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Chapter 1

"Ideas," she said. "Oh, as for ideas--"

"Well?" I hazarded, "as for ideas--?"

We went through the old gateway and I cast a glance over my shoulder.
The noon sun was shining over the masonry, over the little saints'
effigies, over the little fretted canopies, the grime and the white
streaks of bird-dropping.

"There," I said, pointing toward it, "doesn't that suggest something to
you?"

She made a motion with her head--half negative, half contemptuous.

"But," I stuttered, "the associations--the ideas--the historical
ideas--"

She said nothing.

"You Americans," I began, but her smile stopped me. It was as if she
were amused at the utterances of an old lady shocked by the habits of
the daughters of the day. It was the smile of a person who is confident
of superseding one fatally.

In conversations of any length one of the parties assumes the
superiority--superiority of rank, intellectual or social. In this
conversation she, if she did not attain to tacitly acknowledged
temperamental superiority, seemed at least to claim it, to have no doubt
as to its ultimate according. I was unused to this. I was a talker,
proud of my conversational powers.

I had looked at her before; now I cast a sideways, critical glance at
her. I came out of my moodiness to wonder what type this was. She had
good hair, good eyes, and some charm. Yes. And something besides--a
something--a something that was not an attribute of her beauty. The
modelling of her face was so perfect and so delicate as to produce an
effect of transparency, yet there was no suggestion of frailness; her
glance had an extraordinary strength of life. Her hair was fair and
gleaming, her cheeks coloured as if a warm light had fallen on them from
somewhere. She was familiar till it occurred to you that she was
strange.

"Which way are you going?" she asked.

"I am going to walk to Dover," I answered.

"And I may come with you?"

I looked at her--intent on divining her in that one glance. It was of
course impossible. "There will be time for analysis," I thought.

"The roads are free to all," I said. "You are not an American?"

She shook her head. No. She was not an Australian either, she came from
none of the British colonies.

"You are not English," I affirmed. "You speak too well." I was piqued.
She did not answer. She smiled again and I grew angry. In the cathedral
she had smiled at the verger's commendation of particularly abominable
restorations, and that smile had drawn me toward her, had emboldened me
to offer deferential and condemnatory remarks as to the plaster-of-Paris
mouldings. You know how one addresses a young lady who is obviously
capable of taking care of herself. That was how I had come across her.
She had smiled at the gabble of the cathedral guide as he showed the
obsessed troop, of which we had formed units, the place of martyrdom of
Blessed Thomas, and her smile had had just that quality of superseder's
contempt. It had pleased me then; but, now that she smiled thus past
me--it was not quite at me--in the crooked highways of the town, I was
irritated. After all, I was somebody; I was not a cathedral verger. I
had a fancy for myself in those days--a fancy that solitude and brooding
had crystallised into a habit of mind. I was a writer with high--with
the highest--ideals. I had withdrawn myself from the world, lived
isolated, hidden in the countryside, lived as hermits do, on the hope of
one day doing something--of putting greatness on paper. She suddenly
fathomed my thoughts: "You write," she affirmed. I asked how she knew,
wondered what she had read of mine--there was so little.

"Are you a popular author?" she asked.

"Alas, no!" I answered. "You must know that."

"You would like to be?"

"We should all of us like," I answered; "though it is true some of us
protest that we aim for higher things."

"I see," she said, musingly. As far as I could tell she was coming to
some decision. With an instinctive dislike to any such proceeding as
regarded myself, I tried to cut across her unknown thoughts.

"But, really--" I said, "I am quite a commonplace topic. Let us talk
about yourself. Where do you come from?"

It occurred to me again that I was intensely unacquainted with her type.
Here was the same smile--as far as I could see, exactly the same smile.
There are fine shades in smiles as in laughs, as in tones of voice. I
seemed unable to hold my tongue.

"Where do you come from?" I asked. "You must belong to one of the new
nations. You are a foreigner, I'll swear, because you have such a fine
contempt for us. You irritate me so that you might almost be a Prussian.
But it is obvious that you are of a new nation that is beginning to find
itself."

"Oh, we are to inherit the earth, if that is what you mean," she said.

"The phrase is comprehensive," I said. I was determined not to give
myself away. "Where in the world do you come from?" I repeated. The
question, I was quite conscious, would have sufficed, but in the hope,
I suppose, of establishing my intellectual superiority, I continued:

"You know, fair play's a jewel. Now I'm quite willing to give you
information as to myself. I have already told you the essentials--you
ought to tell me something. It would only be fair play."

