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Chapter 2


That was how it began. How it was that it ended, as we know it did end,
is not so easy to state precisely. It is very clear that Heyst was not
indifferent, I won't say to the girl, but to the girl's fate. He was
the same man who had plunged after the submerged Morrison whom he
hardly knew otherwise than by sight and through the usual gossip of the
islands. But this was another sort of plunge altogether, and likely to
lead to a very different kind of partnership.

Did he reflect at all? Probably. He was sufficiently reflective. But
if he did, it was with insufficient knowledge. For there is no evidence
that he paused at any time between the date of that evening and the
morning of the flight. Truth to say, Heyst was not one of those men
who pause much. Those dreamy spectators of the world's agitation are
terrible once the desire to act gets hold of them. They lower their
heads and charge a wall with an amazing serenity which nothing but an
indisciplined imagination can give.

He was not a fool. I suppose he knew--or at least he felt--where this
was leading him. But his complete inexperience gave him the necessary
audacity. The girl's voice was charming when she spoke to him of her
miserable past, in simple terms, with a sort of unconscious cynicism
inherent in the truth of the ugly conditions of poverty. And whether
because he was humane or because her voice included all the modulations
of pathos, cheerfulness, and courage in its compass, it was not disgust
that the tale awakened in him, but the sense of an immense sadness.

On a later evening, during the interval between the two parts of the
concert, the girl told Heyst about herself. She was almost a child
of the streets. Her father was a musician in the orchestras of small
theatres. Her mother ran away from him while she was little, and the
landladies of various poor lodging-houses had attended casually to her
abandoned childhood. It was never positive starvation and absolute rags,
but it was the hopeless grip of poverty all the time. It was her father
who taught her to play the violin. It seemed that he used to get drunk
sometimes, but without pleasure, and only because he was unable to
forget his fugitive wife. After he had a paralytic stroke, falling
over with a crash in the well of a music-hall orchestra during the
performance, she had joined the Zangiacomo company. He was now in a home
for incurables.

"And I am here," she finished, "with no one to care if I make a hole in
the water the next chance I get or not."

Heyst told her that he thought she could do a little better than that,
if it was only a question of getting out of the world. She looked at him
with special attention, and with a puzzled expression which gave to her
face an air of innocence.

This was during one of the "intervals" between the two parts of the
concert. She had come down that time without being incited thereto by a
pinch from the awful Zangiacomo woman. It is difficult to suppose that
she was seduced by the uncovered intellectual forehead and the long
reddish moustaches of her new friend. New is not the right word. She had
never had a friend before; and the sensation of this friendliness going
out to her was exciting by its novelty alone. Besides, any man who did
not resemble Schomberg appeared for that very reason attractive. She was
afraid of the hotel-keeper, who, in the daytime, taking advantage of the
fact that she lived in the hotel itself, and not in the Pavilion with
the other "artists" prowled round her, mute, hungry, portentous behind
his great beard, or else assailed her in quiet corners and empty
passages with deep, mysterious murmurs from behind, which, not
withstanding their clear import, sounded horribly insane somehow.

The contrast of Heyst's quiet, polished manner gave her special delight
and filled her with admiration. She had never seen anything like that
before. If she had, perhaps, known kindness in her life, she had never
met the forms of simple courtesy. She was interested by it as a very
novel experience, not very intelligible, but distinctly pleasurable.

"I tell you they are too many for me," she repeated, sometimes
recklessly, but more often shaking her head with ominous dejection.

She had, of course, no money at all. The quantities of "black men" all
about frightened her. She really had no definite idea where she was on
the surface of the globe. The orchestra was generally taken from the
steamer to some hotel, and kept shut up there till it was time to go on
board another steamer. She could not remember the names she heard.

"How do you call this place again?" she used to ask Heyst.

"Sourabaya," he would say distinctly, and would watch the discouragement
at the outlandish sound coming into her eyes, which were fastened on his
face.

