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Chapter 1


As we know, Heyst had gone to stay in Schomberg's hotel in complete
ignorance that his person was odious to that worthy. When he arrived,
Zangiacomo's Ladies' Orchestra had been established there for some time.

The business which had called him out from his seclusion in his lost
corner of the Eastern seas was with the Tesmans, and it had something
to do with money. He transacted it quickly, and then found himself with
nothing to do while he awaited Davidson, who was to take him back to his
solitude; for back to his solitude Heyst meant to go. He whom we used
to refer to as the Enchanted Heyst was suffering from thorough
disenchantment. Not with the islands, however. The Archipelago has a
lasting fascination. It is not easy to shake off the spell of island
life. Heyst was disenchanted with life as a whole. His scornful
temperament, beguiled into action, suffered from failure in a subtle way
unknown to men accustomed to grapple with the realities of common human
enterprise. It was like the gnawing pain of useless apostasy, a sort of
shame before his own betrayed nature; and in addition, he also suffered
from plain, downright remorse. He deemed himself guilty of Morrison's
death. A rather absurd feeling, since no one could possibly have
foreseen the horrors of the cold, wet summer lying in wait for poor
Morrison at home.

It was not in Heyst's character to turn morose; but his mental state was
not compatible with a sociable mood. He spent his evenings sitting
apart on the veranda of Schomberg's hotel. The lamentations of string
instruments issued from the building in the hotel compound, the
approaches to which were decorated with Japanese paper lanterns strung
up between the trunks of several big trees. Scraps of tunes more or
less plaintive reached his ears. They pursued him even into his bedroom,
which opened into an upstairs veranda. The fragmentary and rasping
character of these sounds made their intrusion inexpressibly tedious in
the long run. Like most dreamers, to whom it is given sometimes to hear
the music of the spheres, Heyst, the wanderer of the Archipelago, had
a taste for silence which he had been able to gratify for years. The
islands are very quiet. One sees them lying about, clothed in their dark
garments of leaves, in a great hush of silver and azure, where the sea
without murmurs meets the sky in a ring of magic stillness. A sort of
smiling somnolence broods over them; the very voices of their people are
soft and subdued, as if afraid to break some protecting spell.

Perhaps this was the very spell which had enchanted Heyst in the early
days. For him, however, that was broken. He was no longer enchanted,
though he was still a captive of the islands. He had no intention to
leave them ever. Where could he have gone to, after all these years?
Not a single soul belonging to him lived anywhere on earth. Of this
fact--not such a remote one, after all--he had only lately become aware;
for it is failure that makes a man enter into himself and reckon up his
resources. And though he had made up his mind to retire from the world
in hermit fashion, yet he was irrationally moved by this sense of
loneliness which had come to him in the hour of renunciation. It hurt
him. Nothing is more painful than the shock of sharp contradictions that
lacerate our intelligence and our feelings.

Meantime Schomberg watched Heyst out of the corner of his eye.
Towards the unconscious object of his enmity he preserved a distant
lieutenant-of-the-Reserve demeanour. Nudging certain of his customers
with his elbow, he begged them to observe what airs "that Swede" was
giving himself.

"I really don't know why he has come to stay in my house. This place
isn't good enough for him. I wish to goodness he had gone somewhere else
to show off his superiority. Here I have got up this series of concerts
for you gentlemen, just to make things a little brighter generally; and
do you think he'll condescend to step in and listen to a piece or two of
an evening? Not he. I know him of old. There he sits at the dark end of
the piazza, all the evening long--planning some new swindle, no doubt.
For two-pence I would ask him to go and look for quarters somewhere
else; only one doesn't like to treat a white man like that out in the
tropics. I don't know how long he means to stay, but I'm willing to bet
a trifle that he'll never work himself up to the point of spending the
fifty cents of entrance money for the sake of a little good music."

Nobody cared to bet, or the hotel-keeper would have lost. One evening
Heyst was driven to desperation by the rasped, squeaked, scraped
snatches of tunes pursuing him even to his hard couch, with a mattress
as thin as a pancake and a diaphanous mosquito net. He descended among
the trees, where the soft glow of Japanese lanterns picked out parts of
their great rugged trunks, here and there, in the great mass of darkness
under the lofty foliage. More lanterns, of the shape of cylindrical
concertinas, hanging in a row from a slack string, decorated the doorway
of what Schomberg called grandiloquently "my concert-hall." In his
desperate mood Heyst ascended three steps, lifted a calico curtain, and
went in.

