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Chapter 4

He went on board his schooner. She lay white, and as if suspended,
in the crepuscular atmosphere of sunset mingling with the ashy
gleam of the vast anchorage. He tried to keep his thoughts as
sober, as reasonable, as measured as his words had been, lest they
should get away from him and cause some sort of moral disaster.
What he was afraid of in the coming night was sleeplessness and the
endless strain of that wearisome task. It had to be faced however.
He lay on his back, sighing profoundly in the dark, and suddenly
beheld his very own self, carrying a small bizarre lamp, reflected
in a long mirror inside a room in an empty and unfurnished palace.
In this startling image of himself he recognised somebody he had to
follow--the frightened guide of his dream. He traversed endless
galleries, no end of lofty halls, innumerable doors. He lost
himself utterly--he found his way again. Room succeeded room. At
last the lamp went out, and he stumbled against some object which,
when he stooped for it, he found to be very cold and heavy to lift.
The sickly white light of dawn showed him the head of a statue.
Its marble hair was done in the bold lines of a helmet, on its lips
the chisel had left a faint smile, and it resembled Miss Moorsom.
While he was staring at it fixedly, the head began to grow light in
his fingers, to diminish and crumble to pieces, and at last turned
into a handful of dust, which was blown away by a puff of wind so
chilly that he woke up with a desperate shiver and leaped headlong
out of his bed-place. The day had really come. He sat down by the
cabin table, and taking his head between his hands, did not stir
for a very long time.

Very quiet, he set himself to review this dream. The lamp, of
course, he connected with the search for a man. But on closer
examination he perceived that the reflection of himself in the
mirror was not really the true Renouard, but somebody else whose
face he could not remember. In the deserted palace he recognised a
sinister adaptation by his brain of the long corridors with many
doors, in the great building in which his friend's newspaper was
lodged on the first floor. The marble head with Miss Moorsom's
face! Well! What other face could he have dreamed of? And her
complexion was fairer than Parian marble, than the heads of angels.
The wind at the end was the morning breeze entering through the
open porthole and touching his face before the schooner could swing
to the chilly gust.

Yes! And all this rational explanation of the fantastic made it
only more mysterious and weird. There was something daemonic in
that dream. It was one of those experiences which throw a man out
of conformity with the established order of his kind and make him a
creature of obscure suggestions.

Henceforth, without ever trying to resist, he went every afternoon
to the house where she lived. He went there as passively as if in
a dream. He could never make out how he had attained the footing
of intimacy in the Dunster mansion above the bay--whether on the
ground of personal merit or as the pioneer of the vegetable silk
industry. It must have been the last, because he remembered
distinctly, as distinctly as in a dream, hearing old Dunster once
telling him that his next public task would be a careful survey of
the Northern Districts to discover tracts suitable for the
cultivation of the silk plant. The old man wagged his beard at him
sagely. It was indeed as absurd as a dream.

Willie of course would be there in the evening. But he was more of
a figure out of a nightmare, hovering about the circle of chairs in
his dress-clothes like a gigantic, repulsive, and sentimental bat.
"Do away with the beastly cocoons all over the world," he buzzed in
his blurred, water-logged voice. He affected a great horror of
insects of all kinds. One evening he appeared with a red flower in
his button-hole. Nothing could have been more disgustingly
fantastic. And he would also say to Renouard: "You may yet change
the history of our country. For economic conditions do shape the
history of nations. Eh? What?" And he would turn to Miss Moorsom
for approval, lowering protectingly his spatulous nose and looking
up with feeling from under his absurd eyebrows, which grew thin, in
the manner of canebrakes, out of his spongy skin. For this large,
bilious creature was an economist and a sentimentalist, facile to
tears, and a member of the Cobden Club.

In order to see as little of him as possible Renouard began coming
earlier so as to get away before his arrival, without curtailing
too much the hours of secret contemplation for which he lived. He
had given up trying to deceive himself. His resignation was
without bounds. He accepted the immense misfortune of being in
love with a woman who was in search of another man only to throw
herself into his arms. With such desperate precision he defined in
his thoughts the situation, the consciousness of which traversed
like a sharp arrow the sudden silences of general conversation.
The only thought before which he quailed was the thought that this
could not last; that it must come to an end. He feared it
instinctively as a sick man may fear death. For it seemed to him
that it must be the death of him followed by a lightless,
bottomless pit. But his resignation was not spared the torments of
jealousy: the cruel, insensate, poignant, and imbecile jealousy,
when it seems that a woman betrays us simply by this that she
exists, that she breathes--and when the deep movements of her
nerves or her soul become a matter of distracting suspicion, of
killing doubt, of mortal anxiety.

