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Chapter 16

We parted in London next day, I hardly know where. She seemed so part of
my being, was for me so little more than an intellectual force, so
little of a physical personality, that I cannot remember where my eyes
lost sight of her.

I had desolately made the crossing from country to country, had convoyed
my aunt to her big house in one of the gloomy squares in a certain
district, and then we had parted. Even afterward it was as if she were
still beside me, as if I had only to look round to find her eyes upon
me. She remained the propelling force, I a boat thrust out upon a
mill-pond, moving more and more slowly. I had been for so long in the
shadow of that great house, shut in among the gloom, that all this
light, this blazing world--it was a June day in London--seemed
impossible, and hateful. Over there, there had been nothing but very
slow, fading minutes; now there was a past, a future. It was as if I
stood between them in a cleft of unscalable rocks.

I went about mechanically, made arrangements for my housing, moved in
and out of rooms in the enormous mausoleum of a club that was all the
home I had, in a sort of stupor. Suddenly I remembered that I had been
thinking of something; that she had been talking of Churchill. I had had
a letter from him on the morning of the day before. When I read it,
Churchill and his "_Cromwell_" had risen in my mind like preposterous
phantoms; the one as unreal as the other--as alien. I seemed to have
passed an infinity of Šons beyond them. The one and the other belonged
as absolutely to the past as a past year belongs. The thought of them
did not bring with it the tremulously unpleasant sensations that, as a
rule, come with the thoughts of a too recent _temps jadis_, but rather
as a vein of rose across a gray evening. I had passed his letter over;
had dropped it half-read among the litter of the others. Then there had
seemed to be a haven into whose mouth I was drifting.

Now I should have to pick the letters up again, all of them; set to work
desolately to pick up the threads of the past; and work it back into
life as one does half-drowned things. I set about it listlessly. There
remained of that time an errand for my aunt, an errand that would take
me to Etchingham; something connected with her land steward. I think the
old lady had ideas of inducting me into a position that it had grown
tacitly acknowledged I was to fill. I was to go down there; to see about
some alterations that were in progress; and to make arrangements for my
aunt's return. I was so tired, so dog tired, and the day still had so
many weary hours to run, that I recognised instinctively that if I were
to come through it sane I must tire myself more, must keep on
going--until I sank. I drifted down to Etchingham that evening, I sent a
messenger over to Churchill's cottage, waited for an answer that told me
that Churchill was there, and then slept, and slept.

I woke back in the world again, in a world that contained the land
steward and the manor house. I had a sense of recovered power from the
sight of them, of the sunlight on the stretches of turf, of the mellow,
golden stonework of the long range of buildings, from the sound of a
chime of bells that came wonderfully sweetly over the soft swelling of
the close turf. The feeling came not from any sense of prospective
ownership, but from the acute consciousness of what these things stood
for. I did not recognise it then, but later I understood; for the
present it was enough to have again the power to set my foot on the
ground, heel first. In the streets of the little town there was a
sensation of holiday, not pronounced enough to call for flags, but
enough to convey the idea of waiting for an event.

The land steward, at the end of a tour amongst cottages, explained there
was to be a celebration in the neighbourhood--a "cock-and-hen show with
a political annex"; the latter under the auspices of Miss Churchill.
Churchill himself was to speak; there was a possibility of a
pronouncement. I found London reporters at my inn, men I half knew. They
expressed mitigated delight at the view of me, and over a lunch-table
let me know what "one said"--what one said of the outside of events I
knew too well internally. They most of them had the air of my aunt's
solicitor when he had said, "Even I did not realise...." their positions
saving them the necessity of concealing surprise. "One can't know
_everything_." They fumbled amusingly about the causes, differed with
one another, but were surprisingly unanimous as to effects, as to the
panic and the call for purification. It was rather extraordinary, too,
how large de Mersch loomed on the horizon over here. It was as if the
whole world centred in him, as if he represented the modern spirit that
must be purified away by burning before things could return to their
normal state. I knew what he represented ... but there it was.

It was part of my programme, the attendance at the poultry show; I was
to go back to the cottage with Churchill, after he had made his speech.
It was rather extraordinary, the sensations of that function. I went in
rather late, with the reporter of the _Hour_, who was anxious to do me
the favour of introducing me without payment--it was his way of making
himself pleasant, and I had the reputation of knowing celebrities. It
_was_ rather extraordinary to be back again in the midst of this sort of
thing, to be walking over a crowded, green paddock, hedged in with tall
trees and dotted here and there with the gaily striped species of tent
that is called marquee. And the type of face, and the style of the
costume! They would have seemed impossible the day before yesterday.

