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Chapter 7

The calm had returned. The sea, changing from the warm glitter of a
gem, and attuned to the grays and blacks of space, resembled a monstrous
cinder under a sky of ashes.

The sun had disappeared, smothered in these clouds that had formed
themselves all at once and everywhere, like some swift corruption of
the upper air. For the best part of the afternoon the ship and the boat
remained lying at right angles, within half a mile of each other. What
light was left in the world, cut off from the source of life, seemed to
sicken with a strange decay. The long stretch of sands and the sails of
the motionless vessel stood out lividly pale in universal gloom. And
yet the state of the atmosphere was such that we could see clear-cut the
very folds in the steep face of the dunes, and the figures of the people
moving on the poop of the _Lion_. There was always somebody there that
had the aspect of watching us. Then, with some excitement, we saw them
on board haul up the mainsail and lower the gig.

The four oars beat the sombre water, rising and falling apparently
in the same place. She was an interminable time coming on, but as she
neared us I was surprised at her dashing speed. Sebright, who steered,
laid her alongside smartly, and two of his men, clambering over without
a word, lowered our lug at once.

"We came to reef your sail for you. You couldn't manage that very well
with a one-armed crew," said the young mate quietly in the enormous
stillness. In his opinion, we couldn't expect now any wind till the
first squall came down. This flurry, as he called it, would send us in
smoking, and he was sure it would help the ship, as well, into Havana,
in about twenty-four hours. He didn't think that it would come _very_
heavy at first; and, once landed, we need not care how hard it blew.

He tendered me over the gunwale a pocket-flask covered with leather,
and with a screwed silver stopper in the shape of a cup. It was from the
captain; full of prime rum. We were pretty sure to get wet. He thrust,
also, into my hands a gray woollen shawl. Mrs. Williams thought my young
lady might be glad of it at night. "The dear old woman has shut herself
up inside their stateroom, and is praying for you now," he concluded.
"Look alive, boys."

His men did not answer him, but at some words he addressed to Castro,
the latter, in the bows and looking at the coast, growled with a surly
impatience. He was perfectly sure of the entrance. Had been in and out
several times. Yes. At night, too. Sebright then turned to me. After
all, it was not so difficult. The inlet bore due south from us, and the
wind would come true from the north. Always did in these bursts. I had
only to keep dead before it. "The clouds will light you in at the last,"
he added meaningly, glancing upwards.

The two sailors, having finished reefing, hoisted, lowered, and hoisted
again the yard to see that the gear ran clear, and without one look
at us, stepped back into the gig, and sat down in their places. For a
moment longer we lay together, touching sides. Sebright extended his
hand from boat to boat.

"You are in God's care now, Kemp," he said, looking up at me, and with
an unexpected depth of feeling in his tone. "Take no turn with the sheet
on any account, and if you feel it coming too heavy, let fly and chance
it. Did I tell you we have sighted the schooner from aloft? No? We can
just make her out from the main-yard away astern under the land. That
don't matter now.... Seņorita, I kiss your hands." He liked to air his
Spanish.... "Keep cool whatever happens. Dead before it--mind. And count
on sixteen days from to-morrow. Well. No more. Give way, boys."

He never looked back. We watched the boat being hoisted and secured.
Shortly afterwards, as we were observing the Lion shortening sail, the
first of the rain descended between her and us like a lowered veil.
For a time she remained mistily visible, dark and gaunt with her bared
spars. The downpour redoubled; she disappeared; and our hearts were
stirred to a faster beat.

The shower fell on us, around us, descending perpendicularly, with a
steady force; and the thunder rolled far off, as if coming from under
the sea. Sometimes the muffled rumbling stopped, and let us hear plainly
the gentle hiss and the patter of the drops falling upon a vast expanse.
Suddenly, mingled with a loud detonation right over our heads, a burst
of light outlined under the bellying strip of our sail the pointed crown
of Castro's hat, reposing on a heap of black clothing huddled in the
bows. The darkness swallowed it all. I swung Seraphina in front of me,
and made her sit low on the stern sheets beneath my feet. A lot of foam
boiled up around the boat, and we had the sensation of having been sent
flying from a catapult.

