Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated) (456 page)

BOOK: Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated)
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“It broke the spell,” muttered Heyst in angry disappointment as if he had been deceived in some hope.

The girl, from her position a little above him, surveyed with still eyes the abstracted silence of the man on whom she now depended with a completeness of which she had not been vividly conscious before, because, till then, she had never felt herself swinging between the abysses of earth and heaven in the hollow of his arm. What if he should grow weary of the burden?

“And, moreover, nobody had ever believed that tale!”

Heyst came out with an abrupt burst of sound which made her open her steady eyes wider, with an effect of immense surprise. It was a purely mechanical effect, because she was neither surprised nor puzzled. In fact, she could understand him better then than at any moment since she first set eyes on him.

He laughed scornfully.

“What am I thinking of?” he cried. “As if it could matter to me what anybody had ever said or believed, from the beginning of the world till the crack of doom!”

“I never heard you laugh till today,” she observed. “This is the second time!”

He scrambled to his feet and towered above her.

“That’s because, when one’s heart has been broken into in the way you have broken into mine, all sorts of weaknesses are free to enter — shame, anger, stupid indignation, stupid fears — stupid laughter, too. I wonder what interpretation you are putting on it?”

“It wasn’t gay, certainly,” she said. “But why are you angry with me? Are you sorry you took me away from those beasts? I told you who I was. You could see it.”

“Heavens!” he muttered. He had regained his command of himself. “I assure you I could see much more than you could tell me. I could see quite a lot that you don’t even suspect yet, but you can’t be seen quite through.”

He sank to the ground by her side and took her hand. She asked gently:

“What more do you want from me?”

He made no sound for a time.

“The impossible, I suppose,” he said very low, as one makes a confidence, and pressing the hand he grasped.

It did not return the pressure. He shook his head as if to drive away the thought of this, and added in a louder, light tone:

“Nothing less. And it isn’t because I think little of what I’ve got already. Oh, no! It is because I think so much of this possession of mine that I can’t have it complete enough. I know it’s unreasonable. You can’t hold back anything — now.”

“Indeed I couldn’t,” she whispered, letting her hand lie passive in his tight grasp. “I only wish I could give you something more, or better, or whatever it is you want.”

He was touched by the sincere accent of these simple words.

“I tell you what you can do — you can tell me whether you would have gone with me like this if you had known of whom that abominable idiot of a hotel-keeper was speaking. A murderer — no less!”

“But I didn’t know you at all then,” she cried. “And I had the sense to understand what he was saying. It wasn’t murder, really. I never thought it was.”

“What made him invent such an atrocity?” Heyst exclaimed. “He seems a stupid animal. He is stupid. How did he manage to hatch that pretty tale? Have I a particularly vile countenance? Is black selfishness written all over my face? Or is that sort of thing so universally human that it might be said of anybody?”

“It wasn’t murder,” she insisted earnestly.

“I know. I understand. It was worse. As to killing a man, which would be a comparatively decent thing to do, well — I have never done that.”

“Why should you do it?” she asked in a frightened voice.

“My dear girl, you don’t know the sort of life I have been leading in unexplored countries, in the wilds; it’s difficult to give you an idea. There are men who haven’t been in such tight places as I have found myself in who have had to — to shed blood, as the saying is. Even the wilds hold prizes which tempt some people; but I had no schemes, no plans — and not even great firmness of mind to make me unduly obstinate. I was simply moving on, while the others, perhaps, were going somewhere. An indifference as to roads and purposes makes one meeker, as it were. And I may say truly, too, that I never did care, I won’t say for life — I had scorned what people call by that name from the first — but for being alive. I don’t know if that is what men call courage, but I doubt it very much.”

“You! You have no courage?” she protested.

“I really don’t know. Not the sort that always itches for a weapon, for I have never been anxious to use one in the quarrels that a man gets into in the most innocent way sometimes. The differences for which men murder each other are, like everything else they do, the most contemptible, the most pitiful things to look back upon. No, I’ve never killed a man or loved a woman — not even in my thoughts, not even in my dreams.”

