Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 2


The clock--which once upon a time had measured the hours of philosophic
meditation--could not have ticked away more than five seconds when Wang
materialized within the living-room. His concern primarily was with the
delayed breakfast, but at once his slanting eyes became immovably fixed
upon the unstirring curtain. For it was behind it that he had located
the strange, deadened scuffling sounds which filled the empty room. The
slanting eyes of his race could not achieve a round, amazed stare, but
they remained still, dead still, and his impassive yellow face grew all
at once careworn and lean with the sudden strain of intense, doubtful,
frightened watchfulness. Contrary impulses swayed his body, rooted to
the floor-mats. He even went so far as to extend his hand towards the
curtain. He could not reach it, and he didn't make the necessary step
forward.

The mysterious struggle was going on with confused thuds of bare feet,
in a mute wrestling match, no human sound, hiss, groan, murmur, or
exclamation coming through the curtain. A chair fell over, not with a
crash but lightly, as if just grazed, and a faint metallic ring of the
tin bath succeeded. Finally the tense silence, as of two adversaries
locked in a deadly grip, was ended by the heavy, dull thump of a soft
body flung against the inner partition of planks. It seemed to shake
the whole bungalow. By that time, walking backward, his eyes, his
very throat, strained with fearful excitement, his extended arm still
pointing at the curtain, Wang had disappeared through the back door.
Once out in the compound, he bolted round the end of the house. Emerging
innocently between the two bungalows he lingered and lounged in the
open, where anybody issuing from any of the dwellings was bound to see
him--a self-possessed Chinaman idling there, with nothing but perhaps an
unserved breakfast on his mind.

It was at this time that Wang made up his mind to give up all connection
with Number One, a man not only disarmed but already half vanquished.
Till that morning he had had doubts as to his course of action, but this
overheard scuffle decided the question. Number One was a doomed man--one
of those beings whom it is unlucky to help. Even as he walked in the
open with a fine air of unconcern, Wang wondered that no sound of any
sort was to be heard inside the house. For all he knew, the white woman
might have been scuffling in there with an evil spirit, which had of
course killed her. For nothing visible came out of the house he watched
out of the slanting corner of his eye. The sunshine and the silence
outside the bungalow reigned undisturbed.

But in the house the silence of the big room would not have struck an
acute ear as perfect. It was troubled by a stir so faint that it could
hardly be called a ghost of whispering from behind the curtain.

Ricardo, feeling his throat with tender care, breathed out admiringly:

"You have fingers like steel. Jimminy! You have muscles like a giant!"

Luckily for Lena, Ricardo's onset had been so sudden--she was winding
her two heavy tresses round her head--that she had no time to lower her
arms. This, which saved them from being pinned to her sides, gave her a
better chance to resist. His spring had nearly thrown her down. Luckily,
again, she was standing so near the wall that, though she was driven
against it headlong, yet the shock was not heavy enough to knock all the
breath out of her body. On the contrary, it helped her first instinctive
attempt to drive her assailant backward.

After the first gasp of a surprise that was really too over-powering for
a cry, she was never in doubt of the nature of her danger. She defended
herself in the full, clear knowledge of it, from the force of instinct
which is the true source of every great display of energy, and with a
determination which could hardly have been expected from a girl who,
cornered in a dim corridor by the red-faced, stammering Schomberg, had
trembled with shame, disgust, and fear; had drooped, terrified, before
mere words spluttered out odiously by a man who had never in his life
laid his big paw on her.

This new enemy's attack was simple, straightforward violence. It was not
the slimy, underhand plotting to deliver her up like a slave, which
had sickened her heart and had made her feel in her loneliness that her
oppressors were too many for her. She was no longer alone in the world
now. She resisted without a moment of faltering, because she was no
longer deprived of moral support; because she was a human being who
counted; because she was no longer defending herself for herself alone;
because of the faith that had been born in her--the faith in the man of
her destiny, and perhaps in the Heaven which had sent him so wonderfully
to cross her path.

