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Chapter 2

His friend the Editor turned to him squarely. "Willie took me into
consultation, and since he seems to have let you in I may just as
well tell you what is up. I shall try to be as short as I can.
But in confidence--mind!"

He waited. Renouard, his uneasiness growing on him unreasonably,
assented by a nod, and the other lost no time in beginning.
Professor Moorsom--physicist and philosopher--fine head of white
hair, to judge from the photographs--plenty of brains in the head
too--all these famous books--surely even Renouard would know. . . .

Renouard muttered moodily that it wasn't his sort of reading, and
his friend hastened to assure him earnestly that neither was it his
sort--except as a matter of business and duty, for the literary
page of that newspaper which was his property (and the pride of his
life). The only literary newspaper in the Antipodes could not
ignore the fashionable philosopher of the age. Not that anybody
read Moorsom at the Antipodes, but everybody had heard of him--
women, children, dock labourers, cabmen. The only person (besides
himself) who had read Moorsom, as far as he knew, was old Dunster,
who used to call himself a Moorsomian (or was it Moorsomite) years
and years ago, long before Moorsom had worked himself up into the
great swell he was now, in every way. . . Socially too. Quite the
fashion in the highest world.

Renouard listened with profoundly concealed attention. "A
charlatan," he muttered languidly.

"Well--no. I should say not. I shouldn't wonder though if most of
his writing had been done with his tongue in his cheek. Of course.
That's to be expected. I tell you what: the only really honest
writing is to be found in newspapers and nowhere else--and don't
you forget it."

The Editor paused with a basilisk stare till Renouard had conceded
a casual: "I dare say," and only then went on to explain that old
Dunster, during his European tour, had been made rather a lion of
in London, where he stayed with the Moorsoms--he meant the father
and the girl. The professor had been a widower for a long time.

"She doesn't look just a girl," muttered Renouard. The other
agreed. Very likely not. Had been playing the London hostess to
tip-top people ever since she put her hair up, probably.

"I don't expect to see any girlish bloom on her when I do have the
privilege," he continued. "Those people are staying with the
Dunster's incog., in a manner, you understand--something like
royalties. They don't deceive anybody, but they want to be left to
themselves. We have even kept them out of the paper--to oblige old
Dunster. But we shall put your arrival in--our local celebrity."

"Heavens!"

"Yes. Mr. G. Renouard, the explorer, whose indomitable energy,
etc., and who is now working for the prosperity of our country in
another way on his Malata plantation . . . And, by the by, how's
the silk plant--flourishing?"

"Yes."

"Did you bring any fibre?"

"Schooner-full."

"I see. To be transhipped to Liverpool for experimental
manufacture, eh? Eminent capitalists at home very much interested,
aren't they?"

"They are."

A silence fell. Then the Editor uttered slowly--"You will be a
rich man some day."

Renouard's face did not betray his opinion of that confident
prophecy. He didn't say anything till his friend suggested in the
same meditative voice -

"You ought to interest Moorsom in the affair too--since Willie has
let you in."

"A philosopher!"

"I suppose he isn't above making a bit of money. And he may be
clever at it for all you know. I have a notion that he's a fairly
practical old cove. . . . Anyhow," and here the tone of the speaker
took on a tinge of respect, "he has made philosophy pay."

Renouard raised his eyes, repressed an impulse to jump up, and got
out of the arm-chair slowly. "It isn't perhaps a bad idea," he
said. "I'll have to call there in any case."

He wondered whether he had managed to keep his voice steady, its
tone unconcerned enough; for his emotion was strong though it had
nothing to do with the business aspect of this suggestion. He
moved in the room in vague preparation for departure, when he heard
a soft laugh. He spun about quickly with a frown, but the Editor
was not laughing at him. He was chuckling across the big desk at
the wall: a preliminary of some speech for which Renouard,
recalled to himself, waited silent and mistrustful.

"No! You would never guess! No one would ever guess what these
people are after. Willie's eyes bulged out when he came to me with
the tale."

"They always do," remarked Renouard with disgust. "He's stupid."

"He was startled. And so was I after he told me. It's a search
party. They are out looking for a man. Willie's soft heart's
enlisted in the cause."

Renouard repeated: "Looking for a man."

He sat down suddenly as if on purpose to stare. "Did Willie come
to you to borrow the lantern," he asked sarcastically, and got up
again for no apparent reason.

