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Chapter 11

Before noon of the next day I was ascending the stairs of the new house
in which the Duc had his hermitage. There was an air of secrecy in the
broad publicity of the carpeted stairs that led to his flat; a hush in
the atmosphere; in the street itself, a glorified _cul de sac_ that ran
into the bustling life of the Italiens. It had the sudden sluggishness
of a back-water. One seemed to have grown suddenly deaf in the midst of
the rattle.

There was an incredible suggestion of silence--the silence of a private
detective--in the mien of the servant who ushered me into a room. He was
the English servant of the theatre--the English servant that foreigners
affect. The room had a splendour of its own, not a cheaply vulgar
splendour, but the vulgarity of the most lavish plush and purple kind.
The air was heavy, killed by the scent of exotic flowers, darkened by
curtains that suggested the voluminous velvet backgrounds of certain old
portraits. The Duc de Mersch had carried with him into this place of
retirement the taste of the New Palace, that show-place of his that was
the stupefaction of swarms of honest tourists.

I remembered soon enough that the man was a philanthropist, that he
might be an excellent man of heart and indifferent of taste. He must be.
But I was prone to be influenced by things of this sort, and felt
depressed at the thought that so much of royal excellence should weigh
so heavily in the wrong scale of the balance of the applied arts. I
turned my back on the room and gazed at the blazing white decorations of
the opposite house-fronts.

A door behind me must have opened, for I heard the sounds of a
concluding tirade in a high-pitched voice.

"_Et quant à un duc de farce, je ne m'en fiche pas mal, moi_," it said
in an accent curiously compounded of the foreign and the _coulisse_. A
muttered male remonstrance ensued, and then, with disconcerting
clearness:

"_Gr-r-rangeur--Eschingan--eh bien--il entend. Et moi, j'entends, moi
aussi. Tu veux me jouer centre elle. La Grangeur--pah! Consoles-toi
avec elle, mon vieux. Je ne veux plus de toi. Tu m'as donné de tes sales
rentes Groenlandoises, et je n'ai pas pu les vendre. Ah, vieux farceur,
tu vas voir ce que fen vais faire._"

A glorious creature--a really glorious creature--came out of an
adjoining room. She was as frail, as swaying as a garden lily. Her great
blue eyes turned irefully upon me, her bowed lips parted, her nostrils
quivered.

"_Et quant à vous, M. Grangeur Eschingan,_" she began, "_je vais vous
donner mon idée à moi ..._"

I did not understand the situation in the least, but I appreciated the
awkwardness of it. The world seemed to be standing on its head. I was
overcome; but I felt for the person in the next room. I did not know
what to do. Suddenly I found myself saying:

"I am extremely sorry, madam, but I don't understand French." An
expression of more intense vexation passed into her face--her beautiful
face. I fancy she wished--wished intensely--to give me the benefit of
her "_idée à elle_." She made a quick, violent gesture of disgusted
contempt, and turned toward the half-open door from which she had come.
She began again to dilate upon the little weaknesses of the person
behind, when silently and swiftly it closed. We heard the lock click.
With extraordinary quickness she had her mouth at the keyhole: "_Peeg,
peeg_," she enunciated. Then she stood to her full height, her face
became calm, her manner stately. She glided half way across the room,
paused, looked at me, and pointed toward the unmoving door.

"_Peeg, peeg_," she explained, mysteriously. I think she was warning me
against the wiles of the person behind the door. I gazed into her great
eyes. "I understand," I said, gravely. She glided from the room. For me
the incident supplied a welcome touch of comedy. I had leisure for
thought. The door remained closed. It made the Duc a more real person
for me. I had regarded him as a rather tiresome person in whom a pompous
philanthropism took the place of human feelings. It amused me to be
called _Le Grangeur_. It amused me, and I stood in need of amusement.
Without it I might never have written the article on the Duc. I had
started out that morning in a state of nervous irritation. I had wanted
more than ever to have done with the thing, with the _Hour_, with
journalism, with everything. But this little new experience buoyed me
up, set my mind working in less morbid lines. I began to wonder whether
de Mersch would funk, or whether he would take my non-comprehension of
the woman's tirades as a thing assured.

