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Chapter 1

There was a slight, almost imperceptible jar, a faint grating noise, a
whispering sound of sand--and the boat, without a splash, floated.

The earth, slipping as it were away from under the keel, left us borne
upon the waters of the bay, which were as still as the windless night
itself. The pushing off of that boat was like a launching into space, as
a bird opens its wings on the brow of a cliff, and remains poised in
the air. A sense of freedom came to me, the unreasonable feeling of
exultation--as if I had been really a bird essaying its flight for the
first time. Everything, sudden and evil and most fortunate, had been
arranged for me, as though I had been a lay figure on which Romance
had been wreaking its bewildering unexpectedness; but with the floating
clear of the boat, I felt somehow that this escape I had to manage
myself.

It was dark. Dipping cautiously the blade of the oar, I gave another
push against the shelving shore. Seraphina sat, cloaked and motionless,
and Tomas Castro, in the bows, made no sound. I didn't even hear him
breathe. Everything was left to me. The boat, impelled afresh, made
a slight ripple, and my elation was replaced in a moment by all the
torments of the most acute anxiety.

I gave another push, and then lost the bottom. Success depended upon
my resource, readiness, and courage. And what was this success?
Immediately, it meant getting out of the bay, and into the open sea in
a twelve-foot dinghy looted from some ship years ago by the Rio Medio
pirates, if that miserable population of sordid and ragged outcasts of
the Antilles deserved such a romantic name. They were sea-thieves.

Already the wooded shoulder of a mountain was thrown out intensely
black by the glow in the sky behind. The moon was about to rise. A great
anguish took my heart as if in a vice. The stillness of the dark shore
struck me as unnatural. I imagined the yell of the discovery breaking
it, and the fancy caused me a greater emotion than the thing itself, I
flatter myself, could possibly have done. The unusual silence in which,
through the open portals, the altar of the cathedral alone blazed with
many flames upon the bay, seemed to enter my very heart violently, like
a sudden access of anguish. The two in the boat with me were silent,
too. I could not bear it.

"Seraphina," I murmured, and heard a stifled sob.

"It is time to take the oars, Señor," whispered Castro suddenly, as
though he had fallen asleep as soon as he had scrambled into the bows,
and only had awaked that instant. "The mists in the middle of the bay
will hide us when the moon rises."

It was time--if we were to escape. Escape where? Into the open sea? With
that silent, sorrowing girl by my side! In this miserable cockleshell,
and without any refuge open to us? It was not really a hesitation; she
could not be left at the mercy of O'Brien. It was as though I had for
the first time perceived how vast the world was; how dangerous; how
unsafe. And there was no alternative. There could be no going back.

Perhaps, if I had known what was before us, my heart would have failed
me utterly out of sheer pity. Suddenly my eyes caught sight of the moon
making like the glow of a bush fire on the black slope of the mountain.
In a moment it would flood the bay with light, and the schooner anchored
off the beach before the Casa Riego was not eighty yards away. I dipped
my oar without a splash. Castro pulled with his one hand.

The mists rising on the lowlands never filled the bay, and I could see
them lying in moonlight across the outlet like a silvery white ghost
of a wall. We penetrated it, and instantly became lost to view from the
shore.

Castro, pulling quickly, turned his head, and grunted at a red blur
very low in the mist. A fire was burning on the low point of land where
Nichols--the Nova Scotian--had planted the battery which had worked such
havoc with Admiral Rowley's boats. It was a mere earthwork and some of
the guns had been removed. The fire, however, warned us that there were
some people on the point. We ceased rowing for a moment, and Castro
explained to me that a fire was always lit when any of these thieves'
boats were stirring. There would be three or four men to keep it up. On
this very night Manuel-del-Popolo was outside with a good many rowboats,
waiting on the _Indiaman_. The ship had been seen nearing the shore
since noon. She was becalmed now. Perhaps they were looting her already.