"Why should there be any fair play?" she asked.

"What have you to say against that?" I said. "Do you not number it among
your national characteristics?"

"You really wish to know where I come from?"

I expressed light-hearted acquiescence.

"Listen," she said, and uttered some sounds. I felt a kind of unholy
emotion. It had come like a sudden, suddenly hushed, intense gust of
wind through a breathless day. "What--what!" I cried.

"I said I inhabit the Fourth Dimension."

I recovered my equanimity with the thought that I had been visited by
some stroke of an obscure and unimportant physical kind.

"I think we must have been climbing the hill too fast for me," I said,
"I have not been very well. I missed what you said." I was certainly
out of breath.

"I said I inhabit the Fourth Dimension," she repeated with admirable
gravity.

"Oh, come," I expostulated, "this is playing it rather low down. You
walk a convalescent out of breath and then propound riddles to him."

I was recovering my breath, and, with it, my inclination to expand.
Instead, I looked at her. I was beginning to understand. It was obvious
enough that she was a foreigner in a strange land, in a land that
brought out her national characteristics. She must be of some race,
perhaps Semitic, perhaps Sclav--of some incomprehensible race. I had
never seen a Circassian, and there used to be a tradition that
Circassian women were beautiful, were fair-skinned, and so on. What was
repelling in her was accounted for by this difference in national point
of view. One is, after all, not so very remote from the horse. What one
does not understand one shies at--finds sinister, in fact. And she
struck me as sinister.

"You won't tell me who you are?" I said.

"I have done so," she answered.

"If you expect me to believe that you inhabit a mathematical
monstrosity, you are mistaken. You are, really."

She turned round and pointed at the city.

"Look!" she said.

We had climbed the western hill. Below our feet, beneath a sky that the
wind had swept clean of clouds, was the valley; a broad bowl, shallow,
filled with the purple of smoke-wreaths. And above the mass of red roofs
there soared the golden stonework of the cathedral tower. It was a
vision, the last word of a great art. I looked at her. I was moved, and
I knew that the glory of it must have moved her.

She was smiling. "Look!" she repeated. I looked.

There was the purple and the red, and the golden tower, the vision, the
last word. She said something--uttered some sound.

What had happened? I don't know. It all looked contemptible. One seemed
to see something beyond, something vaster--vaster than cathedrals,
vaster than the conception of the gods to whom cathedrals were raised.
The tower reeled out of the perpendicular. One saw beyond it, not
roofs, or smoke, or hills, but an unrealised, an unrealisable infinity
of space.

It was merely momentary. The tower filled its place again and I looked
at her.

"What the devil," I said, hysterically--"what the devil do you play
these tricks upon me for?"

"You see," she answered, "the rudiments of the sense are there."

"You must excuse me if I fail to understand," I said, grasping after
fragments of dropped dignity. "I am subject to fits of giddiness." I
felt a need for covering a species of nakedness. "Pardon my swearing," I
added; a proof of recovered equanimity.

We resumed the road in silence. I was physically and mentally shaken;
and I tried to deceive myself as to the cause. After some time I said:

"You insist then in preserving your--your incognito."

"Oh, I make no mystery of myself," she answered.

"You have told me that you come from the Fourth Dimension," I remarked,
ironically.

"I come from the Fourth Dimension," she said, patiently. She had the
air of one in a position of difficulty; of one aware of it and ready to
brave it. She had the listlessness of an enlightened person who has to
explain, over and over again, to stupid children some rudimentary point
of the multiplication table.

She seemed to divine my thoughts, to be aware of their very wording. She
even said "yes" at the opening of her next speech.

"Yes," she said. "It is as if I were to try to explain the new ideas of
any age to a person of the age that has gone before." She paused,
seeking a concrete illustration that would touch me. "As if I were
explaining to Dr. Johnson the methods and the ultimate vogue of the
cockney school of poetry."

"I understand," I said, "that you wish me to consider myself as
relatively a Choctaw. But what I do not understand is; what bearing that
has upon--upon the Fourth Dimension, I think you said?"

"I will explain," she replied.

"But you must explain as if you were explaining to a Choctaw," I said,
pleasantly, "you must be concise and convincing."

She answered: "I will."

