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Chapter 14

I had a sense of walking very fast--almost of taking flight--down a long
dim corridor, and of a door that opened into an immense room. All that I
remember of it, as I saw it then, was a number of pastel portraits of
weak, vacuous individuals, in dulled, gilt, oval frames. The heads stood
out from the panelling and stared at me from between ringlets, from
under powdered hair, simpering, or contemptuous with the expression that
must have prevailed in the _monde_ of the time before the Revolution. At
a great distance, bent over account--books and pink cheques on the flap
of an escritoire, sat my aunt, very small, very grey, very intent on her
work.

The people who built these rooms must have had some property of the
presence to make them bulk large--if they ever really did so--in the
eyes of dependents, of lackeys. Perhaps it was their sense of ownership
that gave them the necessary prestige. My aunt, who was only a temporary
occupant, certainly had none of it. Bent intently over her accounts,
peering through her spectacles at columns of figures, she was nothing
but a little old woman alone in an immense room. It seemed impossible
that she could really have any family pride, any pride of any sort. She
looked round at me over her spectacles, across her shoulder.

"Ah ... Etchingham," she said. She seemed to be trying to carry herself
back to England, to the England of her land-agent and her select
visiting list. Here she was no more superior than if we had been on a
desert island. I wanted to enlighten her as to the woman she was
sheltering--wanted to very badly; but a necessity for introducing the
matter seemed to arise as she gradually stiffened into assertiveness.

"My dear aunt," I said, "the woman...." The alien nature of the theme
grew suddenly formidable. She looked at me arousedly.

"You got my note then," she said. "But I don't think a woman _can_ have
brought it. I have given such strict orders. They have such strange
ideas here, though. And Madame--the _portière_--is an old retainer of M.
de Luynes, I haven't much influence over her. It is absurd, but...." It
seems that the old lady in the lodge made a point of carrying letters
that went by hand. She had an eye for gratuities--and the police, I
should say, were concerned. They make a good deal of use of that sort of
person in that neighbourhood of infinitesimal and unceasing plotting.

"I didn't mean that," I said, "but the woman who calls herself my
sister...."

"My dear nephew," she interrupted, with tranquil force, as if she were
taking an arranged line, "I cannot--I absolutely cannot be worried with
your quarrels with your sister. As I said to you in my note of this
morning, when you are in this town you must consider this house your
home. It is almost insulting of you to go to an inn. I am told it is
even ... quite an unfit place that you are stopping at--for a member of
our family."

I maintained for a few seconds a silence of astonishment.

"But," I returned to the charge, "the matter is one of importance. You
must understand that she...."

My aunt stiffened and froze. It was as if I had committed some flagrant
sin against etiquette.

"If I am satisfied as to her behaviour," she said, "I think that you
might be." She paused as if she were satisfied that she had set me
hopelessly in the wrong.

"I don't withdraw my invitation," she said. "You must understand I
_wish_ you to come here. But your quarrels you and she must settle. On
those terms...."

She had the air of conferring an immense favour, as if she believed that
I had, all my life through, been waiting for her invitation to come
within the pale. As for me, I felt a certain relief at having the
carrying out of my duty made impossible for me. I did not _want_ to tell
my aunt and thus to break things off definitely and for good. Something
would have happened; the air might have cleared as it clears after a
storm; I should have learnt where I stood. But I was afraid of the
knowledge. Light in these dark places might reveal an abyss at my feet.
I wanted to let things slide.

My aunt had returned to her accounts, the accounts which were the
cog-wheels that kept running the smooth course of the Etchingham
estates. She seemed to wish to indicate that I counted for not very much
in the scheme of things as she saw it.

"I should like to make your better acquaintance," she said, with her
head still averted, "there are reasons...." It came suddenly into my
head that she had an idea of testamentary dispositions, that she felt
she was breaking up, that I had my rights. I didn't much care for the
thing, but the idea of being the heir of Etchingham was--well, was an
idea. It would make me more possible to my pseudo-sister. It would be,
as it were, a starting-point, would make me potentially a somebody of
her sort of ideal. Moreover, I should be under the same roof, near her,
with her sometimes. One asks so little more than that, that it seemed
almost half the battle. I began to consider phrases of thanks and
acceptance and then uttered them.

