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Nostromo by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

NOSTROMO
A TALE OF THE SEABOARD

BY
JOSEPH CONRAD




"So foul a sky clears not without a storm."
- SHAKESPEARE




TO
JOHN GALSWORTHY




AUTHOR'S NOTE


"NOSTROMO" is the most anxiously meditated of the longer novels
which belong to the period following upon the publication of the
"Typhoon" volume of short stories.

I don't mean to say that I became then conscious of any impending
change in my mentality and in my attitude towards the tasks of my
writing life. And perhaps there was never any change, except in
that mysterious, extraneous thing which has nothing to do with
the theories of art; a subtle change in the nature of the
inspiration; a phenomenon for which I can not in any way be held
responsible. What, however, did cause me some concern was that
after finishing the last story of the "Typhoon" volume it seemed
somehow that there was nothing more in the world to write about.

This so strangely negative but disturbing mood lasted some little
time; and then, as with many of my longer stories, the first hint
for "Nostromo" came to me in the shape of a vagrant anecdote
completely destitute of valuable details.

As a matter of fact in 1875 or '6, when very young, in the West
Indies or rather in the Gulf of Mexico, for my contacts with land
were short, few, and fleeting, I heard the story of some man who
was supposed to have stolen single-handed a whole lighter-full of
silver, somewhere on the Tierra Firme seaboard during the
troubles of a revolution.

On the face of it this was something of a feat. But I heard no
details, and having no particular interest in crime qua crime I
was not likely to keep that one in my mind. And I forgot it till
twenty-six or seven years afterwards I came upon the very thing
in a shabby volume picked up outside a second-hand book-shop. It
was the life story of an American seaman written by himself with
the assistance of a journalist. In the course of his wanderings
that American sailor worked for some months on board a schooner,
the master and owner of which was the thief of whom I had heard
in my very young days. I have no doubt of that because there
could hardly have been two exploits of that peculiar kind in the
same part of the world and both connected with a South American
revolution.

The fellow had actually managed to steal a lighter with silver,
and this, it seems, only because he was implicitly trusted by his
employers, who must have been singularly poor judges of
character. In the sailor's story he is represented as an
unmitigated rascal, a small cheat, stupidly ferocious, morose, of
mean appearance, and altogether unworthy of the greatness this
opportunity had thrust upon him. What was interesting was that he
would boast of it openly.

He used to say: "People think I make a lot of money in this
schooner of mine. But that is nothing. I don't care for that.
Now and then I go away quietly and lift a bar of silver. I must
get rich slowly--you understand."

There was also another curious point about the man. Once in the
course of some quarrel the sailor threatened him: "What's to
prevent me reporting ashore what you have told me about that
silver?"

The cynical ruffian was not alarmed in the least. He actually
laughed. "You fool, if you dare talk like that on shore about me
you will get a knife stuck in your back. Every man, woman, and
child in that port is my friend. And who's to prove the lighter
wasn't sunk? I didn't show you where the silver is hidden. Did
I? So you know nothing. And suppose I lied? Eh?"

Ultimately the sailor, disgusted with the sordid meanness of that
impenitent thief, deserted from the schooner. The whole episode
takes about three pages of his autobiography. Nothing to speak
of; but as I looked them over, the curious confirmation of the
few casual words heard in my early youth evoked the memories of
that distant time when everything was so fresh, so surprising, so
venturesome, so interesting; bits of strange coasts under the
stars, shadows of hills in the sunshine, men's passions in the
dusk, gossip half-forgotten, faces grown dim. . . . Perhaps,
perhaps, there still was in the world something to write about.
Yet I did not see anything at first in the mere story. A rascal
steals a large parcel of a valuable commodity--so people say.
It's either true or untrue; and in any case it has no value in
itself. To invent a circumstantial account of the robbery did not
appeal to me, because my talents not running that way I did not
think that the game was worth the candle. It was only when it
dawned upon me that the purloiner of the treasure need not
necessarily be a confirmed rogue, that he could be even a man of
character, an actor and possibly a victim in the changing scenes
of a revolution, it was only then that I had the first vision of
a twilight country which was to become the province of Sulaco,
with its high shadowy Sierra and its misty Campo for mute
witnesses of events flowing from the passions of men
short-sighted in good and evil.

