Joseph Conrad.

Tales Of Hearsay online

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"'Who? That Peter? A likely chap.'

"'That's Prince Roman S - - - - -.'

"'Nonsense.'

"But the adjutant was positive. He had seen the Prince several times,
about two years before, in the Castle in Warsaw. He had even spoken to
him once at a reception of officers held by the Grand Duke.

"'He's changed. He seems much older, but I am certain of my man. I have
a good memory for faces.'

"The two officers looked at each other in silence.

"'He's sure to be recognized sooner or later,' murmured the adjutant.
The colonel shrugged his shoulders.

"'It's no affair of ours - if he has a fancy to serve in the ranks. As to
being recognized it's not so likely. All our officers and men come from
the other end of Poland.'

"He meditated gravely for a while, then smiled. 'He told me he could
read and write. There's nothing to prevent me making him a sergeant at
the first opportunity. He's sure to shape all right.'

"Prince Roman as a non-commissioned officer surpassed the colonel's
expectations. Before long Sergeant Peter became famous for his
resourcefulness and courage. It was not the reckless courage of a
desperate man; it was a self-possessed, as if conscientious, valour
which nothing could dismay; a boundless but equable devotion, unaffected
by time, by reverses, by the discouragement of endless retreats, by the
bitterness of waning hopes and the horrors of pestilence added to the
toils and perils of war. It was in this year that the cholera made its
first appearance in Europe. It devastated the camps of both armies,
affecting the firmest minds with the terror of a mysterious death
stalking silently between the piled-up arms and around the bivouac
fires.

"A sudden shriek would wake up the harassed soldiers and they would see
in the glow of embers one of themselves writhe on the ground like a worm
trodden on by an invisible foot. And before the dawn broke he would be
stiff and cold. Parties so visited have been known to rise like one man,
abandon the fire and run off into the night in mute panic. Or a comrade
talking to you on the march would stammer suddenly in the middle of a
sentence, roll affrighted eyes, and fall down with distorted face and
blue lips, breaking the ranks with the convulsions of his agony. Men
were struck in the saddle, on sentry duty, in the firing line, carrying
orders, serving the guns. I have been told that in a battalion forming
under fire with perfect steadiness for the assault of a village, three
cases occurred within five minutes at the head of the column; and the
attack could not be delivered because the leading companies scattered
all over the fields like chaff before the wind.

"Sergeant Peter, young as he was, had a great influence over his men.
It was said that the number of desertions in the squadron in which he
served was less than in any other in the whole of that cavalry division.
Such was supposed to be the compelling example of one man's quiet
intrepidity in facing every form of danger and terror.

"However that may be, he was liked and trusted generally. When the end
came and the remnants of that army corps, hard pressed on all sides,
were preparing to cross the Prussian frontier, Sergeant Peter had enough
influence to rally round him a score of troopers. He managed to escape
with them at night, from the hemmed-in army. He led this band through
200 miles of country covered by numerous Russian detachments and ravaged
by the cholera. But this was not to avoid captivity, to go into hiding
and try to save themselves. No. He led them into a fortress which was
still occupied by the Poles, and where the last stand of the vanquished
revolution was to be made.

"This looks like mere fanaticism. But fanaticism is human. Man has
adored ferocious divinities. There is ferocity in every passion, even
in love itself. The religion of undying hope resembles the mad cult of
despair, of death, of annihilation. The difference lies in the moral
motive springing from the secret needs and the unexpressed aspiration
of the believers. It is only to vain men that all is vanity; and all is
deception only to those who have never been sincere with themselves.

"It was in the fortress that my grandfather found himself together with
Sergeant Peter. My grandfather was a neighbour of the S - - - - - family
in the country but he did not know Prince Roman, who however knew his
name perfectly well. The Prince introduced himself one night as they
both sat on the ramparts, leaning against a gun carriage.

"The service he wished to ask for was, in case of his being killed, to
have the intelligence conveyed to his parents.

"They talked in low tones, the other servants of the piece lying about
near them. My grandfather gave the required promise, and then asked
frankly - for he was greatly interested by the disclosure so unexpectedly
made:

"But tell me, Prince, why this request? Have you any evil forebodings as
to yourself?'

