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Chapter 3


For fifteen years Heyst had wandered, invariably courteous and
unapproachable, and in return was generally considered a "queer chap."
He had started off on these travels of his after the death of his
father, an expatriated Swede who died in London, dissatisfied with his
country and angry with all the world, which had instinctively rejected
his wisdom.

Thinker, stylist, and man of the world in his time, the elder Heyst
had begun by coveting all the joys, those of the great and those of the
humble, those of the fools and those of the sages. For more than sixty
years he had dragged on this painful earth of ours the most weary, the
most uneasy soul that civilization had ever fashioned to its ends of
disillusion and regret. One could not refuse him a measure of greatness,
for he was unhappy in a way unknown to mediocre souls. His mother Heyst
had never known, but he kept his father's pale, distinguished face
in affectionate memory. He remembered him mainly in an ample blue
dressing-gown in a large house of a quiet London suburb. For three
years, after leaving school at the age of eighteen, he had lived with
the elder Heyst, who was then writing his last book. In this work, at
the end of his life, he claimed for mankind that right to absolute moral
and intellectual liberty of which he no longer believed them worthy.

Three years of such companionship at that plastic and impressionable age
were bound to leave in the boy a profound mistrust of life. The young
man learned to reflect, which is a destructive process, a reckoning
of the cost. It is not the clear-sighted who lead the world. Great
achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm mental fog, which the
pitiless cold blasts of the father's analysis had blown away from the
son.

"I'll drift," Heyst had said to himself deliberately.

He did not mean intellectually or sentimentally or morally. He meant
to drift altogether and literally, body and soul, like a detached leaf
drifting in the wind-currents under the immovable trees of a forest
glade; to drift without ever catching on to anything.

"This shall be my defence against life," he had said to himself with a
sort of inward consciousness that for the son of his father there was no
other worthy alternative.

He became a waif and stray, austerely, from conviction, as others
do through drink, from vice, from some weakness of character--with
deliberation, as others do in despair. This, stripped of its facts, had
been Heyst's life up to that disturbing night. Next day, when he saw the
girl called Alma, she managed to give him a glance of frank tenderness,
quick as lightning and leaving a profound impression, a secret touch on
the heart. It was in the grounds of the hotel, about tiffin time, while
the Ladies of the orchestra were strolling back to their pavilion after
rehearsal, or practice, or whatever they called their morning musical
exercises in the hall. Heyst, returning from the town, where he had
discovered that there would be difficulties in the way of getting away
at once, was crossing the compound, disappointed and worried. He had
walked almost unwittingly into the straggling group of Zangiacomo's
performers. It was a shock to him, on coming out of his brown study, to
find the girl so near to him, as if one waking suddenly should see the
figure of his dream turned into flesh and blood. She did not raise her
shapely head, but her glance was no dream thing. It was real, the most
real impression of his detached existence--so far.

Heyst had not acknowledged it in any way, though it seemed to him
impossible that its effect on him should not be visible to anyone who
happened to be looking on. And there were several men on the
veranda, steady customers of Schomberg's table d'hote, gazing in his
direction--at the ladies of the orchestra, in fact. Heyst's dread arose,
not out of shame or timidity, but from his fastidiousness. On getting
amongst them, however, he noticed no signs of interest or astonishment
in their faces, any more than if they had been blind men. Even Schomberg
himself, who had to make way for him at the top of the stairs, was
completely unperturbed, and continued the conversation he was carrying
on with a client.

Schomberg, indeed, had observed "that Swede" talking with the girl in
the intervals. A crony of his had nudged him; and he had thought that it
was so much the better; the silly fellow would keep everybody else off.
He was rather pleased than otherwise and watched them out of the corner
of his eye with a malicious enjoyment of the situation--a sort of
Satanic glee. For he had little doubt of his personal fascination, and
still less of his power to get hold of the girl, who seemed too ignorant
to know how to help herself, and who was worse than friendless, since
she had for some reason incurred the animosity of Mrs. Zangiacomo, a
woman with no conscience. The aversion she showed him as far as she
dared (for it is not always safe for the helpless to display the
delicacy of their sentiments), Schomberg pardoned on the score of
feminine conventional silliness. He had told Alma, as an argument, that
she was a clever enough girl to see that she could do no better than to
put her trust in a man of substance, in the prime of life, who knew
his way about. But for the excited trembling of his voice, and the
extraordinary way in which his eyes seemed to be starting out of his
crimson, hirsute countenance, such speeches had every character of calm,
unselfish advice--which, after the manner of lovers, passed easily into
sanguine plans for the future.

