Joseph Conrad.

The inheritors : an extravagant story online

. (page 1 of 15)
Online LibraryJoseph ConradThe inheritors : an extravagant story → online text (page 1 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook








** Sardanapalus builded seven cities in a day.
Let us eat, drink and sleep, for to-morrow we die.




Copyright, igoi, hy










IDEAS," she said. " Oh, as for ideas "
"Well?" I hazarded, "as for ideas ?"
We went through the old gateway and I
cast a glance over my shoulder. The noon sun
was shining over the masonry, over the little
saints' effigies, over the little fretted canopies,
the grime and the white streaks of bird-dropping.
" There," I said, pointing toward it, " doesn't
that suggest something to you? "

She made a motion with her head — half nega-
tive, half contemptuous.

" But," I stuttered, " the associations — the

ideas — the historical ideas "

She said nothing.

" You Americans," I began, but her smile
stopped me. It was as if she were amused at the
utterances of an old lady shocked by the habits


ot the daughters of the day. It was the smile of
a person who is confident of superseding one

In conversations of any length one of the par-
ties assumes the superiority — superiority of rank,
intellectual or social. In this conversation she, if
she did not attain to tacitly acknowledged tem-
peramental superiority, seemed at least to claim
it, to have no doubt as to its ultimate according.
I was unused to this. I was a talker, proud of
my conversational powers.

I had looked at her before; now I cast a side-
ways, critical glance at her. I came out of my
moodiness to wonder what type this was. She
had good hair, good eyes, and some charm. Yes.
And something besides — a something — a some-
thing that was not an attribute of her beauty.
The modelling of her face was so perfect and so
delicate as to produce an effect of transparency,
yet there was no suggestion of frailness; her
glance had an extraordinary strength of life. Her
hair was fair and gleaming, her cheeks coloured
as if a warm light had fallen on them from some-
where. She was familiar till it occurred to you
that she was strange.



" Which way are you going? " she asked.

" I am going to walk to Dover," I answered.

" And I may come with you? "

I looked at her — intent on divining her in
that one glance. It was of course impossible.
*' There will be time for analysis," I thought.

" The roads are free to all," I said. " You are
not an American? "

She shook her head. No. She was not an
Australian either, she came from none of the Brit-
ish colonies.

" You are not English," I aflfirmed. " You
speak too well." I was piqued. She did not
answer. She smiled again and I grew angry. In
the cathedral she had smiled at the verger's com-
mendation of particularly abominable restora-
tions, and that smile had drawn me toward her,
had emboldened me to offer deferential and con-
demnatory remarks as to the plaster-of-Paris
mouldings. You know how one addresses a
young lady who is obviously capable of taking
care of herself. That was how I had come across
her. She had smiled at the gabble of the cathe-
dral guide as he showed the obsessed troop, of
which we had formed units, the place of martyr-


dom of Blessed Thomas, and her smile had had
just that quality of superseder's contempt. It had
pleased me then; but, now that she smiled thus
past me — it was not quite at me — in the crooked
highways of the town, I was irritated. After all,
I was somebody; I was not a cathedral verger.
I had a fancy for myself in those days — a fancy
that solitude and brooding had crystallised into a
habit of mind. I was a writer with high — with the
highest — ideals. I had withdrawn myself from the
world, lived isolated, hidden in the country-side,
lived as hermits do, on the hope of one day doing
something — of putting greatness on paper. She
suddenly fathomed my thoughts: "You write,"
she affirmed. I asked how she knew, wondered
what she had read of mine — there was so little.

" Are you a popular author? " she asked.

"Alas, no!" I answered, "You must know

" You would like to be? "

"We should all of us like," I answered;
" though it is true some of us protest that we aim
for higher things."

" I see," she said, musingly. As far as I could
tell she was coming to some decision. With an


instinctive dislike to any such proceeding as re-
garded myself, I tried to cut across her unknown

" But, really — " I said, " I am quite a common-
place topic. Let us talk about yourself. Where
do you come from? "

It occurred to me again that I was intensely
unacquainted with her type. Here was the same
smile — as far as I could see, exactly the same
smile. There are fine shades in smiles as in
laughs, as in tones of voice. I seemed unable to
hold my tongue.

