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Chapter 7

It was Saturday and, as was his custom during the session, the Foreign
Secretary had gone for privacy and rest till Monday to a small country
house he had within easy reach of town. I went down with a letter from
Fox in my pocket, and early in the afternoon found myself talking
without any kind of inward disturbance to the Minister's aunt, a lean,
elderly lady, with a keen eye, and credited with a profound knowledge of
European politics. She had a rather abrupt manner and a business-like,
brown scheme of coloration. She looked people very straight in the face,
bringing to bear all the penetration which, as rumour said, enabled her
to take a hidden, but very real part in the shaping of our foreign
policy. She seemed to catalogue me, label me, and lay me on the shelf,
before I had given my first answer to her first question.

"You ought to know this part of the country well," she said. I think she
was considering me as a possible canvasser--an infinitesimal thing, but
of a kind possibly worth remembrance at the next General Election.

"No," I said, "I've never been here before."

"Etchingham is only three miles away."

It was new to me to be looked upon as worth consideration for my
place-name. I realised that Miss Churchill accorded me toleration on its
account, that I was regarded as one of the Grangers of Etchingham, who
had taken to literature.

"I met your aunt yesterday," Miss Churchill continued. She had met
everybody yesterday.

"Yes," I said, non-committally. I wondered what had happened at that
meeting. My aunt and I had never been upon terms. She was a great
personage in her part of the world, a great dowager land-owner, as poor
as a mouse, and as respectable as a hen. She was, moreover, a keen
politician on the side of Miss Churchill. I, who am neither land-owner,
nor respectable, nor politician, had never been acknowledged--but I knew
that, for the sake of the race, she would have refrained from enlarging
on my shortcomings.

"Has she found a companion to suit her yet?" I said, absent-mindedly. I
was thinking of an old legend of my mother's. Miss Churchill looked me
in between the eyes again. She was preparing to relabel me, I think. I
had become a spiteful humourist. Possibly I might be useful for platform
malice.

"Why, yes," she said, the faintest of twinkles in her eyes, "she has
adopted a niece."

The legend went that, at a hotly contested election in which my aunt had
played a prominent part, a rainbow poster had beset the walls. "Who
starved her governess?" it had inquired.

My accidental reference to such electioneering details placed me upon an
excellent footing with Miss Churchill. I seemed quite unawares to have
asserted myself a social equal, a person not to be treated as a casual
journalist. I became, in fact, not the representative of the _Hour_--but
an Etchingham Granger that competitive forces had compelled to accept a
journalistic plum. I began to see the line I was to take throughout my
interviewing campaign. On the one hand, I was "one of us," who had
temporarily strayed beyond the pale; on the other, I was to be a sort of
great author's bottle-holder.

A side door, behind Miss Churchill, opened gently. There was something
very characteristic in the tentative manner of its coming ajar. It
seemed to say: "Why any noisy vigour?" It seemed to be propelled by a
contemplative person with many things on his mind. A tall, grey man in
the doorway leaned the greater part of his weight on the arm that was
stretched down to the handle. He was looking thoughtfully at a letter
that he held in his other hand. A face familiar enough in caricatures
suddenly grew real to me--more real than the face of one's nearest
friends, yet older than one had any wish to expect. It was as if I had
gazed more intently than usual at the face of a man I saw daily, and had
found him older and greyer than he had ever seemed before--as if I had
begun to realise that the world had moved on.

He said, languidly--almost protestingly, "What am I to do about the Duc
de Mersch?"

Miss Churchill turned swiftly, almost apprehensively, toward him. She
uttered my name and he gave the slightest of starts of annoyance--a
start that meant, "Why wasn't I warned before?" This irritated me; I
knew well enough what were his relations with de Mersch, and the man
took me for a little eavesdropper, I suppose. His attitudes were rather
grotesque, of the sort that would pass in a person of his eminence. He
stuck his eye-glasses on the end of his nose, looked at me
short-sightedly, took them off and looked again. He had the air of
looking down from an immense height--of needing a telescope.