Everything was black--perfectly black. At intervals, headlong gusts of
rain swept over our heads. I suppose I did keep sufficiently cool, but
in every flash of lightning the wind, the sea, the clouds, the rain, and
the boat appeared to rush together thundering upon the coast. The line
of sands, bordered with a belt of foam, zigzagged dazzlingly upon an
earth as black as the clouds; only the headland, with every vision,
remained sombre and unmoved. At last it rose up right before the boat.
Blue lightning streamed on a lane of tumbling waters at its foot. Was
this the entrance? With the vague notion of shortening sail, I let the
sheet go from my hand. There was a jerk, the crack of snapped wood,
and the next flash showed me Castro emerging from the ruins of mast and
sail. He uprose, hurling the wreck from him overboard, then flickered
out of sight with his arm waving to the left, and I bore accordingly
on the tiller. In a moment I saw him again, erect forward, with the arm
pointing to the right, and I obeyed his signal. The clouds, straining
with water and fire, were, indeed, lighting us on our way. A wave
swelled astern, chasing us in; rocking frightfully, we glanced past a
stationary mass of foam--a sandbar--breakers.... It was terrible....
Suddenly, the motion of the boat changed, and the flickers of lightning
fell into a small, land-locked basin. The wind tore deep furrows in
it, howling and scuffling behind the dunes. Spray flew from the whole
surface, the entire pool of a bay seemed to heave bodily upwards, and
I saw Castro again, with his face to me this time. His black cloak was
blowing straight out from his throat, his mouth yawned wide; he
shouted directions, but in an instant darkness sealed my eyes with its
impenetrable impress. It was impossible to steer now; the boat swung and
reeled where she listed; a violent shock threw me sideways off my seat.
I felt her turning over, and, gathering Seraphina in my arms, I leaped
out before she capsized. I leaped clear out into shallow water.

I should never in my life have thought myself capable of such a feat,
and yet I did it with assurance, with no effort that I can remember.
More than that--I managed, after the leap, to keep my feet in the
clinging, staggering clutch of water charged with sand, which swirled
heavily about my knees. It kept on hurling itself at my legs from
behind, while I waded across the narrow strip of sand with an inspired
firmness of step defying all the power of the elements. I felt the
harder ground at last, but not before I had caught a momentary glimpse
of a black and bulky object tumbling over and over in the advancing and
withdrawing liquid flurry of the beach.

"Sit still here on the ground," I shouted to Seraphina, though flights
of spray enveloped us completely. "I am going back for Castro."

I faced about, putting my head down. He had been undoubtedly knocked
over; and an old man, with only one hand to help himself with, ran a
very serious risk of being buffeted into insensibility, and thus coming
to his death in some four feet of water. The violent glare disclosed a
body, entangled in a cloak, rolling about helplessly between land and
water, as it were. I dashed on in the dark; a wave went over my head
as I stooped, nearly waist-deep, groping. His rotary motion, in that
smother, made it extremely difficult to obtain any sort of hold. A
little more, and he would have knocked my legs from under me, but it
was as if my grim determination were by itself of a saving nature. He
submitted to being hauled up the beach, passively, like a sack. It was
a heavy drag on the sand; I felt him bump behind me on the edge of the
harder ground, and a deluge fell uninterruptedly from above. He lay
prone on his face, like a corpse, between Seraphina and myself. We could
not remain there, however.

But where to go? What to do? In what direction to look for a refuge? Was
there any shelter near by? How were we to reach it? How were we to
move at all? No doubt he had expired; and the earth, swept, deluged,
glimmering fiercely and devastated with an awful uproar, appeared no
longer habitable. A thunder-clap seemed to crash new life into him;
the world flared all round, as if turning to a spark, and he was seen
sitting up dazedly, like one called up from the dead. Through it all he
had preserved his hat.

It was fixed firmly down under his chin with a handkerchief, the
side rims over his ears like flaps, and, for the rest, presenting the
appearance of a coal-scuttle bonnet behind, as well as in front. We
followed its peculiar aspect. Driving on under this indestructible
headgear, he flickered in and out of the world, while, with entwined
arms and leaning back against the wind with all our might, Seraphina
and myself were borne along in his train. He knew of a shelter; and this
knowledge, perhaps, and also his evident familiarity with the topography
of the country, made him appear indomitably confident in the storm.

