Nostromo

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CHAPTER1

ONE IN THE time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sula co? the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity?had never been commercially anyth ing 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 sh ip built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping o f her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevai ling calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made difficult of access by th e treachery of sunken rocks and th e tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptati ons o f 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 wall s 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 sp ur of the coast range forms an insignificant cape whose name is Punta Mala. From the middle of the gulf the point of the land 15 of 790 Nostrom o itself is not visible at all; but the shoulder of a steep hill at the back can be made ou t faintly like a shadow on the sky. On the other side, what see ms to b e an isola ted patch of blue mi st floats lightly on th e glare of the horizon. Thi s is the peninsula of Azuera, a wild chaos of sharp rocks and stony levels cut about b y 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 slende r neck of sand covered with thickets of thorny scrub. Utterly waterless, for the rainfall runs off at once on all sides in to the sea, it h as no t soil enough?it is said?to g row a single blade of grass, as if i t were blight ed by a curse. The poor, associating by an obscure insti nct of consolation the id eas of evil and wealth, will tell yo u that it is deadly because of its forbidden treasures. The common folk of the neighbourhood, peons of the estancias, vaquer os of the seaboard plains, tame Indians coming miles to ma rket with a bundle of sugar- cane or a basket of maize worth about threepence, are w ell aware that heaps of shi ning gold lie in the gloom of the deep p recip ices cleaving the stony lev els of Azuera. Tradition has it that many adventurers of olden time had perished in the search. The story goes also th at withi n men?s memory two w andering sailors? Americanos, perhaps, but gringos of s ome sort for certain?talked over 16 of 790 Nostrom o a gambling, good-for-nothing mozo, and the three stole a donkey to carry for them a bundle of dry stick s, a water- skin, and p rovisions enough to last a few days. Thus accompanie d, and with revolvers at their belts, they had started to chop their way with machetes th rough the thorny scrub on the neck of the peninsula. On the second evening an upright spiral of smo ke (it could only have been from th eir camp-fire) was seen for the first ti me within memory of man standi ng up faintl y upon the sky above a razor-backed ridge on the stony head. The crew of a coasting schooner, lying becalmed three miles off the shor e, 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 su n was about to set. They had watched the strange portent with envy, incredulity, and awe. The impious adventurers ga ve n o other sign. The sailors, the Indian, and the sto len burro were never seen again. As to the mozo, a Sulaco man?his wife paid for some masse s, and the poor four -footed beast, being without sin, had been probably permitted to di e; but the two gringos, spectral and aliv e, are believed to be dwelling to this day a mongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their 17 of 790 Nostrom o success. Their souls cannot te ar themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and hungry and thirsty? a strange theory of tenaciou s gringo ghosts su ffering 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 patc h of blue haze bl urring the bright skirt of the horizon on the other, mark the two outermost p oints 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 Sul aco 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. B efore 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 18 of 790 Nostrom o the very edg e of the shore. Amongst them the white head of Higuerota rises majestically upon the blue. Bare clusters of enormou s rocks spri nkle with tiny black dots the smooth dome of snow. Then, as the midday sun withdraws from the gulf the shadow of the mountai ns, the clouds begin to roll out of the lower va lleys. They swathe in sombre tatters the naked crags of precipices above th e wooded slopes, hide the peaks, smo ke in stormy trails across the snows of Higuerota. The Cordillera is gone from you as if it had dissolved itself into grea t piles of grey and blac k 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 cl oud-bank al ways strives for, but seldom win s, the midd le of the gulf. The su n?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 sudde nly 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 19 of 790 Nostrom o 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 v ault shi ne feebly as into the mouth of a black cavern. In its vastness your ship floats unseen under your feet, her sails flutter invisi ble above your head. The eye of God Himsel f?they add with grim profanity? could not fi nd 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 d efeated by such a blind darkness. The shores on the gulf are steep-to all round; three uninhabited islets basking in the sun shine 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, w hich is round; and Hermosa, which is the smallest. That l ast is no more than a foot hig h, and about seven paces across, a mere flat top of a grey rock which smokes like a hot cinder after a show er, and where no man would care to venture a naked sole before sunset. On the Little 20 of 790 Nostrom o Isabel an old ragged pa lm, 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 standin g close together, with a wide spread of shade at the foot of their smooth trunks. A ravine exten ding the whole leng th of the island is full of bushes; and presenting a deep tang led 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 i f chopped with an axe out of the regular sweep of t he coast, right into the harbour of Sula co. It is an oblong, lake-like piece of water. On one side the sho rt wooded spurs and valleys of the Cordillera come down at right ang les to the very strand; on the other the open view of the great Sulaco plai n passes into the opal mystery of great distan ces overhung by dry haze. The town of Sulaco itself?tops of walls, a great cupola, gleams of white miradors in a vast grove of ora nge trees?li es between the mountains and the 21 of 790 Nostrom o plain, at some little distance from i ts harbour and out of the direct line of sight from the sea. 22 of 790 Nostrom o
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