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Chapter 2


Our daily relations were interrupted at this period for something like a
fortnight. I had to absent myself unexpectedly from Geneva. On my return
I lost no time in directing my steps up the Boulevard des Philosophes.

Through the open door of the drawing-room I was annoyed to hear a
visitor holding forth steadily in an unctuous deep voice.

Mrs. Haldin's armchair by the window stood empty. On the sofa, Nathalie
Haldin raised her charming grey eyes in a glance of greeting accompanied
by the merest hint of a welcoming smile. But she made no movement. With
her strong white hands lying inverted in the lap of her mourning dress
she faced a man who presented to me a robust back covered with black
broadcloth, and well in keeping with the deep voice. He turned his head
sharply over his shoulder, but only for a moment.

"Ah! your English friend. I know. I know. That's nothing."

He wore spectacles with smoked glasses, a tall silk hat stood on the
floor by the side of his chair. Flourishing slightly a big soft hand he
went on with his discourse, precipitating his delivery a little more.

"I have never changed the faith I held while wandering in the forests
and bogs of Siberia. It sustained me then--it sustains me now. The great
Powers of Europe are bound to disappear--and the cause of their collapse
will be very simple. They will exhaust themselves struggling against
their proletariat. In Russia it is different. In Russia we have no
classes to combat each other, one holding the power of wealth, and
the other mighty with the strength of numbers. We have only an unclean
bureaucracy in the face of a people as great and as incorruptible as
the ocean. No, we have no classes. But we have the Russian woman. The
admirable Russian woman! I receive most remarkable letters signed by
women. So elevated in tone, so courageous, breathing such a noble ardour
of service! The greatest part of our hopes rests on women. I behold
their thirst for knowledge. It is admirable. Look how they absorb, how
they are making it their own. It is miraculous. But what is knowledge?
...I understand that you have not been studying anything
especially--medicine for instance. No? That's right. Had I been honoured
by being asked to advise you on the use of your time when you arrived
here I would have been strongly opposed to such a course. Knowledge in
itself is mere dross."

He had one of those bearded Russian faces without shape, a mere
appearance of flesh and hair with not a single feature having any sort
of character. His eyes being hidden by the dark glasses there was an
utter absence of all expression. I knew him by sight. He was a Russian
refugee of mark. All Geneva knew his burly black-coated figure. At one
time all Europe was aware of the story of his life written by himself
and translated into seven or more languages. In his youth he had led
an idle, dissolute life. Then a society girl he was about to marry died
suddenly and thereupon he abandoned the world of fashion, and began
to conspire in a spirit of repentance, and, after that, his native
autocracy took good care that the usual things should happen to him.
He was imprisoned in fortresses, beaten within an inch of his life, and
condemned to work in mines, with common criminals. The great success of
his book, however, was the chain.

I do not remember now the details of the weight and length of the
fetters riveted on his limbs by an "Administrative" order, but it was in
the number of pounds and the thickness of links an appalling assertion
of the divine right of autocracy. Appalling and futile too, because this
big man managed to carry off that simple engine of government with him
into the woods. The sensational clink of these fetters is heard all
through the chapters describing his escape--a subject of wonder to two
continents. He had begun by concealing himself successfully from
his guard in a hole on a river bank. It was the end of the day; with
infinite labour he managed to free one of his legs. Meantime night
fell. He was going to begin on his other leg when he was overtaken by a
terrible misfortune. He dropped his file.

All this is precise yet symbolic; and the file had its pathetic history.
It was given to him unexpectedly one evening, by a quiet, pale-faced
girl. The poor creature had come out to the mines to join one of his
fellow convicts, a delicate young man, a mechanic and a social democrat,
with broad cheekbones and large staring eyes. She had worked her way
across half Russia and nearly the whole of Siberia to be near him, and,
as it seems, with the hope of helping him to escape. But she arrived too
late. Her lover had died only a week before.

Through that obscure episode, as he says, in the history of ideas in
Russia, the file came into his hands, and inspired him with an ardent
resolution to regain his liberty. When it slipped through his fingers it
was as if it had gone straight into the earth. He could by no manner of
means put his hand on it again in the dark. He groped systematically
in the loose earth, in the mud, in the water; the night was passing
meantime, the precious night on which he counted to get away into the
forests, his only chance of escape. For a moment he was tempted by
despair to give up; but recalling the quiet, sad face of the heroic
girl, he felt profoundly ashamed of his weakness. She had selected him
for the gift of liberty and he must show himself worthy of the favour
conferred by her feminine, indomitable soul. It appeared to be a sacred
trust. To fail would have been a sort of treason against the sacredness
of self-sacrifice and womanly love.

