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Chapter 9

For it meant that. Imprisoned! Castro's derisive shriek meant that. And
I had known it before. He emerged back out of the black depths, with
livid, swollen features, and foam about his mouth, to splutter:

"Their corpses, you say.... Ha! Our corpses," and retreated again, where
I could only hear incoherent mutters.

Seraphina clutched my arm. "Juan--together--no separation."

I had known it, even as I spoke of selling our lives dearly. They could
only be surrendered. Surrendered miserably to these wretches, or to the
everlasting darkness in which Castro muttered his despair. I needed not
to hear this ominous and sinister sound--nor yet Seraphina's cry. She
understood, too. They would never come down unless to look upon us
when we were dead. I need not have gone to the entrance of the cave
to understand all the horror of our fate. The _Lugareņos_ had already
lighted a fire. Very near the brink, too.

It was burning some thirty feet above my head; and the sheer wall on the
other side caught up and sent across into my face the crackling of
dry branches, the loud excited talking, the arguments, the oaths, the
laughter; now and then a very shriek of joy. Manuel was giving orders.
Some advanced the opinion that the cursed _Inglez_, the spy who came
from Jamaica to see whom he could get for a hanging without a priest,
was down there, too. So that was it! O'Brien knew how to stir their
hate. I should get a short shrift. "He was a fiend, the _Inglez_: look
how many of us he has killed!" they cried; and Manuel would have loved
to cut my flesh, in small pieces, off my bones--only, alas! I was now
beyond his vengeance, he feared. However, somebody was left.

He must have thrown himself flat, with his head over the brink, for his
yell of "Castro!" exploded, and rolled heavily between the rocks.

"Castro! Castro! Castro!" he shouted twenty times, till he set the whole
ravine in an uproar. He waited, and when the clamour had quieted down
amongst the bushes below, called out softly, "Do you hear me, Castro, my
victim? Thou art my victim, Castro."

Castro had crept into the passage after me. He pushed his head beyond my
shoulder.

"I defy thee, Manuel," he screamed.

A hubbub arose. "He's there! He is there!"

"Bravo, Castro," Manuel shouted from above. "I love thee because thou
art my victim. I shall sing a song for thee. Come up. Hey! Castro!
Castro! Come up.... No? Then the dead to their grave, and the living to
their feast."

Sometimes a little earth, detached from the layer of soil covering the
rock, would fall streaming from above. The men told off to guard the
cornice walked to and fro near the edge, and the confused murmur of
voices hung subdued in the air of the cleft, like a modulated tremor.
Castro, moaning gently, stumbled back into the cave.

Seraphina had remained sitting on the stone seat. The twilight rested
on her knees, on her face, on the heap of cold ashes at her feet. But
Castro, who had stood stock-still, with a hand to his forehead, turned
to me excitedly:

"The peons, _for Dios!_" Had I ever thought of the peons belonging to
the _estancia?_

Well, that was a hope. I did not know exactly how matters stood between
them and the _Lugareņos_. There was no love lost. A fight was likely;
but, even if no actual collision took place, they would be sure to visit
the camp above in no very friendly spirit; a chance might offer to make
our position known to these men, who had no reason to hate either me
or Castro--and would not be afraid of thwarting the miserable band of
ghouls sitting above our grave. How our presence could be made known
I was not sure. Perhaps simply by shouting with all our might from the
mouth of the cave. We could offer rewards--say who we were, summon them
for the service of their own Seņorita. But, probably, they had never
heard of her. No matter. The news would soon reach the _hacienda_, and
Enrico had two hundred slaves at his back. One of us must always remain
at the mouth of the cave listening to what went on above. There would
be the trampling of horses' hoofs--quarrelling, no doubt--anyway, much
talk--new voices--something to inform us. Only, how soon would they
come? They were not likely to be riding where there were no cattle. Had
Castro seen any signs of a herd on the uplands near by?

His face fell. He had not. There were many _savannas_ within the belt
of forests, and the herds might be miles away, stampeded inland by the
storm. Sitting down suddenly, as if overcome, he averted his eyes and
began to scratch the rock between his legs with the point of his blade.

We were all silent. How long could we wait? How long could people
live?... I looked at Seraphina. How long could she live?... The
thought seared my heart like a hot iron. I wrung my hands stealthily.

"Ha! my blade!" muttered Castro. "My sting.... Old scorpion! They did
not take my sting away.... Only--bah!"

