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- The Battle Of The Strong [A Romance of Two Kingdoms], Volume 2. - 1/12 -
THE BATTLE OF THE STRONG
[A ROMANCE OF TWO KINGDOMS]
By Gilbert Parker
As Ranulph had surmised, the ship was the Narcissus, and its first lieutenant was Philip d'Avranche. The night before, orders had reached the vessel from the Admiralty that soundings were to be taken at the Ecrehos. The captain had at once made inquiries for a pilot, and Jean Touzel was commended to him. A messenger sent to Jean found that he had already gone to the Ecrehos. The captain had then set sail, and now, under Jean's skilful pilotage, the Narcissus twisted and crept through the teeth of the rocks at the entrance, and slowly into the cove, reefs on either side gaping and girding at her, her keel all but scraping the serrated granite beneath. She anchored, and boats put off to take soundings and explore the shores. Philip was rowed in by Jean Touzel.
Stepping out upon the beach of Mattre 'Ile, Philip slowly made his way over the shingle to the ruined chapel, in no good humour with himself or with the world, for exploring these barren rocks seemed a useless whim of the Admiralty, and he could not conceive of any incident rising from the monotony of duty to lighten the darkness of this very brilliant day. His was not the nature to enjoy the stony detail of his profession. Excitement and adventure were as the breath of life to him, and since he had played his little part at the Jersey battle in a bandbox eleven years before, he had touched hands with accidents of flood and field in many countries.
He had been wrecked on the island of Trinidad in a tornado, losing his captain and his ship; had seen active service in America and in India; won distinction off the coast of Arabia in an engagement with Spanish cruisers; and was now waiting for his papers as commander of a ship of his own, and fretted because the road of fame and promotion was so toilsome. Rumours of war with France had set his blood dancing a little, but for him most things were robbed of half their pleasure because they did not come at once.
This was a moody day with him, for he had looked to spend it differently. As he walked up the shingle his thoughts were hanging about a cottage in the Place du Vier Prison. He had hoped to loiter in a doorway there, and to empty his sailor's heart in well-practised admiration before the altar of village beauty. The sight of Guida's face the day before had given a poignant pulse to his emotions, unlike the broken rhythm of past comedies of sentiment and melodramas of passion. According to all logic of custom, the acuteness of yesterday's impression should have been followed up by today's attack; yet here he was, like another Robinson Crusoe, "kicking up the shingle of a cursed Patmos"--so he grumbled aloud. Patmos was not so wild a shot after all, for no sooner had he spoken the word than, looking up, he saw in the doorway of the ruined chapel the gracious figure of a girl: and a book of revelations was opened and begun.
At first he did not recognise Guida. There was only a picture before him which, by some fantastic transmission, merged into his reveries. What he saw was an ancient building--just such a humble pile of stone and rough mortar as one might see on some lone cliff of the AEgean or on abandoned isles of the equatorial sea. The gloom of a windowless vault was behind the girl, but the filtered sunshine of late September fell on her head. It brightened the white kerchief, and the bodice and skirt of a faint pink, throwing the face into a pleasing shadow where the hand curved over the forehead. She stood like some Diana of a ruined temple looking out into the staring day.
At once his pulses beat faster, for to him a woman was ever the fountain of adventure, and an unmanageable heart sent him headlong to the oasis where he might loiter at the spring of feminine vanity, or truth, or impenitent gaiety, as the case might be. In proportion as his spirits had sunk into sour reflection, they now shot up rocket-high at the sight of a girl's joyous pose of body and the colour and form of the picture she made. In him the shrewdness of a strong intelligence was mingled with wild impulse. In most, rashness would be the outcome of such a marriage of characteristics; but clear-sightedness, decision, and a little unscrupulousness had carried into success many daring actions of his life. This very quality of resolute daring saved him from disaster.
Impulse quickened his footsteps now. It quickened them to a run when the hand was dropped from the girl's forehead, and he saw again the face whose image and influence had banished sleep from his eyes the night before.
"Guida!" broke from his lips.
The man was transfigured. Brightness leaped into his look, and the greyness of his moody eye became as blue as the sea. The professional straightness of his figure relaxed into the elastic grace of an athlete. He was a pipe to be played on: an actor with the ambitious brain of a diplomatist; as weak as water, and as strong as steel; soft-hearted to foolishness or unyielding at will.