"Not in the least; I was thinking of my people. They have no idea where
I am,' answered Prince Roman. 'I'll engage to do as much for you, if you
like. It's certain that half of us at least shall be killed before the
end, so there's an even chance of one of us surviving the other.'

"My grandfather told him where, as he supposed, his wife and children
were then. From that moment till the end of the siege the two were much
together. On the day of the great assault my grandfather received a
severe wound. The town was taken. Next day the citadel itself, its
hospital full of dead and dying, its magazines empty, its defenders
having burnt their last cartridge, opened its gates.

"During all the campaign the Prince, exposing his person conscientiously
on every occasion, had not received a scratch. No one had recognized him
or at any rate had betrayed his identity. Till then, as long as he did
his duty, it had mattered nothing who he was.

"Now, however, the position was changed. As ex-guardsman and as late
ordnance officer to the Emperor, this rebel ran a serious risk of being
given special attention in the shape of a firing squad at ten paces. For
more than a month he remained lost in the miserable crowd of prisoners
packed in the casemates of the citadel, with just enough food to
keep body and soul together but otherwise allowed to die from wounds,
privation, and disease at the rate of forty or so a day.

"The position of the fortress being central, new parties, captured in
the open in the course of a thorough pacification, were being sent in
frequently. Amongst such newcomers there happened to be a young man, a
personal friend of the Prince from his school days. He recognized him,
and in the extremity of his dismay cried aloud: 'My God! Roman, you
here!'

"It is said that years of life embittered by remorse paid for this
momentary lack of self-control. All this happened in the main quadrangle
of the citadel. The warning gesture of the Prince came too late.
An officer of the gendarmes on guard had heard the exclamation. The
incident appeared to him worth inquiring into. The investigation which
followed was not very arduous because the Prince, asked categorically
for his real name, owned up at once.

"The intelligence of the Prince S - - - - - being found amongst the
prisoners was sent to St. Petersburg. His parents were already there
living in sorrow, incertitude, and apprehension. The capital of the
Empire was the safest place to reside in for a noble whose son had
disappeared so mysteriously from home in a time of rebellion. The old
people had not heard from him, or of him, for months. They took care
not to contradict the rumours of suicide from despair circulating in the
great world, which remembered the interesting love-match, the charming
and frank happiness brought to an end by death. But they hoped secretly
that their son survived, and that he had been able to cross the frontier
with that part of the army which had surrendered to the Prussians.

"The news of his captivity was a crushing blow. Directly, nothing could
be done for him. But the greatness of their name, of their position,
their wide relations and connections in the highest spheres, enabled his
parents to act indirectly and they moved heaven and earth, as the saying
is, to save their son from the 'consequences of his madness,' as poor
Prince John did not hesitate to express himself. Great personages
were approached by society leaders, high dignitaries were interviewed,
powerful officials were induced to take an interest in that affair.
The help of every possible secret influence was enlisted. Some private
secretaries got heavy bribes. The mistress of a certain senator obtained
a large sum of money.

"But, as I have said, in such a glaring case no direct appeal could be
made and no open steps taken. All that could be done was to incline
by private representation the mind of the President of the Military
Commission to the side of clemency. He ended by being impressed by the
hints and suggestions, some of them from very high quarters, which he
received from St. Petersburg. And, after all, the gratitude of such
great nobles as the Princes S - - - - was something worth having from
a worldly point of view. He was a good Russian but he was also a
good-natured man. Moreover, the hate of Poles was not at that time
a cardinal article of patriotic creed as it became some thirty years
later. He felt well disposed at first sight towards that young man,
bronzed, thin-faced, worn out by months of hard campaigning, the
hardships of the siege and the rigours of captivity.

"The Commission was composed of three officers. It sat in the citadel in
a bare vaulted room behind a long black table. Some clerks occupied the
two ends, and besides the gendarmes who brought in the Prince there was
no one else there.

