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He lifted his delicate and beautifully pencilled eyebrows. Schomberg muttered something about the locality being dull and uninteresting to travellers— nothing going on—too quiet altogether; but he only provoked the declaration that quiet had its charms sometimes, and even dulness was welcome as a change.
"We haven't had time to be dull for the last three years," added plain Mr. Jones, his eyes fixed darkly on Schomberg, whom he furthermore invited to have another drink, this time with him, and not to worry himself about things he did not understand; and especially not to be inhospitable—which in a hotel-keeper was highly unprofessional.
"I don't understand," grumbled Schomberg. "Oh, yes, I understand perfectly well. I—"
"You are frightened," interrupted Mr. Jones. "What is the matter?"
"I don't want any scandal in my place. That's what's the matter."
Schomberg tried to face the situation bravely, but that steady, black stare affected him. And when he glanced aside uncomfortably, he met Ricardo's grin uncovering a lot of teeth, though the man seemed absorbed in his thoughts all the time.
"And, moreover," went on Mr. Jones in that distant tone of his, "you can't help yourself. Here we are and here we stay. Would you try to put us out? I dare say you could do it; but you couldn't do it without getting badly hurt—very badly hurt. We can promise him that, can't we, Martin?"
The secretary retracted his lips and looked up sharply at Schomberg, as if only too anxious to lea^ upon him with teeth and claws.
Schomberg managed to produce a deep laugh.
"Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Mr. Jones closed his eyes wearily, as if the light had hurt them, and looked remarkably like a corpse for a moment. This was bad enough; but when he opened them again, it was almost a worse trial for Schomberg's nerves. The spectral intensity of that glance, fixed on the hotel-keeper (and this was most frightful), without any definite expression, seemed to dissolve the last grain of resolution in his character.
"You don't think, by any chance, that you have to do with ordinary people, do you?" inquired Mr. Jones, in his lifeless manner, which seemed to imply some sort of menace from beyond the grave.
"He's a gentleman," testified Martin Ricardo with a sudden snap of the lips, after which his moustaches stirred by themselves in an odd, feline manner.
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of that," said plain Mr. Jones, while Schomberg, dumb and planted heavily in his chair, looked from one to the other, leaning forward a little. "Of course I am that; but Ricardo attaches too much importance to a social advantage. What I mean, for instance, is that he, quiet and inoffensive as you see him sitting here, would think nothing of setting fire to this house of entertainment of yours. It would blaze like a box of matches. Think of that! It wouldn't advance your affairs much, would it?—whatever happened to us."
"Come, come, gentlemen," remonstrated Schomberg in a murmur. "This is very wild talk!"
"And you have been used to deal with tame people, haven't you? But we aren't tame. We once kept a whole angry town at bay for two days, and then we got away with our plunder. It was in Venezuela. Ask Martin here—he can tell you."
Instinctively Schomberg looked at Ricardo, who only passed the tip of his tongue over his lips with an uncanny sort of gusto, but did not offer to begin.
"Well, perhaps it would be a rather long story," Mr. Jones conceded after a short silence.
"I have no desire to hear it, I am sure," said Schomberg. "This isn't Venezuela. You wouldn't get away from here like that. But all this is silly talk of the worst sort. Do you mean to say you would make deadly trouble for the sake of a few guilders that you and that other"—eyeing Ricardo suspiciously, as one would look at a strange animal—"gentleman can win of an evening? 'Tisn't as if my customers were a lot of rich men with pockets full of cash. I wonder you take so much trouble and risk for so little money."
Schomberg's argument was met by Mr. Jones's statement that one must do something to kill time. Killing time was not forbidden. For the rest, being in a communicative mood, Mr. Jones said languidly and in a voice indifferent, as if issuing from a tomb, that he depended on himself, as if the world were still one great, wild jungle without law. Martin was something like that, too—for reasons of his own.
All these statements Ricardo confirmed by short, inhuman grins. Schomberg lowered his eyes, for the sight of these two men intimidated him; but he was losing patience.
"Of course, I could see at once that you were two desperate characters—something like what you say. But what would you think if I told you that I am pretty near as desperate as you two gentlemen! 'Here's that Schomberg has an easy time running his hotel,' people think; and yet it seems to me I would just as soon let you rip me open and burn the whole show as not. There!"
A low whistle was heard. It came from Ricardo, and was derisive. Schomberg, breathing heavily, looked on the floor. He was really desperate. Mr. Jones remained languidly sceptical.
"Tut, tut! You have a tolerable business. You are perfectly tame; you—" He paused, then added in a tone of disgust: "You have a wife."
Schomberg tapped the floor angrily with his foot and uttered an indistinct, laughing curse.
"What do you mean by flinging that damned trouble at my head?" he cried, "I wish you would carry her off with you somewhere to the devil! I wouldn't run after you."
The unexpected outburst affected Mr. Jones strangely. He had a horrified recoil, chair and all, as if Schomberg had thrust a wriggling viper in his face.
"What's this infernal nonsense?" he muttered thickly. "What do you mean? How dare you?"
Ricardo chuckled audibly.
"I tell you I am desperate," Schomberg repeated. "I am as desperate as any man ever was. I don't care a hang what happens to me!"
"Well, then"—Mr. Jones began to speak with a
quietly threatening effect, as if the common words of daily use had some other deadly meaning to his mind —"well, then, why should you make yourself ridiculously disagreeable to us? If you don't care, as you say, you might just as well let us have the key of that music-shed of yours for a quiet game; a modest bank —a dozen candles or so. It would be greatly appreciated by your clients, as far as I can judge from the way they betted on a game of ecarte I had with that fair, baby-faced man—what's his name? They just yearn for a modest bank. And I am afraid Martin here would take it badly if you objected; but of course you won't. Think of the calls for drinks!"
Schomberg, raising his eyes, at last met the gleams in two dark caverns under Mr. Jones's devilish eyebrows, directed upon him impenetrably. He shuddered as if horrors worse than murder had been lurking there, and said, nodding toward Ricardo:
"I dare say he wouldn't think twice about sticking me, if he had you at his back! I wish I had sunk my launch, and gone to the bottom myself in her, before I boarded the steamer you came by. Ah, well, I've been already living in hell for weeks, so you don't make much difference. I'll let you have the concertroom—and hang the consequences. But what about the boy on late duty? If he sees cards and actual money passing, he will be sure to blab, and it will be all over the town in no time."
A ghastly smile stirred the lips of Mr. Jones.
"Ah, I see you want to make a success of it. Very good. That's the way to get on. Don't let it disturb you. You chase all the Chinamen to bed early,