The uproar in that small, barn-like structure, built of imported
pine boards, and raised clear of the ground, was simply stunning. An
instrumental uproar, screaming, grunting, whining, sobbing, scraping,
squeaking some kind of lively air; while a grand piano, operated upon
by a bony, red-faced woman with bad-tempered nostrils, rained hard notes
like hail through the tempest of fiddles. The small platform was filled
with white muslin dresses and crimson sashes slanting from shoulders
provided with bare arms, which sawed away without respite. Zangiacomo
conducted. He wore a white mess-jacket, a black dress waistcoat, and
white trousers. His longish, tousled hair and his great beard were
purple-black. He was horrible. The heat was terrific. There were perhaps
thirty people having drinks at several little tables. Heyst, quite
overcome by the volume of noise, dropped into a chair. In the quick time
of that music, in the varied, piercing clamour of the strings, in the
movements of the bare arms, in the low dresses, the coarse faces,
the stony eyes of the executants, there was a suggestion of
brutality--something cruel, sensual and repulsive.

"This is awful!" Heyst murmured to himself.

But there is an unholy fascination in systematic noise. He did not
flee from it incontinently, as one might have expected him to do. He
remained, astonished at himself for remaining, since nothing could have
been more repulsive to his tastes, more painful to his senses, and,
so to speak, more contrary to his genius, than this rude exhibition
of vigour. The Zangiacomo band was not making music; it was simply
murdering silence with a vulgar, ferocious energy. One felt as if
witnessing a deed of violence; and that impression was so strong that it
seemed marvellous to see the people sitting so quietly on their
chairs, drinking so calmly out of their glasses, and giving no signs
of distress, anger, or fear. Heyst averted his gaze from the unnatural
spectacle of their indifference.

When the piece of music came to an end the relief was so great that he
felt slightly dizzy, as if a chasm of silence had yawned at his feet.
When he raised his eyes, the audience, most perversely, was exhibiting
signs of animation and interest in their faces, and the women in white
muslin dresses were coming down in pairs from the platform into the body
of Schomberg's "concert-hall." They dispersed themselves all over the
place. The male creature with the hooked nose and purple-black beard
disappeared somewhere. This was the interval during which, as the astute
Schomberg had stipulated, the members of the orchestra were encouraged
to favour the members of the audience with their company--that is, such
members as seemed inclined to fraternize with the arts in a familiar and
generous manner; the symbol of familiarity and generosity consisting in
offers of refreshment.

The procedure struck Heyst as highly incorrect. However, the impropriety
of Schomberg's ingenious scheme was defeated by the circumstance that
most of the women were no longer young, and that none of them had ever
been beautiful. Their more or less worn checks were slightly rouged, but
apart from that fact, which might have been simply a matter of routine,
they did not seem to take the success of the scheme unduly to heart.
The impulse to fraternize with the arts being obviously weak in the
audience, some of the musicians sat down listlessly at unoccupied
tables, while others went on perambulating the central passage: arm in
arm, glad enough, no doubt, to stretch their legs while resting their
arms. Their crimson sashes gave a factitious touch of gaiety to the
smoky atmosphere of the concert-hall; and Heyst felt a sudden pity for
these beings, exploited, hopeless, devoid of charm and grace, whose fate
of cheerless dependence invested their coarse and joyless features with
a touch of pathos.

Heyst was temperamentally sympathetic. To have them passing and
repassing close to his little table was painful to him. He was preparing
to rise and go out when he noticed that two white muslin dresses and
crimson sashes had not yet left the platform. One of these dresses
concealed the raw-boned frame of the woman with the bad-tempered curve
to her nostrils. She was no less a personage than Mrs. Zangiacomo. She
had left the piano, and, with her back to the hall, was preparing the
parts for the second half of the concert, with a brusque, impatient
action of her ugly elbow. This task done, she turned, and, perceiving
the other white muslin dress motionless on a chair in the second row,
she strode towards it between the music-stands with an aggressive and
masterful gait. On the lap of that dress there lay, unclasped and idle,
a pair of small hands, not very white, attached to well-formed arms.
The next detail Heyst was led to observe was the arrangement of the
hair--two thick, brown tresses rolled round an attractively shaped head.