" Where do you come from? " I asked. " You
must belong to one of the new nations. You
are a foreigner, I'll swear, because you have such
a fine contempt for us. You irritate me so that
you might almost be a Prussian. But it is obvi-
ous that you are of a new nation that is begin-
ning to find itself."

" Oh, we are to inherit the earth, if that is
what you mean," she said.

" The phrase is comprehensive," I said. I was

determined not to give myself away. " Where

in the world do you come from?" I repeated.

The question, I was quite conscious, would have



sufficed, but in the hope, I suppose, of establish-
ing my intellectual superiority, I continued:

" You know, fair play's a jewel. Now I'm
quite willing to give you information as to myself.
I have already told you the essentials — you ought
to tell me something. It would only be fair play."

" Why should there be any fair play? " she

" What have you to say against that? " I said.
" Do you not number it among your national
characteristics? "

" You really wish to know where I come
from? "

I expressed light-hearted acquiescence.

" Listen," she said, and uttered some sounds.
I felt a kind of unholy emotion. It had come
like a sudden, suddenly hushed, intense gust of

wind through a breathless day. " What

what! " I cried.

" I said I inhabit the Fourth Dimension."

I recovered my equanimity with the thought
that I had been visited by some stroke of an ob-
scure and unimportant physical kind.

" I think we must have been climbing the hill
too fast for me," I said, " I have not been very


well. I missed what you said." I was certainly
out of breath.

" I said I inhabit the Fourth Dimension,"
she repeated with admirable gravity.

" Oh, come," I expostulated, " this is playing
it rather low down. You walk a convalescent out
of breath and then propound riddles to him."

I was recovering my breath, and, with it, my
inclination to expand. Instead, I looked at her,
I was beginning to understand. It was obvious
enough that she was a foreigner in a strange land,
in a land that brought out her national charac-
teristics. She must be of some race, perhaps
Semitic, perhaps Sclav — of some incomprehen-
sible race. I had never seen a Circassian, and
there used to be a tradition that Circassian
women were beautiful, were fair-skinned, and so
on. What was repelling in her was accounted for
by this difference in national point of view. One
is, after all, not so very remote from the horse.
What one does not understand one shies at —
finds sinister, in fact. And she struck me as sin-

" You won't tell me who you are? " I said.

" I have done so," she answered.


" If you expect me to believe that you inhabit
a mathematical monstrosity, you are mistaken.
You are, really."

She turned round and pointed at the city.

" Look! " she said.

We had climbed the western hill. Below our
feet, beneath a sky that the wind had swept
clean of clouds, was the valley; a broad bowl,
shallow, filled with the purple of smoke-wreaths.
And above the mass of red roofs there soared the
golden stonework of the cathedral tower. It was
a vision, the last word of a great art. I looked
at her. I was moved, and I knew that the glory
of it must have moved her.

She was smiling. "Look!" she repeated. I

There was the purple and the red, and the
golden tower, the vision, the last word. She said
something — uttered some sound.

What had happened? I don't know. It all
looked contemptible. One seemed to see some-
thing beyond, something vaster — vaster than
cathedrals, vaster than the conception of the gods
to whom cathedrals were raised. The tower
reeled out of the perpendicular. One sa\v beyond
[8J . . . -


it, not roofs, or smoke, or hills, but an unreal-
ised, an unrealisable infinity of space.

It was merely momentary. The tower filled its
place again and I looked at her.

" What the devil," I said, hysterically — " what
the devil do you play these tricks upon me
for? "

" You see," she answered, " the rudiments of
the sense are there."

" You must excuse me if I fail to understand,"
I said, grasping after fragments of dropped dig-
nity. " I am subject to fits of giddiness." I felt
a need for covering a species of nakedness. " Par-
don my swearing," I added; a proof of recovered

We resumed the road in silence. I was physi-
cally and mentally shaken; and I tried to deceive
myself as to the cause. After some time I said:

" You insist then in preserving your — your in-

" Oh, I make no mystery of myself," she an-

" You have told me that you come from the
Fourth Dimension," I remarked, ironically.

