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Chapter 6

How often the activity of our life is the least real part of it! Life,
looked upon as a whole, presents itself to my fancy as a pursuit with
open arms of a winged and magnificent dream, hovering just over our
heads and casting its glory upon our hopes. It is in this simple vision,
which is one and enduring, and not in the changing facts, that we must
look for meaning and for truth. The three quiet days we spent together
on board the _Lion_ remain to me memorable and full of import, eventless
and containing the very quintessence of existence. We shared the
sunshine, always together, very close, turning hand in hand to the sea,
whose unstained blueness continued under our feet the blue above our
heads, as though we had been snatched up into the sky. The insignificant
words we exchanged seemed informed by a sustaining certitude and an
admirable gravity, as though there had been some quality of unerring
wisdom in the blind love of man and woman. From the inexhaustible
treasure of her feelings she drew words, glances, gestures that appeased
every uneasiness of my heart. In some brief moment of illumination whose
advent my man's eyes had utterly missed, she had learned all at once
everything there was to know. She knew. She no longer needed to survey
my actions, my words, my thoughts; but she accorded me the sincere
flattery of spell-bound attention, and it was made intoxicating by her
smile. In those short days of a pause, when, like a swimmer turning on
his back, we lived in the trustful confidence of the sustaining depths,
instead of struggling with the agitation of the surface--in these days
we had the time to look at each other profoundly; and I saw her smile
come back again a little changed, more meaning and a little less
mirthful, as if her lips had been made stiff by sorrow. But she was
young; and youth, the time of softness, of tenderness, of enthusiasm,
and of pity, presents a surface as hard as marble to the finality of
death.

Breathing side by side, drinking in the sunshine, and talking of
ourselves not at all, but casting the sense of our love like a
magnificent garment over the wide significance of a world already
conquered, we could not help being made aware of the currents of
excitement and sympathy that converged upon our essential isolation from
the life of the ship. It was the excitement of the adventure brewing for
our drinking according to Sebright's recipe. People approached us--spoke
to us. We attended to them as if called down from an elevation; we
were aware of the kind tone; and, remaining indistinct, they retreated,
leaving us free to regain the heights of the lovers' paradise--a region
of tender whispers and intense silences. Suddenly there would be a
short, throaty laugh behind our backs, and Williams would begin, "I
say, Kemp; do you call to mind so-and-so?" Invariably some planter or
merchant in Jamaica. I never could.

Williams would grunt, "No? I wonder how you passed your time away these
two years or more. The place isn't that big." His purpose was to cheer
me up by some gossip, if only he could find a common acquaintance to
talk over. I believe he thought me a queer fish. He told me once that
everybody he knew in Jamaica had that precise opinion of me. Then with ā
chuckle and muttering, "Warrants--assault--Top--nambo--ha, ha!" he would
leave us to ourselves, and continue his waddle up and down the poop.
He wore loose silk trousers, and the round legs inside moved like a
contrivance made out of two gate-posts.

He was absurd. They all were that before our sweet reasonableness. But
this atmosphere, full of interest and good will, was good to breathe.
The very steward--the same who had been hiding in the lazarette during
the fight--a hunted creature, displaying the most insignificant anatomy
ever inhabited by a quailing spirit, devoted himself to the manufacture
of strange cakes, which at tea-time he would deposit smoking hot in
front of Seraphina's place. After each such exploit, he appeared amazed
at his audacity in taking so much upon himself. The carpenter took more
than a day, tinkering at an old ship's boat. He was a Shetlander--a
sort of shaggy hyperborean giant with a forbidding face, an appraising,
contemplative manner, and many nails in his mouth. At last the time came
when he, too, approached our oblivion from behind, with a large hammer
in his hand; but instead of braining us with one sweep of his mighty
arm, he remarked simply in uncouth accents, "There now; I am thinking
she will do well for what ye want her. I can do no more for ye."

We turned round, arm-in-arm, to look at the boat. There she was, lying
careened on the deck, with patched sides, in a belt of chips, shavings,
and sawdust; a few pensive sailors stood about, gazing down at her with
serious eyes. Sebright, bent double, circled slowly on a prowl of minute
inspection. Suddenly straightening himself up, he pronounced a curt
"She'll do"; and, without looking at us at all, went off busily with his
rapid stride.