"A girl, by Jove!" he exclaimed mentally.

It was evident that she was a girl. It was evident in the outline of the
shoulders, in the slender white bust springing up, barred slantwise by
the crimson sash, from the bell-shaped spread of muslin skirt hiding the
chair on which she sat averted a little from the body of the hall. Her
feet, in low white shoes, were crossed prettily.

She had captured Heyst's awakened faculty of observation; he had
the sensation of a new experience. That was because his faculty of
observation had never before been captured by any feminine creature in
that marked and exclusive fashion. He looked at her anxiously, as no man
ever looks at another man; and he positively forgot where he was. He had
lost touch with his surroundings. The big woman, advancing, concealed
the girl from his sight for a moment. She bent over the seated youthful
figure, in passing it very close, as if to drop a word into its ear.
Her lips did certainly move. But what sort of word could it have been
to make the girl jump up so swiftly? Heyst, at his table, was surprised
into a sympathetic start. He glanced quickly round. Nobody was looking
towards the platform; and when his eyes swept back there again, the
girl, with the big woman treading at her heels, was coming down the
three steps from the platform to the floor of the hall. There she
paused, stumbled one pace forward, and stood still again, while
the other--the escort, the dragoon, the coarse big woman of the
piano--passed her roughly, and, marching truculently down the centre
aisle between the chairs and tables, went out to rejoin the hook-nosed
Zangiacomo somewhere outside. During her extraordinary transit, as if
everything in the hall were dirt under her feet, her scornful eyes met
the upward glance of Heyst, who looked away at once towards the girl.
She had not moved. Her arms hung down; her eyelids were lowered.

Heyst laid down his half-smoked cigar and compressed his lips. Then he
got up. It was the same sort of impulse which years ago had made him
cross the sandy street of the abominable town of Delli in the island of
Timor and accost Morrison, practically a stranger to him then, a man in
trouble, expressively harassed, dejected, lonely.

It was the same impulse. But he did not recognize it. He was not
thinking of Morrison then. It may be said that, for the first time
since the final abandonment of the Samburan coal mine, he had completely
forgotten the late Morrison. It is true that to a certain extent he
had forgotten also where he was. Thus, unchecked by any sort of self
consciousness, Heyst walked up the central passage.

Several of the women, by this time, had found anchorage here and there
among the occupied tables. They talked to the men, leaning on their
elbows, and suggesting funnily--if it hadn't been for the crimson
sashes--in their white dresses an assembly of middle-aged brides
with free and easy manners and hoarse voices. The murmuring noise
of conversations carried on with some spirit filled Schomberg's
concert-room. Nobody remarked Heyst's movements; for indeed he was not
the only man on his legs there. He had been confronting the girl for
some time before she became aware of his presence. She was looking down,
very still, without colour, without glances, without voice, without
movement. It was only when Heyst addressed her in his courteous tone
that she raised her eyes.

"Excuse me," he said in English, "but that horrible female has done
something to you. She has pinched you, hasn't she? I am sure she pinched
you just now, when she stood by your chair."

The girl received this overture with the wide, motionless stare of
profound astonishment. Heyst, vexed with himself, suspected that she did
not understand what he said. One could not tell what nationality these
women were, except that they were of all sorts. But she was astonished
almost more by the near presence of the man himself, by his largely
bald head, by the white brow, the sunburnt cheeks, the long, horizontal
moustaches of crinkly bronze hair, by the kindly expression of the man's
blue eyes looking into her own. He saw the stony amazement in hers
give way to a momentary alarm, which was succeeded by an expression of
resignation.

"I am sure she pinched your arm most cruelly," he murmured, rather
disconcerted now at what he had done.

It was a great comfort to hear her say:

"It wouldn't have been the first time. And suppose she did--what are you
going to do about it?"

