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Chapter 2

Don Balthasar accepted my presence without a question. Perhaps he
fancied he had invited me; of my manner of coming he was ignorant, of
course. O'Brien, who had gone on to Havana in the ship which had landed
the Riegos in Rio Medio, gave no sign of life. And yet, on the arrival
of the _Breeze_, he must have found out I was no longer on board. I
forgot the danger suspended over my head. For a fortnight I lived as if
in a dream.

"What is the action you want me to take, Carlos?"

I asked one day.

Propped up with pillows, he looked at me with the big eyes of his

"I would like best to see you marry my cousin. Once before a woman of
our race had married an Englishman. She had been happy. English things
last forever--English peace, English power, English fidelity. It is a
country of much serenity, of order, of stable affection. . . ."

His voice was very weak and full of faith. I remained silent,
overwhelmed at this secret of my innermost heart, voiced by his
bloodless lips--as if a dream had come to pass, as if a miracle had
taken place. He added, with an indefinable smile of an almost unearthly

"I would have married your sister, my Juan."

He had on him the glamour of things English--of English power emerging
from the dust of wars and revolution; of England stable and undismayed,
like a strong man who had kept his feet in the tottering of secular
edifices shaken to their foundations by an earthquake. It was as if for
him that were something fine, something romantic, just as for me romance
had always seemed to be embodied in his features, in his glance, and to
live in the air he breathed. On the other side of the bed the old Don,
lost in a high-backed armchair, remained plunged in that meditation of
the old which resembles sleep, as sleep resembles death. The priest,
lighted up by the narrow, bright streak of the window, was reading his
breviary through a pair of enormous spectacles. The white coif of the
nun hovered in distant corners of the room.

We were constantly talking of O'Brien. He was the only subject of all
our conversations; and when Carlos inveighed against the Intendente, the
old Don nodded sadly in his chair. He was dishonouring the name of the
Riegos, Carlos would exclaim feebly, turning his head towards his uncle.
His uncle's own province, the name of his own town, stood for a refuge
of the scum of the Antilles. It wras a shameful sanctuary. Every
ruffian, rascal, murderer, and thief of the West Indies had come to
think of this ancient and honourable town as a safe haven.

I myself could very well remember the Jamaica household expression, "The
Rio Medio piracies," and all these paragraphs in the home papers that
reached us a month old headed, "The Activity of the So-called Mexican
Privateers," and urging upon our Government the necessity of energetic
remonstrances in Madrid. "The fact, incredible as it may appear," said
the writers, "seeming to be that the nest of these Picaroons is actually
within the loyal dominions of the Spanish Crown." If Spain, our press
said, resented our recognition of South American independence, let it
do so openly, not by countenancing criminals. It was unworthy of a great
nation. "Our West Indian trade is being stabbed in the back," declaimed
the _Bristol Mirror_. "Where is our fleet?" it asked. "If the Cuban
authorities are unable or unwilling, let us take the matter in our own

There was a great deal of mystery about this peculiar outbreak of
lawlessness that seemed to be directed so pointedly against the British
trade. The town of Rio Medio was alluded to as one of the unapproachable
towns of the earth--closed, like the capital of Prester John to the
travellers, or Mecca to the infidels. Nobody I ever met in Jamaica had
set eyes on the place. The impression prevailed that no stranger could
come out of it alive. Incredible stories were told of it in the island,
and indignation at its existence grew at home and in the colonies.

Admiral Rowley, an old fighter, grown a bit lazy, no diplomatist
(the stories of his being venal, I take it, were simply abominable
calumnies), unable to get anything out of the Cuban authorities but
promises and lofty protestations, had made up his mind, under direct
pressure from home, to take matters into his own hands. His boat attack
had been a half-and-half affair, for all that. He intended, he had said,
to go to the bottom of the thing, and find out what there was in the
place; but he could not believe that anybody would dare offer resistance
to the boats of an English squadron. They were sent in as if for an
exploration rather than for an armed landing.

It ended in a disaster, and a sense of wonder had been added to the
mystery of the fabulous Rio Medio organization. The Cuban authorities
protested against the warlike operations attempted in a friendly
country; at the same time, they had delivered the seven pirates--the men
whom I saw hanged in Kingston. And Rowley was recalled home in disgrace.

