« PreviousContinue »
“My word! Rails laid down and all,” exclaimed Ricardo. softly, in a tone of admiration. “Well, I never!” “We were working a coal-mine here,” said the late manager of the Tropical Belt Coal Company. “These are only the ghosts of things that have been.” Mr. Jones's teeth were suddenly started chattering by another faint puff of wind, a mere sigh from the west, where Venus cast her rays on the dark edge of the horizon, like a bright lamp hung above the grave of the sun. “We might be moving on,” proposed Heyst. “The Chinaman and that—ah—ungrateful servant of yours, with the broken head, can load the things and come along after us.” The suggestion was accepted without words. Moving towards the shore, the three men met the trolley, a mere metallic rustle which whisked past them, the shadowy Wang running noiselessly behind. Only the sound of their footsteps accompanied them. It was a long time since so many footsteps had rung together on that jetty. Before they stepped on to the path trodden through the grass, Heyst said: “I am prevented from offering you a share of my own quarters.” The distant courtliness of this beginning arrested the other two suddenly, as if amazed by some manifest incongruity. “I should regret it more,” he went on, “if I were not in a position to give you the choice of those empty bungalows for a temporary home.” He turned round and plunged into the narrow tracks, the two others following in single file. “Queer start!” Ricardo took the opportunity for whispering, as he fell behind Mr. Jones, who swayed in the gloom, enclosed by the stalks of tropical grass, almost as slender as a stalk of grass himself. In this order they emerged into the open space kept clear of vegetation by Wang's judicious system of periodical firing. The shapes of buildings, unlighted, high
roofed, looked mysteriously extensive and featureless against the increasing glitter of the stars. Heyst was pleased at the absence of lights in his bungalow. It looked as uninhabited as the others. He continued to lead the way, inclining to the right. His equable voice was heard. “This one would be the best. It was our counting-house. There is some furniture in it yet. I am pretty certain that you'll find a couple of camp bedsteads in one of the rooms.” The high-pitched roof of the bungalow towered up very close, eclipsing the sky. “Here we are. Three steps. As you see, there's a wide verandah. Sorry to keep you waiting for a moment; the door is locked, I think.” He was heard trying it. Then he leaned against the rail, saying: “Wang will get the keys.” The others waited, two vague shapes nearly mingled together in the darkness of the verandah, from which issued a sudden chattering of Mr. Jones's teeth, directly suppressed, and a slight shuffle of Ricardo's feet. Their guide and host, his back against the rail, seemed to have forgotten their existence. Suddenly he moved, and murmured: “Ah, here's the trolley.” Then he raised his voice in Malay, and was answered, “Ya tuan,” from an indistinct group that could be made out in the direction of the track. “I have sent Wang for the key and a light,” he said, in a voice that came out without any particular direction —a peculiarity which disconcerted Ricardo. Wang did not tarry long on his mission. Very soon from the distant recesses of obscurity appeared the swinging lantern he carried. It cast a fugitive ray on the arrested trolley with the uncouth figure of the wild Pedro drooping over the load; then it moved towards the bungalow and ascended the stairs. After working at the stiff lock, Wang applied his shoulder to the door. It came open with explosive suddenness, as if in a passion at being thus disturbed after two years' repose. From the dark slope of a tall stand-up writing-desk a forgotten, solitary sheet of paper flew up and settled gracefully on the floor. Wang and Pedro came and went through the offended door, bringing the things off the trolley, one flitting swiftly in and out, the other staggering heavily. Later, directed by a few quiet words from Number One, Wang made several journeys with the lantern to the storerooms, bringing in blankets, provisions in tins, coffee, sugar, and a packet of candles. He lighted one, and stuck it on the ledge of the stand-up desk. Meantime Pedro, being introduced to some kindling-wood and a bundle of dry sticks, had busied himself outside in lighting a fire, on which he placed a ready-filled kettle handed to him by Wang impassively, at arm's length, as if across a chasm. Having received the thanks of his guests, Heyst wished them good-night and withdrew, leaving them to their repose.
HEYST walked away slowly. There was still no light in his bungalow, and he thought that perhaps it was just as well. By this time he was much less perturbed. Wang had preceded him with the lantern, as if in a hurry to get away from the two white men and their hairy attendant. The light was not dancing along any more; it was standing perfectly still by the steps of the verandah.
Heyst, glancing back casually, saw behind him still another light, —the light of the strangers' open fire. A black, uncouth form, stooping over it monstrously, staggered away into the outlying shadows. The kettle had boiled, probably.
With that weird vision of something questionably human impressed upon his senses, Heyst moved on a pace or two. What could the people be who had such a creature for their familiar attendant? He stopped. The vague apprehension of a distant future, in which he saw Lena unavoidably separated from him by profound and subtle differences; the sceptical carelessness which had accompanied every one of his attempts at action, like a secret reserve of his soul, fell away from him. He no longer belonged to himself. There was a call far more imperious and august. He came up to the bungalow, and, at the very limit of the lantern's light, on the top step, he saw her feet and the bottom part of her dress. The rest of her person was suggested dimly as high as her waist. She sat on a chair, and the gloom of the low eaves descended upon her head and shoulders. She didn't stir.
“You haven't gone to sleep here?” he asked.
“Oh, no! I was waiting for you—in the dark.” Heyst, on the top step, leaned against a wooden pillar, after moving the lantern to one side. “I have been thinking that it is just as well you had no light. But wasn't it dull for you to sit in the dark?” “I don’t need a light to think of you.” Her charming voice gave a value to this banal answer, which had also the merit of truth. Heyst laughed a little, and said that he had had a curious experience. She made no remark. He tried to figure to himself the outlines of her easy pose. A spot of dim light here and there hinted at the unfailing grace of attitude which was one of her natural possesS1O11S. She had thought of him, but not in connection with the strangers. She had admired him from the first; she had been attracted by his warm voice, his gentle eye, but she had felt him too wonderfully difficult to know. He had given to life a savour, a movement, a promise mingled with menaces, which she had not suspected were to be found in it—or, at any rate, not by a girl wedded to misery as she was. She said to herself that she must not be irritated because he seemed too self-contained, and as if shut up in a world of his own. When he took her in his arms, she felt that his embrace had a great and compelling force, that he was moved deeply, and that perhaps he would not get tired of her so very soon. She thought that he had opened to her the feelings of delicate joy, that the very uneasiness he caused her was delicious in its sadness, and that she would try to hold him as long as she could— till her fainting arms, her sinking soul, could cling to him nO nore. “Wang's not here, of course?” Heyst said suddenly. She answered as if in her sleep. “He put this light down here without stopping, and ran.” “Ran, did he? H'm ! Well, it's considerably later than