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Chapter 18

At noon of the next day I gave Fox his look in at his own flat. He was
stretched upon a sofa--it was evident that I was to take such of his
duties as were takeable. He greeted me with words to that effect.

"Don't go filling the paper with your unbreeched geniuses," he said,
genially, "and don't overwork yourself. There's really nothing to do,
but you're being there will keep that little beast Evans from getting
too cock-a-hoop. He'd like to jerk me out altogether; thinks they'd get
on just as well without me."

I expressed in my manner general contempt for Evans, and was taking my
leave.

"Oh, and--" Fox called after me. I turned back. "The Greenland mail
ought to be in to-day. If Callan's contrived to get his flood-gates open,
run his stuff in, there's a good chap. It's a feature and all that, you
know."

"I suppose Soane's to have a look at it," I asked.

"Oh, yes," he answered; "but tell him to keep strictly to old Cal's
lines--rub that into him. If he were to get drunk and run in some of his
own tips it'd be awkward. People are expecting Cal's stuff. Tell you
what: you take him out to lunch, eh? Keep an eye on the supplies, and
ram it into him that he's got to stick to Cal's line of argument."

"Soane's as bad as ever, then?" I asked.

"Oh," Fox answered, "he'll be all right for the stuff if you get that
one idea into him." A prolonged and acute fit of pain seized him. I
fetched his man and left him to his rest.

At the office of the _Hour_ I was greeted by the handing to me of a
proof of Callan's manuscript. Evans, the man across the screen, was the
immediate agent.

"I suppose it's got to go in, so I had it set up," he said.

"Oh, of course it's got to go in," I answered. "It's to go to Soane
first, though."

"Soane's not here yet," he answered. I noted the tone of sub-acid
pleasure in his voice. Evans would have enjoyed a fiasco.

"Oh, well," I answered, nonchalantly, "there's plenty of time. You
allow space on those lines. I'll send round to hunt Soane up."

I felt called to be upon my mettle. I didn't much care about the paper,
but I had a definite antipathy to being done by Evans--by a mad Welshman
in a stubborn fit. I knew what was going to happen; knew that Evans
would feign inconceivable stupidity, the sort of black stupidity that is
at command of individuals of his primitive race. I was in for a day of
petty worries. In the circumstances it was a thing to be thankful for;
it dragged my mind away from larger issues. One has no time for brooding
when one is driving a horse in a jibbing fit.

Evans was grimly conscious that I was moderately ignorant of technical
details; he kept them well before my eyes all day long.

At odd moments I tried to read Callan's article. It was impossible. It
opened with a description of the squalor of the Greenlander's life, and
contained tawdry passages of local colour.

I knew what was coming. This was the view of the Greenlanders of
pre-Merschian Greenland, elaborated, after the manner of Callan--the
Special Commissioner--so as to bring out the glory and virtue of the
work of regeneration. Then in a gush of superlatives the work itself
would be described. I knew quite well what was coming, and was
temperamentally unable to read more than the first ten lines.

Everything was going wrong. The printers developed one of their sudden
crazes for asking idiotic questions. Their messengers came to Evans,
Evans sent them round the pitch-pine screen to me. "Mr. Jackson wants to
know----"

The fourth of the messengers that I had despatched to Soane returned
with the news that Soane would arrive at half-past nine. I sent out in
search of the strongest coffee that the city afforded. Soane arrived. He
had been ill, he said, very ill. He desired to be fortified with
champagne. I produced the coffee.

Soane was the son of an Irish peer. He had magnificent features--a
little blurred nowadays--and a remainder of the grand manner. His nose
was a marvel of classic workmanship, but the floods of time had reddened
and speckled it--not offensively, but ironically; his hair was turning
grey, his eyes were bloodshot, his heavy moustache rather ragged. He
inspired one with the respect that one feels for a man who has lived and
does not care a curse. He had a weird intermittent genius that made it
worth Fox's while to put up with his lapses and his brutal snubs.

I produced the coffee and pointed to the sofa of the night before.

"Damn it," he said, "I'm ill, I tell you; I want ..."

"Exactly!" I cut in. "You want a rest, old fellow. Here's Cal's article.
We want something special about it. If you don't feel up to it I'll send
round to Jenkins."

"Damn Jenkins," he said; "I'm up to it."

"You understand," I said, "you're to write strictly on Callan's lines.
Don't insert any information from extraneous sources. And make it as
slashing as you like--on those lines."

He grunted in acquiescence. I left him lying on the sofa, drinking the
coffee. I had tenderly arranged the lights for him as Fox had arranged
them the night before. As I went out to get my dinner I was comfortably
aware of him, holding the slips close to his muddled eyes and
philosophically damning the nature of things.