There were all Miss Churchill's gang of great dames, muslin, rustling,
marriageable daughters, a continual twitter of voices, and a sprinkling
of the peasantry, dun-coloured and struck speechless.

One of the great ladies surveyed me as I stood in the centre of an open
space, surveyed me through tortoise-shell glasses on the end of a long
handle, and beckoned me to her side.

"You are unattached?" she asked. She had pretensions to voice the
county, just as my aunt undoubtedly set the tone of its doings, decided
who was visitable, and just as Miss Churchill gave the political tone.
"You may wait upon me, then," she said; "my daughter is with her young
man. That is the correct phrase, is it not?"

She was a great lady, who stood nearly six foot high, and whom one would
have styled buxom, had one dared. "I have a grievance," she went on; "I
must talk to someone. Come this way. _There_!" She pointed with the
handle of her glasses to a pen of glossy blackbirds. "You see!... Not
even commended!--and I assure you the trouble I have taken over them,
with the idea of setting an example to the tenantry, is incredible. They
give a prize to one of our own tenants ... which is as much as telling
the man that he is an example to _me_. Then they wonder that the country
is going to the dogs. I assure you that after breakfast I have had the
scraps collected from the plates--that was the course recommended by the
poultry manuals--and have taken them out with my own hands."

The sort of thing passed for humour in the county, and, being delivered
with an air and a half Irish ruefulness, passed well enough.

"And that reminds me," she went on, "--I mean the fact that the country
is going to the dogs, as my husband [You haven't seen him anywhere, have
you? He is one of the judges, and I want to have a word with him about
my Orpingtons] says every morning after he has looked at his paper--that
... oh, that you have been in Paris, haven't you? with your aunt. Then,
of course, you have seen this famous Duc de Mersch?"

She looked at me humourously through her glasses. "I'm going to pump
you, you know," she said, "it is the duty that is expected of me. I have
to talk for a countyful of women without a tongue in their heads. So
tell me about him. Is it true that he is at the bottom of all this
mischief? Is it through him that this man committed suicide? They say
so. He _was_ mixed up in that Royalist plot, wasn't he?--and the people
that have been failing all over the place _are_ mixed up with him,
aren't they?"

"I ... I really don't know," I said; "if you say so...."

"Oh, I assure you I'm sound enough," she answered, "the Churchills--I
know you're a friend of his--haven't a stauncher ally than I am, and I
should only be too glad to be able to contradict. But it's so difficult.
I assure you I go out of my way; talk to the most outrageous people,
deny the very possibility of Mr. Churchill's being in any way
implicated. One knows that it's impossible, but what can one do? I have
said again and again--to people like grocers' wives; even to the
grocers, for that matter--that Mr. Churchill is a statesman, and that if
he insists that this odious man's railway must go through, it is in the
interests of the country that it should. I tell them...."

She paused for a minute to take breath and then went on: "I was speaking
to a man of that class only this morning, rather an intelligent man and
quite nice--I was saying, 'Don't you see, my dear Mr. Tull, that it is a
question of international politics. If the grand duke does not get the
money for his railway, the grand duke will be turned out of his--what is
it--principality? And that would be most dangerous--in the present
condition of affairs over there, and besides....' The man listened very
respectfully, but I could see that he was not convinced. I buckled to
again...."

"'And besides,' I said, 'there is the question of Greenland itself. We
English must have Greenland ... sooner or later. It touches you, even.
You have a son who's above--who doesn't care for life in a country town,
and you want to send him abroad--with a little capital. Well, Greenland
is just the place for him.' The man looked at me, and almost shook his
head in my face."