I never quite understood the bearings of that scene; never quite whether
my aunt really knew that my sister was not my sister. She was a
wonderfully clever woman of the unscrupulous order, with a _sang-froid_
and self-possession well calculated to let her cut short any
inconvenient revelations. It was as if she had had long practice in the
art, though I cannot say what occasion she can have had for its
practice--perhaps for the confounding of wavering avowers of Dissent at
home.

I used to think that she knew, if not all, at least a portion; that the
weight that undoubtedly was upon her mind was nothing else but that. She
broke up, was breaking up from day to day, and I can think of no other
reason. She had the air of being disintegrated, like a mineral under an
immense weight--quartz in a crushing mill; of being dulled and numbed as
if she were under the influence of narcotics.

There is little enough wonder, if she actually carried that imponderable
secret about with her. I used to look at her sometimes, and wonder if
she, too, saw the oncoming of the inevitable. She was limited enough in
her ideas, but not too stupid to take that in if it presented itself.
Indeed they have that sort of idea rather grimly before them all the
time--that class.

It must have been that that was daily, and little by little, pressing
down her eyelids and deepening the quivering lines of her impenetrable
face. She had a certain solitary grandeur, the pathos attaching to the
last of a race, of a type; the air of waiting for the deluge, of
listening for an inevitable sound--the sound of oncoming waters.

It was weird, the time that I spent in that house--more than
weird--deadening. It had an extraordinary effect on me--an effect that
my "sister," perhaps, had carefully calculated. She made pretensions of
that sort later on; said that she had been breaking me in to perform my
allotted task in the bringing on of the inevitable.

I have nowhere come across such an intense solitude as there was there,
a solitude that threw one so absolutely upon one's self and into one's
self. I used to sit working in one of those tall, panelled rooms, very
high up in the air. I was writing at the series of articles for the
_Bi-Monthly_, for Polehampton. I was to get the atmosphere of Paris, you
remember. It was rather extraordinary, that process. Up there I seemed
to be as much isolated from Paris as if I had been in--well, in Hampton
Court. It was almost impossible to write; I had things to think about:
preoccupations, jealousies. It was true I had a living to make, but that
seemed to have lost its engrossingness as a pursuit, or at least to have
suspended it.

The panels of the room seemed to act as a sounding-board, the belly of
an immense 'cello. There were never any noises in the house, only
whispers coming from an immense distance--as when one drops stones down
an unfathomable well and hears ages afterward the faint sound of
disturbed waters. When I look back at that time I figure myself as
forever sitting with uplifted pen, waiting for a word that would not
come, and that I did not much care about getting. The panels of the room
would creak sympathetically to the opening of the entrance-door of the
house, the faintest of creaks; people would cross the immense hall to
the room in which they plotted; would cross leisurely, with laughter and
rustling of garments that after a long time reached my ears in whispers.
Then I should have an access of mad jealousy. I wanted to be part of her
life, but I could not stand that Salon of suspicious conspirators. What
could I do there? Stand and look at them, conscious that they all
dropped their voices instinctively when I came near them?

That was the general tone of that space of time, but, of course, it was
not always that. I used to emerge now and then to breakfast
sympathetically with my aunt, sometimes to sit through a meal with the
two of them. I danced attendance on them singly; paid depressing calls
with my aunt; calls on the people in the Faubourg; people without any
individuality other than a kind of desiccation, the shrivelled
appearance and point of view of a dried pippin. In revenge, they had
names that startled one, names that recalled the generals and _flaneurs_
of an impossibly distant time; names that could hardly have had any
existence outside the memoirs of Madame de Sévigné, the names of people
that could hardly have been fitted to do anything more vigorous than be
reflected in the mirrors of the _Salle des Glaces_. I was so absolutely
depressed, so absolutely in a state of suspended animation, that I
seemed to conform exactly to my aunt's ideas of what was desirable in me
as an attendant on her at these functions. I used to stand behind
chairs and talk, like a good young man, to the assorted _Pères_ and
_Abbés_ who were generally present.

And then I used to go home and get the atmospheres of these people. I
must have done it abominably badly, for the notes that brought
Polehampton's cheques were accompanied by the bravos of that gentleman
and the assurances that Miss Polehampton liked my work--liked it very
much.

I suppose I exhibited myself in the capacity of the man who knew--who
could let you into a thing or two. After all, anyone could write about
students' balls and the lakes in the Bois, but it took _someone_ to
write "with knowledge" of the interiors of the barred houses in the Rue
de l'Université.

