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The Arrow of Gold by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

THE ARROW OF GOLD--A STORY BETWEEN TWO NOTES




FIRST NOTE



The pages which follow have been extracted from a pile of
manuscript which was apparently meant for the eye of one woman
only. She seems to have been the writer's childhood's friend.
They had parted as children, or very little more than children.
Years passed. Then something recalled to the woman the companion
of her young days and she wrote to him: "I have been hearing of
you lately. I know where life has brought you. You certainly
selected your own road. But to us, left behind, it always looked
as if you had struck out into a pathless desert. We always
regarded you as a person that must be given up for lost. But you
have turned up again; and though we may never see each other, my
memory welcomes you and I confess to you I should like to know the
incidents on the road which has led you to where you are now."

And he answers her: "I believe you are the only one now alive who
remembers me as a child. I have heard of you from time to time,
but I wonder what sort of person you are now. Perhaps if I did
know I wouldn't dare put pen to paper. But I don't know. I only
remember that we were great chums. In fact, I chummed with you
even more than with your brothers. But I am like the pigeon that
went away in the fable of the Two Pigeons. If I once start to tell
you I would want you to feel that you have been there yourself. I
may overtax your patience with the story of my life so different
from yours, not only in all the facts but altogether in spirit.
You may not understand. You may even be shocked. I say all this
to myself; but I know I shall succumb! I have a distinct
recollection that in the old days, when you were about fifteen, you
always could make me do whatever you liked."

He succumbed. He begins his story for her with the minute
narration of this adventure which took about twelve months to
develop. In the form in which it is presented here it has been
pruned of all allusions to their common past, of all asides,
disquisitions, and explanations addressed directly to the friend of
his childhood. And even as it is the whole thing is of
considerable length. It seems that he had not only a memory but
that he also knew how to remember. But as to that opinions may
differ.

This, his first great adventure, as he calls it, begins in
Marseilles. It ends there, too. Yet it might have happened
anywhere. This does not mean that the people concerned could have
come together in pure space. The locality had a definite
importance. As to the time, it is easily fixed by the events at
about the middle years of the seventies, when Don Carlos de
Bourbon, encouraged by the general reaction of all Europe against
the excesses of communistic Republicanism, made his attempt for the
throne of Spain, arms in hand, amongst the hills and gorges of
Guipuzcoa. It is perhaps the last instance of a Pretender's
adventure for a Crown that History will have to record with the
usual grave moral disapproval tinged by a shamefaced regret for the
departing romance. Historians are very much like other people.

However, History has nothing to do with this tale. Neither is the
moral justification or condemnation of conduct aimed at here. If
anything it is perhaps a little sympathy that the writer expects
for his buried youth, as he lives it over again at the end of his
insignificant course on this earth. Strange person--yet perhaps
not so very different from ourselves.

A few words as to certain facts may be added.

It may seem that he was plunged very abruptly into this long
adventure. But from certain passages (suppressed here because
mixed up with irrelevant matter) it appears clearly that at the
time of the meeting in the cafe, Mills had already gathered, in
various quarters, a definite view of the eager youth who had been
introduced to him in that ultra-legitimist salon. What Mills had
learned represented him as a young gentleman who had arrived
furnished with proper credentials and who apparently was doing his
best to waste his life in an eccentric fashion, with a bohemian set
(one poet, at least, emerged out of it later) on one side, and on
the other making friends with the people of the Old Town, pilots,
coasters, sailors, workers of all sorts. He pretended rather
absurdly to be a seaman himself and was already credited with an
ill-defined and vaguely illegal enterprise in the Gulf of Mexico.
At once it occurred to Mills that this eccentric youngster was the
very person for what the legitimist sympathizers had very much at
heart just then: to organize a supply by sea of arms and
ammunition to the Carlist detachments in the South. It was
precisely to confer on that matter with Dona Rita that Captain
Blunt had been despatched from Headquarters.