"'If you'll excuse me, my lady,' he said, 'it won't do. Mr. Churchill
is a man above hocus-pocus. Well I know it that have had dealings with
him. But ... well, the long and the short of it is, my lady, that you
can't touch pitch and not be defiled; or, leastwise, people'll think
you've been defiled--those that don't know you. The foreign nations are
all very well, and the grand duchy--and the getting hold of Greenland,
but what touches me is this--My neighbour Slingsby had a little money,
and he gets a prospectus. It looked very well--very well--and he brings
it in to me. I did not have anything to do with it, but Slingsby did.
Well, now there's Slingsby on the rates and his wife a lady born,
almost. I might have been taken in the same way but for--for the grace
of God, I'm minded to say. Well, Slingsby's a good man, and used to be a
hard-working man--all his life, and now it turns out that that
prospectus came about by the man de Mersch's manoeuvres--"wild-cat
schemes," they call them in the paper that I read. And there's any
number of them started by de Mersch or his agents. Just for what? That
de Mersch may be the richest man in the world and a philanthropist.
Well, then, where's Slingsby, if that's philanthropy? So Mr. Churchill
comes along and says, in a manner of speaking, "That's all very well,
but this same Mr. Mersch is the grand duke of somewhere or other, and we
must bolster him up in his kingdom, or else there will be trouble with
the powers." Powers--what's powers to me?--or Greenland? when there's
Slingsby, a man I've smoked a pipe with every market evening of my life,
in the workhouse? And there's hundreds of Slingsbys all over the
country.'"

"The man was working himself--Slingsby _was_ a good sort of man. It
shocked even me. One knows what goes on in one's own village, of course.
And it's only too true that there's hundreds of Slingsbys--I'm not
boring you, am I?"

I did not answer for a moment. "I--I had no idea," I said; "I have been
so long out of it and over there one did not realise the ... the
feeling."

"You've been well out of it," she answered; "one has had to suffer, I
assure you." I believed that she had had to suffer; it must have taken
a good deal to make that lady complain. Her large, ruddy features
followed the droop of her eyes down to the fringe of the parasol that
she was touching the turf with. We were sitting on garden seats in the
dappled shade of enormous elms.

There was in the air a touch of the sounds discoursed by a yeomanry band
at the other end of the grounds. One could see the red of their uniforms
through moving rifts in the crowd of white dresses.

"That wasn't even the worst," she said suddenly, lifting her eyes and
looking away between the trunks of the trees. "The man has been reading
the papers and he gave me the benefit of his reflections. 'Someone's got
to be punished for this;' he said, 'we've got to show them that you
can't be hand-and-glove with that sort of blackguard, without paying for
it. I don't say, mind you, that Mr. Churchill is or ever has been. I
know him, and I trust him. But there's more than me in the world, and
they can't all know him. Well, here's the papers saying--or they don't
say it, but they hint, which is worse in a way--that he must be, or he
wouldn't stick up for the man. They say the man's a blackguard out and
out--in Greenland too; has the blacks murdered. Churchill says the
blacks are to be safe-guarded, that's the word. Well, they may be--but
so ought Slingsby to have been, yet it didn't help him. No, my lady,
we've got to put our own house in order and that first, before thinking
of the powers or places like Greenland. What's the good of the saner
policy that Mr. Churchill talks about, if you can't trust anyone with
your money, and have to live on the capital? If you can't sleep at night
for thinking that you may be in the workhouse to-morrow--like Slingsby?
The first duty of men in Mr. Churchill's position--as I see it--is to
see that we're able to be confident of honest dealing. That's what we
want, not Greenlands. That's how we all feel, and you know it, too, or
else you, a great lady, wouldn't stop to talk to a man like me. And,
mind you, I'm true blue, always have been and always shall be, and, if
it was a matter of votes, I'd give mine to Mr. Churchill to-morrow. But
there's a many that wouldn't, _and_ there's a many that believe the
hintings.'"

My lady stopped and sighed from a broad bosom. "What could I say?" she
went on again. "I know Mr. Churchill and I like him--and everyone that
knows him likes him. I'm one of the stalwarts, mind you; I'm not for
giving in to popular clamour; I'm for the 'saner policy,' like
Churchill. But, as the man said: 'There's a many that believe the
hintings.' And I almost wish Churchill.... However, you understand what
I meant when I said that one had had to suffer."

"Oh, I understand," I said. I was beginning to. "And Churchill?" I asked
later, "he gives no sign of relenting?"

"Would you have him?" she asked sharply; "would you make him if you
could?" She had an air of challenging. "I'm for the 'saner policy!' cost
what it may. He owes it to himself to sacrifice himself, if it comes to
that."

"I'm with you too," I answered, "over boot and spur." Her enthusiasm was
contagious, and unnecessary.

