The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad
For this, properly speaking wonderful, reason I was the only one of the company who could listen without constraint to the unbidden guest with that fine head of white hair, so beautifully kept, so magnificently waved, so artistically arranged that respect could not be felt for it any more than for a very expensive wig in the window of a hair-dresser. In fact, I had an inclination to smile at it. This proves how unconstrained I felt. My mind was perfectly at liberty; and so of all the eyes in that room mine was the only pair able to look about in easy freedom. All the other listeners' eyes were cast down, including Mills' eyes, but that I am sure was only because of his perfect and delicate sympathy. He could not have been concerned otherwise.
The intruder devoured the cutlets - if they were cutlets. Notwithstanding my perfect liberty of mind I was not aware of what we were eating. I have a notion that the lunch was a mere show, except of course for the man with the white hair, who was really hungry and who, besides, must have had the pleasant sense of dominating the situation. He stooped over his plate and worked his jaw deliberately while his blue eyes rolled incessantly; but as a matter of fact he never looked openly at any one of us. Whenever he laid down his knife and fork he would throw himself back and start retailing in a light tone some Parisian gossip about prominent people.
He talked first about a certain politician of mark. His "dear Rita" knew him. His costume dated back to '48, he was made of wood and parchment and still swathed his neck in a white cloth; and even his wife had never been seen in a low-necked dress. Not once in her life. She was buttoned up to the chin like her husband. Well, that man had confessed to him that when he was engaged in political controversy, not on a matter of principle but on some special measure in debate, he felt ready to kill everybody.
He interrupted himself for a comment. "I am something like that myself. I believe it's a purely professional feeling. Carry one's point whatever it is. Normally I couldn't kill a fly. My sensibility is too acute for that. My heart is too tender also. Much too tender. I am a Republican. I am a Red. As to all our present masters and governors, all those people you are trying to turn round your little finger, they are all horrible Royalists in disguise. They are plotting the ruin of all the institutions to which I am devoted. But I have never tried to spoil your little game, Rita. After all, it's but a little game. You know very well that two or three fearless articles, something in my style, you know, would soon put a stop to all that underhand backing of your king. I am calling him king because I want to be polite to you. He is an adventurer, a blood-thirsty, murderous adventurer, for me, and nothing else. Look here, my dear child, what are you knocking yourself about for? For the sake of that bandit? Allons donc! A pupil of Henry Allegre can have no illusions of that sort about any man. And such a pupil, too! Ah, the good old days in the Pavilion! Don't think I claim any particular intimacy. It was just enough to enable me to offer my services to you, Rita, when our poor friend died. I found myself handy and so I came. It so happened that I was the first. You remember, Rita? What made it possible for everybody to get on with our poor dear Allegre was his complete, equable, and impartial contempt for all mankind. There is nothing in that against the purest democratic principles; but that you, Rita, should elect to throw so much of your life away for the sake of a Royal adventurer, it really knocks me over. For you don't love him. You never loved him, you know."
He made a snatch at her hand, absolutely pulled it away from under her head (it was quite startling) and retaining it in his grasp, proceeded to a paternal patting of the most impudent kind. She let him go on with apparent insensibility. Meanwhile his eyes strayed round the table over our faces. It was very trying. The stupidity of that wandering stare had a paralysing power. He talked at large with husky familiarity.
"Here I come, expecting to find a good sensible girl who had seen at last the vanity of all those things; half-light in the rooms; surrounded by the works of her favourite poets, and all that sort of thing. I say to myself: I must just run in and see the dear wise child, and encourage her in her good resolutions. . . And I fall into the middle of an intime lunch-party. For I suppose it is intime. Eh? Very? H'm, yes . . . "
He was really appalling. Again his wandering stare went round the table, with an expression incredibly incongruous with the words. It was as though he had borrowed those eyes from some idiot for the purpose of that visit. He still held Dona Rita's hand, and, now and then, patted it.
"It's discouraging," he cooed. "And I believe not one of you here is a Frenchman. I don't know what you are all about. It's beyond me. But if we were a Republic - you know I am an old Jacobin, sans-culotte and terrorist - if this were a real Republic with the Convention sitting and a Committee of Public Safety attending to national business, you would all get your heads cut off. Ha, ha . . . I am joking, ha, ha! . . . and serve you right, too. Don't mind my little joke."
While he was still laughing he released her hand and she leaned her head on it again without haste. She had never looked at him once.
During the rather humiliating silence that ensued he got a leather cigar case like a small valise out of his pocket, opened it and looked with critical interest at the six cigars it contained. The tireless femme-de-chambre set down a tray with coffee cups on the table. We each (glad, I suppose, of something to do) took one, but he, to begin with, sniffed at his. Dona Rita continued leaning on her elbow, her lips closed in a reposeful expression of peculiar sweetness. There was nothing drooping in her attitude. Her face with the delicate carnation of a rose and downcast eyes was as if veiled in firm immobility and was so appealing that I had an insane impulse to walk round and kiss the forearm on which it was leaning; that strong, well-shaped forearm, gleaming not like marble but with a living and warm splendour. So familiar had I become already with her in my thoughts! Of course I didn't do anything of the sort. It was nothing uncontrollable, it was but a tender longing of a most respectful and purely sentimental kind. I performed the act in my thought quietly, almost solemnly, while the creature with the silver hair leaned back in his chair, puffing at his cigar, and began to speak again.