She made a long speech of it; I condense. I can't remember her exact
words--there were so many; but she spoke like a book. There was
something exquisitely piquant in her choice of words, in her
expressionless voice. I seemed to be listening to a phonograph reciting
a technical work. There was a touch of the incongruous, of the mad, that
appealed to me--the commonplace rolling-down landscape, the straight,
white, undulating road that, from the tops of rises, one saw running for
miles and miles, straight, straight, and so white. Filtering down
through the great blue of the sky came the thrilling of innumerable
skylarks. And I was listening to a parody of a scientific work recited
by a phonograph.

I heard the nature of the Fourth Dimension--heard that it was an
inhabited plane--invisible to our eyes, but omnipresent; heard that I
had seen it when Bell Harry had reeled before my eyes. I heard the
Dimensionists described: a race clear-sighted, eminently practical,
incredible; with no ideals, prejudices, or remorse; with no feeling for
art and no reverence for life; free from any ethical tradition; callous
to pain, weakness, suffering and death, as if they had been invulnerable
and immortal. She did not say that they were immortal, however. "You
would--you will--hate us," she concluded. And I seemed only then to come
to myself. The power of her imagination was so great that I fancied
myself face to face with the truth. I supposed she had been amusing
herself; that she should have tried to frighten me was inadmissible. I
don't pretend that I was completely at my ease, but I said, amiably:
"You certainly have succeeded in making these beings hateful."

"I have made nothing," she said with a faint smile, and went on amusing
herself. She would explain origins, now.

"Your"--she used the word as signifying, I suppose, the inhabitants of
the country, or the populations of the earth--"your ancestors were mine,
but long ago you were crowded out of the Dimension as we are to-day, you
overran the earth as we shall do to-morrow. But you contracted diseases,
as we shall contract them,--beliefs, traditions; fears; ideas of pity
... of love. You grew luxurious in the worship of your ideals, and
sorrowful; you solaced yourselves with creeds, with arts--you have
forgotten!"

She spoke with calm conviction; with an overwhelming and dispassionate
assurance. She was stating facts; not professing a faith. We approached
a little roadside inn. On a bench before the door a dun-clad country
fellow was asleep, his head on the table.

"Put your fingers in your ears," my companion commanded.

I humoured her.

I saw her lips move. The countryman started, shuddered, and by a clumsy,
convulsive motion of his arms, upset his quart. He rubbed his eyes.
Before he had voiced his emotions we had passed on.

"I have seen a horse-coper do as much for a stallion," I commented. "I
know there are words that have certain effects. But you shouldn't play
pranks like the low-comedy devil in Faustus."

"It isn't good form, I suppose?" she sneered.

"It's a matter of feeling," I said, hotly, "the poor fellow has lost his
beer."

"What's that to me?" she commented, with the air of one affording a
concrete illustration.

"It's a good deal to him," I answered.

"But what to me?"

I said nothing. She ceased her exposition immediately afterward, growing
silent as suddenly as she had become discoursive. It was rather as if
she had learnt a speech by heart and had come to the end of it. I was
quite at a loss as to what she was driving at. There was a newness, a
strangeness about her; sometimes she struck me as mad, sometimes as
frightfully sane. We had a meal somewhere--a meal that broke the current
of her speech--and then, in the late afternoon, took a by-road and
wandered in secluded valleys. I had been ill; trouble of the nerves,
brooding, the monotony of life in the shadow of unsuccess. I had an
errand in this part of the world and had been approaching it deviously,
seeking the normal in its quiet hollows, trying to get back to my old
self. I did not wish to think of how I should get through the year--of
the thousand little things that matter. So I talked and she--she
listened very well.

But topics exhaust themselves and, at the last, I myself brought the
talk round to the Fourth Dimension. We were sauntering along the
forgotten valley that lies between Hardves and Stelling Minnis; we had
been silent for several minutes. For me, at least, the silence was
pregnant with the undefinable emotions that, at times, run in currents
between man and woman. The sun was getting low and it was shadowy in
those shrouded hollows. I laughed at some thought, I forget what, and
then began to badger her with questions. I tried to exhaust the
possibilities of the Dimensionist idea, made grotesque suggestions. I
said: "And when a great many of you have been crowded out of the
Dimension and invaded the earth you will do so and so--" something
preposterous and ironical. She coldly dissented, and at once the irony
appeared as gross as the jocularity of a commercial traveller. Sometimes
she signified: "Yes, that is what we shall do;" signified it without
speaking--by some gesture perhaps, I hardly know what. There was
something impressive--something almost regal--in this manner of hers; it
was rather frightening in those lonely places, which were so forgotten,
so gray, so closed in. There was something of the past world about the
hanging woods, the little veils of unmoving mist--as if time did not
exist in those furrows of the great world; and one was so absolutely
alone; anything might have happened. I grew weary of the sound of my
tongue. But when I wanted to cease, I found she had on me the effect of
some incredible stimulant.

