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Chapter 9

After that I began to live, as one lives; and for forty-nine weeks. I
know it was forty-nine, because I got fifty-two atmospheres in all;
Callan's and Churchill's, and those forty-nine and the last one that
finished the job and the year of it. It was amusing work in its way;
people mostly preferred to have their atmospheres taken at their country
houses--it showed that they had them, I suppose. Thus I spent a couple
of days out of every week in agreeable resorts, and people were very
nice to me--it was part of the game.

So I had a pretty good time for a year and enjoyed it, probably because
I had had a pretty bad one for several years. I filled in the rest of my
weeks by helping Fox and collaborating with Mr. Churchill and adoring
Mrs. Hartly at odd moments. I used to hang about the office of the
_Hour_ on the chance of snapping up a blank three lines fit for a
subtle puff of her. Sometimes they were too hurried to be subtle, and
then Mrs. Hartly was really pleased.

I never understood her in the least, and I very much doubt whether she
ever understood a word I said. I imagine that I must have talked to her
about her art or her mission--things obviously as strange to her as to
the excellent Hartly himself. I suppose she hadn't any art; I am certain
she hadn't any mission, except to be adored. She walked about the stage
and one adored her, just as she sat about her flat and was adored, and
there the matter ended.

As for Fox, I seemed to suit him--I don't in the least know why. No
doubt he knew me better than I knew myself. He used to get hold of me
whilst I was hanging about the office on the chance of engaging space
for Mrs. Hartly, and he used to utilise me for the ignoblest things. I
saw men for him, scribbled notes for him, abused people through the
telephone, and wrote articles. Of course, there were the pickings.

I never understood Fox--not in the least, not more than I understood
Mrs. Hartly. He had the mannerisms of the most incredible vulgarian and
had, apparently, the point of view of a pig. But there was something
else that obscured all that, that forced one to call him a _wonderful_
man. Everyone called him that. He used to say that he knew what he
wanted and that he got it, and that was true, too. I didn't in the least
want to do his odd jobs, even for the ensuing pickings, and I didn't
want to be hail-fellow with him. But I did them and I was, without even
realising that it was distasteful to me. It was probably the same with
everybody else.

I used to have an idea that I was going to reform him; that one day I
should make him convert the _Hour_ into an asylum for writers of merit.
He used to let me have my own way sometimes--just often enough to keep
my conscience from inconveniencing me. He let me present Lea with an
occasional column and a half; and once he promised me that one day he
would allow me to get the atmosphere of Arthur Edwards, the novelist.

Then there was Churchill and the _Life of Cromwell_ that progressed
slowly. The experiment succeeded well enough, as I grew less domineering
and he less embarrassed. Toward the end I seemed to have become a
familiar inmate of his house. I used to go down with him on Saturday
afternoons and we talked things over in the train. It was, to an idler
like myself, wonderful the way that essential idler's days were cut out
and fitted in like the squares of a child's puzzle; little passages of
work of one kind fitting into quite unrelated passages of something
else. He did it well, too, without the remotest semblance of hurry.

I suppose that actually the motive power was his aunt. People used to
say so, but it did not appear on the surface to anyone in close contact
with the man; or it appeared only in very small things. We used to work
in a tall, dark, pleasant room, book-lined, and giving on to a lawn that
was always an asylum for furtive thrushes. Miss Churchill, as a rule,
sat half forgotten near the window, with the light falling over her
shoulder. She was always very absorbed in papers; seemed to be spending
laborious days in answering letters, in evolving reports. Occasionally
she addressed a question to her nephew, occasionally received guests
that came informally but could not be refused admittance. Once it was a
semi-royal personage, once the Duc de Mersch, my reputed employer.

The latter, I remember, was announced when Churchill and I were finally
finishing our account of the tremendous passing of the Protector. In
that silent room I had a vivid sense of the vast noise of the storm in
that twilight of the crowning mercy. I seemed to see the candles
a-flicker in the eddies of air forced into the gloomy room; the great
bed and the portentous uncouth form that struggled in the shadows of the
hangings. Miss Churchill looked up from the card that had been placed in
her hands.