It was all apparently very innocent talk. He informed his "dear Rita" that he was really on his way to Monte Carlo. A lifelong habit of his at this time of the year; but he was ready to run back to Paris if he could do anything for his "chere enfant," run back for a day, for two days, for three days, for any time; miss Monte Carlo this year altogether, if he could be of the slightest use and save her going herself. For instance he could see to it that proper watch was kept over the Pavilion stuffed with all these art treasures. What was going to happen to all those things? . . . Making herself heard for the first time Dona Rita murmured without moving that she had made arrangements with the police to have it properly watched. And I was enchanted by the almost imperceptible play of her lips.
But the anxious creature was not reassured. He pointed out that things had been stolen out of the Louvre, which was, he dared say, even better watched. And there was that marvellous cabinet on the landing, black lacquer with silver herons, which alone would repay a couple of burglars. A wheelbarrow, some old sacking, and they could trundle it off under people's noses.
"Have you thought it all out?" she asked in a cold whisper, while we three sat smoking to give ourselves a countenance (it was certainly no enjoyment) and wondering what we would hear next.
No, he had not. But he confessed that for years and years he had been in love with that cabinet. And anyhow what was going to happen to the things? The world was greatly exercised by that problem. He turned slightly his beautifully groomed white head so as to address Mr. Blunt directly.
"I had the pleasure of meeting your mother lately."
Mr. Blunt took his time to raise his eyebrows and flash his teeth at him before he dropped negligently, "I can't imagine where you could have met my mother."
"Why, at Bing's, the curio-dealer," said the other with an air of the heaviest possible stupidity. And yet there was something in these few words which seemed to imply that if Mr. Blunt was looking for trouble he would certainly get it. "Bing was bowing her out of his shop, but he was so angry about something that he was quite rude even to me afterwards. I don't think it's very good for Madame votre mere to quarrel with Bing. He is a Parisian personality. He's quite a power in his sphere. All these fellows' nerves are upset from worry as to what will happen to the Allegre collection. And no wonder they are nervous. A big art event hangs on your lips, my dear, great Rita. And by the way, you too ought to remember that it isn't wise to quarrel with people. What have you done to that poor Azzolati? Did you really tell him to get out and never come near you again, or something awful like that? I don't doubt that he was of use to you or to your king. A man who gets invitations to shoot with the President at Rambouillet! I saw him only the other evening; I heard he had been winning immensely at cards; but he looked perfectly wretched, the poor fellow. He complained of your conduct - oh, very much! He told me you had been perfectly brutal with him. He said to me: 'I am no good for anything, mon cher. The other day at Rambouillet, whenever I had a hare at the end of my gun I would think of her cruel words and my eyes would run full of tears. I missed every shot' . . . You are not fit for diplomatic work, you know, ma chere. You are a mere child at it. When you want a middle-aged gentleman to do anything for you, you don't begin by reducing him to tears. I should have thought any woman would have known that much. A nun would have known that much. What do you say? Shall I run back to Paris and make it up for you with Azzolati?"
He waited for her answer. The compression of his thin lips was full of significance. I was surprised to see our hostess shake her head negatively the least bit, for indeed by her pose, by the thoughtful immobility of her face she seemed to be a thousand miles away from us all, lost in an infinite reverie.
He gave it up. "Well, I must be off. The express for Nice passes at four o'clock. I will be away about three weeks and then you shall see me again. Unless I strike a run of bad luck and get cleaned out, in which case you shall see me before then."
He turned to Mills suddenly.
"Will your cousin come south this year, to that beautiful villa of his at Cannes?"
Mills hardly deigned to answer that he didn't know anything about his cousin's movements.
"A grand seigneur combined with a great connoisseur," opined the other heavily. His mouth had gone slack and he looked a perfect and grotesque imbecile under his wig-like crop of white hair. Positively I thought he would begin to slobber. But he attacked Blunt next.
"Are you on your way down, too? A little flutter. . . It seems to me you haven't been seen in your usual Paris haunts of late. Where have you been all this time?"
"Don't you know where I have been?" said Mr. Blunt with great precision.
"No, I only ferret out things that may be of some use to me," was the unexpected reply, uttered with an air of perfect vacancy and swallowed by Mr. Blunt in blank silence.
At last he made ready to rise from the table. "Think over what I have said, my dear Rita."
"It's all over and done with," was Dona Rita's answer, in a louder tone than I had ever heard her use before. It thrilled me while she continued: "I mean, this thinking." She was back from the remoteness of her meditation, very much so indeed. She rose and moved away from the table, inviting by a sign the other to follow her; which he did at once, yet slowly and as it were warily.
It was a conference in the recess of a window. We three remained seated round the table from which the dark maid was removing the cups and the plates with brusque movements. I gazed frankly at Dona Rita's profile, irregular, animated, and fascinating in an undefinable way, at her well-shaped head with the hair twisted high up and apparently held in its place by a gold arrow with a jewelled shaft. We couldn't hear what she said, but the movement of her lips and the play of her features were full of charm, full of interest, expressing both audacity and gentleness. She spoke with fire without raising her voice. The man listened round-shouldered, but seeming much too stupid to understand. I could see now and then that he was speaking, but he was inaudible. At one moment Dona Rita turned her head to the room and called out to the maid, "Give me my hand-bag off the sofa."
At this the other was heard plainly, "No, no," and then a little lower, "You have no tact, Rita. . . ." Then came her argument in a low, penetrating voice which I caught, "Why not? Between such old friends." However, she waved away the hand-bag, he calmed down, and their voices sank again. Presently I saw him raise her hand to his lips, while with her back to the room she continued to contemplate out of the window the bare and untidy garden. At last he went out of the room, throwing to the table an airy "Bonjour, bonjour," which was not acknowledged by any of us three.