« PreviousContinue »
“He's gone mad,” thought Heyst, startled by the spectre's sudden fury.
He felt himself more in danger, nearer death, than ever since he had entered that room. An insane bandit is a deadly combination. He did not, could not know that Mr. Jones was quick-minded enough to see already the end of his reign over his excellent secretary's thoughts, and feelings; the coming failure of Ricardo's fidelity. A woman had intervened! A woman, a girl, who apparently possessed the power to awaken men's disgusting folly. Her power had been proved in two instances already—the beastly innkeeper, and that man with moustaches, upon whom Mr. Jones, his deadly right hand twitching in his pocket, glared more in repulsion than in anger. The very object of the expedition was lost from view in his sudden and overwhelming sense of utter insecurity. And this made Mr. Jones feel very savage; but not against the man with the moustaches. Thus, while Heyst was really feeling that his life was not worth two minutes' purchase, he heard himself addressed with no affectation of languid impertinence, but with a burst of feverish determination.
“Here! Let's call a truce !” said Mr. Jones. Heyst's heart was too sick to allow him to smile.
"Have I been making war on you?” he asked wearily. “How do you expect me to attach any meaning to your words?” he went on. “You seem to be a morbid, senseless sort of bandit. We don't speak the same language. If I were to tell you why I am here, talking to you, you wouldn't believe me, because you would not understand me. It certainly isn't the love of life, from which I have divorced myself long ago—not sufficiently, perhaps, but if you are thinking of yours, then I repeat to you that it has never been in danger from me. I am un armed."
Mr. Jones was biting his lower lip, in a deep medita
tion. It was only toward the last that he looked at Heyst.
“Unarmed, eh?” Then he burst out violently: "I tell you, a gentleman is no match for the common herd. And yet one must make use of the brutes. Unarmed, eh? And I suppose that creature is of the commonest sort. You could hardly have got her out of a drawing-room. Though they're all alike, for that matter. Unarmed! It's a pity. I am in much greater danger than you are, or were or I am much mistaken. But I am not-I know my man!"
He lost his air of mental vacancy and broke out into shrill exclamations. To Heyst they seemed madder than anything that had gone before.
“On the track! On the scent!” he cried, forgetting himself to the point of executing a dance of rage in the middle of the floor.
Heyst looked on, fascinated by this skeleton in a gay dressing-gown, jerkily agitated like a grotesque toy on the end of an invisible string. It became quiet suddenly.
"I might have smelt a rat! I always knew that this would be the danger." He changed suddenly to a confidential tone, fixing his sepulchral stare on Heyst. “And yet here I am, taken in by the fellow, like the veriest fool. I've been always on the watch for some such beastly influence, but here I am, fairly caught. He shaved himself right in front of me—and I never guessed !”
The shrill laugh, following on the low tone of secrecy, sounded so convincingly insane that Heyst got up as if moved by a spring. Mr. Jones stepped back two paces, but displayed no uneasiness.
“It's as clea: as daylight!” he uttered mournfully, and fell silent.
Behind him the doorway flickered lividly, and the sound as of a naval action somewhere away on the horizon filled the breathless pause. Mr. Jones inclined his head on his shoulder. His mood had completely changed.
"What do you say, unarmed man? Shall we go and
see what is detaining my trusted Martin so long? He asked me to keep you engaged in friendly conversation till he made a further examination of that track. Ha, ha, ha!”
"He is no doubt ransacking my house," said Heyst.
He was bewildered. It seemed to him that all this was an incomprehensible dream, or perhaps an elaborate other-world joke, contrived by that spectre in a gorgeous dressing-gown.
Mr. Jones looked at him with a horrible, cadaverous smile of inscrutable mockery, and pointed to the door. Heyst passed through it first. His feelings had become so blunted that he did not care how soon he was shot in the back.