Such are in very truth the obscure origins of "Nostromo"--the
book. From that moment, I suppose, it had to be. Yet even then I
hesitated, as if warned by the instinct of self-preservation from
venturing on a distant and toilsome journey into a land full of
intrigues and revolutions. But it had to be done.

It took the best part of the years 1903-4 to do; with many
intervals of renewed hesitation, lest I should lose myself in the
ever-enlarging vistas opening before me as I progressed deeper in
my knowledge of the country. Often, also, when I had thought
myself to a standstill over the tangled-up affairs of the
Republic, I would, figuratively speaking, pack my bag, rush away
from Sulaco for a change of air and write a few pages of the
"Mirror of the Sea." But generally, as I've said before, my
sojourn on the Continent of Latin America, famed for its
hospitality, lasted for about two years. On my return I found
(speaking somewhat in the style of Captain Gulliver) my family
all well, my wife heartily glad to learn that the fuss was all
over, and our small boy considerably grown during my absence.

My principal authority for the history of Costaguana is, of
course, my venerated friend, the late Don Jose Avellanos,
Minister to the Courts of England and Spain, etc., etc., in his
impartial and eloquent "History of Fifty Years of Misrule." That
work was never published--the reader will discover why--and I am
in fact the only person in the world possessed of its contents. I
have mastered them in not a few hours of earnest meditation, and
I hope that my accuracy will be trusted. In justice to myself,
and to allay the fears of prospective readers, I beg to point out
that the few historical allusions are never dragged in for the
sake of parading my unique erudition, but that each of them is
closely related to actuality; either throwing a light on the
nature of current events or affecting directly the fortunes of
the people of whom I speak.

As to their own histories I have tried to set them down,
Aristocracy and People, men and women, Latin and Anglo-Saxon,
bandit and politician, with as cool a hand as was possible in the
heat and clash of my own conflicting emotions. And after all this
is also the story of their conflicts. It is for the reader to say
how far they are deserving of interest in their actions and in
the secret purposes of their hearts revealed in the bitter
necessities of the time. I confess that, for me, that time is the
time of firm friendships and unforgotten hospitalities. And in my
gratitude I must mention here Mrs. Gould, "the first lady of
Sulaco," whom we may safely leave to the secret devotion of Dr.
Monygham, and Charles Gould, the Idealist-creator of Material
Interests whom we must leave to his Mine--from which there is no
escape in this world.

About Nostromo, the second of the two racially and socially
contrasted men, both captured by the silver of the San Tome Mine,
I feel bound to say something more.

I did not hesitate to make that central figure an Italian. First
of all the thing is perfectly credible: Italians were swarming
into the Occidental Province at the time, as anybody who will
read further can see; and secondly, there was no one who could
stand so well by the side of Giorgio Viola the Garibaldino, the
Idealist of the old, humanitarian revolutions. For myself I
needed there a Man of the People as free as possible from his
class-conventions and all settled modes of thinking. This is not
a side snarl at conventions. My reasons were not moral but
artistic. Had he been an Anglo-Saxon he would have tried to get
into local politics. But Nostromo does not aspire to be a leader
in a personal game. He does not want to raise himself above the
mass. He is content to feel himself a power--within the People.

