Roman seemed to have fallen back into the depths of his
indifference. He rode out as usual. He remembered that the day before
he had seen a reptile-like convoy of soldiery, bristling with bayonets,
crawling over the face of that land which was his. The woman he loved
had been his, too. Death had robbed him of her. Her loss had been to him
a moral shock. It had opened his heart to a greater sorrow, his mind
to a vaster thought, his eyes to all the past and to the existence of
another love fraught with pain but as mysteriously imperative as that
lost one to which he had entrusted his happiness.

"That evening he retired earlier than usual and rang for his personal
servant.

"'Go and see if there is light yet in the quarters of the
Master-of-the-Horse. If he is still up ask him to come and speak to me.'

"While the servant was absent on this errand the Prince tore up hastily
some papers, locked the drawers of his desk, and hung a medallion,
containing the miniature of his wife, round his neck against his breast.

"The man the Prince was expecting belonged to that past which the death
of his love had called to life. He was of a family of small nobles who
for generations had been adherents, servants, and friends of the Princes
S - - - - -. He remembered the times before the last partition and had
taken part in the struggles of the last hour. He was a typical old Pole
of that class, with a great capacity for emotion, for blind enthusiasm;
with martial instincts and simple beliefs; and even with the old-time
habit of larding his speech with Latin words. And his kindly shrewd
eyes, his ruddy face, his lofty brow and his thick, gray, pendent
moustache were also very typical of his kind.

"'Listen, Master Francis,' the Prince said familiarly and without
preliminaries. 'Listen, old friend. I am going to vanish from here
quietly. I go where something louder than my grief and yet something
with a voice very like it calls me. I confide in you alone. You will say
what's necessary when the time comes.'

"The old man understood. His extended hands trembled exceedingly. But
as soon as he found his voice he thanked God aloud for letting him
live long enough to see the descendant of the illustrious family in its
youngest generation give an example _coram Gentibus_ of the love of his
country and of valour in the field. He doubted not of his dear Prince
attaining a place in council and in war worthy of his high birth; he saw
already that _in fulgore_ of family glory _affulget patride serenitas_.
At the end of the speech he burst into tears and fell into the Prince's
arms.

"The Prince quieted the old man and when he had him seated in an
armchair and comparatively composed he said:

"'Don't misunderstand me, Master Francis. You know how I loved my wife.
A loss like that opens one's eyes to unsuspected truths. There is no
question here of leadership and glory. I mean to go alone and to fight
obscurely in the ranks. I am going to offer my country what is mine to
offer, that is my life, as simply as the saddler from Grodek who went
through yesterday with his apprentices.'

"The old man cried out at this. That could never be. He could not allow
it. But he had to give way before the arguments and the express will
of the Prince. "'Ha! If you say that it is a matter of feeling and
conscience - so be it. But you cannot go utterly alone. Alas! that I am
too old to be of any use. _Cripit verba dolor_, my dear Prince, at the
thought that I am over seventy and of no more account in the world than
a cripple in the church porch. It seems that to sit at home and pray to
God for the nation and for you is all I am fit for. But there is my son,
my youngest son, Peter. He will make a worthy companion for you. And
as it happens he's staying with me here. There has not been for ages a
Prince S - - - - - hazarding his life without a companion of our name to
ride by his side. You must have by you somebody who knows who you are if
only to let your parents and your old servant hear what is happening to
you. And when does your Princely Mightiness mean to start?'

"'In an hour,' said the Prince; and the old man hurried off to warn his
son.

"Prince Roman took up a candlestick and walked quietly along a dark
corridor in the silent house. The head-nurse said afterwards that waking
up suddenly she saw the Prince looking at his child, one hand shading
the light from its eyes. He stood and gazed at her for some time, and
then putting the candlestick on the floor bent over the cot and kissed
lightly the little girl who did not wake. He went out noiselessly,
taking the light away with him. She saw his face perfectly well, but she
could read nothing of his purpose in it. It was pale but perfectly calm
and after he turned away from the cot he never looked back at it once.

"The only other trusted person, besides the old man and his son Peter,
was the Jew Yankel. When he asked the Prince where precisely he wanted
to be guided the Prince answered: 'To the nearest party.' A grandson
of the Jew, a lanky youth, conducted the two young men by little-known
paths across woods and morasses, and led them in sight of the few fires
of a small detachment camped in a hollow. Some invisible horses neighed,
a voice in the dark cried: 'Who goes there?'... and the young Jew
departed hurriedly, explaining that he must make haste home to be in
time for keeping the Sabbath.

"Thus humbly and in accord with the simplicity of the vision of duty he
saw when death had removed the brilliant bandage of happiness from his
eyes, did Prince Roman bring his offering to his country. His companion
made himself known as the son of the Master of-the-Horse to the Princes
S - - - - - and declared him to be a relation, a distant cousin from the
same parts as himself and, as people presumed, of the same name. In
truth no one inquired much. Two more young men clearly of the right sort
had joined. Nothing more natural.

"Prince Roman did not remain long in the south. One day while scouting
with several others, they were ambushed near the entrance of a village
by some Russian infantry. The first discharge laid low a good many and
the rest scattered in all directions. The Russians, too, did not stay,
being afraid of a return in force. After some time, the peasants coming
to view the scene extricated Prince Roman from under his dead horse. He
was unhurt but his faithful companion had been one of the first to fall.
The Prince helped the peasants to bury him and the other dead.

"Then alone, not certain where to find the body of partizans which was
constantly moving about in all directions, he resolved to try and join
the main Polish army facing the Russians on the borders of Lithuania.
Disguised in peasant clothes, in case of meeting some marauding
Cossacks, he wandered a couple of weeks before he came upon a village
occupied by a regiment of Polish cavalry on outpost duty.

"On a bench, before a peasant hut of a better sort, sat an elderly
officer whom he took for the colonel. The Prince approached
respectfully, told his story shortly and stated his desire to enlist;
and when asked his name by the officer, who had been looking him over
carefully, he gave on the spur of the moment the name of his dead
companion.

"The elderly officer thought to himself: Here's the son of some peasant
proprietor of the liberated class. He liked his appearance.

"'And can you read and write, my good fellow?'he asked.

"'Yes, your honour, I can,' said the Prince.

"'Good. Come along inside the hut; the regimental adjutant is there. He
will enter your name and administer the oath to you.'

"The adjutant stared very hard at the newcomer but said nothing. When
all the forms had been gone through and the recruit gone out, he turned
to his superior officer.

"'Do you know who that is?'


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Online LibraryJoseph ConradTales Of Hearsay → online text (page 3 of 8)