Then, too, I attended the more showy entertainments with my sister. I
had by now become so used to hearing her styled "your sister" that the
epithet had the quality of a name. She was "mademoiselle votre soeur,"
as she might have been Mlle. Patience or Hope, without having anything
of the named quality. What she did at the entertainments, the
charitable bazaars, the dismal dances, the impossibly bad concerts, I
have no idea. She must have had some purpose, for she did nothing
without. I myself descended into fulfilling the functions of a
rudimentarily developed chaperon--functions similar in importance to
those performed by the eyes of a mole. I had the maddest of accesses of
jealousy if she talked to a man--and _such_ men--or danced with one. And
then I was forever screwing my courage up and feeling it die away. We
used to drive about in a coupe, a thing that shut us inexorably
together, but which quite as inexorably destroyed all opportunities for
what one calls making love. In smooth streets its motion was too glib,
on the _pavé_ it rattled too abominably. I wanted to make love to
her--oh, immensely, but I was never in the mood, or the opportunity was
never forthcoming. I used to have the wildest fits of irritation; not of
madness or of depression, but of simple wildness at the continual
recurrence of small obstacles. I couldn't read, couldn't bring myself to
it. I used to sit and look dazedly at the English newspapers--at any
newspaper but the _Hour_. De Mersch had, for the moment, disappeared.
There were troubles in his elective grand duchy--he had, indeed,
contrived to make himself unpopular with the electors, excessively
unpopular. I used to read piquant articles about his embroglio in an
American paper that devoted itself to matters of the sort. All sorts of
international difficulties were to arise if de Mersch were ejected.
There was some other obscure prince of a rival house, Prussian or
Russian, who had desires for the degree of royalty that sat so heavily
on de Mersch. Indeed, I think there were two rival princes, each waiting
with portmanteaux packed and manifestos in their breast pockets, ready
to pass de Mersch's frontiers.

The grievances of his subjects--so the Paris-American _Gazette_
said--were intimately connected with matters of finance, and de Mersch's
personal finances and his grand ducal were inextricably mixed up with
the wild-cat schemes with which he was seeking to make a fortune large
enough to enable him to laugh at half a dozen elective grand duchies.
Indeed, de Mersch's own portmanteau was reported to be packed against
the day when British support of his Greenland schemes would let him
afford to laugh at his cantankerous Diet.

The thing interested me so little that I never quite mastered the
details of it. I wished the man no good, but so long as he kept out of
my way I was not going to hate him actively. Finally the affairs of
Holstein-Launewitz ceased to occupy the papers--the thing was arranged
and the Russian and Prussian princes unpacked their portmanteaux, and, I
suppose, consigned their manifestos to the flames, or adapted them to
the needs of other principalities. De Mersch's affairs ceded their space
in the public prints to the topic of the dearness of money. Somebody,
somewhere, was said to be up to something. I used to try to read the
articles, to master the details, because I disliked finding a whole
field of thought of which I knew absolutely nothing. I used to read
about the great discount houses and other things that conveyed
absolutely nothing to my mind. I only gathered that the said great
houses were having a very bad time, and that everybody else was having a
very much worse.

One day, indeed, the matter was brought home to me by the receipt from
Polehampton of bills instead of my usual cheques. I had a good deal of
trouble in cashing the things; indeed, people seemed to look askance at
them. I consulted my aunt on the subject, at breakfast. It was the sort
of thing that interested the woman of business in her, and we were
always short of topics of conversation.

We breakfasted in rather a small room, as rooms went there; my aunt
sitting at the head of the table, with an early morning air of being _en
famille_ that she wore at no other time of day. It was not a matter of
garments, for she was not the woman to wear a _peignoir_; but lay, I
supposed, in her manner, which did not begin to assume frigidity until
several watches of the day had passed.

I handed her Polehampton's bills and explained that I was at a loss to
turn them to account; that I even had only the very haziest of ideas as
to their meaning. Holding the forlorn papers in her hand, she began to
lecture me on the duty of acquiring the rudiments of what she called
"business habits."

"Of course you do not require to master details to any considerable
extent," she said, "but I always have held that it is one of the duties
of a...."

She interrupted herself as my sister came into the room; looked at her,
and then held out the papers in her hand. The things quivered a little;
the hand must have quivered too.

