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Chapter 1


Ricardo advanced prudently by short darts from one tree-trunk to
another, more in the manner of a squirrel than a cat. The sun had
risen some time before. Already the sparkle of open sea was encroaching
rapidly on the dark, cool, early-morning blue of Diamond Bay; but the
deep dusk lingered yet under the mighty pillars of the forest, between
which the secretary dodged.

He was watching Number One's bungalow with an animal-like patience, if
with a very human complexity of purpose. This was the second morning
of such watching. The first one had not been rewarded by success. Well,
strictly speaking, there was no hurry.

The sun, swinging above the ridge all at once, inundated with light the
space of burnt grass in front of Ricardo and the face of the bungalow,
on which his eyes were fixed, leaving only the one dark spot of the
doorway. To his right, to his left, and behind him, splashes of gold
appeared in the deep shade of the forest, thinning the gloom under the
ragged roof of leaves.

This was not a very favourable circumstance for Ricardo's purpose. He
did not wish to be detected in his patient occupation. For what he was
watching for was a sight of the girl--that girl! just a glimpse across
the burnt patch to see what she was like. He had excellent eyes, and
the distance was not so great. He would be able to distinguish her face
quite easily if she only came out on the veranda; and she was bound
to do that sooner or later. He was confident that he could form some
opinion about her--which, he felt, was very necessary, before venturing
on some steps to get in touch with her behind that Swedish baron's back.
His theoretical view of the girl was such that he was quite prepared,
on the strength of that distant examination, to show himself
discreetly--perhaps even make a sign. It all depended on his reading of
the face. She couldn't be much. He knew that sort!

By protruding his head a little he commanded, through the foliage of a
festooning creeper, a view of the three bungalows. Irregularly disposed
along a flat curve, over the veranda rail of the farthermost one hung a
dark rug of a tartan pattern, amazingly conspicuous. Ricardo could see
the very checks. A brisk fire of sticks was burning on the ground in
front of the steps, and in the sunlight the thin, fluttering flame had
paled almost to invisibility--a mere rosy stir under a faint wreath of
smoke. He could see the white bandage on the head of Pedro bending over
it, and the wisps of black hair standing up weirdly. He had wound that
bandage himself, after breaking that shaggy and enormous head. The
creature balanced it like a load, staggering towards the steps. Ricardo
could see a small, long-handled saucepan at the end of a great hairy
paw.

Yes, he could see all that there was to be seen, far and near. Excellent
eyes! The only thing they could not penetrate was the dark oblong of the
doorway on the veranda under the low eaves of the bungalow's roof. And
that was vexing. It was an outrage. Ricardo was easily outraged. Surely
she would come out presently! Why didn't she? Surely the fellow did not
tie her up to the bedpost before leaving the house!

Nothing appeared. Ricardo was as still as the leafy cables of creepers
depending in a convenient curtain from the mighty limb sixty feet above
his head. His very eyelids were still, and this unblinking watchfulness
gave him the dreamy air of a cat posed on a hearth-rug contemplating the
fire. Was he dreaming? There, in plain sight, he had before him a white,
blouse-like jacket, short blue trousers, a pair of bare yellow calves, a
pigtail, long and slender--

"The confounded Chink!" he muttered, astounded.

He was not conscious of having looked away; and yet right there, in the
middle of the picture, without having come round the right-hand corner
or the left-hand corner of the house, without falling from the sky or
surging up from the ground, Wang had become visible, large as life,
and engaged in the young-ladyish occupation of picking flowers. Step
by step, stooping repeatedly over the flower-beds at the foot of the
veranda, the startlingly materialized Chinaman passed off the scene in
a very commonplace manner, by going up the steps and disappearing in the
darkness of the doorway.

Only then the yellow eyes of Martin Ricardo lost their intent fixity. He
understood that it was time for him to be moving. That bunch of
flowers going into the house in the hand of a Chinaman was for the
breakfast-table. What else could it be for?

"I'll give you flowers!" he muttered threateningly. "You wait!"