"Oh, ah ... Mrs. Granger's son, I presume.... I wasn't aware...." The
hesitation of his manner made me feel as if we never should get
anywhere--not for years and years.

"No," I said, rather brusquely, "I'm only from the _Hour_."

He thought me one of Fox's messengers then, said that Fox might have
written: "Have saved you the trouble, I mean ... or...."

He had the air of wishing to be amiable, of wishing, even, to please me
by proving that he was aware of my identity.

"Oh," I said, a little loftily, "I haven't any message, I've only come
to interview you." An expression of dismay sharpened the lines of his
face.

"To...." he began, "but I've never allowed--" He recovered himself
sharply, and set the glasses vigorously on his nose; at last he had
found the right track. "Oh, I remember now," he said, "I hadn't looked
at it in that way."

The whole thing grated on my self-love and I became, in a contained way,
furiously angry. I was impressed with the idea that the man was only a
puppet in the hands of Fox and de Mersch, and that lot. And he gave
himself these airs of enormous distance. I, at any rate, was
clean-handed in the matter; I hadn't any axe to grind.

"Ah, yes," he said, hastily, "you are to draw my portrait--as Fox put
it. He sent me your Jenkins sketch. I read it--it struck a very nice
note. And so--." He sat himself down on a preposterously low chair, his
knees on a level with his chin. I muttered that I feared he would find
the process a bore.

"Not more for me than for you," he answered, seriously--"one has to do
these things."

"Why, yes," I echoed, "one has to do these things." It struck me that he
regretted it--regretted it intensely; that he attached a bitter meaning
to the words.

"And ... what is the procedure?" he asked, after a pause. "I am new to
the sort of thing." He had the air, I thought, of talking to some
respectable tradesman that one calls in only when one is _in
extremis_--to a distinguished pawnbroker, a man quite at the top of a
tree of inferior timber.

"Oh, for the matter of that, so am I," I answered. "I'm supposed to get
your atmosphere, as Callan put it."

"Indeed," he answered, absently, and then, after a pause, "You know
Callan?" I was afraid I should fall in his estimation.

"One has to do these things," I said; "I've just been getting his
atmosphere."

He looked again at the letter in his hand, smoothed his necktie and was
silent. I realised that I was in the way, but I was still so disturbed
that I forgot how to phrase an excuse for a momentary absence.

"Perhaps, ..." I began.

He looked at me attentively.

"I mean, I think I'm in the way," I blurted out.

"Well," he answered, "it's quite a small matter. But, if you are to get
my atmosphere, we may as well begin out of doors." He hesitated, pleased
with his witticism; "Unless you're tired," he added.

"I will go and get ready," I said, as if I were a lady with
bonnet-strings to tie. I was conducted to my room, where I kicked my
heels for a decent interval. When I descended, Mr. Churchill was
lounging about the room with his hands in his trouser-pockets and his
head hanging limply over his chest. He said, "Ah!" on seeing me, as if
he had forgotten my existence. He paused for a long moment, looked
meditatively at himself in the glass over the fireplace, and then grew
brisk. "Come along," he said.

We took a longish walk through a lush home-country meadow land. We
talked about a number of things, he opening the ball with that infernal
Jenkins sketch. I was in the stage at which one is sick of the thing,
tired of the bare idea of it--and Mr. Churchill's laboriously kind
phrases made the matter no better.

"You know who Jenkins stands for?" I asked. I wanted to get away on the
side issues.

"Oh, I guessed it was----" he answered. They said that Mr. Churchill
was an enthusiast for the school of painting of which Jenkins was the
last exponent. He began to ask questions about him. Did he still paint?
Was he even alive?

"I once saw several of his pictures," he reflected. "His work certainly
appealed to me ... yes, it appealed to me. I meant at the time ... but
one forgets; there are so many things." It seemed to me that the man
wished by these detached sentences to convey that he had the weight of a
kingdom--of several kingdoms--on his mind; that he could spare no more
than a fragment of his thoughts for everyday use.

