Nostromo: a Tale of the Seaboard, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter Six

A PROFOUND stillness reigned in the Casa Gould. The master of the house, walking along the corredor, opened the door of his room, and saw his wife sitting in a big armchair — his own smoking armchair — thoughtful, contemplating her little shoes. And she did not raise her eyes when he walked in.

“Tired?” asked Charles Gould.

“A little,” said Mrs. Gould. Still without looking up, she added with feeling, “There is an awful sense of unreality about all this.”

Charles Gould, before the long table strewn with papers, on which lay a hunting crop and a pair of spurs, stood looking at his wife: “The heat and dust must have been awful this afternoon by the waterside,” he murmured, sympathetically. “The glare on the water must have been simply terrible.”

“One could close one’s eyes to the glare,” said Mrs. Gould. “But, my dear Charley, it is impossible for me to close my eyes to our position; to this awful . . .”

She raised her eyes and looked at her husband’s face, from which all sign of sympathy or any other feeling had disappeared. “Why don’t you tell me something?” she almost wailed.

“I thought you had understood me perfectly from the first,” Charles Gould said, slowly. “I thought we had said all there was to say a long time ago. There is nothing to say now. There were things to be done. We have done them; we have gone on doing them. There is no going back now. I don’t suppose that, even from the first, there was really any possible way back. And, what’s more, we can’t even afford to stand still.”

“Ah, if one only knew how far you mean to go,” said his wife. inwardly trembling, but in an almost playful tone.

“Any distance, any length, of course,” was the answer, in a matter-of-fact tone, which caused Mrs. Gould to make another effort to repress a shudder.

She stood up, smiling graciously, and her little figure seemed to be diminished still more by the heavy mass of her hair and the long train of her gown.

“But always to success,” she said, persuasively.

Charles Gould, enveloping her in the steely blue glance of his attentive eyes, answered without hesitation —

“Oh, there is no alternative.”

He put an immense assurance into his tone. As to the words, this was all that his conscience would allow him to say.

Mrs. Gould’s smile remained a shade too long upon her lips. She murmured —

“I will leave you; I’ve a slight headache. The heat, the dust, were indeed — I suppose you are going back to the mine before the morning?”

“At midnight,” said Charles Gould. “We are bringing down the silver to-morrow. Then I shall take three whole days off in town with you.”

“Ah, you are going to meet the escort. I shall be on the balcony at five o’clock to see you pass. Till then, good-bye.”

Charles Gould walked rapidly round the table, and, seizing her hands, bent down, pressing them both to his lips. Before he straightened himself up again to his full height she had disengaged one to smooth his cheek with a light touch, as if he were a little boy.

“Try to get some rest for a couple of hours,” she murmured, with a glance at a hammock stretched in a distant part of the room. Her long train swished softly after her on the red tiles. At the door she looked back.

Two big lamps with unpolished glass globes bathed in a soft and abundant light the four white walls of the room, with a glass case of arms, the brass hilt of Henry Gould’s cavalry sabre on its square of velvet, and the water-colour sketch of the San Tome gorge. And Mrs. Gould, gazing at the last in its black wooden frame, sighed out —

“Ah, if we had left it alone, Charley!”

“No,” Charles Gould said, moodily; “it was impossible to leave it alone.”

“Perhaps it was impossible,” Mrs. Gould admitted, slowly. Her lips quivered a little, but she smiled with an air of dainty bravado. “We have disturbed a good many snakes in that Paradise, Charley, haven’t we?”

“Yes, I remember,” said Charles Gould, “it was Don Pepe who called the gorge the Paradise of snakes. No doubt we have disturbed a great many. But remember, my dear, that it is not now as it was when you made that sketch.” He waved his hand towards the small water-colour hanging alone upon the great bare wall. “It is no longer a Paradise of snakes. We have brought mankind into it, and we cannot turn our backs upon them to go and begin a new life elsewhere.”

He confronted his wife with a firm, concentrated gaze, which Mrs. Gould returned with a brave assumption of fearlessness before she went out, closing the door gently after her.

In contrast with the white glaring room the dimly lit corredor had a restful mysteriousness of a forest glade, suggested by the stems and the leaves of the plants ranged along the balustrade of the open side. In the streaks of light falling through the open doors of the reception-rooms, the blossoms, white and red and pale lilac, came out vivid with the brilliance of flowers in a stream of sunshine; and Mrs. Gould, passing on, had the vividness of a figure seen in the clear patches of sun that chequer the gloom of open glades in the woods. The stones in the rings upon her hand pressed to her forehead glittered in the lamplight abreast of the door of the sala.