"Within those four sinister walls shutting out from him all the
sights and sounds of liberty, all hopes of the future, all consoling
illusions - alone in the face of his enemies erected for judges, who can
tell how much love of life there was in Prince Roman? How much remained
in that sense of duty, revealed to him in sorrow? How much of his
awakened love for his native country? That country which demands to
be loved as no other country has ever been loved, with the
mournful affection one bears to the unforgotten dead and with the
unextinguishable fire of a hopeless passion which only a living,
breathing, warm ideal can kindle in our breasts for our pride, for our
weariness, for our exultation, for our undoing.

"There is something monstrous in the thought of such an exaction till
it stands before us embodied in the shape of a fidelity without fear
and without reproach. Nearing the supreme moment of his life the Prince
could only have had the feeling that it was about to end. He answered
the questions put to him clearly, concisely - with the most profound
indifference. After all those tense months of action, to talk was a
weariness to him. But he concealed it, lest his foes should suspect in
his manner the apathy of discouragement or the numbness of a crushed
spirit. The details of his conduct could have no importance one way or
another; with his thoughts these men had nothing to do. He preserved a
scrupulously courteous tone. He had refused the permission to sit down.

"What happened at this preliminary examination is only known from the
presiding officer. Pursuing the only possible course in that glaringly
bad case he tried from the first to bring to the Prince's mind the line
of defence he wished him to take. He absolutely framed his questions so
as to put the right answers in the culprit's mouth, going so far as to
suggest the very words: how, distracted by excessive grief after his
young wife's death, rendered irresponsible for his conduct by his
despair, in a moment of blind recklessness, without realizing the highly
reprehensible nature of the act, nor yet its danger and its dishonour,
he went off to join the nearest rebels on a sudden impulse. And that
now, penitently...

"But Prince Roman was silent. The military judges looked at him
hopefully. In silence he reached for a pen and wrote on a sheet of paper
he found under his hand: 'I joined the national rising from conviction.'

"He pushed the paper across the table. The president took it up, showed
it in turn to his two colleagues sitting to the right and left, then
looking fixedly at Prince Roman let it fall from his hand. And the
silence remained unbroken till he spoke to the gendarmes ordering them
to remove the prisoner.

"Such was the written testimony of Prince Roman in the supreme moment of
his life. I have heard that the Princes of the S - - - - - family, in
all its branches, adopted the last two words: 'From conviction' for the
device under the armorial bearings of their house. I don't know whether
the report is true. My uncle could not tell me. He remarked only, that
naturally, it was not to be seen on Prince Roman's own seal.

"He was condemned for life to Siberian mines. Emperor Nicholas, who
always took personal cognizance of all sentences on Polish nobility,
wrote with his own hand in the margin: 'The authorities are severely
warned to take care that this convict walks in chains like any other
criminal every step of the way.'

"It was a sentence of deferred death. Very few survived entombment in
these mines for more than three years. Yet as he was reported as still
alive at the end of that time he was allowed, on a petition of his
parents and by way of exceptional grace, to serve as common soldier in
the Caucasus. All communication with him was forbidden. He had no civil
rights. For all practical purposes except that of suffering he was a
dead man. The little child he had been so careful not to wake up when
he kissed her in her cot, inherited all the fortune after Prince John's
death. Her existence saved those immense estates from confiscation.

"It was twenty-five years before Prince Roman, stone deaf, his health
broken, was permitted to return to Poland. His daughter married
splendidly to a Polish Austrian _grand seigneur_ and, moving in the
cosmopolitan sphere of the highest European aristocracy, lived mostly
abroad in Nice and Vienna. He, settling down on one of her estates, not
the one with the palatial residence but another where there was a modest
little house, saw very little of her.

"But Prince Roman did not shut himself up as if his work were done.
There was hardly anything done in the private and public life of the
neighbourhood, in which Prince Roman's advice and assistance were not
called upon, and never in vain. It was well said that his days did not
belong to himself but to his fellow citizens. And especially he was the
particular friend of all returned exiles, helping them with purse and
advice, arranging their affairs and finding them means of livelihood.