Mills got in touch with Blunt at once and put the suggestion before
him. The Captain thought this the very thing. As a matter of
fact, on that evening of Carnival, those two, Mills and Blunt, had
been actually looking everywhere for our man. They had decided
that he should be drawn into the affair if it could be done. Blunt
naturally wanted to see him first. He must have estimated him a
promising person, but, from another point of view, not dangerous.
Thus lightly was the notorious (and at the same time mysterious)
Monsieur George brought into the world; out of the contact of two
minds which did not give a single thought to his flesh and blood.

Their purpose explains the intimate tone given to their first
conversation and the sudden introduction of Dona Rita's history.
Mills, of course, wanted to hear all about it. As to Captain
Blunt--I suspect that, at the time, he was thinking of nothing
else. In addition it was Dona Rita who would have to do the
persuading; for, after all, such an enterprise with its ugly and
desperate risks was not a trifle to put before a man--however
young.

It cannot be denied that Mills seems to have acted somewhat
unscrupulously. He himself appears to have had some doubt about
it, at a given moment, as they were driving to the Prado. But
perhaps Mills, with his penetration, understood very well the
nature he was dealing with. He might even have envied it. But
it's not my business to excuse Mills. As to him whom we may regard
as Mills' victim it is obvious that he has never harboured a single
reproachful thought. For him Mills is not to be criticized. A
remarkable instance of the great power of mere individuality over
the young.




PART ONE




CHAPTER I



Certain streets have an atmosphere of their own, a sort of
universal fame and the particular affection of their citizens. One
of such streets is the Cannebiere, and the jest: "If Paris had a
Cannebiere it would be a little Marseilles" is the jocular
expression of municipal pride. I, too, I have been under the
spell. For me it has been a street leading into the unknown.

There was a part of it where one could see as many as five big
cafes in a resplendent row. That evening I strolled into one of
them. It was by no means full. It looked deserted, in fact,
festal and overlighted, but cheerful. The wonderful street was
distinctly cold (it was an evening of carnival), I was very idle,
and I was feeling a little lonely. So I went in and sat down.

The carnival time was drawing to an end. Everybody, high and low,
was anxious to have the last fling. Companies of masks with linked
arms and whooping like red Indians swept the streets in crazy
rushes while gusts of cold mistral swayed the gas lights as far as
the eye could reach. There was a touch of bedlam in all this.

Perhaps it was that which made me feel lonely, since I was neither
masked, nor disguised, nor yelling, nor in any other way in harmony
with the bedlam element of life. But I was not sad. I was merely
in a state of sobriety. I had just returned from my second West
Indies voyage. My eyes were still full of tropical splendour, my
memory of my experiences, lawful and lawless, which had their charm
and their thrill; for they had startled me a little and had amused
me considerably. But they had left me untouched. Indeed they were
other men's adventures, not mine. Except for a little habit of
responsibility which I had acquired they had not matured me. I was
as young as before. Inconceivably young--still beautifully
unthinking--infinitely receptive.

You may believe that I was not thinking of Don Carlos and his fight
for a kingdom. Why should I? You don't want to think of things
which you meet every day in the newspapers and in conversation. I
had paid some calls since my return and most of my acquaintance
were legitimists and intensely interested in the events of the
frontier of Spain, for political, religious, or romantic reasons.
But I was not interested. Apparently I was not romantic enough.
Or was it that I was even more romantic than all those good people?
The affair seemed to me commonplace. That man was attending to his
business of a Pretender.

On the front page of the illustrated paper I saw lying on a table
near me, he looked picturesque enough, seated on a boulder, a big
strong man with a square-cut beard, his hands resting on the hilt
of a cavalry sabre--and all around him a landscape of savage
mountains. He caught my eye on that spiritedly composed woodcut.
(There were no inane snapshot-reproductions in those days.) It was
the obvious romance for the use of royalists but it arrested my
attention.

Just then some masks from outside invaded the cafe, dancing hand in
hand in a single file led by a burly man with a cardboard nose. He
gambolled in wildly and behind him twenty others perhaps, mostly
Pierrots and Pierrettes holding each other by the hand and winding
in and out between the chairs and tables: eyes shining in the
holes of cardboard faces, breasts panting; but all preserving a
mysterious silence.