“Who’s there?” she asked, in a startled voice. “Is that you, Basilio?” She looked in, and saw Martin Decoud walking about, with an air of having lost something, amongst the chairs and tables.

“Antonia has forgotten her fan in here,” said Decoud, with a strange air of distraction; “so I entered to see.”

But, even as he said this, he had obviously given up his search, and walked straight towards Mrs. Gould, who looked at him with doubtful surprise.

“Senora,” he began, in a low voice.

“What is it, Don Martin?” asked Mrs. Gould. And then she added, with a slight laugh, “I am so nervous to-day,” as if to explain the eagerness of the question.

“Nothing immediately dangerous,” said Decoud, who now could not conceal his agitation. “Pray don’t distress yourself. No, really, you must not distress yourself.”

Mrs. Gould, with her candid eyes very wide open, her lips composed into a smile, was steadying herself with a little bejewelled hand against the side of the door.

“Perhaps you don’t know how alarming you are, appearing like this unexpectedly —”

“I! Alarming!” he protested, sincerely vexed and surprised. “I assure you that I am not in the least alarmed myself. A fan is lost; well, it will be found again. But I don’t think it is here. It is a fan I am looking for. I cannot understand how Antonia could — Well! Have you found it, amigo?”

“No, senor,” said behind Mrs. Gould the soft voice of Basilio, the head servant of the Casa. “I don’t think the senorita could have left it in this house at all.”

“Go and look for it in the patio again. Go now, my friend; look for it on the steps, under the gate; examine every flagstone; search for it till I come down again. . . . That fellow”— he addressed himself in English to Mrs. Gould —“is always stealing up behind one’s back on his bare feet. I set him to look for that fan directly I came in to justify my reappearance, my sudden return.”

He paused and Mrs. Gould said, amiably, “You are always welcome.” She paused for a second, too. “But I am waiting to learn the cause of your return.”

Decoud affected suddenly the utmost nonchalance.

“I can’t bear to be spied upon. Oh, the cause? Yes, there is a cause; there is something else that is lost besides Antonia’s favourite fan. As I was walking home after seeing Don Jose and Antonia to their house, the Capataz de Cargadores, riding down the street, spoke to me.”

“Has anything happened to the Violas?” inquired Mrs. Gould.

“The Violas? You mean the old Garibaldino who keeps the hotel where the engineers live? Nothing happened there. The Capataz said nothing of them; he only told me that the telegraphist of the Cable Company was walking on the Plaza, bareheaded, looking out for me. There is news from the interior, Mrs. Gould. I should rather say rumours of news.”

“Good news?” said Mrs. Gould in a low voice.

“Worthless, I should think. But if I must define them, I would say bad. They are to the effect that a two days’ battle had been fought near Sta. Marta, and that the Ribierists are defeated. It must have happened a few days ago — perhaps a week. The rumour has just reached Cayta, and the man in charge of the cable station there has telegraphed the news to his colleague here. We might just as well have kept Barrios in Sulaco.”

“What’s to be done now?” murmured Mrs. Gould.

“Nothing. He’s at sea with the troops. He will get to Cayta in a couple of days’ time and learn the news there. What he will do then, who can say? Hold Cayta? Offer his submission to Montero? Disband his army — this last most likely, and go himself in one of the O.S.N. Company’s steamers, north or south — to Valparaiso or to San Francisco, no matter where. Our Barrios has a great practice in exiles and repatriations, which mark the points in the political game.”

Decoud, exchanging a steady stare with Mrs. Gould, added, tentatively, as it were, “And yet, if we had could have been done.”

“Montero victorious, completely victorious!” Mrs. Gould breathed out in a tone of unbelief.

“A canard, probably. That sort of bird is hatched in great numbers in such times as these. And even if it were true? Well, let us put things at their worst, let us say it is true.”

“Then everything is lost,” said Mrs. Gould, with the calmness of despair.

Suddenly she seemed to divine, she seemed to see Decoud’s tremendous excitement under its cloak of studied carelessness. It was, indeed, becoming visible in his audacious and watchful stare, in the curve, half-reckless, half-contemptuous, of his lips. And a French phrase came upon them as if, for this Costaguanero of the Boulevard, that had been the only forcible language —

“Non, Madame. Rien n’est perdu.”