"I heard from my uncle many tales of his devoted activity, in which he
was always guided by a simple wisdom, a high sense of honour, and the
most scrupulous conception of private and public probity. He remains a
living figure for me because of that meeting in a billiard room, when,
in my anxiety to hear about a particularly wolfish wolf, I came in
momentary contact with a man who was preeminently a man amongst all men
capable of feeling deeply, of believing steadily, of loving ardently.

"I remember to this day the grasp of Prince Roman's bony, wrinkled hand
closing on my small inky paw, and my uncle's half-serious, half-amused
way of looking down at his trespassing nephew.

"They moved on and forgot that little boy. But I did not move; I gazed
after them, not so much disappointed as disconcerted by this prince so
utterly unlike a prince in a fairy tale. They moved very slowly across
the room. Before reaching the other door the Prince stopped, and I heard
him - I seem to hear him now - saying: 'I wish you would write to Vienna
about filling up that post. He's a most deserving fellow - and your
recommendation would be decisive.'

"My uncle's face turned to him expressed genuine wonder. It said as
plainly as any speech could say: What better recommendation than a
father's can be needed? The Prince was quick at reading expressions.
Again he spoke with the toneless accent of a man who has not heard his
own voice for years, for whom the soundless world is like an abode of
silent shades.

"And to this day I remember the very words: 'I ask you because, you see,
my daughter and my son-in-law don't believe me to be a good judge
of men. They think that I let myself be guided too much by mere
sentiment.'"





THE TALE (1917)


Outside the large single window the crepuscular light was dying out
slowly in a great square gleam without colour, framed rigidly in the
gathering shades of the room.

It was a long room. The irresistible tide of the night ran into the most
distant part of it, where the whispering of a man's voice, passionately
interrupted and passionately renewed, seemed to plead against the
answering murmurs of infinite sadness.

At last no answering murmur came. His movement when he rose slowly from
his knees by the side of the deep, shadowy couch holding the shadowy
suggestion of a reclining woman revealed him tall under the low ceiling,
and sombre all over except for the crude discord of the white collar
under the shape of his head and the faint, minute spark of a brass
button here and there on his uniform.

He stood over her a moment, masculine and mysterious in his immobility,
before he sat down on a chair near by. He could see only the faint oval
of her upturned face and, extended on her black dress, her pale hands, a
moment before abandoned to his kisses and now as if too weary to move.

He dared not make a sound, shrinking as a man would do from the prosaic
necessities of existence. As usual, it was the woman who had the
courage. Her voice was heard first - almost conventional while her being
vibrated yet with conflicting emotions.

"Tell me something," she said.

The darkness hid his surprise and then his smile. Had he not just said
to her everything worth saying in the world - and that not for the first
time!

"What am I to tell you?" he asked, in a voice creditably steady. He was
beginning to feel grateful to her for that something final in her tone
which had eased the strain.

"Why not tell me a tale?"

"A tale!" He was really amazed.

"Yes. Why not?"

These words came with a slight petulance, the hint of a loved woman's
capricious will, which is capricious only because it feels itself to to
be a law, embarrassing sometimes and always difficult to elude.

"Why not?" he repeated, with a slightly mocking accent, as though he had
been asked to give her the moon. But now he was feeling a little angry
with her for that feminine mobility that slips out of an emotion as
easily as out of a splendid gown.

He heard her say, a little unsteadily with a sort of fluttering
intonation which made him think suddenly of a butterfly's flight:

"You used to tell - your - your simple and - and professional - tales very
well at one time. Or well enough to interest me. You had a - a sort of
art - in the days - the days before the war."

"Really?" he said, with involuntary gloom. "But now, you see, the war
is going on," he continued in such a dead, equable tone that she felt a
slight chill fall over her shoulders. And yet she persisted. For there's
nothing more unswerving in the world than a woman's caprice.

"It could be a tale not of this world," she explained.

"You want a tale of the other, the better world?" he asked, with a
matter-of-fact surprise. "You must evoke for that task those who have
already gone there."

"No. I don't mean that. I mean another - some other - world. In the
universe - not in heaven."

"I am relieved. But you forget that I have only five days' leave."

"Yes. And I've also taken a five days' leave from - from my duties."

