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Chapter 6

I went on deck again. On the poop about twenty men had surrounded Major
Cowper; his white head was being jerked backwards and forwards above
their bending backs; they had got his old uniform coat off, and were
fighting for the buttons. I had just time to shout to him, "Your wife's
down there, she's all right!" when very suddenly I became aware that
Tomas Castro was swearing horribly at these thieves. He drove them away,
and we were left quite alone on the poop, I holding the major's coat
over my arm. Major Çowper stooped down to call through the skylight. I
could hear faint answers coming up to him.

Meantime, some of the rascals left on board the schooner had filled on
her in a light wind, and, sailing round our stern, had brought their
vessel alongside. Ropes were thrown on board and we lay close together,
but the schooner with her dirty decks looked to me, now, very sinister
and very sordid.

Then I remembered Castro's extraordinary words; they suggested infinite
possibilities of a disastrous nature, I could not tell just what. The
explanation seemed to be struggling to bring itself to light, like a
name that one has had for hours on the tip of a tongue without being
able to formulate it. Major Cowper rose stiffly, and limped to my side.
He looked at me askance, then shifted his eyes away. Afterwards, he took
his coat from my arm. I tried to help him, but he refused my aid, and
jerked himself painfully into it. It was too tight for him. Suddenly, he
said:

"You seem to be deuced intimate with that man--deuced intimate."

His tone caused me more misgiving than I should have thought possible.
He took a turn on the deserted deck; went to the skylight; called down,
"All well, still?" waited, listening with his head on one side, and then
came back to me.

"You drop into the ship," he said, "out of the clouds. Out of the
clouds, I say. You tell us some sort of cock-and-bull story. I say it
looks deuced suspicious." He took another turn and came back. "My wife
says that you took her rings and--and--gave them to------"

He had an ashamed air. It came into my head that that hateful woman had
been egging him on to this through the skylight, instead of saying her
prayers.

"Your wife!" I said. "Why, she might have been murdered--if I hadn't
made her give them up. I believe I saved her life."

He said suddenly, "Tut, tut!" and shrugged his shoulders. He hung his
head for a minute, then he added, "Mind, I don't say--I don't say that
it mayn't be as you say. You're a very nice young fellow.... But what
I say is--I am a public man--you ought to clear yourself." He was
beginning to recover his military bearing.

"Oh! don't be absurd," I said.

One of the Spaniards came up to me and whispered, "You must come now.
We are going to cast off." At the same time Tomas Castro prowled to the
other side of the ship, within five yards of us. I called out, "Tomas
Castro! Tomas Castro! I will not go with you." The man beside me said,
"Come, señor! _Vamos!_"

Suddenly Castro, stretching his arm out at me, cried, "Come, _hombres_.
This is the _caballero_; seize him." And to me in his broken English he
shouted, "You may resist, if you like."

This was what I meant to do with all my might. The ragged crowd
surrounded me; they chattered like monkeys. One man irritated me beyond
conception. He looked like an inn-keeper in knee-breeches, had a broken
nose that pointed to the left, and a double chin. More of them came
running up every minute. I made a sort of blind rush at the fellow with
the broken nose; my elbow caught him on the soft folds of flesh and he
skipped backwards; the rest scattered in all directions, and then stood
at a distance, chattering and waving their hands. And beyond them I saw
old Cowper gesticulating approval. The man with the double chin drew a
knife from his sleeve, crouched instantly, and sprang at me. I hadn't
fought anybody since I had been at school; raising my fists was like
trying a dubious experiment in an emergency. I caught him rather hard on
the end of his broken nose; I felt the contact on my right, and a small
pain in my left hand. His arms went up to the sky; his face, too. But
I had started forward to meet him, and half a dozen of them flung their
arms round me from behind.

I seemed to have an exaggerated clearness of vision; I saw each brown
dirty paw reach out to clutch some part of me. I was not angry any more;
it wasn't any good being angry, but I made a fight for it. There were
dozens of them; they clutched my wrists, my elbows, and in between my
wrists and my elbows, and my shoulders. One pair of arms was round my
neck, another round my waist, and they kept on trying to catch my legs
with ropes. We seemed to stagger all over the deck; I expect they got in
each other's way; they would have made a better job of it if they hadn't
been such a multitude. I must then have got a crack on the head, for
everything grew dark; the night seemed to fall on us, as we fought.

