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Chapter 15

That afternoon we had a scene, and late that night another. The memory
of the former is a little blotted out. Things began to move so quickly
that, try as I will to arrange their sequence in my mind, I cannot. I
cannot even very distinctly remember what she told me at that first
explanation. I must have attacked her fiercely--on the score of de
Mersch, in the old vein; must have told her that I would not in the
interest of the name allow her to see the man again. She told me things,
too, rather abominable things, about the way in which she had got
Halderschrodt into her power and was pressing him down. Halderschrodt
was de Mersch's banker-in-chief; his fall would mean de Mersch's, and so
on. The "so on" in this case meant a great deal more. Halderschrodt,
apparently, was the "somebody who was up to something" of the American
paper--that is to say the allied firms that Halderschrodt represented.
I can't remember the details. They were too huge and too unfamiliar, and
I was too agitated by my own share in the humanity of it. But, in sum,
it seemed that the fall of Halderschrodt would mean a sort of incredibly
vast Black Monday--a frightful thing in the existing state of public
confidence, but one which did not mean much to me. I forget how she said
she had been able to put the screw on him. Halderschrodt, as you must
remember, was the third of his colossal name, a man without much genius
and conscious of the lack, obsessed with the idea of operating some
enormous coup, like the founder of his dynasty, something in which
foresight in international occurrence played a chief part. That idea was
his weakness, the defect of his mind, and she had played on that
weakness. I forget, I say, the details, if I ever heard them; they
concerned themselves with a dynastic revolution somewhere, a revolution
that was to cause a slump all over the world, and that had been
engineered in our Salon. And she had burked the revolution--betrayed it,
I suppose--and the consequences did not ensue, and Halderschrodt and all
the rest of them were left high and dry.

The whole thing was a matter of under-currents that never came to the
surface, a matter of shifting sands from which only those with the
clearest heads could come forth.

"And we ... we have clear heads," she said. It was impossible to listen
to her without shuddering. For me, if he stood for anything,
Halderschrodt stood for stability; there was the tremendous name, and
there was the person I had just seen, the person on whom a habit of mind
approaching almost to the royal had conferred a presence that had some
of the divinity that hedges a king. It seemed frightful merely to
imagine his ignominious collapse; as frightful as if she had pointed out
a splendid-limbed man and said: "That man will be dead in five minutes."
That, indeed, was what she said of Halderschrodt.... The man had saluted
her, going to his death; the austere inclination that I had seen had
been the salutation of such a man.

I was so moved by one thing and another that I hardly noticed that
Gurnard had come into the room. I had not seen him since the night when
he had dined with the Duc de Mersch at Churchill's, but he seemed so
part of the emotion, of the frame of mind, that he slid noiselessly
into the scene and hardly surprised me. I was called out of the
room--someone desired to see me, and I passed, without any transition of
feeling, into the presence of an entire stranger--a man who remains a
voice to me. He began to talk to me about the state of my aunt's health.
He said she was breaking up; that he begged respectfully to urge that I
would use my influence to take her back to London to consult Sir
James--I, perhaps, living in the house and not having known my aunt for
very long, might not see; but he ... He was my aunt's solicitor. He was
quite right; my aunt _was_ breaking up, she had declined visibly in the
few hours that I had been away from her. She had been doing business
with this man, had altered her will, had seen Mr. Gurnard; and, in some
way had received a shock that seemed to have deprived her of all
volition. She sat with her head leaning back, her eyes closed, the lines
of her face all seeming to run downward.

"It is obvious to me that arrangements ought to be made for your return
to England," the lawyer said, "whatever engagements Miss Granger or Mr.
Etchingham Granger or even Mr. Gurnard may have made."

I wondered vaguely what the devil Mr. Gurnard could have to say in the
matter, and then Miss Granger herself came into the room.

"They want me," my aunt said in a low voice, "they have been persuading
me ... to go back ... to Etchingham, I think you said, Meredith."

I became conscious that I wanted to return to England, wanted it very
much, wanted to be out of this; to get somewhere where there was
stability and things that one could understand. Everything here seemed
to be in a mist, with the ground trembling underfoot.

"Why ..." Miss Granger's verdict came, "we can go when you like.
To-morrow."

Things immediately began to shape themselves on these unexpected lines,
a sort of bustle of departure to be in the air. I was employed to
conduct the lawyer as far as the porter's lodge, a longish traverse. He
beguiled the way by excusing himself for hurrying back to London.

"I might have been of use; in these hurried departures there are
generally things. But, you will understand, Mr.--Mr. Etchingham; at a
time like this I could hardly spare the hours that it cost me to come
over. You would be astonished what a deal of extra work it gives and how
far-spreading the evil is. People seem to have gone mad. Even I have
been astonished."

