A silence fell then over the breakfast table; a silence so intense that Pepper was embarrassed by the sound of his chewing and felt obliged to stop. His stomach gurgled cheerfully, showing too little respect for the occasion. His mother unfolded a letter and was going to read it aloud when she suddenly rounded her shoulders and started weeping. It did not matter. He knew the letter already; she had read it to him many times before. It was his father's farewell.
'Let go ropes, then. Raise sail. Fair winds. Safe harbours. There are worse things happen to others. These things are sent to test us. Bear up. Do not reproach yourself on my account. It could not be helped, I dare say. The world goes along. I am not a carping man. I remain... '
Yes, you do, don't you, thought Pepper with uncharacteristic bitterness. You remain.
'Your loving Father, Gilbert Roux (Captain).'
'I was hoping your dear father would be here!' his mother sobbed. 'Pray God he has not had the misfortune to sink again! Elsewise, surely he would have come to help us through!'
Aunt Mireille snorted, partly out of contempt for Captain Roux's rather accident-prone career, partly to imply: when are men ever in the right place at the right time?
'I thought I might go into town,' said Pepper. 'Just me.'Oh but, son... !'
Aunt Mireille laid a soothing hand on her sister's arm.'If that's what le pauvre wishes,' she said, as if she knew more than she was saying. Perhaps Saint Constance had revealed to her how Pepper was going to die! Something townish involving falling buildings? Pepper knew he should not try to thwart Fate, but thought he might stay at home, after all.
The room, though, seemed to be getting smaller and smaller - shrinking to the size and shape of a coffin. The smell of the women was stronger than the breakfast kedgeree: Parma violets and lavender water. The flies in the centre of the ceiling went round and round: they ought to spread out to the cobwebbed corners, and get caught and die. Why should they escape when he could not?
He could feel himself smothering, got up and went to the door for some air. As he opened it, the sunlight came in like a battering ram. Would Death come in like that, or was it waiting for him somewhere Outside?
Pepper looked back at the two great grey women seated at the table,Tante Mireille searching in her bag for nail scissors - what for? - to cut his life's thread herself? On an impulse, he stepped out into the yard in his shirtsleeves and walked, and kept walking until he reached the road.
He walked towards the sea.
In the trees - in every tree - the rooks were stirring, rising into the sky, but sinking back again on to their roosts. It was still too early for them to venture out on to the flat fields. So the sunny, clumping crowns of the elms swarmed with blackness, like heads teeming with lice. Their noise was horrific - a rending, ranting madness very like the feeling in Pepper's chest. Birds-ofill- omen, of course. More than ever. They must have sent for reinforcements to help batter home his doom:'Warned you! Warned you! Die, boy! Die!!'
The only trees with no rookeries in them were the masts of two ships docked in the harbour. Not until Pepper reached the head of the bay could he see the coasters they belonged to, cradled in the embrace of the harbour wall. One was his father's.
At first he thought he must be mistaken - how different could one coaster look from another, after all? But no: it truly was La Berenice, showing all the scuffs and scars of a ship that has been too long on the water. She was aswarm with men stripping her fittings, clearing her decks.
'Refit,' said the cordwainer untangling and coiling ropes on the harbourside - and then (because he was a man of few words),'Refitting.'
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