"Edward," she said, "the Duc de Mersch."

Churchill rose irritably from his low seat. "Confound him," he said, "I
won't see him."

"You can't help it, I think," his aunt said, reflectively; "you will
have to settle it sooner or later."

I know pretty well what it was they had to settle--the Greenland affair
that had hung in the air so long. I knew it from hearsay, from Fox,
vaguely enough. Mr. Gurnard was said to recommend it for financial
reasons, the Duc to be eager, Churchill to hang back unaccountably. I
never had much head for details of this sort, but people used to explain
them to me--to explain the reasons for de Mersch's eagerness. They were
rather shabby, rather incredible reasons, that sounded too reasonable to
be true. He wanted the money for his railways--wanted it very badly. He
was vastly in want of money, he was this, that, and the other in certain
international-philanthropic concerns, and had a finger in this, that,
and the other pie. There was an "All Round the World Cable Company" that
united hearts and hands, and a "Pan-European Railway, Exploration, and
Civilisation Company" that let in light in dark places, and an
"International Housing of the Poor Company," as well as a number of
others. Somewhere at the bottom of these seemingly bottomless concerns,
the Duc de Mersch was said to be moving, and the _Hour_ certainly
contained periodically complimentary allusions to their higher
philanthropy and dividend-earning prospects. But that was as much as I
knew. The same people--people one met in smoking-rooms--said that the
Trans-Greenland Railway was the last card of de Mersch. British
investors wouldn't trust the Duc without some sort of guarantee from
the British Government, and no other investor would trust him on any
terms. England was to guarantee something or other--the interest for a
number of years, I suppose. I didn't believe them, of course--one makes
it a practice to believe nothing of the sort. But I recognised that the
evening was momentous to somebody--that Mr. Gurnard and the Duc de
Mersch and Churchill were to discuss something and that I was remotely
interested because the _Hour_ employed me.

Churchill continued to pace up and down.

"Gurnard dines here to-night," his aunt said.

"Oh, I see." His hands played with some coins in his trouser-pockets. "I
see," he said again, "they've ..."

The occasion impressed me. I remember very well the manner of both
nephew and aunt. They seemed to be suddenly called to come to a decision
that was no easy one, that they had wished to relegate to an indefinite
future.

She left Churchill pacing nervously up and down.

"I could go on with something else, if you like," I said.

"But I don't like," he said, energetically; "I'd much rather not see
the man. You know the sort of person he is."

"Why, no," I answered, "I never studied the Almanac de Gotha."

"Oh, I forgot," he said. He seemed vexed with himself.

Churchill's dinners were frequently rather trying to me. Personages of
enormous importance used to drop in--and reveal themselves as rather
asinine. At the best of times they sat dimly opposite to me, discomposed
me, and disappeared. Sometimes they stared me down. That night there
were two of them.

Gurnard I had heard of. One can't help hearing of a Chancellor of the
Exchequer. The books of reference said that he was the son of one
William Gurnard, Esq., of Grimsby; but I remember that once in my club a
man who professed to know everything, assured me that W. Gurnard, Esq.
(whom he had described as a fish salesman), was only an adoptive father.
His rapid rise seemed to me inexplicable till the same man accounted for
it with a shrug: "When a man of such ability believes in nothing, and
sticks at nothing, there's no saying how far he may go. He has kicked
away every ladder. He doesn't mean to come down."

This, no doubt, explained much; but not everything in his fabulous
career. His adherents called him an inspired statesman; his enemies set
him down a mere politician. He was a man of forty-five, thin, slightly
bald, and with an icy assurance of manner. He was indifferent to attacks
upon his character, but crushed mercilessly every one who menaced his
position. He stood alone, and a little mysterious; his own party was
afraid of him.