This fact had so far favoured our escape. There had been no strollers on
the beach that night. Since the investment of the Casa Riego, Castro had
lived amongst the besiegers on his prestige of a superior person, of
a _caballero_ skilled in war and diplomacy. No one knew how much the
tubby, saturnine little man was in the confidence of the Juez O'Brien;
and there was no doubt that he was a good Catholic. He was a very grave,
a very silent _caballero_. In reality his heart had been broken by the
death of Carlos, and he did not care what happened to him. His action
was actuated by his scorn and hate of the Rio Medio population, rather
than by any friendly feeling towards myself.

On that night Domingo's partisans were watching the Casa Riego, while
Manuel (who was more of a seaman) had taken most of his personal
friends, and all the larger boats that would float, to do a bit of
"outside work," as they called it, upon the becalmed West Indiaman.

This had facilitated Castro's plan, and it also accounted for the
smallness of the boat, which was the only one of the refuse lot left
on the beach that did not gape at every seam. She was not tight by any
means, though. I could hear the water washing above the bottom-boards,
and I remember how concern about keeping Seraphina's feet dry mingled
with the grave apprehensions of our enterprise.

We had been paddling an easy stroke. The red blurr of the fire on the
point was growing larger, while the diminished blaze of lights on the
high altar of the cathedral pierced the mist with an orange ray.

"The boat should be baled out," I remarked in a whisper.

Castro laid his oar in and made his way to the thwart. It shows how well
we were prepared for our flight, that there was not even a half-cocoanut
shell in the boat. A gallon earthenware jar, stoppered with a bunch of
grass, contained all our provision of fresh water. Castro displaced it,
and, bending low, tried to bale with his big, soft hat. I should imagine
that he found it impracticable, because, suddenly, he tore off one
of his square-toed shoes with a steel buckle. He used it as a scoop,
blaspheming at the necessity, but in a very low mutter, out of respect
for Seraphina.

Standing up in the stern-sheets by her side, I kept on sculling gently.
Once before I had gone desperately to sea--escaping the gallows,
perhaps--in a very small boat, with the drunken song of Rangsley's uncle
heralding the fascination of the unknown to a very callow youth. That
night had been as dark, but the danger had been less great. The boat, it
is true, had actually sunk under us, but then it was only the sea that
might have swallowed me who knew nothing of life, and was as much a
stranger to fate as the animals on our farm. But now the world of men
stood ready to devour us, and the Gulf of Mexico was of no more account
than a puddle on a road infested by robbers. What were the dangers
of the sea to the passions amongst which I was launched--with my high
fortunes in my hand, and, like all those who live and love, with a sword
suspended above my head?

The danger had been less great on that old night, when I had heard
behind me the soft crash of the smugglers' feet on the shingle. It had
been less great, and, if it had had a touch of the sordid, it had led me
to this second and more desperate escape--in a cockleshell, carrying
off a silent and cloaked figure, which quickened my heart-beats at each
look. I was carrying her off from the evil spells of the Casa Riego,
as a knight a princess from an enchanted castle. But she was more to me
than any princess to any knight.

There was never anything like that in the world. Lovers might have gone,
in their passion, to a certain death; but never, it seemed to me, in
the history of youth, had they gone in such an atmosphere of cautious
stillness upon such a reckless adventure. Everything depended upon
slipping out through the gullet of the bay without a sound. The men on
the point had no means of pursuit, but, if they heard or saw anything,
they could shout a warning to the boats outside. These were the real
dangers--my first concern. Afterwards... I did not want to think
of afterwards. There were only the open sea and the perilous coast.
Perhaps, if I thought of them, I should give up.

I thought only of gaining each successive moment and concentrated all
my faculties into an effort of stealthiness. I handled the boat with a
deliberation full of tense prudence, as if the oar had been a stalk of
straw, as if the water of the bay had been the film of a glass bubble an
unguarded movement could have shivered to atoms. I hardly breathed, for
the feeling that a deeper breath would have blown away the mist that was
our sole protection now.