When I returned, Soane, from his sofa, said something that I did not
catch--something about Callan and his article.

"Oh, for God's sake," I answered, "don't worry me. Have some more coffee
and stick to Cal's line of argument. That's what Fox said. I'm not
responsible."

"Deuced queer," Soane muttered. He began to scribble with a pencil. From
the tone of his voice I knew that he had reached the precise stage at
which something brilliant--the real thing of its kind--might be
expected.

Very late Soane finished his leader. He looked up as he wrote the last
word.

"I've got it written," he said. "But ... I say, what the deuce is up?
It's like being a tall clock with the mainspring breaking, this."

I rang the bell for someone to take the copy down.

"Your metaphor's too much for me, Soane," I said.

"It's appropriate all the way along," he maintained, "if you call me a
mainspring. I've been wound up and wound up to write old de Mersch and
his Greenland up--and it's been a tight wind, these days, I tell you.
Then all of a sudden ..."

A boy appeared and carried off the copy.

"All of a sudden," Soane resumed, "something gives--I suppose
something's given--and there's a whirr-rr-rr and the hands fly backwards
and old de Mersch and Greenland bump to the bottom, like the weights."

The boom of the great presses was rattling the window frames. Soane got
up and walked toward one of the cupboards.

"Dry work," he said; "but the simile's just, isn't it?"

I gave one swift step toward the bell-button beside the desk. The proof
of Callan's article, from which Soane had been writing, lay a crumpled
white streamer on the brown wood of Fox's desk. I made toward it. As I
stretched out my hand the solution slipped into my mind, coming with no
more noise than that of a bullet; impinging with all the shock and
remaining with all the pain. I had remembered the morning, over there in
Paris, when she had told me that she had invited one of de Mersch's
lieutenants to betray him by not concealing from Callan the real
horrors of the Systeme GroŽnlandais--flogged, butchered, miserable
natives, the famines, the vices, diseases, and the crimes. There came
suddenly before my eyes the tall narrow room in my aunt's house, the
opening of the door and her entry, followed by that of the woebegone
governor of a province--the man who was to show Callan things--with his
grating "_Cest entendu ..._"

I remembered the scene distinctly; her words; her looks; my utter
unbelief. I remembered, too, that it had not saved me from a momentary
sense of revolt against that inflexible intention of a treachery which
was to be another step toward the inheritance of the earth. I had
rejected the very idea, and here it had come; it was confronting me with
all its meaning and consequences. Callan _had_ been shown things he had
not been meant to see, and had written the truth as he had seen it. His
article was a small thing in itself, but he had been sent out there with
tremendous flourishes of de Mersch's trumpets. He was _the_ man who
could be believed. De Mersch's supporters had practically said: "If he
condemns us we are indeed damned." And now that the condemnation had
come, it meant ruin, as it seemed to me, for everybody I had known,
worked for, seen, or heard of, during the last year of my life. It was
ruin for Fox, for Churchill, for the ministers, and for the men who talk
in railway carriages, for shopkeepers and for the government; it was a
menace to the institutions which hold us to the past, that are our
guarantees for the future. The safety of everything one respected and
believed in was involved in the disclosure of an atrocious fraud, and
the disclosure was in my hands. For that night I had the power of the
press in my keeping. People were waiting for this pronouncement. De
Mersch's last card was his philanthropy; his model state and his happy
natives.

The drone of the presses made the floor under my feet quiver, and the
whole building vibrated as if the earth itself had trembled. I was alone
with my knowledge. Did she know; had she put the power in my hand? But I
was alone, and I was free.

I took up the proof and began to read, slanting the page to the fall of
the light. It was a phrenetic indictment, but under the paltry rhetoric
of the man there was genuine indignation and pain. There were revolting
details of cruelty to the miserable, helpless, and defenceless; there
were greed, and self-seeking, stripped naked; but more revolting to see
without a mask was that falsehood which had been hiding under the words
that for ages had spurred men to noble deeds, to self-sacrifice, to
heroism. What was appalling was the sudden perception that all the
traditional ideals of honour, glory, conscience, had been committed to
the upholding of a gigantic and atrocious fraud. The falsehood had
spread stealthily, had eaten into the very heart of creeds and
convictions that we lean upon on our passage between the past and the
future. The old order of things had to live or perish with a lie. I saw
all this with the intensity and clearness of a revelation; I saw it as
though I had been asleep through a year of work and dreams, and had
awakened to the truth. I saw it all; I saw her intention. What was I to
do?

Without my marking its approach emotion was upon me. The fingers that
held up the extended slips tattooed one on another through its
negligible thickness.