The door at which I had entered, by which she had left, opened.

He must have impressed me in some way or other that evening at the
Churchills. He seemed a very stereotyped image in my memory. He spoke
just as he had spoken, moved his hands just as I expected him to move
them. He called for no modification of my views of his person. As a rule
one classes a man so-and-so at first meeting, modifies the
classification at each subsequent one, and so on. He seemed to be all
affability, of an adipose turn. He had the air of the man of the world
among men of the world; but none of the unconscious reserve of manner
that one expects to find in the temporarily great. He had in its place a
kind of sub-sulkiness, as if he regretted the pedestal from which he had
descended.

In his slow commercial English he apologised for having kept me
waiting; he had been taking the air of this fine morning, he said. He
mumbled the words with his eyes on my waistcoat, with an air that
accorded rather ill with the semblance of portentous probity that his
beard conferred on him. But he set an eye-glass in his left eye
immediately afterward, and looked straight at me as if in challenge.
With a smiling "Don't mention," I tried to demonstrate that I met him
half way.

"You want to interview me," he said, blandly. "I am only too pleased. I
suppose it is about my Arctic schemes that you wish to know. I will do
what I can to inform you. You perhaps remember what I said when I had
the pleasure of meeting you at the house of the Right Honourable Mr.
Churchill. It has been the dream of my life to leave behind me a happy
and contented State--as much as laws and organisation can make one. This
is what I should most like the English to know of me." He was a dull
talker. I supposed that philanthropists and state founders kept their
best faculties for their higher pursuits. I imagined the low, receding
forehead and the pink-nailed, fleshy hands to belong to a new Solon, a
latter-day Æneas. I tried to work myself into the properly enthusiastic
frame of mind. After all, it was a great work that he had undertaken. I
was too much given to dwell upon intellectual gifts. These the Duc
seemed to lack. I credited him with having let them be merged in his one
noble idea.

He furnished me with statistics. They had laid down so many miles of
railways, used so many engines of British construction. They had taught
the natives to use and to value sewing-machines and European costumes.
So many hundred of English younger sons had gone to make their fortunes
and, incidentally, to enlighten the Esquimaux--so many hundreds of
French, of Germans, Greeks, Russians. All these lived and moved in
harmony, employed, happy, free labourers, protected by the most rigid
laws. Man-eating, fetich-worship, slavery had been abolished, stamped
out. The great international society for the preservation of Polar
freedom watched over all, suggested new laws, modified the old. The
country was unhealthy, but not to men of clean lives--_hominibus bonæ
voluntatis_. It asked for no others.

"I have had to endure much misrepresentation. I have been called
names," the Duc said.

The figure of the lady danced before my eyes, lithe, supple--a statue
endued with the motion of a serpent. I seemed to see her sculptured
white hand pointing to the closed door.

"Ah, yes," I said, "but one knows the people that call you names."

"Well, then," he answered, "it is your task to make them know the truth.
Your nation has so much power. If it will only realise."

"I will do my best," I said.

I saw the apotheosis of the Press--a Press that makes a State Founder
suppliant to a man like myself. For he had the tone of a deprecating
petitioner. I stood between himself and a people, the arbiter of the
peoples, of the kings of the future. I was nothing, nobody; yet here I
stood in communion with one of those who change the face of continents.
He had need of me, of the power that was behind me. It was strange to be
alone in that room with that man--to be there just as I might be in my
own little room alone with any other man.

I was not unduly elated, you must understand. It was nothing to me. I
was just a person elected by some suffrage of accidents. Even in my own
eyes I was merely a symbol--the sign visible of incomprehensible power.

"I will do my best," I said.

"Ah, yes, do," he said, "Mr. Churchill told me how nicely you can do
such things."