They were people of the poorer sort (white calico with red spots,
costumes), but amongst them there was a girl in a black dress sewn
over with gold half moons, very high in the neck and very short in
the skirt. Most of the ordinary clients of the cafe didn't even
look up from their games or papers. I, being alone and idle,
stared abstractedly. The girl costumed as Night wore a small black
velvet mask, what is called in French a "loup." What made her
daintiness join that obviously rough lot I can't imagine. Her
uncovered mouth and chin suggested refined prettiness.

They filed past my table; the Night noticed perhaps my fixed gaze
and throwing her body forward out of the wriggling chain shot out
at me a slender tongue like a pink dart. I was not prepared for
this, not even to the extent of an appreciative "Tres foli," before
she wriggled and hopped away. But having been thus distinguished I
could do no less than follow her with my eyes to the door where the
chain of hands being broken all the masks were trying to get out at
once. Two gentlemen coming in out of the street stood arrested in
the crush. The Night (it must have been her idiosyncrasy) put her
tongue out at them, too. The taller of the two (he was in evening
clothes under a light wide-open overcoat) with great presence of
mind chucked her under the chin, giving me the view at the same
time of a flash of white teeth in his dark, lean face. The other
man was very different; fair, with smooth, ruddy cheeks and burly
shoulders. He was wearing a grey suit, obviously bought ready-
made, for it seemed too tight for his powerful frame.

That man was not altogether a stranger to me. For the last week or
so I had been rather on the look-out for him in all the public
places where in a provincial town men may expect to meet each
other. I saw him for the first time (wearing that same grey ready-
made suit) in a legitimist drawing-room where, clearly, he was an
object of interest, especially to the women. I had caught his name
as Monsieur Mills. The lady who had introduced me took the
earliest opportunity to murmur into my ear: "A relation of Lord
X." (Un proche parent de Lord X.) And then she added, casting up
her eyes: "A good friend of the King." Meaning Don Carlos of
course.

I looked at the proche parent; not on account of the parentage but
marvelling at his air of ease in that cumbrous body and in such
tight clothes, too. But presently the same lady informed me
further: "He has come here amongst us un naufrage."

I became then really interested. I had never seen a shipwrecked
person before. All the boyishness in me was aroused. I considered
a shipwreck as an unavoidable event sooner or later in my future.

Meantime the man thus distinguished in my eyes glanced quietly
about and never spoke unless addressed directly by one of the
ladies present. There were more than a dozen people in that
drawing-room, mostly women eating fine pastry and talking
passionately. It might have been a Carlist committee meeting of a
particularly fatuous character. Even my youth and inexperience
were aware of that. And I was by a long way the youngest person in
the room. That quiet Monsieur Mills intimidated me a little by his
age (I suppose he was thirty-five), his massive tranquillity, his
clear, watchful eyes. But the temptation was too great--and I
addressed him impulsively on the subject of that shipwreck.

He turned his big fair face towards me with surprise in his keen
glance, which (as though he had seen through me in an instant and
found nothing objectionable) changed subtly into friendliness. On
the matter of the shipwreck he did not say much. He only told me
that it had not occurred in the Mediterranean, but on the other
side of Southern France--in the Bay of Biscay. "But this is hardly
the place to enter on a story of that kind," he observed, looking
round at the room with a faint smile as attractive as the rest of
his rustic but well-bred personality.

I expressed my regret. I should have liked to hear all about it.
To this he said that it was not a secret and that perhaps next time
we met. . .

"But where can we meet?" I cried. "I don't come often to this
house, you know."

"Where? Why on the Cannebiere to be sure. Everybody meets
everybody else at least once a day on the pavement opposite the
Bourse."