"How oppressive the air is !" the voice of Mr. Jones said at his elbow. “This stupid storm gets on my nerves. I would welcome some rain, though it would be unpleasant to get wet. On the other hand, this exasperating thunder has the advantage of covering the sound of our approach. The lightning's not so convenient. Ah, your house is fully illuminated! My clever Martin is punishing your stock of candles. He belongs to the uncere monious classes, which are also unlovely, untrustworthy, and so on."
“I left the candles burning,” said Heyst, "to save him trouble.”
"You really believed he would go to your house?" asked Mr. Jones with genuine interest.
"I had that notion, strongly. I do believe he is there now.”
"And you don't mind?” “No!”
"You don't?" Mr. Jones stopped to wonder. "You are an extraordinary man,” he said suspiciously, and moved on, touching elbows with Heyst.
In the latter's breast dwelt a deep silence, the com
plete silence of unused faculties. At this moment, by simply shouldering Mr. Jones, he could have thrown him down and put himself by a couple of leaps beyond the certain aim of the revolver ; but he did not even think of that. His very will seemed dead of weariness. He moved automatically, his head low, like a prisoner captured by the evil power of a masquerading skeleton out of a grave. Mr. Jones took charge of the direction. They fetched a wide sweep. The echoes of distant thunder seemed to dog their footsteps.
"By the by," said Mr. Jones, as if unable to restrain his curiosity, "aren't you anxious about that–ouch! that fascinating creature to whom you owe whatever leasure you can find in our visit?"
“I have placed her in safety,” said Heyst. “I—I took good care of that."
Mr. Jones laid a hand on his arm.
Heyst raised his head. In the flicker of lightning the desolation of the cleared ground on his left leaped out and sank into the night, together with the elusive forms of things distant, pale, unearthly. But in the brilliant square of the door he saw the girl—the woman he had longed to see once more-as if enthroned, with her hands on the arms of the chair. She was in black; her face was white, her head dreamily inclined on her breast. He saw her only as low as her knees. He saw her—there, in the room, alive with a sombre reality. It was no mocking vision. She was not in the forest-but there! She sat there in the chair, seemingly without strength, yet without fear, tenderly stooping.
"Can you understand their power ?” whispered the hot breath of Mr. Jones into his ear, "Can there be a more disgusting spectacle? It's enough to make the earth detestable. She seems to have found her affinity. Move
on closer. If I have to shoot you in the end, then perhaps you will die cured.”
Heyst obeyed the pushing pressure of a revolver barrel between his shoulders. He felt it distinctly, but he did not feel the ground under his feet. They found the steps, without his being aware that he was ascending themslowly, one by one. Doubt entered into him-a doubt of a new kind, formless, hideous. It seemed to spread itself all over him, enter his limbs, and lodge in his entrails. He stopped suddenly, with a thought that he who experienced such a feeling had no business to live or perhaps was no longer living.
Everything—the bungalow, the forest, the open ground -trembled incessantly; the earth, the sky itself, shivered all the time, and the only thing immovable in the shuddering universe was the interior of the lighted room and the woman in black sitting in the light of the eight candle-flames. They flung around her an intolerable brilliance which hurt his eyes, seemed to sear his very brain with the radiation of infernal heat. It was some iime before his scorched eyes made out Ricardo seated on the floor at some little distance, his back to the doorway, but only partly so; one side of his upturned face showing the absorbed, all-forgetful rapture of his contemplation.
The grip of Mr. Jones's hard claw drew Heyst back a little. In the roll of thunder, swelling and subsiding, he whispered in his ear a sarcastic: "Of course!"
A great shame descended upon Heyst—the shame of guilt, absurd and maddening. Mr. Jones drew him still farther back into the darkness of the verandah.
“This is serious," he went on, distilling his ghostly venom into Heyst's very ear. “I had to shut my eyes many times to his little Alings; but this is serious. He has iound his soul-mate. Mud souls, obscene and cunning! Mud bodies, too—the mud of the gutter! I tell you, we are nû match for the vile populace. I, even I