An evening mist, salted by the western sea, was gathering on the low hills
reed-spattered rises running up from the rocks then back into the gorse- and
bracken-covered country and on to the roads that joined the villages, where
lamps and candles flickered behind the shutters of the grey stone houses. It was
poor country so poor, remarked the Curé, who had recently arrived from Angers,
that the stones of the shore called out for God's mercy. With the mist came
sputtering rain, made invisible by the extinguished light, as it exploded like
flung gravel at the windows, while stronger gusts made the shivering pine trees
shed their needles on the dark, sanded earth.
Jacques Rebière listened to the sounds from outside as he looked through the
window of his bedroom; for a moment, a dim moon allowed him to see clouds
foaming in the darkness. The weather reminded him, often, that it was not just
he, at sixteen years old, who was young, but all mankind: a species that took
infant steps on the drifts and faults of the earth.
Between the ends of his dirtied fingers, Jacques held a small blade which,
over the course of several days, he had whetted to surgical sharpness. He pulled
a candle closer. From downstairs he could hear the sound of his father's voice
in reluctant negotiation.
The house was at the top of a narrow street that ran off the main square of
Sainte Agnès. Behind it, the village ended and there were thick woods Monsieur
Rebière's own property where Jacques was meant to trap birds and rabbits and
prevent other villagers doing likewise. The garden had an orchard of pear and
apple trees whose fruits were collected and set to keep in one of the
outbuildings. Rebière's was a house of many stores: of sheds with beaten earth
underfoot and slatted wooden shelves; of brick-floored cellars with stone bins
on which the cobwebs closed the access to the bottles; of barred pantry and
latched larder with shelves of nuts and preserved fruits. The keys were on a
ring in the pocket of Rebière's waistcoat. Although born no more than sixty
years earlier, he was known as 'old Rebière', perhaps for the arthritic movement
of his knees, when he heaved himself up from his chair and straightened the
joints beneath his breeches. He preferred to do business standing up; it gave
the transaction a temporary air, helping to convince the other party that
bargaining time was short.
Old Rebière was a forester who worked as the agent for a landowner from
Lorient. Over the years he had done some business on his own account, acquiring
some parcels of land, three cottages that the heirs did not want to keep, some
fields and woodland. Most of his work was no more than that of bailiff or rent
collector, but he liked to try to negotiate private deals with a view to
becoming a businessman in his own right. Born in the year after Waterloo, he had
lived under a republic, three kings and an emperor; twice mayor of the local
town, he had found it made little difference which government was in Paris,
since so few edicts devolved from the distant centre to his own Breton world.
The parlour of the house had smoke-stained wooden panelling and a white stone
chimneypiece decorated with the carved head of a wild boar. A small fire was
smouldering in the grate as Rebière attempted to conclude his meeting with the
notary who had come to see him. He never invited guests into his study but
preferred to speak to them in this public room, as though he might later need
witnesses to what had passed between them. His second wife sat in her accustomed
chair by the door, sewing and listening. Rebière's tactic was to say as little
as possible; he had found that silence, accompanied by pained inhalation, often
induced nervousness in the other side. His contributions, when they were
unavoidable, were delivered in a reluctant murmur, melancholy, full of a
weariness at a world that had obliged him to agree terms so self-wounding.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...