« PreviousContinue »
brass tap on the wharf, then stood behind Number One, crowbar in hand, motionless as before. Ricardo was perhaps not so certain of Pedro's toughness as he affirmed; for he stooped, peering under the wharf, then moved forward out of sight. The gush of water, ceasing suddenly, made it silence which became complete when the after-trickle stopped. Afar, the sun was reduced to a red spark, glowing very low in the breathless immensity of twilight. Purple gleams lingered on the water all round the boat. The spectral figure in the stern-sheets spoke in a languid tone:
"That—er—companion—er—secretary of mine is a queer chap. I am afraid we aren't presenting ourselves in a very favourable light."
Heyst listened. It was the conventional voice of an educated man, only strangely lifeless. But more strange yet was this concern for appearances, expressed, he did not know, whether in jest or in earnest. Earnestness was hardly to be supposed under the circumstances and no one had ever jested in such dead tones. It was something which could not be answered, and Heyst said nothing. The other went on:
"Travelling as I do, I find a man of his sort extremely useful. He has his little weaknesses, no doubt."
"Indeed!" Heyst was provoked into speaking. Weakness of the arm is not one of them; neither is an exaggerated humanity, as far as I can judge."
"Defects of temper," explained Mr. Jones from the stern-sheets.
The subject of this dialogue, coming out just then from under the wharf into the visible part of the boat, made himself heard in his own defence, in a voice full of life, and with nothing languid in his manner. On the contrary, it was brisk, almost jocose. He begged pardon for contradicting. He was never out of temper with "our Pedro." The fellow was a Dago of immense strength and of no understanding whatever. This combination made him dangerous, and he had to be treated accordingly, in a manner which he could understand. Reasoning was beyond him.
"And so"—Ricardo addressed Heyst with animation—"you mustn't be surprised if—"
"I assure you," Heyst interrupted, "that my wonder at your arrival in your boat here is so great that it leaves no room for minor astonishments. But hadn't you better land?"
"That's the talk, sir!" Ricardo began to bustle about the boat, talking all the time. Finding himself unable to "size up" this man, he was inclined to credit him with extraordinary powers of penetration, which, it seemed to him, would be favoured by silence. Also, he feared some pointblank question. He had no ready-made story to tell. He and his patron had put off considering that rather important detail too long. For the last two days, the horrors of thirst, coming on them unexpectedly, had prevented consultation. They had had to pull for dear life. But the man on the wharf, were he in league with the devil himself, would pay for all their sufferings, thought Ricardo with an unholy joy.
Meantime, splashing in the water which covered the bottom-boards, Ricardo congratulated himself aloud on the luggage being out of the way of the wet. He had piled it up forward. He had roughly tied up Pedro's head. Pedro had nothing to grumble about. On the contrary, he ought to be mighty thankful to him, Ricardo, for being alive at all.
"Well, now, let me give you a leg up, sir," he said cheerily to his motionless principal in the stern-sheets. "All our troubles are over—for a time, anyhow. Ain't it lucky to find a white man on this island? I would have just as soon expected to meet an angel from heaven—eh, Mr. Jones? Now then—ready, sir? One, two, three, up you go!"
Helped from below by Ricardo, and from above by the man more unexpected than an angel, Mr. Jones scrambled up and stood on the wharf by the side of Heyst. He swayed like a reed. The night descending on Samburan, turned into dense shadow the point of land and the wharf itself, and gave a dark solidity to the unshimmering water extending to the last faint trace of light away to the west. Heyst stared at the guests whom the renounced world had sent him thus at the end of the day. The only other vestige of light left on earth lurked in the hollows of the thin man's eyes. They gleamed, mobile and languidly evasive. The eyelids fluttered.
"You are feeling weak," said Heyst.
"For the moment, a little," confessed the other.
With loud panting, Ricardo scrambled on his hands and knees upon the wharf, energetic and unaided. He rose up at Heyst's elbow and stamped his foot on the planks, with a sharp, provocative, double beat, such as is heard sometimes in fencing-schools before
the adversaries engage their foils. Not that the renegade seaman Ricardo knew anything of fencing. What he called "shooting-irons" were his weapons, or the still less aristocratic knife, such as was even then ingeniously strapped to his leg. He thought of it, at that moment. A swift stooping motion, then, on the recovery, a ripping blow, a shove off the wharf, and no noise except a splash in the water that would scarcely disturb the silence. Heyst would have no time for a cry. It would be quick and neat, and immensely in accord with Ricardo's humour. But he repressed this gust of savagery. The job was not such a simple one. This piece had to be played to another tune, and in much slower time. He returned to his note of talkative simplicity.
"Ay; and I too, don't feel as strong as I thought I was when the first drink set me up. Great wonderworker water is! And to get it right here on the spot! It was heaven—hey, sir?"
Mr. Jones, being directly addressed, took up his part in the concerted piece:
"Really, when I saw a wharf on what might have been an uninhabited island, I couldn't believe my eyes. I doubted its existence. I thought it was a delusion, till the boat actually drove between the piles, as you see her lying now."
While he was speaking faintly, in a voice which did not seem to belong to the earth, his henchman, in extremely loud and terrestrial accents, was fussing about their belongings in the boat, addressing himself to Pedro:
"Come, now—pass up the dunnage there! Move yourself, hombre, or I'll have to get down again and give you a tap on those bandages of yours, you growling bear, you!"
"All! You didn't believe in the reality of the wharf?" Heyst was saying to Mr. Jones.
"You ought to kiss my hands!"
Ricardo caught hold of an ancient Gladstone bag and swung it on the wharf with a thump.
"Yes! You ought to burn a candle before me as they do before the saints in your country. No saint has ever done so much for you as I have, you ungrateful vagabond. Now then! Up you get."
Helped by the talkative Ricardo, Pedro scrambled up on the wharf, where he remained for some time on ill fours, swinging to and fro his shaggy head tied up in white rags. Then he got up clumsily, like a bulky animal in the dusk, balancing itself on its hind legs.
Mr. Jones began to explain languidly to Heyst that they were in a pretty bad state that morning, when they caught sight of the smoke of the volcano. It served them to make an effort for their lives. Soon afterward they made out the island.
"I had just wits enough left in my baked brain to liter the direction of the boat," the ghostly voice went )n. "As to finding assistance, a wharf, a white man —nobody would have dreamed of it. Simply preposterous!"
"That's what I thought when my Chinaman came Hid told me he had seen a boat with white men pulling ip," said Heyst.