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Chapter 4

I went up to town bearing the Callan article, and a letter of warm
commendation from Callan to Fox. I had been very docile; had accepted
emendations; had lavished praise, had been unctuous and yet had
contrived to retain the dignified savour of the editorial "we." Callan
himself asked no more.

I was directed to seek Fox out--to find him immediately. The matter was
growing urgent. Fox was not at the office--the brand new office that I
afterward saw pass through the succeeding stages of business-like
comfort and dusty neglect. I was directed to ask for him at the stage
door of the Buckingham.

I waited in the doorkeeper's glass box at the Buckingham. I was eyed by
the suspicious commissionaire with the contempt reserved for resting
actors. Resting actors are hungry suppliants as a rule. Call-boys sought
Mr. Fox. "Anybody seen Mr. Fox? He's gone to lunch."

"Mr. Fox is out," said the commissionaire.

I explained that the matter was urgent. More call-boys disappeared
through the folding doors. Unenticing personages passed the glass box,
casting hostile glances askance at me on my high stool. A message came
back.

"If it's Mr. Etchingham Granger, he's to follow Mr. Fox to Mrs. Hartly's
at once."

I followed Mr. Fox to Mrs. Hartly's--to a little flat in a neighbourhood
that I need not specify. The eminent journalist was lunching with the
eminent actress. A husband was in attendance--a nonentity with a heavy
yellow moustache, who hummed and hawed over his watch.

Mr. Fox was full-faced, with a persuasive, peremptory manner. Mrs.
Hartly was--well, she was just Mrs. Hartly. You remember how we all fell
in love with her figure and her manner, and her voice, and the way she
used her hands. She broke her bread with those very hands; spoke to her
husband with that very voice, and rose from table with that same
graceful management of her limp skirts. She made eyes at me; at her
husband; at little Fox, at the man who handed the asparagus--great
round grey eyes. She was just the same. The curtain never fell on that
eternal dress rehearsal. I don't wonder the husband was forever looking
at his watch.

Mr. Fox was a friend of the house. He dispensed with ceremony, read my
manuscript over his Roquefort, and seemed to find it add to the savour.

"You are going to do me for Mr. Fox," Mrs. Hartly said, turning her
large grey eyes upon me. They were very soft. They seemed to send out
waves of intense sympatheticism. I thought of those others that had shot
out a razor-edged ray.

"Why," I answered, "there was some talk of my doing somebody for the
_Hour_."

Fox put my manuscript under his empty tumbler.

"Yes," he said, sharply. "He will do, I think. H'm, yes. Why, yes."

"You're a friend of Mr. Callan's, aren't you?" Mrs. Hartly asked, "What
a dear, nice man he is! You should see him at rehearsals. You know I'm
doing his 'Boldero'; he's given me a perfectly lovely part--perfectly
lovely. And the trouble he takes. He tries every chair on the stage."

"H'm; yes," Fox interjected, "he likes to have his own way."

"We _all_ like that," the great actress said. She was quoting from her
first great part. I thought--but, perhaps, I was mistaken--that all her
utterances were quotations from her first great part. Her husband looked
at his watch.

"Are you coming to this confounded flower show?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, turning her mysterious eyes upon him, "I'll go and get
ready."

She disappeared through an inner door. I expected to hear the
pistol-shot and the heavy fall from the next room. I forgot that it was
not the end of the fifth act.

Fox put my manuscript into his breast pocket.

"Come along, Granger," he said to me, "I want to speak to you. You'll
have plenty of opportunity for seeing Mrs. Hartly, I expect. She's tenth
on your list. Good-day, Hartly."

Hartly's hand was wavering between his moustache and his watch pocket.

"Good-day," he said sulkily.

"You must come and see me again, Mr. Granger," Mrs. Hartly said from
the door. "Come to the Buckingham and see how we're getting on with your
friend's play. We must have a good long talk if you're to get my local
colour, as Mr. Fox calls it."

"To gild refined gold; to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet--"

I quoted banally.

"That's it," she said, with a tender smile. She was fastening a button
in her glove. I doubt her recognition of the quotation.

When we were in our hansom, Fox began:

"I'm relieved by what I've seen of your copy. One didn't expect this
sort of thing from you. You think it a bit below you, don't you? Oh, I
know, I know. You literary people are usually so impracticable; you know
what I mean. Callan said you were the man. Callan has his uses; but one
has something else to do with one's paper. I've got interests of my own.
But you'll do; it's all _right_. You don't mind my being candid, do you,
now?" I muttered that I rather liked it.

"Well then," he went on, "now I see my way."

"I'm glad you do," I murmured. "I wish I did."

"Oh, that will be all right," Fox comforted. "I dare say Callan has
rather sickened you of the job; particularly if you ain't used to it.
But you won't find the others as trying. There's Churchill now, he's
your next. You'll have to mind him. You'll find him a decent chap. Not a
bit of side on him."

"What Churchill?" I asked.

"The Foreign Minister."

"The devil," I said.