A light sigh floated down upon our heads. Williams and his wife appeared
on the poop above us like an allegorical couple of repletion and
starvation, conceived in a fantastic vein on a balcony. A cigar
smouldered in his stumpy red fingers. She had slipped a hand under his
arm, as she would always do the moment they came near each other. She
never looked more wasted and old-maidish than when thus affirming her
wifely rights. But her eyes were motherly.

"Ah, my dears!" (She usually addressed Seraphina as "miss," and myself
as "young sir.") "Ah, my dears! It seems so heartless to be sending you
off in such a small boat, even for your own good."

"Never fear, Mary. Repaired. Carry six comfortably," reassured Williams
in a tremendous mutter, like a bull.

"But why can't you give them one of the others, Owen? That big one
there?"

"Nonsense, Mary. Never see boat again. Wouldn't grudge it. Only Sebright
is quite right. Didn't you hear what Sebright said? Very sensible. Ask
Sebright. He will explain to you again."

It was Sebright, with his asperity and his tact, with fits of
brusqueness subdued by an almost affectionate contempt, who conducted
all their affairs, as I have seen a trustworthy and experienced old
nurse rule the infinite perplexities of a room full of children.
His clear-sightedness and mental grip seemed independent of age and
experience, like the ability of genius. He had an imaginative eye for
detail, and, starting from a mere hint, would go scheming onwards with
astonishing precision. His plan, to which we were committed--committed
helplessly and without resistance--was based upon the necessity of our
leaving the ship.

He had developed it to me that evening, in the cabin, directly Castro
had gone out. He had already got Williams and his wife to share his view
of our situation. He began by laying it down that in every desperate
position there was a loophole for escape. Like other great men, he was
conscious of his ability, and was inclined to theorize at large for a
while. You had to accept the situation, go with it in a measure, and as
you had walked into trouble with your eyes shut, you had only to
continue with your eyes open. Time was the only thing that could defeat
one. If you had no time, he admitted, you were at a dead wall. In this
case he judged there would be time, because O'Brien, warned already,
would sit tight for a few days, being sure to get hold of us directly
the _Lion_ came into port. It was only if the _Lion_ failed to turn up
within a reasonable term in Havana, that he would take fright, and take
measures to hunt her up at sea. But I might rest assured that the _Lion_
was going to Havana as fast as the winds would allow her.

What was, then, the situation? he continued, looking at me piercingly
above Williams' cropped head. I had run away for dear life from Cuba
(taking with me what was best in it, to be sure, he interjected, with
a faint smile towards Seraphina). I had no money, no friends (except my
friends in this cabin, he was good enough to say); warrants out against
me in Jamaica; no means to get to England; no safety in the ship. It was
no use shirking that little fact. We must leave the _Lion_. This was a
hopeless enough position. But it was hopeless only because it was
not looked upon in the right way. We assumed that we had to leave her
forever, while the whole secret of the trick was in this, that we need
only leave her for a time. After O'Brien's myrmidons had gone through
her, and had been hooted away empty-handed, she became again, if not
absolutely safe, then at least possible--the only possible refuge
for us--the only decent means of reaching England together, where, he
understood, our trouble would cease. Williams nodded approval heavily.

"The friends of Miss Riego would be glad to know she had made the
passage under the care of a respectable married lady," Sebright
explained, in that imperturbable manner of his, which reflected
faintly all his inner moods--whether of recklessness, of jocularity
or anxiety--and often his underlying scorn. His gravity grew perfectly
portentous. "Mrs. Williams," he continued, "was, of course, very anxious
to do her part creditably. As it happened, the _Lion_ was chartered for
London this voyage; and notwithstanding her natural desire to rejoin, as
soon as possible, her home and her aged uncle in Bristol, she intended
to go with the young lady in a hackney coach to the very door."