Afterwards I found myself lying gasping on my back on the deck of the
schooner; four or five men were holding me down. Castro was putting a
pistol into his belt. He stamped his foot violently, and then went and
shouted in Spanish:

"Come you all on board. You have done mischief enough, fools of
_Lugarenos_. Now we go."

I saw, as in a dream of stress and violence, some men making ready to
cast off the schooner, and then, in a supreme effort, an effort of lusty
youth and strength, which I remember to this day, I scattered men like
chaff, and stood free.

For the fraction of a second I stood, ready to fall myself, and looking
at prostrate men. It was a flash of vision, and then I made a bolt for
the rail. I clambered furiously; I saw the deck of the old barque; I had
just one exulting sight of it, and then Major Cowper uprose before
my eyes and knocked me back on board the schooner, tumbling after me
himself.

Twenty men flung themselves upon my body. I made no movement. The
end had come. I hadn't the strength to shake off a fly, my heart was
bursting my ribs. I lay on my back and managed to say, "Give me air." I
thought I should die.

Castro, draped in his cloak, stood over me, but Major Cowper fell on his
knees near my head, almost sobbing: "My papers! My papers! I tell you
I shall starve. Make them give me back my papers. They ain't any use to
them--my pension--mortgages--not worth a penny piece to you."

He crouched over my face, and the Spaniards stood around, wondering.
He begged me to intercede, to save him those papers of the greatest
importance.

Castro preserved his attitude of a conspirator. I was touched by the
major's distress, and at last I condescended to address Castro on his
behalf, though it cost me an effort, for I was angry, indignant, and
humiliated.

"Whart--whart? What do I know of his papers? Let him find them." He
waved his hand loftily.

The deck was hillocked with heaps of clothing, of bedding, casks of rum,
old hats, and tarpaulins. Cowper ran in and out among the plunder, like
a pointer in a turnip field. He was groaning.

Beside one of the pumps was a small pile of shiny cases; ship's
instruments, a chronometer in its case, a medicine chest.

Cowper tottered at a black dispatch-box. "There, there!" he said; "I
tell you I shall starve if I don't have it. Ask him--ask him-------" He
was clutching me like a drowning man.

Castro raised the inevitable arm towards heaven, letting his round black
cloak fall into folds like those of an umbrella. Cowper gathered that
he might take his japanned dispatch-box; he seized the brass handles and
rushed towards the side, but at the last moment he had the good impulse
to return to me, holding out his hand, and spluttering distractedly,
"God bless you, God bless you." After a time he remembered that I had
rescued his wife and child, and he asked God to bless me for that too.
"If it is ever necessary," he said, "on my honour, if you escape, I will
come a thousand miles to testify. On my honour--remember." He said he
was going to live in Clapham. That is as much as I remember. I was held
pinned down to the deck, and he disappeared from my sight. Before the
ships had separated, I was carried below in the cabin of the schooner.

They left me alone there, and I sat with my head on my arms for a long
time, I did not think of anything at all; I was too utterly done up with
my struggles, and there was nothing to be thought about. I had grown to
accept the meanness of things as if I had aged a great deal. I had
seen men scratch each other's faces over coat buttons, old shoes--over
Mercer's trousers. My own future did not interest me at this stage. I
sat up and looked round me.

I was in a small, bare cabin, roughly wainscotted and exceedingly
filthy. There were the grease-marks from the backs of heads all along a
bulkhead above a wooden bench; the rough table, on which my arms rested,
was covered with layers of tallow spots. Bright light shone through a
porthole. Two or three ill-assorted muskets slanted about round the foot
of the mast--a long old piece, of the time of Pizarro, all red velvet
and silver' chasing, on a swivelled stand, three English fowling-pieces,
and a coachman's blunderbuss. A man was rising from a mattress stretched
on the floor; he placed a mandolin, decorated with red favours, on
the greasy table. He was shockingly thin, and so tall that his head
disturbed the candle-soot on the ceiling. He said: "Ah, I was waiting
for the cavalier to awake."

He stalked round the end of the table, slid between it and the side,
and grasped my arm with wrapt earnestness as he settled himself slowly
beside me. He wore a red shirt that had become rather black where his
long brown ringlets fell on his shoulders; it had tarnished gilt buttons
ciphered "G. R.," stolen, I suppose, from some English ship.

"I beg the Señor Caballero to listen to what I have to record," he said,
with intense gravity. "I cannot bear this much longer--no, I cannot bear
my sufferings much longer."

