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Chapter 2

Silence, stillness, breathless caution were the absolute conditions of
our existence. But I hadn't the heart to remonstrate with him for the
danger he caused Seraphina and myself. The fog was so thick now that
I could not make out his outline, but I could smell the tobacco very
plainly.

The acrid odour of _picadura_ seemed to knit the events of three years
into one uninterrupted adventure. I remembered the shingle beach; the
deck of the old _Thames_. It brought to my mind my first vision of
Seraphina, and the emblazoned magnificence of Carlos' sick bed. It all
came and went in a whiff of smoke; for of all the power and charm that
had made Carlos so seductive there remained no such deep trace in
the world as in the heart of the little grizzled bandit who, like a
philosopher, or a desperado, puffed his cigarette in the face of the
very spirit of murder hovering round us, under the mask and cloak of the
fog. And by the serene heaven of my life's evening, the spirit of
murder became actually audible to us in hasty and rhythmical knocks,
accompanied by a cheerful tinkling.

These sounds, growing swiftly louder, at last induced Castro to throw
away his cigarette. Seraphina clutched my arm. The noise of oars rowing
fast, to the precipitated jingling of a guitar, swooped down upon us
with a gallant ferocity.

"_Caramba_," Castro muttered; "it is the fool Manuel himself!"

I said, then: "We have eight shots between us two, Tomas."

He thrust his brace of pistols upon my knees.

"Dispose of them as your worship pleases," he muttered.

"You mustn't _give_ up, yet," I whispered.

"What is it that I give up?" he mumbled wearily. "Besides, there grows
from my forearm a blade. If I shall find myself indisposed to quit this
world alone.... Listen to the singing of that imbecile."

A carolling falsetto seemed to hang muffled in upper space, above the
fog that settled low on the water, like a dense and milky sediment of
the air. The moonlight fell into it strangely. We seemed to breathe at
the bottom of a shallow sea, white as snow, shining like silver, and
impenetrably opaque everywhere, except overhead, where the yellow disc
of the moon glittered through a thin cloud of steam. The gay truculence
of the hollow knocking, the metallic jingle, the shrill trolling, went
on crescendo to a burst of babbling voices, a mad speed of tinkling, a
thundering shout, "_Altro, Amigos!_" followed by a great clatter of oars
flung in. The sudden silence pulsated with the ponderous strokes of my
heart.

To escape now seemed impossible. At least it seemed impossible while
they talked. A dark spot in the shining expanse of fog swam into view.
It shifted its place after I had first made it out, and then remained
motionless, astern of the dinghy. It was the shadow of a big boat full
of men, but when they were silent, I was not sure that I saw anything
at all. I made no doubt, had they been aware of our nearness, there were
amongst them eyes that could have detected us in the same elusive way.
But how could they even dream of anything of the kind? They talked
noisily, and there must have been a round dozen of them, at the least.

Sometimes they would fall a-shouting all together, and then keep quiet
as if listening. By-and-by I began to hear answering yells, that seemed
to converge upon us from all directions.

We were in the thick of it. It was Manuel's boat, as Castro had guessed,
and the other boats were rallying upon it gropingly, keeping up a
succession of yells:

"_Ohe! Ohe!_ Where, where?"

And the people in Manuel's boat howled back at them, "_Ohe! Ohe...e!_
This way; here!"

Suddenly he struck the guitar a mighty blow, and chanted in an inspired
and grandiose strain:

"Steer--for--the--song."

His fingers ran riot among the strings, and above the jingling his
voice, forced to the highest pitch, declaimed, as in the midst of a
tempest:

"I adore the saints in the glory of heaven
And, on the dust of the earth,
The print of her footsteps."

He was improvising. Sometimes he gasped; the rill of softened tinkle ran
on, and, glaring watchfully, I fancied I could detect his shape in the
white vapour, like a shadow thrown from afar by a tallow dip upon a
snowy sheet--the lank droop of his posturing, the greasy locks, the
attentive poise of his head, the sentimental rolling of his lustrous and
enormous eyes.

I had not forgotten his astonishing display in the cabin of the schooner
when, after the confiding of his woes and his ambitions, he had favoured
me with a sample of his art. As at that time, when he had been nursing
his truculent conceit, he sang, and the unsteady twanging of his guitar
lurched and staggered far behind his voice, like a drunken slave in the
footsteps of a raving master. Tinkle, tinkle, twang! A headlong rush of
muddled fingering; a sudden bang, like a heavy stumble.