"Pretty thick that," Soane said. He was looking back at me from the
cupboard he had opened. "I've rubbed it in, too ... there'll be hats on
the green to-morrow." He had his head inside the cupboard, and his voice
came to me hollowly. He extracted a large bottle with a gilt-foiled
neck.

"Won't it upset the apple cart to-morrow," he said, very loudly; "won't
it?"

His voice acted on me as the slight shake upon a phial full of waiting
chemicals; crystallised them suddenly with a little click. Everything
suddenly grew very clear to me. I suddenly understood that all the
tortuous intrigue hinged upon what I did in the next few minutes. It
rested with me now to stretch out my hand to that button in the wall or
to let the whole world--"the ... the probity ... that sort of thing,"
she had said--fall to pieces. The drone of the presses continued to make
itself felt like the quiver of a suppressed emotion. I might stop them
or I might not. It rested with me.

Everybody was in my hands; they were quite small. If I let the thing go
on, they would be done for utterly, and the new era would begin.

Soane had got hold of a couple of long-stalked glasses. They clinked
together whilst he searched the cupboard for something.

"Eh, what?" he said. "It _is_ pretty _strong_, isn't it? Ought to shake
out some of the supporters, eh? Bill comes on to-morrow ... do for that,
I should think." He wanted a corkscrew very badly.

But that was precisely it--it would "shake out some of the supporters,"
and give Gurnard his patent excuse. Churchill, I knew, would stick to
his line, the saner policy. But so many of the men who had stuck to
Churchill would fall away now, and Gurnard, of course, would lead them
to his own triumph.

It was a criminal verdict. Callan had gone out as a commissioner--with a
good deal of drum-beating. And this was his report, this shriek. If it
sounded across the house-tops--if I let it--good-by to the saner policy
and to Churchill. It did not make any difference that Churchill's _was_
the saner policy, because there was no one in the nation sane enough to
see it. They wanted purity in high places, and here was a definite,
criminal indictment against de Mersch. And de Mersch would--in a manner
of speaking, have to be lynched, policy or no policy.

She wanted this, and in all the earth she was the only desirable thing.
If I thwarted her--she would ... what would she do now? I looked at
Soane.

"What would happen if I stopped the presses?" I asked. Soane was
twisting his corkscrew in the wire of the champagne bottle.

It was fatal; I could see nothing on earth but her. What else was there
in the world. Wine? The light of the sun? The wind on the heath? Honour!
My God, what was honour to me if I could see nothing but her on earth?
Would honour or wine or sun or wind ever give me what she could give?
Let them go.

"What would happen if what?" Soane grumbled, "_D--n_ this wire."

"Oh, I was thinking about something," I answered. The wire gave with a
little snap and he began to ease the cork. Was I to let the light pass
me by for the sake of ... of Fox, for instance, who trusted me? Well,
let Fox go. And Churchill and what Churchill stood for; the probity; the
greatness and the spirit of the past from which had sprung my
conscience and the consciences of the sleeping millions around me--the
woman at the poultry show with her farmers and shopkeepers. Let them go
too.

Soane put into my hand one of his charged glasses. He seemed to rise out
of the infinite, a forgotten shape. I sat down at the desk opposite him.

"Deuced good idea," he said, suddenly, "to stop the confounded presses
and spoof old Fox. He's up to some devilry. And, by Jove, I'd like to
get my knife in him; Jove, I would. And then chuck up everything and
leave for the Sandwich Islands. I'm sick of this life, this dog's
life.... One might have made a pile though, if one'd known this smash
was coming. But one can't get at the innards of things.--No such
luck--no such luck, eh?" I looked at him stupidly; took in his
blood-shot eyes and his ruffled grizzling hair. I wondered who he was.
_"Il s'agissait de_...?" I seemed to be back in Paris, I couldn't think
of what I had been thinking of. I drank his glass of wine and he filled
me another. I drank that too.

Ah yes--even then the thing wasn't settled, even now that I had
recognized that Fox and the others were of no account ... What remained
was to prove to her that I wasn't a mere chattel, a piece in the game. I
was at the very heart of the thing. After all, it was chance that had
put me there, the blind chance of all the little things that lead in the
inevitable, the future. If, now, I thwarted her, she would ... what
would she do? She would have to begin all over again. She wouldn't want
to be revenged; she wasn't revengeful. But how if she would never look
upon me again?

The thing had reduced itself to a mere matter of policy. Or was it
passion?

A clatter of the wheels of heavy carts and of the hoofs of heavy horses
on granite struck like hammer blows on my ears, coming from the well of
the court-yard below. Soane had finished his bottle and was walking to
the cupboard. He paused at the window and stood looking down.