It electrified Mrs. Gould out of her benumbed attitude, and she said, vivaciously —

“What would you think of doing?”

But already there was something of mockery in Decoud’s suppressed excitement.

“What would you expect a true Costaguanero to do? Another revolution, of course. On my word of honour, Mrs. Gould, I believe I am a true hijo del pays, a true son of the country, whatever Father Corbelan may say. And I’m not so much of an unbeliever as not to have faith in my own ideas, in my own remedies, in my own desires.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Gould, doubtfully.

“You don’t seem convinced,” Decoud went on again in French. “Say, then, in my passions.”

Mrs. Gould received this addition unflinchingly. To understand it thoroughly she did not require to hear his muttered assurance —

“There is nothing I would not do for the sake of Antonia. There is nothing I am not prepared to undertake. There is no risk I am not ready to run.”

Decoud seemed to find a fresh audacity in this voicing of his thoughts. “You would not believe me if I were to say that it is the love of the country which —”

She made a sort of discouraged protest with her arm, as if to express that she had given up expecting that motive from any one.

“A Sulaco revolution,” Decoud pursued in a forcible undertone. “The Great Cause may be served here, on the very spot of its inception, in the place of its birth, Mrs. Gould.”

Frowning, and biting her lower lip thoughtfully, she made a step away from the door.

“You are not going to speak to your husband?” Decoud arrested her anxiously.

“But you will need his help?”

“No doubt,” Decoud admitted without hesitation. “Everything turns upon the San Tome mine, but I would rather he didn’t know anything as yet of my — my hopes.”

A puzzled look came upon Mrs. Gould’s face, and Decoud, approaching, explained confidentially —

“Don’t you see, he’s such an idealist.”

Mrs. Gould flushed pink, and her eyes grew darker at the same time.

“Charley an idealist!” she said, as if to herself, wonderingly. “What on earth do you mean?”

“Yes,” conceded Decoud, “it’s a wonderful thing to say with the sight of the San Tome mine, the greatest fact in the whole of South America, perhaps, before our very eyes. But look even at that, he has idealized this fact to a point —” He paused. “Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

He must have known what he was talking about.

The effect he expected was produced. Mrs. Gould, ready to take fire, gave it up suddenly with a low little sound that resembled a moan.

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear. Do you excuse my frankness? Besides, whether you excuse it or not, it is part of the truth of things which hurts the — what do you call them? — the Anglo-Saxon’s susceptibilities, and at the present moment I don’t feel as if I could treat seriously either his conception of things or — if you allow me to say so — or yet yours.”

Mrs. Gould gave no sign of being offended. “I suppose Antonia understands you thoroughly?”

“Understands? Well, yes. But I am not sure that she approves. That, however, makes no difference. I am honest enough to tell you that, Mrs. Gould.”

“Your idea, of course, is separation,” she said.

“Separation, of course,” declared Martin. “Yes; separation of the whole Occidental Province from the rest of the unquiet body. But my true idea, the only one I care for, is not to be separated from Antonia.”

“And that is all?” asked Mrs. Gould, without severity.

“Absolutely. I am not deceiving myself about my motives. She won’t leave Sulaco for my sake, therefore Sulaco must leave the rest of the Republic to its fate. Nothing could be clearer than that. I like a clearly defined situation. I cannot part with Antonia, therefore the one and indivisible Republic of Costaguana must be made to part with its western province. Fortunately it happens to be also a sound policy. The richest, the most fertile part of this land may be saved from anarchy. Personally, I care little, very little; but it’s a fact that the establishment of Montero in power would mean death to me. In all the proclamations of general pardon which I have seen, my name, with a few others, is specially excepted. The brothers hate me, as you know very well, Mrs. Gould; and behold, here is the rumour of them having won a battle. You say that supposing it is true, I have plenty of time to run away.”

The slight, protesting murmur on the part of Mrs. Gould made him pause for a moment, while he looked at her with a sombre and resolute glance.

“Ah, but I would, Mrs. Gould. I would run away if it served that which at present is my only desire. I am courageous enough to say that, and to do it, too. But women, even our women, are idealists. It is Antonia that won’t run away. A novel sort of vanity.”

“You call it vanity,” said Mrs. Gould, in a shocked voice.