"She is the proud daughter of the old Castile! _Olā! Olā!_" he chanted
mysteriously at the beginning of every stanza in a rapturous and soft
ecstasy, and then would shriek, as though he had been suddenly cast up
on the rock. The poet of Rio Medio was rallying his crew of thieves to a
rhapsody of secret and unrequited passion. _Twang, ping, tinkle tinkle_.
He was the _Capataz_ of the valiant _Lugareņos_! The true _Capataz!_
The only _Capataz. Olā! Olā! Twang, twang_. But he was the slave of
her charms, the captive of her eyes, of her lips, of her hair, of her
eyebrows, which, he proclaimed in a soaring shriek, were like rainbows
arched over stars.

It was a love-song, a mournful parody, the odious grimacing of an ape to
the true sorrow of the human face. I could have fled from it, as from
an intolerable humiliation. And it would have been easy to pull away
unheard while he sang, but I had a plan, the beginning of a plan,
something like the beginning of a hope. And for that I should have to
use the fog for the purpose of remaining within earshot.

Would the fog last long enough to serve my turn? That was the only
question, and I believed it would, for it settled lower; it settled
down denser, almost too heavy to be stirred by the fitful efforts of the
breeze. It was a true night fog of the tropics, that, born after sunset,
tries to creep back into the warm bosom of the sea before sunrise. Once
in Rio Medio, taking a walk in the early morning along the sand-dunes,
I had stood watching below me the heads of some people, fishing from a
boat, emerge strangely in the dawn out of such a fog. It concealed their
very shoulders more completely than water could have done. I trusted it
would not come so soon to our heads, emerging, though it seemed to me
that already, by merely clambering on Castro's shoulders, I could attain
to clear moonlight; see the highlands of the coast, the masts of the
English ship. She could not be very far off if only one could tell
the direction. But an unsteady little dinghy was not the platform for
acrobatic exercises, and Castro not exactly the man.

The slightest noise would have betrayed us, and moreover, the thing
was no good, for even supposing I had got a hurried sight of the ship's
spars, I should have to get down into the fog to pull, and there would
be nothing visible to keep us from going astray, unless at every
dozen strokes I clambered on Castro's shoulders again to rectify the
direction--an obviously impracticable and absurd proceeding.

"She is the proud daughter of old Castile, _Olā, Olā_," Manuel sang
confidentially with a subdued and gallant lilt... Obviously
impracticable. But I had another idea.

"_Tinkle tinkle pinnnng... Brrroum. Brrrroum_.
My soul yearns for the alms of a smile.
For a forgiving glance yearns my lofty soul..."

he sang. Ah, if one could have added another four feet to one's stature.
Four or five feet only. There seemed to be nothing but a thin veil
between me and the moon. No more than a thin haze. But at the level
of my eyes everything was hidden. From behind the white veil came
the crying of the strings, a screeching, lugubrious and fierce in its
artificial transport, as if it were mocking my sad and ardent conviction
of un-worthiness, the crowning torment, and the inward pride of pure
love. In the breathless pauses I could hear the hollow bumping of
gunwales knocking against each other; faint splashings of oars; the
distant hail of some laggards groping their way on the shrouded sea.

The note of cruel passion that runs in the blood held these cut-throats
profoundly silent in their boats, as at home I could imagine a party of
smugglers (they would not stick at a murder or two, either) listening,
with pensive faces, to a sentimental ditty of some "sweet Nancy," howled
dismally within the walls of a wayside taproom in the smoke of pipes. I
seemed to understand profoundly the difference of races that brings with
it the feeling of romance or awakens hate. My gorge rose at Manuel's
song. I hated his lamentations. "Alas, alas; in vain, in vain." He
strummed with vertiginous speed, with fury, and the distracted clamour
of his voice, wrestling madly with the ringing madness of the strings,
ended in a piercing and supreme shriek.

"Finished. It is finished." A low and applauding murmur flowed to
my ears, the austere acclamations of connoisseurs. "Viva, viva,
Manuele!"--a squeak of fervid admiration. "Ah, our _Manuelito_."... But
a gruff voice discoursed jovially, "Care not, Manuel. What of Paquita
with the broken tooth? Is she not left to thee? And _por Dios, hombres_,
in the dark all women are alike."

"I will cram thy unclean mouth with live coals," Manuel drawled
spitefully.