There are in his book whole pages of self-analysis whence emerges like
a white figure from a dark confused sea the conviction of woman's
spiritual superiority--his new faith confessed since in several volumes.
His first tribute to it, the great act of his conversion, was his
extraordinary existence in the endless forests of the Okhotsk Province,
with the loose end of the chain wound about his waist. A strip torn off
his convict shirt secured the end firmly. Other strips fastened it at
intervals up his left leg to deaden the clanking and to prevent the
slack links from getting hooked in the bushes. He became very fierce.
He developed an unsuspected genius for the arts of a wild and hunted
existence. He learned to creep into villages without betraying his
presence by anything more than an occasional faint jingle. He broke into
outhouses with an axe he managed to purloin in a wood-cutters' camp. In
the deserted tracts of country he lived on wild berries and hunted for
honey. His clothing dropped off him gradually. His naked tawny figure
glimpsed vaguely through the bushes with a cloud of mosquitoes and flies
hovering about the shaggy head, spread tales of terror through whole
districts. His temper grew savage as the days went by, and he was
glad to discover that that there was so much of a brute in him. He had
nothing else to put his trust in. For it was as though there had been
two human beings indissolubly joined in that enterprise. The civilized
man, the enthusiast of advanced humanitarian ideals thirsting for the
triumph of spiritual love and political liberty; and the stealthy,
primeval savage, pitilessly cunning in the preservation of his freedom
from day to day, like a tracked wild beast.

The wild beast was making its way instinctively eastward to the Pacific
coast, and the civilised humanitarian in fearful anxious dependence
watched the proceedings with awe. Through all these weeks he could never
make up his mind to appeal to human compassion. In the wary primeval
savage this shyness might have been natural, but the other too, the
civilized creature, the thinker, the escaping "political" had developed
an absurd form of morbid pessimism, a form of temporary insanity,
originating perhaps in the physical worry and discomfort of the chain.
These links, he fancied, made him odious to the rest of mankind. It
was a repugnant and suggestive load. Nobody could feel any pity at the
disgusting sight of a man escaping with a broken chain. His imagination
became affected by his fetters in a precise, matter-of-fact manner.
It seemed to him impossible that people could resist the temptation of
fastening the loose end to a staple in the wall while they went for the
nearest police official. Crouching in holes or hidden in thickets, he
had tried to read the faces of unsuspecting free settlers working in the
clearings or passing along the paths within a foot or two of his
eyes. His feeling was that no man on earth could be trusted with the
temptation of the chain.

One day, however, he chanced to come upon a solitary woman. It was on an
open slope of rough grass outside the forest. She sat on the bank of a
narrow stream; she had a red handkerchief on her head and a small basket
was lying on the ground near her hand. At a little distance could be
seen a cluster of log cabins, with a water-mill over a dammed pool
shaded by birch trees and looking bright as glass in the twilight. He
approached her silently, his hatchet stuck in his iron belt, a thick
cudgel in his hand; there were leaves and bits of twig in his tangled
hair, in his matted beard; bunches of rags he had wound round the links
fluttered from his waist. A faint clink of his fetters made the woman
turn her head. Too terrified by this savage apparition to jump up or
even to scream, she was yet too stout-hearted to faint.... Expecting
nothing less than to be murdered on the spot she covered her eyes with
her hands to avoid the sight of the descending axe. When at last she
found courage to look again, she saw the shaggy wild man sitting on
the bank six feet away from her. His thin, sinewy arms hugged his naked
legs; the long beard covered the knees on which he rested his chin; all
these clasped, folded limbs, the bare shoulders, the wild head with red
staring eyes, shook and trembled violently while the bestial creature
was making efforts to speak. It was six weeks since he had heard the
sound of his own voice. It seemed as though he had lost the faculty
of speech. He had become a dumb and despairing brute, till the woman's
sudden, unexpected cry of profound pity, the insight of her feminine
compassion discovering the complex misery of the man under the
terrifying aspect of the monster, restored him to the ranks of humanity.
This point of view is presented in his book, with a very effective
eloquence. She ended, he says, by shedding tears over him, sacred,
redeeming tears, while he also wept with joy in the manner of a
converted sinner. Directing him to hide in the bushes and wait patiently
(a police patrol was expected in the Settlement) she went away towards
the houses, promising to return at night.

As if providentially appointed to be the newly wedded wife of the
village blacksmith, the woman persuaded her husband to come out with
her, bringing some tools of his trade, a hammer, a chisel, a small
anvil.... "My fetters"--the book says--"were struck off on the banks
of the stream, in the starlight of a calm night by an athletic, taciturn
young man of the people, kneeling at my feet, while the woman like a
liberating genius stood by with clasped hands." Obviously a symbolic
couple. At the same time they furnished his regained humanity with some
decent clothing, and put heart into the new man by the information that
the seacoast of the Pacific was only a very few miles away. It could be
seen, in fact, from the top of the next ridge....

