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Chapter 6

On board the schooner, lying on the settee on his back with the
knuckles of his hands pressed over his eyes, he made up his mind
that he would not return to that house for dinner--that he would
never go back there any more. He made up his mind some twenty
times. The knowledge that he had only to go up on the quarter
deck, utter quietly the words: "Man the windlass," and that the
schooner springing into life would run a hundred miles out to sea
before sunrise, deceived his struggling will. Nothing easier!
Yet, in the end, this young man, almost ill-famed for his ruthless
daring, the inflexible leader of two tragically successful
expeditions, shrank from that act of savage energy, and began,
instead, to hunt for excuses.

No! It was not for him to run away like an incurable who cuts his
throat. He finished dressing and looked at his own impassive face
in the saloon mirror scornfully. While being pulled on shore in
the gig, he remembered suddenly the wild beauty of a waterfall seen
when hardly more than a boy, years ago, in Menado. There was a
legend of a governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, on official
tour, committing suicide on that spot by leaping into the chasm.
It was supposed that a painful disease had made him weary of life.
But was there ever a visitation like his own, at the same time
binding one to life and so cruelly mortal!

The dinner was indeed quiet. Willie, given half an hour's grace,
failed to turn up, and his chair remained vacant by the side of
Miss Moorsom. Renouard had the professor's sister on his left,
dressed in an expensive gown becoming her age. That maiden lady in
her wonderful preservation reminded Renouard somehow of a wax
flower under glass. There were no traces of the dust of life's
battles on her anywhere. She did not like him very much in the
afternoons, in his white drill suit and planter's hat, which seemed
to her an unduly Bohemian costume for calling in a house where
there were ladies. But in the evening, lithe and elegant in his
dress clothes and with his pleasant, slightly veiled voice, he
always made her conquest afresh. He might have been anybody
distinguished--the son of a duke. Falling under that charm
probably (and also because her brother had given her a hint), she
attempted to open her heart to Renouard, who was watching with all
the power of his soul her niece across the table. She spoke to him
as frankly as though that miserable mortal envelope, emptied of
everything but hopeless passion, were indeed the son of a duke.

Inattentive, he heard her only in snatches, till the final
confidential burst: ". . . glad if you would express an opinion.
Look at her, so charming, such a great favourite, so generally
admired! It would be too sad. We all hoped she would make a
brilliant marriage with somebody very rich and of high position,
have a house in London and in the country, and entertain us all
splendidly. She's so eminently fitted for it. She has such hosts
of distinguished friends! And then--this instead! . . . My heart
really aches."

Her well-bred if anxious whisper was covered by the voice of
professor Moorsom discoursing subtly down the short length of the
dinner table on the Impermanency of the Measurable to his venerable
disciple. It might have been a chapter in a new and popular book
of Moorsonian philosophy. Patriarchal and delighted, old Dunster
leaned forward a little, his eyes shining youthfully, two spots of
colour at the roots of his white beard; and Renouard, glancing at
the senile excitement, recalled the words heard on those subtle
lips, adopted their scorn for his own, saw their truth before this
man ready to be amused by the side of the grave. Yes!
Intellectual debauchery in the froth of existence! Froth and
fraud!

On the same side of the table Miss Moorsom never once looked
towards her father, all her grace as if frozen, her red lips
compressed, the faintest rosiness under her dazzling complexion,
her black eyes burning motionless, and the very coppery gleams of
light lying still on the waves and undulation of her hair.
Renouard fancied himself overturning the table, smashing crystal
and china, treading fruit and flowers under foot, seizing her in
his arms, carrying her off in a tumult of shrieks from all these
people, a silent frightened mortal, into some profound retreat as
in the age of Cavern men. Suddenly everybody got up, and he
hastened to rise too, finding himself out of breath and quite
unsteady on his feet.

On the terrace the philosopher, after lighting a cigar, slipped his
hand condescendingly under his "dear young friend's" arm. Renouard
regarded him now with the profoundest mistrust. But the great man
seemed really to have a liking for his young friend--one of those
mysterious sympathies, disregarding the differences of age and
position, which in this case might have been explained by the
failure of philosophy to meet a very real worry of a practical
kind.