His face was of a large, classical type; a close-featured, rather long
face, with an immense nose that from the front resembled the section of
a bell; eyebrows like horseshoes, and very large-pupilled eyes that
had the purplish-brown lustre of a horse's. His air was mournful in
the extreme, and he began to speak resonantly as if his chest were
a sounding-board. He used immensely long sentences, of which I only
understood one-half.

"What, then, is the difference between me, Manuel-del-Popolo Isturiz,
and this Tomas Castro? The Señor Caballero can tell at once. Look at me.
I am the finer man. I would have you ask the ladies of Rio Medio, and
leave the verdict to them. This Castro is an Andalou--a foreigner. And
we, the braves of Rio Medio, will suffer no foreigner to make headway
with our ladies. Yet this Andalusian is preferred because he is a humble
friend of the great Don, and because he is for a few days given the
command. I ask you, Señor, what is the radical difference between me,
the sailing captain of this vessel, and him, the fighting captain for a
few days? Is it not I that am, as it were, the brains of it, and he only
its knife? I ask the Señor Caballero."

I didn't in the least know what to answer. His great eyes wistfully
explored my face. I expect I looked bewildered.

"I lay my case at your feet," he continued. "You are to be our
chief leader, and, on account of your illustrious birth and renowned
intelligence, will occupy a superior position in the council of the
notables. Is it not so? Has not the Señor Juez O'Brien so ordained? You
will give ear to me, you will alleviate my indignant sufferings?" He
implored me with his eyes for a long time.

Manuel-del-Popolo, as he called himself, pushed the hair back from his
forehead. I had noticed that the love-locks were plaited with black
braid, and that he wore large dirty silk ruffles.

"The _caballero_" he continued, marking his words with a long, white
finger a-tap on the table, "will represent my views to the notables.
My position at present, as I have had the honour to observe, is become
unbearable. Consider, too, how your worship and I would work together.
What lightness for you and me. You will find this Castro unbearably
gross. But I--I assure you I am a man of taste--an _improvisador_--an
artist. My songs are celebrated. And yet!..."

He folded his arms again, and waited; then he said, employing his most
impressive voice:

"I have influence with the men of Rio. I could raise a riot. We Cubans
are a jealous people; we do not love that foreigners should take our
best from us. We do not love it; we will not suffer it. Let this Castro
bethink himself and go in peace, leaving us and our ladies. As the
proverb says, 'It is well to build a bridge for a departing enemy.'"

He began to peer at me more wistfully, and his eyes grew more luminous
than ever. This man, in spite of his grotesqueness, was quite in
earnest, there was no doubting that.

"I have a gentle spirit," he began again, "a gentle spirit. I am
submissive to the legitimate authorities. What the Señor Juez O'Brien
asks me to do, I do. I would put a knife into any one who inconvenienced
the Señor Juez O'Brien, who is a good Catholic; we would all do that,
as is right and fitting. But this Castro--this Andalou, who is nearly as
bad as a heretic! When my day comes, I will have his arms flayed and the
soles of his feet, and I will rub red pepper into them; and all the men
of Rio who do not love foreigners will applaud. And I will stick little
thorns under his tongue, and I will cut off his eyelids with little
scissors, and set him facing the sun. _Caballero_, you would love me; I
have a gentle spirit. I am a pleasant companion." He rose and squeezed
round the table. "Listen"--his eyes lit up with rapture--"you shall hear
me. It is divine--ah, it is very pleasant, you will say."

He seized his mandolin, slung it round his neck, and leant against the
bulkhead. The bright light from the port-hole gilded the outlines of his
body, as he swayed about and moved his long fingers across the strings;
they tinkled metallically. He sang in a nasal voice:

"'Listen!' the young girls say as they hasten to the barred window.
'Listen! Ah, surely that is the guitar of Man--u--el--del-Popolo,
As he glides along the wall in the twilight.'"

It was a very long song. He gesticulated freely with his hand in between
the scratching of the strings, which seemed to be a matter of luck.
His eyes gazed distantly at the wall above my head. The performance
bewildered and impressed me; I wondered if this was what they had
carried me off for. It was like being mad. He made a decrescendo
tinkling, and his lofty features lapsed into their normal mournfulness.

At that moment Castro put his face round the door, then entered
altogether. He sighed in a satisfied manner, and had an air of having
finished a laborious undertaking.

