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Chapter 1

"Rio Medio?" Seņor Ramon said to me nearly two years afterwards. "The
_caballero_ is pleased to give me credit for a very great knowledge.
What should I know of that town? There are doubtless good men there and
very wicked, as in other towns. Who knows? Your worship must ask the
boats' crews that the admiral has sent to burn the town. They will be
back very soon now."

He looked at me, inscrutably and attentively, through his gold
spectacles.

It was on the arcade before his store in Spanish Town. Long sunblinds
flapped slightly. Before the next door a large sign proclaimed
"Office of the _Buchatoro Journal_" It was, as I have said, after two
years--years which, as Carlos had predicted, I had found to be of hard
work, and long, hot sameness. I had come down from Horton Pen to Spanish
Town, expecting a letter from Veronica, and, the stage not being in,
had dropped in to chat with Ramon over a consignment of Yankee notions,
which he was prepared to sell at an extravagantly cheap price. It was
just at the time when Admiral Rowley was understood to be going to make
an energetic attempt upon the pirates who still infested the Gulf of
Mexico and nearly ruined the Jamaica trade of those days. Naturally
enough, we had talked of the mysterious town in which the pirates were
supposed to have their headquarters.

"I know no more than others," Ramon said, "save, senor, that I lose
much more because my dealings are much greater. But I do not even know
whether those who take my goods are pirates, as you English say, or
Mexican privateers, as the Havana authorities say. I do not very much
care. _Basta_, what I know is that every week some ship with a letter
of marque steals one of my consignments, and I lose many hundreds of
dollars."

Ramon was, indeed, one of the most frequented merchants in Jamaica; he
had stores in both Kingston and Spanish Town; his cargoes came from all
the seas. All the planters and all the official class in the island had
dealings with him.

"It was most natural that the hidalgo, your respected cousin, should
consult me if he wished to go to any town in Cuba. Whom else should
he go to? You yourself, seņor, or the excellent Mr. Topnambo, if you
desired to know what ships in a month's time are likely to be sailing
for Havana, for New Orleans, or any Gulf port, you would ask me. What
more natural? It is my business, my trade, to know these things. In that
way I make my bread. But as for Rio Medio, I do not know the place." He
had a touch of irony in his composed voice. "But it is very certain,"
he went on, "that if your Government had not recognized the belligerent
rights of the rebellious colony of Mexico, there would be now no letters
of marque, no accursed Mexican privateers, and I and everyone else in
the island should not now be losing thousands of dollars every year."

That was the eternal grievance of every Spaniard in the island--and of
not a few of the English and Scotch planters. Spain was still in
the throes of losing the Mexican colonies when Great Britain had
acknowledged the existence of a state of war and a Mexican Government.
Mexican letters of marque had immediately filled the Gulf. No kind of
shipping was safe from them, and Spain was quite honestly powerless to
prevent their swarming on the coast of Cuba--the Ever Faithful Island,
itself.

"What can Spain do," said Ramon bitterly, "when even your Admiral
Rowley, with his great ships, cannot rid the sea of them?" He lowered
his voice. "I tell you, young seņor, that England will lose this Island
of Jamaica over this business. You yourself are a Separationist, are
you not?... No? You live with Separationists. How could I tell? Many
people say you are."

His words gave me a distinctly disagreeable sensation. I hadn't any idea
of being a Separationist; I was loyal enough. But I understood suddenly,
and for the first time, how very much like one I might look.

"I myself am nothing," Ramon went on impassively; "I am content that the
island should remain English. It will never again be Spanish, nor do I
wish that it should. But our little, waspish friend there"--he lifted
one thin, brown hand to the sign of the _Buckatoro Journal_--"his paper
is doing much mischief. I think the admiral or the governor will commit
him to jail. He is going to run away and take his paper to Kingston; I
myself have bought his office furniture."

I looked at him and wondered, for all his impassivity, what he
knew--what, in the depths of his inscrutable Spanish brain, his dark
eyes concealed.

He bowed to me a little. "There will come a very great trouble," he
said.

Jamaica was in those days--and remained for many years after--in the
throes of a question. The question was, of course, that of the abolition
of slavery. The planters as a rule were immensely rich and overbearing.
They said, "If the Home Government tries to abolish our slavery system,
we will abolish the Home Government, and go to the United States for
protection." That was treason, of course; but there was so much of it
that the governor, the Duke of Manchester, had to close his ears and
pretend not to hear. The planters had another grievance--the pirates in
the Gulf of Mexico. There was one in particular, a certain El Demonio
or Diableto, who practically sealed the Florida passage; it was hardly
possible to get a cargo underwritten, and the planters' pockets felt
it a good deal. Practically, El Demonio had, during the last two
years, gutted a ship once a week, as if he wanted to help the Kingston
Separationist papers. The planters said, "If the Home Government wishes
to meddle with our internal affairs, our slaves, let it first clear our
seas.... Let it hang El Demonio. . . ."