I said that it was very kind of Mr. Churchill. The tension of the
conversation was relaxed. The Duc asked if I had yet seen my aunt.

"I had forgotten her," I said.

"Oh, you must see her," he said; "she is a most remarkable lady. She is
one of my relaxations. All Paris talks about her, I can assure you."

"I had no idea," I said.

"Oh, cultivate her," he said; "you will be amused."

"I will," I said, as I took my leave.

I went straight home to my little room above the roofs. I began at once
to write my article, working at high pressure, almost hysterically. I
remember that place and that time so well. In moments of emotion one
gazes fixedly at things, hardly conscious of them. Afterward one
remembers.

I can still see the narrow room, the bare, brown, discoloured walls, the
incongruous marble clock on the mantel-piece, the single rickety chair
that swayed beneath me. I could almost draw the tortuous pattern of the
faded cloth that hid the round table at which I sat. The ink was thick,
pale, and sticky; the pen spluttered. I wrote furiously, anxious to be
done with it. Once I went and leaned over the balcony, trying to hit on
a word that would not come. Miles down below, little people crawled over
the cobbled street, little carts rattled, little workmen let down casks
into a cellar. It was all very grey, small, and clear.

Through the open window of an opposite garret I could see a sculptor
working at a colossal clay model. In his white blouse he seemed big, out
of all proportion to the rest of the world. Level with my eyes there
were flat lead roofs and chimneys. On one of these was scrawled, in big,
irregular, blue-painted letters: "_A has Coignet_."

Great clouds began to loom into view over the house-tops, rounded,
toppling masses of grey, lit up with sullen orange against the pale
limpid blue of the sky. I stood and looked at all these objects. I had
come out here to think--thoughts had deserted me. I could only look.

The clouds moved imperceptibly, fatefully onward, a streak of lightning
tore them apart. They whirled like tortured smoke and grew suddenly
black. Large spots of rain with jagged edges began to fall on the lead
floor of my balcony.

I turned into the twilight of my room and began to write. I can still
feel the tearing of my pen-point on the coarse paper. It was a hindrance
to thought, but my flow of words ignored it, gained impetus from it, as
a stream does at the breaking of a dam.

I was writing a pæan to a great coloniser. That sort of thing was in the
air then. I was drawn into it, carried away by my subject. Perhaps I let
it do so because it was so little familiar to my lines of thought. It
was fresh ground and I revelled in it. I committed myself to that kind
of emotional, lyrical outburst that one dislikes so much on re-reading.
I was half conscious of the fact, but I ignored it.

The thunderstorm was over, and there was a moist sparkling freshness in
the air when I hurried with my copy to the _Hour_ office in the Avenue
de l'Opéra. I wished to be rid of it, to render impossible all chance of
revision on the morrow.

I wanted, too, to feel elated; I expected it. It was a right. At the
office I found the foreign correspondent, a little cosmopolitan Jew
whose eyebrows began their growth on the bridge of his nose. He was
effusive and familiar, as the rest of his kind.

"Hullo, Granger," was his greeting. I was used to regarding myself as
fallen from a high estate, but I was not yet so humble in spirit as to
relish being called Granger by a stranger of his stamp. I tried to
freeze him politely.

"Read your stuff in the _Hour_," was his rejoinder; "jolly good I call
it. Been doing old Red-Beard? Let's have a look. Yes, yes. That's the
way--that's the real thing--I call it. Must have bored you to death ...
old de Mersch I mean. I ought to have had the job, you know. My
business, interviewing people in Paris. But _I_ don't mind. Much rather
you did it than I. You do it a heap better."

I murmured thanks. There was a pathos about the sleek little man--a
pathos that is always present in the type. He seemed to be trying to
assume a deprecating equality.

"Where are you going to-night?" he asked, with sudden effusiveness. I
was taken aback. One is not used to being asked these questions after
five minutes' acquaintance. I said that I had no plans.