He could not defend himself from compassion. He suggested that she might
go to the consul, but it was his conscience that dictated this advice,
not his conviction. She had never heard of the animal or of its uses. A
consul! What was it? Who was he? What could he do? And when she learned
that perhaps he could be induced to send her home, her head dropped on
her breast.

"What am I to do when I get there?" she murmured with an intonation so
just, with an accent so penetrating--the charm of her voice did not fail
her even in whispering--that Heyst seemed to see the illusion of human
fellowship on earth vanish before the naked truth of her existence, and
leave them both face to face in a moral desert as arid as the sands of
Sahara, without restful shade, without refreshing water.

She leaned slightly over the little table, the same little table at
which they had sat when they first met each other; and with no other
memories but of the stones in the streets her childhood had known, in
the distress of the incoherent, confused, rudimentary impressions of her
travels inspiring her with a vague terror of the world she said rapidly,
as one speaks in desperation:

"_You_ do something! You are a gentleman. It wasn't I who spoke to you
first, was it? I didn't begin, did I? It was you who came along and
spoke to me when I was standing over there. What did you want to speak
to me for? I don't care what it is, but you must do something."

Her attitude was fierce and entreating at the same time--clamorous, in
fact though her voice had hardly risen above a breath. It was clamorous
enough to be noticed. Heyst, on purpose, laughed aloud. She nearly
choked with indignation at this brutal heartlessness.

"What did you mean, then, by saying 'command me!'?" she almost hissed.

Something hard in his mirthless stare, and a quiet final "All right,"
steadied her.

"I am not rich enough to buy you out," he went on, speaking with an
extraordinary detached grin, "even if it were to be done; but I can
always steal you."

She looked at him profoundly, as though these words had a hidden and
very complicated meaning.

"Get away now," he said rapidly, "and try to smile as you go."

She obeyed with unexpected readiness; and as she had a set of very good
white teeth, the effect of the mechanical, ordered smile was joyous,
radiant. It astonished Heyst. No wonder, it flashed through his mind,
women can deceive men so completely. The faculty was inherent in them;
they seemed to be created with a special aptitude. Here was a smile
the origin of which was well known to him; and yet it had conveyed a
sensation of warmth, had given him a sort of ardour to live which was
very new to his experience.

By this time she was gone from the table, and had joined the other
"ladies of the orchestra." They trooped towards the platform, driven in
truculently by the haughty mate of Zangiacomo, who looked as though
she were restraining herself with difficulty from punching their backs.
Zangiacomo followed, with his great, pendulous dyed beard and short
mess-jacket, with an aspect of hang-dog concentration imparted by his
drooping head and the uneasiness of his eyes, which were set very close
together. He climbed the steps last of all, turned about, displaying
his purple beard to the hall, and tapped with his bow. Heyst winced in
anticipation of the horrible racket. It burst out immediately unabashed
and awful. At the end of the platform the woman at the piano, presenting
her cruel profile, her head tilted back, banged the keys without looking
at the music.

Heyst could not stand the uproar for more than a minute. He went out,
his brain racked by the rhythm of some more or less Hungarian dance
music. The forests inhabited by the New Guinea cannibals where he had
encountered the most exciting of his earlier futile adventures were
silent. And this adventure, not in its execution, perhaps, but in its
nature, required even more nerve than anything he had faced before.
Walking among the paper lanterns suspended to trees he remembered with
regret the gloom and the dead stillness of the forests at the back of
Geelvink Bay, perhaps the wildest, the unsafest, the most deadly spot
on earth from which the sea can be seen. Oppressed by his thoughts,
he sought the obscurity and peace of his bedroom; but they were not
complete. The distant sounds of the concert reached his ear, faint
indeed, but still disturbing. Neither did he feel very safe in there;
for that sentiment depends not on extraneous circumstances but on our
inward conviction. He did not attempt to go to sleep; he did not even
unbutton the top button of his tunic. He sat in a chair and mused.
Formerly, in solitude and in silence, he had been used to think clearly
and sometimes even profoundly, seeing life outside the flattering
optical delusion of everlasting hope, of conventional self-deceptions,
of an ever-expected happiness. But now he was troubled; a light veil
seemed to hang before his mental vision; the awakening of a tenderness,
indistinct and confused as yet, towards an unknown woman.