After a turn or two and some casual talk the professor said
suddenly: "My late son was in your school--do you know? I can
imagine that had he lived and you had ever met you would have
understood each other. He too was inclined to action."

He sighed, then, shaking off the mournful thought and with a nod at
the dusky part of the terrace where the dress of his daughter made
a luminous stain: "I really wish you would drop in that quarter a
few sensible, discouraging words."

Renouard disengaged himself from that most perfidious of men under
the pretence of astonishment, and stepping back a pace -

"Surely you are making fun of me, Professor Moorsom," he said with
a low laugh, which was really a sound of rage.

"My dear young friend! It's no subject for jokes, to me. . . You
don't seem to have any notion of your prestige," he added, walking
away towards the chairs.

"Humbug!" thought Renouard, standing still and looking after him.
"And yet! And yet! What if it were true?"

He advanced then towards Miss Moorsom. Posed on the seat on which
they had first spoken to each other, it was her turn to watch him
coming on. But many of the windows were not lighted that evening.
It was dark over there. She appeared to him luminous in her clear
dress, a figure without shape, a face without features, awaiting
his approach, till he got quite near to her, sat down, and they had
exchanged a few insignificant words. Gradually she came out like a
magic painting of charm, fascination, and desire, glowing
mysteriously on the dark background. Something imperceptible in
the lines of her attitude, in the modulations of her voice, seemed
to soften that suggestion of calm unconscious pride which enveloped
her always like a mantle. He, sensitive like a bond slave to the
moods of the master, was moved by the subtle relenting of her grace
to an infinite tenderness. He fought down the impulse to seize her
by the hand, lead her down into the garden away under the big
trees, and throw himself at her feet uttering words of love. His
emotion was so strong that he had to cough slightly, and not
knowing what to talk to her about he began to tell her of his
mother and sisters. All the family were coming to London to live
there, for some little time at least.

"I hope you will go and tell them something of me. Something
seen," he said pressingly.

By this miserable subterfuge, like a man about to part with his
life, he hoped to make her remember him a little longer.

"Certainly," she said. "I'll be glad to call when I get back. But
that 'when' may be a long time."

He heard a light sigh. A cruel jealous curiosity made him ask -

"Are you growing weary, Miss Moorsom?"

A silence fell on his low spoken question.

"Do you mean heart-weary?" sounded Miss Moorsom's voice. "You
don't know me, I see."

"Ah! Never despair," he muttered.

"This, Mr. Renouard, is a work of reparation. I stand for truth
here. I can't think of myself."

He could have taken her by the throat for every word seemed an
insult to his passion; but he only said -

"I never doubted the--the--nobility of your purpose."

"And to hear the word weariness pronounced in this connection
surprises me. And from a man too who, I understand, has never
counted the cost."

"You are pleased to tease me," he said, directly he had recovered
his voice and had mastered his anger. It was as if Professor
Moorsom had dropped poison in his ear which was spreading now and
tainting his passion, his very jealousy. He mistrusted every word
that came from those lips on which his life hung. "How can you
know anything of men who do not count the cost?" he asked in his
gentlest tones.

"From hearsay--a little."

"Well, I assure you they are like the others, subject to suffering,
victims of spells. . . ."

"One of them, at least, speaks very strangely."

She dismissed the subject after a short silence. "Mr. Renouard, I
had a disappointment this morning. This mail brought me a letter
from the widow of the old butler--you know. I expected to learn
that she had heard from--from here. But no. No letter arrived
home since we left."

Her voice was calm. His jealousy couldn't stand much more of this
sort of talk; but he was glad that nothing had turned up to help
the search; glad blindly, unreasonably--only because it would keep
her longer in his sight--since she wouldn't give up.

"I am too near her," he thought, moving a little further on the
seat. He was afraid in the revulsion of feeling of flinging
himself on her hands, which were lying on her lap, and covering
them with kisses. He was afraid. Nothing, nothing could shake
that spell--not if she were ever so false, stupid, or degraded.
She was fate itself. The extent of his misfortune plunged him in
such a stupor that he failed at first to hear the sound of voices
and footsteps inside the drawing-room. Willie had come home--and
the Editor was with him.

They burst out on the terrace babbling noisily, and then pulling
themselves together stood still, surprising--and as if themselves
surprised.

Joseph Conrad

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