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Chapter 5

When she opened her eyes at last and sat up, Heyst scrambled quickly to
his feet and went to pick up her cork helmet, which had rolled a little
way off. Meanwhile she busied herself in doing up her hair, plaited on
the top of her head in two heavy, dark tresses, which had come loose. He
tendered her the helmet in silence, and waited as if unwilling to hear
the sound of his own voice.

"We had better go down now," he suggested in a low tone.

He extended his hand to help her up. He had the intention to smile,
but abandoned it at the nearer sight of her still face, in which was
depicted the infinite lassitude of her soul. On their way to regain the
forest path they had to pass through the spot from which the view of
the sea could be obtained. The flaming abyss of emptiness, the liquid,
undulating glare, the tragic brutality of the light, made her long for
the friendly night, with its stars stilled by an austere spell; for the
velvety dark sky and the mysterious great shadow of the sea, conveying
peace to the day-weary heart. She put her hand to her eyes. Behind her
back Heyst spoke gently.

"Let us get on, Lena."

She walked ahead in silence. Heyst remarked that they had never been
out before during the hottest hours. It would do her no good, he feared.
This solicitude pleased and soothed her. She felt more and more like
herself--a poor London girl playing in an orchestra, and snatched out
from the humiliations, the squalid dangers of a miserable existence,
by a man like whom there was not, there could not be, another in this
world. She felt this with elation, with uneasiness, with an intimate
pride--and with a peculiar sinking of the heart.

"I am not easily knocked out by any such thing as heat," she said

"Yes, but I don't forget that you're not a tropical bird."

"You weren't born in these parts, either," she returned.

"No, and perhaps I haven't even your physique. I am a transplanted
being. Transplanted! I ought to call myself uprooted--an unnatural state
of existence; but a man is supposed to stand anything."

She looked back at him and received a smile. He told her to keep in the
shelter of the forest path, which was very still and close, full of heat
if free from glare. Now and then they had glimpses of the company's old
clearing blazing with light, in which the black stumps of trees stood
charred, without shadows, miserable and sinister. They crossed the open
in a direct line for the bungalow. On the veranda they fancied they had
a glimpse of the vanishing Wang, though the girl was not at all sure
that she had seen anything move. Heyst had no doubts.

"Wang has been looking out for us. We are late."

"Was he? I thought I saw something white for a moment, and then I did
not see it any more."

"That's it--he vanishes. It's a very remarkable gift in that Chinaman."

"Are they all like that?" she asked with naive curiosity and uneasiness.

"Not in such perfection," said Heyst, amused.

He noticed with approval that she was not heated by the walk. The drops
of perspiration on her forehead were like dew on the cool, white petal
of a flower. He looked at her figure of grace and strength, solid and
supple, with an ever-growing appreciation.

"Go in and rest yourself for a quarter of an hour; and then Mr. Wang
will give us something to eat," he said.

They had found the table laid. When they came together again and sat
down to it, Wang materialized without a sound, unheard, uncalled, and
did his office. Which being accomplished, at a given moment he was not.

A great silence brooded over Samburan--the silence of the great heat
that seems pregnant with fatal issues, like the silence of ardent
thought. Heyst remained alone in the big room. The girl seeing him
take up a book, had retreated to her chamber. Heyst sat down under
his father's portrait; and the abominable calumny crept back into his
recollection. The taste of it came on his lips, nauseating and corrosive
like some kinds of poison. He was tempted to spit on the floor, naively,
in sheer unsophisticated disgust of the physical sensation. He shook his
head, surprised at himself. He was not used to receive his intellectual
impressions in that way--reflected in movements of carnal emotion. He
stirred impatiently in his chair, and raised the book to his eyes with
both hands. It was one of his father's. He opened it haphazard, and
his eyes fell on the middle of the page. The elder Heyst had written of
everything in many books--of space and of time, of animals and of stars;
analysing ideas and actions, the laughter and the frowns of men, and the
grimaces of their agony. The son read, shrinking into himself, composing
his face as if under the author's eye, with a vivid consciousness of
the portrait on his right hand, a little above his head; a wonderful
presence in its heavy frame on the flimsy wall of mats, looking exiled
and at home, out of place and masterful, in the painted immobility of

And Heyst, the son, read:

Of the stratagems of life the most cruel is the consolation of love--the
most subtle, too; for the desire is the bed of dreams.

He turned the pages of the little volume, "Storm and Dust," glancing
here and there at the broken text of reflections, maxims, short phrases,
enigmatical sometimes and sometimes eloquent. It seemed to him that he
was hearing his father's voice, speaking and ceasing to speak again.
Startled at first, he ended by finding a charm in the illusion. He
abandoned himself to the half-belief that something of his father dwelt
yet on earth--a ghostly voice, audible to the ear of his own flesh and
blood. With what strange serenity, mingled with terrors, had that man
considered the universal nothingness! He had plunged into it headlong,
perhaps to render death, the answer that faced one at every inquiry,
more supportable.

Heyst stirred, and the ghostly voice ceased; but his eyes followed the
words on the last page of the book:

Men of tormented conscience, or of a criminal imagination, are aware of
much that minds of a peaceful, resigned cast do not even suspect. It is
not poets alone who dare descend into the abyss of infernal regions, or
even who dream of such a descent. The most inexpressive of human beings
must have said to himself, at one time or another: "Anything but this!"
. . .

We all have our instants of clairvoyance. They are not very helpful.
The character of the scheme does not permit that or anything else to
be helpful. Properly speaking its character, judged by the standards
established by its victims, is infamous. It excuses every violence of
protest and at the same time never fails to crush it, just as it
crushes the blindest assent. The so-called wickedness must be, like the
so-called virtue, its own reward--to be anything at all . . .