"We'll soon get rid of the old woman," he whispered to her hurriedly,
with panting ferocity. "Hang her! I've never cared for her. The climate
don't suit her; I shall tell her to go to her people in Europe. She will
have to go, too! I will see to it. Eins, zwei, march! And then we shall
sell this hotel and start another somewhere else."

He assured her that he didn't care what he did for her sake; and it
was true. Forty-five is the age of recklessness for many men, as if in
defiance of the decay and death waiting with open arms in the sinister
valley at the bottom of the inevitable hill. Her shrinking form, her
downcast eyes, when she had to listen to him, cornered at the end of an
empty corridor, he regarded as signs of submission to the overpowering
force of his will, the recognition of his personal fascinations. For
every age is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and
the human race come to an end.

It's easy to imagine Schomberg's humiliation, his shocked fury, when
he discovered that the girl who had for weeks resisted his attacks, his
prayers, and his fiercest protestations, had been snatched from under
his nose by "that Swede," apparently without any trouble worth speaking
of. He refused to believe the fact. He would have it, at first, that
the Zangiacomos, for some unfathomable reason, had played him a scurvy
trick, but when no further doubt was possible, he changed his view of
Heyst. The despised Swede became for Schomberg the deepest, the most
dangerous, the most hateful of scoundrels. He could not believe that the
creature he had coveted with so much force and with so little effect,
was in reality tender, docile to her impulse, and had almost offered
herself to Heyst without a sense of guilt, in a desire of safety, and
from a profound need of placing her trust where her woman's instinct
guided her ignorance. Nothing would serve Schomberg but that she must
have been circumvented by some occult exercise of force or craft, by the
laying of some subtle trap. His wounded vanity wondered ceaselessly at
the means "that Swede" had employed to seduce her away from a man
like him--Schomberg--as though those means were bound to have been
extraordinary, unheard of, inconceivable. He slapped his forehead openly
before his customers; he would sit brooding in silence or else would
burst out unexpectedly declaiming against Heyst without measure,
discretion, or prudence, with swollen features and an affectation of
outraged virtue which could not have deceived the most childlike of
moralists for a moment--and greatly amused his audience.

It became a recognized entertainment to go and hear his abuse of Heyst,
while sipping iced drinks on the veranda of the hotel. It was, in a
manner, a more successful draw than the Zangiacomo concerts had ever
been--intervals and all. There was never any difficulty in starting the
performer off. Anybody could do it, by almost any distant allusion.
As likely as not he would start his endless denunciations in the very
billiard-room where Mrs. Schomberg sat enthroned as usual, swallowing
her sobs, concealing her tortures of abject humiliation and terror under
her stupid, set, everlasting grin, which, having been provided for her
by nature, was an excellent mask, in as much as nothing--not even death
itself, perhaps--could tear it away.

But nothing lasts in this world, at least without changing its
physiognomy. So, after a few weeks, Schomberg regained his outward calm,
as if his indignation had dried up within him. And it was time. He was
becoming a bore with his inability to talk of anything else but Heyst's
unfitness to be at large, Heyst's wickedness, his wiles, his astuteness,
and his criminality. Schomberg no longer pretended to despise him. He
could not have done it. After what had happened he could not pretend,
even to himself. But his bottled-up indignation was fermenting
venomously. At the time of his immoderate loquacity one of his
customers, an elderly man, had remarked one evening:

"If that ass keeps on like this, he will end by going crazy."

And this belief was less than half wrong. Schomberg had Heyst on the
brain. Even the unsatisfactory state of his affairs, which had
never been so unpromising since he came out East directly after the
Franco-Prussian War, he referred to some subtly noxious influence of
Heyst. It seemed to him that he could never be himself again till he had
got even with that artful Swede. He was ready to swear that Heyst had
ruined his life. The girl so unfairly, craftily, basely decoyed away
would have inspired him to success in a new start. Obviously Mrs.
Schomberg, whom he terrified by savagely silent moods combined with
underhand, poisoned glances, could give him no inspiration. He had grown
generally neglectful, but with a partiality for reckless expedients, as
if he did not care when and how his career as a hotel-keeper was to be
brought to an end. This demoralized state accounted for what Davidson
had observed on his last visit to the Schomberg establishment, some two
months after Heyst's secret departure with the girl to the solitude of
Samburan.

The Schomberg of a few years ago--the Schomberg of the Bangkok days,
for instance, when he started the first of his famed table d'hote
dinners--would never have risked anything of the sort. His genius ran to
catering, "white man for white men" and to the inventing, elaborating,
and retailing of scandalous gossip with asinine unction and impudent
delight. But now his mind was perverted by the pangs of wounded vanity
and of thwarted passion. In this state of moral weakness Schomberg
allowed himself to be corrupted.

Joseph Conrad