Gurnard was quite hidden from me by table ornaments; the Duc de Mersch
glowed with light and talked voluminously, as if he had for years and
years been starved of human society. He glowed all over, it seemed to
me. He had a glorious beard, that let one see very little of his florid
face and took the edge away from an almost non-existent forehead and
depressingly wrinkled eyelids. He spoke excellent English, rather
slowly, as if he were forever replying to toasts to his health. It
struck me that he seemed to treat Churchill in nuances as an inferior,
whilst for the invisible Gurnard, he reserved an attitude of nervous
self-assertion. He had apparently come to dilate on the _Système
Groënlandais_, and he dilated. Some mistaken persons had insinuated that
the _Système_ was neither more nor less than a corporate exploitation of
unhappy Esquimaux. De Mersch emphatically declared that those _mistaken_
people were _mistaken_, declared it with official finality. The
Esquimaux were not unhappy. I paid attention to my dinner, and let the
discourse on the affairs of the Hyperborean Protectorate lapse into an
unheeded murmur. I tried to be the simple amanuensis at the feast.

Suddenly, however, it struck me that de Mersch was talking at me; that
he had by the merest shade raised his intonation. He was dilating upon
the immense international value of the proposed Trans-Greenland Railway.
Its importance to British trade was indisputable; even the opposition
had no serious arguments to offer. It was the obvious duty of the
British Government to give the financial guarantee. He would not insist
upon the moral aspect of the work--it was unnecessary. Progress,
improvement, civilisation, a little less evil in the world--more light!
It was our duty not to count the cost of humanising a lower race.
Besides, the thing would pay like another Suez Canal. Its terminus and
the British coaling station would be on the west coast of the island....
I knew the man was talking at me--I wondered why.

Suddenly he turned his glowing countenance full upon me.

"I think I must have met a member of your family," he said. The solution
occurred to me. I was a journalist, he a person interested in a railway
that he wished the Government to back in some way or another. His
attempts to capture my suffrage no longer astonished me. I murmured:

"Indeed!"

"In Paris--Mrs. Etchingham Granger," he said.

I said, "Oh, yes."

Miss Churchill came to the rescue.

"The Duc de Mersch means our friend, your aunt," she explained. I had an
unpleasant sensation. Through fronds of asparagus fern I caught the eyes
of Gurnard fixed upon me as though something had drawn his attention. I
returned his glance, tried to make his face out. It had nothing
distinctive in its half-hidden pallid oval; nothing that one could seize
upon. But it gave the impression of never having seen the light of day,
of never having had the sun upon it. But the conviction that I had
aroused his attention disturbed me. What could the man know about me? I
seemed to feel his glance bore through the irises of my eyes into the
back of my skull. The feeling was almost physical; it was as if some
incredibly concentrant reflector had been turned upon me. Then the
eyelids dropped over the metallic rings beneath them. Miss Churchill
continued to explain.

"She has started a sort of _Salon des Causes Perdues_ in the Faubourg
Saint Germain." She was recording the vagaries of my aunt. The Duc
laughed.

"Ah, yes," he said, "what a menagerie--Carlists, and Orleanists, and
Papal Blacks. I wonder she has not held a bazaar in favour of your White
Rose League."

"Ah, yes," I echoed, "I have heard that she was mad about the divine
right of kings."

Miss Churchill rose, as ladies rise at the end of a dinner. I followed
her out of the room, in obedience to some minute signal.

We were on the best of terms--we two. She mothered me, as she mothered
everybody not beneath contempt or above a certain age. I liked her
immensely--the masterful, absorbed, brown lady. As she walked up the
stairs, she said, in half apology for withdrawing me.

"They've got things to talk about."

"Why, yes," I answered; "I suppose the railway matter has to be
settled." She looked at me fixedly.

"You--you mustn't talk," she warned.

"Oh," I answered, "I'm not indiscreet--not essentially."