He, a man, had not risen to the fortitude of a venomous creature. He was
defeated. He groaned profoundly. Life was too much. It clung to one. A
scorpion--an insect--within a ring of flames, would lift its sting
and stab venom into its own head. And he--Castro--a man--a man, _por
Dios_--had less firmness than a creeping thing. Why--why, did he not
stab this dishonoured old heart?

"Seņorita," he cried agonizingly, "I swear I did shout to them to
fire--so--in to my breast--and then..."

Seraphina leaned over him pityingly.

"Enough, Castro. One lives because of hope. And grieve not. Thy death
would have done no good."

Her face had a splendid pallor, the radiant whiteness and majesty of
marble; it had never before appeared to me more beautiful: and her hair
unrolling its dark undulations, as if tinged deep with the funereal
gloom of the background, covered her magnificently right down to her
elbows. Her eyes were incredibly profound. Her person had taken on an
indefinable beauty, a new beauty, that, like the comeliness that comes
from joy, love, or success, seemed to rise from the depths of her being,
as if an unsuspected and sombre quality of her soul had responded to the
horror of our situation. The fierce trials had gradually developed her,
as burning sunshine opens the bud of a flower; and I beheld her now in
the plenitude of her nature. From time to time Castro would raise up to
her his blinking old eyes, full of timidity and distress.

He had not been young enough to throw himself over--he had worn the
chain for too many years, had lived well and softly too long, was too
old a slave. And yet--if he had had the courage of the act! Who knows?
I rejected the thought far from me. It returned, and I caught myself
looking at him with irritated eyes. But this first day passed not
intolerably. We ignored our sufferings. Indeed, I felt none for my part.
We had kept our thoughts bound to the slow blank minutes. And if we
exchanged a few words now and then, it was to speak of patience, of
resolution to endure and to hope.

At night, from the hot ravine full of shadows, came the cool fretting
of the stream. The big blaze they kept up above crackled distinctly,
throwing a fiery, restless stain on the face of the rock in front of the
cave, high up under the darkness and the stars of the sky--and a pair
of feet would appear stamping, the shadow of a pair of ankles and feet,
fantastic, sustaining no gigantic body, but enormous, tramping slowly,
resembling two coffins leaping to a slow measure. I see them in my
dreams now, sometimes. They disappeared.

Manuel would sing; far in the night the monotonous staccato of the
guitar went on, accompanying plaintive murmurs, outbursts of anger and
cries of pain, the tremulous moans of sorrow. My nerves vibrated, I
broke my nails on the rock, and seemed to hear once more the parody of
all the transports and of every anguish, even to death--a tragic and
ignoble rendering of life. He was a true artist, powerful and scorned,
admired with derision, obeyed with jeers. It was a song of mourning; he
sat on the brink with his feet dangling over the precipice that sent him
back his inspired tones with a confused noise of sobs and desolation....
His idol had been snatched from the humility of his adoring silence,
like a falling star from the sight of the worm that crawls.... He
stormed on the strings; and his voice emerged like the crying of a
castaway in the tumult of the gale. He apostrophized his instrument....
Woe! Woe! No more songs. He would break it. Its work was done. He
would dash it against the rock.... His palm slapped the hollow wood
furiously.... So that it should lie shattered and mute like his own
heart!

A frenzied explosion of yells, jests, and applause covered the finale.

A complete silence would follow, as if in the acclamations they had
exhausted at once every bestial sound. Somebody would cough pitifully
for a long time--and when he had done spluttering and cursing, the world
outside appeared lost in an even more profound stillness. The red stain
of the fire wavered across to play under the dark brow of the rock. The
irritated murmur of the torrent, tearing along below, returned timidly
at first, expanded, filled the ravine, ran through my ears in an angry
babble. The deadened footfalls on the brink sometimes dislodged a
pebble: it would start with a feeble rattle and be heard no more.

In the daytime, too, there were silences up there, perfect, profound. No
prowl of feet disturbed them; the sun blazed between the rocks, and even
the hum of insects could be heard. It seemed impossible not to believe
that they had all died by a miracle, or else had been driven away by a
silent panic. But two or more were always on the watch, directly above,
with their heads over the edge; and suddenly they would begin to talk
together in drowsy tones. It was as if some barbarous somnambulists had
mumbled in the daytime the bizarre atrocity of their thoughts.