"Look here," he said, brightening up, "come and have dinner with me at
Breguet's, and look in at the Opera afterward. We'll have a real nice
chat."

I was too tired to frame an adequate excuse. Besides, the little man was
as eager as a child for a new toy. We went to Breguet's and had a really
excellent dinner.

"Always come here," he said; "one meets a lot of swells. It runs away
with a deal of money--but I don't care to do things on the cheap, not
for the _Hour_, you know. You can always be certain when I say that I
have a thing from a senator that he is a senator, and not an old woman
in a paper kiosque. Most of them do that sort of thing, you know."

"I always wondered," I said, mildly.

"That's de Sourdam I nodded to as we came in, and that old chap there is
Pluyvis--the Affaire man, you know. I must have a word with him in a
minute, if you'll excuse me."

He began to ask affectionately after the health of the excellent Fox,
asked if I saw him often, and so on and so on. I divined with amusement
that was pleasurable that the little man had his own little axe to
grind, and thought I might take a turn at the grindstone if he managed
me well. So he nodded to de Sourdam of the Austrian embassy and had his
word with Pluyvis, and rejoiced to have impressed me--I could see him
bubble with happiness and purr. He proposed that we should stroll as far
as the paper kiosque that he patronised habitually--it was kept by a
fellow-Israelite--a snuffy little old woman.

I understood that in the joy of his heart he was for expanding, for
wasting a few minutes on a stroll.

"Haven't stretched my legs for months," he explained.

We strolled there through the summer twilight. It was so pleasant to
saunter through the young summer night. There were so many little things
to catch the eyes, so many of the little things down near the earth;
expressions on faces of the passers, the set of a collar, the quaint
foreign tightness of waist of a good bourgeoise who walked arm in arm
with her perspiring spouse. The gilding on the statue of Joan of Arc had
a pleasant littleness of Philistinism, the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli
broke up the grey light pleasantly too. I remembered a little shop--a
little Greek affair with a windowful of pinch-beck--where I had been
given a false five-franc piece years and years ago. The same villainous
old Levantine stood in the doorway, perhaps the fez that he wore was the
same fez. The little old woman that we strolled to was bent nearly
double. Her nose touched her wares as often as not, her mittened hands
sought quiveringly the papers that the correspondent asked for. I liked
him the better for his solicitude for this forlorn piece of flotsam of
his own race.

"Always come here," he exclaimed; "one gets into habits. Very honest
woman, too, you can be certain of getting your change. If you're a
stranger you can't be sure that they won't give you Italian silver, you
know."

"Oh, I know," I answered. I knew, too, that he wished me to purchase
something. I followed the course of her groping hands, caught sight of
the _Revue Rouge_, and remembered that it contained something about
Greenland. I helped myself to it, paid for it, and received my just
change. I felt that I had satisfied the little man, and felt satisfied
with myself.

"I want to see Radet's article on Greenland," I said.

"Oh, yes," he explained, once more exhibiting himself in the capacity of
the man who knows, "Radet gives it to them. Rather a lark, I call it,
though you mustn't let old de Mersch know you read him. Radet got sick
of Cochin, and tried Greenland. He's getting touched by the Whites you
know. They say that the priests don't like the way the Système's playing
into the hands of the Protestants and the English Government. So they
set Radet on to write it down. He's going in for mysticism and all that
sort of thing--just like all these French jokers are doing. Got deuced
thick with that lot in the F. St. Germain--some relation of yours,
ain't they? Rather a lark that lot, quite the thing just now, everyone
goes there; old de Mersch too. Have frightful rows sometimes, such a
mixed lot, you see." The good little man rattled amiably along beside
me.

"Seems quite funny to be buying books," he said. "I haven't read a thing
I've bought, not for years."

We reached the Opera in time for the end of the first act--it was Aïda,
I think. My little friend had a free pass all over the house. I had not
been in it for years. In the old days I had always seen the stage from a
great height, craning over people's heads in a sultry twilight; now I
saw it on a level, seated at my ease. I had only the power of the Press
to thank for the change.