This was absolutely true. But though I looked for him on each
succeeding day he was nowhere to be seen at the usual times. The
companions of my idle hours (and all my hours were idle just then)
noticed my preoccupation and chaffed me about it in a rather
obvious way. They wanted to know whether she, whom I expected to
see, was dark or fair; whether that fascination which kept me on
tenterhooks of expectation was one of my aristocrats or one of my
marine beauties: for they knew I had a footing in both these--
shall we say circles? As to themselves they were the bohemian
circle, not very wide--half a dozen of us led by a sculptor whom we
called Prax for short. My own nick-name was "Young Ulysses."

I liked it.

But chaff or no chaff they would have been surprised to see me
leave them for the burly and sympathetic Mills. I was ready to
drop any easy company of equals to approach that interesting man
with every mental deference. It was not precisely because of that
shipwreck. He attracted and interested me the more because he was
not to be seen. The fear that he might have departed suddenly for
England--(or for Spain)--caused me a sort of ridiculous depression
as though I had missed a unique opportunity. And it was a joyful
reaction which emboldened me to signal to him with a raised arm
across that cafe.

I was abashed immediately afterwards, when I saw him advance
towards my table with his friend. The latter was eminently
elegant. He was exactly like one of those figures one can see of a
fine May evening in the neighbourhood of the Opera-house in Paris.
Very Parisian indeed. And yet he struck me as not so perfectly
French as he ought to have been, as if one's nationality were an
accomplishment with varying degrees of excellence. As to Mills, he
was perfectly insular. There could be no doubt about him. They
were both smiling faintly at me. The burly Mills attended to the
introduction: "Captain Blunt."

We shook hands. The name didn't tell me much. What surprised me
was that Mills should have remembered mine so well. I don't want
to boast of my modesty but it seemed to me that two or three days
was more than enough for a man like Mills to forget my very
existence. As to the Captain, I was struck on closer view by the
perfect correctness of his personality. Clothes, slight figure,
clear-cut, thin, sun-tanned face, pose, all this was so good that
it was saved from the danger of banality only by the mobile black
eyes of a keenness that one doesn't meet every day in the south of
France and still less in Italy. Another thing was that, viewed as
an officer in mufti, he did not look sufficiently professional.
That imperfection was interesting, too.

You may think that I am subtilizing my impressions on purpose, but
you may take it from a man who has lived a rough, a very rough
life, that it is the subtleties of personalities, and contacts, and
events, that count for interest and memory--and pretty well nothing
else. This--you see--is the last evening of that part of my life
in which I did not know that woman. These are like the last hours
of a previous existence. It isn't my fault that they are
associated with nothing better at the decisive moment than the
banal splendours of a gilded cafe and the bedlamite yells of
carnival in the street.

We three, however (almost complete strangers to each other), had
assumed attitudes of serious amiability round our table. A waiter
approached for orders and it was then, in relation to my order for
coffee, that the absolutely first thing I learned of Captain Blunt
was the fact that he was a sufferer from insomnia. In his
immovable way Mills began charging his pipe. I felt extremely
embarrassed all at once, but became positively annoyed when I saw
our Prax enter the cafe in a sort of mediaeval costume very much
like what Faust wears in the third act. I have no doubt it was
meant for a purely operatic Faust. A light mantle floated from his
shoulders. He strode theatrically up to our table and addressing
me as "Young Ulysses" proposed I should go outside on the fields of
asphalt and help him gather a few marguerites to decorate a truly
infernal supper which was being organized across the road at the
Maison Doree--upstairs. With expostulatory shakes of the head and
indignant glances I called his attention to the fact that I was not
alone. He stepped back a pace as if astonished by the discovery,
took off his plumed velvet toque with a low obeisance so that the
feathers swept the floor, and swaggered off the stage with his left
hand resting on the hilt of the property dagger at his belt.

Meantime the well-connected but rustic Mills had been busy lighting
his briar and the distinguished Captain sat smiling to himself. I
was horribly vexed and apologized for that intrusion, saying that
the fellow was a future great sculptor and perfectly harmless; but
he had been swallowing lots of night air which had got into his
head apparently.