A small plain of coarse grass was bounded by the steep spur of a rise.
To the left a little river would burst, all at once, in all its windings
into a bluish sulphurous glow; and between the crashes of thunder there
was heard the long-drawn, whistling swish of the rushes and cane-brakes
springing on the boggy ground. We skirted the rise. The rain beat
against it; the lightning showed its streaming and furrowed surface.
We stumbled in the gusts. We felt under our feet, mud, sand, rocky
inequalities of the ground, and the moving stones in the bed of a
torrent, which broke headlong against our ankles. The entrance of a deep
ravine opened.

Its lower sides palpitated with the ceaseless tossing of dwarf trees
and bushes; and, motionless above the sombre tumult of the slopes, the
monumental stretch of bare rock rose on high, level at the top, and
emitting a ghastly yellow sheen in the flashes. The thunderclaps rolled
ponderously between the narrowing walls of that chasm, that was all
aflame one moment, and all black the next. A torrent springing at its
head, and dashing with inaudible fury along the bottom, seemed to gleam
placidly amongst the rounded forms of inky bushes and pale boulders
below our path. Enormous eddies of wind from above made us stop short
and totter breathless, clinging to each other.

Castro sustained Seraphina on the other side; but frequently he had
to leave us and move ahead, looking for the way. There was, in fact, a
half-obliterated path winding along the less steep of the two sides; and
we struggled after our guide with the unthinking fortitude of despair.
He was being disclosed to us so suddenly, extinguished so swiftly, that
he appeared, always, as if motionless and posturing in a variety of
climbing attitudes. The rise of the bottom was very steep, and the last
hundred yards really stiff. We did them practically on our hands and
knees. The dislodged stones bounded away from under our feet, unheard,
like puff-balls.

At the top I tried to make of my body a shelter for Seraphina. The wind
howled and roared over us. "Up! _Vamos!_ The worst is yet before us,"
shrieked Castro in my ear.

What could he mean by this? The play of lightning opened to view only
a vast and rolling upland. Fire flowed in sheets undulating with the
expanses of long grass amongst the trees, here and there, in coal-black
clumps, and flashed violently against a low edge of forests very dark
and far away.

"Let us go!" he cried. "Courage, Seņorita!"

Courage! The populace said of her that she had never needed to put
her foot to the ground. If courage consists, for a being so tender, in
toiling and enduring without faltering and plaint,--even to the very
limit of physical power,--then she was the most courageous woman in the
world, as she was the most charming, most faithful, most generous, and
the most worthy of love. I tried not to think of her racked limbs, for
the very pain and pity of it. We retraced our steps, but now following
the edge of that precipice out of which we had emerged. I had
peremptorily insisted on carrying her. She put her arms round my neck
and, to my uplifted heart, she weighed no heavier than a feather.
Castro, grasping my arm, guided my steps and gave me support against the

There was a distinct lull. Even the thunder had rolled away, dwindling
to a deep mutter. Castro fell on his knees in front of me.

"It is here," I heard him scream.

I set Seraphina down. A hooked dart of fire tore in two the thick canopy
of clouds. I started back from the edge.

"What! Here?" I yelled.

"Seņor--_Si!_ There is a cavern below...."

I had seen a ledge clinging to the face of the rock.

It was a cornice inclining downwards upon the wall of the precipice, as
you see, sometimes, a flight of stairs built against the outside wall of
a house. And it resembled a stair roughly, with long, sloping steps, wet
with rain.

"_Por Dios_, Seņor, do not let us stay to think here, or we shall perish
in this tempest."

He howled, gesticulated, shrieked with all the strength of his lungs.
He knew these tornadoes. Brute beasts would be found lying dead in the
fields in the morning. This was the beginning only. The lightning
showed his kneeling form, the eager upturned face, and a finger pointing
urgently into the abyss. The wind was nothing! Nothing to what would
come after. As he shrieked these words I was feeling the crust of the
earth vibrate, absolutely vibrate, under the soles of my feet, with the
sound of thunder.

He unfastened his cloak, and was seen to struggle above his head with
the hovering and flapping cloth, as though he had captured a black and
pugnacious bird. We mastered at last a corner each, and then we started
to twist the whole, as if to wring the water out. We produced, thus, a
sort of short rope, the thickness of a cable, and the descent began.

"Do not look behind you. Do not look," Castro screeched.