Clairvoyance or no clairvoyance, men love their captivity. To the
unknown force of negation they prefer the miserably tumbled bed of their
servitude. Man alone can give one the disgust of pity; yet I find it
easier to believe in the misfortune of mankind than in its wickedness.

These were the last words. Heyst lowered the book to his knees. Lena's
voice spoke above his drooping head:

"You sit there as if you were unhappy."

"I thought you were asleep," he said.

"I was lying down right enough, but I never closed my eyes."

"The rest would have done you good after our walk. Didn't you try?"

"I was lying down, I tell you, but sleep I couldn't."

"And you made no sound! What want of sincerity. Or did you want to be
alone for a time?"

"I--alone?" she murmured.

He noticed her eyeing the book, and got up to put it back in the
bookcase. When he turned round, he saw that she had dropped into the
chair--it was the one she always used--and looked as if her strength had
suddenly gone from her, leaving her only her youth, which seemed very
pathetic, very much at his mercy. He moved quickly towards the chair.

"Tired, are you? It's my fault, taking you up so high and keeping you
out so long. Such a windless day, too!"

She watched his concern, her pose languid, her eyes raised to him,
but as unreadable as ever. He avoided looking into them for that very
reason. He forgot himself in the contemplation of those passive arms, of
these defenceless lips, and--yes, one had to go back to them--of these
wide-open eyes. Something wild in their grey stare made him think of
sea-birds in the cold murkiness of high latitudes. He started when she
spoke, all the charm of physical intimacy revealed suddenly in that

"You should try to love me!" she said.

He made a movement of astonishment.

"Try," he muttered. "But it seems to me--" He broke off, saying to
himself that if he loved her, he had never told her so in so many words.
Simple words! They died on his lips. "What makes you say that?" he

She lowered her eyelids and turned her head a little.

"I have done nothing," she said in a low voice. "It's you who have been
good, helpful, and tender to me. Perhaps you love me for that--just
for that; or perhaps you love me for company, and because--well! But
sometimes it seems to me that you can never love me for myself, only
for myself, as people do love each other when it is to be for ever."
Her head drooped. "Forever," she breathed out again; then, still more
faintly, she added an entreating: "Do try!"

These last words went straight to his heart--the sound of them more than
the sense. He did not know what to say, either from want of practice in
dealing with women or simply from his innate honesty of thought. All
his defences were broken now. Life had him fairly by the throat. But he
managed a smile, though she was not looking at him; yes, he did manage
it--the well-known Heyst smile of playful courtesy, so familiar to all
sorts and conditions of men in the islands.

"My dear Lena," he said, "it looks as if you were trying to pick a very
unnecessary quarrel with me--of all people!"

She made no movement. With his elbows spread out he was twisting the
ends of his long moustaches, very masculine and perplexed, enveloped in
the atmosphere of femininity as in a cloud, suspecting pitfalls, and as
if afraid to move.

"I must admit, though," he added, "that there is no one else; and I
suppose a certain amount of quarrelling is necessary for existence in
this world."

That girl, seated in her chair in graceful quietude, was to him like a
script in an unknown language, or even more simply mysterious, like
any writing to the illiterate. As far as women went he was altogether
uninstructed and he had not the gift of intuition which is fostered in
the days of youth by dreams and visions, exercises of the heart fitting
it for the encounters of a world, in which love itself rests as much
on antagonism as on attraction. His mental attitude was that of a man
looking this way and that on a piece of writing which he is unable to
decipher, but which may be big with some revelation. He didn't know what
to say. All he found to add was:

"I don't even understand what I have done or left undone to distress you
like this."

He stopped, struck afresh by the physical and moral sense of the
imperfections of their relations--a sense which made him desire her
constant nearness, before his eyes, under his hand, and which, when
she was out of his sight, made her so vague, so elusive and illusory, a
promise that could not be embraced and held.

"No! I don't see clearly what you mean. Is your mind turned towards the
future?" he interpellated her with marked playfulness, because he
was ashamed to let such a word pass his lips. But all his cherished
negations were falling off him one by one.

"Because if it is so there is nothing easier than to dismiss it. In our
future, as in what people call the other life, there is nothing to be
frightened of."

She raised her eyes to him; and if nature had formed them to express
anything else but blank candour he would have learned how terrified
she was by his talk and the fact that her sinking heart loved him more
desperately than ever. He smiled at her.

"Dismiss all thought of it," he insisted. "Surely you don't suspect
after what I have heard from you, that I am anxious to return to
mankind. I! I! murder my poor Morrison! It's possible that I may be
really capable of that which they say I have done. The point is that I
haven't done it. But it is an unpleasant subject to me. I ought to be
ashamed to confess it--but it is! Let us forget it. There's that in you,
Lena, which can console me for worse things, for uglier passages. And if
we forget, there are no voices here to remind us."

She had raised her head before he paused.

"Nothing can break in on us here," he went on and, as if there had been
an appeal or a provocation in her upward glance, he bent down and took
her under the arms, raising her straight out of the chair into a sudden
and close embrace. Her alacrity to respond, which made her seem as light
as a feather, warmed his heart at that moment more than closer caresses
had done before. He had not expected that ready impulse towards himself
which had been dormant in her passive attitude. He had just felt the
clasp of her arms round his neck, when, with a slight exclamation--"He's
here!"--she disengaged herself and bolted, away into her room.

Joseph Conrad