I had previously told them that the lately appointed Spanish ambassador
in London was a relation of the Riegos, and personally acquainted with
Seraphina, who, nearly two years before, had been on a short visit to
Spain, and had lived for some months with his family _in_ Madrid, I
believe. No trouble or difficulty was to be apprehended as to proper
recognition, or in the mattei of rights and inheritance, and so on. The
ambassador would make that his own affair. And for the rest I trusted
the decision of her character and the strength of her affection. I was
not afraid she would let any one talk her out of an engagement, the
dying wish of her nearest kinsman, sealed, as it were, with the blood of
her father. This matter of temporary absence from the _Lion_, however,
seemed to present an insuperable difficulty. We could not, obviously, be
left for days floating in an open boat outside Havana harbour, waiting
till the ship came out to pick us up. Sebright himself admitted that at
first he did not see how it could be contrived. He didn't see at all.
He thought and thought. It was enough to sicken one of every sort of
thinking. Then, suddenly, the few words Castro had let drop about the
sugar estate and the relay of mules came into his head--providentially,
as Mrs. Williams would say. He fancied that the primitive and grandiose
manner for a gentleman to keep a relay of mules--any amount of mules--in
case he should want to send a letter or two, caused the circumstance to
stick in his mind. At once he had "our little _hidalgo_" in, and put him
through an examination.

"He turned fairly sulky, and tried constantly to break out against you,
till Dona Seraphina here gave him a good talking to," Sebright said.

Otherwise it was most satisfactory. The place was accessible from the
sea through a narrow inlet, opening into a small, perfectly sheltered
basin at the back of the sand-dunes. The little river watering the
estate emptied itself into that basin. One could land from a boat there,
he understood, as if in a dock--and it was the very devil if I and Miss
Riego could not lie hidden for a few days on her own property, the more
so that, as it came out in the course of the discussion, while I had
"rushed out to look at the sunset," that the manager, or whatever they
called him--the fellow in charge--was the husband of Dona Seraphina's
old nurse-woman. Of course, it behoved us to make as little fuss as
possible--try to reach the house along by-paths early in the morning,
when all the slaves would be out at work in the fields. Castro, who
professed to know the locality very well indeed, would be of use.
Meantime, the _Lion_ would make her way to Havana, as if nothing was the
matter. No doubt all sorts of confounded _alguazils_ and custom-house
hounds would be ready to swarm on board in full cry. They would be made
very welcome. Any strangers on board? Certainly not. Why should there
be?... Rio Medio? What about Rio Medio? Hadn't been within miles and
miles of Rio Medio; tried this trip to beat up well clear of the coast.
Search the ship? With pleasure--every nook and cranny. He didn't suppose
they would have the cheek to talk of the pirates; but if they did
venture--what then? Pirates? That's very serious and dishonourable to
the power of Spain. Personally, had seen nothing of pirates. Thought
they had all been captured and hanged quite lately. Rumours of
the _Lion_ having been attacked obviously untrue. Some other ship,
perhaps.... That was the line to take. If it didn't convince them, it
would puzzle them altogether. Of course, Captain Williams, in his great
regard for me, had abandoned the intention of making an affair of state
of the outrage committed on his ship. He would not lodge any complaint
in Havana--nothing at all. The old women of the Admiralty wouldn't be
made to sit up this time. No report would be sent to the admiral either.
Only, if the ship were interfered with, and bothered under any pretence
whatever, once they had been given every facility to have one good
look everywhere, the admiral would be asked to stop it. And the Spanish
authorities would have not a leg to stand on either, for this simple
reason, that they could not very well own to the sources of their
information. Meantime, all hands on board the _Lion_ had to be taken
into confidence; that could not be avoided. He, Sebright, answered for
their discretion while sober, anyhow; and he promised me that no leave
or money would be given in Havana, for fear they should get on a spree,
and let out something in the grogshops on shore. We all knew what a
sailor-man was after a glass or two. So that was settled. Now, as to our
rejoining the _Lion_. This, of necessity, must be left to me. Counting
from the time we parted from her to land on the coast, the _Lion_ would
remain in Havana sixteen days; and if we did not turn up in that time,
and the cargo was all on board by then, Captain Williams would try to
remain in harbour on one pretence or another a few days longer. But
sixteen days should be ample, and it was even better not to hurry up too
much. To arrive on the fifteenth day would be the safest proceeding in a
way, but for the cutting of the thing too fine, perhaps. With all these
mules at our disposal, Sebright didn't see why we should not make our
way by land, pass through the town at night, or in the earliest morning,
and go straight on board the _Lion_--perhaps use some sort of disguise.
He couldn't say. He was out of it there. Blackened faces or something.
Anyway, we would be looked out for on board night and day.