"Strong beggars, those porters," he said; "I couldn't carry that weight
of paper--not with my rot on it, let alone Callan's. You'd think it
would break down the carts."

I understood that they were loading the carts for the newspaper mails.
There was still time to stop them. I got up and went toward the window,
very swiftly. I was going to call to them to stop loading. I threw the
casement open.

* * * * *

Of course, I did not stop them. The solution flashed on me with the
breath of the raw air. It was ridiculously simple. If I thwarted her,
well, she would respect me. But her business in life was the inheritance
of the earth, and, however much she might respect me--or by so much the
more--she would recognise that I was a force to deflect her from the
right line--"a disease for me," she had said.

"What I have to do," I said, "is to show her that ... that I had her in
my hands and that I co-operated loyally."

The thing was so simple that I triumphed; triumphed with the full glow
of wine, triumphed looking down into that murky court-yard where the
lanthorns danced about in the rays of a great arc lamp. The gilt letters
scattered all over the windows blazed forth the names of Fox's
innumerable ventures. Well, he ... he had been a power, but I triumphed.
I had co-operated loyally with the powers of the future, though I
wanted no share in the inheritance of the earth. Only, I was going to
push into the future. One of the great carts got into motion amidst a
shower of sounds that whirled upward round and round the well. The black
hood swayed like the shoulders of an elephant as it passed beneath my
feet under the arch. It disappeared--it was co-operating too; in a few
hours people at the other end of the country--of the world--would be
raising their hands. Oh, yes, it was co-operating loyally.

I closed the window. Soane was holding a champagne bottle in one hand.
In the other he had a paper knife of Fox's--a metal thing, a Japanese
dagger or a Deccan knife. He sliced the neck off the bottle.

"Thought you were going to throw yourself out," he said; "I wouldn't
stop you. _I'm_ sick of it ... sick."

"Look at this ... to-night ... this infernal trick of Fox's.... And I
helped too.... Why?... I must eat." He paused "... and drink," he
added. "But there is starvation for no end of fools in this little
move. A few will be losing their good names too.... I don't care, I'm
off.... By-the-bye: What is he doing it for? Money? Funk?--You ought to
know. You must be in it too. It's not hunger with you. Wonderful what
people will do to keep their pet vice going.... Eh?" He swayed a little.
"You don't drink--what's your pet vice?"

He looked at me very defiantly, clutching the neck of the empty bottle.
His drunken and overbearing glare seemed to force upon me a complicity
in his squalid bargain with life, rewarded by a squalid freedom. He was
pitiful and odious to my eyes; and somehow in a moment he appeared
menacing.

"You can't frighten me," I said, in response to the strange fear he had
inspired. "No one can frighten me now." A sense of my inaccessibility
was the first taste of an achieved triumph. I had done with fear. The
poor devil before me appeared infinitely remote. He was lost; but he was
only one of the lost; one of those that I could see already overwhelmed
by the rush from the flood-gates opened at my touch. He would be
destroyed in good company; swept out of my sight together with the past
they had known and with the future they had waited for. But he was
odious. "I am done with you," I said.

"Eh; what?... Who wants to frighten?... I wanted to know what's your pet
vice.... Won't tell? You might safely--I'm off.... No.... Want to tell
me mine?... No time.... I'm off.... Ask the policeman ... crossing
sweeper will do.... I'm going."

"You will have to," I said.

"What.... Dismiss me?... Throw the indispensable Soane overboard like a
squeezed lemon?... Would you?... What would Fox say?... Eh? But you
can't, my boy--not you. Tell you ... tell you ... can't.... Beforehand
with you ... sick of it.... I'm off ... to the Islands--the Islands of
the Blest.... I'm going to be an ... no, not an angel like Fox ... an
... oh, a beachcomber. Lie on white sand, in the sun ... blue sky and
palm-trees--eh?... S.S. Waikato. I'm off.... Come too ... lark ...
dismiss yourself out of all this. Warm sand, warm, mind you ... you
won't?" He had an injured expression. "Well, I'm off. See me into the
cab, old chap, you're a decent fellow after all ... not one of these
beggars who would sell their best friend ... for a little money ... or
some woman. Will see the last of me...."

I didn't believe he would reach the South Seas, but I went downstairs
and watched him march up the street with a slight stagger under the
pallid dawn. I suppose it was the lingering chill of the night that made
me shiver. I felt unbounded confidence in the future, there was nothing
now between her and me. The echo of my footsteps on the flagstones
accompanied me, filling the empty earth with the sound of my progress.

Joseph Conrad

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