Mills peered at me with his friendly but awfully searching blue
eyes through the cloud of smoke he had wreathed about his big head.
The slim, dark Captain's smile took on an amiable expression.
Might he know why I was addressed as "Young Ulysses" by my friend?
and immediately he added the remark with urbane playfulness that
Ulysses was an astute person. Mills did not give me time for a
reply. He struck in: "That old Greek was famed as a wanderer--the
first historical seaman." He waved his pipe vaguely at me.

"Ah! Vraiment!" The polite Captain seemed incredulous and as if
weary. "Are you a seaman? In what sense, pray?" We were talking
French and he used the term homme de mer.

Again Mills interfered quietly. "In the same sense in which you
are a military man." (Homme de guerre.)

It was then that I heard Captain Blunt produce one of his striking
declarations. He had two of them, and this was the first.

"I live by my sword."

It was said in an extraordinary dandified manner which in
conjunction with the matter made me forget my tongue in my head. I
could only stare at him. He added more naturally: "2nd Reg.
Castille, Cavalry." Then with marked stress in Spanish, "En las
filas legitimas."

Mills was heard, unmoved, like Jove in his cloud: "He's on leave
here."

"Of course I don't shout that fact on the housetops," the Captain
addressed me pointedly, "any more than our friend his shipwreck
adventure. We must not strain the toleration of the French
authorities too much! It wouldn't be correct--and not very safe
either."

I became suddenly extremely delighted with my company. A man who
"lived by his sword," before my eyes, close at my elbow! So such
people did exist in the world yet! I had not been born too late!
And across the table with his air of watchful, unmoved benevolence,
enough in itself to arouse one's interest, there was the man with
the story of a shipwreck that mustn't be shouted on housetops.
Why?

I understood very well why, when he told me that he had joined in
the Clyde a small steamer chartered by a relative of his, "a very
wealthy man," he observed (probably Lord X, I thought), to carry
arms and other supplies to the Carlist army. And it was not a
shipwreck in the ordinary sense. Everything went perfectly well to
the last moment when suddenly the Numancia (a Republican ironclad)
had appeared and chased them ashore on the French coast below
Bayonne. In a few words, but with evident appreciation of the
adventure, Mills described to us how he swam to the beach clad
simply in a money belt and a pair of trousers. Shells were falling
all round till a tiny French gunboat came out of Bayonne and shooed
the Numancia away out of territorial waters.

He was very amusing and I was fascinated by the mental picture of
that tranquil man rolling in the surf and emerging breathless, in
the costume you know, on the fair land of France, in the character
of a smuggler of war material. However, they had never arrested or
expelled him, since he was there before my eyes. But how and why
did he get so far from the scene of his sea adventure was an
interesting question. And I put it to him with most naive
indiscretion which did not shock him visibly. He told me that the
ship being only stranded, not sunk, the contraband cargo aboard was
doubtless in good condition. The French custom-house men were
guarding the wreck. If their vigilance could be--h'm--removed by
some means, or even merely reduced, a lot of these rifles and
cartridges could be taken off quietly at night by certain Spanish
fishing boats. In fact, salved for the Carlists, after all. He
thought it could be done. . . .

I said with professional gravity that given a few perfectly quiet
nights (rare on that coast) it could certainly be done.

Mr. Mills was not afraid of the elements. It was the highly
inconvenient zeal of the French custom-house people that had to be
dealt with in some way.

"Heavens!" I cried, astonished. "You can't bribe the French
Customs. This isn't a South-American republic."

"Is it a republic?" he murmured, very absorbed in smoking his
wooden pipe.

"Well, isn't it?"

He murmured again, "Oh, so little." At this I laughed, and a
faintly humorous expression passed over Mills' face. No. Bribes
were out of the question, he admitted. But there were many
legitimist sympathies in Paris. A proper person could set them in
motion and a mere hint from high quarters to the officials on the
spot not to worry over-much about that wreck. . . .