He raised her hand to his lips, and let them rest on it for a space, during which she moved a little closer to him. After the lingering kiss he did not relinquish his hold.

“To slay, to love — the greatest enterprises of life upon a man! And I have no experience of either. You must forgive me anything that may have appeared to you awkward in my behaviour, inexpressive in my speeches, untimely in my silences.”

He moved uneasily, a little disappointed by her attitude, but indulgent to it, and feeling, in this moment of perfect quietness, that in holding her surrendered hand he had found a closer communion than they had ever achieved before. But even then there still lingered in him a sense of incompleteness not altogether overcome — which, it seemed, nothing ever would overcome — the fatal imperfection of all the gifts of life, which makes of them a delusion and a snare.

All of a sudden he squeezed her hand angrily. His delicately playful equanimity, the product of kindness and scorn, had perished with the loss of his bitter liberty.

“Not murder, you say! I should think not. But when you led me to talk just now, when the name turned up, when you understood that it was of me that these things had been said, you showed a strange emotion. I could see it.”

“I was a bit startled,” she said.

“At the baseness of my conduct?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t judge you, not for anything.”

“Really?”

“It would be as if I dared to judge everything that there is.” With her other hand she made a gesture that seemed to embrace in one movement the earth and the heaven. “I wouldn’t do such a thing.”

Then came a silence, broken at last by Heyst:

“I! I! do a deadly wrong to my poor Morrison!” he cried. “I, who could not bear to hurt his feelings. I, who respected his very madness! Yes, this madness, the wreck of which you can see lying about the jetty of Diamond Bay. What else could I do? He insisted on regarding me as his saviour; he was always restraining the eternal obligation on the tip of his tongue, till I was burning with shame at his gratitude. What could I do? He was going to repay me with this infernal coal, and I had to join him as one joins a child’s game in a nursery. One would no more have thought of humiliating him than one would think of humiliating a child. What’s the use of talking of all this! Of course, the people here could not understand the truth of our relation to each other. But what business of theirs was it? Kill old Morrison! Well, it is less criminal, less base — I am not saying it is less difficult — to kill a man than to cheat him in that way. You understand that?”

She nodded slightly, but more than once and with evident conviction. His eyes rested on her, inquisitive, ready for tenderness.

“But it was neither one nor the other,” he went on. “Then, why your emotion? All you confess is that you wouldn’t judge me.”

She turned upon him her veiled, unseeing grey eyes in which nothing of her wonder could be read.

“I said I couldn’t,” she whispered.

“But you thought that there was no smoke without fire!” the playfulness of tone hardly concealed his irritation. “What power there must be in words, only imperfectly heard — for you did not listen with particular care, did you? What were they? What evil effort of invention drove them into that idiot’s mouth out of his lying throat? If you were to try to remember, they would perhaps convince me, too.”

“I didn’t listen,” she protested. “What was it to me what they said of anybody? He was saying that there never were such loving friends to look at as you two; then, when you got all you wanted out of him and got thoroughly tired of him, too, you kicked him out to go home and die.”

Indignation, with an undercurrent of some other feeling, rang in these quoted words, uttered in her pure and enchanting voice. She ceased abruptly and lowered her long, dark lashes, as if mortally weary, sick at heart.

“Of course, why shouldn’t you get tired of that or any other — company? You aren’t like anyone else, and — and the thought of it made me unhappy suddenly; but indeed, I did not believe anything bad of you. I — ”

A brusque movement of his arm, flinging her hand away, stopped her short. Heyst had again lost control of himself. He would have shouted, if shouting had been in his character.

“No, this earth must be the appointed hatching planet of calumny enough to furnish the whole universe. I feel a disgust at my own person, as if I had tumbled into some filthy hole. Pah! And you — all you can say is that you won’t judge me; that you — ”

She raised her head at this attack, though indeed he had not turned to her.

“I don’t believe anything bad of you,” she repeated. “I couldn’t.”

