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Chapter 5

One afternoon Renouard stepping out on the terrace found nobody
there. It was for him, at the same time, a melancholy
disappointment and a poignant relief.

The heat was great, the air was still, all the long windows of the
house stood wide open. At the further end, grouped round a lady's
work-table, several chairs disposed sociably suggested invisible
occupants, a company of conversing shades. Renouard looked towards
them with a sort of dread. A most elusive, faint sound of ghostly
talk issuing from one of the rooms added to the illusion and
stopped his already hesitating footsteps. He leaned over the
balustrade of stone near a squat vase holding a tropical plant of a
bizarre shape. Professor Moorsom coming up from the garden with a
book under his arm and a white parasol held over his bare head,
found him there and, closing the parasol, leaned over by his side
with a remark on the increasing heat of the season. Renouard
assented and changed his position a little; the other, after a
short silence, administered unexpectedly a question which, like the
blow of a club on the head, deprived Renouard of the power of
speech and even thought, but, more cruel, left him quivering with
apprehension, not of death but of everlasting torment. Yet the
words were extremely simple.

"Something will have to be done soon. We can't remain in a state
of suspended expectation for ever. Tell me what do you think of
our chances?"

Renouard, speechless, produced a faint smile. The professor
confessed in a jocular tone his impatience to complete the circuit
of the globe and be done with it. It was impossible to remain
quartered on the dear excellent Dunsters for an indefinite time.
And then there were the lectures he had arranged to deliver in
Paris. A serious matter.

That lectures by Professor Moorsom were a European event and that
brilliant audiences would gather to hear them Renouard did not
know. All he was aware of was the shock of this hint of departure.
The menace of separation fell on his head like a thunderbolt. And
he saw the absurdity of his emotion, for hadn't he lived all these
days under the very cloud? The professor, his elbows spread out,
looked down into the garden and went on unburdening his mind. Yes.
The department of sentiment was directed by his daughter, and she
had plenty of volunteered moral support; but he had to look after
the practical side of life without assistance.

"I have the less hesitation in speaking to you about my anxiety,
because I feel you are friendly to us and at the same time you are
detached from all these sublimities--confound them."

"What do you mean?" murmured Renouard.

"I mean that you are capable of calm judgment. Here the atmosphere
is simply detestable. Everybody has knuckled under to sentiment.
Perhaps your deliberate opinion could influence . . ."

"You want Miss Moorsom to give it up?" The professor turned to the
young man dismally.

"Heaven only knows what I want."

Renouard leaning his back against the balustrade folded his arms on
his breast, appeared to meditate profoundly. His face, shaded
softly by the broad brim of a planter's Panama hat, with the
straight line of the nose level with the forehead, the eyes lost in
the depth of the setting, and the chin well forward, had such a
profile as may be seen amongst the bronzes of classical museums,
pure under a crested helmet--recalled vaguely a Minerva's head.

"This is the most troublesome time I ever had in my life,"
exclaimed the professor testily.

"Surely the man must be worth it," muttered Renouard with a pang of
jealousy traversing his breast like a self-inflicted stab.

Whether enervated by the heat or giving way to pent up irritation
the professor surrendered himself to the mood of sincerity.

"He began by being a pleasantly dull boy. He developed into a
pointlessly clever young man, without, I suspect, ever trying to
understand anything. My daughter knew him from childhood. I am a
busy man, and I confess that their engagement was a complete
surprise to me. I wish their reasons for that step had been more
naive. But simplicity was out of fashion in their set. From a
worldly point of view he seems to have been a mere baby. Of
course, now, I am assured that he is the victim of his noble
confidence in the rectitude of his kind. But that's mere
idealising of a sad reality. For my part I will tell you that from
the very beginning I had the gravest doubts of his dishonesty.
Unfortunately my clever daughter hadn't. And now we behold the
reaction. No. To be earnestly dishonest one must be really poor.
This was only a manifestation of his extremely refined cleverness.
The complicated simpleton. He had an awful awakening though."

In such words did Professor Moorsom give his "young friend" to
understand the state of his feelings toward the lost man. It was
evident that the father of Miss Moorsom wished him to remain lost.
Perhaps the unprecedented heat of the season made him long for the
cool spaces of the Pacific, the sweep of the ocean's free wind
along the promenade decks, cumbered with long chairs, of a ship
steaming towards the Californian coast. To Renouard the
philosopher appeared simply the most treacherous of fathers. He
was amazed. But he was not at the end of his discoveries.

"He may be dead," the professor murmured.

"Why? People don't die here sooner than in Europe. If he had gone
to hide in Italy, for instance, you wouldn't think of saying that."