It was my extraordinary fate to penetrate into this holy city of the
last organized piracy the world would ever know. I beheld it with my
eyes; I had stood on the point behind the very battery of guns which had
swept Rowley's boats out of existence.

The narrow entrance faced, across the water, the great portal of the
cathedral. Rio Medio had been a place of some splendour in its time. The
ruinous heavy buildings clung to the hillsides, and my eyes plunged into
a broad vista of an empty and magnificent street. Behind many of the
imposing and escutcheoned frontages there was nothing but heaps of
rubble; the footsteps of rare passers-by woke lonely echoes, and strips
of grass outlined in parallelograms the flagstones of the roadway. The
Casa Riego raised its buttressed and loop-holed bulk near the shore,
resembling a defensive outwork; on my other hand the shallow bay, vast,
placid, and shining, extended itself behind the strip of coast like an
enormous lagoon. The fronds of palm-clusters dotted the beach over the
glassy shimmer of the far distance. The dark and wooded slopes of the
hills closed the view inland on every side.

Under the palms the green masses of vegetation concealed the hovels of
the rabble. There were three so-called 'villages' at the bottom of the
bay; and that good Catholic and terrible man, Seņor Juez O'Brien, could
with a simple nod send every man in them to the gallows.

The respectable population of Rio Medio, leading a cloistered existence
in the ruins of old splendour, used to call that thievish rabble
_Lugarenos_--villagers. They were sea-thieves, but they were dangerous.
At night, from these clusters of hovels surrounded by the banana
plantations, there issued a villainous noise, the humming of hived
scoundrels. Lights twinkled. One could hear the thin twanging of
guitars, uproarious songs, all the sounds of their drinking, singing,
gambling, quarrelling, love-making, squalor. Sometimes the long shriek
of a woman rent the air, or shouting tumults rose and subsided; while,
on the other side of the cathedral, the houses of the past, the houses
without life, showed no light and made no sound.

There would be no strollers on the beach in the daytime; the masts of
the two schooners (bought in the United States by O'Brien to make war
with on the British Empire) appeared like slender sticks far away up
the empty stretch of water; and that gathering of ruffians, thieves,
murderers, and runaway slaves slept in their noisome dens. Their habits
were obscene and nocturnal. Cruel without hardihood, and greedy without
courage, they were no skull-and-crossbones pirates of the old kind,
that, under the black flag, neither gave nor expected quarter. Their
usual practice was to hang in rowboats round some unfortunate ship
becalmed in sight of their coast, like a troop of vultures hopping about
the carcass of a dead buffalo on a plain. When they judged the thing was
fairly safe, they would attack with a great noise and show of ferocity;
do some hasty looting amongst the cargo; break into the cabins for
watches, wearing apparel, and so on; perpetrate at times some atrocity,
such as singeing the soles of some poor devil of a ship-master, when
they had positive information (from such affiliated helpers as Ramon,
the storekeeper in Jamaica) that there was coined money concealed on
board; and take themselves off to their sordid revels on shore, and to
hold auctions of looted property on the beach. These Were attended by
people from the interior of the province, and now and then even the
Havana dealers would come on the quiet to secure a few pieces of silk
or a cask or two of French wine. Tomas Castro could not mention them
without spitting in sign of contempt. And it was with that base crew
that O'Brien imagined himself to be making war on the British Empire!

In the time of Nichols it did look as if they were really becoming
enterprising. They had actually chased and boarded ships sixty miles out
at sea. It seems he had inspired them with audacity by means of kicks,
blows, and threats of instant death, after the manner of Bluenose
sailors. His long limbs, the cadaverous and menacing aspect, the strange
nasal ferocity of tone, something mocking and desperate in his aspect,
had persuaded them that this unique sort of heretic was literally in
league with the devil. He had been the most efficient of the successive
leaders O'Brien had imported to give some sort of effect to his warlike
operations. I laugh and wonder as I write these words; but the man did
look upon it as a war and nothing else. What he had had the audacity to
propose to me had been treason, not thieving. It had a glamour for him
which, he supposed, a Separationist (as I had the reputation of being)
could not fail to see. He was thinking of enlarging his activity, of
getting really in touch with the Mexican Junta of rebels. As he had
said, he needed a gentleman now. These were Carlos' surmises.

