That morning, as on all the others of the full tale of mornings since
his return with the girl to Samburan, Heyst came out on the veranda and
spread his elbows on the railing, in an easy attitude of proprietorship.
The bulk of the central ridge of the island cut off the bungalow from
sunrises, whether glorious or cloudy, angry or serene. The dwellers
therein were debarred from reading early the fortune of the new-born
day. It sprang upon them in its fulness with a swift retreat of the
great shadow when the sun, clearing the ridge, looked down, hot and dry,
with a devouring glare like the eye of an enemy. But Heyst, once the
Number One of this locality, while it was comparatively teeming with
mankind, appreciated the prolongation of early coolness, the subdued,
lingering half-light, the faint ghost of the departed night, the
fragrance of its dewy, dark soul captured for a moment longer between
the great glow of the sky and the intense blaze of the uncovered sea.
It was naturally difficult for Heyst to keep his mind from dwelling on
the nature and consequences of this, his latest departure from the part
of an unconcerned spectator. Yet he had retained enough of his wrecked
philosophy to prevent him from asking himself consciously how it would
end. But at the same time he could not help being temperamentally, from
long habit and from set purpose, a spectator still, perhaps a little
less naive but (as he discovered with some surprise) not much more far
sighted than the common run of men. Like the rest of us who act, all he
could say to himself, with a somewhat affected grimness, was:
"We shall see!"
This mood of grim doubt intruded on him only when he was alone. There
were not many such moments in his day now; and he did not like them when
they came. On this morning he had no time to grow uneasy. Alma came out
to join him long before the sun, rising above the Samburan ridge, swept
the cool shadow of the early morning and the remnant of the night's
coolness clear off the roof under which they had dwelt for more than
three months already. She came out as on other mornings. He had heard
her light footsteps in the big room--the room where he had unpacked the
cases from London; the room now lined with the backs of books halfway up
on its three sides. Above the cases the fine matting met the ceiling of
tightly stretched white calico. In the dusk and coolness nothing gleamed
except the gilt frame of the portrait of Heyst's father, signed by a
famous painter, lonely in the middle of a wall.
Heyst did not turn round.
"Do you know what I was thinking of?" he asked.
"No," she said. Her tone betrayed always a shade of anxiety, as though
she were never certain how a conversation with him would end. She leaned
on the guard-rail by his side.
"No," she repeated. "What was it?" She waited. Then, rather with
reluctance than shyness, she asked:
"Were you thinking of me?"
"I was wondering when you would come out," said Heyst, still without
looking at the girl--to whom, after several experimental essays in
combining detached letters and loose syllables, he had given the name of
She remarked after a pause:
"I was not very far from you."
"Apparently you were not near enough for me."
"You could have called if you wanted me," she said. "And I wasn't so
long doing my hair."
"Apparently it was too long for me."
"Well, you were thinking of me, anyhow. I am glad of it. Do you know,
it seems to me, somehow, that if you were to stop thinking of me I
shouldn't be in the world at all!"
He turned round and looked at her. She often said things which surprised
him. A vague smile faded away on her lips before his scrutiny.
"What is it?" he asked. "It is a reproach?"
"A reproach! Why, how could it be?" she defended herself.
"Well, what did it mean?" he insisted.
"What I said--just what I said. Why aren't you fair?"
"Ah, this is at least a reproach!"
She coloured to the roots of her hair.
"It looks as if you were trying to make out that I am disagreeable," she
murmured. "Am I? You will make me afraid to open my mouth presently. I
shall end by believing I am no good."
Her head drooped a little. He looked at her smooth, low brow, the
faintly coloured checks, and the red lips parted slightly, with the
gleam of her teeth within.
"And then I won't be any good," she added with conviction. "That I
won't! I can only be what you think I am."
He made a slight movement. She put her hand on his arm, without raising
her head, and went on, her voice animated in the stillness of her body:
"It is so. It couldn't be any other way with a girl like me and a man
like you. Here we are, we two alone, and I can't even tell where we
"A very well-known spot of the globe," Heyst uttered gently. "There
must have been at least fifty thousand circulars issued at the time--a
hundred and fifty thousand, more likely. My friend was looking after
that, and his ideas were large and his belief very strong. Of us two it
was he who had the faith. A hundred and fifty thousand, certainly."