"Well! And suppose he has become morally disintegrated. You know
he was not a strong personality," the professor suggested moodily.
"My daughter's future is in question here."

Renouard thought that the love of such a woman was enough to pull
any broken man together--to drag a man out of his grave. And he
thought this with inward despair, which kept him silent as much
almost as his astonishment. At last he managed to stammer out a
generous -

"Oh! Don't let us even suppose. . ."

The professor struck in with a sadder accent than before -

"It's good to be young. And then you have been a man of action,
and necessarily a believer in success. But I have been looking too
long at life not to distrust its surprises. Age! Age! Here I
stand before you a man full of doubts and hesitation--spe lentus,
timidus futuri."

He made a sign to Renouard not to interrupt, and in a lowered
voice, as if afraid of being overheard, even there, in the solitude
of the terrace -

"And the worst is that I am not even sure how far this sentimental
pilgrimage is genuine. Yes. I doubt my own child. It's true that
she's a woman. . . . "

Renouard detected with horror a tone of resentment, as if the
professor had never forgiven his daughter for not dying instead of
his son. The latter noticed the young man's stony stare.

"Ah! you don't understand. Yes, she's clever, open-minded,
popular, and--well, charming. But you don't know what it is to
have moved, breathed, existed, and even triumphed in the mere
smother and froth of life--the brilliant froth. There thoughts,
sentiments, opinions, feelings, actions too, are nothing but
agitation in empty space--to amuse life--a sort of superior
debauchery, exciting and fatiguing, meaning nothing, leading
nowhere. She is the creature of that circle. And I ask myself if
she is obeying the uneasiness of an instinct seeking its
satisfaction, or is it a revulsion of feeling, or is she merely
deceiving her own heart by this dangerous trifling with romantic
images. And everything is possible--except sincerity, such as only
stark, struggling humanity can know. No woman can stand that mode
of life in which women rule, and remain a perfectly genuine, simple
human being. Ah! There's some people coming out."

He moved off a pace, then turning his head: "Upon my word! I
would be infinitely obliged to you if you could throw a little cold
water. . . " and at a vaguely dismayed gesture of Renouard, he
added: "Don't be afraid. You wouldn't be putting out a sacred
fire."

Renouard could hardly find words for a protest: "I assure you that
I never talk with Miss Moorsom--on--on--that. And if you, her
father . . . "

"I envy you your innocence," sighed the professor. "A father is
only an everyday person. Flat. Stale. Moreover, my child would
naturally mistrust me. We belong to the same set. Whereas you
carry with you the prestige of the unknown. You have proved
yourself to be a force."

Thereupon the professor followed by Renouard joined the circle of
all the inmates of the house assembled at the other end of the
terrace about a tea-table; three white heads and that resplendent
vision of woman's glory, the sight of which had the power to
flutter his heart like a reminder of the mortality of his frame.

He avoided the seat by the side of Miss Moorsom. The others were
talking together languidly. Unnoticed he looked at that woman so
marvellous that centuries seemed to lie between them. He was
oppressed and overcome at the thought of what she could give to
some man who really would be a force! What a glorious struggle
with this amazon. What noble burden for the victorious strength.

Dear old Mrs. Dunster was dispensing tea, looking from time to time
with interest towards Miss Moorsom. The aged statesman having
eaten a raw tomato and drunk a glass of milk (a habit of his early
farming days, long before politics, when, pioneer of wheat-growing,
he demonstrated the possibility of raising crops on ground looking
barren enough to discourage a magician), smoothed his white beard,
and struck lightly Renouard's knee with his big wrinkled hand.

"You had better come back to-night and dine with us quietly."

He liked this young man, a pioneer, too, in more than one
direction. Mrs. Dunster added: "Do. It will be very quiet. I
don't even know if Willie will be home for dinner." Renouard
murmured his thanks, and left the terrace to go on board the
schooner. While lingering in the drawing-room doorway he heard the
resonant voice of old Dunster uttering oracularly -

". . . the leading man here some day. . . . Like me."

Renouard let the thin summer portiere of the doorway fall behind
him. The voice of Professor Moorsom said -

"I am told that he has made an enemy of almost every man who had to
work with him."

"That's nothing. He did his work. . . . Like me."

"He never counted the cost they say. Not even of lives."

Renouard understood that they were talking of him. Before he could
move away, Mrs. Dunster struck in placidly -

"Don't let yourself be shocked by the tales you may hear of him, my
dear. Most of it is envy."

Then he heard Miss Moorsom's voice replying to the old lady -

"Oh! I am not easily deceived. I think I may say I have an
instinct for truth."

He hastened away from that house with his heart full of dread.


Joseph Conrad

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