Before Nichols there had been a rather bloodthirsty Frenchman, but he
got himself stabbed in an _aguardiente_ shop for blaspheming the Virgin.
Nichols, as far as I could understand, had really grown scared at
O'Brien's success in repulsing Rowley's boats; he had mysteriously
disappeared, and neither of the two schooners had been out till the
day of my kidnapping, when Castro, by order of Carlos, had taken the
command. The freebooters of Rio Medio had returned to their cautious and
petty pilfering in boats, from such unlucky ships as the chance of the
weather had delivered into their hands. I heard, also, during my walks
with Castro (he attended me wrapped in his cloak, and with two pistols
in his belt), that there were great jealousies and bickerings amongst
that base populace. They were divided into two parties. For instance,
the rascals living in the easternmost village accepted tacitly the
leadership of a certain Domingo, a mulatto, keeper of a vile grogshop,
who was skilled in the art of throwing a knife to a great distance.
Man-uel-del-Popolo, the extraordinary _improvisador_ with the guitar,
was an aspirant for power with a certain following of his own. Words
could not express Castro's scorn for these fellows. _Ladrones!_ vermin
of the earth, scum of the sea, he called them.

His position, of course, was exceptional. A dependent of the Riegos,
a familiar of the Casa, he was infinitely removed from a Domingo or a
Manuel. He lived soberly, like a Spaniard, in some hut in the nearest of
the villages, with an old woman who swept the earth floor and cooked his
food at an outside fire--his _puchero_ and _tortillas_--and rolled for
him his provision of cigarettes for the day. Every morning he marched up
to the Casa, like a courtier, to attend on his king. I never saw him eat
or drink anything there. He leaned a shoulder against the wall, or sat
on the floor of the gallery with his short legs stretched out near the
big mahogany door of Carlos' room, with many cigarettes stuck behind
his ears and in the band of his hat. When these were gone he grubbed for
more in the depths of his clothing, somewhere near his skin. Puffs of
smoke issued from his pursed lips; and the desolation of his pose, the
sorrow of his round, wrinkled face, was so great that it seemed were he
to cease smoking, he would die of grief.

The general effect of the place was of vitality exhausted, of a body
calcined, of romance turned into stone. The still air, the hot sunshine,
the white beach curving around the deserted sheet of water, the sombre
green of the hills, had the motionlessness of things petrified,
the vividness of things painted, the sadness of things abandoned,
desecrated. And, as if alone intrusted with the guardianship of life's
sacred fire, I was moving amongst them, nursing my love for Sera-phina.
The words of Carlos were like oil upon a flame; it enveloped me from
head to foot with a leap. I had the physical sensation of breathing it,
of seeing it, of being at the same time driven on and restrained. One
moment I strode blindly over the sand, the next I stood still; and
Castro, coming up panting, would remark from behind that, on such a hot
day as this, it was a shame to disturb even a dog sleeping in the shade.
I had the feeling of absolute absorption into one idea. I was ravaged by
a thought. It was as if I had never before imagined, heard spoken of, or
seen a woman.

It was true. She was a revelation to my eye and my ear, as much as to my
heart and mind. Indeed, I seemed never before to have seen a woman. Whom
had I seen? Veronica? We had been too poor, and my mother too proud, to
keep up a social intercourse with our neighbours; the village girls had
been devoid of even the most rustic kind of charm; the people were too
poor to be handsome. I had never been tempted to look at a woman's face;
and the manner of my going from home is known. In Jamaica, sharing with
an exaggerated loyalty the unpopularity of the Mac-donalds, I had led
a lonely life; for I had no taste for their friends' society, and the
others, after a time, would have nothing to do with me. I had made a
sort of hermitage for myself out of a house in a distant plantation, and
sometimes I would see no white face for whole weeks together. She was
the first woman to me--a strange new being, a marvel as great as Eve
herself to Adam's wondering awakening.