Another moment, just for a glance towards the Jones bungalow, whence
he expected Heyst to issue on his way to that breakfast so offensively
decorated, and Ricardo began his retreat. His impulse, his desire, was
for a rush into the open, face to face with the appointed victim, for
what he called a "ripping up," visualized greedily, and always with
the swift preliminary stooping movement on his part--the forerunner of
certain death to his adversary. This was his impulse; and as it was, so
to speak, constitutional, it was extremely difficult to resist when his
blood was up. What could be more trying than to have to skulk and dodge
and restrain oneself, mentally and physically, when one's blood was up?
Mr. Secretary Ricardo began his retreat from his post of observation
behind a tree opposite Heyst's bungalow, using great care to remain
unseen. His proceedings were made easier by the declivity of the ground,
which sloped sharply down to the water's edge. There, his feet feeling
the warmth of the island's rocky foundation already heated by the sun,
through the thin soles of his straw slippers he was, as it were, sunk
out of sight of the houses. A short scramble of some twenty feet brought
him up again to the upper level, at the place where the jetty had its
root in the shore. He leaned his back against one of the lofty uprights
which still held up the company's signboard above the mound of derelict
coal. Nobody could have guessed how much his blood was up. To contain
himself he folded his arms tightly on his breast.

Ricardo was not used to a prolonged effort of self-control. His craft,
his artfulness, felt themselves always at the mercy of his nature, which
was truly feral and only held in subjection by the influence of the
"governor," the prestige of a gentleman. It had its cunning too, but it
was being almost too severely tried since the feral solution of a growl
and a spring was forbidden by the problem. Ricardo dared not venture out
on the cleared ground. He dared not.

"If I meet the beggar," he thought, "I don't know what I mayn't do. I
daren't trust myself."

What exasperated him just now was his inability to understand
Heyst. Ricardo was human enough to suffer from the discovery of his
limitations. No, he couldn't size Heyst up. He could kill him with
extreme ease--a growl and a spring--but that was forbidden! However, he
could not remain indefinitely under the funereal blackboard.

"I must make a move," he thought.

He moved on, his head swimming a little with the repressed desire of
violence, and came out openly in front of the bungalows, as if he had
just been down to the jetty to look at the boat. The sunshine enveloped
him, very brilliant, very still, very hot. The three buildings faced
him. The one with the rug on the balustrade was the most distant; next
to it was the empty bungalow; the nearest, with the flower-beds at the
foot of its veranda, contained that bothersome girl, who had managed
so provokingly to keep herself invisible. That was why Ricardo's eyes
lingered on that building. The girl would surely be easier to "size up"
than Heyst. A sight of her, a mere glimpse, would have been something to
go by, a step nearer to the goal--the first real move, in fact. Ricardo
saw no other move. And any time she might appear on that veranda!

She did not appear; but, like a concealed magnet, she exercised her
attraction. As he went on, he deviated towards the bungalow. Though his
movements were deliberate, his feral instincts had such sway that if he
had met Heyst walking towards him, he would have had to satisfy his
need of violence. But he saw nobody. Wang was at the back of the house,
keeping the coffee hot against Number One's return for breakfast. Even
the simian Pedro was out of sight, no doubt crouching on the door-step,
his red little eyes fastened with animal-like devotion on Mr. Jones, who
was in discourse with Heyst in the other bungalow--the conversation of
an evil spectre with a disarmed man, watched by an ape.

His will having very little to do with it, Ricardo, darting swift
glances in all directions, found himself at the steps of the Heyst
bungalow. Once there, falling under an uncontrollable force of
attraction, he mounted them with a savage and stealthy action of his
limbs, and paused for a moment under the eaves to listen to the silence.
Presently he advanced over the threshold one leg--it seemed to stretch
itself, like a limb of india-rubber--planted his foot within, brought up
the other swiftly, and stood inside the room, turning his head from side
to side. To his eyes, brought in there from the dazzling sunshine, all
was gloom for a moment. His pupils, like a cat's, dilating swiftly, he
distinguished an enormous quantity of books. He was amazed; and he was
put off too. He was vexed in his astonishment. He had meant to note the
aspect and nature of things, and hoped to draw some useful inference,
some hint as to the man. But what guess could one make out of a
multitude of books? He didn't know what to think; and he formulated his
bewilderment in the mental exclamation:

"What the devil has this fellow been trying to set up here--a school?"