The Government had sent out one of Nelson's old captains, Admiral
Rowley, a good fighting man; but when it came to clearing the Gulf of
Mexico, he was about as useless as a prize-fighter trying to clear a
stable of rats. I don't suppose El Demonio really did more than a tithe
of the mischief attributed to him, but in the peculiar circumstances he
found himself elevated to the rank of an important factor in colonial
politics. The Ministerialist papers used to kill him once a month; the
Separationists made him capture one of old Rowley's sloops five times a
year. They both lied, of course. But obviously Rowley and his frigates
weren't much use against a pirate whom they could not catch at sea, and
who lived at the bottom of a bottle-necked creek with tooth rocks all
over the entrance--that was the sort of place Rio Medio was reported to
be. . . .

I didn't much care about either party--I was looking out for
romance--but I inclined a little to the Separationists, because
Macdonald, with whom I lived for two years at Horton Pen, was himself a
Separationist, in a cool Scotch sort of way. He was an Argyleshire man,
who had come out to the island as a lad in 1786, and had worked his way
up to the position of agent to the Rooksby estate at Horton Pen. He had
a little estate of his own, too, at the mouth of the River Minho, where
he grew rice very profitably. He had been the first man to plant it on
the island.

Horton Pen nestled down at the foot of the tall white scars that end the
Vale of St. Thomas and are not much unlike Dover Cliffs, hanging over
a sea of squares of the green cane, alternating with masses of pimento
foliage. Macdonald's wife was an immensely stout, raven-haired,
sloe-eyed, talkative body, the most motherly woman I have ever known--I
suppose because she was childless.

What was anomalous in my position had passed away with the next outward
mail. Veronica wrote to me; Ralph to his attorney and the Macdonalds.
But by that time Mrs. Mac. had darned my socks ten times.

The surrounding gentry, the large resident landowners, of whom there
remained a sprinkling in the Vale, were at first inclined to make much
of me. There was Mrs. Topnambo, a withered, very dried-up personage, who
affected pink trimmings; she gave the _ton_ to the countryside as far as
ton could be given to a society that rioted with hospitality. She
made efforts to draw me out of the Macdonald environment, to make me
differentiate myself, because I was the grandson of an earl. But the
Topnambos were the great Loyalists of the place, and the Macdonalds the
principal Separationists, and I stuck to the Macdonalds. I was searching
for romance, you see, and could find none in Mrs. Topnambo's white
figure, with its dryish, gray skin, and pink patches round the neck,
that lay forever in dark or darkened rooms, and talked querulously of
"Your uncle, the earl," whom I had never seen. I didn't get on with the
men any better. They were either very dried up and querulous, too, or
else very liquorish or boisterous in an incomprehensible way. Their
evenings seemed to be a constant succession of shouts of laughter,
merging into undignified staggers of white trousers through blue
nights--round the corners of ragged huts. I never understood the hidden
sources of their humour, and I had not money enough to mix well with
their lavishness. I was too proud to be indebted to them, too.
They didn't even acknowledge me on the road at last; they called
me poor-spirited, a thin-blooded nobleman's cub--a Separationist
traitor--and left me to superintend niggers and save money. Mrs. Mac,
good Separationist though she was, as became the wife of her husband,
had the word "home" forever on her lips. She had once visited the
Rooksbys at Horton; she had treasured up a host of tiny things, parts
of my forgotten boyhood, and she talked of them and talked of them until
that past seemed a wholly desirable time, and the present a dull thing!

Journeying in search of romance--and that, after all, is our business in
this world--is much like trying to eaten the horizon. It lies a little
distance before us, and a little _distance behind--about as far as the
eye can carry._ One, discovers that one has passed through it just as
one passed what is to-day our horizon--One looks back and says. "Why
there it is." One looks forward and says the same. It lies either in
the old days when we used to, or in _the new days when we shall_. I look
back upon those days of mine, and little things remain, come back to me,
assume an atmosphere, take significance, go to the making of a _temps
jadis_. Probably, when I look back upon what is the dull, arid waste of
to-day, it will be much the same.

I could almost wish to take again one of the long, uninteresting night
rides from the Vale to Spanish Town, or to listen once more to one of
old Macdonald's interminable harangues on the folly of Mr. Canning's
policy, or the virtues of Scotch thrift. "Jack, lad," he used to bellow
in his curious squeak of a voice, "a gentleman you may be of guid Scots
blood. But ye're a puir body's son for a' that." He was set on my making
money and turning honest pennies. I think he really liked me.

It was with that idea that he introduced me to Ramon, "an esteemed
Spanish merchant of Kingston and Spanish Town." Ramon had seemed
mysterious when I had seen him in company with Carlos and Castro but
re-introduced in the homely atmosphere of the Macdonalds, he had become
merely a saturnine, tall, dusky-featured, gold-spectacled Spaniard, and
very good company. I learnt nearly all my Spanish from him. The only
mystery about him was the extravagantly cheap rate at which he sold
his things under the flagstaff in front of Admiral Rowley's house, the
King's House, as it was called. The admiral himself was said to have
extensive dealings with Ramon; he had at least the reputation of
desiring to turn an honest penny, like myself. At any rate, everyone,
from the proudest planters to the editor of the _Buckatoro Journal_
next door, was glad of a chat with Ramon, whose knowledge of an immense
variety of things was as deep as a draw-well--and as placid.