*T come from the Fourth Dimension," she said,


patiently. She had the air of one in a position
of difficulty; of one aware of it and ready to
brave it. She had the listlessness of an enlight-
ened person who has to explain, over and over
again, to stupid children some rudimentary point
of the multiplication table.

She seemed to divine my thoughts, to be aware
of their very wording. She even said " yes " at
the opening of her next speech.

" Yes," she said. " It is as if I were to try
to explain the new ideas of any age to a person
of the age that has gone before." She paused,
seeking a concrete illustration that would touch
me. " As if I were explaining to Dr. Johnson
the methods and the ultimate vogue of the cock-
ney school of poetry."

" I understand," I said, " that you wish me to
consider myself as relatively a Choctaw. But
what I do not understand is; what bearing that
has upon — upon the Fourth Dimension, I think
you said? "

" I will explain," she replied.

" But you must explain as if you were explain-
ing to a Choctaw," I said, pleasantly, " you must
be concise and convincing."


She answered: " I will."

She made a long speech of it; I condense. I
can't remember her exact words — there were so
many; but she spoke like a book. There was
something exquisitely piquant in her choice of
words, in her expressionless voice. I seemed to
be listening to a phonograph reciting a technical
work. There was a touch of the incongruous,
of the mad, that appealed to me — the common-
place rolling-down landscape, the straight, white,
undulating road that, from the tops of rises,
one saw running for miles and miles, straight,
straight, and so white. Filtering down through
the great blue of the sky came the thrilling of
innumerable skylarks. And I was listening to
a parody of a scientific work recited by a pho-

I heard the nature of the Fourth Dimension —
heard that it was an inhabited plane — invisible to
our eyes, but omnipresent; heard that I had
seen it when Bell Harry had reeled before my
eyes. I heard the Dimensionists described: a
race clear-sighted, eminently practical, incred-
ible; with no ideals, prejudices, or remorse; with
no feeling for art and no reverence for life; free


from any ethical tradition; callous to pain, weak-
ness, suffering and death, as if they had been
invulnerable and immortal. She did not say that
they were immortal, however. " You would —
you will — hate us," she concluded. And I seemed
only then to come to myself. The power of her
imagination was so great that I fancied myself
face to face with the truth. I supposed she had
been amusing herself; that she should have tried
to frighten me was inadmissible. I don't pretend
that I was completely at my ease, but I said, ami-
ably: " You certainly have succeeded in making
these beings hateful."

" I have made nothing," she said with a faint
smile, and went on amusing herself. She would
explain origins, now.

" Your " — she used the word as signifying, I
suppose, the inhabitants of the country, or the
populations of the earth — " your ancestors were
mine, but long ago you were crowded out of the
Dimension as we are to-day, you overran the
earth as we shall do to-morrow. But you con-
tracted diseases, as we shall contract them, —
beliefs, traditions; fears; ideas of pity ... of
love. You grew luxurious in the worship of your



ideals, and sorrowful; you solaced yourselves with
creeds, with arts — you have forgotten! "

She spoke with calm conviction; with an over-
whelming and dispassionate assurance. She was
stating facts; not professing a faith. We ap-
proached a little roadside inn. On a bench be-
fore the door a dun-clad country fellow was
asleep, his head on the table.

" Put your fingers in your ears," my compan-
ion commanded.

I humoured her,

I saw her lips move. The countryman started,
shuddered, and by a clumsy, convulsive motion
of his arms, upset his quart. He rubbed his eyes.
Before he had voiced his emotions we had passed

" I have seen a horse-coper do as much for a
stallion," I commented. " I know there are
words that have certain effects. But you
shouldn't play pranks like the low-comedy devil
in Faustus."

" It isn't good form, I suppose? " she

" It's a matter of feeling," I said, hotly, " the
poor fellow has lost his beer."


" What's that to me? " she commented, with
the air of one affording a concrete illustration.

" It's a good deal to him," I answered.