"Come here as often as I can," my companion said; "can't do without
music when it's to be had." Indeed he had the love of his race for it.
It seemed to soften him, to change his nature, as he sat silent by my
side.

But the closing notes of each scene found him out in the cool of the
corridors, talking, and being talked to by anyone that would vouchsafe
him a word.

"Pick up a lot here," he explained.

After the finale we leaned over one of the side balconies to watch the
crowd streaming down the marble staircases. It is a scene that I never
tire of. There is something so fantastically tawdry in the coloured
marble of the architecture. It is for all the world like a triumph of
ornamental soap work; one expects to smell the odours. And the torrent
of humanity pouring liquidly aslant through the mirror-like light, and
the spaciousness.... Yes, it is fantastic, somehow; ironical, too.

I was watching the devious passage of a rather drunken, gigantic, florid
Englishman, wondering, I think, how he would reach his bed.

"That must be a relation of yours," the correspondent said, pointing. My
glance followed the line indicated by his pale finger. I made out the
glorious beard of the Duc de Mersch, on his arm was an old lady to whom
he seemed to pay deferential attention. His head was bent on one side;
he was smiling frankly. A little behind them, on the stairway, there was
a space. Perhaps I was mistaken; perhaps there was no space--I don't
know. I was only conscious of a figure, an indescribably clear-cut
woman's figure, gliding down the way. It had a coldness, a
self-possession, a motion of its own. In that clear, transparent,
shimmering light, every little fold of the dress, every little shadow of
the white arms, the white shoulders, came up to me. The face turned up
to meet mine. I remember so well the light shining down on the face, not
a shadow anywhere, not a shadow beneath the eyebrows, the nostrils, the
waves of hair. It was a vision of light, theatening, sinister.

She smiled, her lips parted.

"You come to me to-morrow," she said. Did I hear the words, did her lips
merely form them? She was far, far down below me; the air was alive with
the rustling of feet, of garments, of laughter, full of sounds that made
themselves heard, full of sounds that would not be caught.

"You come to me ... to-morrow."

The old lady on the Duc de Mersch's arm was obviously my aunt. I did not
see why I should not go to them to-morrow. It struck me suddenly and
rather pleasantly that this was, after all, my family. This old lady
actually was a connection more close than anyone else in the world. As
for the girl, to all intents and, in everyone else's eyes, she was my
sister. I cannot say I disliked having her for my sister, either. I
stood looking down upon them and felt less alone than I had done for
many years.

A minute scuffle of the shortest duration was taking place beside me.
There were a couple of men at my elbow. I don't in the least know what
they were--perhaps marquises, perhaps railway employees--one never can
tell over there. One of them was tall and blond, with a heavy,
bow-shaped red moustache--Irish in type; the other of no particular
height, excellently groomed, dark, and exemplary. I knew he was
exemplary from some detail of costume that I can't remember--his gloves
or a strip of silk down the sides of his trousers--something of the
sort. The blond was saying something that I did not catch. I heard the
words "de Mersch" and "_Anglaise_," and saw the dark man turn his
attention to the little group below. Then I caught my own name
mispronounced and somewhat of a stumbling-block to a high-pitched
contemptuous intonation. The little correspondent, who was on my other
arm, started visibly and moved swiftly behind my back.

"_Messieurs_," he said in an urgent whisper, and drew them to a little
distance. I saw him say something, saw them pivot to look at me, shrug
their shoulders and walk away. I didn't in the least grasp the
significance of the scene--not then.

"What's the matter?" I asked my returning friend; "were they talking
about me?" He answered nervously.

"Oh, it was about your aunt's Salon, you know. They might have been
going to say something awkward ... one never knows."

"They really _do_ talk about it then?" I said. "I've a good mind to
attend one of their exhibitions."

"Why, of course," he said, "you ought. I really think you _ought_."

"I'll go to-morrow," I answered.

Joseph Conrad

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