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Chapter 3

"We remained looking at each other for a time."

"Do you know who he is?"

Miss Haldin, coming forward, put this question to me in English.

I took her offered hand.

"Everybody knows. He is a revolutionary feminist, a great writer, if
you like, and--how shall I say it--the--the familiar guest of Madame de
S--'s mystic revolutionary salon."

Miss Haldin passed her hand over her forehead.

"You know, he was with me for more than an hour before you came in. I
was so glad mother was lying down. She has many nights without sleep,
and then sometimes in the middle of the day she gets a rest of several
hours. It is sheer exhaustion--but still, I am thankful.... If it
were not for these intervals...."

She looked at me and, with that extraordinary penetration which used to
disconcert me, shook her head.

"No. She would not go mad."

"My dear young lady," I cried, by way of protest, the more shocked
because in my heart I was far from thinking Mrs. Haldin quite sane.

"You don't know what a fine, lucid intellect mother had," continued
Nathalie Haldin, with her calm, clear-eyed simplicity, which seemed to
me always to have a quality of heroism.

"I am sure...." I murmured.

"I darkened mother's room and came out here. I've wanted for so long to
think quietly."

She paused, then, without giving any sign of distress, added, "It's so
difficult," and looked at me with a strange fixity, as if watching for a
sign of dissent or surprise.

I gave neither. I was irresistibly impelled to say--

"The visit from that gentleman has not made it any easier, I fear."

Miss Haldin stood before me with a peculiar expression in her eyes.

"I don't pretend to understand completely. Some guide one must have,
even if one does not wholly give up the direction of one's conduct to
him. I am an inexperienced girl, but I am not slavish, There has been
too much of that in Russia. Why should I not listen to him? There is no
harm in having one's thoughts directed. But I don't mind confessing
to you that I have not been completely candid with Peter Ivanovitch. I
don't quite know what prevented me at the moment...."

She walked away suddenly from me to a distant part of the room; but
it was only to open and shut a drawer in a bureau. She returned with
a piece of paper in her hand. It was thin and blackened with close
handwriting. It was obviously a letter.

"I wanted to read you the very words," she said. "This is one of my poor
brother's letters. He never doubted. How could he doubt? They make only
such a small handful, these miserable oppressors, before the unanimous
will of our people."

"Your brother believed in the power of a people's will to achieve

"It was his religion," declared Miss Haldin.

I looked at her calm face and her animated eyes.

"Of course the will must be awakened, inspired, concentrated," she went
on. "That is the true task of real agitators. One has got to give up
one's life to it. The degradation of servitude, the absolutist lies must
be uprooted and swept out. Reform is impossible. There is nothing to
reform. There is no legality, there are no institutions. There are
only arbitrary decrees. There is only a handful of cruel--perhaps
blind--officials against a nation."

The letter rustled slightly in her hand. I glanced down at the
flimsy blackened pages whose very handwriting seemed cabalistic,
incomprehensible to the experience of Western Europe.

"Stated like this," I confessed, "the problem seems simple enough. But I
fear I shall not see it solved. And if you go back to Russia I know that
I shall not see you again. Yet once more I say: go back! Don't suppose
that I am thinking of your preservation. No! I know that you will not
be returning to personal safety. But I had much rather think of you in
danger there than see you exposed to what may be met here."

"I tell you what," said Miss Haldin, after a moment of reflection. "I
believe that you hate revolution; you fancy it's not quite honest. You
belong to a people which has made a bargain with fate and wouldn't like
to be rude to it. But we have made no bargain. It was never offered to
us--so much liberty for so much hard cash. You shrink from the idea
of revolutionary action for those you think well of as if it were
something--how shall I say it--not quite decent."

I bowed my head.

"You are quite right," I said. "I think very highly of you"

"Don't suppose I do not know it," she began hurriedly. "Your friendship
has been very valuable."

"I have done little else but look on."

She was a little flushed under the eyes.

"There is a way of looking on which is valuable I have felt less lonely
because of it. It's difficult to explain."