It may be that a close intimacy stands in the way of love springing up
between two young people, but in our case it was different. My passion
seemed to spring from our understanding, because the understanding was
in the face of danger. We were like two people in a slowly sinking
ship; the feeling of the abyss under our feet was our bond, not the real
comprehension of each other. Apart from that, she remained to me always
unattainable and romantic?--unique, with all the unexpressed promises
of love such as no world had ever known. And naturally, because for
me, hitherto, the world had held no woman. She was an apparition of
dreams--the girl with the lizard, the girl with the dagger, a wonder to
stretch out my hands to from afar; and yet I was permitted to whisper
intimately to this my dream, to this vision. We had to put our heads
close together, talking of the enemy and of the shadow over the
house; while under our eyes Carlos waited for death, made cruel by his
anxieties, and the old Don walked in the darkness of his accumulated

As to me, what was I to her?

Carlos, in a weak voice, and holding her hand with a feeble and
tenacious grasp, had told her repeatedly that the English cousin was
ready to offer up his life to her happiness in this world. Many a time
she would turn her glance upon me--not a grateful glance, but, as it
were, searching and pensive--a glance of penetrating candour, a young
girl's glance, that, by its very trustfulness, seems to look one through
and through.

And then the sense of my unworthiness made me long for her love as a
sinner, in his weakness, longs for the saving grace.

"Our English cousin is worthy of his great nation. He is very brave, and
very chivalrous to a poor girl," she would say softly.

One day, I remember, going out of Carlos' room, she had just paused on
the threshold for an almost imperceptible moment, the time to murmur,
with feeling, "May Heaven reward you, Don Juan." This sound, faint and
enchanting, like a breath of sweet wind, staggered me. Castro, sitting
outside as usual, had scrambled to his feet and stood by, hat in hand,
his head bent slightly with saturnine deference. She smiled at him. I
think she felt kindly towards the tubby little bandit of a fellow. After
all, there was something touching and pathetic in his mournful vigil
at the door of our radiant Carlos. I could have embraced that figure of
grotesque and truculent devotion. Had she not smiled upon him?

The rest of that memorable day I spent in a state of delightful
distraction, as if I had been ravished into the seventh heaven, and
feared to be cast out again presently, as my unworthiness deserved. What
if it were possible, after all?--this, what Carlos wished, what he had
said. The heavens shook; the constellations above the court of Casa
Riego trembled at the thought.

Carlos fought valiantly. There were days when his courage seemed to
drive the grim presence out of the chamber, where Father Antonio with
his breviary, and the white coif of the nun, seemed the only reminders
of illness and mortality. Sometimes his voice was very strong, and a
sort of hopefulness lighted his wasted features. Don Balthasar paid
many visits to his nephew in the course of each day. He sat apparently
attentive, and nodding at the name of O'Brien. Then Carlos would talk
against O'Brien from amongst his pillows as if inspired, till the old
man, striking the floor with his gold-headed cane, would exclaim, in a
quavering voice, that he, alone, had made him, had raised him up from
the dust, and could abase him to the dust again. He would instantly
go to Havana; orders would be given to Cesar for the journey this very
moment. He would then take a pinch of snuff with shaky energy, and lean
back in the armchair. Carlos would whisper to me, "He will never leave
the Casa again," and an air of solemn, brooding helplessness would fall
upon the funereal magnificence of the room. Presently we would hear the
old Don muttering dotingly to himself the name of Seraphina's mother,
the young wife of his old days, so saintly, and snatched away from him
in punishment of his early sinfulness. It was impossible that she
should have been deceived in Don Patricio (O'Brien's Christian name was
Patrick). The intendente was a man of great intelligence, and full of
reverence for her memory. Don Balthasar admitted that he himself was
growing old; and, besides, there was that sorrow of his life. . . . He
had been fortunate in his affliction to have a man of his worth by
his side. There might have been slight irregularities, faults of youth
(O'Brien was five-and-forty if a day). The archbishop himself was
edified by the life of the upright judge--all Havana, all the island.
The intendente's great zeal for the House might have led him into an
indiscretion or two. So many years now, so many years. A noble himself.
Had we heard of an Irish king? A king . . . king... he could not
recall the name at present. It might be well to hear what a man of such
abilities had to say for himself.