Gradually silence, a real silence, had established itself round him. The
concert was over; the audience had gone; the concert-hall was dark; and
even the Pavilion, where the ladies' orchestra slept after its noisy
labours, showed not a gleam of light. Heyst suddenly felt restless in
all his limbs, as this reaction from the long immobility would not be
denied, he humoured it by passing quietly along the back veranda and out
into the grounds at the side of the house, into the black shadows under
the trees, where the extinguished paper lanterns were gently swinging
their globes like withered fruit.

He paced there to and fro for a long time, a calm, meditative ghost in
his white drill-suit, revolving in his head thoughts absolutely novel,
disquieting, and seductive; accustoming his mind to the contemplation
of his purpose, in order that by being faced steadily it should appear
praiseworthy and wise. For the use of reason is to justify the obscure
desires that move our conduct, impulses, passions, prejudices, and
follies, and also our fears.

He felt that he had engaged himself by a rash promise to an action big
with incalculable consequences. And then he asked himself if the girl
had understood what he meant. Who could tell? He was assailed by all
sorts of doubts. Raising his head, he perceived something white flitting
between the trees. It vanished almost at once; but there could be no
mistake. He was vexed at being detected roaming like this in the middle
of the night. Who could that be? It never occurred to him that perhaps
the girl, too, would not be able to sleep. He advanced prudently. Then
he saw the white, phantom-like apparition again; and the next moment
all his doubts as to the state of her mind were laid at rest, because he
felt her clinging to him after the manner of supplicants all the world
over. Her whispers were so incoherent that he could not understand
anything; but this did not prevent him from being profoundly moved. He
had no illusions about her; but his sceptical mind was dominated by the
fulness of his heart.

"Calm yourself, calm yourself," he murmured in her ear, returning her
clasp at first mechanically, and afterwards with a growing appreciation
of her distressed humanity. The heaving of her breast and the trembling
of all her limbs, in the closeness of his embrace, seemed to enter his
body, to infect his very heart. While she was growing quieter in his
arms, he was becoming more agitated, as if there were only a fixed
quantity of violent emotion on this earth. The very night seemed
more dumb, more still, and the immobility of the vague, black shapes,
surrounding him more perfect.

"It will be all right," he tried to reassure her, with a tone of
conviction, speaking into her ear, and of necessity clasping her more
closely than before.

Either the words or the action had a very good effect. He heard a light
sigh of relief. She spoke with a calmed ardour.

"Oh, I knew it would be all right from the first time you spoke to me!
Yes, indeed, I knew directly you came up to me that evening. I knew it
would be all right, if you only cared to make it so; but of course I
could not tell if you meant it. 'Command me,' you said. Funny thing for
a man like you to say. Did you really mean it? You weren't making fun of
me?"

He protested that he had been a serious person all his life.

"I believe you," she said ardently. He was touched by this declaration.
"It's the way you have of speaking as if you were amused with people,"
she went on. "But I wasn't deceived. I could see you were angry with
that beast of a woman. And you are clever. You spotted something at
once. You saw it in my face, eh? It isn't a bad face--say? You'll never
be sorry. Listen--I'm not twenty yet. It's the truth, and I can't be so
bad looking, or else--I will tell you straight that I have been worried
and pestered by fellows like this before. I don't know what comes to
them--"

She was speaking hurriedly. She choked, and then exclaimed, with an
accent of despair:

"What is it? What's the matter?"

Heyst had removed his arms from her suddenly, and had recoiled a little.
"Is it my fault? I didn't even look at them, I tell you straight. Never!
Have I looked at you? Tell me. It was you that began it."

In truth, Heyst had shrunk from the idea of competition with fellows
unknown, with Schomberg the hotel-keeper. The vaporous white figure
before him swayed pitifully in the darkness. He felt ashamed of his
fastidiousness.

"I am afraid we have been detected," he murmured. "I think I saw
somebody on the path between the house and the bushes behind you."

