« PreviousContinue »
“I am sorry,” she murmured. “And so am I,” he confessed quickly. “And the bitterest of this humiliation is its complete uselessness—which I feel, I feel !” She had never before seen him give such signs of feeling. Across his ghastly face the long moustaches flamed in the shade. He spoke suddenly: “I wonder if I could find enough courage to creep among them in the night, with a knife, and cut their throats one after another, as they slept! I wonder—” She was frightened by his unwonted appearance more than by the words in his mouth, and said earnestly: “Don’t you try to do such a thing! Don't you think of it !” “I don’t possess anything bigger than a penknife. As to thinking of it, Lena, there's no saying what one may think of. I don't think. Something in me thinks—something foreign to my nature. What is the matter?” He noticed her parted lips, and the peculiar stare in her eyes, which had wandered from his face. “There's somebody after us. I saw something white moving,” she cried. Heyst did not turn his head; he only glanced at her outstretched arm. “No doubt we are followed; we are watched.” “I don't see anything now,” she said. “And it does not matter,” Heyst went on in his ordinary voice. “Here we are in the forest. I have neither strength nor persuasion. Indeed, it's extremely difficult to be eloquent before a Chinaman's head stuck at one out of a lot of brushwood. But can we wander among these big trees indefinitely? Is this a refuge? No! What else is left to us? I did think for a moment of the mine; but even there we could not remain very long. And then that gallery is not safe. The props were too weak to begin with. Ants have been at work there—ants after the men. A deathtrap, at best. One can die but once, but there are many manners of death.” The girl glanced about fearfully, in search of the watcher or follower whom she had glimpsed once among the trees; but if he existed, he had concealed himself. Nothing met her eyes but the deepening shadows of the short vistas between the living columns of the still roof of leaves. She looked at the man beside her expectantly, tenderly, with suppressed affright and a sort of awed wonder. “I have also thought of these people's boat,” Heyst went on. “We could get into that, and—only they have taken everything out of her. I have seen her oars and mast in a corner of their room. To shove off in an empty boat would be nothing but a desperate expedient, supposing even that she would drift out a good distance between the islands before the morning. It would only be a complicated manner of committing suicide—to be found dead in a boat, dead from sun and thirst. A sea mystery. I wonder who would find us! Davidson, perhaps; but Davidson passed westward ten days ago. I watched him steaming past one early morning, from the jetty.” “He must have been looking at me through his big binoculars. Perhaps, if I had raised my arm—but what did we want with Davidson then, you and I? He won’t be back this way for three weeks or more, Lena. I wish I had raised my arm that morning.” “What would have been the good of it?” she sighed Out. “What good? No good, of course. We had no forebodings. This seemed to be an inexpugnable refuge, where we could live untroubled and learn to know each other.” “It's perhaps in trouble that people get to know each other,” she suggested. “Perhaps,” he said indifferently. “At any rate, we would not have gone away from here with him; though I believe he would have come in eagerly enough, and ready for any service he could render. It's that fat man's nature—a delightful fellow. You would not come on the wharf that time I sent the shawl back to Mrs. Schomberg through him. He has never seen you.” - “I didn't know that you wanted anybody ever to see me,” she said. - He had folded his arms on his breast and hung his head. “And I did not know that you cared to be seen as yet. A misunderstanding evidently. An honourable misunderstanding. But it does not matter now.” He raised his head after a silence. “How gloomy this forest has grown! Yet surely the sun cannot have set already.” She looked round; and as if her eyes had just been opened, she perceived the shades of the forest surrounding her, not so much with gloom, but with a sullen, dumb, menacing hostility. Her heart sank in the engulfing stillness; at that moment she felt the nearness of death breathing on her and on the man with her. If there had been a sudden stir of leaves, the crack of a dry branch, the faintest rustle, she would have screamed aloud. But she shook off the unworthy weakness. Such as she was, a fiddle-scraping girl picked up on the very threshold of infamy, she would try to rise above herself, triumphant and humble; and then happiness would burst on her like a torrent, flinging at her feet the man whom she loved. Heyst stirred slightly. “We had better be getting back, Lena, since we can't stay all night in the woods—or anywhere else, for that matter. We are the slaves of this infernal surprise which has been sprung on us by—shall I say fate?—your fate, or mine.” It was the man who had broken the silence, but it was the woman who led the way. At the very edge of the forest she stopped, concealed by a tree. He joined her cautiously. “What is it? What do you see, Lena?” he whispered. She said that it was only a thought that had come into her head. She hesitated for a moment, giving him over her shoulder a shining gleam of her grey eyes. She wanted to know whether this trouble, this danger, this evil, whatever it was, finding them out in their retreat, was not a sort of punishment. “Punishment?” repeated Heyst. He could not understand what she meant. When she explained, he was still more surprised. “A sort of retribution from an angry Heaven?” he said in wonder. “On us? What on earth for P” He saw her pale face darken in the dusk. She had blushed. Her whispering flowed very fast. It was the way they lived together—that wasn't right, was it? It was a guilty life. For she had not been forced into it, driven, scared into it. No, no—she had come to him of her own free will, with her whole soul yearning unlawfully. He was so profoundly touched that he could not speak for a moment. To conceal his trouble, he assumed his best Heystian manner. “What? Are our visitors then messengers of morality, avengers of righteousness, agents of Providence? That's certainly an original view. How flattered they would be if they could hear you!” “Now you are making fun of me,” she said in a subdued voice which broke suddenly. “Are you conscious of sin?” Heyst asked gravely. She made no answer. “For I am not,” he added; “before Heaven, I am not!” “You ! You are different. Woman is the tempter. You took me up from pity. I threw myself at you.” “Oh, you exaggerate, you exaggerate. It was not so bad as that,” he said playfully, keeping his voice steady with an effort. He considered himself a dead man already, yet forced to pretend that he was alive for her sake, for her defence. He regretted that he had no Heaven to which he could recommend this fair, palpitating handful of ashes and dust—warm, living, sentient, his own—and exposed helplessly to insult, outrage, degradation, and infinite misery of the body. She had averted her face from him and was still. He suddenly seized her passive hand. “You will have it so?” he said. “Yes? Well, let us then hope for mercy together.” She shook her head without looking at him, like an abashed child. “Remember,” he went on, incorrigible with his delicate raillery, “that hope is a Christian virtue, and surely you can’t want all the mercy for yourself.” Before their eyes the bungalow across the cleared ground stood bathed in a sinister light. An unexpected chill gust of wind made a noise in the tree-tops. She snatched her hand away and stepped out into the open; but before she had advanced more than three yards, she stood still and pointed to the west. “Oh, look there!” she exclaimed. Beyond the headland of Diamond Bay, lying black on a purple sea, great masses of cloud stood piled up and bathed in a mist of blood. A crimson crack like an open wound zigzagged between them, with a piece of dark red sun showing at the bottom. Heyst cast an indifferent glance at the ill-omened chaos of the sky. “Thunderstorm making up. We shall hear it all night, but it won’t visit us, probably. The clouds generally gather round the volcano.” She was not listening to him. Her eyes reflected the sombre and violent hues of the sunset.