Now, if the devil had sent a wise imp to have watch and ward of this man and this maid, and report to him upon the meeting of their ways, the moment Philip took Guida's hand, and her eyes met his, monsieur the reporter of Hades might have clapped-to his book and gone back to his dark master with the message and the record: "The hour of Destiny is struck."
When the tide of life beats high in two mortals, and they meet in the moment of its apogee, when all the nature is sweeping on without command, guilelessly, yet thoughtlessly, the mere lilt of existence lulling to sleep wisdom and tried experience--speculation points all one way. Many indeed have been caught away by such a conjunction of tides, and they mostly pay the price.
But paying is part of the game of life: it is the joy of buying that we crave. Go down into the dark markets of the town. See the long, narrow, sordid streets lined with the cheap commodities of the poor. Mark how there is a sort of spangled gaiety, a reckless swing, a grinning exultation in the grimy, sordid caravanserai. The cheap colours of the shoddy open-air clothing-house, the blank faded green of the coster's cart; the dark bluish-red of the butcher's stall--they all take on a value not their own in the garish lights flaring down the markets of the dusk. Pause to the shrill music of the street musician, hear the tuneless voice of the grimy troubadour of the alley-ways; and then hark to the one note that commands them all--the call which lightens up faces sodden with base vices, eyes bleared with long looking into the dark caverns of crime:
That is the tune the piper pipes. We would buy, and behold, we must pay. Then the lights go out, the voices stop, and only the dark tumultuous streets surround us, and the grime of life is ours again. Whereupon we go heavily to hard beds of despair, having eaten the cake we bought, and now must pay for unto Penalty, the dark inordinate creditor. And anon the morning comes, and then, at last, the evening when the triste bazaars open again, and the strong of heart and nerve move not from their doorways, but sit still in the dusk to watch the grim world go by. But mostly they hurry out to the bazaars once more, answering to the fevered call:
And again they pay the price: and so on to the last foreclosure and the immitigable end.
One of the two standing in the door of the ruined chapel on the Ecrehos had the nature of those who buy but once and pay the price but once; the other was of those who keep open accounts in the markets of life. The one was the woman and the other was the man.
There was nothing conventional in their greeting. "You remembered me!" he said eagerly, in English, thinking of yesterday.
"I shouldn't deserve to be here if I had forgotten," she answered meaningly. "Perhaps you forget the sword of the Turk?" she added.
He laughed a little, his cheek flushed with pleasure. "I shouldn't deserve to be here if I remembered--in the way you mean," he answered.
Her face was full of pleasure. "The worst of it is," she said, "I never can pay my debt. I have owed it for eleven years, and if I should live to be ninety I should still owe it."
His heart was beating hard and he became daring. "So, thou shalt save my life," he said, speaking in French. "We shall be quits then, thou and I."
The familiar French thou startled her. To hide the instant's confusion she turned her head away, using a hand to gather in her hair, which the wind was lifting lightly.
"That wouldn't quite make us quits," she rejoined; "your life is important, mine isn't. You"--she nodded towards the Narcissus--"you command men."
"So dost thou," he answered, persisting in the endearing pronoun.
He meant it to be endearing. As he had sailed up and down the world, a hundred ports had offered him a hundred adventures, all light in the scales of purpose, but not all bad. He had gossiped and idled and coquetted with beauty before; but this was different, because the nature of the girl was different from all others he had met. It had mostly been lightly come and lightly go with himself, as with the women it had been easily won and easily loosed. Conscience had not smitten him hard, because beauty, as he had known it, though often fair and of good report, had bloomed for others before he came. But here was a nature fresh and unspoiled from the hand of the potter Life.
As her head slightly turned from him again, he involuntarily noticed the pulse beating in her neck, the rise and fall of her bosom. Life--here was life unpoisoned by one drop of ill thought or light experience.
"Thou dost command men too," he repeated.
She stepped forward a little from the doorway and beyond him, answering back at him:
"Oh, no, I only knit, and keep a garden, and command a little home, that's all. . . . Won't you let me show you the island?" she added quickly, pointing to a hillock beyond, and moving towards it. He followed, speaking over her shoulder:
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