Carlos and I looked at each other silently. "And his life hangs on a
thread," whispered the dying man with something like despair.

The crisis of all these years of plotting would come the moment the
old Don closed his eyes. Meantime, why was it that O'Brien did not show
himself in Rio Medio? What was it that kept him in Havana?

"Already I do not count, my Juan," Carlos would say. "And he prepares
all things for the day of my uncle's death."

The dark ways of that man were inscrutable. He must have known, of
course, that I was in Rio Medio. His presence was to be feared, and his
absence itself was growing formidable.

"But what do you think he will do? How do you think he will act?" I
would ask, a little bewildered by my responsibility.

Carlos could not tell precisely. It was not till some time after his
arrival from Europe that he became clearly aware of all the extent of
that man's ambition. At the same time, he had realized all his power.
That man aimed at nothing less than the whole Riego fortune, and, of
course, through Seraphina. I would feel a rage at this--a sort of rage
that made my head spin as if the ground had reeled. "He would have found
means of getting rid of me if he had not seen I was not long for this
world," Carlos would say. He had gained an unlimited ascendency over his
uncle's mind; he had made a solitude round this solemn dotage in which
ended so much power, a great reputation, a stormy life of romance and
passion--so picturesque and excessive even in his old man's love,
whose after-effect, as though the work of a Nemesis resenting so much
brilliance, was casting a shadow upon the fate of his daughter.

Small, fair, plump, concealing his Irish vivacity of intelligence under
the taciturn gravity of a Spanish lawyer, and backed by the influence
of two noble houses, O'Brien had attained to a remarkable reputation of
sagacity and unstained honesty. Hand in glove with the clergy, one of
the judges of the Marine Court, procurator to the cathedral chapter, he
had known how to make himself so necessary to the highest in the land
that everybody but the very highest looked upon him with fear. His
occult influence was altogether out of proportion to his official
position. His plans were carried out with an unswerving tenacity
of purpose. Carlos believed him capable of anything but a vulgar
peculation. He had been reduced to observe his action quietly, hampered
by the weakness of ill-health. As an instance of O'Brien's methods, he
related to me the manner in which, faithful to his purpose of making a
solitude about the Riegos, he had contrived to prevent overtures for an
alliance from the Salazar family. The young man Don Vincente himself was
impossible, an evil liver, Carlos said, of dissolute habits. Still, to
have even that shadow of a rival out of the way, O'Brien took advantage
of a sanguinary affray between that man and one of his boon companions
about some famous guitar-player girl. The encounter having taken place
under the wall of a convent, O'Brien had contrived to keep Don Vincente
in prison ever since--not on a charge of murder (which for a young man
of that quality would have been a comparatively venial offence), but
of sacrilege. The Salazars were a powerful family, but he was strong
enough to risk their enmity. "Imagine that, Juan!" Carlos would exclaim,
closing his eyes. What had caused him the greatest uneasiness was the
knowledge that Don Balthasar had been induced lately to write some
letter to the archbishop in Havana. Carlos was afraid it was simply
an expression of affection and unbounded trust in his intendente,
practically dictated to the old man by O'Brien. "Do you not see, Juan,
how such a letter would strengthen his case, should he ask the guardians
for Seraphina's hand?" And perhaps he was appointed one of the
guardians himself. It was impossible to know what, were the testamentary
dispositions; Father Antonio, who had learned many things in the
confessional, could tell us nothing, but, when the matter was mentioned,
only rolled his eyes up to heaven in an alarming manner. It was
startling to think of all the unholy forces awakened by the temptation
of Seraphina's helplessness and her immense fortune. Incorruptible
himself, that man knew how to corrupt others. There might have been
combined in one dark intrigue the covetousness of religious orders, the
avarice of high officials--God knows what conspiracy--to help O'Brien's
ambition, his passions. He could make himself necessary; he could bribe;
he could frighten; he was able to make use of the highest in the land
and of the lowest, from the present Captain-General to the _Lugarenos_.
In Havana he had for him the reigning powers; in Rio Medio the lowest
outcasts of the island.