"I like that word."

"What word?"

"Duty."

"It is horrible - sometimes."

"Oh, that's because you think it's narrow. But it isn't. It contains
infinities, and - and so - - - "

"What is this jargon?"

He disregarded the interjected scorn. "An infinity of absolution, for
instance," he continued. "But as to this another world' - who's going to
look for it and for the tale that is in it?"

"You," she said, with a strange, almost rough, sweetness of assertion.

He made a shadowy movement of assent in his chair, the irony of which
not even the gathered darkness could render mysterious.

"As you will. In that world, then, there was once upon a time a
Commanding Officer and a Northman. Put in the capitals, please, because
they had no other names. It was a world of seas and continents and
islands - - - "

"Like the earth," she murmured, bitterly.

"Yes. What else could you expect from sending a man made of our common,
tormented clay on a voyage of discovery? What else could he find? What
else could you understand or care for, or feel the existence of even?
There was comedy in it, and slaughter."

"Always like the earth," she murmured. "Always. And since I could find
in the universe only what was deeply rooted in the fibres of my being
there was love in it, too. But we won't talk of that."

"No. We won't," she said, in a neutral tone which concealed perfectly
her relief - or her disappointment. Then after a pause she added: "It's
going to be a comic story."

"Well - - - " he paused, too. "Yes. In a way. In a very grim way. It will
be human, and, as you know, comedy is but a matter of the visual angle.
And it won't be a noisy story. All the long guns in it will be dumb - as
dumb as so many telescopes."

"Ah, there are guns in it, then! And may I ask - where?"

"Afloat. You remember that the world of which we speak had its seas. A
war was going on in it. It was a funny work! and terribly in earnest.
Its war was being carried on over the land, over the water, under the
water, up in the air, and even under the ground. And many young men
in it, mostly in wardrooms and mess-rooms, used to say to each
other - pardon the unparliamentary word - they used to say, 'It's a damned
bad war, but it's better than no war at all.' Sounds flippant, doesn't
it."

He heard a nervous, impatient sigh in the depths of the couch while he
went on without a pause.

"And yet there is more in it than meets the eye. I mean more wisdom.
Flippancy, like comedy, is but a matter of visual first impression. That
world was not very wise. But there was in it a certain amount of common
working sagacity. That, however, was mostly worked by the neutrals in
diverse ways, public and private, which had to be watched; watched by
acute minds and also by actual sharp eyes. They had to be very sharp
indeed, too, I assure you."

"I can imagine," she murmured, appreciatively.

"What is there that you can't imagine?" he pronounced, soberly. "You
have the world in you. But let us go back to our commanding officer,
who, of course, commanded a ship of a sort. My tales if often
professional (as you remarked just now) have never been technical. So
I'll just tell you that the ship was of a very ornamental sort once,
with lots of grace and elegance and luxury about her. Yes, once! She
was like a pretty woman who had suddenly put on a suit of sackcloth and
stuck revolvers in her belt. But she floated lightly, she moved nimbly,
she was quite good enough."

"That was the opinion of the commanding officer?" said the voice from
the couch.

"It was. He used to be sent out with her along certain coasts to
see - what he could see. Just that. And sometimes he had some preliminary
information to help him, and sometimes he had not. And it was all one,
really. It was about as useful as information trying to convey the
locality and intentions of a cloud, of a phantom taking shape here and
there and impossible to seize, would have been.

"It was in the early days of the war. What at first used to amaze
the commanding officer was the unchanged face of the waters, with its
familiar expression, neither more friendly nor more hostile. On fine
days the sun strikes sparks upon the blue; here and there a peaceful
smudge of smoke hangs in the distance, and it is impossible to believe
that the familiar clear horizon traces the limit of one great circular
ambush.

"Yes, it is impossible to believe, till some day you see a ship not your
own ship (that isn't so impressive), but some ship in company, blow up
all of a sudden and plop under almost before you know what has happened
to her. Then you begin to believe. Henceforth you go out for the work
to see - what you can see, and you keep on at it with the conviction that
some day you will die from something you have not seen. One envies the


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