They discussed Williams' flask, which had been picked up. Was the cup
made of silver, they wondered. Manuel had appropriated it for his own
use, it seems. Well--he was the _capataz_. The _Inglez_, should he
appear by an impossible chance, was to be shot down at once; but Castro
must be allowed to give himself up. And they would snigger ferociously.
Sometimes quarrels arose, very noisy, a great hubbub of bickerings
touching their jealousies, their fears, their unspeakable hopes of
murder and rapine. They did not feel very safe where they were. Some
would maintain that Castro could not have saved himself, alone. The
_Inglez_ was there, and even the senorita herself... Manuel scouted the
idea with contempt. He advanced the violence of the storm, the fury of
the waves, the broken mast, the position of the boat. How could they
expect a woman!.... No. It was as his song had it. And he defended his
point of view angrily, as though he could not bear being robbed of that
source of poetical inspiration. He emitted profound sighs and superb
declamations.

Castro and I listened to them at the mouth of the cave. Our tongues were
dry and swollen in our mouths, there was the pressure of an iron clutch
on our windpipes, fire in our throats, and the pangs of hunger that tore
at us like iron pincers. But we could hear that the bandits above were
anxious to be gone; they had but very few charges for their guns, and it
was apparent that they were afraid of a collision with the peons of the
_hacienda_. Glaring at each other with bloodshot, uncertain eyes, Castro
and I imagined longingly a vision of men in _ponchos_ spurring madly out
of the woods, bent low, and swinging _riatas_ over the necks of their
horses--with the thunder of the galloping hoofs in the cave. Seraphina
had withdrawn further into the darkness. And, with a shrinking fear, I
would join her, to eat my heart out by the side of her tense and mute
contemplation.

Sometimes Manuel would begin again, "Castro! Castro! Castro!" till he
seemed to stagger the rocks and disturb the placid sunshine with an
immense wave of sound. He called upon his victim to drink once more
before he died. Long shrieks of derision rent the air, as if torn out
of his breast by far greater torments than any his fancy delighted to
invent. There was something terrible and weird in the abundance of words
screeched continuously, without end, as if in desperation. No wonder
Castro fled from the passage. And Seraphina and I, within, would be
startled out of our half-delirious state by the sudden appearance of
that old man, disordered, sordid, with a white beard sprouting, who
wandered, weeping aloud in the twilight.

More than once I would stagger off far away into the depths of the
cavern in an access of rage, fling myself on the floor, bite my arms,
beat my head on the rock. I would give myself up. She must be saved from
this tortured death. She had said she would throw herself over if I left
her. But would she have the strength? It was impossible to know. For
days it seemed she had been lying perfectly still, on her side, one hand
under her wan cheek, and only answering "Juan" when I pronounced her
name. There was something awful in our dry whispers. They were lifeless,
like the tones of the dead, if the dead ever speak to each other across
the earth separating the graves. The moral suffering, joined to the
physical torture of hunger and thirst, annihilated my will in a measure,
but also kindled a vague, gnawing feeling of hostility against her. She
asked too much of me. It was too much. And I would drag myself back to
sit for hours, and with an aching heart look towards her couch from a
distance.

My eyes, accustomed to obscurity, traced an indistinct and recumbent
form. Her forehead was white; her hair merged into the darkness which
was gathering slowly upon her eyes, her cheeks, her throat. She was
perfectly still. It was cruel, it was odious, it was intolerable to be
so still. This must end. I would carry her out by main force. She said
no word, but there was in the embrace of those arms instantly thrown
around my neck, in the feel of those dry lips pressed upon mine, in
the emaciated face, in the big shining eyes of that being as light as a
feather, a passionate mournfulness of seduction, a tenacious clinging to
the appointed fate, that suddenly overawed my movement of rage. I laid
her down again, and covered my face with my hands. She called out to
Castro. He reeled, as if drunk, and waited at the head of her couch,
with his chin dropped on his breast. "_Vuestra, Seņoria_," he muttered.

"Listen well, Castro." Her voice was very faint, and each word came
alone, as if shrunk and parched. "Can my gold--the promise of much
gold--you know these men--save the lives...?"

He uttered a choked cry, and began to tremble, groping for her hand.

"_Si, Seņorita_. Excellency, _si_. It would. Mercy. Save me. I am too
old to bear this. Gold, yes; much gold. Manuel...."

"Listen, Castro.... And Don Juan?" His head fell again. "Speak the
truth, Castro."

He struggled with himself; then, rattling in his throat, shrieked "No!"
with a terrible effort. "No. Nothing can save thy English lover." "Why?"
she breathed feebly. He raged at her in his weakness. Why? Because the
order had gone forth; because they dared not disobey. Because she had
only gold in the palm of her hand, while Seņor O'Brien held all their
lives in his. The accursed _Juez_ was for them like death itself that
walks amongst men, taking this one, leaving another.

He was their life, and their law, and their safety, and their death--and
the _caballero_ had not killed him....

