Page images

down on his knees and prayed. What do you think of that?” Heyst paused. She looked at him earnestly. “You didn’t make fun of him for that?” she said. Heyst made a brusque movement of protest. “My dear girl, I am not a ruffian,” he cried. Then, returning to his usual tone: “I didn’t even have to conceal a smile. Somehow it didn’t look a smiling matter. No, it was not funny; it was rather pathetic; he was so representative of all the past victims of the Great Joke. But it is by folly alone that the world moves, and so it is a respectable thing upon the whole. And besides, he was what one would call a good man. I don’t mean especially because he had offered up a prayer. No! He was really a decent fellow, he was quite unfitted for this world, he was a failure, a good man cornered—a sight for the gods; for no decent mortal cares to look at that sort.” A thought seemed to occur to him. He turned his face to the girl. “And you, who have been cornered too—did you think of offering a prayer?” Neither her eyes nor a single one of her features moved the least bit. She only let fall the words: “I am not what they call a good girl.” “That sounds evasive,” said Heyst after a short silence. “Well, the good fellow did pray and after he had confessed to it I was struck by the comicality of the situation. No, don’t misunderstand me—I am not alluding to his act, of course. And even the idea of Eternity, Infinity, Omnipotence, being called upon to defeat the conspiracy of two miserable Portuguese half-castes did not move my mirth. From the point of view of the supplicant, the danger to be conjured was something like the end of the world, or worse. No! What captivated my fancy was that I, Axel Heyst, the

most detached of creatures in this earthly captivity, the veriest tramp on this earth, an indifferent stroller going through the world’s bustle—that I should have been there to step into the situation of an agent of Providence. I, a man of universal scorn and unbelief. . . .” “You are putting it on,” she interrupted in her seductive voice, with a coaxing intonation. “No. I am like that, born or fashioned, or both. I am not for nothing the son of my father, of that man in the painting. I am he, all but the genius. And there is even less in me than I make out, because the very scorn is falling away from me year after year. I have never been so amused as by that episode in which I was suddenly called to act such an incredible part. For a moment I enjoyed it greatly. I got him out of his corner, you know.” “You saved a man for fun—is that what you mean? Just for fun?” “Why this tone of suspicion?” remonstrated Heyst. “I suppose the sight of this particular distress was disagreeable to me. What you call fun came afterward, when it dawned on me that I was for him a walking, breathing, incarnate proof of the efficacy of prayer. I was a little fascinated by it—and then, could I have argued with him? You don’t argue against such evidence, and besides it would have looked as if I had wanted to claim all the merit. Already his gratitude was simply frightful. Funny position, wasn’t it? The boredom came later, when we lived together on board his ship. I had, in a moment of inadvertence, created for myself a tie. How to define it precisely I don’t know. One gets attached in a way to people one has done something for. But is that friendship? I am not sure what it was. I only know that he who

forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.”

Heyst's tone was light, with the flavour of playfulness which seasoned all his speeches and seemed to be of the very essence of his thoughts. The girl he had come across, of whom he had possessed himself, to whose presence he was not yet accustomed, with whom he did not yet know how to live; that human being so near and still so strange, gave him a greater sense of his own reality than he had ever known in all his life.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

WITH her knees drawn up, Lena rested her elbows on them and held her head in both her hands. “Are you tired of sitting here?” Heyst asked. An almost imperceptible negative movement of the head was all the answer she made. “Why are you looking so serious?” he pursued, and immediately thought that habitual seriousness, in the long run, was much more bearable than constant gaiety. “However, this expression suits you exceedingly,” he added, not diplomatically, but because, by the tendency of his taste, it was a true statement. “And as long as I can be certain that it is not boredom which gives you this severe air, I am willing to sit here and look at you till you are ready to go.” And this was true. He was still under the fresh sortilege of their common life, the surprise of novelty, the flattered vanity of his possession of this woman; for a man must feel that, unless he has ceased to be masculine. Her eyes moved in his direction, rested on him, then returned to their stare into the deeper gloom at the foot of the straight tree-trunks, whose spreading crowns were slowly withdrawing their shade. The warm air stirred slightly about her motionless head. She would not look at him, from some obscure fear of betraying herself. She felt in her innermost depths an irresistible desire to give herself up to him more completely, by some act of absolute sacrifice. This was something of which he did not seem to have an idea. He was a strange being without needs. She felt his

eyes fixed upon her; and as he kept silent, she said uneasily—for she didn't know what his silences might mean:

“And so you lived with that friend—that good man?"

“Excellent fellow,” Heyst responded, with a readiness that she did not expect. “But it was a weakness on my part. I really didn't want to, only he wouldn't let me off, and I couldn't explain. He was the sort of man to whom you can't explain anything. He was extremely sensitive, and it would have been a tigerish thing to do to mangle his delicate feelings by the sort of plain speaking that would have been necessary. His mind was like a white-walled, pure chamber, furnished with, say, six straw-bottomed chairs, and he was always placing and displacing them in various combinations. But they were always the same chairs. He was extremely easy to live with; but then he got hold of this coal idea-or, rather, the idea got hold of him. It entered into that scantily furnished chamber of which I have just spoken, and sat on all the chairs. There was no dislodging it, you know! It was going to make his fortune, my fortune, everybody's fortune. In past years, in moments of doubt that will come to a man determined to remain free from absurdities of existence, I often asked myself, with a momentary dread, in what way would life try to get hold of me? And this was the way! He got it into his head that he could do nothing without me. And was I now, he asked me, to spurn and ruin him? Well, one morning

- I wonder if he had gone down on his knees to pray that night one morning I gave in.”

Heyst tugged violently at a tuft of dried grass, and cast it away from him with a nervous gesture.

I gave in,” he repeated. Looking towards him with a movement of her eyes

« PreviousContinue »