"You must take me to see him," he said, suddenly. "I ought to have
something." I thought of poor white-haired Jenkins, and of his long
struggle with adversity. It seemed a little cruel that Churchill should
talk in that way without meaning a word of it--as if the words were a
polite formality.

"Nothing would delight me more," I answered, and added, "nothing in the
world."

He asked me if I had seen such and such a picture, talked of artists,
and praised this and that man very fittingly, but with a certain
timidity--a timidity that lured me back to my normally overbearing frame
of mind. In such matters I was used to hearing my own voice. I could
talk a man down, and, with a feeling of the unfitness of things, I
talked Churchill down. The position, even then, struck me as gently
humorous. It was as if some infinitely small animal were bullying some
colossus among the beasts. I was of no account in the world, he had his
say among the Olympians. And I talked recklessly, like any little
school-master, and he swallowed it.

We reached the broad market-place of a little, red and grey, home county
town; a place of but one street dominated by a great inn-signboard a-top
of an enormous white post. The effigy of So-and-So of gracious memory
swung lazily, creaking, overhead.

"This is Etchingham," Churchill said.

It was a pleasant commentary on the course of time, this entry into the
home of my ancestors. I had been without the pale for so long, that I
had never seen the haunt of ancient peace. They had done very little,
the Grangers of Etchingham--never anything but live at Etchingham and
quarrel at Etchingham and die at Etchingham and be the monstrous
important Grangers of Etchingham. My father had had the undesirable
touch, not of the genius, but of the Bohemian. The Grangers of
Etchingham had cut him adrift and he had swum to sink in other seas. Now
I was the last of the Grangers and, as things went, was quite the best
known of all of them. They had grown poor in their generation; they bade
fair to sink, even as, it seemed, I bade fair to rise, and I had come
back to the old places on the arm of one of the great ones of the earth.
I wondered what the portentous old woman who ruled alone in Etchingham
thought of these times--the portentous old woman who ruled, so they
said, the place with a rod of iron; who made herself unbearable to her
companions and had to fall back upon an unfortunate niece. I wondered
idly who the niece could be; certainly not a Granger of Etchingham, for
I was the only one of the breed. One of her own nieces, most probably.
Churchill had gone into the post-office, leaving me standing at the foot
of the sign-post. It was a pleasant summer day, the air very clear, the
place very slumbrous. I looked up the street at a pair of great stone
gate-posts, august, in their way, standing distinctly aloof from the
common houses, a little weather-stained, staidly lichened. At the top of
each column sat a sculptured wolf--as far as I knew, my own crest. It
struck me pleasantly that this must be the entrance of the Manor house.

The tall iron gates swung inward, and I saw a girl on a bicycle curve
out, at the top of the sunny street. She glided, very clear, small, and
defined, against the glowing wall, leaned aslant for the turn, and came
shining down toward me. My heart leapt; she brought the whole thing into
composition--the whole of that slumbrous, sunny street. The bright sky
fell back into place, the red roofs, the blue shadows, the red and blue
of the sign-board, the blue of the pigeons walking round my feet, the
bright red of a postman's cart. She was gliding toward me, growing and
growing into the central figure. She descended and stood close to me.

"You?" I said. "What blessed chance brought you here?"

"Oh, I am your aunt's companion," she answered, "her niece, you know."

"Then you _must_ be a cousin," I said.

"No; sister," she corrected, "I assure you it's sister. Ask anyone--ask
your aunt." I was braced into a state of puzzled buoyancy.

"But really, you know," I said. She was smiling, standing up squarely to
me, leaning a little back, swaying her machine with the motion of her
body.

"It's a little ridiculous, isn't it?" she said.

"Very," I answered, "but even at that, I don't see--. And I'm not
phenomenally dense."

"Not phenomenally," she answered.

"Considering that I'm not a--not a Dimensionist," I bantered. "But you
have really palmed yourself off on my aunt?"