They roared with laughter at this sally. I depicted to myself their
shapes, their fierce gesticulations, their earrings, bound heads, rags,
and weapons, the vile scowls on their swarthy, grimacing faces. My
anxiety beheld them as plainly as anything seen with the eyes of
the body. And, with my sharpened hearing catching every word with
preternatural distinctness, I felt as if, the ring of Gyges on my
finger, I had sat invisible at the council of my enemies.

It was noisy, animated, with an issue of supreme interest for us.
The ship, seen at midday standing inshore with a light wind, had not
approached the bay near enough to be conveniently attacked till just
after dusk. They had waited for her all the afternoon, sleeping and
gambling on the spit of sand. But something heavy in her appearance had
excited their craven suspicions, and checked their ardour. She appeared
to them dangerous. What if she were an English man-of-war disguised?
Some even pretended to recognize in her positively one of the lighter
frigates of Rowley's squadron. Night had fallen whilst they squabbled,
and their flotilla hung under the land, the men in a conflict of
rapacity and fear, arguing among themselves as to the ship's character,
but all unanimously goading Manuel--since he _would_ call himself their
only _Capataz_--to go boldly and find out.

It seems he had just been doing this with the help of a few choicer
spirits, and under cover of the fog. They had managed to steal near
enough to hear Englishmen conversing on board, orders given, and the
yo-hoing of invisible sailors, trimming the yards of the ship to the
fitful airs. This last, of course, was decisive. Such sounds are not
heard on a man-of-war. She was a merchant ship: she would be an easy
prey. And Manuel, in a state of exaltation at his venturesome bravery,
had pulled back inshore, to rally all the boats round his own, and lead
them to certain plunder. They would soon find out, he declaimed, what
it was to have at their head their own valiant Manuel, instead of that
vagabond, that stranger, that Andalusian starveling; that traitor, that
infidel, that Castro. Hidden away, he seemed to spout all this for
our ears alone, as though he could see us in our boat.... Patience;
patience! Some day he would cut off that interloper's eyelids, and lay
him on his back under a nice clear sun. Castro made a brusque movement;
a little shudder of disgust escaped Seraphina.... Meantime, Manuel
declared, by his audacity, that ship was as good as theirs already.
"_Viva el Capataz!_" they cheered.

The cloud-like vapours resting on the sea muffled the short roar; we
heard grim laughter, excited cries. He began to make a set speech, and
his voice, haranguing with vehement inflections in the shining whiteness
of a cloud, had an amazing and uncorporeal character; the quality of
abstract surprise; of phenomenal emotion shouted into empty space. And
for me it had, also, the fascination of a revealed depth.

It was like the oration of an ambitious leader in a farce; he held his
hearers with his eloquence, as much as he had done with the song of his
grotesque and desecrating love. He vaunted his sagacity and his valour,
and overwhelmed with invective all sorts of names--my own and
Castro's among them. He revealed the unholy ideals of all that band
of scoundrels--ideals that he said should find fruition under his
captaincy. He boasted of secret conferences with O'Brien. There were
murmurs of satisfaction.

I don't wonder at Seraphina's shudder of horror, of disgust, of dismay,
and indignation. Robbed of the inexpugnable shelter of the Casa Riego,
she, too, was made to look into the depths; upon the animalism, the
lusts, and the reveries of that sordid, vermin-haunted crowd. I felt for
her a profound and shamed sorrow. It was like a profaning touch on the
sacredness of her mourning for the dead, and on her clear and passionate
vision of life.

"_Hombres de Rio Medio! Amigos! Valientes!..._" Manuel was beginning
his peroration. He would lead them, now, against the English ship. The
terrified heretics would surrender. There was always gold in English
ships. He stopped his speech, and then called loudly, "Let the boats
keep touch with each other, and not stray in that fog."

"The dog," grunted Castro. We heard a resolute bustle of preparation;
oars were being shipped.

"Make ready, Tomas," I whispered.

"Ready for what?" he grumbled. "Where shall your worship run from these
swine?"

"We must follow them," I answered.

"The madness of the senor's countrymen descends upon him," he whispered
with sardonic politeness. "Wherefore follow?"

"To find the English ship," I answered swiftly.