In the peculiar condition of their sojourn Miss Moorsom went out
very little. She accepted this seclusion at the Dunsters' mansion
as in a hermitage, and lived there, watched over by a group of old
people, with the lofty endurance of a condescending and strong-
headed goddess. It was impossible to say if she suffered from
anything in the world, and whether this was the insensibility of a
great passion concentrated on itself, or a perfect restraint of
manner, or the indifference of superiority so complete as to be
sufficient to itself. But it was visible to Renouard that she took
some pleasure in talking to him at times. Was it because he was
the only person near her age? Was this, then, the secret of his
admission to the circle?

He admired her voice as well poised as her movements, as her
attitudes. He himself had always been a man of tranquil tones.
But the power of fascination had torn him out of his very nature so
completely that to preserve his habitual calmness from going to
pieces had become a terrible effort.

He used to go from her on board the schooner exhausted, broken,
shaken up, as though he had been put to the most exquisite torture.
When he saw her approaching he always had a moment of
hallucination. She was a misty and fair creature, fitted for
invisible music, for the shadows of love, for the murmurs of
waters. After a time (he could not be always staring at the
ground) he would summon up all his resolution and look at her.
There was a sparkle in the clear obscurity of her eyes; and when
she turned them on him they seemed to give a new meaning to life.
He would say to himself that another man would have found long
before the happy release of madness, his wits burnt to cinders in
that radiance. But no such luck for him. His wits had come
unscathed through the furnaces of hot suns, of blazing deserts, of
flaming angers against the weaknesses of men and the obstinate
cruelties of hostile nature.

Being sane he had to be constantly on his guard against falling
into adoring silences or breaking out into wild speeches. He had
to keep watch on his eyes, his limbs, on the muscles of his face.
Their conversations were such as they could be between these two
people: she a young lady fresh from the thick twilight of four
million people and the artificiality of several London seasons; he
the man of definite conquering tasks, the familiar of wide
horizons, and in his very repose holding aloof from these
agglomerations of units in which one loses one's importance even to
oneself. They had no common conversational small change. They had
to use the great pieces of general ideas, but they exchanged them
trivially. It was no serious commerce. Perhaps she had not much
of that coin. Nothing significant came from her. It could not be
said that she had received from the contacts of the external world
impressions of a personal kind, different from other women. What
was ravishing in her was her quietness and, in her grave attitudes,
the unfailing brilliance of her femininity. He did not know what
there was under that ivory forehead so splendidly shaped, so
gloriously crowned. He could not tell what were her thoughts, her
feelings. Her replies were reflective, always preceded by a short
silence, while he hung on her lips anxiously. He felt himself in
the presence of a mysterious being in whom spoke an unknown voice,
like the voice of oracles, bringing everlasting unrest to the
heart.

He was thankful enough to sit in silence with secretly clenched
teeth, devoured by jealousy--and nobody could have guessed that his
quiet deferential bearing to all these grey-heads was the supreme
effort of stoicism, that the man was engaged in keeping a sinister
watch on his tortures lest his strength should fail him. As
before, when grappling with other forces of nature, he could find
in himself all sorts of courage except the courage to run away.

It was perhaps from the lack of subjects they could have in common
that Miss Moorsom made him so often speak of his own life. He did
not shrink from talking about himself, for he was free from that
exacerbated, timid vanity which seals so many vain-glorious lips.
He talked to her in his restrained voice, gazing at the tip of her
shoe, and thinking that the time was bound to come soon when her
very inattention would get weary of him. And indeed on stealing a
glance he would see her dazzling and perfect, her eyes vague,
staring in mournful immobility, with a drooping head that made him
think of a tragic Venus arising before him, not from the foam of
the sea, but from a distant, still more formless, mysterious, and
potent immensity of mankind.

Joseph Conrad

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