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Chapter 9


Stumbling up the steps, as if suddenly exhausted, Lena entered the room
and let herself fall on the nearest chair. Before following her, Heyst
took a survey of the surroundings from the veranda. It was a complete
solitude. There was nothing in the aspect of this familiar scene to tell
him that he and the girl were not completely alone as they had been in
the early days of their common life on this abandoned spot, with only
Wang discreetly materializing from time to time and the uncomplaining
memory of Morrison to keep them company.

After the cold gust of wind there was an absolute stillness of the
air. The thunder-charged mass hung unbroken beyond the low, ink-black
headland, darkening the twilight. By contrast, the sky at the zenith
displayed pellucid clearness, the sheen of a delicate glass bubble which
the merest movement of air might shatter. A little to the left, between
the black masses of the headland and of the forest, the volcano, a
feather of smoke by day and a cigar-glow at night, took its first fiery
expanding breath of the evening. Above it a reddish star came out like
an expelled spark from the fiery bosom of the earth, enchanted into
permanency by the mysterious spell of frozen spaces.

In front of Heyst the forest, already full of the deepest shades, stood
like a wall. But he lingered, watching its edge, especially where it
ended at the line of bushes, masking the land end of the jetty. Since
the girl had spoken of catching a glimpse of something white among the
trees, he believed pretty firmly that they had been followed in their
excursion up the mountain by Mr. Jones's secretary. No doubt the fellow
had watched them out of the forest, and now, unless he took the trouble
to go back some distance and fetch a considerable circuit inland over
the clearing, he was bound to walk out into the open space before the
bungalows. Heyst did, indeed, imagine at one time some movement between
the trees, lost as soon as perceived. He stated patiently, but nothing
more happened. After all, why should he trouble about these people's
actions? Why this stupid concern for the preliminaries, since, when
the issue was joined, it would find him disarmed and shrinking from the
ugliness and degradation of it?

He turned and entered the room. Deep dusk reigned in there already.
Lena, near the door, did not move or speak. The sheen of the white
tablecloth was very obtrusive. The brute these two vagabonds had tamed
had entered on its service while Heyst and Lena were away. The table was
laid. Heyst walked up and down the room several times. The girl remained
without sound or movement on the chair. But when Heyst, placing the two
silver candelabra on the table, struck a match to light the candles,
she got up suddenly and went into the bedroom. She came out again almost
immediately, having taken off her hat. Heyst looked at her over his
shoulder.

"What's the good of shirking the evil hour? I've lighted these
candles for a sign of our return. After all, we might not have been
watched--while returning, I mean. Of course we were seen leaving the
house."

The girl sat down again. The great wealth of her hair looked very dark
above her colourless face. She raised her eyes, glistening softly in
the light with a sort of unreadable appeal, with a strange effect of
unseeing innocence.

"Yes," said Heyst across the table, the fingertips of one hand resting
on the immaculate cloth. "A creature with an antediluvian lower jaw,
hairy like a mastodon, and formed like a pre-historic ape, has laid this
table. Are you awake, Lena? Am I? I would pinch myself, only I know that
nothing would do away with this dream. Three covers. You know it is the
shorter of the two who's coming--the gentleman who, in the play of his
shoulders as he walks, and in his facial structure, recalls a Jaguar.
Ah, you don't know what a jaguar is? But you have had a good look at
these two. It's the short one, you know, who's to be our guest."

She made a sign with her head that she knew; Heyst's insistence brought
Ricardo vividly before her mental vision. A sudden languor, like the
physical echo of her struggle with the man, paralysed all her limbs.
She lay still in the chair, feeling very frightened at this
phenomenon--ready to pray aloud for strength.

Heyst had started to pace the room.

"Our guest! There is a proverb--in Russia, I believe--that when a
guest enters the house, God enters the house. The sacred virtue of
hospitality! But it leads one into trouble as well as any other."

The girl unexpectedly got up from the chair, swaying her supple figure
and stretching her arms above her head. He stopped to look at her
curiously, paused, and then went on:

"I venture to think that God has nothing to do with such a hospitality
and with such a guest!"

