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Chapter 20

I wanted to see her, to finish it one way or another, and, at my aunt's
house, I found her standing in an immense white room; waiting for me.
There was a profusion of light. It left her absolutely shadowless, like
a white statue in a gallery; inscrutable.

"I have come," I said. I had it in my mind to say: "Because there is
nothing for me to do on earth." But I did not, I looked at her instead.

"You have come," she repeated. She had no expression in her voice, in
her eyes. It was as if I were nothing to her; as if I were the picture
of a man. Well, that was it; I was a picture, she a statue. "I did it,"
I said at last.

"And you want?" she asked.

"You know," I answered, "I want my...." I could not think of the word.
It was either a reward or a just due. She looked at me, quite suddenly.
It made an effect as if the Venus of Milo had turned its head toward
me. She began to speak, as if the statue were speaking, as if a passing
bell were speaking; recording a passing passionlessly.

"You have done nothing at all," she said. "Nothing."

"And yet," I said, "I was at the heart of it all."

"Nothing at all," she repeated. "You were at the heart, yes; but at the
heart of a machine." Her words carried a sort of strong conviction. I
seemed suddenly to see an immense machine--unconcerned, soulless, but
all its parts made up of bodies of men: a great mill grinding out the
dust of centuries; a great wine-press. She was continuing her speech.

"As for you--you are only a detail, like all the others; you were set in
a place because you would act as you did. It was in your character. We
inherit the earth and you, your day is over.... You remember that day,
when I found you--the first day?"

I remembered that day. It was on the downland, under the immense sky,
amid the sound of larks. She had explained the nature of things. She
had talked expressionlessly in pregnant words; she was talking now. I
knew no more of her to-day, after all these days, after I had given up
to her my past and my future.

"You remember that day. I was looking for such a man, and I found you."

"And you ..." I said, "you have done this thing! Think of it!... I have
nobody--nothing--nowhere in the world. I cannot look a man in the face,
not even Churchill. I can never go to him again." I paused, expecting a
sign of softening. None came. "I have parted with my past and you tell
me there is no future."

"None," she echoed. Then, coldly, as a swan takes the water, she began
to speak:

"Well, yes! I've hurt you. You have suffered and in your pain you think
me vile, but remember that for ages the virtue of to-morrow has been the
vileness of to-day. That which outstrips one, one calls vile. My virtue
lies in gaining my end. Pity for you would have been a crime for me. You
have suffered. And then? What are you to me? As I came among you I am
to-day; that is where I am triumphant and virtuous. I have succeeded.
When I came here I came into a world of--of shadows of men. What were
their passions, their joys, their fears, their despair, their outcry, to
me? If I had ears, my virtue was to close them to the cries. There was
no other way. There was one of us--your friend Fox, I mean. He came into
the world, but had not the virtue to hold himself aloof. He has told
you, 'One goes blind down here.' He began to feel a little like the
people round him. He contracted likings and dislikings. He liked you ...
and you betrayed him. So he went under. He grew blind down here. I have
not grown blind. I see as I saw. I move as I did in a world of ... of
the pictures of men. They despair. I hear groans ... well, they are the
groans of the dead to me. This to you, down near it, is a mass of
tortuous intrigue; vile in its pettiest detail. But come further off;
stand beside me, and what does it look like? It is a mighty engine of
disintegration. It has crushed out a whole fabric, a whole plane of
society. It has done that. I guided it. I had to have my eyes on every
little strand of it; to be forever on the watch."

"And now I stand alone. Yesterday that fabric was everything to you; it
seemed solid enough. And where is it to-day? What is it to you more than
to me? There stood Virtue ... and Probity ... and all the things that
all those people stood for. Well, to-day they are gone; the very belief
in them is gone. Who will believe in them, now that it is proved that
their tools were people ... like de Mersch? And it was I that did it.
That, too, is to be accounted to me for virtue."