"What is it you mean?" she asked in a low tone.
"What should I find fault with you for?" Heyst went on. "For being
amiable, good, gracious--and pretty?"
A silence fell. Then she said:
"It's all right that you should think that of me. There's no one here to
think anything of us, good or bad."
The rare timbre of her voice gave a special value to what she uttered.
The indefinable emotion which certain intonations gave him, he was
aware, was more physical than moral. Every time she spoke to him she
seemed to abandon to him something of herself--something excessively
subtle and inexpressible, to which he was infinitely sensible, which he
would have missed horribly if she were to go away. While he was looking
into her eyes she raised her bare forearm, out of the short sleeve, and
held it in the air till he noticed it and hastened to pose his great
bronze moustaches on the whiteness of the skin. Then they went in.
Wang immediately appeared in front, and, squatting on his heels, began
to potter mysteriously about some plants at the foot of the veranda.
When Heyst and the girl came out again, the Chinaman had gone in his
peculiar manner, which suggested vanishing out of existence rather than
out of sight, a process of evaporation rather than of movement. They
descended the steps, looking at each other, and started off smartly
across the cleared ground; but they were not ten yards away when,
without perceptible stir or sound, Wang materialized inside the empty
room. The Chinaman stood still with roaming eyes, examining the walls as
if for signs, for inscriptions; exploring the floor as if for pitfalls,
for dropped coins. Then he cocked his head slightly at the profile of
Heyst's father, pen in hand above a white sheet of paper on a crimson
tablecloth; and, moving forward noiselessly, began to clear away the
Though he proceeded without haste, the unerring precision of his
movements, the absolute soundlessness of the operation, gave it
something of the quality of a conjuring trick. And, the trick having
been performed, Wang vanished from the scene, to materialize presently
in front of the house. He materialized walking away from it, with no
visible or guessable intention; but at the end of some ten paces he
stopped, made a half turn, and put his hand up to shade his eyes. The
sun had topped the grey ridge of Samburan. The great morning shadow was
gone; and far away in the devouring sunshine Wang was in time to see
Number One and the woman, two remote white specks against the sombre
line of the forest. In a moment they vanished. With the smallest display
of action, Wang also vanished from the sunlight of the clearing.
Heyst and Lena entered the shade of the forest path which crossed the
island, and which, near its highest point had been blocked by felled
trees. But their intention was not to go so far. After keeping to the
path for some distance, they left it at a point where the forest was
bare of undergrowth, and the trees, festooned with creepers, stood clear
of one another in the gloom of their own making. Here and there great
splashes of light lay on the ground. They moved, silent in the great
stillness, breathing the calmness, the infinite isolation, the repose of
a slumber without dreams. They emerged at the upper limit of vegetation,
among some rocks; and in a depression of the sharp slope, like a small
platform, they turned about and looked from on high over the sea,
lonely, its colour effaced by sunshine, its horizon a heat mist, a mere
unsubstantial shimmer in the pale and blinding infinity overhung by the
darker blaze of the sky.
"It makes my head swim," the girl murmured, shutting her eyes and
putting her hand on his shoulder.
Heyst, gazing fixedly to the southward, exclaimed:
A moment of silence ensued.
"It must be very far away," he went on. "I don't think you could see it.
Some native craft making for the Moluccas, probably. Come, we mustn't
With his arm round her waist, he led her down a little distance, and
they settled themselves in the shade; she, seated on the ground, he a
little lower, reclining at her feet.
"You don't like to look at the sea from up there?" he said after a time.
She shook her head. That empty space was to her the abomination of
desolation. But she only said again:
"It makes my head swim."
"Too big?" he inquired.
"Too lonely. It makes my heart sink, too," she added in a low voice, as
if confessing a secret.
"I'm am afraid," said Heyst, "that you would be justified in reproaching
me for these sensations. But what would you have?"
His tone was playful, but his eyes, directed at her face, were serious.
"I am not feeling lonely with you--not a bit. It is only when we come up
to that place, and I look at all that water and all that light--"
"We will never come here again, then," he interrupted her.
She remained silent for a while, returning his gaze till he removed it.