Later on, however, we had learned from Castro that the estate possessed
a sailing craft of about twenty tons, which made frequent trips to
Havana. These sugar _droghers_ belonging to the plantations (every
estate on the coast had one or more) went in and out of the harbour
without being taken much notice of. Sometimes the battery at the water's
edge on the north side or a custom-house guard would hail them, but
not often--and even then only to ask the name, where from, and for the
number of sugar-hogsheads on board. "By heavens! That's the very thing!"
rejoiced Sebright. And it was agreed that this would be our best way.
We should time our arrival for early morning, or else at dusk. The craft
that brought us in should be made, by a piece of unskillful management,
to fall aboard the _Lion_, and remain alongside long enough to give us
time to sneak in through an open deck-port.

The whole occurrence must be so contrived as to wear the appearance of
a pure accident to the onlookers, should there be any. Shouting and
an exchange of abuse on both parts should sound very true. Then the
_drogher_, getting herself clear, would proceed innocently to the
custom-house steps, where all such coasters had to report themselves on
arrival. "Never fear. We shall put in some loud and scandalous cursing,"
Sebright assured me. "The boys will greatly enjoy that part, I dare
say."

Remained to consider the purpose of the schooner that had come out of
Rio Medio to hang on our skirts. It was doubtful whether it was in our
power to shake her off. Sebright was full of admiration for her sailing
qualities, coupled with infinite contempt for the "lubberly gang on
board."

"If I had the handling of her, now," he said, "I would take my position
as near as I liked, and stick there. It seems almost as if she would do
it of herself, if those imbeciles would only let her have her own way. I
never yet saw a Spaniard, good or bad, that was anything of a sailor. As
it is, we may maintain a distance that would make it difficult for them
to see what we are about. And if not, then--why, you must take your
leave of us at night."

He didn't know that, but for the dismalness of such a departure, it were
not just as well. Who could tell what eyes might be watching on shore?

"You know I never pretended my plan was quite safe. But have you got
another?"

I made no answer, because I had no other, and could not think of one.
Incredible as it may appear, not only my heart, but my mind, also,
in the awakened comprehension of my love, refused to grapple with
difficulties. My thoughts raced ahead of ships and pursuing men, into
a dream of cloudless felicity without end. And I don't think Sebright
expected any suggestion from me. This took place during one of our busy
talks--only he and I--alone in his cabin. He had been washing his hands,
making ready for tea.

"Do you know," he said, turning full on me, and wiping his fingers
carefully with a coarse towel--"do you know, I shouldn't wonder if that
schooner were not keeping watch on us, in suspicion of just some such
move on our part. 'Tis extraordinary how clever the greatest fool may
show himself sometimes. Only, with their lubberly Spanish seamanship,
they would expect us, probably, to make a whole ceremony of your
landing: ship hove to for hours close in shore, a boat going off to land
and returning, and all such pother. 'We are sure to see their little
show,' they think to themselves. Eh? What? Whereas we shall keep well
clear of the land when the time comes, and drop you in the dark without
as much check on our way as there is in the wink of an eye. Hey?...
Mind, Mr. Kemp, you take the boat out of sight up that little river, in
case they should have a fancy, as they go along after us, to peep into
that inlet. As I have said it wouldn't do to trust too much in any
fool's folly."

And now the time was approaching; the time to awake and step forth out
of the temple of sunshine and love--of whispers and silences. It had
come. The night before both Williams and Sebright had been on deck,
working the ship with an anxious care to take the utmost advantage of
every favouring flaw in the contrary breeze. In the morning I was told
there was a norther brewing. A norther is a tempestuous gale. I saw no
signs of it. The realm of the sun, like the vanished one of the stars,
appeared to my senses to be profoundly asleep, and breathing as gently
as a child upon the ship. The _Lion_, too, seemed to lie wrapped in an
enchanted slumber from the water-line to the tops of her upright masts.
And yet she moved with the breath of the world, but so imperceptibly
that it was the coast that seemed to be nearing her like a line of
low vapour blown along the water. Between Williams and Sebright Castro
pointed with his one arm, and a splutter of guttural syllables fell like
hail out of his lips. The other two seemed incredulous. He stamped with
both his feet angrily. Finally they went below together, to look at the
chart, I suppose. They came up again very fast, one after another, and
stood in a row, looking on as before. Three more dissimilar human beings
it would have been difficult to imagine.