The first downward steps were terrible, but as soon as our heads had
sunk below the level of the plain it was better, for we had turned about
to the rock, moving sideways, cautiously, one step at a time, as
if inspecting its fractured roughness for traces of a mysterious
inscription. Castro, with one end of the twisted cloak in his hand,
went first; I held the other; and between us, Seraphina, the rope at her
back, imitated our movements, with her loosened hair flying high in
the wind, and her pale, rigid head as if deaf to the crashes. I saw
the drawn stillness of her face, her dilated eyes staring within three
inches of the strata. The strain on our prudence was tremendous. The
knowledge of the precipice behind must have affected me. Explain it as
you will, several times during that descent I felt my brain slip away
from my control, and suggest a desire to fling myself over backwards.
The twigs of the bushes, growing a little below the outer edge of the
path, swished at my calves. Castro stopped. The cornice ended as a
broken stairway hangs upon nothing. A tall, narrow arch stood back in
the rock, with a sill three feet high at least. Castro clambered over;
his head and torso, when he turned about, were lighted up blindingly
between the inner walls at every flash. Seeing me lay hold of Seraphina,
he yelled:

"Seņor, mind! It's death if you stagger back."

I lifted her up, and put her over like a child; and, no sooner in
myself, felt my strength leave all my limbs as water runs out of an
overturned vessel. I could not have lifted up a child's doll then.
Directly, with a wild little laugh, she said to me:

"Juan--I shall never dare come out."

I hugged her silently to my breast.

Castro went ahead. It was a narrow passage; our elbows touched the sides
all the way. He struck at his flint regularly, sparks streamed down from
his hand; we felt a freshness, a sense of space, as though we had come
into another world. His voice directed us to turn to the left, then
cried in the dark, "Stand still." A blue gleam darted after us, and
retired without having done anything against the tenebrous body of
gloom, and the thunder rolled far in, unobstructed, in leisurely,
organ-like peals, as if through an amazingly vast emptiness of a temple.
But where was Castro? We heard snappings, rustlings, mutters; sparks
streamed, now here, now there. We dared not move. There might have been
steep ridges--deep holes in that cavern. And suddenly we discovered him
on all-fours, puffing out his cheeks above a small flame kindled in a
heap of dry sticks and leaves.

It was an abode of darkness, enormous, without sonority. Feeble currents
of air, passing on our faces, gave us a feeling of being in the open air
on a night more black than any known night had been before. One's voice
lost itself in there without resonance, as if on a plain; the smoke of
our blaze drove aslant, scintillating with red sparks, and went trailing
afar, as if under the clouds of a starless sky. Ultimately, it must have
escaped through some imperceptible crevices in the roof of rock. In
one place, only, the light of the fire illuminated a small part of the
rugged wall, where the shadows of our bodies would surge up, repeating
our movements, and suddenly be gone from our sight. Everywhere else,
pressing upon the reflection of the flames, the blind darkness of the
vault might have extended away for miles and miles.

Castro thought it probable. He made me observe the incline of the floor.
It sloped down deep and far. For miles, no doubt. Nobody could tell;
no one had seen the end of it. This cavern had been known of old.
This brushwood, these dead leaves, that would make a couch for her
Excellency, had been stored for years--perhaps by men who had died
long ago. Look at the dry rot. These large piles of branches were found
stacked up when he first beheld this place. _Caramba!_ What toil! What
fatigue! Let us thank the saints, however.

Nevertheless, he shook his head at the strangeness of it. His cloak,
spread out wide, was drying in the light, while he busied himself with
his hat, turning it before the blaze in both hands, tenderly; and his
tight little figure, lit up in front from head to foot, steamed from
every limb. His round, plump shoulders and gray-shock head smoked
quietly at the top. Suddenly, the fine mesh of wrinkles on his face ran
together, shrinking like a torn cobweb; a spasmodic sound, quite new to
me, was heard. He had laughed.

The warmth of the fire had penetrated our chilled bodies with a feeling
of comfort and repose. Williams' flask was empty; and this was a new
Castro, mellowed, discoursive, almost genial. It was obvious to me that,
had it not been for him, we two, lost and wandering in the storm, should
have died from exposure and exhaustion--from some accident, perhaps.
On the other hand I had indubitably saved his life, and he had already
thanked me in high-flown language; very grave, but exaggerating the
horrors of his danger, as a woman might have done for the better
expression of gratitude. He had been greatly shocked. Spaniards, as a
race, have never, for all their conquests, been on intimate terms with
the sea. As individuals I have often observed in them, especially in the
lower classes, a sort of dread, a dislike of salt water, mingled with
contempt and fear.

