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Chapter 8

I succeeded in giving Fox what his journal wanted; I got the atmosphere
of Churchill and his house, in a way that satisfied the people for whom
it was meant. His house was a pleasant enough place, of the sort where
they do you well, but not nauseously well. It stood in a tranquil
countryside, and stood there modestly. Architecturally speaking, it was
gently commonplace; one got used to it and liked it. And Churchill
himself, when one had become accustomed to his manner, one liked very
well--very well indeed. He had a dainty, dilettante mind, delicately
balanced, with strong limitations, a fantastic temperament for a person
in his walk of life--but sane, mind you, persistent. After a time, I
amused myself with a theory that his heart was not in his work, that
circumstance had driven him into the career of politics and ironical
fate set him at its head. For myself, I had an intense contempt for the
political mind, and it struck me that he had some of the same feeling.
He had little personal quaintnesses, too, a deference, a modesty, an
open-mindedness.

I was with him for the greater part of his weekend holiday; hung,
perforce, about him whenever he had any leisure. I suppose he found me
tiresome--but one has to do these things. He talked, and I talked;
heavens, how we talked! He was almost always deferential, I almost
always dogmatic; perhaps because the conversation kept on my own ground.
Politics we never touched. I seemed to feel that if I broached them, I
should be checked--politely, but very definitely. Perhaps he actually
contrived to convey as much to me; perhaps I evolved the idea that if I
were to say:

"What do you think about the 'Greenland System'"--he would answer:

"I try not to think about it," or whatever gently closuring phrase his
mind conceived. But I never did so; there were so many other topics.

He was then writing his _Life of Cromwell_ and his mind was very full of
his subject. Once he opened his heart, after delicately sounding me for
signs of boredom. It happened, by the merest chance--one of those blind
chances that inevitably lead in the future--that I, too, was obsessed at
that moment by the Lord Oliver. A great many years before, when I was a
yearling of tremendous plans, I had set about one of those glorious
novels that one plans--a splendid thing with Old Noll as the hero or the
heavy father. I had haunted the bookstalls in search of local colour and
had wonderfully well invested my half-crowns. Thus a company of
seventeenth century tracts, dog-eared, coverless, but very glorious
under their dust, accompany me through life. One parts last with those
relics of a golden age, and during my late convalescence I had reread
many of them, the arbitrary half-remembered phrases suggesting all sorts
of scenes--lamplight in squalid streets, trays full of weather-beaten
books. So, even then, my mind was full of Mercurius Rusticus. Mr.
Churchill on Cromwell amused me immensely and even excited me. It was
life, this attending at a self-revelation of an impossible temperament.
It did me good, as he had said of my pseudo-sister. It was fantastic--as
fantastic as herself--and it came out more in his conversation than in
the book itself. I had something to do with that, of course. But imagine
the treatment accorded to Cromwell by this delicate, negative,
obstinately judicial personality. It was the sort of thing one wants to
get into a novel. It was a lesson to me--in temperament, in point of
view; I went with his mood, tried even to outdo him, in the hope of
spurring him to outdo himself. I only mention it because I did it so
well that it led to extraordinary consequences.

We were walking up and down his lawn, in the twilight, after his Sunday
supper. The pale light shone along the gleaming laurels and dwelt upon
the soft clouds of orchard blossoms that shimmered above them. It dwelt,
too, upon the silver streaks in his dark hair and made his face seem
more pallid, and more old. It affected me like some intense piece of
irony. It was like hearing a dying man talk of the year after next. I
had the sense of the unreality of things strong upon me. Why should
nightingale upon nightingale pour out volley upon volley of song for the
delight of a politician whose heart was not in his task of keeping back
the waters of the deluge, but who grew animated at the idea of damning
one of the titans who had let loose the deluge?

About a week after--or it may have been a fortnight--Churchill wrote to
me and asked me to take him to see the Jenkins of my Jenkins story. It
was one of those ordeals that one goes through when one has tried to
advance one's friends. Jenkins took the matter amiss, thought it was a
display of insulting patronage on the part of officialism. He was
reluctant to show his best work, the forgotten masterpieces, the things
that had never sold, that hung about on the faded walls and rotted in
cellars. He would not be his genial self; he would not talk. Churchill
behaved very well--I think he understood.

Jenkins thawed before his gentle appreciations. I could see the change
operating within him. He began to realise that this incredible visit
from a man who ought to be hand and glove with Academicians was
something other than a spy's encroachment. He was old, you must
remember, and entirely unsuccessful. He had fought a hard fight and had
been worsted. He took his revenge in these suspicions.

We younger men adored him. He had the ruddy face and the archaic silver
hair of the King of Hearts; and a wonderful elaborate politeness that he
had inherited from his youth--from the days of Brummell. And, whilst all
his belongings were rotting into dust, he retained an extraordinarily
youthful and ingenuous habit of mind. It was that, or a little of it,
that gave the charm to my Jenkins story.

