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Chapter 10

That morning wandering about his plantation, more like a frightened
soul than its creator and master, he dodged the white parasol
bobbing up here and there like a buoy adrift on a sea of dark-green
plants. The crop promised to be magnificent, and the fashionable
philosopher of the age took other than a merely scientific interest
in the experiment. His investments were judicious, but he had
always some little money lying by, for experiments.

After lunch, being left alone with Renouard, he talked a little of
cultivation and such matters. Then suddenly:

"By the way, is it true what my sister tells me, that your
plantation boys have been disturbed by a ghost?"

Renouard, who since the ladies had left the table was not keeping
such a strict watch on himself, came out of his abstraction with a
start and a stiff smile.

"My foreman had some trouble with them during my absence. They
funk working in a certain field on the slope of the hill."

"A ghost here!" exclaimed the amused professor. "Then our whole
conception of the psychology of ghosts must be revised. This
island has been uninhabited probably since the dawn of ages. How
did a ghost come here. By air or water? And why did it leave its
native haunts. Was it from misanthropy? Was he expelled from some
community of spirits?"

Renouard essayed to respond in the same tone. The words died on
his lips. Was it a man or a woman ghost, the professor inquired.

"I don't know." Renouard made an effort to appear at ease. He
had, he said, a couple of Tahitian amongst his boys--a ghost-ridden
race. They had started the scare. They had probably brought their
ghost with them.

"Let us investigate the matter, Renouard," proposed the professor
half in earnest. "We may make some interesting discoveries as to
the state of primitive minds, at any rate."

This was too much. Renouard jumped up and leaving the room went
out and walked about in front of the house. He would allow no one
to force his hand. Presently the professor joined him outside. He
carried his parasol, but had neither his book nor his pipe with
him. Amiably serious he laid his hand on his "dear young friend's"
arm.

"We are all of us a little strung up," he said. "For my part I
have been like sister Anne in the story. But I cannot see anything
coming. Anything that would be the least good for anybody--I
mean."

Renouard had recovered sufficiently to murmur coldly his regret of
this waste of time. For that was what, he supposed, the professor
had in his mind.

"Time," mused Professor Moorsom. "I don't know that time can be
wasted. But I will tell you, my dear friend, what this is: it is
an awful waste of life. I mean for all of us. Even for my sister,
who has got a headache and is gone to lie down."

He shook gently Renouard's arm. "Yes, for all of us! One may
meditate on life endlessly, one may even have a poor opinion of it-
-but the fact remains that we have only one life to live. And it
is short. Think of that, my young friend."

He released Renouard's arm and stepped out of the shade opening his
parasol. It was clear that there was something more in his mind
than mere anxiety about the date of his lectures for fashionable
audiences. What did the man mean by his confounded platitudes? To
Renouard, scared by Luiz in the morning (for he felt that nothing
could be more fatal than to have his deception unveiled otherwise
than by personal confession), this talk sounded like encouragement
or a warning from that man who seemed to him to be very brazen and
very subtle. It was like being bullied by the dead and cajoled by
the living into a throw of dice for a supreme stake.

Renouard went away to some distance from the house and threw
himself down in the shade of a tree. He lay there perfectly still
with his forehead resting on his folded arms, light-headed and
thinking. It seemed to him that he must be on fire, then that he
had fallen into a cool whirlpool, a smooth funnel of water swirling
about with nauseating rapidity. And then (it must have been a
reminiscence of his boyhood) he was walking on the dangerous thin
ice of a river, unable to turn back. . . . Suddenly it parted from
shore to shore with a loud crack like the report of a gun.

With one leap he found himself on his feet. All was peace,
stillness, sunshine. He walked away from there slowly. Had he
been a gambler he would have perhaps been supported in a measure by
the mere excitement. But he was not a gambler. He had always
disdained that artificial manner of challenging the fates. The
bungalow came into view, bright and pretty, and all about
everything was peace, stillness, sunshine. . . .

While he was plodding towards it he had a disagreeable sense of the
dead man's company at his elbow. The ghost! He seemed to be
everywhere but in his grave. Could one ever shake him off? he
wondered. At that moment Miss Moorsom came out on the verandah;
and at once, as if by a mystery of radiating waves, she roused a
great tumult in his heart, shook earth and sky together--but he
plodded on. Then like a grave song-note in the storm her voice
came to him ominously.

"Ah! Mr. Renouard. . . " He came up and smiled, but she was very
serious. "I can't keep still any longer. Is there time to walk up
this headland and back before dark?"

The shadows were lying lengthened on the ground; all was stillness
and peace. "No," said Renouard, feeling suddenly as steady as a
rock. "But I can show you a view from the central hill which your
father has not seen. A view of reefs and of broken water without
end, and of great wheeling clouds of sea-birds."

She came down the verandah steps at once and they moved off. "You
go first," he proposed, "and I'll direct you. To the left."

She was wearing a short nankin skirt, a muslin blouse; he could see
through the thin stuff the skin of her shoulders, of her arms. The
noble delicacy of her neck caused him a sort of transport. "The
path begins where these three palms are. The only palms on the
island."

