Joseph Conrad.

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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




PART FIRST THE SILVER OF THE MINE


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.



CHAPTER TWO

The only sign of commercial activity within the harbour, visible from
the beach of the Great Isabel, is the square blunt end of the wooden
jetty which the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (the O.S.N. of familiar
speech) had thrown over the shallow part of the bay soon after they had
resolved to make of Sulaco one of their ports of call for the Republic
of Costaguana. The State possesses several harbours on its long
seaboard, but except Cayta, an important place, all are either small
and inconvenient inlets in an iron-bound coast - like Esmeralda, for
instance, sixty miles to the south - or else mere open roadsteads exposed
to the winds and fretted by the surf.

Perhaps the very atmospheric conditions which had kept away the
merchant fleets of bygone ages induced the O.S.N. Company to violate the



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