“Say pride, then, which. Father Corbelan would tell you, is a mortal sin. But I am not proud. I am simply too much in love to run away. At the same time I want to live. There is no love for a dead man. Therefore it is necessary that Sulaco should not recognize the victorious Montero.”

“And you think my husband will give you his support?”

“I think he can be drawn into it, like all idealists, when he once sees a sentimental basis for his action. But I wouldn’t talk to him. Mere clear facts won’t appeal to his sentiment. It is much better for him to convince himself in his own way. And, frankly, I could not, perhaps, just now pay sufficient respect to either his motives or even, perhaps, to yours, Mrs. Gould.”

It was evident that Mrs. Gould was very determined not to be offended. She smiled vaguely, while she seemed to think the matter over. As far as she could judge from the girl’s half-confidences, Antonia understood that young man. Obviously there was promise of safety in his plan, or rather in his idea. Moreover, right or wrong, the idea could do no harm. And it was quite possible, also, that the rumour was false.

“You have some sort of a plan,” she said.

“Simplicity itself. Barrios has started, let him go on then; he will hold Cayta, which is the door of the sea route to Sulaco. They cannot send a sufficient force over the mountains. No; not even to cope with the band of Hernandez. Meantime we shall organize our resistance here. And for that, this very Hernandez will be useful. He has defeated troops as a bandit; he will no doubt accomplish the same thing if he is made a colonel or even a general. You know the country well enough not to be shocked by what I say, Mrs. Gould. I have heard you assert that this poor bandit was the living,breathing example of cruelty, injustice, stupidity, and oppression, that ruin men’s souls as well as their fortunes in this country. Well, there would be some poetical retribution in that man arising to crush the evils which had driven an honest ranchero into a life of crime. A fine idea of retribution in that, isn’t there?”

Decoud had dropped easily into English, which he spoke with precision, very correctly, but with too many z sounds.

“Think also of your hospitals, of your schools, of your ailing mothers and feeble old men, of all that population which you and your husband have brought into the rocky gorge of San Tome. Are you not responsible to your conscience for all these people? Is it not worth while to make another effort, which is not at all so desperate as it looks, rather than —”

Decoud finished his thought with an upward toss of the arm, suggesting annihilation; and Mrs. Gould turned away her head with a look of horror.

“Why don’t you say all this to my husband?” she asked, without looking at Decoud, who stood watching the effect of his words.

“Ah! But Don Carlos is so English,” he began. Mrs. Gould interrupted —

“Leave that alone, Don Martin. He’s as much a Costaguanero — No! He’s more of a Costaguanero than yourself.”

“Sentimentalist, sentimentalist,” Decoud almost cooed, in a tone of gentle and soothing deference. “Sentimentalist, after the amazing manner of your people. I have been watching El Rey de Sulaco since I came here on a fool’s errand, and perhaps impelled by some treason of fate lurking behind the unaccountable turns of a man’s life. But I don’t matter, I am not a sentimentalist, I cannot endow my personal desires with a shining robe of silk and jewels. Life is not for me a moral romance derived from the tradition of a pretty fairy tale. No, Mrs. Gould; I am practical. I am not afraid of my motives. But, pardon me, I have been rather carried away. What I wish to say is that I have been observing. I won’t tell you what I have discovered —”

“No. That is unnecessary,” whispered Mrs. Gould, once more averting her head.

“It is. Except one little fact, that your husband does not like me. It’s a small matter, which, in the circumstances, seems to acquire a perfectly ridiculous importance. Ridiculous and immense; for, clearly, money is required for my plan,” he reflected; then added, meaningly, “and we have two sentimentalists to deal with.”

“I don’t know that I understand you, Don Martin,” said Mrs. Gould, coldly, preserving the low key of their conversation. “But, speaking as if I did, who is the other?”

“The great Holroyd in San Francisco, of course,” Decoud whispered, lightly. “I think you understand me very well. Women are idealists; but then they are so perspicacious.”

But whatever was the reason of that remark, disparaging and complimentary at the same time, Mrs. Gould seemed not to pay attention to it. The name of Holroyd had given a new tone to her anxiety.

“The silver escort is coming down to the harbour tomorrow; a whole six months’ working, Don Martin!” she cried in dismay.

“Let it come down, then,” breathed out Decoud, earnestly, almost into her ear.