His voice seemed to wither and dry up gradually in his throat. He
crawled away, and we heard him chuckling horribly somewhere, like a
madman. Seraphina stretched out her hand.

"Then, Juan--why not together--like this?"

If she had the courage of this death, I must have even more. It was a
point of honour. I had no wish, and no right, to seek for some easier
way out of life. But she had a woman's capacity for passive endurance,
a serenity of mind in this martyrdom confessing to something sinister in
the power of love that, like faith, can move mountains and order cruel
sacrifices. She could have walked out in perfect safety--and it was
that thought that maddened me. And there was no sleep; there were only
intervals in which I could fall into a delirious reverie of still lakes,
of vast sheets of water. I waded into them up to my lips. Never
further. They were smooth and cold as ice; I stood in them shivering and
straining for a draught, burning within with the fire of thirst, while
a phantom all pale, and with its hair streaming, called to me "Courage!"
from the brink in Seraphina's voice. As to Castro, he was going mad. He
was simply going mad, as people go mad for want of food and drink.
And yet he seemed to keep his strength. He was never still. It was a
factitious strength, the restlessness of incipient insanity. Once, while
I was trying to talk with him about our only hope--the peons--he gave
me a look of such sombre distraction that I left off, intimidated,
to wonder vaguely at this glimpse of something hidden and excessive
springing from torments which surely could be no greater than mine.

He had the strength, and sometimes he could find the voice, to hurl
abuse, curses, and imprecations from the mouth of the cave. Great shouts
of laughter exploded above, and they seemed to hold their breath to
hear more; or Manuel, hanging over, would praise in mocking, mellifluous
accents the energy of his denunciations. I tried to pull him away from
there, but he turned upon me fiercely; and from prudence--for all hope
was not dead in me yet--I left him alone.

That night I heard him make an extraordinary sound chewing; at the same
time he was sobbing and cursing stealthily. He had found something to
eat, then! I could not believe my ears, but I began to creep towards
the sound, and suddenly there was a short, mad scuffle in the darkness,
during which I nearly spitted myself on his blade. At last, trembling in
every limb, with my blood beating furiously in my ears, I scrambled to
my feet, holding a small piece of meat in my hands. Instantly, without
hesitating, without thinking, I plunged my teeth into it only to fling
it far away from me with a frantic execration. This was the first sound
uttered since we had grappled. Lying prone near me, Castro, with a
rattle in his throat, tried to laugh.

This was a supreme touch of Manuel's art; they were pressed for time,
and he had hit upon that deep and politic invention to hasten the
surrender of his beloved victim. I nearly cried with the fiery pain
on my cracked lips. That piece of half-putrid flesh was salt--horribly
salt--salt like salt itself. Whenever they heard him rave and mutter at
the mouth of the cave, they would throw down these prepared scraps. It
was as if I had put a live coal into my mouth.

"Ha!" he croaked feebly. "Have you thrown it away? I, too; the first
piece. No matter. I can no more swallow anything, now."

His voice was like the rustling of parchment at my feet.

"Do not look for it, Don Juan. The sinners in hell.... Ha! Fiend. I
could not resist."

I sank down by his side. He seemed to be writhing on the floor
muttering, "Thirst--thirst--thirst." His blade clicked on the rock; then
all was still. Was he dead? Suddenly he began with an amazingly animated
utterance.

"Seņor! For this they had to kill cattle."

This thought had kept him up. Probably, they had been firing shots. But
there was a way of hamstringing a stalked cow silently; and the plains
were vast, the grass on them was long; the carcasses would lie hidden
out of sight; the herds were rounded up only twice every year. His
despairing voice died out in a mournful fall, and again he was as still
as death.

"No! I can bear this no longer," he uttered with force. He refused to
bear it. He suffered too much. There was no hope. He would overwhelm
them with maledictions, and then leap down from the ledge. "_Adios,
Seņor_."

I stretched out my arm and caught him by the leg. It seemed to me I
could not part with him. It would have been disloyal, an admission that
all was over, the beginning of the end. We were exhausting ourselves by
this sort of imbecile wrestling. Meantime, I kept on entreating him to
be a man; and at last I managed to clamber upon his chest. "A man!" he
sighed. I released him. For a space, unheard in the darkness, he seemed
to be collecting all his remaining strength.

"Oh, those strange _Inglez!_ Why should I not leap? and whom do you love
best or hate more, me or the senorita? Be thou a man, also, and pray
God to give thee reason to understand men for once in thy life. Ha!
Enamoured woman--he is a fool! But I, Castro...."