"Oh, he'll stick," she began again after consultation with the parasol
fringe. "You'll hear him after a minute. It's a field day to-day.
You'll miss the other heavy guns if you stop with me. I do it
ostentatiously--wait until they've done. They're all trembling; all of
them. My husband will be on the platform--trembling too. He is a type of
them. All day long and at odd moments at night I talk to him--out-talk
him and silence him. What's the state of popular feeling to him? He's
for the country, not the town--this sort of thing has nothing to do with
him. It's a matter to be settled by Jews in the City. Well, he sees it
at night, and then in the morning the papers undo all my work. He begins
to talk about his seat--which _I_ got for him. I've been the 'voice of
the county' for years now. Well, it'll soon be a voice without a
county.... What is it? 'The old order changeth.' So, I've arranged it
that I shall wait until the trembling big-wigs have stuttered their
speeches out, and then I'm going to sail down the centre aisle and
listen to Churchill with visible signs of approval. It won't do much
to-day, but there was a time when it would have changed the course of an
election.... Ah, there's Effie's young man. It's time."


She rose and marched, with the air of going to a last sacrifice, across
the deserted sward toward a young man who was passing under the calico
flag of the gateway.

"It's all right, Willoughby," she said, as we drew level, "I've found
someone else to face the music with me; you can go back to Effie." A
bronzed and grateful young man murmured thanks to me.

"It's an awful relief, Granger," he said; "can't think how you can do
it. I'm hooked, but you...."

"He's the better man," his mother-in-law-elect said, over her shoulder.
She sailed slowly up the aisle beside me, an almost heroic figure of a
matron. "Splendidly timed, you see," she said, "do you observe my
husband's embarrassment?"

It was splendid to see Churchill again, standing there negligently, with
the diffidence of a boy amid the bustle of applause. I understood
suddenly why I loved him so, this tall, gray man with the delicate,
almost grotesque, mannerisms. He appealed to me by sheer force of
picturesqueness, appealed as some forgotten mediaeval city might. I was
concerned for him as for some such dying place, standing above the
level plains; I was jealous lest it should lose one jot of its glory, of
its renown. He advocated his saner policy before all those people; stood
up there and spoke gently, persuasively, without any stress of emotion,
without more movement than an occasional flutter of the glasses he held
in his hand. One would never have recognised that the thing was a
fighting speech but for the occasional shiver of his audience. They were
thinking of their Slingsbys; he affecting, insouciantly, to treat them
as rational people.

It was extraordinary to sit there shut in by that wall of people all of
one type, of one idea; the idea of getting back; all conscious that a
force of which they knew nothing was dragging them forward over the edge
of a glacier, into a crevasse. They wanted to get back, were struggling,
panting even--as a nation pants--to get back by their own way that they
understood and saw; were hauling, and hauling desperately, at the
weighted rope that was dragging them forward. Churchill stood up there
and repeated: "Mine is the only way--the saner policy," and his words
would fly all over the country to fall upon the deaf ears of the
panic-stricken, who could not understand the use of calmness, of
trifling even, in the face of danger, who suspected the calmness as one
suspects the thing one has not. At the end of it I received his summons
to a small door at the back of the building. The speech seemed to have
passed out of his mind far more than out of mine.

"So you have come," he said; "that's good, and so.... Let us walk a
little way ... out of this. My aunt will pick us up on the road." He
linked his arm into mine and propelled me swiftly down the bright, broad
street. "I'm sorry you came in for that, but--one has to do these
things."

There was a sort of resisted numbness in his voice, a lack of any
resiliency. My heart sank a little. It was as if I were beside an
invalid who did not--must not--know his condition; as if I were pledged
not to notice anything. In the open the change struck home as a hammer
strikes; in the pitiless searching of the unrestrained light, his
grayness, his tremulousness, his aloofness from the things about him,
came home to me like a pang.

"You look a bit fagged," I said, "perhaps we ought not to talk about
work." His thoughts seemed to come back from a great distance, oh, from
an infinite distance beyond the horizon, the soft hills of that fat
country. "You want rest," I added.

"I--oh, no," he answered, "I can't have it ... till the end of the
session. I'm used to it too."

He began talking briskly about the "_Cromwell_;" proofs had emerged from
the infinite and wanted attention. There were innumerable little
matters, things to be copied for the appendix and revisions. It was
impossible for me to keep my mind upon them.