The other three were somewhat tardy in making their drawing-room
appearance. I had a sense of them, leaning their heads together over the
edges of the table. In the interim a rather fierce political dowager
convoyed two well-controlled, blond daughters into the room. There was a
continual coming and going of such people in the house; they did with
Miss Churchill social business of some kind, arranged electoral
rarée-shows, and what not; troubled me very little. On this occasion
the blond daughters were types of the sixties' survivals--the type that
unemotionally inspected albums. I was convoying them through a volume of
views of Switzerland, the dowager was saying to Miss Churchill:

"You think, then, it will be enough if we have...." When the door opened
behind my back. I looked round negligently and hastily returned to the
consideration of a shining photograph of the Dent du Midi. A very
gracious figure of a girl was embracing the grim Miss Churchill, as a
gracious girl should virginally salute a grim veteran.

"Ah, my dear Miss Churchill!" a fluting voice filled the large room, "we
were very nearly going back to Paris without once coming to see you. We
are only over for two days--for the Tenants' Ball, and so my aunt ...
but surely that is Arthur...."

I turned eagerly. It was the Dimensionist girl. She continued talking to
Miss Churchill. "We meet so seldom, and we are never upon terms," she
said lightly. "I assure you we are like cat and dog." She came toward me
and the blond maidens disappeared, everybody, everything disappeared. I
had not seen her for nearly a year. I had vaguely gathered from Miss
Churchill that she was regarded as a sister of mine, that she had, with
wealth inherited from a semi-fabulous Australian uncle, revived the
glories of my aunt's house. I had never denied it, because I did not
want to interfere with my aunt's attempts to regain some of the family's
prosperity. It even had my sympathy to a small extent, for, after all,
the family was my family too.

As a memory my pseudo-sister had been something bright and clear-cut and
rather small; seen now, she was something that one could not look at for
glow. She moved toward me, smiling and radiant, as a ship moves beneath
towers of shining canvas. I was simply overwhelmed. I don't know what
she said, what I said, what she did or I. I have an idea that we
conversed for some minutes. I remember that she said, at some point,

"Go away now; I want to talk to Mr. Gurnard."

As a matter of fact, Gurnard was making toward her--a deliberate, slow
progress. She greeted him with nonchalance, as, beneath eyes, a woman
greets a man she knows intimately. I found myself hating him, thinking
that he was not the sort of man she ought to know.

"It's settled?" she asked him, as he came within range. He looked at me
inquiringly--insolently. She said, "My brother," and he answered:

"Oh, yes," as I moved away. I hated the man and I could not keep my eyes
off him and her. I went and stood against the mantel-piece. The Duc de
Mersch bore down upon them, and I welcomed his interruption until I saw
that he, too, was intimate with her, intimate with a pomposity of
flourishes as irritating as Gurnard's nonchalance.

I stood there and glowered at them. I noted her excessive beauty; her
almost perilous self-possession while she stood talking to those two
men. Of me there was nothing left but the eyes. I had no mind, no
thoughts. I saw the three figures go through the attitudes of
conversation--she very animated, de Mersch grotesquely _empressé_,
Gurnard undisguisedly saturnine. He repelled me exactly as grossly
vulgar men had the power of doing, but he, himself, was not that--there
was something ... something. I could not quite make out his face, I
never could. I never did, any more than I could ever quite visualise
hers. I wondered vaguely how Churchill could work in harness with such a
man, how he could bring himself to be closeted, as he had just been,
with him and with a fool like de Mersch--I should have been afraid.

As for de Mersch, standing between those two, he seemed like a country
lout between confederate sharpers. It struck me that she let me see,
made me see, that she and Gurnard had an understanding, made manifest to
me by glances that passed when the Duc had his unobservant eyes turned
elsewhere.

I saw Churchill, in turn, move desultorily toward them, drawn in, like a
straw toward a little whirlpool. I turned my back in a fury of jealousy.

Joseph Conrad

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