Castro, lifting up his right arm, protested that I had given a proof
of very noble devotion in rushing back for an old man into that black
water. Ough! He shuddered. He had given himself up--_por Dios!_ He
hinted that, at his age, he could not have cared much for life; but
then, drowning in the sea was a death abhorrent to an old Christian. You
died brutally--without absolution, and unable, even, to think of your
sins. He had had his mouth filled with horrid, bitter sand, too. Tfui!
He gave me a thousand thanks. But these English were wonderful in their
way.... Ah! _Caramba!_ They were....

A large protuberance of the rocky floor had been roughly chipped into
the semblance of a seat, God only knows by what hands and in what
forgotten age. Seraphina's inclined pose, her torn dress, the wet
tresses lying over her shoulders, her homeless aspect, made me think of
a beautiful and miserable gipsy girl drying her hair before a fire. A
little foot advanced, gleamed white on the instep in front of the ruddy
glare; her clasped fingers nursed one raised knee; and, shivering no
longer, her head drooping in still profile, she listened to us, frowning
thoughtfully upon the flames.

In the guise of a beggar-maid, and fair, like a fugitive princess of
romance, she sat concealed in the very heart of her dominions. This
cavern belonged to her, as Castro remarked, and the bay of the sea, and
the earth above our heads, the rolling upland, herds of cattle, fields
of sugar-cane--even as far as the forest away there; the forest itself,
too. And there were on that estate, alone, over two hundred Africans,
he was able to tell us. He boasted of the wealth of the Riegos. Her
Excellency, probably, did not know such details. Two hundred--certainly.
The estate of Don Vincente Salazar was on the other side of the river.
Don Vincente was at present suffering the indignity of a prison for
a small matter of a quarrel with another _caballero_--who had died
lately--and all, he understood, through the intrigues of the prior of
a certain convent; the uncle, they said, of the dead _caballero_. Bah!
There was something to get. These fat friars were like the lean wolves
of Russia--hungry for everything they could see. Never enough, _Cuerpo
de Bios!_ Never enough! Like their good friend who helped them in their
iniquities, the Juez O'Brien, who had been getting rich for years on the
sublime generosity of her Excellency's blessed father. In the greatness
of his nobility, Don Balthasar of holy memory had every right to be
obstinate.... _Basta!_ He would speak no more; only there is a saying in
Castile that fools and obstinate people make lawyers rich....

"_Vuestra Seņoria_," he cried, checking himself, slapping his breast
penitently, "deign to forgive me. I have been greatly exalted by the
familiarity of the two last men of your house--allowed to speak freely
because of my fidelity.... Alas! Alas!"

Seraphina, on the other side of the fire, made a vague gesture, and took
her chin in her hand without looking at him.

"Patience," he mumbled to himself very audibly. "He is rich, this
picaro, O'Brien. But there is, also, a proverb--that no riches shall
avail in the day of vengeance."

Noticing that we had begun to whisper together, he threw himself before
the fire, and was silent.

"Promise me one thing, Juan," murmured Seraphina.

I was kneeling by the side of her seat.

"By all that's holy," I cried, "I shall force him to come out and fight
fair--and kill him as an English gentleman may."

"Not that! Not that!" she interrupted me. She did not mean me to do
that. It was what she feared. It would be delivering myself into that
man's hands. Did I think what that meant? It would be delivering her,
too, into that man's power. She would not survive it. And if I desired
her to live on, I must keep out of O'Brien's clutches.

"In my thoughts I have bound my life to yours, Juan, so fast that the
stroke which cuts yours, cuts mine, too. No death can separate us."

"No," I said.

And she took my head in her hands, and looked into my eyes.

"No more mourning," she whispered rapidly. "No more. I am too young to
have a lover's grave in my life--and too proud to submit...."

"Never," I protested ardently. "That couldn't be."

"Therefore look to it, Juan, that you do not sacrifice your life which
is mine, either to your love--or--or--to revenge." She bowed her head;
the falling hair concealed her face. "For it would be in vain."