"Really? Well, I too have felt less lonely. That's easy to explain,
though. But it won't go on much longer. The last thing I want to tell
you is this: in a real revolution--not a simple dynastic change or a
mere reform of institutions--in a real revolution the best characters
do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of
narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards
comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time.
Such are the chiefs and the leaders. You will notice that I have left
out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane,
and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a
movement--but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of
a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of
disenchantment--often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals
caricatured--that is the definition of revolutionary success. There have
been in every revolution hearts broken by such successes. But enough of
that. My meaning is that I don't want you to be a victim."

"If I could believe all you have said I still wouldn't think of myself,"
protested Miss Haldin. "I would take liberty from any hand as a hungry
man would snatch at a piece of bread. The true progress must begin
after. And for that the right men shall be found. They are already
amongst us. One comes upon them in their obscurity, unknown, preparing

She spread out the letter she had kept in her hand all the time, and
looking down at it--

"Yes! One comes upon such men!" she repeated, and then read out the
words, "Unstained, lofty, and solitary existences."

Folding up the letter, while I looked at her interrogatively, she

"These are the words which my brother applies to a young man he came to
know in St. Petersburg. An intimate friend, I suppose. It must be. His
is the only name my brother mentions in all his correspondence with me.
Absolutely the only one, and--would you believe it?--the man is here. He
arrived recently in Geneva."

"Have you seen him?" I inquired. "But, of course; you must have seen

"No! No! I haven't! I didn't know he was here. It's Peter Ivanovitch
himself who told me. You have heard him yourself mentioning a new
arrival from Petersburg.... Well, that is the man of 'unstained,
lofty, and solitary existence.' My brother's friend!"

"Compromised politically, I suppose," I remarked.

"I don't know. Yes. It must be so. Who knows! Perhaps it was this very
friendship with my brother which.... But no! It is scarcely possible.
Really, I know nothing except what Peter Ivanovitch told me of him. He
has brought a letter of introduction from Father Zosim--you know, the
priest-democrat; you have heard of Father Zosim?"

"Oh yes. The famous Father Zosim was staying here in Geneva for some two
months about a year ago," I said. "When he left here he seems to have
disappeared from the world."

"It appears that he is at work in Russia again. Somewhere in the
centre," Miss Haldin said, with animation. "But please don't mention
that to any one--don't let it slip from you, because if it got into the
papers it would be dangerous for him."

"You are anxious, of course, to meet that friend of your brother?" I

Miss Haldin put the letter into her pocket. Her eyes looked beyond my
shoulder at the door of her mother's room.

"Not here," she murmured. "Not for the first time, at least."

After a moment of silence I said good-bye, but Miss Haldin followed me
into the ante-room, closing the door behind us carefully.

"I suppose you guess where I mean to go tomorrow?"

"You have made up your mind to call on Madame de S--."

"Yes. I am going to the Chateau Borel. I must."

"What do you expect to hear there?" I asked, in a low voice.

I wondered if she were not deluding herself with some impossible hope.
It was not that, however.

"Only think--such a friend. The only man mentioned in his letters. He
would have something to give me, if nothing more than a few poor words.
It may be something said and thought in those last days. Would you want
me to turn my back on what is left of my poor brother--a friend?"

"Certainly not," I said. "I quite understand your pious curiosity."

"--Unstained, lofty, and solitary existences," she murmured to herself.
"There are! There are! Well, let me question one of them about the loved

"How do you know, though, that you will meet him there? Is he staying in
the Chateau as a guest--do you suppose?"

"I can't really tell," she confessed. "He brought a written introduction
from Father Zosim--who, it seems, is a friend of Madame de S-- too. She
can't be such a worthless woman after all."

"There were all sorts of rumours afloat about Father Zosim himself," I

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Calumny is a weapon of our government too. It's well known. Oh yes! It
is a fact that Father Zosim had the protection of the Governor-General
of a certain province. We talked on the subject with my brother two
years ago, I remember. But his work was good. And now he is proscribed.
What better proof can one require. But no matter what that priest was
or is. All that cannot affect my brother's friend. If I don't meet him
there I shall ask these people for his address. And, of course, mother
must see him too, later on. There is no guessing what he may have to
tell us. It would be a mercy if mamma could be soothed. You know what
she imagines. Some explanation perhaps may be found, or--or even made
up, perhaps. It would be no sin."