It was not blown away. On the contrary, it clung closer to us, with the
enveloping chill of a cloud wreathing a mountain crag. The vague shadows
and dim outlines that had hung around us began, at last, to vanish
utterly in an impenetrable and luminous whiteness. And through the
jumble of my thoughts darted the sudden knowledge that there was a
sea-fog outside--a thing quite different from the nightly mists of the
bay. It was rolling into the passage inexplicably, for no stir of air
reached us. It was possible to watch its endless drift by the glow of
the fire on the point, now much nearer us. Its edges seemed to melt
away in the flight of the water-dust. It was a sea-fog coming in. Was
it disastrous to us, or favourable? It, at least, answered our immediate
need for concealment, and this was enough for me, when all our future
hung upon every passing minute.

The Rio picaroons, when engaged in thieving from some ship becalmed
on the coast, began by towing one of their schooners as far as the
entrance. They left her there as a rallying point for the boats, and to
receive the booty.

One of these schooners, as I knew, was moored opposite the Casa Riego.
The other might be lying at anchor somewhere right in the fairway ahead,
within a few yards. I strained my ears for some revealing sound from
her, if she were there--a cough, a voice, the creak of a block, or the
fall of something on her deck. Nothing came. I began to fear lest I
should run stem on into her side without a moment's warning. I could see
no further than the length of our twelve-foot boat.

To make certain of avoiding that danger, I decided to shave close the
spit of sand that tipped the narrow strip of lowland to the south. I set
my teeth, and sheered in resolutely.

Castro remained on the after-thwart, with his elbows on his knees. His
head nearly touched my leg. I could distinguish the woeful, bent
back, the broken swaying of the plume in his hat. Seraphina's perfect
immobility gave me the measure of her courage, and the silence was so
profoundly pellucid that the flutter of the flames that we were nearing
began to come loud out of the blur of the glow. Then I heard the very
crackling of the wood, like a fusillade from a great distance. Even then
Castro did not deign to turn his head.

Such as he was--a born vagabond, _contrabandista_, spy in armed camps,
sutler at the tail of the _Grande Armée_ (escaped, God only knows how,
from the snows of Russia), beggar, _guerrillero_, bandit, sceptically
murderous, draping his rags in saturnine dignity--he had ended by
becoming the sinister and grotesque squire of our quixotic Carlos. There
was something romantically sombre in his devotion. He disdained to turn
round at the danger, because he had left his heart on the coffin as a
lesser affection would have laid a wreath. I looked down at Seraphina.
She too, had left a heart in the vaults of the cathedral. The edge of
the heavy cloak drawn over her head concealed her face from me, and,
with her face, her ignorance, her great doubts, her great fears.

I heard, above the crackling of dry wood, a husky exclamation of
surprise, and then a startled voice exclaiming:

"Look! _Santissima Madre!_ What is this?"

Sheer instinct altered at once the motion of my hand so as to incline
the bows of the dinghy away from the shore; but a sort of stupefying
amazement seized upon my soul. We had been seen. It was all over. Was it
possible? All over, already?

In my anxiety to keep clear of the schooner which, for all I know to
this day, may not have been there at all, I had come too close to the
sand, so close that I heard soft, rapid footfalls stop short in the fog.
A voice seemed to be asking me in a whisper:

"Where, oh, where?"

Another cried out irresistibly, "I see it."

It was a subdued cry, as if hushed in sudden awe.

My arm swung to and fro; the turn of my wrist went on imparting the
propelling motion of the oar. All the rest of my body was gripped
helplessly in the dead expectation of the end, as if in the benumbing
seconds of a fall from a towering height. And it was swift, too. I felt
a draught at the back of my neck--a breath of wind. And instantly, as if
a battering-ram had been let swing past me at many layers of stretched
gauze, I beheld, through a tattered deep hole in the fog, a roaring
vision of flames, borne down and springing up again; a dance of purple
gleams on the strip of unveiled water, and three coal-black figures in
the light.