This last was the most dangerous aspect of his power for us, and
also his weakest point. This was the touch of something fanciful and
imaginative; a certain grim childishness in the idea of making war on
the British Empire; a certain disregard of risk; a bizarre illusion
of his hate for the abhorred Saxon. That he risked his position by his
connection with such a nest of scoundrels, there could be no doubt. It
was he who had given them such organization as they had, and he stood
between them and the law. But whatever might have been suspected of him,
he was cautious enough not to go too far. He never appeared personally;
his agents directed the action--men who came from Havana rather
mysteriously. They were of all sorts; some of them were friars. But the
rabble, who knew him really only as the intendente of the great man,
stood in the greatest dread of him. Who was it procured the release of
some of them who had got into trouble in Havana? The intendente. Who was
it who caused six of their comrades, who had been taken up on a matter
of street-brawling in the capital, to be delivered to the English
as pirates? Again, the intendente, the terrible man, the Juez, who
apparently had the power to pardon and condemn.

In this way he was most dangerous to us in Rio Medio. He had that
rabble at his beck and call. He could produce a rising of cut-throats by
lifting his little finger. He was not very likely to do that, however.
He was intriguing in Havana--but how could we unmask him there? "He has
cut us off from the world," Carlos would say. "It is so, my Juan, that,
if I tried to write, no letter of mine would reach its destination; it
would fall into his hands. And if I did manage to make my voice heard,
he would appeal to my uncle himself in his defence."

Besides, to whom could he write?--who would believe him? O'Brien would
deny everything, and go on his way. He had been accepted too long, had
served too many people and known so many secrets. It was terrible.
And if I went myself to Havana, no one would believe me. But I should
disappear; they would never see me again. It was impossible to
unmask that man unless by a long and careful action. And for this
he--Carlos--had no time; and I--I had no standing, no relations, no
skill even....

"But what is my line of conduct, Carlos?" I insisted; while Father
Antonio, from whom Carlos had, of course, no secrets, stood by the bed,
his round, jolly face almost comical in its expression of compassionate

Carlos passed his thin, wasted hand over a white brow pearled with the
sweat of real anguish.

Carlos thought that while Don Balthasar lived, O'Brien would do nothing
to compromise his influence over him. Neither could I take any action;
I must wait and watch. O'Brien would, no doubt, try to remove me; but
as long as I kept within the Casa, he thought I should be safe. He
recommended me to try to please his cousin, and even found strength
to smile at my transports. Don Balthasar liked me for the sake of his
sister, who had been so happy in England. I was his kinsman and his
guest. From first to last, England, the idea of my country, of my home,
played a great part in my life then; it seemed to rest upon all our
thoughts. To me it was but my boyhood, the farm at the foot of the
downs--Rooksby's Manor--all within a small nook between the quarry by
the side of the Canterbury road and the shingle beach, whose regular
crashing under the feet of a smuggling band was the last sound of my
country I had heard. For Carlos it was the concrete image of stability,
with the romantic feeling of its peace and of Veronica's beauty; the
unchangeable land where he had loved. To O'Brien's hate it loomed up
immense and odious, like the form of a colossal enemy. Father Antonio,
in the naīve benevolence of his heart, prayed each night for its
conversion, as if it were a loved sinner. He believed this event to
be not very far off accomplishment, and told me once, with an amazing
simplicity of certitude, that "there will be a great joy amongst the
host of heaven on that day." It is marvellous how that distant land,
from which I had escaped as if from a prison to go in search of romance,
appeared romantic and perfect in these days--all things to all men! With
Seraphina I talked of it and its denizens as of a fabulous country.
I wonder what idea she had formed of my father, of my mother, my
sister--"Seņora Dona Veronica Rooksby," she called her--of the
landscape, of the life, of the sky. Her eyes turned to me seriously.
Once, stooping, she plucked an orange marigold for her hair; and at last
we came to talk of our farm as the only perfect refuge for her.

Joseph Conrad

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