"It seems as if everything that there is had gone under," she said.
"Reminds you of the story of the deluge," muttered the man, stretched at
her feet and looking at them. "Are you frightened at it?"
"I should be rather frightened to be left behind alone. When I say, I,
of course I mean we."
"Do you?" . . . Heyst remained silent for a while. "The vision of a
world destroyed," he mused aloud. "Would you be sorry for it?"
"I should be sorry for the happy people in it," she said simply.
His gaze travelled up her figure and reached her face, where he seemed
to detect the veiled glow of intelligence, as one gets a glimpse of the
sun through the clouds.
"I should have thought it's they specially who ought to have been
congratulated. Don't you?"
"Oh, yes--I understand what you mean; but there were forty days before
it was all over."
"You seem to be in possession of all the details."
Heyst spoke just to say something rather than to gaze at her in silence.
She was not looking at him.
"Sunday school," she murmured. "I went regularly from the time I
was eight till I was thirteen. We lodged in the north of London, off
Kingsland Road. It wasn't a bad time. Father was earning good money
then. The woman of the house used to pack me off in the afternoon with
her own girls. She was a good woman. Her husband was in the post office.
Sorter or something. Such a quiet man. He used to go off after supper
for night-duty, sometimes. Then one day they had a row, and broke up the
home. I remember I cried when we had to pack up all of a sudden and go
into other lodgings. I never knew what it was, though--"
"The deluge," muttered Heyst absently.
He felt intensely aware of her personality, as if this were the first
moment of leisure he had found to look at her since they had come
together. The peculiar timbre of her voice, with its modulations of
audacity and sadness, would have given interest to the most inane
chatter. But she was no chatterer. She was rather silent, with a
capacity for immobility, an upright stillness, as when resting on the
concert platform between the musical numbers, her feet crossed, her
hands reposing on her lap. But in the intimacy of their life her grey,
unabashed gaze forced upon him the sensation of something inexplicable
reposing within her; stupidity or inspiration, weakness or force--or
simply an abysmal emptiness, reserving itself even in the moments of
During a long pause she did not look at him. Then suddenly, as if
the word "deluge" had stuck in her mind, she asked, looking up at the
"Does it ever rain here?"
"There is a season when it rains almost every day," said Heyst,
surprised. "There are also thunderstorms. We once had a 'mud-shower.'"
"Our neighbour there was shooting up ashes. He sometimes clears his
red-hot gullet like that; and a thunderstorm came along at the
same time. It was very messy; but our neighbour is generally well
behaved--just smokes quietly, as he did that day when I first showed
you the smudge in the sky from the schooner's deck. He's a good-natured,
lazy fellow of a volcano."
"I saw a mountain smoking like that before," she said, staring at the
slender stem of a tree-fern some dozen feet in front of her. "It wasn't
very long after we left England--some few days, though. I was so ill at
first that I lost count of days. A smoking mountain--I can't think how
they called it."
"Vesuvius, perhaps," suggested Heyst.
"That's the name."
"I saw it, too, years, ages ago," said Heyst.
"On your way here?"
"No, long before I ever thought of coming into this part of the world. I
was yet a boy."
She turned and looked at him attentively, as if seeking to discover some
trace of that boyhood in the mature face of the man with the hair
thin at the top and the long, thick moustaches. Heyst stood the frank
examination with a playful smile, hiding the profound effect these
veiled grey eyes produced--whether on his heart or on his nerves,
whether sensuous or spiritual, tender or irritating, he was unable to
"Well, princess of Samburan," he said at last, "have I found favour in
She seemed to wake up, and shook her head.
"I was thinking," she murmured very low.
"Thought, action--so many snares! If you begin to think you will be
"I wasn't thinking of myself!" she declared with a simplicity which took
Heyst aback somewhat.
"On the lips of a moralist this would sound like a rebuke," he said,
half seriously; "but I won't suspect you of being one. Moralists and I
haven't been friends for many years."
She had listened with an air of attention.
"I understood you had no friends," she said. "I am pleased that there's
nobody to find fault with you for what you have done. I like to think
that I am in no one's way."
Heyst would have said something, but she did not give him time.