"What lantern?" snapped the puzzled Editor, and his face darkened
with suspicion. "You, Renouard, are always alluding to things that
aren't clear to me. If you were in politics, I, as a party
journalist, wouldn't trust you further than I could see you. Not
an inch further. You are such a sophisticated beggar. Listen:
the man is the man Miss Moorsom was engaged to for a year. He
couldn't have been a nobody, anyhow. But he doesn't seem to have
been very wise. Hard luck for the young lady."

He spoke with feeling. It was clear that what he had to tell
appealed to his sentiment. Yet, as an experienced man of the
world, he marked his amused wonder. Young man of good family and
connections, going everywhere, yet not merely a man about town, but
with a foot in the two big F's.

Renouard lounging aimlessly in the room turned round: "And what
the devil's that?" he asked faintly.

"Why Fashion and Finance," explained the Editor. "That's how I
call it. There are the three R's at the bottom of the social
edifice and the two F's on the top. See?"

"Ha! Ha! Excellent! Ha! Ha!" Renouard laughed with stony eyes.

"And you proceed from one set to the other in this democratic age,"
the Editor went on with unperturbed complacency. "That is if you
are clever enough. The only danger is in being too clever. And I
think something of the sort happened here. That swell I am
speaking of got himself into a mess. Apparently a very ugly mess
of a financial character. You will understand that Willie did not
go into details with me. They were not imparted to him with very
great abundance either. But a bad mess--something of the criminal
order. Of course he was innocent. But he had to quit all the
same."

"Ha! Ha!" Renouard laughed again abruptly, staring as before. "So
there's one more big F in the tale."

"What do you mean?" inquired the Editor quickly, with an air as if
his patent were being infringed.

"I mean--Fool."

"No. I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't say that."

"Well--let him be a scoundrel then. What the devil do I care."

"But hold on! You haven't heard the end of the story."

Renouard, his hat on his head already, sat down with the disdainful
smile of a man who had discounted the moral of the story. Still he
sat down and the Editor swung his revolving chair right round. He
was full of unction.

"Imprudent, I should say. In many ways money is as dangerous to
handle as gunpowder. You can't be too careful either as to who you
are working with. Anyhow there was a mighty flashy burst up, a
sensation, and--his familiar haunts knew him no more. But before
he vanished he went to see Miss Moorsom. That very fact argues for
his innocence--don't it? What was said between them no man knows--
unless the professor had the confidence from his daughter. There
couldn't have been much to say. There was nothing for it but to
let him go--was there?--for the affair had got into the papers.
And perhaps the kindest thing would have been to forget him.
Anyway the easiest. Forgiveness would have been more difficult, I
fancy, for a young lady of spirit and position drawn into an ugly
affair like that. Any ordinary young lady, I mean. Well, the
fellow asked nothing better than to be forgotten, only he didn't
find it easy to do so himself, because he would write home now and
then. Not to any of his friends though. He had no near relations.
The professor had been his guardian. No, the poor devil wrote now
and then to an old retired butler of his late father, somewhere in
the country, forbidding him at the same time to let any one know of
his whereabouts. So that worthy old ass would go up and dodge
about the Moorsom's town house, perhaps waylay Miss Moorsom's maid,
and then would write to 'Master Arthur' that the young lady looked
well and happy, or some such cheerful intelligence. I dare say he
wanted to be forgotten, but I shouldn't think he was much cheered
by the news. What would you say?"

Renouard, his legs stretched out and his chin on his breast, said
nothing. A sensation which was not curiosity, but rather a vague
nervous anxiety, distinctly unpleasant, like a mysterious symptom
of some malady, prevented him from getting up and going away.