But mainly Nostromo is what he is because I received the
inspiration for him in my early days from a Mediterranean sailor.
Those who have read certain pages of mine will see at once what I
mean when I say that Dominic, the padrone of the Tremolino, might
under given circumstances have been a Nostromo. At any rate
Dominic would have understood the younger man perfectly--if
scornfully. He and I were engaged together in a rather absurd
adventure, but the absurdity does not matter. It is a real
satisfaction to think that in my very young days there must,
after all, have been something in me worthy to command that man's
half-bitter fidelity, his half-ironic devotion. Many of
Nostromo's speeches I have heard first in Dominic's voice. His
hand on the tiller and his fearless eyes roaming the horizon from
within the monkish hood shadowing his face, he would utter the
usual exordium of his remorseless wisdom: "Vous autres
gentilhommes!" in a caustic tone that hangs on my ear yet. Like
Nostromo! "You hombres finos!" Very much like Nostromo. But
Dominic the Corsican nursed a certain pride of ancestry from
which my Nostromo is free; for Nostromo's lineage had to be more
ancient still. He is a man with the weight of countless
generations behind him and no parentage to boast of. . . . Like
the People.

In his firm grip on the earth he inherits, in his improvidence
and generosity, in his lavishness with his gifts, in his manly
vanity, in the obscure sense of his greatness and in his faithful
devotion with something despairing as well as desperate in its
impulses, he is a Man of the People, their very own unenvious
force, disdaining to lead but ruling from within. Years
afterwards, grown older as the famous Captain Fidanza, with a
stake in the country, going about his many affairs followed by
respectful glances in the modernized streets of Sulaco, calling
on the widow of the cargador, attending the Lodge, listening in
unmoved silence to anarchist speeches at the meeting, the
enigmatical patron of the new revolutionary agitation, the
trusted, the wealthy comrade Fidanza with the knowledge of his
moral ruin locked up in his breast, he remains essentially a Man
of the People. In his mingled love and scorn of life and in the
bewildered conviction of having been betrayed, of dying betrayed
he hardly knows by what or by whom, he is still of the People,
their undoubted Great Man--with a private history of his own.

One more figure of those stirring times I would like to mention:
and that is Antonia Avellanos--the "beautiful Antonia." Whether
she is a possible variation of Latin-American girlhood I wouldn't
dare to affirm. But, for me, she is. Always a little in the
background by the side of her father (my venerated friend) I hope
she has yet relief enough to make intelligible what I am going to
say. Of all the people who had seen with me the birth of the
Occidental Republic, she is the only one who has kept in my
memory the aspect of continued life. Antonia the Aristocrat and
Nostromo the Man of the People are the artisans of the New Era,
the true creators of the New State; he by his legendary and
daring feat, she, like a woman, simply by the force of what she
is: the only being capable of inspiring a sincere passion in the
heart of a trifler.

If anything could induce me to revisit Sulaco (I should hate to
see all these changes) it would be Antonia. And the true reason
for that--why not be frank about it?--the true reason is that I
have modelled her on my first love. How we, a band of tallish
schoolboys, the chums of her two brothers, how we used to look up
to that girl just out of the schoolroom herself, as the
standard-bearer of a faith to which we all were born but which
she alone knew how to hold aloft with an unflinching hope! She
had perhaps more glow and less serenity in her soul than Antonia,
but she was an uncompromising Puritan of patriotism with no taint
of the slightest worldliness in her thoughts. I was not the only
one in love with her; but it was I who had to hear oftenest her
scathing criticism of my levities--very much like poor Decoud--or
stand the brunt of her austere, unanswerable invective. She did
not quite understand--but never mind. That afternoon when I came
in, a shrinking yet defiant sinner, to say the final good-bye I
received a hand-squeeze that made my heart leap and saw a tear
that took my breath away. She was softened at the last as though
she had suddenly perceived (we were such children still!) that I
was really going away for good, going very far away--even as far
as Sulaco, lying unknown, hidden from our eyes in the darkness of
the Placid Gulf.

That's why I long sometimes for another glimpse of the "beautiful
Antonia" (or can it be the Other?) moving in the dimness of the
great cathedral, saying a short prayer at the tomb of the first
and last Cardinal-Archbishop of Sulaco, standing absorbed in
filial devotion before the monument of Don Jose Avellanos, and,
with a lingering, tender, faithful glance at the
medallion-memorial to Martin Decoud, going out serenely into the
sunshine of the Plaza with her upright carriage and her white
head; a relic of the past disregarded by men awaiting impatiently
the Dawns of other New Eras, the coming of more Revolutions.