"Really," she answered, "she doesn't know any better. She believes in me
immensely. I am such a real Granger, there never was a more typical one.
And we shake our heads together over you." My bewilderment was infinite,
but it stopped short of being unpleasant.

"Might I call on my aunt?" I asked. "It wouldn't interfere--"

"Oh, it wouldn't _interfere_," she said, "but we leave for Paris
to-morrow. We are very busy. We--that is, my aunt; I am too young and
too, too discreet--have a little salon where we hatch plots against half
the régimes in Europe. You have no idea how Legitimate we are."

"I don't understand in the least," I said; "not in the least."

"Oh, you must take me literally if you want to understand," she
answered, "and you won't do that. I tell you plainly that I find my
account in unsettled states, and that I am unsettling them. Everywhere.
You will see."

She spoke with her monstrous dispassionateness, and I felt a shiver pass
down my spine, very distinctly. I was thinking what she might do if ever
she became in earnest, and if ever I chanced to stand in her way--as her
husband, for example.

"I wish you would talk sense--for one blessed minute," I said; "I want
to get things a little settled in my mind."

"Oh, I'll talk sense," she said, "by the hour, but you won't listen.
Take your friend, Churchill, now. He's the man that we're going to bring
down. I mentioned it to you, and so...."

"But this is sheer madness," I answered.

"Oh, no, it's a bald statement of fact," she went on.

"I don't see how," I said, involuntarily.

"Your article in the _Hour_ will help. Every trifle will help," she
said. "Things that you understand and others that you cannot.... He is
identifying himself with the Duc de Mersch. That looks nothing, but it's
fatal. There will be friendships ... and desertions."

"Ah!" I said. I had had an inkling of this, and it made me respect her
insight into home politics. She must have been alluding to Gurnard, whom
everybody--perhaps from fear--pretended to trust. She looked at me and
smiled again. It was still the same smile; she was not radiant to-day
and pensive to-morrow. "Do you know I don't like to hear that?" I began.

"Oh, there's irony in it, and pathos, and that sort of thing," she said,
with the remotest chill of mockery in her intonation. "He goes into it
clean-handed enough and he only half likes it. But he sees that it's his
last chance. It's not that he's worn out--but he feels that his time has
come--unless he does something. And so he's going to do something. You
understand?"

"Not in the least," I said, light-heartedly.

"Oh, it's the System for the Regeneration of the Arctic Regions--the
Greenland affair of my friend de Mersch. Churchill is going to make a
grand coup with that--to keep himself from slipping down hill, and, of
course, it would add immensely to your national prestige. And he only
half sees what de Mersch is or _isn't_."

"This is all Greek to me," I muttered rebelliously.

"Oh, I know, I know," she said. "But one has to do these things, and I
want you to understand. So Churchill doesn't like the whole business.
But he's under the shadow. He's been thinking a good deal lately that
his day is over--I'll prove it to you in a minute--and so--oh, he's
going to make a desperate effort to get in touch with the spirit of the
times that he doesn't like and doesn't understand. So he lets you get
his atmosphere. That's all."

"Oh, that's _all_," I said, ironically.

"Of course he'd have liked to go on playing the stand-off to chaps like
you and me," she mimicked the tone and words of Fox himself.

"This is witchcraft," I said. "How in the world do you know what Fox
said to me?"

"Oh, I know," she said. It seemed to me that she was playing me with all
this nonsense--as if she must have known that I had a tenderness for her
and were fooling me to the top of her bent. I tried to get my hook in.

"Now look here," I said, "we must get things settled. You ..."

She carried the speech off from under my nose.

"Oh, you won't denounce me," she said, "not any more than you did
before; there are so many reasons. There would be a scene, and you're
afraid of scenes--and our aunt would back _me_ up. She'd have to. My
money has been reviving the glories of the Grangers. You can see,
they've been regilding the gate."

I looked almost involuntarily at the tall iron gates through which she
had passed into my view. It was true enough--some of the scroll work was
radiant with new gold.