"Oh, you'll find him all right," Fox reassured; "you're to go down to
his place to-morrow. It's all arranged. Here we are. Hop out." He suited
his own action to his words and ran nimbly up the new terra-cotta steps
of the _Hour's_ home. He left me to pay the cabman.

When I rejoined him he was giving directions to an invisible somebody
through folding doors.

"Come along," he said, breathlessly. "Can't see him," he added to a
little boy, who held a card in his hands. "Tell him to go to Mr. Evans.
One's life isn't one's own here," he went on, when he had reached his
own room.

It was a palatial apartment furnished in white and gold--Louis Quinze,
or something of the sort--with very new decorations after Watteau
covering the walls. The process of disfiguration, however, had already
begun. A roll desk of the least possible Louis Quinze order stood in one
of the tall windows; the carpet was marked by muddy footprints, and a
matchboard screen had been run across one end of the room.

"Hullo, Evans," Fox shouted across it, "just see that man from Grant's,
will you? Heard from the Central News yet?"

He was looking through the papers on the desk.

"Not yet, I've just rung them up for the fifth time," the answer came.

"Keep on at it," Fox exhorted.

"Here's Churchill's letter," he said to me. "Have an arm-chair; those
blasted things are too uncomfortable for anything. Make yourself
comfortable. I'll be back in a minute."

I took an arm-chair and addressed myself to the Foreign Minister's
letter. It expressed bored tolerance of a potential interviewer, but it
seemed to please Fox. He ran into the room, snatched up a paper from his
desk, and ran out again.

"Read Churchill's letter?" he asked, in passing. "I'll tell you all
about it in a minute." I don't know what he expected me to do with
it--kiss the postage stamp, perhaps.

At the same time, it was pleasant to sit there idle in the midst of the
hurry, the breathlessness. I seemed to be at last in contact with real
life, with the life that matters. I was somebody, too. Fox treated me
with a kind of deference--as if I were a great unknown. His "you
literary men" was pleasing. It was the homage that the pretender pays to
the legitimate prince; the recognition due to the real thing from the
machine-made imitation; the homage of the builder to the architect.

"Ah, yes," it seemed to say, "we jobbing men run up our rows and rows of
houses; build whole towns and fill the papers for years. But when we
want something special--something monumental--we have to come to you."

Fox came in again.

"Very sorry, my dear fellow, find I can't possibly get a moment for a
chat with you. Look here, come and dine with me at the Paragraph round
the corner--to-night at six sharp. You'll go to Churchill's to-morrow."

The Paragraph Club, where I was to meet Fox, was one of those sporadic
establishments that spring up in the neighbourhood of the Strand. It is
one of their qualities that they are always just round the corner;
another, that their stewards are too familiar; another, that they--in
the opinion of the other members--are run too much for the convenience
of one in particular.

In this case it was Fox who kept the dinner waiting. I sat in the little
smoking-room and, from behind a belated morning paper, listened to the
conversation of the three or four journalists who represented the
members. I felt as a new boy in a new school feels on his first
introduction to his fellows.

There was a fossil dramatic critic sleeping in an arm-chair before the
fire. At dinner-time he woke up, remarked:

"You should have seen Fanny Ellsler," and went to sleep again.

Sprawling on a red velvet couch was a _beau jeune homme_, with the
necktie of a Parisian-American student. On a chair beside him sat a
personage whom, perhaps because of his plentiful lack of h's, I took for
a distinguished foreigner.

They were talking about a splendid subject for a music-hall dramatic
sketch of some sort--afforded by a bus driver, I fancy.

I heard afterward that my Frenchman had been a costermonger and was now
half journalist, half financier, and that my art student was an employee
of one of the older magazines.

"Dinner's on the table, gents," the steward said from the door. He went
toward the sleeper by the fire. "I expect Mr. Cunningham will wear that
arm-chair out before he's done," he said over his shoulder.

"Poor old chap; he's got nowhere else to go to," the magazine employee
said.

"Why doesn't he go to the work'ouse," the journalist financier retorted.
"Make a good sketch that, eh?" he continued, reverting to his
bus-driver.

"Jolly!" the magazine employee said, indifferently.

"Now, then, Mr. Cunningham," the steward said, touching the sleeper on
the shoulder, "dinner's on the table."

"God bless my soul," the dramatic critic said, with a start. The steward
left the room. The dramatic critic furtively took a set of false teeth
out of his waistcoat pocket; wiped them with a bandanna handkerchief,
and inserted them in his mouth.

He tottered out of the room.

I got up and began to inspect the pen-and-ink sketches on the walls.

The faded paltry caricatures of faded paltry lesser lights that
confronted me from fly-blown frames on the purple walls almost made me
shiver.

"There you are, Granger," said a cheerful voice behind me. "Come and
have some dinner."