"I see."

She never turned her head. After a while she observed: "This path
looks as if it had been made recently."

"Quite recently," he assented very low.

They went on climbing steadily without exchanging another word; and
when they stood on the top she gazed a long time before her. The
low evening mist veiled the further limit of the reefs. Above the
enormous and melancholy confusion, as of a fleet of wrecked
islands, the restless myriads of sea-birds rolled and unrolled dark
ribbons on the sky, gathered in clouds, soared and stooped like a
play of shadows, for they were too far for them to hear their
cries.

Renouard broke the silence in low tones.

"They'll be settling for the night presently." She made no sound.
Round them all was peace and declining sunshine. Near by, the
topmost pinnacle of Malata, resembling the top of a buried tower,
rose a rock, weather-worn, grey, weary of watching the monotonous
centuries of the Pacific. Renouard leaned his shoulders against
it. Felicia Moorsom faced him suddenly, her splendid black eyes
full on his face as though she had made up her mind at last to
destroy his wits once and for all. Dazzled, he lowered his eyelids
slowly.

"Mr. Renouard! There is something strange in all this. Tell me
where he is?"

He answered deliberately.

"On the other side of this rock. I buried him there myself."

She pressed her hands to her breast, struggled for her breath for a
moment, then: "Ohhh! . . . You buried him! . . . What sort of man
are you? . . . You dared not tell! . . . He is another of your
victims? . . . You dared not confess that evening. . . . You must
have killed him. What could he have done to you? . . . You
fastened on him some atrocious quarrel and . . ."

Her vengeful aspect, her poignant cries left him as unmoved as the
weary rock against which he leaned. He only raised his eyelids to
look at her and lowered them slowly. Nothing more. It silenced
her. And as if ashamed she made a gesture with her hand, putting
away from her that thought. He spoke, quietly ironic at first.

"Ha! the legendary Renouard of sensitive idiots--the ruthless
adventurer--the ogre with a future. That was a parrot cry, Miss
Moorsom. I don't think that the greatest fool of them all ever
dared hint such a stupid thing of me that I killed men for nothing.
No, I had noticed this man in a hotel. He had come from up country
I was told, and was doing nothing. I saw him sitting there lonely
in a corner like a sick crow, and I went over one evening to talk
to him. Just on impulse. He wasn't impressive. He was pitiful.
My worst enemy could have told you he wasn't good enough to be one
of Renouard's victims. It didn't take me long to judge that he was
drugging himself. Not drinking. Drugs."

"Ah! It's now that you are trying to murder him," she cried.

"Really. Always the Renouard of shopkeepers' legend. Listen! I
would never have been jealous of him. And yet I am jealous of the
air you breathe, of the soil you tread on, of the world that sees
you--moving free--not mine. But never mind. I rather liked him.
For a certain reason I proposed he should come to be my assistant
here. He said he believed this would save him. It did not save
him from death. It came to him as it were from nothing--just a
fall. A mere slip and tumble of ten feet into a ravine. But it
seems he had been hurt before up-country--by a horse. He ailed and
ailed. No, he was not a steel-tipped man. And his poor soul
seemed to have been damaged too. It gave way very soon."

"This is tragic!" Felicia Moorsom whispered with feeling.
Renouard's lips twitched, but his level voice continued
mercilessly.

"That's the story. He rallied a little one night and said he
wanted to tell me something. I, being a gentleman, he said, he
could confide in me. I told him that he was mistaken. That there
was a good deal of a plebeian in me, that he couldn't know. He
seemed disappointed. He muttered something about his innocence and
something that sounded like a curse on some woman, then turned to
the wall and--just grew cold."

"On a woman," cried Miss Moorsom indignantly. "What woman?"

"I wonder!" said Renouard, raising his eyes and noting the crimson
of her ear-lobes against the live whiteness of her complexion, the
sombre, as if secret, night-splendour of her eyes under the
writhing flames of her hair. "Some woman who wouldn't believe in
that poor innocence of his. . . Yes. You probably. And now you
will not believe in me--not even in me who must in truth be what I
am--even to death. No! You won't. And yet, Felicia, a woman like
you and a man like me do not often come together on this earth."

The flame of her glorious head scorched his face. He flung his hat
far away, and his suddenly lowered eyelids brought out startlingly
his resemblance to antique bronze, the profile of Pallas, still,
austere, bowed a little in the shadow of the rock. "Oh! If you
could only understand the truth that is in me!" he added.

She waited, as if too astounded to speak, till he looked up again,
and then with unnatural force as if defending herself from some
unspoken aspersion, "It's I who stand for truth here! Believe in
you! In you, who by a heartless falsehood--and nothing else,
nothing else, do you hear?--have brought me here, deceived,
cheated, as in some abominable farce!" She sat down on a boulder,
rested her chin in her hands, in the pose of simple grief--mourning
for herself.

"It only wanted this. Why! Oh! Why is it that ugliness,
ridicule, and baseness must fall across my path."