"I had no idea," I said.

"Of course not, of course not--no one had. But, unless I am much
mistaken--_much_--there will have to be an enquiry, and people will be
very lucky who have had nothing to do with it ..."

I gathered that things were in a bad way, over there as over here; that
there were scandals and a tremendous outcry for purification in the
highest places. I saw the man get into his fiacre and took my way back
across the court-yard rather slowly, pondering over the part I was to
fill in the emigration, wondering how far events had conferred on me a
partnership in the family affairs.

I found that my tacitly acknowledged function was that of supervising
nurse-tender, the sort of thing that made for personal tenderness in the
aridity of profuse hired help. I was expected to arrange a rug just a
_little_ more comfortably than the lady's maid who would travel in the
compartment--to give the finishing touches.

It was astonishing how well the thing was engineered; the removal, I
mean. It gave me an even better idea of the woman my aunt had been than
even the panic of her solicitor. The thing went as smoothly as the
disappearance of a caravan of gypsies, camped for the night on a heath
beside gorse bushes. We went to the ball that night as if from a
household that had its roots deep in the solid rock, and in the morning
we had disappeared.

The ball itself was a finishing touch--the finishing touch of my
sister's affairs and the end of my patience. I spent an interminable
night, one of those nights that never end and that remain quivering and
raw in the memory. I seemed to be in a blaze of light, watching, through
a shifting screen of shimmering dresses--her and the Duc de Mersch. I
don't know whether the thing was really noticeable, but it seemed that
everyone was--that everyone must be--remarking it. I thought I caught
women making smile-punctuated remarks behind fans, men answering
inaudibly with eyes discreetly on the ground. It was a mixed assembly,
somebody's liquidation of social obligations, and there was a sprinkling
of the kind of people who do make remarks. It was not the noticeability
for its own sake that I hated, but the fact that their relations by
their noticeability made me impossible, whilst the notice itself
confirmed my own fears. I hung, glowering in corners, noticeable enough
myself, I suppose.

The thing reached a crisis late in the evening. There was a kind of
winter-garden that one strolled in, a place of giant palms stretching up
into a darkness of intense shadow. I was prowling about in the shadows
of great metallic leaves, cursing under my breath, in a fury of nervous
irritation; quivering like a horse martyrised by a stupidly merciless
driver. I happened to stand back for a moment in the narrowest of paths,
with the touch of spiky leaves on my hand and on my face. In front of me
was the glaring perspective of one of the longer alleys, and, stepping
into it, a great band of blue ribbon cutting across his chest, came de
Mersch with her upon his arm. De Mersch himself hardly counted. He had a
way of glowing, but he paled ineffectual fires beside her mænadic glow.
There was something overpowering in the sight of her, in the fire of her
eyes, in the glow of her coils of hair, in the poise of her head. She
wore some kind of early nineteenth-century dress, sweeping low from the
waist with a tenderness of fold that affected one with delicate pathos,
that had a virgin quality of almost poignant intensity. And beneath it
she stepped with the buoyancy--the long steps--of a triumphing Diana.

It was more than terrible for me to stand there longing with a black,
baffled longing, with some of the base quality of an eavesdropper and
all the baseness of the unsuccessful.

Then Gurnard loomed in the distance, moving insensibly down the long,
glaring corridor, a sinister figure, suggesting in the silence of his
oncoming the motionless flight of a vulture. Well within my field of
sight he overtook them and, with a lack of preliminary greeting that
suggested supreme intimacy, walked beside them. I stood for some
moments--for some minutes, and then hastened after them. I was going to
do something. After a time I found de Mersch and Gurnard standing
facing each other in one of the doorways of the place--Gurnard, a small,
dark, impassive column; de Mersch, bulky, overwhelming, florid, standing
with his legs well apart and speaking vociferously with a good deal of
gesture. I approached them from the side, standing rather insistently at
his elbow.

"I want," I said, "I would be extremely glad if you would give me a
minute, monsieur." I was conscious that I spoke with a tremour of the
voice, a sort of throaty eagerness. I was unaware of what course I was
to pursue, but I was confident of calmness, of self-control--I was equal
to that. They had a pause of surprised silence. Gurnard wheeled and
fixed me critically with his eye-glass. I took de Mersch a little apart,
into a solitude of palm branches, and began to speak before he had asked
me my errand.

"You must understand that I would not interfere without a good deal of
provocation," I was saying, when he cut me short, speaking in a thick,
jovial voice.

"Oh, we will understand that, my good Granger, and then ..."

"It is about my sister," I said--"you--you go too far. I must ask you,
as a gentleman, to cease persecuting her."

He answered "The devil!" and then: "If I do not----?"