" But what to me? "

I said nothing. She ceased her exposition im-
mediately afterward, growing silent as suddenly
as she had become discoursive. It was rather as
if she had learnt a speech by heart and had come
to the end of it. I was quite at a loss as to what
she was driving at. There was a newness, a
strangeness about her; sometimes she struck me
as mad, sometimes as frightfully sane. We had a
meal somewhere — a meal that broke the current
of her speech — and then, in the late afternoon,
took a by-road and wandered in secluded valleys.
I had been ill; trouble of the nerves, brooding, the
monotony of life in the shadow of unsuccess. I
had an errand in this part of the world and had
been approaching it deviously, seeking the nor-
mal in its quiet hollows, trying to get back to
my old self. I did not wish to think of how I
should get through the year — of the thousand lit-
tle things that matter. So I talked and she — she
listened very well.

But topics exhaust themselves and, at the last,


I myself brought the talk round to the Fourth
Dimension. We were sauntering along the for-
gotten valley that lies between Hardves and Stal-
ling Minnis; we had been silent for several min-
utes. For me, at least, the silence was pregnant
with the undefinable emotions that, at times, run
in currents between man and woman. The sun
was getting low and it was shadowy in those
shrouded hollows. I laughed at some thought,
I forget what, and then began to badger her with
questions. I tried to exhaust the possibilities of
the Dimensionist idea, made grotesque sugges-
tions. I said: " And when a great many of you
have been crowded out of the Dimension and
invaded the earth you will do so and so — "
something preposterous and ironical. She coldly
dissented, and at once the irony appeared as
gross as the jocularity of a commercial traveller.
Sometimes she signified: " Yes, that is what we
shall do; " signified it without speaking — by some
gesture perhaps, I hardly know what. There was
something impressive — something almost regal
— in this manner of hers; it was rather frighten-
ing in those lonely places, which were so forgot-
ten, so gray, so closed in. There was something of


the past world about the hanging woods, the httle
veils of unmoving mist — as if time did not exist
in those furrows of the great world; and one was
so absolutely alone; anything might have hap-
pened. I grew weary of the sound of my tongue.
But when I wanted to cease, I found she had on
me the effect of some incredible stimulant.

We came to the end of the valley where the
road begins to climb the southern hill, out into
the open air. I managed to maintain an uneasy
silence. From her grimly dispassionate reitera-
tions I had attained to a clear idea, even to a
visualisation, of her fantastic conception — alle-
gory, madness, or whatever it was. She certainly
forced it home. The Dimensionists were to come
in swarms, to materialise, to devour like locusts,
to be all the more irresistible because indistin-
guishable. They were to come like snow in the
night: in the morning one would look out and
find the world white; they were to come as the
gray hairs come, to sap the strength of us as the
years sap the strength of the muscles. As to
methods, we should be treated as we ourselves
treat the inferior races. There would be no fight-
ing, no killing; we — our whole social system—


would break as a beam snaps, because we were
worm-eaten with altruism and ethics. We, at our
worst, had a certain limit, a certain stage where
we exclaimed: "No, this is playing it too low
down," because we had scruples that acted like
handicapping weights. She uttered, I think, only
two sentences of connected words: ** We shall
race with you and we shall not be weighted," and,
" We shall merely sink you lower by our weight."
All the rest went like this:

" But then," I would say . . . "we shall
not be able to trust anyone. Anyone may be one
of you. . . ." She would answer: "Anyone."
She prophesied a reign of terror for us. As one
passed one's neighbour in the street one would
cast sudden, piercing glances at him.

I was silent. The birds were singing the sun
down. It was very dark among the branches,
and from minute to minute the colours of the
world deepened and grew sombre.

" But " I said. A feeling of unrest was

creeping over me. " But why do you tell me all
this? " I asked. " Do you think I will enlist with

" You will have to in the end," she said, " and I


do not wish to waste my strength. If you had to
work unwittingly you would resist and resist and
resist. I should have to waste my power on you.
As it is, you will resist only at first, then you will
begin to understand. You will see how we will
bring a man down — a man, you understand,
with a great name, standing for probity and
honour. You will see the nets drawing closer and
closer, and you will begin to understand. Then
you will cease resisting, that is all."

I was silent. A June nightingale began to sing,
a trifle hoarsely. We seemed to be waiting for
some signal. The things of the night came and
went, rustled through the grass, rustled through
the leafage. At last I could not even see the
white gleam of her face. . . .