"Well, I have inherited the earth. I am the worm at the very heart of
the rose of it. You are thinking that all that I have gained is the hand
of Gurnard. But it is more than that. It is a matter of a chess-board;
and Gurnard is the only piece that remains. And I am the hand that moves
him. As for a marriage; well, it is a marriage of minds, a union for a
common purpose. But mine is the master mind. As for you. Well, you have
parted with your past ... and there is no future for you. That is true.
You have nowhere to go to; have nothing left, nothing in the world. That
is true too. But what is that to me? A set of facts--that you have
parted with your past and have no future. You had to do the work; I had
to make you do it. I chose you because you would do it. That is all....
I knew you; knew your secret places, your weaknesses. That is my power.
I stand for the Inevitable, for the future that goes on its way; you for
the past that lies by the roadside. If for your sake I had swerved one
jot from my allotted course, I should have been untrue. There was a
danger, once, for a minute.... But I stood out against it. What would
you have had me do? Go under as Fox went under? Speak like him, look as
he looks now.... Me? Well, I did not."

"I was in the hands of the future; I never swerved; I went on my way. I
had to judge men as I judged you; to corrupt, as I corrupted you. I
cajoled; I bribed; I held out hopes; and with every one, as with you, I
succeeded. It is in that power that the secret of the greatness which is
virtue, lies. I had to set about a work of art, of an art strange to
you; as strange, as alien as the arts of dead peoples. You are the dead
now, mine the art of an ensuing day. All that remains to you is to fold
your hands and wonder, as you wondered before the gates of Nineveh. I
had to sound the knell of the old order; of your virtues, of your
honours, of your faiths, of ... of altruism, if you like. Well, it is
sounded. I was forever on the watch; I foresaw; I forestalled; I have
never rested. And you...."

"And I ..." I said, "I only loved you."

There was a silence. I seemed for a moment to see myself a tenuous,
bodiless thing, like a ghost in a bottomless cleft between the past and
the to come. And I was to be that forever.

"You only loved me," she repeated. "Yes, you loved me. But what claim
upon me does that give you? You loved me.... Well, if I had loved you it
would have given you a claim.... All your misery; your heartache comes
from ... from love; your love for me, your love for the things of the
past, for what was doomed.... You loved the others too ... in a way, and
you betrayed them and you are wretched. If you had not loved them you
would not be wretched now; if you had not loved me you would not have
betrayed your--your very self. At the first you stood alone; as much
alone as I. All these people were nothing to you. I was nothing to you.
But you must needs love them and me. You should have let them remain
nothing to the end. But you did not. What were they to you?--Shapes,
shadows on a sheet. They looked real. But were they--any one of them?
You will never see them again; you will never see me again; we shall be
all parts of a past of shadows. If you had been as I am, you could have
looked back upon them unmoved or could have forgotten.... But you ...
'you only loved' and you will have no more ease. And, even now, it is
only yourself that matters. It is because you broke; because you were
false to your standards at a supreme moment; because you have discovered
that your honour will not help you to stand a strain. It is not the
thought of the harm you have done the others.... What are they--what is
Churchill who has fallen or Fox who is dead--to you now? It is yourself
that you bemoan. That is your tragedy, that you can never go again to
Churchill with the old look in your eyes, that you can never go to
anyone for fear of contempt.... Oh, I know you, I know you."

She knew me. It was true, what she said.

I had had my eyes on the ground all this while; now I looked at her,
trying to realise that I should never see her again. It was impossible.
There was that intense beauty, that shadowlessness that was like
translucence. And there was her voice. It was impossible to understand
that I was never to see her again, never to hear her voice, after this.

She was silent for a long time and I said nothing--nothing at all. It
was the thought of her making Fox's end; of her sitting as Fox had sat,
hopelessly, lifelessly, like a man waiting at the end of the world. At
last she said: "There is no hope. We have to go our ways; you yours, I
mine. And then if you will--if you cannot forget--you may remember that
I cared; that, for a moment, in between two breaths, I thought of ... of
failing. That is all I can do ... for your sake."

That silenced me. Even if I could have spoken to any purpose, I would
have held my tongue now.

I had not looked at her; but stood with my eyes averted, very conscious
of her standing before me; of her great beauty, of her great glory.

* * * * *

After a long time I went away. I never saw her again. I never saw any
one of them all again. Fox was dead and Churchill I have never had the
heart to face. That was the end of all that part of my life. It passed
away and left me only a consciousness of weakness and ... and regrets.
She remains. One recognises her hand in the trend of events. Well, it is
not a very gay world. Gurnard, they say, is the type of the age--of its
spirit. And they say that I, the Granger of Etchingham, am not on terms
with my brother-in-law.

Joseph Conrad

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