He gave a prolonged stare to the portrait of Heyst's father, that severe
profile ignoring the vanities of this earth. His eyes gleamed sideways
at the heavy silver candlesticks--signs of opulence. He prowled as a
stray cat entering a strange place might have done, for if Ricardo had
not Wang's miraculous gift of materializing and vanishing, rather than
coming and going, he could be nearly as noiseless in his less elusive
movements. He noted the back door standing just ajar; and an the time
his slightly pointed ears, at the utmost stretch of watchfulness, kept
in touch with the profound silence outside enveloping the absolute
stillness of the house.

He had not been in the room two minutes when it occurred to him that he
must be alone in the bungalow. The woman, most likely, had sneaked out
and was walking about somewhere in the grounds at the back. She had
been probably ordered to keep out of sight. Why? Because the fellow
mistrusted his guests; or was it because he mistrusted _her_?

Ricardo reflected that from a certain point of view it amounted nearly
to the same thing. He remembered Schomberg's story. He felt that
running away with somebody only to get clear of that beastly, tame,
hotel-keeper's attention was no proof of hopeless infatuation. She could
be got in touch with.

His moustaches stirred. For some time he had been looking at a closed
door. He would peep into that other room, and perhaps see something more
informing than a confounded lot of books. As he crossed over, he thought
recklessly:

"If the beggar comes in suddenly, and starts to prance, I'll rip him up
and be done with it!"

He laid his hand on the handle, and felt the door come unlatched. Before
he pulled it open, he listened again to the silence. He felt it all
about him, complete, without a flaw.

The necessity of prudence had exasperated his self-restraint. A mood
of ferocity woke up in him, and, as always at such times, he became
physically aware of the sheeted knife strapped to his leg. He pulled at
the door with fierce curiosity. It came open without a squeak of hinge,
without a rustle, with no sound at all; and he found himself glaring at
the opaque surface of some rough blue stuff, like serge. A curtain was
fitted inside, heavy enough and long enough not to stir.

A curtain! This unforeseen veil, baffling his curiosity checked his
brusqueness. He did not fling it aside with an impatient movement; he
only looked at it closely, as if its texture had to be examined before
his hand could touch such stuff. In this interval of hesitation, he
seemed to detect a flaw in the perfection of the silence, the faintest
possible rustle, which his ears caught and instantly, in the effort of
conscious listening, lost again. No! Everything was still inside and
outside the house, only he had no longer the sense of being alone there.

When he put out his hand towards the motionless folds it was with
extreme caution, and merely to push the stuff aside a little, advancing
his head at the same time to peep within. A moment of complete
immobility ensued. Then, without anything else of him stirring,
Ricardo's head shrank back on his shoulders, his arm descended slowly to
his side. There was a woman in there. The very woman! Lighted dimly
by the reflection of the outer glare, she loomed up strangely big and
shadowy at the other end of the long, narrow room. With her back to
the door, she was doing her hair with bare arms uplifted. One of them
gleamed pearly white; the other detached its perfect form in black
against the unshuttered, uncurtained square window-hole. She was there,
her fingers busy with her dark hair, utterly unconscious, exposed and
defenceless--and tempting.

Ricardo drew back one foot and pressed his elbows close to his sides;
his chest started heaving convulsively as if he were wrestling or
running a race; his body began to sway gently back and forth. The
self-restraint was at an end: his psychology must have its way. The
instinct for the feral spring could no longer be denied. Ravish or
kill--it was all one to him, as long as by the act he liberated the
suffering soul of savagery repressed for so long. After a quick glance
over his shoulder, which hunters of big game tell us no lion or tiger
omits to give before charging home, Ricardo charged, head down, straight
at the curtain. The stuff, tossed up violently by his rush, settled
itself with a slow, floating descent Into vertical folds, motionless,
without a shudder even, in the still, warm air.


Joseph Conrad