It was evident in his voice, in his manner, that the man was a
little--well, _gris_. "If you do not," I said, "I shall forbid her to
see you and I shall ..."

"Oh, oh!" he interjected with the intonation of a reveller at a farce.
"We are at that--we are the excellent brother." He paused, and then
added: "Well, go to the devil, you and your forbidding." He spoke with
the greatest good humour.

"I am in earnest," I said; "very much in earnest. The thing has gone too
far, and even for your own sake, you had better ..."

He said "Ah, ah!" in the tone of his "Oh, oh!"

"She is no friend to you," I struggled on, "she is playing with you for
her own purposes; you will ..."

He swayed a little on his feet and said: "Bravo ... bravissimo. If we
can't forbid him, we will frighten him. Go on, my good fellow ..." and
then, "Come, go on ..."

I looked at his great bulk of a body. It came into my head dimly that I
wanted him to strike me, to give me an excuse--anything to end the scene
violently, with a crash and exclamations of fury.

"You absolutely refuse to pay any attention?" I said.

"Oh, absolutely," he answered.

"You know that I can do something, that I can expose you." I had a vague
idea that I could, that the number of small things that I knew to his
discredit and the mass of my hatred could be welded into a damning
whole. He laughed a high-pitched, hysterical laugh. The dawn was
beginning to spread pallidly above us, gleaming mournfully through the
glass of the palm-house. People began to pass, muffled up, on their way
out of the place.

"You may go ..." he was beginning. But the expression of his face
altered. Miss Granger, muffled up like all the rest of the world, was
coming out of the inner door. "We have been having a charming ..." he
began to her. She touched me gently on the arm.

"Come, Arthur," she said, and then to him, "You have heard the news?"

He looked at her rather muzzily.

"Baron Halderschrodt has committed suicide," she said. "Come, Arthur."

We passed on slowly, but de Mersch followed.

"You--you aren't in _earnest_?" he said, catching at her arm so that we
swung round and faced him. There was a sort of mad entreaty in his eyes,
as if he hoped that by unsaying she could remedy an irremediable
disaster, and there was nothing left of him but those panic-stricken,
beseeching eyes.

"Monsieur de Sabran told me," she answered; "he had just come from
making the _constatation_. Besides, you can hear ..."

Half-sentences came to our ears from groups that passed us. A very old
man with a nose that almost touched his thick lips, was saying to
another of the same type:

"Shot himself ... through the left temple ... _Mon Dieu_!"

De Mersch walked slowly down the long corridor away from us. There was
an extraordinary stiffness in his gait, as if he were trying to emulate
the goose step of his days in the Prussian Guard. My companion looked
after him as though she wished to gauge the extent of his despair.

"You would say '_Habet_,' wouldn't you?" she asked me.

I thought we had seen the last of him, but as in the twilight of the
dawn we waited for the lodge gates to open, a furious clatter of hoofs
came down the long street, and a carriage drew level with ours. A moment
after, de Mersch was knocking at our window.

"You will ... you will ..." he stuttered, "speak ... to Mr. Gurnard.
That is our only chance ... now." His voice came in mingled with the
cold air of the morning. I shivered. "You have so much power ... with
him and...."

"Oh, I ..." she answered.

"The thing must go through," he said again, "or else ..." He paused. The
great gates in front of us swung noiselessly open, one saw into the
court-yard. The light was growing stronger. She did not answer.

"I tell you," he asseverated insistently, "if the British Government
abandons my railway _all_ our plans ..."

"Oh, the Government won't _abandon_ it," she said, with a little
emphasis on the verb. He stepped back out of range of the wheels, and we
turned in and left him standing there.

* * * * *

In the great room which was usually given up to the political plotters
stood a table covered with eatables and lit by a pair of candles in tall
silver sticks. I was conscious of a raging hunger and of a fierce
excitement that made the thought of sleep part of a past of phantoms. I
began to eat unconsciously, pacing up and down the while. She was
standing beside the table in the glow of the transparent light. Pallid
blue lines showed in the long windows. It was very cold and hideously
late; away in those endless small hours when the pulse drags, when the
clock-beat drags, when time is effaced.

"You see?" she said suddenly.

"Oh, I see," I answered--"and ... and now?"

"Now we are almost done with each other," she answered.

I felt a sudden mental falling away. I had never looked at things in
that way, had never really looked things in the face. I had grown so
used to the idea that she was to parcel out the remainder of my life,
had grown so used to the feeling that I was the integral portion of her
life ... "But I--" I said, "What is to become of me?"

She stood looking down at the ground ... for a long time. At last she
said in a low monotone:

"Oh, you must try to forget."

A new idea struck me--luminously, overwhelming. I grew reckless.
"You--you are growing considerate," I taunted. "You are not so sure, not
so cold. I notice a change in you. Upon my soul ..."