The rest of his escape does not lend itself to mystic treatment and
symbolic interpretation. He ended by finding his way to the West by
the Suez Canal route in the usual manner. Reaching the shores of South
Europe he sat down to write his autobiography--the great literary
success of its year. This book was followed by other books written with
the declared purpose of elevating humanity. In these works he preached
generally the cult of the woman. For his own part he practised it under
the rites of special devotion to the transcendental merits of a certain
Madame de S--, a lady of advanced views, no longer very young, once
upon a time the intriguing wife of a now dead and forgotten diplomat.
Her loud pretensions to be one of the leaders of modern thought and of
modern sentiment, she sheltered (like Voltaire and Mme. de Stael) on the
republican territory of Geneva. Driving through the streets in her big
landau she exhibited to the indifference of the natives and the stares
of the tourists a long-waisted, youthful figure of hieratic stiffness,
with a pair of big gleaming eyes, rolling restlessly behind a short veil
of black lace, which, coming down no further than her vividly red lips,
resembled a mask. Usually the "heroic fugitive" (this name was bestowed
upon him in a review of the English edition of his book)--the "heroic
fugitive" accompanied her, sitting, portentously bearded and darkly
bespectacled, not by her side, but opposite her, with his back to the
horses. Thus, facing each other, with no one else in the roomy carriage,
their airings suggested a conscious public manifestation. Or it may have
been unconscious. Russian simplicity often marches innocently on the
edge of cynicism for some lofty purpose. But it is a vain enterprise for
sophisticated Europe to try and understand these doings. Considering the
air of gravity extending even to the physiognomy of the coachman and the
action of the showy horses, this quaint display might have possessed
a mystic significance, but to the corrupt frivolity of a Western mind,
like my own, it seemed hardly decent.

However, it is not becoming for an obscure teacher of languages to
criticize a "heroic fugitive" of worldwide celebrity. I was aware from
hearsay that he was an industrious busy-body, hunting up his compatriots
in hotels, in private lodgings, and--I was told--conferring upon them
the honour of his notice in public gardens when a suitable opening
presented itself. I was under the impression that after a visit or
two, several months before, he had given up the ladies Haldin--no doubt
reluctantly, for there could be no question of his being a determined
person. It was perhaps to be expected that he should reappear again on
this terrible occasion, as a Russian and a revolutionist, to say the
right thing, to strike the true, perhaps a comforting, note. But I did
not like to see him sitting there. I trust that an unbecoming jealousy
of my privileged position had nothing to do with it. I made no claim to
a special standing for my silent friendship. Removed by the difference
of age and nationality as if into the sphere of another existence, I
produced, even upon myself, the effect of a dumb helpless ghost, of an
anxious immaterial thing that could only hover about without the power
to protect or guide by as much as a whisper. Since Miss Haldin with her
sure instinct had refrained from introducing me to the burly celebrity,
I would have retired quietly and returned later on, had I not met a
peculiar expression in her eyes which I interpreted as a request to
stay, with the view, perhaps, of shortening an unwelcome visit.

He picked up his hat, but only to deposit it on his knees.

"We shall meet again, Natalia Victorovna. To-day I have called only
to mark those feelings towards your honoured mother and yourself,
the nature of which you cannot doubt. I needed no urging, but
Eleanor--Madame de S-- herself has in a way sent me. She extends to you
the hand of feminine fellowship. There is positively in all the range
of human sentiments no joy and no sorrow that woman cannot understand,
elevate, and spiritualize by her interpretation. That young man newly
arrived from St. Petersburg, I have mentioned to you, is already under
the charm."

At this point Miss Haldin got up abruptly. I was glad. He did not
evidently expect anything so decisive and, at first, throwing his head
back, he tilted up his dark glasses with bland curiosity. At last,
recollecting himself, he stood up hastily, seizing his hat off his knees
with great adroitness.

"How is it, Natalia Victorovna, that you have kept aloof so long, from
what after all is--let disparaging tongues say what they like--a unique
centre of intellectual freedom and of effort to shape a high conception
of our future? In the case of your honoured mother I understand in a
measure. At her age new ideas--new faces are not perhaps.... But you!
Was it mistrust--or indifference? You must come out of your reserve.
We Russians have no right to be reserved with each other. In our
circumstances it is almost a crime against humanity. The luxury of
private grief is not for us. Nowadays the devil is not combated by
prayers and fasting. And what is fasting after all but starvation. You
must not starve yourself, Natalia Victorovna. Strength is what we want.
Spiritual strength, I mean. As to the other kind, what could withstand
us Russians if we only put it forth? Sin is different in our day, and
the way of salvation for pure souls is different too. It is no longer to
be found in monasteries but in the world, in the..."