I went and had some dinner. It was seasoned by small jokes and little
personalities. A Teutonic journalist, a musical critic, I suppose,
inquired as to the origin of the meagre pheasant. Fox replied that it
had been preserved in the back-yard. The dramatic critic mumbled unheard
that some piece or other was off the bills of the Adelphi. I grinned
vacantly. Afterward, under his breath, Fox put me up to a thing or two
regarding the inner meaning of the new daily. Put by him, without any
glamour of a moral purpose, the case seemed rather mean. The dingy
smoking-room depressed me and the whole thing was, what I had, for so
many years, striven to keep out of. Fox hung over my ear, whispering.
There were shades of intonation in his sibillating. Some of those "in
it," the voice implied, were not above-board; others were, and the tone
became deferential, implied that I was to take my tone from itself.

"Of course, a man like the Right Honourable C. does it on the straight,
... quite on the straight, ... has to have some sort of semi-official
backer.... In this case, it's me, ... the _Hour_. They're a bit splitty,
the Ministry, I mean.... They say Gurnard isn't playing square ... they
_say_ so." His broad, red face glowed as he bent down to my ear, his
little sea-blue eyes twinkled with moisture. He enlightened me
cautiously, circumspectly. There was something unpleasant in the
business--not exactly in Fox himself, but the kind of thing. I wish he
would cease his explanations--I didn't want to hear them. I have never
wanted to know how things are worked; preferring to take the world at
its face value. Callan's revelations had been bearable, because of the
farcical pompousness of his manner. But this was different, it had the
stamp of truth, perhaps because it was a little dirty. I didn't want to
hear that the Foreign Minister was ever so remotely mixed up in this
business. He was only a symbol to me, but he stood for the stability of
statesmanship and for the decencies that it is troublesome to have
touched.

"Of course," he was proceeding, "the Churchill gang would like to go on
playing the stand-off to us. But it won't do, they've got to come in or
see themselves left. Gurnard has pretty well nobbled their old party
press, so they've got to begin all over again."

That was it--that was precisely it. Churchill ought to have played the
stand-off to people like us--to have gone on playing it at whatever
cost. That was what I demanded of the world as I conceived it. It was so
much less troublesome in that way. On the other hand, this was life--I
was living now and the cost of living is disillusionment; it was the
price I had to pay. Obviously, a Foreign Minister had to have a
semi-official organ, or I supposed so.... "Mind you," Fox whispered on,
"I think myself, that it's a pity he is supporting the Greenland
business. The thing's not _altogether_ straight. But it's going to be
made to pay like hell, and there's the national interest to be
considered. If this Government didn't take it up, some other would--and
that would give Gurnard and a lot of others a peg against Churchill and
his. We can't afford to lose any more coaling stations in Greenland or
anywhere else. And, mind you, Mr. C. can look after the interests of the
niggers a good deal better if he's a hand in the pie. You see the
position, eh?"

I wasn't actually listening to him, but I nodded at proper intervals. I
knew that he wanted me to take that line in confidential conversations
with fellows seeking copy. I was quite resigned to that. Incidentally, I
was overcome by the conviction--perhaps it was no more than a
sensation--that that girl was mixed up in this thing, that her shadow
was somewhere among the others flickering upon the sheet. I wanted to
ask Fox if he knew her. But, then, in that absurd business, I did not
even know her name, and the whole story would have sounded a little mad.
Just now, it suited me that Fox should have a moderate idea of my
sanity. Besides, the thing was out of tone, I idealised her then. One
wouldn't talk about her in a smoking-room full of men telling stories,
and one wouldn't talk about her at all to Fox.

The musical critic had been prowling about the room with Fox's eyes upon
him. He edged suddenly nearer, pushed a chair aside, and came toward us.

"Hullo," he said, in an ostentatiously genial, after-dinner voice, "what
are you two chaps a-talking about?"

"Private matters," Fox answered, without moving a hair.

"Then I suppose I'm in the way?" the other muttered. Fox did not answer.

"Wants a job," he said, watching the discomfited Teuton's retreat, "but,
as I was saying--oh, it pays both ways." He paused and fixed his eyes on
me. He had been explaining the financial details of the matter, in which
the Duc de Mersch and Callan and Mrs. Hartly and all these people
clubbed together and started a paper which they hired Fox to run, which
was to bring their money back again, which was to scratch their backs,
which.... It was like the house that Jack built; I wondered who Jack
was. That was it, who was Jack? It all hinged upon that.

"Why, yes," I said. "It seems rather neat."

"Of course," Fox wandered on, "you are wondering why the deuce I tell
you all this. Fact is, you'd hear it all if I didn't, and a good deal
more that isn't true besides. But I believe you're the sort of chap to
respect a confidence."

I didn't rise to the sentiment. I knew as well as he did that he was
bamboozling me, that he was, as he said, only telling me--not the truth,
but just what I should hear everywhere. I did not bear him any ill-will;
it was part of the game, that. But the question was, who was Jack? It
might be Fox himself.... There might, after all, be some meaning in the
farrago of nonsense that that fantastic girl had let off upon me. Fox
really and in a figure of speech such as she allowed herself, might be
running a team consisting of the Duc de Mersch and Mr. Churchill.

Joseph Conrad

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