This, from the moment we had heard Manuel's guitar, had been my
idea. Since the fog that concealed us from their sight made us, too,
hopelessly blind, those wretches must guide us themselves out of their
own clutches, as it were. I don't put this forward as an inspired
conception. It was a most risky and almost hopeless expedient; but the
position was so critical that there was no other alternative to sitting
still and waiting with folded hands for discovery. Castro seemed more
inclined for the latter.

Fortunately, the bandits wasted some time in blasphemous bickerings as
to the order of the boats in the procession of attack. I urged my views
upon Castro in hurried whispers. His assent was of importance, since he
could use an oar very well, and, if left to myself, I could not hope to
scull fast enough to keep within hearing of the flotilla.

"Of what use to us would be a ship in Manuel's power?" he argued
morosely. On the other hand, if we waited near her till she had been
plundered and released, neither the fog nor the night would last
forever.

"My countrymen will beat them off," I affirmed confidently. "At any
rate, let us be on the spot. We may take a hand. And remember, Tomas,
they are not led by you, this time."

"True," he said, mollified. "But one thing more deserves the
consideration of your worship... If we follow this plan, we take the
senorita among flying bullets. And lead, alas! unlike steel, is blind,
or that illustrious man would not now be dead. If we wait here, the
senorita, at least, shall take no harm from these ruffians, as I have
said."

"Are you afraid of the bullets?" I asked Seraphina.

Before she had answered, Castro hissed at me:

"Oh, you unspeakable English. Would you sacrifice the daughter, too,
only because she is brave?"

His sinister allusion made my blood boil with rage, and suddenly run
cold in my veins. Swathed in the brilliant cloud, we heard the sounds
of quarrelling and scrambling die away; cries of "Ready! ready!" an
unexpected and brutal laugh. Seraphina leaned forward.

"Tomas, I wish this thing. I command it," she whispered imperiously. "We
shall help these English on the ship. We must; I command it. For these
are now my people."

I heard him mutter to himself, "h, dear shade of my Carlos. Her people.
Where are now mine?" But he shipped his oar, and sat waiting.

In the moment before the picaroons actually started, I became the prey
of the most intense anxiety. I knew we were to seaward of the cluster.
But of our position relatively to the boats, and to the English ship
they would make for, I was profoundly ignorant. The dinghy might be
lying right in the way. Before I could master the sort of disorder I was
thrown into by that thought--which, strange to say, had not occurred to
me till then--with a shrill whistle Manuel led off.

We are always incited to trust, our eyes rather than our ears; and such
is the conventional temper in which we receive the impression of our
senses that I had no idea they were so near us. The destruction of my
illusory feeling of distance was the most startling thing in the world.
Instantly, it seemed, with the second swing and plash of the oars, the
boats were right upon us. They went clear. It was like being grazed by a
fall of rocks. I seemed to feel the wind of the rush.

The rapid clatter of rowing, the excited hum of voices, the violent
commotion of the water, passed by us with an impetuosity that took my
breath away. They had started in a bunch. There must have been amongst
them at least one crew of negroes, because somebody was beating
a tambourine smartly, and the rowers chorused in a quick, panting
undertone, "_Ho, ho, talibambo.... Ho, ho, talibambo_." One of the
boats silhouetted herself for an instant, a row of heads swaying back
and forth, towered over astern by a full-length figure as straight as an
arrow. A retreating voice thundered, "Silence!" The sounds and the forms
faded together in the fog with amazing swiftness.

Seraphina, her cloak off, her head bare, stared forward after the
fleeting murmurs and shadows we were pursuing. Sometimes she warned us,
"More to the left "; or, "Faster!" We had to put forth our best, for
Manuel, as if in the very wantonness of confidence, had set a tremendous
pace.

I suppose he took his first direction by the light on the point. I
cannot tell what guided him after that feeble sheen had become buried in
the fog; but there was no check in the speed, no sign of hesitation.
We followed in the track of the sound, and, for the most part, kept in
sight of the elusive shadow of the sternmost boat. Often, in a denser
belt of fog, the sounds of rowing became muffled almost to extinction;
or we seemed to hear them all round and, startled, checked our speed.
Dark apparitions of boats would surge up on all sides in a most
inexplicable way; to the right; to the left; even coming from behind.
They appeared real, unmistakable, and, before we had time to dodge them,
vanished utterly. Then we had to spurt desperately after the grind of
the oars, caught, just in time, in an unexpected direction.