It was a disagreeable experience. I wished so much that the perennial
hopefulness of the man should at last escape deferring and I was afraid
that Churchill would chill before Jenkins had time to thaw. But, as I
have said, I think Churchill understood. He smiled his kindly,
short-sighted smile over canvas after canvas, praised the right thing in
each, remembered having seen this and that in such and such a year, and
Jenkins thawed.

He happened to leave the room--to fetch some studies, to hurry up the
tea or for some such reason. Bereft of his presence the place suddenly
grew ghostly. It was as if the sun had died in the sky and left us in
that nether world where dead, buried pasts live in a grey, shadowless
light. Jenkins' palette glowed from above a medley of stained rags on
his open colour table. The rush-bottom of his chair resembled a
wind-torn thatch.

"One can draw morals from a life like that," I said suddenly. I was
thinking rather of Jenkins than of the man I was talking to.

"Why, yes," he said, absently, "I suppose there are men who haven't the
knack of getting on."

"It's more than a knack," I said, with unnecessary bitterness. "It's a
temperament."

"I think it's a habit, too. It may be acquired, mayn't it?"

"No, no," I fulminated, "it's precisely because it can't be acquired
that the best men--the men like ..." I stopped suddenly, impressed by
the idea that the thing was out of tone. I had to assert myself more
than I liked in talking to Churchill. Otherwise I should have
disappeared. A word from him had the weight of three kingdoms and
several colonies behind it, and I was forced to get that out of my head
by making conversation a mere matter of temperament. In that I was the
stronger. If I wanted to say a thing, I said it; but he was hampered by
a judicial mind. It seemed, too, that he liked a dictatorial
interlocutor, else he would hardly have brought himself into contact
with me again. Perhaps it was new to him. My eye fell upon a couple of
masks, hanging one on each side of the fireplace. The room was full of a
profusion of little casts, thick with dust upon the shoulders, the hair,
the eyelids, on every part that projected outward.

"By-the-bye," I said, "that's a death-mask of Cromwell."

"Ah!" he answered, "I knew there _was_...."

He moved very slowly toward it, rather as if he did not wish to bring it
within his field of view. He stopped before reaching it and pivotted
slowly to face me.

"About my book," he opened suddenly, "I have so little time." His
briskness dropped into a half complaint, like a faintly suggested avowal
of impotence. "I have been at it four years now. It struck me--you
seemed to coincide so singularly with my ideas."

His speech came wavering to a close, but he recommenced it
apologetically--as if he wished me to help him out.

"I went to see Smithson the publisher about it, and he said he had no
objection...."

He looked appealingly at me. I kept silence.

"Of course, it's not your sort of work. But you might try.... You
see...." He came to a sustained halt.

"I don't understand," I said, rather coldly, when the silence became
embarrassing. "You want me to 'ghost' for you?"

"'Ghost,' good gracious no," he said, energetically; "dear me, no!"

"Then I really don't understand," I said.

"I thought you might see your ... I wanted you to collaborate with me.
Quite publicly, of course, as far as the epithet applies."

"To collaborate," I said slowly. "You...."

I was looking at a miniature of the Farnese Hercules--I wondered what it
meant, what club had struck the wheel of my fortune and whirled it into
this astounding attitude.

"Of course you must think about it," he said.

"I don't know," I muttered; "the idea is so new. It's so little in my
line. I don't know what I should make of it."

I talked at random. There were so many thoughts jostling in my head. It
seemed to carry me so much farther from the kind of work I wanted to do.
I did not really doubt my ability--one does not. I rather regarded it as
work upon a lower plane. And it was a tremendous--an incredibly
tremendous--opportunity.

"You know pretty well how much I've done," he continued. "I've got a
good deal of material together and a good deal of the actual writing is
done. But there is ever so much still to do. It's getting beyond me, as
I said just now."

I looked at him again, rather incredulously. He stood before me, a thin
parallelogram of black with a mosaic of white about the throat. The
slight grotesqueness of the man made him almost impossibly real in his
abstracted earnestness. He so much meant what he said that he ignored
what his hands were doing, or his body or his head. He had taken a very
small, very dusty book out of a little shelf beside him, and was
absently turning over the rusty leaves, while he talked with his head
bent over it. What was I to him, or he to me?

"I could give my Saturday afternoons to it," he was saying, "whenever
you could come down."

"It's immensely kind of you," I began.

"Not at all, not at all," he waived. "I've set my heart on doing it and,
unless you help me, I don't suppose I ever shall get it done."

"But there are hundreds of others," I said.

"There may be," he said, "there may be. But I have not come across
them."

I was beset by a sudden emotion of blind candour.

"Oh, nonsense, nonsense," I said. "Don't you see that you are offering
me the chance of a lifetime?"

Churchill laughed.

"After all, one cannot refuse to take what offers," he said. "Besides,
your right man to do the work might not suit me as a collaborator."

"It's very tempting," I said.

"Why, then, succumb," he smiled.

I could not find arguments against him, and I succumbed as Jenkins
re-entered the room.

Joseph Conrad

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