But this is the idlest of dreams; for I did understand perfectly
well at the time that the moment the breath left the body of the
Magnificent Capataz, the Man of the People, freed at last from
the toils of love and wealth, there was nothing more for me to do
in Sulaco.


J. C.

October, 1917.




CONTENTS

PART FIRST

THE SILVER OF THE MINE

PART SECOND

THE ISABELS

PART THIRD

THE LIGHTHOUSE




NOSTROMO



CHAPTER ONE

IN THE time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the
town of Sulaco--the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears
witness to its antiquity--had never been commercially anything
more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local
trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the
conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie
becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges
ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of
Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of
the earth are made difficult of access by the treachery of sunken
rocks and the tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an
inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a trading world in
the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Placido as if within an
enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean,
with its walls of lofty mountains hung with the mourning
draperies of cloud.

On one side of this broad curve in the straight seaboard of the
Republic of Costaguana, the last spur of the coast range forms an
insignificant cape whose name is Punta Mala. From the middle of
the gulf the point of the land itself is not visible at all; but
the shoulder of a steep hill at the back can be made out faintly
like a shadow on the sky.

On the other side, what seems to be an isolated patch of blue
mist floats lightly on the glare of the horizon. This is the
peninsula of Azuera, a wild chaos of sharp rocks and stony levels
cut about by vertical ravines. It lies far out to sea like a
rough head of stone stretched from a green-clad coast at the end
of a slender neck of sand covered with thickets of thorny scrub.
Utterly waterless, for the rainfall runs off at once on all sides
into the sea, it has not soil enough--it is said--to grow a
single blade of grass, as if it were blighted by a curse. The
poor, associating by an obscure instinct of consolation the ideas
of evil and wealth, will tell you that it is deadly because of
its forbidden treasures. The common folk of the neighbourhood,
peons of the estancias, vaqueros of the seaboard plains, tame
Indians coming miles to market with a bundle of sugar-cane or a
basket of maize worth about threepence, are well aware that heaps
of shining gold lie in the gloom of the deep precipices cleaving
the stony levels of Azuera. Tradition has it that many
adventurers of olden time had perished in the search. The story
goes also that within men's memory two wandering sailors--
Americanos, perhaps, but gringos of some sort for certain--talked
over a gambling, good-for-nothing mozo, and the three stole a
donkey to carry for them a bundle of dry sticks, a water-skin,
and provisions enough to last a few days. Thus accompanied, and
with revolvers at their belts, they had started to chop their way
with machetes through the thorny scrub on the neck of the
peninsula.

On the second evening an upright spiral of smoke (it could only
have been from their camp-fire) was seen for the first time
within memory of man standing up faintly upon the sky above a
razor-backed ridge on the stony head. The crew of a coasting
schooner, lying becalmed three miles off the shore, stared at it
with amazement till dark. A negro fisherman, living in a lonely
hut in a little bay near by, had seen the start and was on the
lookout for some sign. He called to his wife just as the sun was
about to set. They had watched the strange portent with envy,
incredulity, and awe.

The impious adventurers gave no other sign. The sailors, the
Indian, and the stolen burro were never seen again. As to the
mozo, a Sulaco man--his wife paid for some masses, and the poor
four-footed beast, being without sin, had been probably permitted
to die; but the two gringos, spectral and alive, are believed to
be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell
of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from
their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They
are now rich and hungry and thirsty--a strange theory of
tenacious gringo ghosts suffering in their starved and parched
flesh of defiant heretics, where a Christian would have renounced
and been released.

These, then, are the legendary inhabitants of Azuera guarding its
forbidden wealth; and the shadow on the sky on one side with the
round patch of blue haze blurring the bright skirt of the horizon
on the other, mark the two outermost points of the bend which
bears the name of Golfo Placido, because never a strong wind had
been known to blow upon its waters.