On that height, alone with the sky, they spoke to each other as if
the earth had fallen away from under their feet.

"Are you grieving for your dignity? He was a mediocre soul and
could have given you but an unworthy existence."

She did not even smile at those words, but, superb, as if lifting a
corner of the veil, she turned on him slowly.

"And do you imagine I would have devoted myself to him for such a
purpose! Don't you know that reparation was due to him from me? A
sacred debt--a fine duty. To redeem him would not have been in my
power--I know it. But he was blameless, and it was for me to come
forward. Don't you see that in the eyes of the world nothing could
have rehabilitated him so completely as his marriage with me? No
word of evil could be whispered of him after I had given him my
hand. As to giving myself up to anything less than the shaping of
a man's destiny--if I thought I could do it I would abhor myself. .
. ." She spoke with authority in her deep fascinating, unemotional
voice. Renouard meditated, gloomy, as if over some sinister riddle
of a beautiful sphinx met on the wild road of his life.

"Yes. Your father was right. You are one of these aristocrats . .
."

She drew herself up haughtily.

"What do you say? My father! . . . I an aristocrat."

"Oh! I don't mean that you are like the men and women of the time
of armours, castles, and great deeds. Oh, no! They stood on the
naked soil, had traditions to be faithful to, had their feet on
this earth of passions and death which is not a hothouse. They
would have been too plebeian for you since they had to lead, to
suffer with, to understand the commonest humanity. No, you are
merely of the topmost layer, disdainful and superior, the mere pure
froth and bubble on the inscrutable depths which some day will toss
you out of existence. But you are you! You are you! You are the
eternal love itself--only, O Divinity, it isn't your body, it is
your soul that is made of foam."

She listened as if in a dream. He had succeeded so well in his
effort to drive back the flood of his passion that his life itself
seemed to run with it out of his body. At that moment he felt as
one dead speaking. But the headlong wave returning with tenfold
force flung him on her suddenly, with open arms and blazing eyes.
She found herself like a feather in his grasp, helpless, unable to
struggle, with her feet off the ground. But this contact with her,
maddening like too much felicity, destroyed its own end. Fire ran
through his veins, turned his passion to ashes, burnt him out and
left him empty, without force--almost without desire. He let her
go before she could cry out. And she was so used to the forms of
repression enveloping, softening the crude impulses of old humanity
that she no longer believed in their existence as if it were an
exploded legend. She did not recognise what had happened to her.
She came safe out of his arms, without a struggle, not even having
felt afraid.

"What's the meaning of this?" she said, outraged but calm in a
scornful way.

He got down on his knees in silence, bent low to her very feet,
while she looked down at him, a little surprised, without
animosity, as if merely curious to see what he would do. Then,
while he remained bowed to the ground pressing the hem of her skirt
to his lips, she made a slight movement. He got up.

"No," he said. "Were you ever so much mine what could I do with
you without your consent? No. You don't conquer a wraith, cold
mist, stuff of dreams, illusion. It must come to you and cling to
your breast. And then! Oh! And then!"

All ecstasy, all expression went out of his face.

"Mr. Renouard," she said, "though you can have no claim on my
consideration after having decoyed me here for the vile purpose,
apparently, of gloating over me as your possible prey, I will tell
you that I am not perhaps the extraordinary being you think I am.
You may believe me. Here I stand for truth itself."

"What's that to me what you are?" he answered. "At a sign from you
I would climb up to the seventh heaven to bring you down to earth
for my own--and if I saw you steeped to the lips in vice, in crime,
in mud, I would go after you, take you to my arms--wear you for an
incomparable jewel on my breast. And that's love--true love--the
gift and the curse of the gods. There is no other."

The truth vibrating in his voice made her recoil slightly, for she
was not fit to hear it--not even a little--not even one single time
in her life. It was revolting to her; and in her trouble, perhaps
prompted by the suggestion of his name or to soften the harshness
of expression, for she was obscurely moved, she spoke to him in
French.

"Assez! J'ai horreur de tout cela," she said.

He was white to his very lips, but he was trembling no more. The
dice had been cast, and not even violence could alter the throw.
She passed by him unbendingly, and he followed her down the path.
After a time she heard him saying:

"And your dream is to influence a human destiny?"

"Yes!" she answered curtly, unabashed, with a woman's complete
assurance.

"Then you may rest content. You have done it."

She shrugged her shoulders slightly. But just before reaching the
end of the path she relented, stopped, and went back to him.

"I don't suppose you are very anxious for people to know how near
you came to absolute turpitude. You may rest easy on that point.
I shall speak to my father, of course, and we will agree to say
that he has died--nothing more."

"Yes," said Renouard in a lifeless voice. "He is dead. His very
ghost shall be done with presently."

She went on, but he remained standing stock still in the dusk. She
had already reached the three palms when she heard behind her a
loud peal of laughter, cynical and joyless, such as is heard in
smoking-rooms at the end of a scandalous story. It made her feel
positively faint for a moment.

Joseph Conrad

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