Dazzling white patches, about the size of a man's hand, came out between
sky and water. They grew in width, and ran together with a hummocky
outline into a continuous undulation of sand-dunes. Here and there this
rampart had a gap like a breach made by guns. Mrs. Williams, behind me,
blew her nose faintly; her eyes were red, but she did not look at us.
No eye was turned our way, and the spell of the coast was on her, too. A
low, dark headland broke out to view through the dunes, and stood
there conspicuous amongst the heaps of dazzling sand, like a small man
frowning. A voice on deck pronounced:

"That's right. Here's his landmark. The fellow knew very well what he
was talking about."

It was Sebright's voice, and Castro, strolling away triumphantly,
affected to turn his back on the land. He had recognized the formation
of the coast about the inlet long before anybody else could distinguish
the details. His word had been doubted. He was offended, and passed us
by, wrapping himself up closely. One of Seraphina's locks blew against
my cheek, and this last effort of the breeze remained snared in the
silken meshes of her hair.

"There's not enough wind to fill the sail of a toy boat," grumbled
Sebright; "and you can't pull this heavy gig ashore with only that
one-armed man at the other oar." He was sorry he could not send us off
with four good rowers. The norther might be coming on before they could
return to the ship, and--apart from the presence of four English sailors
on the coast being sure to get talked about--there was the difficulty
in getting them back on board in Havana. We could, no doubt, smuggle
ourselves in; but six people would make too much of a show. On the other
hand, the absence of four men out of the ship's company could not be
accounted for very well to the authorities. "We can't say they all died,
and we threw them overboard. It would be too startling. No; you must go
alone, and leave us at the first breath of wind; and that, I fear, 'll
be the first of the norther, too."

He threw his head back, and hailed, "Do you see anything of that
schooner from aloft there?"

"Nothing of her, sir," answered a man perched, with dangling feet,
astride the very end of the topsail yard-arm. He paused, scanned
the space from under the flat of his hand, and added, shouting with
deliberation, "There's--a--haze--to seaward, sir." The ship, with her
decks sprinkled over with men in twos and threes, sent up to his ears a
murmur of satisfaction.

If we could not see her, she could not see us. This was a favourable
circumstance. To the infinite gratification of everyone on board, it
had been discovered at daylight that the schooner had lost touch with
us during the hours of darkness--either through unskillful handling,
or from some accidental disadvantage of the variable wind. I had been
informed of it, directly I showed myself on deck in the morning, by
several men who had radiant grins, as if some great piece of luck had
befallen them, one and all. They shared their unflagging attention
between the land and the sea-horizon, pointing out to each other,
with their tattooed arms, the features of the coast, nodding knowingly
towards the open. At midday most of them brought out their dinners on
deck, and could be seen forward, each with a tin plate in the left hand,
gesticulating amicably with clasp knives. A small white handkerchief
hung from Mrs. Williams' fingers, and now and then she touched her eyes
lightly, one after the other. Her husband and Sebright, with a grave
mien, stamped busily around the binnacle aft, changing places, making
way for each other, stooping in turns to glance carefully along the
compass card at the low bluff, like two gunners laying a piece of
heavy ordnance for an important shot. The steward, emerging out of the
companion, rang a handbell violently, and remained scared at the failure
of that appeal. After waiting for a moment, he produced a further feeble
tinkle, and sank down out of sight, with resignation.

A white sun, as if blazing with the pallor of fury, swung past the
zenith in a profound and universal stillness. There was not a wrinkle on
the sea; it presented a lustrous and glittering level, like the
polished facet of a gem. In the cabin we sat down to the meal, not even
pretending a desire to eat, exchanging vague phrases, hanging our heads
over the empty plates. But the regular footsteps of the boatswain
left in charge hesitated, stopped near the skylight. He said in an
imperfectly assured voice, "Seems as if there was a steadier draught
coming now." At this we rose from the table impetuously, as though he
had shouted an alarm of fire, and Mrs. Williams, with a little cry, ran
round to Seraphina. Leaving the two women locked in a silent embrace,
the captain, Sebright and myself hurried out on deck.