He made a gesture as if to say:

“That’s sufficient.”

In his soul and in his body he experienced a nervous reaction from tenderness. All at once, without transition, he detested her. But only for a moment. He remembered that she was pretty, and, more, that she had a special grace in the intimacy of life. She had the secret of individuality which excites — and escapes.

He jumped up and began to walk to and fro. Presently his hidden fury fell into dust within him, like a crazy structure, leaving behind emptiness, desolation, regret. His resentment was not against the girl, but against life itself — that commonest of snares, in which he felt himself caught, seeing clearly the plot of plots and unconsoled by the lucidity of his mind.

He swerved and, stepping up to her, sank to the ground by her side. Before she could make a movement or even turn her head his way, he took her in his arms and kissed her lips. He tasted on them the bitterness of a tear fallen there. He had never seen her cry. It was like another appeal to his tenderness — a new seduction. The girl glanced round, moved suddenly away, and averted her face. With her hand she signed imperiously to him to leave her alone — a command which Heyst did not obey.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

When she opened her eyes at last and sat up, Heyst scrambled quickly to his feet and went to pick up her cork helmet, which had rolled a little way off. Meanwhile she busied herself in doing up her hair, plaited on the top of her head in two heavy, dark tresses, which had come loose. He tendered her the helmet in silence, and waited as if unwilling to hear the sound of his own voice.

“We had better go down now,” he suggested in a low tone.

He extended his hand to help her up. He had the intention to smile, but abandoned it at the nearer sight of her still face, in which was depicted the infinite lassitude of her soul. On their way to regain the forest path they had to pass through the spot from which the view of the sea could be obtained. The flaming abyss of emptiness, the liquid, undulating glare, the tragic brutality of the light, made her long for the friendly night, with its stars stilled by an austere spell; for the velvety dark sky and the mysterious great shadow of the sea, conveying peace to the day-weary heart. She put her hand to her eyes. Behind her back Heyst spoke gently.

“Let us get on, Lena.”

She walked ahead in silence. Heyst remarked that they had never been out before during the hottest hours. It would do her no good, he feared. This solicitude pleased and soothed her. She felt more and more like herself — a poor London girl playing in an orchestra, and snatched out from the humiliations, the squalid dangers of a miserable existence, by a man like whom there was not, there could not be, another in this world. She felt this with elation, with uneasiness, with an intimate pride — and with a peculiar sinking of the heart.

“I am not easily knocked out by any such thing as heat,” she said decisively.

“Yes, but I don’t forget that you’re not a tropical bird.”

“You weren’t born in these parts, either,” she returned.

“No, and perhaps I haven’t even your physique. I am a transplanted being. Transplanted! I ought to call myself uprooted — an unnatural state of existence; but a man is supposed to stand anything.”

She looked back at him and received a smile. He told her to keep in the shelter of the forest path, which was very still and close, full of heat if free from glare. Now and then they had glimpses of the company’s old clearing blazing with light, in which the black stumps of trees stood charred, without shadows, miserable and sinister. They crossed the open in a direct line for the bungalow. On the veranda they fancied they had a glimpse of the vanishing Wang, though the girl was not at all sure that she had seen anything move. Heyst had no doubts.

“Wang has been looking out for us. We are late.”

“Was he? I thought I saw something white for a moment, and then I did not see it any more.”

“That’s it — he vanishes. It’s a very remarkable gift in that Chinaman.”

“Are they all like that?” she asked with naive curiosity and uneasiness.

“Not in such perfection,” said Heyst, amused.

He noticed with approval that she was not heated by the walk. The drops of perspiration on her forehead were like dew on the cool, white petal of a flower. He looked at her figure of grace and strength, solid and supple, with an ever-growing appreciation.

 

“Go in and rest yourself for a quarter of an hour; and then Mr. Wang will give us something to eat,” he said.

They had found the table laid. When they came together again and sat down to it, Wang materialized without a sound, unheard, uncalled, and did his office. Which being accomplished, at a given moment he was not.

BOOK: Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated)
12.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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