He had seen no one. It was a compassionate lie, if there ever was one.
His compassion was as genuine as his shrinking had been, and in his
judgement more honourable.

She didn't turn her head. She was obviously relieved.

"Would it be that brute?" she breathed out, meaning Schomberg, of
course. "He's getting too forward with me now. What can you expect? Only
this evening, after supper, he--but I slipped away. You don't mind him,
do you? Why, I could face him myself now that I know you care for me.
A girl can always put up a fight. You believe me? Only it isn't easy to
stand up for yourself when you feel there's nothing and nobody at your
back. There's nothing so lonely in the world as a girl who has got to
look after herself. When I left poor dad in that home--it was in the
country, near a village--I came out of the gates with seven shillings
and threepence in my old purse, and my railway ticket. I tramped a mile,
and got into a train--"

She broke off, and was silent for a moment.

"Don't you throw me over now," she went on. "If you did, what should
I do? I should have to live, to be sure, because I'd be afraid to kill
myself, but you would have done a thousand times worse than killing a
body. You told me you had been always alone, you had never had a dog
even. Well, then, I won't be in anybody's way if I live with you--not
even a dog's. And what else did you mean when you came up and looked at
me so close?"

"Close? Did I?" he murmured unstirring before her in the profound
darkness. "So close as that?"

She had an outbreak of anger and despair in subdued tones.

"Have you forgotten, then? What did you expect to find? I know what sort
of girl I am; but all the same I am not the sort that men turn their
backs on--and you ought to know it, unless you aren't made like the
others. Oh, forgive me! You aren't like the others; you are like no one
in the world I ever spoke to. Don't you care for me? Don't you see--?"

What he saw was that, white and spectral, she was putting out her arms
to him out of the black shadows like an appealing ghost. He took her
hands, and was affected, almost surprised, to find them so warm, so
real, so firm, so living in his grasp. He drew her to him, and she
dropped her head on his shoulder with a deep-sigh.

"I am dead tired," she whispered plaintively.

He put his arms around her, and only by the convulsive movements of her
body became aware that she was sobbing without a sound. Sustaining her,
he lost himself in the profound silence of the night. After a while she
became still, and cried quietly. Then, suddenly, as if waking up, she
asked:

"You haven't seen any more of that somebody you thought was spying
about?"

He started at her quick, sharp whisper, and answered that very likely he
had been mistaken.

"If it was anybody at all," she reflected aloud, "it wouldn't have been
anyone but that hotel woman--the landlord's wife."

"Mrs. Schomberg," Heyst said, surprised.

"Yes. Another one that can't sleep o' nights. Why? Don't you see why?
Because, of course, she sees what's going on. That beast doesn't even
try to keep it from her. If she had only the least bit of spirit! She
knows how I feel, too, only she's too frightened even to look him in the
face, let alone open her mouth. He would tell her to go hang herself."

For some time Heyst said nothing. A public, active contest with the
hotel-keeper was not to be thought of. The idea was horrible. Whispering
gently to the girl, he tried to explain to her that as things stood, an
open withdrawal from the company would be probably opposed. She listened
to his explanation anxiously, from time to time pressing the hand she
had sought and got hold of in the dark.

"As I told you, I am not rich enough to buy you out so I shall steal you
as soon as I can arrange some means of getting away from here. Meantime
it would be fatal to be seen together at night. We mustn't give
ourselves away. We had better part at once. I think I was mistaken just
now; but if, as you say, that poor Mrs. Schomberg can't sleep of nights,
we must be more careful. She would tell the fellow."

The girl had disengaged herself from his loose hold while he talked, and
now stood free of him, but still clasping his hand firmly.

"Oh, no," she said with perfect assurance. "I tell you she daren't open
her mouth to him. And she isn't as silly as she looks. She wouldn't give
us away. She knows a trick worth two of that. She'll help--that's what
she'll do, if she dares do anything at all."

"You seem to have a very clear view of the situation," said Heyst, and
received a warm, lingering kiss for this commendation.

He discovered that to-part from her was not such an easy matter as he
had supposed it would be.