"I don't know," he said with a faint, remote playfulness in his tone
which had not been heard in it lately, and which seemed to catch her
ear pleasantly. "I am grieved to say that I don't know. But can I do
anything? What would you wish me to do? Pray command me."

Again, the greatest astonishment became visible in her face; for she now
perceived how different he was from the other men in the room. He was as
different from them as she was different from the other members of the
ladies' orchestra.

"Command you?" she breathed, after a time, in a bewildered tone. "Who
are you?" she asked a little louder.

"I am staying in this hotel for a few days. I just dropped in casually
here. This outrage--"

"Don't you try to interfere," she said so earnestly that Heyst asked, in
his faintly playful tone:

"Is it your wish that I should leave you?"

"I haven't said that," the girl answered. "She pinched me because I
didn't get down here quick enough--"

"I can't tell you how indignant I am--" said Heyst. "But since you are
down here now," he went on, with the ease of a man of the world speaking
to a young lady in a drawing-room, "hadn't we better sit down?"

She obeyed his inviting gesture, and they sat down on the nearest
chairs. They looked at each other across a little round table with a
surprised, open gaze, self-consciousness growing on them so slowly that
it was a long time before they averted their eyes; and very soon they
met again, temporarily, only to rebound, as it were. At last they
steadied in contact, but by that time, say some fifteen minutes from the
moment when they sat down, the "interval" came to an end.

So much for their eyes. As to the conversation, it had been perfectly
insignificant because naturally they had nothing to say to each other.
Heyst had been interested by the girl's physiognomy. Its expression was
neither simple nor yet very clear. It was not distinguished--that could
not be expected--but the features had more fineness than those of any
other feminine countenance he had ever had the opportunity to observe so
closely. There was in it something indefinably audacious and infinitely
miserable--because the temperament and the existence of that girl were
reflected in it. But her voice! It seduced Heyst by its amazing quality.
It was a voice fit to utter the most exquisite things, a voice which
would have made silly chatter supportable and the roughest talk
fascinating. Heyst drank in its charm as one listens to the tone of some
instrument without heeding the tune.

"Do you sing as well as play?" he asked her abruptly.

"Never sang a note in my life," she said, obviously surprised by the
irrelevant question; for they had not been discoursing of sweet sounds.
She was clearly unaware of her voice. "I don't remember that I ever had
much reason to sing since I was little," she added.

That inelegant phrase, by the mere vibrating, warm nobility of the
sound, found its way into Heyst's heart. His mind, cool, alert, watched
it sink there with a sort of vague concern at the absurdity of
the occupation, till it rested at the bottom, deep down, where our
unexpressed longings lie.

"You are English, of course?" he said.

"What do you think?" she answered in the most charming accents. Then, as
if thinking that it was her turn to place a question: "Why do you always
smile when you speak?"

It was enough to make anyone look grave, but her good faith was so
evident that Heyst recovered himself at once.

"It's my unfortunate manner--" he said with his delicate, polished
playfulness. "It is very objectionable to you?"

She was very serious.

"No. I only noticed it. I haven't come across so many pleasant people as
all that, in my life."

"It's certain that this woman who plays the piano is infinitely more
disagreeable than any cannibal I have ever had to do with."

"I believe you!" She shuddered. "How did you come to have anything to do
with cannibals?"

"It would be too long a tale," said Heyst with a faint smile. Heyst's
smiles were rather melancholy, and accorded badly with his great
moustaches, under which his mere playfulness lurked as comfortable as a
shy bird in its native thicket. "Much too long. How did you get amongst
this lot here?"

"Bad luck," she answered briefly.

"No doubt, no doubt," Heyst assented with slight nods. Then, still
indignant at the pinch which he had divined rather than actually seen
inflicted: "I say, couldn't you defend yourself somehow?"

She had risen already. The ladies of the orchestra were slowly regaining
their places. Some were already seated, idle stony-eyed, before the
music-stands. Heyst was standing up, too.

"They are too many for me," she said.

These few words came out of the common experience of mankind; yet by
virtue of her voice, they thrilled Heyst like a revelation. His feelings
were in a state of confusion, but his mind was clear.

"That's bad. But it isn't actual ill-usage that this girl is complaining
of," he thought lucidly after she left him.

Joseph Conrad