She had jumped to her feet to react against the numbness, to discover
whether her body would obey her will. It did. She could stand up, and
she could move her arms freely. Though no physiologist, she concluded
that all that sudden numbness was in her head, not in her limbs. Her
fears assuaged, she thanked God for it mentally, and to Heyst murmured a
protest:

"Oh, yes! He's got to do with everything--every little thing. Nothing
can happen--"

"Yes," he said hastily, "one of the two sparrows can't be struck to the
ground--you are thinking of that." The habitual playful smile faded on
the kindly lips under the martial moustache. "Ah, you remember what you
have been told--as a child--on Sundays."

"Yes, I do remember." She sank into the chair again. "It was the only
decent bit of time I ever had when I was a kid, with our landlady's two
girls, you know."

"I wonder, Lena," Heyst said, with a return to his urbane playfulness,
"whether you are just a little child, or whether you represent something
as old as the world."

She surprised Heyst by saying dreamily:

"Well--and what about you?"

"I? I date later--much later. I can't call myself a child, but I am so
recent that I may call myself a man of the last hour--or is it the hour
before last? I have been out of it so long that I am not certain how far
the hands of the clock have moved since--since--"

He glanced at the portrait of his father, exactly above the head of the
girl, as if it were ignoring her in its painted austerity of feeling. He
did not finish the sentence; but he did not remain silent for long.

"Only what must be avoided are fallacious inferences, my dear
Lena--especially at this hour."

"Now you are making fun of me again," she said without looking up.

"Am I?" he cried. "Making fun? No, giving warning. Hang it all, whatever
truth people told you in the old days, there is also this one--that
sparrows do fall to the ground, that they are brought to the ground.
This is no vain assertion, but a fact. That's why"--again his
tone changed, while he picked up the table knife and let it fall
disdainfully--"that's why I wish these wretched round knives had some
edge on them. Absolute rubbish--neither edge, point, nor substance. I
believe one of these forks would make a better weapon at a pinch. But
can I go about with a fork in my pocket?" He gnashed his teeth with a
rage very real, and yet comic.

"There used to be a carver here, but it was broken and thrown away a
long time ago. Nothing much to carve here. It would have made a noble
weapon, no doubt; but--"

He stopped. The girl sat very quiet, with downcast eyes. As he kept
silence for some time, she looked up and said thoughtfully:

"Yes, a knife--it's a knife that you would want, wouldn't you, in case,
in case--"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"There must be a crowbar or two in the sheds; but I have given up all
the keys together. And then, do you see me walking about with a crowbar
in my hand? Ha, ha! And besides, that edifying sight alone might start
the trouble for all I know. In truth, why has it not started yet?"

"Perhaps they are afraid of you," she whispered, looking down again.

"By Jove, it looks like it," he assented meditatively. "They do seem to
hang back for some reason. Is that reason prudence, or downright fear,
or perhaps the leisurely method of certitude?"

Out in the black night, not very far from the bungalow, resounded a loud
and prolonged whistle. Lena's hands grasped the sides of the chair, but
she made no movement. Heyst started, and turned his face away from the
door.

The startling sound had died away.

"Whistles, yells, omens, signals, portents--what do they matter?" he
said. "But what about the crowbar? Suppose I had it! Could I stand
in ambush at the side of the door--this door--and smash the first
protruding head, scatter blood and brains over the floor, over these
walls, and then run stealthily to the other door to do the same
thing--and repeat the performance for a third time, perhaps? Could I? On
suspicion, without compunction, with a calm and determined purpose? No,
it is not in me. I date too late. Would you like to see me attempt this
thing while that mysterious prestige of mine lasts--or their not less
mysterious hesitation?"

"No, no!" she whispered ardently, as if compelled to speak by his
eyes fixed on her face. "No, it's a knife you want to defend yourself
with--to defend--there will be time--"

"And who knows if it isn't really my duty?" he began again, as if he had
not heard her disjointed words at all. "It may be--my duty to you, to
myself. For why should I put up with the humiliation of their secret
menaces? Do you know what the world would say?"

He emitted a low laugh, which struck her with terror. She would have got
up, but he stooped so low over her that she could not move without first
pushing him away.