"Well," I said, "I will give you credit for not wishing to--to prey upon
my aunt. But still ..." I was trying to make the thing out. It struck
me that she was an American of the kind that subsidizes households like
that of Etchingham Manor. Perhaps my aunt had even forced her to take
the family name, to save appearances. The old woman was capable of
anything, even of providing an obscure nephew with a brilliant sister.
And I should not be thanked if I interfered. This skeleton of swift
reasoning passed between word and word ... "You are no sister of mine!"
I was continuing my sentence quite amiably.

Her face brightened to greet someone approaching behind me.

"Did you hear him?" she said. "_Did_ you hear him, Mr. Churchill. He
casts off--he disowns me. Isn't he a stern brother? And the quarrel is
about nothing." The impudence--or the presence of mind of
it--overwhelmed me.

Churchill smiled pleasantly.

"Oh--one always quarrels about nothing," Churchill answered. He spoke a
few words to her; about my aunt; about the way her machine ran--that
sort of thing. He behaved toward her as if she were an indulged child,
impertinent with licence and welcome enough. He himself looked rather
like the short-sighted, but indulgent and very meagre lion that peers at
the unicorn across a plum-cake.

"So you are going back to Paris," he said. "Miss Churchill will be
sorry. And you are going to continue to--to break up the universe?"

"Oh, yes," she answered, "we are going on with that, my aunt would never
give it up. She couldn't, you know."

"You'll get into trouble," Churchill said, as if he were talking to a
child intent on stealing apples. "And when is our turn coming? You're
going to restore the Stuarts, aren't you?" It was his idea of badinage,
amiable without consequence.

"Oh, not quite that," she answered, "not _quite_ that." It was curious
to watch her talking to another man--to a man, not a bagman like Callan.
She put aside the face she always showed me and became at once what
Churchill took her for--a spoiled child. At times she suggested a
certain kind of American, and had that indefinable air of glib
acquaintance with the names, and none of the spirit of tradition. One
half expected her to utter rhapsodies about donjon-keeps.

"Oh, you know," she said, with a fine affectation of aloofness, "we
shall have to be rather hard upon you; we shall crumple you up like--"
Churchill had been moving his stick absent-mindedly in the dust of the
road, he had produced a big "C H U." She had erased it with the point of
her foot--"like that," she concluded.

He laid his head back and laughed almost heartily.

"Dear me," he said, "I had no idea that I was so much in the way of--of
yourself and Mrs. Granger."

"Oh, it's not only that," she said, with a little smile and a cast of
the eye to me. "But you've got to make way for the future."

Churchill's face changed suddenly. He looked rather old, and grey, and
wintry, even a little frail. I understood what she was proving to me,
and I rather disliked her for it. It seemed wantonly cruel to remind a
man of what he was trying to forget.

"Ah, yes," he said, with the gentle sadness of quite an old man, "I dare
say there is more in that than you think. Even you will have to learn."

"But not for a long time," she interrupted audaciously.

"I hope not," he answered, "I hope not." She nodded and glided away.

We resumed the road in silence. Mr. Churchill smiled at his own thoughts
once or twice.

"A most amusing ..." he said at last. "She does me a great deal of good,
a great deal."

I think he meant that she distracted his thoughts.

"Does she always talk like that?" I asked. He had hardly spoken to me,
and I felt as if I were interrupting a reverie--but I wanted to know.

"I should say she did," he answered; "I should _say_ so. But Miss
Churchill says that she has a real genius for organization. She used to
see a good deal of them, before they went to Paris, you know."

"What are they doing there?" It was as if I were extracting secrets from
a sleep-walker.

"Oh, they have a kind of a meeting place, for all kinds of Legitimist
pretenders--French and Spanish, and that sort of thing. I believe Mrs.
Granger takes it very seriously." He looked at me suddenly. "But you
ought to know more about it than I do," he said.

"Oh, we see very little of each other," I answered, "you could hardly
call us brother and sister."

"Oh, I see," he answered. I don't know what he saw. For myself, I saw
nothing.

Joseph Conrad

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