|←Does he Escape?||Ninety-three by
The Persuasive Power of Human Speech.
|A Peasant's Memory is Worth a Captain's Knowledge.→|
THE PERSUASIVE POWER OF HUMAN SPEECH.
The old man slowly raised his head.
The sailor who had just spoken to him was about thirty years old. His face was sea-tanned, his eyes were strange; they had the shrewd glance of the sailor and the open frankness of the peasant. He held the oars firmly in his two hands. He looked gentle.
In his belt he had a dirk, two pistols, and a rosary.
"Who are you?" said the old man.
"I have just told you."
"What do you want of me?"
The man laid down his oars, folded his arms, and replied,—
"To kill you."
"As you like," said the old man.
The other raised his voice.
"Why?" asked the old man.
There was a silence. The sailor seemed confused for a moment by the question. He replied,—
"I say that I mean to kill you."
"And I ask why?"
The sailor's eyes flashed,—
"Because you have killed my brother."
The old man replied calmly,—
"I began by saving his life."
"That is true. You saved him first and then killed him."
"It was not I who killed him."
"Who did kill him, then?"
"His own fault."
The sailor stared with open mouth at the old man; then his eyebrows contracted again into a savage frown.
"What is your name?" asked the old man.
"My name is Halmalo, but I can kill you without your knowing my name."
At this moment the sun rose. A sunbeam struck the sailor full in the eyes and vividly lighted up his wild face. The old man regarded him attentively.
The cannonading which still continued, now began to be interrupted and agonizingly irregular. A dense smoke sank down over the horizon. The boat, no longer guided by the oarsman, was drifting to leeward.
The sailor drew one of the pistols out of his belt with his right hand and took his rosary in his left.
The old man rose and drew himself up to his full height.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked.
"Our Father who art in Heaven," replied the sailor, making the sign of the cross.
"Have you a mother?"
He made the sign of the cross a second time. Then he continued,—
"I have said it. I give you one minute, monseigneur." And he cocked his pistol.
"Why do you call me monseigneur?"
"Because you are a seigneur. That is evident."
"Have you a seigneur, yourself?"
"Yes, and a great one. Can one live without a seigneur?"
"Where is he?"
"I don't know. He has left the country. He is the Marquis de Lantenac, Viscount de Fontenay, prince in Brittany; he is the seigneur of the Sept-Forêts (seven forests). I have never seen him, but that doesn't prevent his being my master."
"And if you were to see him, would you obey him?"
"Certainly. I should be a pagan if I didn't obey him! One owes obedience first to God; then to the king, who stands in the place of God; and then to the seigneur, who represents the king. But that is not the question; you have killed my brother, and I must kill you."
The old man replied,—
"In the first place, I killed your brother. I did right."
The sailor tightened his grasp on the pistol.
"Go on," said the old man.
And calmly added, "Where is the priest?"
The sailor looked at him. "The priest?"
"Yes, the priest. I gave your brother a priest, you owe me a priest."
"I have none," said the sailor.
And he added: "Do they have priests in mid-ocean?"
The convulsive reports of the battle were growing more and more distant.
"Those who are dying over yonder have theirs," said the old man.
"It is true," muttered the sailor. "They have the chaplain."
The old man continued: "You will be the means of losing my soul, which is a serious matter."
The sailor bowed his head in thought.
"And in losing my soul," the old man went on to say, "you lose your, own. Listen. I pity you. You may do what you wish. As for me, I did my duty just now; first, in saving your brother's life, and then in taking it from him; and I am doing my duty at this moment in trying to save your soul. Consider. It concerns you. Do you hear the cannon shots at this instant? There are men dying over there; there are desperate souls in mortal agony; there are husbands there who will nevermore see their wives; there are fathers who will nevermore see their children; brothers who, like yourself, will never see their brothers again. And whose fault is it? It is the fault of your own brother. You believe in God, do you not? Well, you know that God is suffering at this very moment; God suffers in His Christian son, the king of France, who is a child like the child Jesus, and who is imprisoned in the fortress of the Temple; God suffers in His church in Brittany; God suffers in His insulted cathedrals, in his desecrated Gospels, in His violated houses of prayer; God suffers in His assassinated priests. What did we come to do, we ourselves, in this vessel which is perishing at this very moment? We came to God's assistance. If your brother had been a good servant, if he had faithfully performed the duty of a wise and useful man, the accident would not have happened to the carronade, the corvette would not have been disabled; she would not have gone out of her course; she would not have fallen into the hands of this fleet of destruction, and we should be landing on the shores of France now, of all us, brave warriors and seamen as we are, sword in hand, waving the white banner, numerous, content, joyful, and we should be aiding the brave peasants of La Vendée in saving France, in saving the king, in doing God's work. That is what we came to do, that is what we should be doing, that is what I, the only one left, set out to do. But you are against it. In this contest of the godless against the priest, in this strife of regicides against the king, in this conflict of Satan against God, you are for Satan. Your brother was the first auxiliary of the devil, you are the second. He began, you are finishing it. You are for the regicides against the throne, you are for the godless against the church. You take God's last resource away from Him. Because I shall not be there,—I who represent the king,—hamlets will go on burning, families weeping, priests bleeding, Brittany suffering, the king will remain in prison, and Jesus Christ in distress. And who will have done all this? You. Go on; it is your affair. I counted on you to bring about the contrary. I am deceived. Ah, yes,—it is true,—you are right,—I have killed your brother. Your brother was courageous, I rewarded him; he was guilty, I punished him. He failed in his duty; I have not failed in mine. What I have done, I would do again. And I swear it, by the great Saint Ann d'Auray, who sees us now, that, under similar circumstances to those in which I had your brother shot, I would shoot my own son. Now you are the master. Yes. I pity you. You have lied to your captain. You, a Christian, are faithless; you, a Breton, are without honor; I have been entrusted to your loyalty, and accepted by your treason; you give me dead to those to whom you promised me alive. Do you know whom you destroy here? It is yourself. You take my life from the king, and you give your eternity to the devil. Go on; commit your crime; it is well. You sell your part in Paradise cheaply. Because of you, the devil will conquer; because of you, the churches will fall; because of you, the pagans will continue to melt bells into cannon; they will shoot men with that which saved their souls. While I am speaking, the bell which rang for your baptism may be killing your mother. Go on; aid the devil. Don't stop. Yes, I condemned your brother; but know this, that I am an instrument of God. Ah! you judge the means God chooses! Are you going to take it on yourself to judge the thunderbolt which is in heaven? Wretched man, it will judge you. Take care what you do. Do you even know whether I am in a state of grace? No. Go on all the same. Do what you will. You are free to cast me into hell, and to cast yourself in with me. The damnation of us both is in your hands. The one responsible before God will be yourself. We are alone, face to face in the abyss. Go on,—make an end of it,—finish. I am old, and you are young; I am without arms, and you are armed; kill me."
While the old man, standing all the while, uttered these words in a voice above the noise of the sea, the undulations of the billows made him appear now in shadow, now in the light; the sailor had grown livid; great drops of sweat fell from his brow; he trembled like a leaf; occasionally, he kissed his beads; when the old man had ended, he threw down his pistol and fell on his knees.
"Forgive me, monseigneur! Pardon me," he cried. "You speak like the good God. I am wrong. My brother did wrong. I will do everything to atone for his crime. Dispose of me. Order, and I will obey."
"I forgive you," said the old man.
- "La parole c'est le verbe,"—Speech is "the Word."