"Upon my word," he said before they separated, "I don't even know your
name."

"Don't you? They call me Alma. I don't know why. Silly name! Magdalen
too. It doesn't matter; you can call me by whatever name you choose.
Yes, you give me a name. Think of one you would like the sound
of--something quite new. How I should like to forget everything that has
gone before, as one forgets a dream that's done with, fright and all! I
would try."

"Would you really?" he asked in a murmur. "But that's not forbidden. I
understand that women easily forget whatever in their past diminishes
them in their eyes."

"It's your eyes that I was thinking of, for I'm sure I've never wished
to forget anything till you came up to me that night and looked me
through and through. I know I'm not much account; but I know how to
stand by a man. I stood by father ever since I could understand. He
wasn't a bad chap. Now that I can't be of any use to him, I would just
as soon forget all that and make a fresh start. But these aren't things
that I could talk to you about. What could I ever talk to you about?"

"Don't let it trouble you," Heyst said. "Your voice is enough. I am in
love with it, whatever it says."

She remained silent for a while, as if rendered breathless by this quiet
statement.

"Oh! I wanted to ask you--"

He remembered that she probably did not know his name, and expected the
question to be put to him now; but after a moment of hesitation she went
on:

"Why was it that you told me to smile this evening in the concert-room
there--you remember?"

"I thought we were being observed. A smile is the best of masks.
Schomberg was at a table next but one to us, drinking with some Dutch
clerks from the town. No doubt he was watching us--watching you, at
least. That's why I asked you to smile."

"Ah, that's why. It never came into my head!"

"And you did it very well, too--very readily, as if you had understood
my intention."

"Readily!" she repeated. "Oh, I was ready enough to smile then. That's
the truth. It was the first time for years I may say that I felt
disposed to smile. I've not had many chances to smile in my life, I can
tell you; especially of late."

"But you do it most charmingly--in a perfectly fascinating way."

He paused. She stood still, waiting for more with the stillness of
extreme delight, wishing to prolong the sensation.

"It astonished me," he added. "It went as straight to my heart as though
you had smiled for the purpose of dazzling me. I felt as if I had never
seen a smile before in my life. I thought of it after I left you. It
made me restless."

"It did all that?" came her voice, unsteady, gentle, and incredulous.

"If you had not smiled as you did, perhaps I should not have come out
here tonight," he said, with his playful earnestness of tone. "It was
your triumph."

He felt her lips touch his lightly, and the next moment she was gone.
Her white dress gleamed in the distance, and then the opaque darkness of
the house seemed to swallow it. Heyst waited a little before he went
the same way, round the corner, up the steps of the veranda, and into
his room, where he lay down at last--not to sleep, but to go over in his
mind all that had been said at their meeting.

"It's exactly true about that smile," he thought. There he had spoken
the truth to her; and about her voice, too. For the rest--what must be
must be.

A great wave of heat passed over him. He turned on his back, flung his
arms crosswise on the broad, hard bed, and lay still, open-eyed under
the mosquito net, till daylight entered his room, brightened swiftly,
and turned to unfailing sunlight. He got up then, went to a small
looking-glass hanging on the wall, and stared at himself steadily. It
was not a new-born vanity which induced this long survey. He felt
so strange that he could not resist the suspicion of his personal
appearance having changed during the night. What he saw in the glass,
however, was the man he knew before. It was almost a disappointment--a
belittling of his recent experience. And then he smiled at his
naiveness; for, being over five and thirty years of age, he ought to
have known that in most cases the body is the unalterable mask of the
soul, which even death itself changes but little, till it is put out of
sight where no changes matter any more, either to our friends or to our
enemies.

Heyst was not conscious of either friends or of enemies. It was the very
essence of his life to be a solitary achievement, accomplished not by
hermit-like withdrawal with its silence and immobility, but by a system
of restless wandering, by the detachment of an impermanent dweller
amongst changing scenes. In this scheme he had perceived the means of
passing through life without suffering and almost without a single care
in the world--invulnerable because elusive.

Joseph Conrad