It had come suddenly home to me that this was the world that I belonged
to; that I had come back to it as if from an under world; that to this I
owed allegiance. She herself had recognised that; she herself had bidden
me tell him what was a-gate against him. It was a duty too; he was my
friend. But, face to face with him, it became almost an impossibility.
It was impossible even to put it into words. The mere ideas seemed to be
untranslatable, to savour of madness. I found myself in the very
position that she had occupied at the commencement of our relations:
that of having to explain--say, to a Persian--the working principles of
the telegraph. And I was not equal to the task. At the same time I had
to do something. I had to. It would be abominable to have to go through
life forever, alone with the consciousness of that sort of treachery of
silence. But how could I tell him even the comprehensibles? What kind of
sentence was I to open with? With pluckings of an apologetic string,
without prelude at all--or how? I grew conscious that there was need for
haste; he was looking behind him down the long white road for the
carriage that was to pick us up.

"My dear fellow...." I began. He must have noted a change in my tone,
and looked at me with suddenly lifted eyebrows. "You know my sister is
going to marry Mr. Gurnard."

"Why, no," he answered--"that is ... I've heard...." he began to offer
good wishes.

"No, no," I interrupted him hurriedly, "not that. But I happen to know
that Gurnard is meditating ... is going to separate from you in public
matters." An expression of dismay spread over his face.

"My dear fellow," he began.

"Oh, I'm not drunk," I said bitterly, "but I've been behind the
scenes--for a long time. And I could not ... couldn't let the thing go
on without a word."

He stopped in the road and looked at me.

"Yes, yes," he said, "I daresay.... But what does it lead to?... Even if
I could listen to you--_I_ can't go behind the scenes. Mr. Gurnard may
differ from me in points, but don't you see?..." He had walked on
slowly, but he came to a halt again. "We had better put these matters
out of our minds. Of course you are not drunk; but one is tied down in
these matters...."

He spoke very gently, as if he did not wish to offend me by this closing
of the door. He seemed suddenly to grow very old and very gray. There
was a stile in the dusty hedge-row, and he walked toward it, meditating.
In a moment he looked back at me. "I had forgotten," he said; "I meant
to suggest that we should wait here--I am a little tired." He perched
himself on the top bar and became lost in the inspection of the cord of
his glasses. I went toward him.

"I knew," I said, "that you could not listen to ... to the sort of
thing. But there were reasons. I felt forced. You will forgive me." He
looked up at me, starting as if he had forgotten my presence.

"Yes, yes," he said, "I have a certain--I can't think of the right
word--say respect--for your judgment and--and motives ... But you see,
there are, for instance, my colleagues. I couldn't go to them ..." He
lost the thread of his idea.

"To tell the truth," I said, with a sudden impulse for candour, "it
isn't the political aspect of the matter, but the personal. I spoke
because it was just possible that I might be of service to
you--personally--and because I would like you ... to make a good fight
for it." I had borrowed her own words.

He looked up at me and smiled. "Thank you," he said. "I believe you
think it's a losing game," he added, with a touch of gray humour that
was like a genial hour of sunlight on a wintry day. I did not answer. A
little way down the road Miss Churchill's carriage whirled into sight,
sparkling in the sunlight, and sending up an attendant cloud of dust
that melted like smoke through the dog-roses of the leeward hedge.

"So you don't think much of me as a politician," Churchill suddenly
deduced smilingly. "You had better not tell that to my aunt."

I went up to town with Churchill that evening. There was nothing waiting
for me there, but I did not want to think. I wanted to be among men,
among crowds of men, to be dazed, to be stupefied, to hear nothing for
the din of life, to be blinded by the blaze of lights.

There were plenty of people in Churchill's carriage; a military member
and a local member happened to be in my immediate neighbourhood. Their
minds were full of the financial scandals, and they dinned their
alternating opinions into me. I assured them that I knew nothing about
the matter, and they grew more solicitous for my enlightenment.

"It all comes from having too many eggs in one basket," the local member
summed up. "The old-fashioned small enterprises had their
disadvantages, but--mind you--these gigantic trusts.... Isn't that so,
General?"

"Oh, I quite agree with you," the general barked; "at the same time...."
Their voices sounded on, intermingling, indistinguishable, soothing
even. I seemed to be listening to the hum of a threshing-machine--a
passage of sound booming on one note, a passage, a half-tone higher, and
so on, and so on. Visible things grew hazy, fused into one another.

Joseph Conrad

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