"You are going to Halderschrodt's?" she said, interrogatively. "You
could get him to negotiate these for Etchingham?"

Miss Granger looked at the papers negligently.

"I am going this afternoon," she answered. "Etchingham can come...." She
suddenly turned to me: "So your friend is getting shaky," she said.

"It means that?" I asked. "But I've heard that he has done the same sort
of thing before."

"He must have been shaky before," she said, "but I daresay
Halderschrodt...."

"Oh, it's hardly worth while bothering that personage about such a sum,"
I interrupted. Halderschrodt, in those days, was a name that suggested
no dealings in any sum less than a million.

"My dear Etchingham," my aunt interrupted in a shocked tone, "it is
quite worth his while to oblige us...."

"I didn't know," I said.

That afternoon we drove to Halderschrodt's private office, a
sumptuous--that is the _mot juste_--suite of rooms on the first floor of
the house next to the Duc de Mersch's _Sans Souci_. I sat on a
plush-bottomed gilded chair, whilst my pseudo-sister transacted her
business in an adjoining room--a room exactly corresponding with that
within which de Mersch had lurked whilst the lady was warning me against
him. A clerk came after awhile, carried me off into an enclosure, where
my bill was discounted by another, and then reconducted me to my plush
chair. I did not occupy it, as it happened. A meagre, very tall Alsatian
was holding the door open for the exit of my sister. He said nothing at
all, but stood slightly inclined as she passed him. I caught a glimpse
of a red, long face, very tired eyes, and hair of almost startling
whiteness--the white hair of a comparatively young man, without any
lustre of any sort--a dead white, like that of snow. I remember that
white hair with a feeling of horror, whilst I have almost forgotten the
features of the great Baron de Halderschrodt.

I had still some of the feeling of having been in contact with a
personality of the most colossal significance as we went down the red
carpet of the broad white marble stairs. With one foot on the lowest
step, the figure of a perfectly clothed, perfectly groomed man was
standing looking upward at our descent. I had thought so little of him
that the sight of the Duc de Mersch's face hardly suggested any train of
emotions. It lit up with an expression of pleasure.

"You," he said.

She stood looking down upon him from the altitude of two steps, looking
with intolerable passivity.

"So you use the common stairs," she said, "one had the idea that you
communicated with these people through a private door." He laughed
uneasily, looking askance at me.

"Oh, I ..." he said.

She moved a little to one side to pass him in her descent.

"So things have arranged themselves--_là bas_," she said, referring, I
supposed, to the elective grand duchy.

"Oh, it was like a miracle," he answered, "and I owed a great deal--a
great deal--to your hints...."

"You must tell me all about it to-night," she said.

De Mersch's face had an extraordinary quality that I seemed to notice in
all the faces around me--a quality of the flesh that seemed to lose all
luminosity, of the eyes that seemed forever to have a tendency to seek
the ground, to avoid the sight of the world. When he brightened to
answer her it was as if with effort. It seemed as if a weight were on
the mind of the whole world--a preoccupation that I shared without
understanding. She herself, a certain absent-mindedness apart, seemed
the only one that was entirely unaffected.

As we sat side by side in the little carriage, she said suddenly:

"They are coming to the end of their tether, you see." I shrank away
from her a little--but I did not see and did not want to see. I said so.
It even seemed to me that de Mersch having got over the troubles _là
bas_, was taking a new lease of life.

"I _did_ think," I said, "a little time ago that ..."

The wheels of the coupe suddenly began to rattle abominably over the
cobbles of a narrow street. It was impossible to talk, and I was thrown
back upon myself. I found that I was in a temper--in an abominable
temper. The sudden sight of that man, her method of greeting him, the
intimacy that the scene revealed ... the whole thing had upset me. Of
late, for want of any alarms, in spite of groundlessness I had had the
impression that I was the integral part of her life. It was not a
logical idea, but strictly a habit of mind that had grown up in the
desolation of my solitude.

We passed into one of the larger boulevards, and the thing ran silently.

"That de Mersch was crumbling up," she suddenly completed my unfinished
sentence; "oh, that was only a grumble--premonitory. But it won't take
long now. I have been putting on the screw. Halderschrodt will ... I
suppose he will commit suicide, in a day or two. And then the--the fun
will begin."

I didn't answer. The thing made no impression--no mental impression at
all.

Joseph Conrad

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