“But if the rumour should get about, and especially if it turned out true, troubles might break out in the town,” objected Mrs. Gould.

Decoud admitted that it was possible. He knew well the town children of the Sulaco Campo: sullen, thievish, vindictive, and bloodthirsty, whatever great qualities their brothers of the plain might have had. But then there was that other sentimentalist, who attached a strangely idealistic meaning to concrete facts. This stream of silver must be kept flowing north to return in the form of financial backing from the great house of Holroyd. Up at the mountain in the strong room of the mine the silver bars were worth less for his purpose than so much lead, from which at least bullets may be run. Let it come down to the harbour, ready for shipment.

The next north-going steamer would carry it off for the very salvation of the San Tome mine, which had produced so much treasure. And, moreover, the rumour was probably false, he remarked, with much conviction in his hurried tone.

“Besides, senora,” concluded Decoud, “we may suppress it for many days. I have been talking with the telegraphist in the middle of the Plaza Mayor; thus I am certain that we could not have been overheard. There was not even a bird in the air near us. And also let me tell you something more. I have been making friends with this man called Nostromo, the Capataz. We had a conversation this very evening, I walking by the side of his horse as he rode slowly out of the town just now. He promised me that if a riot took place for any reason — even for the most political of reasons, you understand — his Cargadores, an important part of the populace, you will admit, should be found on the side of the Europeans.”

“He has promised you that?” Mrs. Gould inquired, with interest. “What made him make that promise to you?”

“Upon my word, I don’t know,” declared Decoud, in a slightly surprised tone. “He certainly promised me that, but now you ask me why, I could not tell you his reasons. He talked with his usual carelessness, which, if he had been anything else but a common sailor, I would call a pose or an affectation.”

Decoud, interrupting himself, looked at Mrs. Gould curiously.

“Upon the whole,” he continued, “I suppose he expects something to his advantage from it. You mustn’t forget that he does not exercise his extraordinary power over the lower classes without a certain amount of personal risk and without a great profusion in spending his money. One must pay in some way or other for such a solid thing as individual prestige. He told me after we made friends at a dance, in a Posada kept by a Mexican just outside the walls, that he had come here to make his fortune. I suppose he looks upon his prestige as a sort of investment.”

“Perhaps he prizes it for its own sake,” Mrs. Gould said in a tone as if she were repelling an undeserved aspersion. “Viola, the Garibaldino, with whom he has lived for some years, calls him the Incorruptible.”

“Ah! he belongs to the group of your proteges out there towards the harbour, Mrs. Gould. Muy bien. And Captain Mitchell calls him wonderful. I have heard no end of tales of his strength, his audacity, his fidelity. No end of fine things. H’m! incorruptible! It is indeed a name of honour for the Capataz of the Cargadores of Sulaco. Incorruptible! Fine, but vague. However, I suppose he’s sensible, too. And I talked to him upon that sane and practical assumption.”

“I prefer to think him disinterested, and therefore trustworthy,” Mrs. Gould said, with the nearest approach to curtness it was in her nature to assume.

“Well, if so, then the silver will be still more safe. Let it come down, senora. Let it come down, so that it may go north and return to us in the shape of credit.”

Mrs. Gould glanced along the corredor towards the door of her husband’s room. Decoud, watching her as if she had his fate in her hands, detected an almost imperceptible nod of assent. He bowed with a smile, and, putting his hand into the breast pocket of his coat, pulled out a fan of light feathers set upon painted leaves of sandal-wood. “I had it in my pocket,” he murmured, triumphantly, “for a plausible pretext.” He bowed again. “Good-night, senora.”

Mrs. Gould continued along the corredor away from her husband’s room. The fate of the San Tome mine was lying heavy upon her heart. It was a long time now since she had begun to fear it. It had been an idea. She had watched it with misgivings turning into a fetish, and now the fetish had grown into a monstrous and crushing weight. It was as if the inspiration of their early years had left her heart to turn into a wall of silver-bricks, erected by the silent work of evil spirits, between her and her husband. He seemed to dwell alone within a circumvallation of precious metal, leaving her outside with her school, her hospital, the sick mothers and the feeble old men, mere insignificant vestiges of the initial inspiration. “Those poor people!” she murmured to herself.

Below she heard the voice of Martin Decoud in the patio speaking loudly:

“I have found Dona Antonia’s fan, Basilio. Look. here it is!”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06