What was most amusing was the cool, reasonable tone of this amazing
project. Mr. Blunt sat by very detached, his eyes roamed here and
there all over the cafe; and it was while looking upward at the
pink foot of a fleshy and very much foreshortened goddess of some
sort depicted on the ceiling in an enormous composition in the
Italian style that he let fall casually the words, "She will manage
it for you quite easily."

"Every Carlist agent in Bayonne assured me of that," said Mr.
Mills. "I would have gone straight to Paris only I was told she
had fled here for a rest; tired, discontented. Not a very
encouraging report."

"These flights are well known," muttered Mr. Blunt. "You shall see
her all right."

"Yes. They told me that you . . . "

I broke in: "You mean to say that you expect a woman to arrange
that sort of thing for you?"

"A trifle, for her," Mr. Blunt remarked indifferently. "At that
sort of thing women are best. They have less scruples."

"More audacity," interjected Mr. Mills almost in a whisper.

Mr. Blunt kept quiet for a moment, then: "You see," he addressed
me in a most refined tone, "a mere man may suddenly find himself
being kicked down the stairs."

I don't know why I should have felt shocked by that statement. It
could not be because it was untrue. The other did not give me time
to offer any remark. He inquired with extreme politeness what did
I know of South American republics? I confessed that I knew very
little of them. Wandering about the Gulf of Mexico I had a look-in
here and there; and amongst others I had a few days in Haiti which
was of course unique, being a negro republic. On this Captain
Blunt began to talk of negroes at large. He talked of them with
knowledge, intelligence, and a sort of contemptuous affection. He
generalized, he particularized about the blacks; he told anecdotes.
I was interested, a little incredulous, and considerably surprised.
What could this man with such a boulevardier exterior that he
looked positively like, an exile in a provincial town, and with his
drawing-room manner--what could he know of negroes?

Mills, sitting silent with his air of watchful intelligence, seemed
to read my thoughts, waved his pipe slightly and explained: "The
Captain is from South Carolina."

"Oh," I murmured, and then after the slightest of pauses I heard
the second of Mr. J. K. Blunt's declarations.

"Yes," he said. "Je suis Americain, catholique et gentil-homme,"
in a tone contrasting so strongly with the smile, which, as it
were, underlined the uttered words, that I was at a loss whether to
return the smile in kind or acknowledge the words with a grave
little bow. Of course I did neither and there fell on us an odd,
equivocal silence. It marked our final abandonment of the French
language. I was the one to speak first, proposing that my
companions should sup with me, not across the way, which would be
riotous with more than one "infernal" supper, but in another much
more select establishment in a side street away from the
Cannebiere. It flattered my vanity a little to be able to say that
I had a corner table always reserved in the Salon des Palmiers,
otherwise Salon Blanc, where the atmosphere was legitimist and
extremely decorous besides--even in Carnival time. "Nine tenths of
the people there," I said, "would be of your political opinions, if
that's an inducement. Come along. Let's be festive," I encouraged
them.

I didn't feel particularly festive. What I wanted was to remain in
my company and break an inexplicable feeling of constraint of which
I was aware. Mills looked at me steadily with a faint, kind smile.

"No," said Blunt. "Why should we go there? They will be only
turning us out in the small hours, to go home and face insomnia.
Can you imagine anything more disgusting?"

He was smiling all the time, but his deep-set eyes did not lend
themselves to the expression of whimsical politeness which he tried
to achieve. He had another suggestion to offer. Why shouldn't we
adjourn to his rooms? He had there materials for a dish of his own
invention for which he was famous all along the line of the Royal
Cavalry outposts, and he would cook it for us. There were also a
few bottles of some white wine, quite possible, which we could
drink out of Venetian cut-glass goblets. A bivouac feast, in fact.
And he wouldn't turn us out in the small hours. Not he. He
couldn't sleep.

Need I say I was fascinated by the idea? Well, yes. But somehow I
hesitated and looked towards Mills, so much my senior. He got up
without a word. This was decisive; for no obscure premonition, and
of something indefinite at that, could stand against the example of
his tranquil personality.