One of them stood high on lank black legs, with long black arms thrown
up stiffly above the black shape of a hat. The two others crouched low
on the very edge of the water, peering as if from an ambush.

The clearness of this vision was contained by a thick and fiery
atmosphere, into which a soft white rush and swirl of fog fell like a
sudden whirl of snow. It closed down and overwhelmed at once the tall
flutter of the flames, the black figures, the purple gleams playing
round my oar. The hot glare had struck my eyeballs once, and had melted
away again into the old, fiery stain on the mended fabric of the fog.
But the attitudes of the crouching men left no room for doubt that we
had been seen. I expected a sudden uplifting of voices on the shore,
answered by cries from the sea, and I screamed excitedly at Castro to
lay hold of his oar.

He did not stir, and after my shout, which must have fallen on the
scared ears with a weird and unearthly note, a profound silence attended
us--the silence of a superstitious fear. And, instead of howls, I heard,
before the boat had travelled its own short length, a voice that seemed
to be the voice of fear itself asking, "Did you hear that?" and a
trembling mutter of an invocation to all the saints. Then a strangled
throat trying to pronounce firmly, "The souls of the dead _Inglez_.
Crying from pain."

Admiral Rowley's seamen, so miserably thrown away in the ill-conceived
attack on the bay, were making a ghostly escort for our escape. Those
dead boats'-crews were supposed to haunt the fatal spot, after the
manner of spectres that linger in remorse, regret, or revenge, about
the gates of departure. I had blundered; the fog, breaking apart, had
betrayed us. But my obscure and vanquished countrymen held possession
of the outlet by the memory of their courage. In this critical moment it
was they, I may say, who stood by us.

We, on our part, must have been disclosed, dark, indistinct, utterly
inexplicable; completely unexpected; an apparition of stealthy shades.
The painful voice in the fog said:

"Let them be. Answer not. They shall pass on, for none of them died on
the shore--all in the water. Yes, all in the water."

I suppose the man was trying to reassure himself and his companions.
His meaning, no doubt, was that, being on shore, they were safe from
the ghosts of those _Inglez_ who had never achieved a landing. From
the enlarging and sudden deepening of the glow, I knew that they were
throwing more brushwood on the fire.

I kept on sculling, and gradually the sharp fusillade of dry twigs grew
more distant, more muffled in the fog. At last it ceased altogether.
Then a weakness came over me, and, hauling my oar in, I sat down by
Sera-phina's side. I longed for the sound of her voice, for some tender
word, for the caress of a murmur upon my perplexed soul. I was sure of
her, as of a conquered and rare treasure, whose possession simplifies
life into a sort of adoring guardianship--and I felt so much at her
mercy that an overwhelming sense of guilt made me afraid to speak to
her. The slight heave of the open sea swung the boat up and down.

Suddenly Castro let out a sort of lugubrious chuckle, and, in low tones,
I began to upbraid him with his apathy. Even with his one arm he should
have obeyed my call to the oar. It was incomprehensible to me that
we had not been fired at. Castro enlightened me, in a few moody and
scornful words. The Rio Medio people, he commented upon the incident,
were fools, of bestial nature, afraid of they knew not what.

"Castro, the valour of these dead countrymen of mine was not wasted;
they have stood by us like true friends," I whispered in the excitement
of our escape.

"These insensate English," he grumbled....

"A dead enemy would have served the turn better. If the _caballero_ had
none other than dead friends...."

His harsh, bitter mumble stopped. Then Sera-phina's voice said softly:

"It is you who are the friend, Tomas Castro. To you shall come a
friend's reward."

"Alas, Señorita!" he sighed. "What remains for me in this world--for me
who have given for two masses for the souls of that illustrious man, and
of your cousin Don Carlos, my last piece of silver?"