"It would say, Lena, that I--the Swede--after luring my friend and
partner to his death from mere greed of money, have murdered these
unoffending shipwrecked strangers from sheer funk. That would be
the story whispered--perhaps shouted--certainly spread out, and
believed--and believed, my dear Lena!"

"Who would believe such awful things?"

"Perhaps you wouldn't--not at first, at any rate; but the power of
calumny grows with time. It's insidious and penetrating. It can even
destroy one's faith in oneself--dry-rot the soul."

All at once her eyes leaped to the door and remained fixed, stony, a
little enlarged. Turning his head, Heyst beheld the figure of Ricardo
framed in the doorway. For a moment none of the three moved, then,
looking from the newcomer to the girl in the chair, Heyst formulated a
sardonic introduction.

"Mr Ricardo, my dear."

Her head drooped a little. Ricardo's hand went up to his moustache. His
voice exploded in the room.

"At your service, ma'am!"

He stepped in, taking his hat off with a flourish, and dropping it
carelessly on a chair near the door.

"At your service," he repeated, in quite another tone. "I was made aware
there was a lady about, by that Pedro of ours; only I didn't know I
should have the privilege of seeing you tonight, ma'am."

Lena and Heyst looked at him covertly, but he, with a vague gaze
avoiding them both, looked at nothing, seeming to pursue some point in
space.

"Had a pleasant walk?" he asked suddenly.

"Yes. And you?" returned Heyst, who had managed to catch his glance.

"I haven't been a yard away from the governor this afternoon till
I started for here." The genuineness of the accent surprised Heyst,
without convincing him of the truth of the words.

"Why do you ask?" pursued Ricardo with every inflection of perfect
candour.

"You might have wished to explore the island a little," said Heyst,
studying the man, who, to render him justice, did not try to free his
captured gaze. "I may remind you that it wouldn't be a perfectly safe
proceeding."

Ricardo presented a picture of innocence.

"Oh, yes--meaning that Chink that has ran away from you. He ain't much!"

"He has a revolver," observed Heyst meaningly.

"Well, and you have a revolver, too," Mr. Ricardo argued unexpectedly.
"I don't worry myself about that."

"That's different. I am not afraid of you," Heyst made answer after a
short pause.

"Of me?"

"Of all of you."

"You have a queer way of putting things," began Ricardo.

At that moment the door on the compound side of the house came open with
some noise, and Pedro entered, pressing the edge of a loaded tray to his
breast. His big, hairy head rolled a little, his feet fell in front of
each other with a short, hard thump on the floor. The arrival changed
the current of Ricardo's thought, perhaps, but certainly of his speech.

"You heard me whistling a little while ago outside? That was to give him
a hint, as I came along, that it was time to bring in the dinner; and
here it is."

Lena rose and passed to the right of Ricardo, who lowered his glance for
a moment. They sat down at the table. The enormous gorilla back of Pedro
swayed out through the door.

"Extraordinary strong brute, ma'am," said Ricardo. He, had a propensity
to talk about "his Pedro," as some men will talk of their dog. "He ain't
pretty, though. No, he ain't pretty. And he has got to be kept under. I
am his keeper, as it might be. The governor don't trouble his head much
about dee-tails. All that's left to Martin. Martin, that's me, ma'am."

Heyst saw the girl's eyes turn towards Mr. Jones's secretary and rest
blankly on his face. Ricardo, however, looked vaguely into space,
and, with faint flickers of a smile about his lips, made conversation
indefatigably against the silence of his entertainers. He boasted
largely of his long association with Mr. Jones--over four years now, he
said. Then, glancing rapidly at Heyst:

"You can see at once he's a gentleman, can't you?"

"You people," Heyst said, his habitual playful intonation tinged with
gloom, "are divorced from all reality in my eyes."

Ricardo received this speech as if he had been expecting to hear
those very words, or else did not mind at all what Heyst might say.
He muttered an absent-minded "Ay, ay," played with a bit of biscuit,
sighed, and said, with a peculiar stare which did not seem to carry any
distance, but to stop short at a point in the air very near his face:

"Anybody can see at once _you_ are one. You and the governor ought to
understand each other. He expects to see you tonight. The governor isn't
well, and we've got to think of getting away from here."