Unconscious of the movement he made she went on:
"What I was thinking to myself was, why are you here?"
Heyst let himself sink on his elbow again.
"If by 'you' you mean 'we'--well, you know why we are here."
She bent her gaze down at him.
"No, it isn't that. I meant before--all that time before you came across
me and guessed at once that I was in trouble, with no one to turn to.
And you know it was desperate trouble too."
Her voice fell on the last words, as if she would end there; but there
was something so expectant in Heyst's attitude as he sat at her feet,
looking up at her steadily, that she continued, after drawing a short,
"It was, really. I told you I had been worried before by bad fellows.
It made me unhappy, disturbed--angry, too. But oh, how I hated, hated,
_hated_ that man!"
"That man" was the florid Schomberg with the military bearing,
benefactor of white men ('decent food to eat in decent company')--mature
victim of belated passion. The girl shuddered. The characteristic
harmoniousness of her face became, as it were, decomposed for an
instant. Heyst was startled.
"Why think of it now?" he cried.
"It's because I was cornered that time. It wasn't as before. It was
worse, ever so much. I wished I could die of my fright--and yet it's
only now that I begin to understand what a horror it might have been.
Yes, only now, since we--"
Heyst stirred a little.
"Came here," he finished.
Her tenseness relaxed, her flushed face went gradually back to its
"Yes," she said indifferently, but at the same time she gave him a
stealthy glance of passionate appreciation; and then her face took on a
melancholy cast, her whole figure drooped imperceptibly.
"But you were coming back here anyhow?" she asked.
"Yes. I was only waiting for Davidson. Yes, I was coming back here, to
these ruins--to Wang, who perhaps did not expect to see me again. It's
impossible to guess at the way that Chinaman draws his conclusions, and
how he looks upon one."
"Don't talk about him. He makes me feel uncomfortable. Talk about
"About myself? I see you are still busy with the mystery of my existence
here; but it isn't at all mysterious. Primarily the man with the quill
pen in his hand in that picture you so often look at is responsible for
my existence. He is also responsible for what my existence is, or
rather has been. He was a great man in his way. I don't know much of his
history. I suppose he began like other people; took fine words for good,
ringing coin and noble ideals for valuable banknotes. He was a great
master of both, himself, by the way. Later he discovered--how am I to
explain it to you? Suppose the world were a factory and all mankind
workmen in it. Well, he discovered that the wages were not good enough.
That they were paid in counterfeit money."
"I see!" the girl said slowly.
Heyst, who had been speaking as if to himself, looked up curiously.
"It wasn't a new discovery, but he brought his capacity for scorn to
bear on it. It was immense. It ought to have withered this globe. I
don't know how many minds he convinced. But my mind was very young then,
and youth I suppose can be easily seduced--even by a negation. He was
very ruthless, and yet he was not without pity. He dominated me without
difficulty. A heartless man could not have done so. Even to fools he was
not utterly merciless. He could be indignant, but he was too great for
flouts and jeers. What he said was not meant for the crowd; it could not
be; and I was flattered to find myself among the elect. They read his
books, but I have heard his living word. It was irresistible. It was
as if that mind were taking me into its confidence, giving me a special
insight into its mastery of despair. Mistake, no doubt. There is
something of my father in every man who lives long enough. But they
don't say anything. They can't. They wouldn't know how, or perhaps,
they wouldn't speak if they could. Man on this earth is an unforeseen
accident which does not stand close investigation. However, that
particular man died as quietly as a child goes to sleep. But, after
listening to him, I could not take my soul down into the street to fight
there. I started off to wander about, an independent spectator--if that
For a long time the girl's grey eyes had been watching his face. She
discovered that, addressing her, he was really talking to himself. Heyst
looked up, caught sight of her as it were, and caught himself up, with a
low laugh and a change of tone.
"All this does not tell you why I ever came here. Why, indeed? It's like
prying into inscrutable mysteries which are not worth scrutinizing. A
man drifts. The most successful men have drifted into their successes.
I don't want to tell you that this is a success. You wouldn't believe
me if I did. It isn't; neither is it the ruinous failure it looks. It
proves nothing, unless perhaps some hidden weakness in my character--and
even that is not certain."
