« PreviousContinue »
ing up to the verandah. The girl had abandoned Heyst's arm.
"This is the house," he repeated.
She did not offer to budge away from his side, but stood staring fixedly at the steps, as if they had been something unique and impracticable. He waited a little, but she did not move.
"Don't you want to go in?" he said, without turning his head to look at her. "The sun's too heavy to stand about here." He tried to overcome a sort of fear, a sort of impatient faintness, and his voice sounded rough. "You had better go in," he concluded.
They both moved then, but at the foot of the stairs Heyst stopped, while the girl went on rapidly, as if nothing could stop her now. She crossed the verandah swiftly, and entered the twilight of the big central room opening upon it, and then the deeper twilight of the room beyond. She stood still in the dusk, in which her dazzled eyes could scarcely make out the forms of objects, and sighed a sigh of relief. The impression of the sunlight, of sea and sky, remained with her like a memory of a painful trial gone through—done with at last!
Meanwhile Heyst had walked back slowly towards the jetty; but he did not get so far as that. The practical and automatic Wang had got hold of one of the little trucks that had been used for running baskets of coal alongside ships. He appeared pushing it before him, loaded lightly with Heyst's bag and the bundle of the girl's belongings, wrapped in Mrs. Schomberg's shawl. Heyst turned about and walked by the side of the rusty rails on which the truck ran. Opposite the house Wang stopped, lifted the bag to his shoulder, balanced it carefully, and then took the bundle in his hand.
"Leave those things on the table in the big room— understand?"
"Me savee," grunted Wang, moving off.
Heyst watched the Chinaman disappear from the verandah. It was not till he had seen Wang come out that he himself entered the twilight of the big room. By that time Wang was out of sight at the back of the house, but by no means out of hearing. The Chinaman could hear the voice of him who, when there were many people there, was generally referred to as "Number One." Wang was not able to understand the words, but the tone interested him.
"Where are you?" cried Number One.
Then Wang heard, much more faint, a voice he had never heard before—a novel impression which he acknowledged by cocking his head slightly to one side.
"I am here—out of the sun."
The new voice sounded remote and uncertain. Wang heard nothing more, though he waited for some time, very still, the top of his shaven poll exactly level with the floor of the back verandah. His face meanwhile preserved an inscrutable immobility. Suddenly he stooped to pick up the lid of a deal candle-box which was lying on the ground by bis foot. Breaking it up with his fingers, he directed his steps towards the cook-shed, where, squatting on his heels, he proceeded to kindle a small fire under a very sooty kettle, possibly to make tea. Wang had some knowledge of the more superficial rites and ceremonies of white men's existence, otherwise so enigmatically remote to his mind, and containing unexpected possibilities of good and evil which had to be watched for with prudence and care.
That morning, as on all the others of the full tale of mornings since his return with the girl to Samburan, Heyst came out on the verandah and spread his elbows on the railing, in an easy attitude of proprietorship. The bulk of the central ridge of the island cut off the bungalow from sunrises, whether glorious or cloudy, angry or serene. The dwellers therein were debarred from reading early the fortune of the new-born day. It sprang upon them in its fulness with a swift retreat of the great shadow when the sun, clearing the ridge, looked down, hot and dry, with a devouring glare like the eye of an enemy. But Heyst, once the Number One of this locality, while it was comparatively teeming with mankind, appreciated the prolongation of early coolness, the subdued, lingering half light, the faint ghost of the departed night, the fragrance of its dewy, dark soul captured for a moment longer between the great glow of the sky and the intense blaze of the uncovered sea.
It was naturally difficult for Heyst to keep his mind from dwelling on the nature and consequences of this, his latest departure from the part of an unconcerned spectator. Yet he had retained enough of his wrecked philosophy to prevent him from asking himself consciously how it would end. But at the same time he could not help being temperamentally, from long habit and from set purpose, a spectator still, perhaps a little less naive but (as he discovered with some surprise) not much more far-sighted than the common run of men. Like the rest of us who act, all he could say to himself, with a somewhat affected grimness, was:
"We shall see!"
This mood of grim doubt intruded on him only when he was alone. There were not many such moments in his day now; and he did not like them when they came. On this morning he had no time to grow uneasy. Alma came out to join him long before the sun, rising above the Samburan ridge, swept the cool shadow of the early morning and the remnant of the night's coolness clear off the roof under which they had dwelt for more than three months already. She came out as on other mornings. He had heard her light footsteps in the big room—the room where he had unpacked the cases from London; the room now lined with the backs of books halfway up on its three sides. Above the cases the fine matting met the ceiling of tightly stretched white calico. In the dusk and coolness nothing gleamed except the gilt frame of the portrait of Heyst's father, signed by a famous painter, lonely in the middle of a wall.
Heyst did not turn round.
"Do you know what I was thinking of?" he asked.
"No," she said. Her tone betrayed always a shade of anxiety, as though she were never certain how a conversation with him would end. She leaned on the guard-rail by his side.
"No," she repeated. "What was it?" She waited. Then, rather with reluctance than shyness, she asked:
"Were you thinking of me?"
"I was wondering when you would come out," said Heyst still without looking at the girl—to whom, after several experimental essays in combining detached letters and loose syllables, he had given the name of Lena.
She remarked after a pause:
"I was not very far from you."
"Apparently you were not near enough for me."
"You could have called if you wanted me," she said. "And I wasn't so long doing my hair."
"Apparently it was too long for me."
"Well, you were thinking of me, anyhow. I am glad of it. Do you know, it seems to me, somehow, that if you were to stop thinking of me I shouldn't be in the world at allP
He turned round and looked at her. She often said things which surprised him. A vague smile faded away on her lips before his scrutiny.
"What is it?" he asked. "Is it a reproach?"
"A reproachl Why, how could it be?" she defended herself.
"Well, what did it mean?" he insisted.
"What I said—just what I said. Why aren't you fair?"
"Ah, this at least is a reproach!"
She coloured to the roots of her hair.
"It looks as if you were trying to make out that I am disagreeable," she murmured. "Am I? You will make me afraid to open my mouth presently. I shall end by believing I am no good."
Her head drooped a little. He looked at her smooth, low brow, the faintly coloured cheeks, and the red lips parted slightly, with the gleam of her teeth within.
"And then I won't be any good," she added with conviction. "That I won't! I can only be what you think I am."
He made a slight movement. She put her hand on his arm, without raising her head, and went on, her voice animated in the stillness of her body:
"It is so. It couldn't be any other way with a girl like me and a man like you. Here we are, we two alone, and I can't even tell where we are."
"A very well-known spot of the globe," Heyst uttered gently. "There must have been at least fifty thousand circulars issued at the time—a hundred and fifty thousand, more likely. My friend was looking after that, and his ideas were large and his belief very strong. Of us two it was he who had the faith. A hundred and fifty thousand, certainly."
"What is it you mean?" she asked in a low tone.
"What should I find fault with you for?" Heyst went on. "For being amiable, good, gracious—and pretty?"
A silence fell. Then she said:
"It's all right that you should think that of me. There's no one here to think anything of us, good or bad."
The rare timbre of her voice gave a special value to what