Joseph Conrad: Nostromo


THOSE of us whom business or curiosity took to Sulaco in these
years before the first advent of the railway can remember the
steadying effect of the San Tome mine upon the life of that
remote province. The outward appearances had not changed then as
they have changed since, as I am told, with cable cars running
along the streets of the Constitution, and carriage roads far
into the country, to Rincon and other villages, where the foreign
merchants and the Ricos generally have their modern villas, and a
vast railway goods yard by the harbour, which has a quay-side, a
long range of warehouses, and quite serious, organized labour
troubles of its own.

Nobody had ever heard of labour troubles then. The Cargadores of
the port formed, indeed, an unruly brotherhood of all sorts of
scum, with a patron saint of their own. They went on strike
regularly (every bull-fight day), a form of trouble that even
Nostromo at the height of his prestige could never cope with
efficiently; but the morning after each fiesta, before the Indian
market-women had opened their mat parasols on the plaza, when the
snows of Higuerota gleamed pale over the town on a yet black sky,
the appearance of a phantom-like horseman mounted on a
silver-grey mare solved the problem of labour without fail. His
steed paced the lanes of the slums and the weed-grown enclosures
within the old ramparts, between the black, lightless cluster of
huts, like cow-byres, like dog-kennels. The horseman hammered
with the butt of a heavy revolver at the doors of low pulperias,
of obscene lean-to sheds sloping against the tumble-down piece of
a noble wall, at the wooden sides of dwellings so flimsy that the
sound of snores and sleepy mutters within could be heard in the
pauses of the thundering clatter of his blows. He called out
men's names menacingly from the saddle, once, twice. The drowsy
answers--grumpy, conciliating, savage, jocular, or
deprecating--came out into the silent darkness in which the
horseman sat still, and presently a dark figure would flit out
coughing in the still air. Sometimes a low-toned woman cried
through the window-hole softly, "He's coming directly, senor,"
and the horseman waited silent on a motionless horse. But if
perchance he had to dismount, then, after a while, from the door
of that hovel or of that pulperia, with a ferocious scuffle and
stifled imprecations, a cargador would fly out head first and
hands abroad, to sprawl under the forelegs of the silver-grey
mare, who only pricked forward her sharp little ears. She was
used to that work; and the man, picking himself up, would walk
away hastily from Nostromo's revolver, reeling a little along the
street and snarling low curses. At sunrise Captain Mitchell,
coming out anxiously in his night attire on to the wooden balcony
running the whole length of the O.S.N. Company's lonely building
by the shore, would see the lighters already under way, figures
moving busily about the cargo cranes, perhaps hear the invaluable
Nostromo, now dismounted and in the checked shirt and red sash of
a Mediterranean sailor, bawling orders from the end of the jetty
in a stentorian voice. A fellow in a thousand!

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