He looked fixedly at her, and with such grave eyes that she felt obliged
to smile faintly at him, since she did not understand what he meant. Her
smile was reflected, still fainter, on his lips.
"This does not advance you much in your inquiry," he went on. "And in
truth your question is unanswerable; but facts have a certain positive
value, and I will tell you a fact. One day I met a cornered man. I use
the word because it expresses the man's situation exactly, and because
you just used it yourself. You know what that means?"
"What do you say?" she whispered, astounded. "A man!"
Heyst laughed at her wondering eyes.
"No! No! I mean in his own way."
"I knew very well it couldn't be anything like that," she observed under
"I won't bother you with the story. It was a custom-house affair,
strange as it may sound to you. He would have preferred to be killed
outright--that is, to have his soul dispatched to another world, rather
than to be robbed of his substance, his very insignificant substance, in
this. I saw that he believed in another world because, being cornered,
as I have told you, he went down on his knees and prayed. What do you
think of that?"
Heyst paused. She looked at him earnestly.
"You didn't make fun of him for that?" she said.
Heyst made a brusque movement of protest
"My dear girl, I am not a ruffian," he cried. Then, returning to his
usual tone: "I didn't even have to conceal a smile. Somehow it didn't
look a smiling matter. No, it was not funny; it was rather pathetic; he
was so representative of an the past victims of the Great Joke. But it
is by folly alone that the world moves, and so it is a respectable thing
upon the whole. And besides, he was what one would call a good man. I
don't mean especially because he had offered up a prayer. No! He was
really a decent fellow, he was quite unfitted for this world, he was a
failure, a good man cornered--a sight for the gods; for no decent mortal
cares to look at that sort." A thought seemed to occur to him. He turned
his face to the girl. "And you, who have been cornered too--did you
think of offering a prayer?"
Neither her eyes nor a single one of her features moved the least bit.
She only let fall the words:
"I am not what they call a good girl."
"That sounds evasive," said Heyst after a short silence. "Well, the good
fellow did pray and after he had confessed to it I was struck by the
comicality of the situation. No, don't misunderstand me--I am not
alluding to his act, of course. And even the idea of Eternity, Infinity,
Omnipotence, being called upon to defeat the conspiracy of two miserable
Portuguese half-castes did not move my mirth. From the point of view of
the supplicant, the danger to be conjured was something like the end
of the world, or worse. No! What captivated my fancy was that I, Axel
Heyst, the most detached of creatures in this earthly captivity, the
veriest tramp on this earth, an indifferent stroller going through the
world's bustle--that I should have been there to step into the situation
of an agent of Providence. _I_, a man of universal scorn and
unbelief. . . ."
"You are putting it on," she interrupted in her seductive voice, with a
"No. I am not like that, born or fashioned, or both. I am not for
nothing the son of my father, of that man in the painting. I am he, all
but the genius. And there is even less in me than I make out, because
the very scorn is falling away from me year after year. I have never
been so amused as by that episode in which I was suddenly called to act
such an incredible part. For a moment I enjoyed it greatly. It got him
out of his corner, you know."
"You saved a man for fun--is that what you mean? Just for fun?"
"Why this tone of suspicion?" remonstrated Heyst. "I suppose the sight
of this particular distress was disagreeable to me. What you call fun
came afterwards, when it dawned on me that I was for him a walking,
breathing, incarnate proof of the efficacy of prayer. I was a little
fascinated by it--and then, could I have argued with him? You don't
argue against such evidence, and besides it would have looked as if
I had wanted to claim all the merit. Already his gratitude was simply
frightful. Funny position, wasn't it? The boredom came later, when we
lived together on board his ship. I had, in a moment of inadvertence,
created for myself a tie. How to define it precisely I don't know. One
gets attached in a way to people one has done something for. But is that
friendship? I am not sure what it was. I only know that he who forms a
tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul."
Heyst's tone was light, with the flavour of playfulness which seasoned
all his speeches and seemed to be of the very essence of his thoughts.
The girl he had come across, of whom he had possessed himself, to whose
presence he was not yet accustomed, with whom he did not yet know how to
live; that human being so near and still so strange, gave him a greater
sense of his own reality than he had ever known in all his life.
Sorry, no summary available yet.