"We shall make you very rich, Tomas Castro," she said with decision, as
if there had been bags of gold in the boat.

He returned a high-flown phrase of thanks in a bitter, absent whisper.
I knew well enough that the help he had given me was not for money, not
for love--not even for loyalty to the Riegos. It was obedience to the
last recommendation of Carlos. He ran risks for my safety, but gave me
none of his allegiance.

He was still the same tubby, murderous little man, with a steel blade
screwed to the wooden stump of his forearm, as when, swelling his
breast, he had stepped on his toes before me like a bloodthirsty pigeon,
in the steerage of the ship that had brought us from home. I heard him
mumble, with almost incredible, sardonic contempt, that, indeed,
the senor would soon have none but dead friends if he refrained
from striking at his enemies. Had the senor taken the very excellent
opportunity afforded by Providence, and that any sane Christian man
would have taken--to let him stab the Juez O'Brien--we should not then
be wandering in a little boat. What folly! What folly! One little thrust
of a knife, and we should all have been now safe in our beds....

His tone was one of weary superiority, and I remained appalled by that
truth, stripped of all chivalrous pretence. It was clear, in sparing
that defenceless life, I had been guilty of cruelty for the sake of
my conscience. There was Seraphina by my side; it was she who had to
suffer. I had let her enemy go free, because he had happened to be near
me, disarmed. Had I acted like an Englishman and a gentleman, or only
like a fool satisfying his sentiment at other people's expense? Innocent
people, too, like the Riego servants, Castro himself; like Seraphina,
on whom my high-minded forbearance had brought all these dangers, these
hardships, and this uncertain fate.

She gave no sign of having heard Castro's words. The silence of women
is very impenetrable, and it was as if my hold upon the world--since she
was the whole world for me--had been weakened by that shade of decency
of feeling which makes a distinction between killing and murder. But
suddenly I felt, without her cloaked figure having stirred, her small
hand slip into mine. Its soft warmth seemed to go straight to my heart
soothing, invigorating--as it she had slipped into my palm a weapon of
extraordinary and inspiring potency.

"Ah, you are generous," I whispered close to the edge of the cloak
overshadowing her face.

"You must now think of yourself, Juan," she said.

"Of myself," I echoed sadly. "I have only you to think of, and you
are so far away--out of my reach. There are your dead--all your loss,
between you and me."

She touched my arm.

"It is I who must think of my dead," she whispered. "But you, you must
think of yourself, because I have nothing of mine in this world now."

Her words affected me like the whisper of remorse. It was true. There
were her wealth, her lands, her palaces; but her only refuge was that
little boat. Her father's long aloofness from life had created such an
isolation round his closing years that his daughter had no one but me to
turn to for protection against the plots of her own Intendente. And,
at the thought of our desperate plight, of the suffering awaiting us in
that small boat, with the possibility of a lingering death for an end,
I wavered for a moment. Was it not my duty to return to the bay and give
myself up? In that case, as Castro expressed it, our throats would be
cut for love of the _Juez_.

But Seraphina, the rabble would carry to the Casa on the palms of their
hands--out of veneration for the family, and for fear of O'Brien.

"So, Señor," he mumbled, "if to you to-morrow's sun is as little as to
me let us pull the boat's head, round."

"Let us set our hands to the side and overturn it, rather," Seraphina
said, with an indignation of high command.

I said no more. If I could have taken O'Brien with me into the other
world, I would have died to save her the pain of so much as a pinprick.
But because I could not, she must even go with me; must suffer because I
clung to her as men cling to their hope of highest good--with an exalted
and selfish devotion.

Castro had moved forward, as if to show his readiness to pull round.
Meantime I heard a click. A feeble gleam fell on his misty hands under
the black halo of the hat rim. Again the flint and blade clicked, and a
large red spark winked rapidly in the bows. He had lighted a cigarette.


Joseph Conrad

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