"Certainly," I said, "it would be no sin. It may be a mistake, though."

"I want her only to recover some of her old spirit. While she is like
this I cannot think of anything calmly."

"Do you mean to invent some sort of pious fraud for your mother's sake?"
I asked.

"Why fraud? Such a friend is sure to know something of my brother in
these last days. He could tell us.... There is something in the
facts which will not let me rest. I am certain he meant to join us
abroad--that he had some plans--some great patriotic action in view;
not only for himself, but for both of us. I trusted in that. I looked
forward to the time! Oh! with such hope and impatience. I could have
helped. And now suddenly this appearance of recklessness--as if he had
not cared...."

She remained silent for a time, then obstinately she concluded--

"I want to know...."

Thinking it over, later on, while I walked slowly away from the
Boulevard des Philosophes, I asked myself critically, what precisely was
it that she wanted to know? What I had heard of her history was enough
to give me a clue. In the educational establishment for girls where Miss
Haldin finished her studies she was looked upon rather unfavourably.
She was suspected of holding independent views on matters settled by
official teaching. Afterwards, when the two ladies returned to their
country place, both mother and daughter, by speaking their minds openly
on public events, had earned for themselves a reputation of liberalism.
The three-horse trap of the district police-captain began to be seen
frequently in their village. "I must keep an eye on the peasants"--so he
explained his visits up at the house. "Two lonely ladies must be looked
after a little." He would inspect the walls as though he wanted to
pierce them with his eyes, peer at the photographs, turn over the books
in the drawing-room negligently, and after the usual refreshments,
would depart. But the old priest of the village came one evening in the
greatest distress and agitation, to confess that he--the priest--had
been ordered to watch and ascertain in other ways too (such as using his
spiritual power with the servants) all that was going on in the house,
and especially in respect of the visitors these ladies received, who
they were, the length of their stay, whether any of them were strangers
to that part of the country, and so on. The poor, simple old man was in
an agony of humiliation and terror. "I came to warn you. Be cautious in
your conduct, for the love of God. I am burning with shame, but there is
no getting out from under the net. I shall have to tell them what I
see, because if I did not there is my deacon. He would make the worst
of things to curry favour. And then my son-in-law, the husband of my
Parasha, who is a writer in the Government Domain office; they would
soon kick him out--and maybe send him away somewhere." The old man
lamented the necessities of the times--"when people do not agree
somehow" and wiped his eyes. He did not wish to spend the evening of his
days with a shaven head in the penitent's cell of some monastery--"and
subjected to all the severities of ecclesiastical discipline; for
they would show no mercy to an old man," he groaned. He became almost
hysterical, and the two ladies, full of commiseration, soothed him the
best they could before they let him go back to his cottage. But, as a
matter of fact, they had very few visitors. The neighbours--some of them
old friends--began to keep away; a few from timidity, others with marked
disdain, being grand people that came only for the summer--Miss Haldin
explained to me--aristocrats, reactionaries. It was a solitary existence
for a young girl. Her relations with her mother were of the tenderest
and most open kind; but Mrs. Haldin had seen the experiences of her
own generation, its sufferings, its deceptions, its apostasies too. Her
affection for her children was expressed by the suppression of all signs
of anxiety. She maintained a heroic reserve. To Nathalie Haldin, her
brother with his Petersburg existence, not enigmatical in the least
(there could be no doubt of what he felt or thought) but conducted a
little mysteriously, was the only visible representative of a proscribed
liberty. All the significance of freedom, its indefinite promises, lived
in their long discussions, which breathed the loftiest hope of action
and faith in success. Then, suddenly, the action, the hopes, came to
an end with the details ferreted out by the English journalist. The
concrete fact, the fact of his death remained! but it remained obscure
in its deeper causes. She felt herself abandoned without explanation.
But she did not suspect him. What she wanted was to learn almost at any
cost how she could remain faithful to his departed spirit.

Joseph Conrad

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