Every man in the ship had done the same. Even the shiny black cook had
come out of his galley, and was already comfortably seated on the rail,
baring his white teeth to the sunshine.

"Just about enough to blow out a farthing dip," said Sebright, in a
disappointed mutter.

He thought, however, we had better not wait for more. There would be too
much presently. Some sailors hauled the boat alongside, the rest lined
the rail as for a naval spectacle, and Williams stared blankly. We were
waiting for Seraphina, who appeared, attended by Mrs. Williams, looking
more kind, bloodless, and ascetic than ever. But my girl's cheeks
glowed; her eyes sparkled audaciously. She had done up her hair in some
way that made it fit her head like a cap. It became her exceedingly, and
the decision of her movements, the white serenity of her brow, dazzled
me as if I had never seen her before. She seemed less childlike, older,
ripe for this adventure in a new development of strength and courage.
She inclined her head slowly at the gaping sailors, who had taken their
caps off.

As soon as she appeared, Castro, who had been leaning against the
bulwark, started up, and with a muttered "_Adios, Seņores_," went down
the overside ladder and ensconced himself in the bow of the boat. The
leave-taking was hurried over. Williams gave no sign of feeling, except,
perhaps, for the greater intensity of his stare, which passed beyond our
shoulders in the very act of handshaking. Sebright helped Seraphina down
into the boat, and ran up again nimbly. Mrs. Williams, with her slim
hand held in both mine, uttered a few incoherent words--about men's
promises and the happiness of women, as I thought; but, truth to say,
my own suppressed excitement was too considerable for close attention.
I only knew that I had given her my confidence, that complete and utter
confidence which neither wisdom nor power alone, can command. And,
suddenly, it occurred to me that the heiress of a splendid name and
fortune, down in the boat there, had no better friend in the world than
this woman, who had come to us out of the waste of the sea, opening her
simple heart to our need, like a pious and naive hermit in a wilderness
throwing open the door of his cell to strange wayfarers.

"Mrs. Williams," I stammered. "If we--if I--there's no saying what may
happen to any of us. If she ever comes to you--if she ever is in want of
help...."

"Yes, yes. Always, always--like my own daughter."

And the good woman broke down, as if, indeed, I were taking her own
daughter away.

"Nonsense, Mary!" Williams advanced, muttering tremendously. "They are
not going round the world. Dare say get ashore in time for supper."

He stared through her without expression, as if she had been thin air,
but she seized his arm, of course, and he gave me, then, an amazingly
rapid wink which, I suppose, meant that I should go....

"All right there?" asked Sebright from above, as soon as I had taken my
seat in the stern sheets by the side of Seraphina. He was standing on
the poop deck ready with a sign for letting go the end of our painter
on deck; but before I could answer in the affirmative, Castro, ensconced
forward under his hat, drew his ready blade across the rope, as it were
a throat.

At once a narrow strip of water opened between the boat and the ship,
and our long-prepared departure, hastened thus by half a second, seemed
to strike everybody dumb with surprise, as if we had taken wings to
ourselves to fly away. Hastily I grasped the tiller to give the boat a
sheer, and heard a sort of loud gasp in the air above. A row of heads,
posed on chins all along the rail, stared after us with unanimous
fixity. Mrs. Williams averted her face on her husband's shoulder. Behind
the couple, Sebright raised his cap gravely.

Our little sail filled to a breeze which was much too feeble to produce
a perceptible effect on the ship, and we left behind us her towering
form, as one recedes from a tall white spire on a plain. I laid the
boat's head straight for the dwarf headland, marking the mouth of the
inlet on the interminable range of sand-dunes. We drove on with a smart
ripple, but before we felt sufficiently settled to exchange a few words
the animated sound languished suddenly, paused altogether, and, with
a renewed murmur under our feet seemed to lose itself below the glassy
waters.


Joseph Conrad

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