She had defended herself principally by maintaining a desperate,
murderous clutch on Ricardo's windpipe, till she felt a sudden
relaxation of the terrific hug in which he stupidly and ineffectually
persisted to hold her. Then with a supreme effort of her arms and of
her suddenly raised knee, she sent him flying against the partition.
The cedar-wood chest stood in the way, and Ricardo, with a thump which
boomed hollow through the whole bungalow, fell on it in a sitting
posture, half strangled, and exhausted not so much by the efforts as by
the emotions of the struggle.

With the recoil of her exerted strength, she too reeled, staggered back,
and sat on the edge of the bed. Out of breath, but calm and unabashed,
she busied herself in readjusting under her arms the brown and yellow
figured Celebes sarong, the tuck of which had come undone during the
fight. Then, folding her bare arms tightly on her breast, she leaned
forward on her crossed legs, determined and without fear.

Ricardo, leaning forward too, his nervous force gone, crestfallen like a
beast of prey that has missed its spring, met her big grey eyes looking
at him--wide open, observing, mysterious--from under the dark arches of
her courageous eyebrows. Their faces were not a foot apart. He ceased
feeling about his aching throat and dropped the palms of his hands
heavily on his knees. He was not looking at her bare shoulders, at her
strong arms; he was looking down at the floor. He had lost one of his
straw slippers. A chair with a white dress on it had been overturned.
These, with splashes of water on the floor out of a brusquely misplaced
sponge-bath, were the only traces of the struggle.

Ricardo swallowed twice consciously, as if to make sure of his throat
before he spoke again:

"All right. I never meant to hurt you--though I am no joker when it
comes to it."

He pulled up the leg of his pyjamas to exhibit the strapped knife.
She glanced at it without moving her head, and murmured with scornful
bitterness:

"Ah, yes--with that thing stuck in my side. In no other way."

He shook his head with a shamefaced smile.

"Listen! I am quiet now. Straight--I am. I don't need to explain
why--you know how it is. And I can see, now, this wasn't the way with
you."

She made no sound. Her still, upward gaze had a patient, mournfulness
which troubled him like a suggestion of an inconceivable depth. He added
thoughtfully:

"You are not going to make a noise about this silly try of mine?"

She moved her head the least bit.

"Jee-miny! You are a wonder--" he murmured earnestly, relieved more than
she could have guessed.

Of course, if she had attempted to run out, he would have stuck the
knife between her shoulders, to stop her screaming; but all the fat
would have been in the fire, the business utterly spoiled, and the rage
of the governor--especially when he learned the cause--boundless. A
woman that does not make a noise after an attempt of that kind has
tacitly condoned the offence. Ricardo had no small vanities. But
clearly, if she would pass it over like this, then he could not be so
utterly repugnant to her. He felt flattered. And she didn't seem afraid
of him either. He already felt almost tender towards the girl--that
plucky, fine girl who had not tried to run screaming from him.

"We shall be friends yet. I don't give you up. Don't think it. Friends
as friends can be!" he whispered confidently. "Jee-miny! You aren't a
tame one. Neither am I. You will find that out before long."

He could not know that if she had not run out, it was because that
morning, under the sum of growing uneasiness at the presence of the
incomprehensible visitors, Heyst had confessed to her that it was his
revolver he had been looking for in the night; that it was gone, that he
was a disarmed, defenceless man. She had hardly comprehended the meaning
of his confession. Now she understood better what it meant. The effort
of her self-control, her stillness, impressed Ricardo. Suddenly she
spoke:

"What are you after?"

He did not raise his eyes. His hands reposing on his knees, his drooping
head, something reflective in his pose, suggested the weariness of a
simple soul, the fatigue of a mental rather than physical contest. He
answered the direct question by a direct statement, as if he were too
tired to dissemble:

"After the swag."

The word was strange to her. The veiled ardour of her grey gaze from
under the dark eyebrows never left Ricardo's.

"A swag?" she murmured quietly. "What's that?"

"Why, swag, plunder--what your gentleman has been pinching right and
left for years--the pieces. Don't you know? This!"

Without looking up, he made the motion of counting money into the
palm of his hand. She lowered her eyes slightly to observe this bit
of pantomime, but returned them to his face at once. Then, in a mere
breath:

"How do you know anything about him?" she asked, concealing her puzzled
alarm. "What has it got to do with you?"