"The cloak is perfectly dry now, Seņorita," said Castro, reclining on
his elbow on the edge of the darkness.

We two stepped out towards the entrance, leaving her on her knees,
in silent prayer, with her hands clasped on her forehead, and leaning
against the rugged wall of rock. Outside, the earth, enveloped in fire
and uproar, seemed to have been given over to the fury of a devil.

Yes. She was right. O'Brien was a formidable and deadly enemy. I wished
ourselves on board the _Lion_ chaperoned by Mrs. Williams, and in the
middle of the Atlantic. Nothing could make us really safe from his
hatred but the vastness of the ocean. Meantime we had a shelter, for
that night, at least, in this cavern that seemed big enough to contain,
in its black gloom of a burial vault, all the dust and passions and
hates of a nation....

Afterwards Castro and I sat murmuring by the diminished fire. He had
much to say about the history of this cave. There was a tradition that
the ancient buccaneers had held their revels in it. The stone on which
the senorita had been sitting was supposed to have been the throne of
their chief. A ferocious band they were, without the fear of God or
devil--mostly English. The Rio Medio picaroons had used this cavern,
occasionally, up to a year or so ago. But there were always ugly affairs
with the people on the estate--the _vaqueros_. In his younger days Don
Balthasar, having whole leagues of grass land here, had introduced a
herd of cattle; then, as the Africans are useless for that work, he
had ordered some peons from Mexico to be brought over with their
families--ignorant men, who hardly knew how to make the sign of the
cross. The quarrels had been about the cattle, which the _Lugareņos_
killed for meat. The peons rode over them, and there were many wounds
on both sides. Then, the last time a Rio Medio schooner was lying here
(after looting a ship outside), there was some gambling going on (they
played round this very stone), and Manuel--(_Si, Seņor_, this same
Manuel the singer--_Bestia!_)--in a dispute over the stakes, killed a
peon, striking him unexpectedly with a knife in the throat. No vengeance
was taken for this, because the _Lugareņos_ sailed away at once; but the
widow made a great noise, and some rumours came to the ears of Don
Balthasar himself--for he, Castro, had been honoured with a mission to
visit the estate. That was even the first occasion of Manuel's hate for
him--Castro. And, as usual, the Intendente after all settled the matter
as he liked, and nothing was done to Manuel. Don Balthasar was old, and,
besides, too great a noble to be troubled with the doings of such
vermin.... And Castro began to yawn.

At daybreak--he explained--he would start for the _hacienda_ early, and
return with mules for Seraphina and myself. The buildings of the estate
were nearly three leagues away. All this tract of the country on the
side of the sea was very deserted, the sugar-cane fields worked by the
slaves lying inland, beyond the habitations. Here, near the coast,
there were only the herds of cattle ranging the _savannas_ and the peons
looking after them, but even they sometimes did not come in sight of the
sea for weeks together. He had no fear of being seen by anybody on his
journey; we, also, could start without fear in daylight, as soon as he
brought the mules. For the rest, he would make proper arrangements for
secrecy with the husband of Seraphina's nurse--Enrico, he called him: a
silent Galician; a graybeard worthy of confidence.

One of his first cares had been to grub out of his soaked clothes
a handful of tobacco, and now he turned over the little drying heap
critically. He hunted up a fragment of maize leaf somewhere upon his
bosom. His face brightened. "_Bueno_," he muttered, very pleased.

"Seņor--good-night," he said, more humanized than I had supposed
possible; or was it only that I was getting to know him better? "And
thanks. There's that in life which even an old tired man.... Here I,
Castro... old and sad, Seņor. Yes, Seņor--nothing of mine in all the
world--and yet.... But what a death! Ouch! the brute water... _Caramba!_
Altogether improper for a man who has escaped from a great many battles
and the winter of Russia.... The snow, Seņor...."

He drowsed, garrulous, with the blackened end of his cigarette hanging
from his lower lip, swayed sideways--and let himself go over gently,
pillowing his head on the stump of his arm. The thin, viperish blade,
stuck upwards from under his temple, gleamed red before the sinking

I raised a handful of flaring twigs to look at Sera-phina. A terrible
night raged over the land; the inner arch of the opening growled,
winking bluishly time after time, and, like an enchanted princess
enveloped in a beggar's cloak, she was lying profoundly asleep in the
heart of her dominions.

Joseph Conrad

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