"Mixed feelings," the Editor opined. "Many fellows out here
receive news from home with mixed feelings. But what will his
feelings be when he hears what I am going to tell you now? For we
know he has not heard yet. Six months ago a city clerk, just a
common drudge of finance, gets himself convicted of a common
embezzlement or something of that kind. Then seeing he's in for a
long sentence he thinks of making his conscience comfortable, and
makes a clean breast of an old story of tampered with, or else
suppressed, documents, a story which clears altogether the honesty
of our ruined gentleman. That embezzling fellow was in a position
to know, having been employed by the firm before the smash. There
was no doubt about the character being cleared--but where the
cleared man was nobody could tell. Another sensation in society.
And then Miss Moorsom says: 'He will come back to claim me, and
I'll marry him.' But he didn't come back. Between you and me I
don't think he was much wanted--except by Miss Moorsom. I imagine
she's used to have her own way. She grew impatient, and declared
that if she knew where the man was she would go to him. But all
that could be got out of the old butler was that the last envelope
bore the postmark of our beautiful city; and that this was the only
address of 'Master Arthur' that he ever had. That and no more. In
fact the fellow was at his last gasp--with a bad heart. Miss
Moorsom wasn't allowed to see him. She had gone herself into the
country to learn what she could, but she had to stay downstairs
while the old chap's wife went up to the invalid. She brought down
the scrap of intelligence I've told you of. He was already too far
gone to be cross-examined on it, and that very night he died. He
didn't leave behind him much to go by, did he? Our Willie hinted
to me that there had been pretty stormy days in the professor's
house, but--here they are. I have a notion she isn't the kind of
everyday young lady who may be permitted to gallop about the world
all by herself--eh? Well, I think it rather fine of her, but I
quite understand that the professor needed all his philosophy under
the circumstances. She is his only child now--and brilliant--what?
Willie positively spluttered trying to describe her to me; and I
could see directly you came in that you had an uncommon
experience."

Renouard, with an irritated gesture, tilted his hat more forward on
his eyes, as though he were bored. The Editor went on with the
remark that to be sure neither he (Renouard) nor yet Willie were
much used to meet girls of that remarkable superiority. Willie
when learning business with a firm in London, years before, had
seen none but boarding-house society, he guessed. As to himself in
the good old days, when he trod the glorious flags of Fleet Street,
he neither had access to, nor yet would have cared for the swells.
Nothing interested him then but parliamentary politics and the
oratory of the House of Commons.

He paid to this not very distant past the tribute of a tender,
reminiscent smile, and returned to his first idea that for a
society girl her action was rather fine. All the same the
professor could not be very pleased. The fellow if he was as pure
as a lily now was just about as devoid of the goods of the earth.
And there were misfortunes, however undeserved, which damaged a
man's standing permanently. On the other hand, it was difficult to
oppose cynically a noble impulse--not to speak of the great love at
the root of it. Ah! Love! And then the lady was quite capable of
going off by herself. She was of age, she had money of her own,
plenty of pluck too. Moorsom must have concluded that it was more
truly paternal, more prudent too, and generally safer all round to
let himself be dragged into this chase. The aunt came along for
the same reasons. It was given out at home as a trip round the
world of the usual kind.

Renouard had risen and remained standing with his heart beating,
and strangely affected by this tale, robbed as it was of all
glamour by the prosaic personality of the narrator. The Editor
added: "I've been asked to help in the search--you know."

Renouard muttered something about an appointment and went out into
the street. His inborn sanity could not defend him from a misty
creeping jealousy. He thought that obviously no man of that sort
could be worthy of such a woman's devoted fidelity. Renouard,
however, had lived long enough to reflect that a man's activities,
his views, and even his ideas may be very inferior to his
character; and moved by a delicate consideration for that splendid
girl he tried to think out for the man a character of inward
excellence and outward gifts--some extraordinary seduction. But in
vain. Fresh from months of solitude and from days at sea, her
splendour presented itself to him absolutely unconquerable in its
perfection, unless by her own folly. It was easier to suspect her
of this than to imagine in the man qualities which would be worthy
of her. Easier and less degrading. Because folly may be generous-
-could be nothing else but generosity in her; whereas to imagine
her subjugated by something common was intolerable.

Because of the force of the physical impression he had received
from her personality (and such impressions are the real origins of
the deepest movements of our soul) this conception of her was even
inconceivable. But no Prince Charming has ever lived out of a
fairy tale. He doesn't walk the worlds of Fashion and Finance--and
with a stumbling gait at that. Generosity. Yes. It was her
generosity. But this generosity was altogether regal in its
splendour, almost absurd in its lavishness--or, perhaps, divine.

In the evening, on board his schooner, sitting on the rail, his
arms folded on his breast and his eyes fixed on the deck, he let
the darkness catch him unawares in the midst of a meditation on the
mechanism of sentiment and the springs of passion. And all the
time he had an abiding consciousness of her bodily presence. The
effect on his senses had been so penetrating that in the middle of
the night, rousing up suddenly, wide-eyed in the darkness of his
cabin, he did not create a faint mental vision of her person for
himself, but, more intimately affected, he scented distinctly the
faint perfume she used, and could almost have sworn that he had
been awakened by the soft rustle of her dress. He even sat up
listening in the dark for a time, then sighed and lay down again,
not agitated but, on the contrary, oppressed by the sensation of
something that had happened to him and could not be undone.

Joseph Conrad

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