Her eyes dilated suddenly, and as suddenly closed again. She said
nothing. I grew conscious of unbearable pain, the pain of returning
life. She was going away. I should be alone. The future began to exist
again, looming up like a vessel through thick mist, silent, phantasmal,
overwhelming--a hideous future of irremediable remorse, of solitude, of
craving.

"You are going back to work with Churchill," she said suddenly.

"How did you know?" I asked breathlessly. My despair of a sort found
vent in violent interjecting of an immaterial query.

"You leave your letters about," she said, "and.... It will be best for
you."

"It will not," I said bitterly. "It could never be the same. I don't
want to see Churchill. I want...."

"You want?" she asked, in a low monotone.

"You," I answered.

She spoke at last, very slowly:

"Oh, as for me, I am going to marry Gurnard."

I don't know just what I said then, but I remember that I found myself
repeating over and over again, the phrases running metrically up and
down my mind: "You couldn't marry Gurnard; you don't know what he is.
You couldn't marry Gurnard; you don't know what he is." I don't suppose
that I knew anything to the discredit of Gurnard--but he struck me in
that way at that moment; struck me convincingly--more than any array of
facts could have done.

"Oh--as for what he is--" she said, and paused. "_I_ know...." and then
suddenly she began to speak very fast.

"Don't you see?--_can't_ you see?--that I don't marry Gurnard for what
he is in that sense, but for what he is in the other. It isn't a
marriage in your sense at all. And ... and it doesn't affect you ...
don't you _see_? We have to have done with one another, because ...
because...."

I had an inspiration.

"I believe," I said, very slowly, "I believe ... you _do_ care...."

She said nothing.

"You care," I repeated.

She spoke then with an energy that had something of a threat in it. "Do
you think I would? Do you think I could?... or dare? Don't you
understand?" She faltered--"but then...." she added, and was silent for
a long minute. I felt the throb of a thousand pulses in my head, on my
temples. "Oh, yes, I care," she said slowly, "but that--that makes it
all the worse. Why, yes, I care--yes, yes. It hurts me to see you. I
might.... It would draw me away. I have my allotted course. And
you--Don't you see, you would influence me; you would be--you _are_--a
disease--for me."

"But," I said, "I could--I would--do anything."

I had only the faintest of ideas of what I would do--for her sake.

"Ah, no," she said, "you must not say that. You don't understand....
Even that would mean misery for you--and I--I could not bear. Don't you
see? Even now, before you have done your allotted part, I am
wanting--oh, wanting--to let you go.... But I must not; I must not. You
must go on ... and bear it for a little while more--and then...."

There was a tension somewhere, a string somewhere that was stretched
tight and vibrating. I was tremulous with an excitement that
overmastered my powers of speech, that surpassed my understanding.

"Don't you see ..." she asked again, "you are the past--the passing. We
could never meet. You are ... for me ... only the portrait of a man--of
a man who has been dead--oh, a long time; and I, for you, only a
possibility ... a conception.... You work to bring me on--to make me
possible."

"But--" I said. The idea was so difficult to grasp. "I will--there must
be a way--"

"No," she answered, "there is no way--you must go back; must try. There
will be Churchill and what he stands for--He won't die, he won't even
care much for losing this game ... not much.... And you will have to
forget me. There is no other way--no bridge. We can't meet, you and
I...."

The words goaded me to fury. I began to pace furiously up and down. I
wanted to tell her that I would throw away everything for her, would
crush myself out, would be a lifeless tool, would do anything. But I
could tear no words out of the stone that seemed to surround me.

"You may even tell him, if you like, what I and Gurnard are going to do.
It will make no difference; he will fall. But you would like him to--to
make a good fight for it, wouldn't you? That is all I can do ... for
your sake."

I began to speak--as if I had not spoken for years. The house seemed to
be coming to life; there were noises of opening doors, of voices
outside.

"I believe you care enough," I said "to give it all up for me. I believe
you do, and I want you." I continued to pace up and down. The noises of
returning day grew loud; frightfully loud. It was as if I must hasten,
must get said what I had to say, as if I must raise my voice to make it
heard amid the clamour of a world awakening to life.

"I believe you do ... I believe you do...." I said again and again, "and
I want you." My voice rose higher and higher. She stood motionless, an
inscrutable white figure, like some silent Greek statue, a harmony of
falling folds of heavy drapery perfectly motionless.

"I want you," I said--"I want you, I want you, I want you." It was
unbearable to myself.

"Oh, be quiet," she said at last. "Be quiet! If you had wanted me I have
been here. It is too late. All these days; all these--"

"But ..." I said.

From without someone opened the great shutters of the windows, and the
light from the outside world burst in upon us.


Joseph Conrad

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