The deep sound seemed to rise from under the floor, and one felt steeped
in it to the lips. Miss Haldin's interruption resembled the effort of
a drowning person to keep above water. She struck in with an accent of
impatience--

"But, Peter Ivanovitch, I don't mean to retire into a monastery. Who
would look for salvation there?"

"I spoke figuratively," he boomed.

"Well, then, I am speaking figuratively too. But sorrow is sorrow and
pain is pain in the old way. They make their demands upon people. One
has got to face them the best way one can. I know that the blow which
has fallen upon us so unexpectedly is only an episode in the fate of a
people. You may rest assured that I don't forget that. But just now
I have to think of my mother. How can you expect me to leave her to
herself...?"

"That is putting it in a very crude way," he protested in his great
effortless voice.

Miss Haldin did not wait for the vibration to die out.

"And run about visiting amongst a lot of strange people. The idea is
distasteful for me; and I do not know what else you may mean?"

He towered before her, enormous, deferential, cropped as close as a
convict and this big pinkish poll evoked for me the vision of a wild
head with matted locks peering through parted bushes, glimpses of naked,
tawny limbs slinking behind the masses of sodden foliage under a cloud
of flies and mosquitoes. It was an involuntary tribute to the vigour
of his writing. Nobody could doubt that he had wandered in Siberian
forests, naked and girt with a chain. The black broadcloth coat invested
his person with a character of austere decency--something recalling a
missionary.

"Do you know what I want, Natalia Victorovna?" he uttered solemnly. "I
want you to be a fanatic."

"A fanatic?"

"Yes. Faith alone won't do."

His voice dropped to a still lower tone. He raised for a moment one
thick arm; the other remained hanging down against his thigh, with the
fragile silk hat at the end.

"I shall tell you now something which I entreat you to ponder
over carefully. Listen, we need a force that would move heaven and
earth--nothing less."

The profound, subterranean note of this "nothing less" made one shudder,
almost, like the deep muttering of wind in the pipes of an organ.

"And are we to find that force in the salon of Madame de S--? Excuse
me, Peter Ivanovitch, if I permit myself to doubt it. Is not that lady a
woman of the great world, an aristocrat?"

"Prejudice!" he cried. "You astonish me. And suppose she was all that!
She is also a woman of flesh and blood. There is always something to
weigh down the spiritual side in all of us. But to make of it a reproach
is what I did not expect from you. No! I did not expect that. One would
think you have listened to some malevolent scandal."

"I have heard no gossip, I assure you. In our province how could we? But
the world speaks of her. What can there be in common in a lady of that
sort and an obscure country girl like me?"

"She is a perpetual manifestation of a noble and peerless spirit,"
he broke in. "Her charm--no, I shall not speak of her charm. But,
of course, everybody who approaches her falls under the spell....
Contradictions vanish, trouble falls away from one.... Unless I
am mistaken--but I never make a mistake in spiritual matters--you are
troubled in your soul, Natalia Victorovna."

Miss Haldin's clear eyes looked straight at his soft enormous face;
I received the impression that behind these dark spectacles of his he
could be as impudent as he chose.

"Only the other evening walking back to town from Chateau Borel with our
latest interesting arrival from Petersburg, I could notice the powerful
soothing influence--I may say reconciling influence.... There he was,
all these kilometres along the shores of the lake, silent, like a man
who has been shown the way of peace. I could feel the leaven working in
his soul, you understand. For one thing he listened to me patiently.
I myself was inspired that evening by the firm and exquisite genius
of Eleanor--Madame de S--, you know. It was a full moon and I could
observe his face. I cannot be deceived...."

Miss Haldin, looking down, seemed to hesitate.

"Well! I will think of what you said, Peter Ivanovitch. I shall try to
call as soon as I can leave mother for an hour or two safely."

Coldly as these words were said I was amazed at the concession. He
snatched her right hand with such fervour that I thought he was going
to press it to his lips or his breast. But he only held it by the
finger-tips in his great paw and shook it a little up and down while he
delivered his last volley of words.

"That's right. That's right. I haven't obtained your full confidence
as yet, Natalia Victorovna, but that will come. All in good time. The
sister of Viktor Haldin cannot be without importance.... It's simply
impossible. And no woman can remain sitting on the steps. Flowers,
tears, applause--that has had its time; it's a mediaeval conception. The
arena, the arena itself is the place for women!"

He relinquished her hand with a flourish, as if giving it to her for a
gift, and remained still, his head bowed in dignified submission before
her femininity.

"The arena!... You must descend into the arena, Natalia."

He made one step backwards, inclined his enormous body, and was gone
swiftly. The door fell to behind him. But immediately the powerful
resonance of his voice was heard addressing in the ante-room the
middle-aged servant woman who was letting him out. Whether he exhorted
her too to descend into the arena I cannot tell. The thing sounded like
a lecture, and the slight crash of the outer door cut it short suddenly.

Joseph Conrad

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