We came to the end of the valley where the road begins to climb the
southern hill, out into the open air. I managed to maintain an uneasy
silence. From her grimly dispassionate reiterations I had attained to a
clear idea, even to a visualisation, of her fantastic conception--allegory,
madness, or whatever it was. She certainly forced it home. The
Dimensionists were to come in swarms, to materialise, to devour like
locusts, to be all the more irresistible because indistinguishable. They
were to come like snow in the night: in the morning one would look out and
find the world white; they were to come as the gray hairs come, to sap the
strength of us as the years sap the strength of the muscles. As to methods,
we should be treated as we ourselves treat the inferior races. There would
be no fighting, no killing; we--our whole social system--would break as a
beam snaps, because we were worm-eaten with altruism and ethics. We, at our
worst, had a certain limit, a certain stage where we exclaimed: "No, this
is playing it too low down," because we had scruples that acted like
handicapping weights. She uttered, I think, only two sentences of
connected words: "We shall race with you and we shall not be weighted,"
and, "We shall merely sink you lower by our weight." All the rest went
like this:

"But then," I would say ... "we shall not be able to trust anyone.
Anyone may be one of you...." She would answer: "Anyone." She prophesied
a reign of terror for us. As one passed one's neighbour in the street
one would cast sudden, piercing glances at him.

I was silent. The birds were singing the sun down. It was very dark
among the branches, and from minute to minute the colours of the world
deepened and grew sombre.

"But--" I said. A feeling of unrest was creeping over me. "But why do
you tell me all this?" I asked. "Do you think I will enlist with you?"

"You will have to in the end," she said, "and I do not wish to waste my
strength. If you had to work unwittingly you would resist and resist and
resist. I should have to waste my power on you. As it is, you will
resist only at first, then you will begin to understand. You will see
how we will bring a man down--a man, you understand, with a great name,
standing for probity and honour. You will see the nets drawing closer
and closer, and you will begin to understand. Then you will cease
resisting, that is all."

I was silent. A June nightingale began to sing, a trifle hoarsely. We
seemed to be waiting for some signal. The things of the night came and
went, rustled through the grass, rustled through the leafage. At last I
could not even see the white gleam of her face....

I stretched out my hand and it touched hers. I seized it without an
instant of hesitation. "How could I resist you?" I said, and heard my
own whisper with a kind of amazement at its emotion. I raised her hand.
It was very cold and she seemed to have no thought of resistance; but
before it touched my lips something like a panic of prudence had
overcome me. I did not know what it would lead to--and I remembered that
I did not even know who she was. From the beginning she had struck me
as sinister and now, in the obscurity, her silence and her coldness
seemed to be a passive threatening of unknown entanglement. I let her
hand fall.

"We must be getting on," I said.

The road was shrouded and overhung by branches. There was a kind of
translucent light, enough to see her face, but I kept my eyes on the
ground. I was vexed. Now that it was past the episode appeared to be a
lost opportunity. We were to part in a moment, and her rare mental gifts
and her unfamiliar, but very vivid, beauty made the idea of parting
intensely disagreeable. She had filled me with a curiosity that she had
done nothing whatever to satisfy, and with a fascination that was very
nearly a fear. We mounted the hill and came out on a stretch of soft
common sward. Then the sound of our footsteps ceased and the world grew
more silent than ever. There were little enclosed fields all round us.
The moon threw a wan light, and gleaming mist hung in the ragged hedges.
Broad, soft roads ran away into space on every side.

"And now ..." I asked, at last, "shall we ever meet again?" My voice
came huskily, as if I had not spoken for years and years.

"Oh, very often," she answered.

"Very often?" I repeated. I hardly knew whether I was pleased or
dismayed. Through the gate-gap in a hedge, I caught a glimmer of a white
house front. It seemed to belong to another world; to another order of
things.

"Ah ... here is Callan's," I said. "This is where I was going...."

"I know," she answered; "we part here."

"To meet again?" I asked.

"Oh ... to meet again; why, yes, to meet again."

Joseph Conrad

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