And then we lost them. We pulled frantically. Seraphina had been urging
us, "Faster! faster!" From time to time I would ask her, "Can you see
them?" "Not yet," she answered curtly. The perspiration poured down
my face. Castro's panting was like the wheezing of bellows at my back.
Suddenly, in a despairing tone, she said:

"Stop! I can neither see nor hear anything now."

We feathered our oars at once, and fell to listening with lowered heads.
The ripple of the boat's way expired slowly. A great white stillness
hung slumbrously over the sea.

It was inconceivable. We pulled once or twice with extreme energy for
a few minutes after imaginary whistles or shouts. Once I heard them
passing our bows. But it was useless; we stopped, and the moon, from
within the mistiness of an immense halo, looked dreamily upon our heads.

Castro grunted, "Here is an end of your plan, Seņor Don Juan."

The peculiar and ghastly hopelessness of our position could not
be better illustrated than by this fresh difficulty. We had lost
touch--with a murderous gang that had every inducement not to spare our
lives. And positively it was a misfortune; an abandonment. I refused to
admit to myself its finality, as if it had reflected upon the devotion
of tried friends. I repeated to Castro that we should become aware of
them directly--probably even nearer than we wished. And, at any rate,
we were certain of a mighty loud noise when the attack on the ship
began. She, at least, could not be very far now. "Unless, indeed,"
I admitted with exasperation, "we are to suppose that your imbecile
_Lugareņos_ have missed their prey and got themselves as utterly lost as
we ourselves."

I was irritated--by his nodding plume; by his cold, perfunctory, as if
sleepy mutters, "Possibly, possibly, _puede ser_." He retorted: "Your
English generosity could wish your countrymen no better luck than that
my _Lugareņos_, as your worship pleases to call them, should miss their
way. They are hungry for loot--with much fasting. And it is hunger that
makes your wolf fly straight at the throat."

All the time Seraphina breathed no word. But when I raised my voice, she
put out a hushing hand to my arm. And, from her intent pose, from the
turn of her shadowy head, I knew that she was peering and listening
loyally.

Minutes passed--very few, I dare say--and brought no sound. The
restlessness of waiting made us dip our oars in a haphazard stroke,
without aim, without the means of judging whether we pulled to seaward,
inshore, north, or south, or only in a circle. Once we went excitedly
in chase of some splashing that must have been a leaping fish. I was
hanging my head over my idle oar when Seraphina touched me.

"I see!" she said, pointing over the bows.

Both Castro and I, peering horizontally over the water, did not see
anything. Not a shadow. Moreover, if they were so near, we ought to have
heard something.

"I believe it is land!" she murmured. "You are looking too low, Juan."

As soon as I looked up I saw it, too, dark and beetling, like the
overhang of a low cliff. Where on earth had we blundered to? For a
moment I was confounded. Fiery reflections from a light played faintly
above that shape. Then I recognized what I was looking at. We had found
the ship.

The fog was so shallow that up there the upper bulk of a heavy, square
stern, the very rails and stanchions crowning it like a balustrade,
jutted out in the misty sheen like the balcony of an invisible edifice,
for the lines of her run, the sides of her hull, were plunged in the
dense white layer below. And, throwing back my head, I traced even
her becalmed sails, pearly gray pinnacles of shadow uprising, tall and
motionless, towards the moon.

A redness wavered over her, as from a blaze on her deck. Could she be
on fire? And she was silent as a tomb. Could she be abandoned? I had
promised myself to dash alongside, but there was a weirdness in that
fragment of a dumb ship hanging out of a fog. We pulled only a stroke or
two nearer to the stern, and stopped. I remembered Castro's warning--the
blindness of flying lead; but it was the profound stillness that checked
me. It seemed to portend something inconceivable. I hailed, tentatively,
as if I had not expected to be answered, "Ship, ahoy!"

Neither was I answered by the instantaneous, "Hallo," of usual
watchfulness, though she was not abandoned. Indeed, my hail made a good
many men jump, to judge by the sounds and the words that came to me from
above. "What? What? A hail?" "Boat near?" "In English, sir."

"Dive for the captain, one of you," an authoritative voice directed.
"He's just run below for a minute. Don't frighten the missus. Call him
out quietly."

Talking, in confidential undertones, followed.

"See him?" "Can't, sir." "What's the dodge, I wonder." "Astern, I think,
sir." "D------n this fog, it lies as thick as pea-soup on the water."

I waited, and after a perplexed sort of pause, heard a stern "Keep off."

Joseph Conrad

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