"Everything," was Ricardo's concise answer, in a low, emphatic whisper.
He reflected that this girl was really his best hope. Out of the unfaded
impression of past violence there was growing the sort of sentiment
which prevents a man from being indifferent to a woman he has once held
in his arms--if even against her will--and still more so if she has
pardoned the outrage. It becomes then a sort of bond. He felt positively
the need to confide in her--a subtle trait of masculinity, this almost
physical need of trust which can exist side by side with the most brutal
readiness of suspicion.

"It's a game of grab--see?" he went on, with a new inflection of
intimacy in his murmur. He was looking straight at her now.

"That fat, tame slug of a gin-slinger, Schomberg, put us up to it."

So strong is the impression of helpless and persecuted misery, that the
girl who had fought down a savage assault without faltering could not
completely repress a shudder at the mere sound of the abhorred name.

Ricardo became more rapid and confidential:

"He wants to pay him off--pay both of you, at that; so he told me. He
was hot after you. He would have given all he had into those hands of
yours that have nearly strangled me. But you couldn't, eh? Nohow--what?"
He paused. "So, rather than--you followed a gentleman?"

He noticed a slight movement of her head and spoke quickly.

"Same here--rather than be a wage-slave. Only these foreigners aren't to
be trusted. You're too good for him. A man that will rob his best
chum?" She raised her head. He went on, well pleased with his progress,
whispering hurriedly: "Yes. I know all about him. So you may guess how
he's likely to treat a woman after a bit!"

He did not know that he was striking terror into her breast now. Still
the grey eyes remained fixed on him unmovably watchful, as if sleepy
under the white forehead. She was beginning to understand. His words
conveyed a definite, dreadful meaning to her mind, which he proceeded to
enlighten further in a convinced murmur.

"You and I are made to understand each other. Born alike, bred alike, I
guess. You are not tame. Same here! You have been chucked out into this
rotten world of 'yporcrits. Same here!"

Her stillness, her appalled stillness, wore to him an air of fascinated
attention. He asked abruptly:

"Where is it?"

She made an effort to breathe out:

"Where's what?"

His tone expressed excited secrecy.

"The swag--plunder--pieces. It's a game of grab. We must have it; but it
isn't easy, and so you will have to lend a hand. Come! is it kept in the
house?"

As often with women, her wits were sharpened by the very terror of the
glimpsed menace. She shook her head negatively.

"No."

"Sure?"

"Sure," she said.

"Ay! Thought so. Does your gentleman trust you?"

Again she shook her head.

"Blamed 'yporcrit," he said feelingly, and then reflected: "He's one of
the tame ones, ain't he?"

"You had better find out for yourself," she said.

"You trust me. I don't want to die before you and I have made friends."
This was said with a strange air of feline gallantry. Then, tentatively:
"But he could be brought to trust you, couldn't he?"

"Trust me?" she said, in a tone which bordered on despair, but which he
mistook for derision.

"Stand in with us," he urged. "Give the chuck to all this blamed
'yporcrisy. Perhaps, without being trusted, you have managed to find out
something already, eh?"

"Perhaps I have," she uttered with lips that seemed to her to be
freezing fast.

Ricardo now looked at her calm face with something like respect. He was
even a little awed by her stillness, by her economy of words. Womanlike,
she felt the effect she had produced, the effect of knowing much and of
keeping all her knowledge in reserve. So far, somehow, this had come,
about of itself. Thus encouraged, directed in the way of duplicity, the
refuge of the weak, she made a heroically conscious effort and forced
her stiff, cold lips into a smile.

Duplicity--the refuge of the weak and the cowardly, but of the disarmed,
too! Nothing stood between the enchanted dream of her existence and
a cruel catastrophe but her duplicity. It seemed to her that the man
sitting there before her was an unavoidable presence, which had attended
all her life. He was the embodied evil of the world. She was not ashamed
of her duplicity. With a woman's frank courage, as soon as she saw
that opening she threw herself into it without reserve, with only one
doubt--that of her own strength. She was appalled by the situation; but
already all her aroused femininity, understanding that whether Heyst
loved her or not she loved him, and feeling that she had brought this on
his head, faced the danger with a passionate desire to defend her own.


Joseph Conrad