"We have arranged the confusion up above," he said to Manuel-del-Popolo;
"you may go and see to the sailing. . . . Hurry; it is growing late."

Manuel blazed silently, and stalked out of the door as if he had an
electric cloud round his head. Tomas Castro turned towards me.

"You are better?" he asked benevolently. "You exerted yourself too much.
. . . But still, if you liked------" He picked up the mandolin, and
began negligently scratching the strings. I noticed an alteration in
him; he had grown softer in the flesh in the past years; there were
little threads of gray in the knotted curls of his beard. It was as
if he had lived well, on the whole. He bent his head over the strings,
plucked one, tightened a peg, plucked it again, then set the instrument
on the table, and dropped on to the mattress. "Will you have some rum?"
he said. "You have grown broad and strong, like a bull.... You made
those men fly, _sacré nom d'une pipe_.... One would have thought you
were in earnest.... Ah, well!" He stretched himself at length on the
mattress, and closed his eyes.

I looked at him to discover traces of irony. There weren't any. He was
talking quietly; he even reproved me for having carried the pretence of
resistance beyond a joke.

"You fought too much; you struck many men--and hard. You will have made
enemies. The _picaros_ of this dirty little town are as conceited as
pigs. You must take care, or you will have a knife in your back."

He lay with his hands crossed on his stomach, which was round like a
pudding. After a time he opened his eyes, and looked at the dancing
white reflection of the water on the grimy ceiling.

"To think of seeing you again, after all these years," he said. "I did
not believe my ears when Don Carlos asked me to fetch you like this.
Who would have believed it? But, as they say," he added philosophically,
"'The water flows to the sea, and the little stones find their places.'"
He paused to listen to the sounds that came from above. "That Manuel is
a fool," he said without rancour; "he is mad with jealousy because for
this day I have command here. But, all the same, they are dangerous
pigs, these slaves of the Señor O'Brien. I wish the town were rid of
them. One day there will be a riot--a function--with their jealousies
and madness."

I sat and said nothing, and things fitted themselves together, little
patches of information going in here and there like the pieces of a
puzzle map. O'Brien had gone on to Havana in the ship from which I
had escaped, to render an account of the pirates that had been hung at
Kingston; the Riegos had been landed in boats at Rio Medio, of course.

"That poor Don Carlos!" Castro moaned lamentably. "They had the
barbarity to take him out in the night, in that raw fog. He coughed
and coughed; it made me faint to hear him. He could not even speak to
me--his Tomas; it was pitiful. He could not speak when we got to the
Casa."

I could not really understand why I had been a second time kidnapped.
Castro said that O'Brien had not been unwilling that I should reach
Havana. It was Carlos that had ordered Tomas to take me out of the
_Breeze_. He had come down in the raw morning, before the schooner had
put out from behind the point, to impress very elaborate directions upon
Tomas Castro; indeed, it was whilst talking to Tomas that he had burst a
blood-vessel.

"He said to me: 'Have a care now. Listen. He is my dear friend, that
Señor Juan. I love him as if he were my only brother. Be very careful,
Tomas Castro. Make it appear that he comes to us much against his will.
Let him be dragged on board by many men. You are to understand, Tomas,
that he is a youth of noble family, and that you are to be as careful of
compromising him as you are of the honour of Our Lady."!

Tomas Castro looked across at me. "You will be able to report well of
me," he said; "I did my best. If you are compromised, it was you who did
it by talking to me as if you knew me."

I remembered, then, that Tomas certainly had resented my seeming to
recognize him before Cowper and Lumsden. He closed his eyes again. After
a time he added:

"_Vaya!_ After all, it is foolishness to fear being compromised. You
would never believe that his Excellency Don Balthasar had led a riotous
life--to look at him with his silver head. It is said he had three
friars killed once in Seville, a very, very long time ago. It was
dangerous in those days to come against our Mother, the Church." He
paused, and undid his shirt, laying bare an incredibly hairy chest; then
slowly kicked off his shoes. "One stifles here," he said. "Ah! in the
old days------"

Suddenly he turned to me and said, with an air of indescribable
interest, as if he were gloating over an obscene idea:

"So they would hang a gentleman like you, if they caught you? What
savages you English people are!--what savages! Like cannibals! You did
well to make that comedy of resisting. _Quel pays!_... What a people...
I dream of them still.... The eyes; the teeth! Ah, well! in an hour we
shall be in Rio. I must sleep...."


Joseph Conrad

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