On crossing the imaginary line drawn from Punta Mala to Azuera
the ships from Europe bound to Sulaco lose at once the strong
breezes of the ocean. They become the prey of capricious airs
that play with them for thirty hours at a stretch sometimes.
Before them the head of the calm gulf is filled on most days of
the year by a great body of motionless and opaque clouds. On the
rare clear mornings another shadow is cast upon the sweep of the
gulf. The dawn breaks high behind the towering and serrated wall
of the Cordillera, a clear-cut vision of dark peaks rearing their
steep slopes on a lofty pedestal of forest rising from the very
edge of the shore. Amongst them the white head of Higuerota
rises majestically upon the blue. Bare clusters of enormous rocks
sprinkle with tiny black dots the smooth dome of snow.

Then, as the midday sun withdraws from the gulf the shadow of the
mountains, the clouds begin to roll out of the lower valleys.
They swathe in sombre tatters the naked crags of precipices above
the wooded slopes, hide the peaks, smoke in stormy trails across
the snows of Higuerota. The Cordillera is gone from you as if it
had dissolved itself into great piles of grey and black vapours
that travel out slowly to seaward and vanish into thin air all
along the front before the blazing heat of the day. The wasting
edge of the cloud-bank always strives for, but seldom wins, the
middle of the gulf. The sun--as the sailors say--is eating it up.
Unless perchance a sombre thunder-head breaks away from the main
body to career all over the gulf till it escapes into the offing
beyond Azuera, where it bursts suddenly into flame and crashes
like a sinster pirate-ship of the air, hove-to above the horizon,
engaging the sea.

At night the body of clouds advancing higher up the sky smothers
the whole quiet gulf below with an impenetrable darkness, in
which the sound of the falling showers can be heard beginning and
ceasing abruptly--now here, now there. Indeed, these cloudy
nights are proverbial with the seamen along the whole west coast
of a great continent. Sky, land, and sea disappear together out
of the world when the Placido--as the saying is--goes to sleep
under its black poncho. The few stars left below the seaward
frown of the vault shine feebly as into the mouth of a black
cavern. In its vastness your ship floats unseen under your feet,
her sails flutter invisible above your head. The eye of God
Himself--they add with grim profanity--could not find out what
work a man's hand is doing in there; and you would be free to
call the devil to your aid with impunity if even his malice were
not defeated by such a blind darkness.

The shores on the gulf are steep-to all round; three uninhabited
islets basking in the sunshine just outside the cloud veil, and
opposite the entrance to the harbour of Sulaco, bear the name of
"The Isabels."

There is the Great Isabel; the Little Isabel, which is round; and
Hermosa, which is the smallest.

That last is no more than a foot high, and about seven paces
across, a mere flat top of a grey rock which smokes like a hot
cinder after a shower, and where no man would care to venture a
naked sole before sunset. On the Little Isabel an old ragged
palm, with a thick bulging trunk rough with spines, a very witch
amongst palm trees, rustles a dismal bunch of dead leaves above
the coarse sand. The Great Isabel has a spring of fresh water
issuing from the overgrown side of a ravine. Resembling an
emerald green wedge of land a mile long, and laid flat upon the
sea, it bears two forest trees standing close together, with a
wide spread of shade at the foot of their smooth trunks. A ravine
extending the whole length of the island is full of bushes; and
presenting a deep tangled cleft on the high side spreads itself
out on the other into a shallow depression abutting on a small
strip of sandy shore.

From that low end of the Great Isabel the eye plunges through an
opening two miles away, as abrupt as if chopped with an axe out
of the regular sweep of the coast, right into the harbour of
Sulaco. It is an oblong, lake-like piece of water. On one side
the short wooded spurs and valleys of the Cordillera come down at
right angles to the very strand; on the other the open view of
the great Sulaco plain passes into the opal mystery of great
distances overhung by dry haze. The town of Sulaco itself--tops
of walls, a great cupola, gleams of white miradors in a vast
grove of orange trees--lies between the mountains and the plain,
at some little distance from its harbour and out of the direct
line of sight from the sea.