While saying these words he turned himself full towards Lena, but
without any marked expression. Leaning back with folded arms, the girl
stared before her as if she had been alone in the room. But under
that aspect of almost vacant unconcern the perils and emotion that had
entered into her life warmed her heart, exalted her mind with a sense of
an inconceivable intensity of existence.

"Really? Thinking of going away from here?" Heyst murmured.

"The best of friends must part," Ricardo pronounced slowly. "And, as
long as they part friends, there's no harm done. We two are used to be
on the move. You, I understand, prefer to stick in one place."

It was obvious that all this was being said merely for the sake of
talking, and that Ricardo's mind was concentrated on some purpose
unconnected with the words that were coming but of his mouth.

"I should like to know," Heyst asked with incisive politeness, "how you
have come to understand this or anything else about me? As far as I can
remember, I've made you no confidences."

Ricardo, gazing comfortably into space out of the back of his chair--for
some time all three had given up any pretence of eating--answered
abstractedly:

"Any fellow might have guessed it!" He sat up suddenly, and uncovered
all his teeth in a grin of extraordinary ferocity, which was belied by
the persistent amiability of his tone. "The governor will be the man
to tell you something about that. I wish you would say you would see my
governor. He's the one who does all our talking. Let me take you to him
this evening. He ain't at all well; and he can't make up his mind to go
away without having a talk with you."

Heyst, looking up, met Lena's eyes. Their expression of candour seemed
to hide some struggling intention. Her head, he fancied, had made an
imperceptible affirmative movement. Why? What reason could she have? Was
it the prompting of some obscure instinct? Or was it simply a delusion
of his own senses? But in this strange complication invading the
quietude of his life, in his state of doubt and disdain and almost of
despair with which he looked at himself, he would let even a delusive
appearance guide him through a darkness so dense that it made for
indifference.

"Well, suppose I _do_ say so."

Ricardo did not conceal his satisfaction, which for a moment interested
Heyst.

"It can't be my life they are after," he said to himself. "What good
could it be to them?"

He looked across the table at the girl. What did it matter whether she
had nodded or not? As always when looking into her unconscious eyes, he
tasted something like the dregs of tender pity. He had decided to go.
Her nod, imaginary or not imaginary, advice or illusion, had tipped the
scale. He reflected that Ricardo's invitation could scarcely be anything
in the nature of a trap. It would have been too absurd. Why carry subtly
into a trap someone already bound hand and foot, as it were?

All this time he had been looking fixedly at the girl he called Lena. In
the submissive quietness of her being, which had been her attitude ever
since they had begun their life on the island, she remained as secret
as ever. Heyst got up abruptly, with a smile of such enigmatic and
despairing character that Mr. Secretary Ricardo, whose abstract gaze had
an all-round efficiency, made a slight crouching start, as if to dive
under the table for his leg-knife--a start that was repressed, as soon
as begun. He had expected Heyst to spring on him or draw a revolver,
because he created for himself a vision of him in his own image. Instead
of doing either of these obvious things, Heyst walked across the
room, opened the door and put his head through it to look out into the
compound.

As soon as his back was turned, Ricardo's hand sought the girl's arm
under the table. He was not looking at her, but she felt the groping,
nervous touch of his search, felt suddenly the grip of his fingers above
her wrist. He leaned forward a little; still he dared not look at her.
His hard stare remained fastened on Heyst's back. In an extremely low
hiss, his fixed idea of argument found expression scathingly:

"See! He's no good. He's not the man for you!"

He glanced at her at last. Her lips moved a little, and he was awed
by that movement without a sound. Next instant the hard grasp of his
fingers vanished from her arm. Heyst had shut the door. On his way back
to the table, he crossed the path of the girl they had called Alma--she
didn't know why--also Magdalen, whose mind had remained so long in doubt
as to the reason of her own existence. She no longer wondered at that
bitter riddle, since her heart found its solution in a blinding, hot
glow of passionate pride.

Joseph Conrad