His whispering became appallingly unintelligible, then ceased, passing
into a moan. My will to restrain him abandoned me. He had brought this
on us. And if he really wished to give up the struggle....

"Seņor," he mumbled brokenly, "a thousand thanks. Br-r-r! Oh, the ugly
water--water--water--water--salt water--salt! You saved me. Why? Let God
be the Judge. I would have preferred a malignant demon for a friend. I
forgive you. _Adios!_ And---Her Excellency--poor Castro.... Ha! Thou old
scorpion, encircled by fire--by fire and thirst. No. No scorpion, alas!
Only a man--not like you--therefore--a Mass--or two--perhaps...."

The freshness of the night penetrated through the arch, as far as the
faint twilight of the day. I heard his tearful muttering creep away from
my side. "Thirst--thirst--thirst." I did not stir; and an incredulity,
a weariness, the sense of our common fate, mingled with an unconfessed
desire--the desire of seeing what would come of it--a desire that
stirred my blood like a glimmer of hope, and prevented me from making a
movement or uttering a whisper. If his sufferings were so great, who was
I to... Mine, too. I almost envied him. He was free.

As if an inward obscurity had parted in two I looked to the very bottom
of my thoughts. And his action appeared like a sacrifice. It could
liberate us two from this cave before it was too late. He, he alone, was
the prey they had trapped. They would be satisfied, probably. Nay! There
could be no doubt. Directly he was dead they would depart. Ah! he wanted
to leap. He must not be allowed. Now that I understood perfectly what
this meant, I had to prevent him. There was no choice. I must stop him
at any cost.

The awakening of my conscience sent me to my feet; but before I had
stumbled halfway through the passage I heard his shout in the open air,
"Behold me!"

A man outside cried excitedly, "He is out!"

An exulting tumult fell into the arch, the clash of twenty voices
yelling in different keys, "He is out--the traitor! He is out!" I was
too late, but I made three more hesitating steps and stood blinded.
The flaming branches they were holding over the precipice showered a
multitude of sparks, that fell disappearing continuously in the lurid
light, shutting out the night from the mouth of the cave. And in this
light Castro could be seen kneeling on the other side of the sill.

With his fingers clutching the edge of the slab, he hung outwards, his
head falling back, his spine arched tensely, like a bow; and the red
sparks coming from above with the dancing whirl of snowflakes, vanished
in the air before they could settle on his face.

"Manuel! Manuel!"

They answered with a deep, confused growl, jostling and crowding on the
edge to look down into his eyes. Meantime I stared at the convulsive
heaving of his breast, at his upturned chin, his swelling throat. He
defied Manuel. He would leap. Behold! he was going to leap--to his own
death--in his own time. He challenged them to come down on the ledge;
and the blade of the maimed arm waved to and fro stiffly, point up, like
a red-hot weapon in the light. He devoted them to pestilence, to English
gallows, to the infernal powers: while all the time commenting
murmurs passed over his head, as though he had extorted their sinister
appreciation.

"_Canalla!_ dogs, thieves, prey of death, vermin of hell--I spit on
you--like this!"

He had not the force, nor the saliva, and remained straining mutely
upwards while they laughed at him all together, with something sombre,
and as if doomed in their derision.... "He will jump! No, he will not!"
"Yes! Leap, Castro! Spit, Castro!" "He will run back into the cave!
_Maladetta!_"... Manuel's voiced cooed lovingly on the brink:

"Come to us and drink, Castro."

I waited for his leap with doubt, with disbelief, in the helpless
agitation of the weak. Gradually he seemed to relax all over.

"Drink deep; drink, and drink, and drink, Castro. Water. Clear water,
cool water. Taste, Castro!"

He called on him in tones that were almost tender in their urgency, to
come and drink before he died. His voice seemed to cast a spell, like
an incantation, upon the tubby little figure, with something yearning in
the upward turn of the listening face.

"Drink!" Manuel repeated the word several times; then, suddenly he
called, "Taste, Castro, taste," and a descending brightness, as of a
crystal rod hurled from above, shivered to nothing on the upturned face.
The light disappearing from before the cave seemed scared away by the
inhuman discord of his shriek; and I flung myself forward to lick
the splash of moisture on the sill. I did not think of Castro, I had
forgotten him. I raged at the deception of my thirst, exploring with my
tongue the rough surface of the stone till I tasted my own blood. Only
then, raising my head to gasp, and clench my fists with a baffled and
exasperated desire, I noticed how profound was the silence, in which the
words, "Take away his sting," seemed to pronounce themselves over the
ravine in the impersonal austerity of the rock, and with the tone of a
tremendous decree.

Joseph Conrad

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