I used to buy island produce through him, ship it to New Orleans, have
it sold, and re-import parcels of "notions," making a double profit. He
was always ready to help me, and as ready to talk, saying that he had an
immense respect for my relations, the Riegos.

That was how, at the end of my second year in the island, I had come to
talking to him. The stage should have brought a letter from Veronica,
who was to have presented Rooksby with a son and heir, but it was
unaccountably late. I had been twice to the coach office, and was making
my way desultorily back to Ramon's. He was talking to the editor of the
_Buckatoro Journal_--the man from next door--and to another who had,
whilst I walked lazily across the blazing square, ridden furiously up
to the steps of the arcade. The rider was talking to both of them with
exaggerated gestures of his arms. He had ridden off, spurring, and the
editor, a little, gleaming-eyed hunchback, had remained in the sunshine,
talking excitedly to Ramon.

I knew him well, an amusing, queer, warped, Satanic member of society,
who was a sort of nephew to the Macdonalds, and hand in glove with
all the Scotch Separationists of the island. He had started an
extraordinary, scandalous paper that, to avoid sequestration, changed
its name and offices every few issues, and was said by Loyalists, like
the Topnambos, to have an extremely bad influence.

He subsisted a good deal on the charity of people like the Macdonalds,
and I used sometimes to catch sight of him at evenfall listening to Mrs.
Macdonald; he would be sitting beside her hammock on the veranda, his
head very much down on his breast, very much on one side, and his great
hump portending over his little white face, and ruffling up his ragged
black hair. Mrs. Macdonald clacked all the scandal of the Vale, and the
_Buckatoro Journal_ got the benefit of it all, with adornments.

For the last month or so the Journal had been more than usually
effective, and it was only because Rowley was preparing to confound his
traducers by the boat attack on Rio Medio, that a warrant had not come
against David. When I saw him talking to Ramon, I imagined that the
rider must have brought news of a warrant, and that David was preparing
for flight. He hopped nimbly from Ramon's steps into the obscurity of
his own door. Ramon turned his spectacles softly upon me.

"There you have it," he said. "The folly; the folly! To send only little
boats to attack such a nest of villains. It is inconceivable."

The horseman had brought news that the boats of Rowley's squadron had
been beaten off with great loss, in their attack on Rio Medio.

Ramon went on with an air of immense superiority, "And all the while we
merchants are losing thousands."

His dark eyes searched my face, and it came disagreeably into my head
that he was playing some part; that his talk was delusive, his anger
feigned; that, perhaps, he still suspected me of being a Separationist.
He went on talking about the failure of the boat attack. All Jamaica had
been talking of it, speculating about it, congratulating itself on it.
British valour was going to tell; four boats' crews would do the trick.
And now the boats had been beaten off, the crews captured, half the men
killed! Already there was panic on the island. I could see men coming
together in little knots, talking eagerly. I didn't like to listen
to Ramon, to a Spaniard talking in that way about the defeat of my
countrymen by his. I walked across the King's Square, and the stage
driving up just then, I went to the office, and got my correspondence.

Veronica's letter came like a faint echo, like the sound of very distant
surf, heard at night; it seemed impossible that any one could be as
interested as she in the things that were happening over there. She had
had a son; one of Ralph's aunts was its godmother. She and Ralph had
been to Bath last spring; the country wanted water very badly. Ralph had
used his influence, had explained matters to a very great personage,
had spent a little money on the injured runners. In the meanwhile I had
nearly forgotten the whole matter; it seemed to be extraordinary that
they should still be interested in it.

I was to come back; as soon as it was safe I was to come back; that was
the main tenor of the letter.

I read it in a little house of call, in a whitewashed room that
contained a cardboard cat labelled "The Best," for sole ornament. Four
swarthy fellows, Mexican patriots, were talking noisily about their War
of Independence, and the exploits of a General Trapelascis, who had
been defeating the Spanish troops over there. It was almost impossible
to connect them with a world that included Veronica's delicate
handwriting with the pencil lines erased at the base of each line of
ink. They seemed to be infinitely more real. Even Veronica's interest
in me seemed a little strange; her desire for my return irritated me. It
was as if she had asked me to return to a state of bondage, after having
found myself. Thinking of it made me suddenly aware that I had become a
man, with a man's aims, and a disillusionized view of life. It suddenly
appeared very wonderful that I could sit calmly there, surveying, for
instance, those four sinister fellows with daggers, as if they were
nothing at all. When I had been at home the matter would have caused
me extraordinary emotions, as many as if I had seen an elephant in a
travelling show. As for going back to my old life, it didn't seem to be
possible.

Joseph Conrad

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