I stretched out my hand and it touched hers.
I seized it without an instant of hesitation. " How
could I resist you? " I said, and heard my own
whisper with a kind of amazement at its emotion.
I raised her hand. It was very cold and she
seemed to have no thought of resistance; but
before it touched my lips something like a panic
of prudence had overcome me. I did not know
what it would lead to — and I remembered that I


did not even know who she was. From the begin-
ning she had struck me as sinister and now, in
the obscurity, her silence and her coldness seemed
to be a passive threatening of unknown entan-
glement. I let her hand fall.

" We must be getting on," I said.

The road was shrouded and overhung by
branches. There was a kind of translucent light,
enough to see her face, but I kept my eyes on the
ground. I was vexed. Now that it was past the
episode appeared to be a lost opportunity. We
were to part in a moment, and her rare mental
gifts and her unfamiliar, but very vivid, beauty
made the idea of parting intensely disagreeable.
She had filled me with a curiosity that she had
done nothing whatever to satisfy, and with a fas-
cination that was very nearly a fear. We mounted
the hill and came out on a stretch of soft com-
mon sward. Then the sound of our footsteps
ceased and the world grew more silent than ever.
There were Uttle enclosed fields all round us. The
moon threw a wan light, and gleaming mist
hung in the ragged hedges. Broad, soft roads
ran away into space on every side.

*' And now . . ."I asked, at last, " shall we


ever meet again? " My voice came huskily, as if
I had not spoken for years and years.

" Oh, very often," she answered.

" Very often? " I repeated. I hardly knew
whether I was pleased or dismayed. Through the
gate-gap in a hedge, I caught a glimmer of a
white house front. It seemed to belong to an-
other world; to another order of things.

"Ah . . . here is CallanV' I said. "This
is where I was going. . . ."

" I know," she answered; " we part here."

" To meet again? " I asked.

" Oh ... to meet again; why, yes, to meet



HER figure faded into the darkness, as
pale things waver down into deep water,
and as soon as she disappeared my sense
of humour returned. The episode appeared more
clearly, as a flirtation with an enigmatic, but de-
cidedly charming, chance travelling companion.
The girl was a riddle, and a riddle once guessed
is a very trivial thing. She, too, would be a very
trivial thing when I had found a solution. It oc-
curred to me that she wished me to regard her
as a symbol, perhaps, of the future — as a type
of those who are to inherit the earth, in fact.
She had been playing the fool with me, in her
insolent modernity. She had wished me to un-
derstand that I was old-fashioned; that the frame
of mind of which I and my fellows were the in-
heritors was over and done with. We were to
be compulsorily retired; to stand aside superan-
nuated. It was obvious that she was better
equipped for the swiftness of life. She had a



something — not only quickness of wit, not only
ruthless determination, but a something quite
different and quite indefinably more impressive.
Perhaps it was only the confidence of the super-
seder, the essential quality that makes for the
empire of the Occidental. But I was not a negro
— not even relatively a Hindoo. I was some-
body, confound it, I was somebody.

As an author, I had been so uniformly unsuc-
cessful, so absolutely unrecognised, that I had got
into the way of regarding myself as ahead of my
time, as a worker for posterity. It was a habit of
mind — the only revenge that I could take upon
despiteful Fate. This girl came to confound me
with the common herd — she declared herself to
be that very posterity for which I worked.

She was probably a member of some clique that
called themselves Fourth Dimensionists — just
as there had been pre-Raphaelites. It was a mat-
ter of cant allegory. I began to wonder how it
was that I had never heard of them. And how on
earth had they come to hear of me!

" She must have read something of mine," I
found myself musing: "the Jenkins story per-
haps. It must have been the Jenkins story; they



gave it a good place in their rotten magazine.
She must have seen that it was the real thing,
and. . . ." When one is an author one looks
at things in that way, you know.

By that time I was ready to knock at the door
of the great Callan. I seemed to be jerked into
the commonplace medium of a great, great — oh,
an infinitely great — novelist's home life. I was
led into a well-Ht drawing-room, welcomed by the
great man's wife, gently propelled into a bed-

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryJoseph ConradThe inheritors : an extravagant story → online text (page 1 of 15)