« PreviousContinue »
the energy of disgust which the mere thought of the hotelkeeper provoked in her.
"Oh, Schomberg!" Heyst murmured carelessly.
"He talked to the boss—to Zangiacomo, I mean. I had to sit there. That devil-woman sometimes wouldn't let me go away. I mean Mrs. Zangiacomo."
"I guessed," murmured Heyst. "She liked to torment you in a variety of ways. But it is really strange that the hotelkeeper should talk of Morrison to Zangiacomo. As far as I can remember he saw very little of Morrison professionally. He knew many others much better."
The girl shuddered slightly.
"That was the only name I ever overheard. I would get as far away from them as I could, to the other end of the room; but when that beast started shouting, I could not help hearing. I wish I had never heard anything. If I had got up and gone out of the room I don't suppose the woman would have killed me for it; but she would have rowed me in a nasty way. She would have threatened me and called me names. That sort, when they know you are helpless, there's nothing to stop them. I don't know how it is, but bad people, real bad people that you can see are bad, they get over me somehow. It's the way they set about downing one. I am afraid of wickedness."
Heyst watched the changing expressions of her face. He encouraged her, profoundly sympathetic, a little amused.
"I quite understand. You needn't apologize for your great delicacy in the perception of inhuman evil. I am a little like you."
"I am not very plucky," she said.
"Well! I don't know myself what I would do, what countenance I would have before a creature which would strike me as being the evil incarnate. Don't you be ashamed."
She sighed, looked up with her pale, candid gaze and a timid expression of her face, and murmured:
"You don't seem to want to know what he was saying."
"About poor Morrison? It couldn't have been anything bad, for the poor fellow was innocence itself. And then, you know, he is dead, and nothing can possibly matter to him now."
"But I tell you that it was of you he was talking!" she cried. "He was saying that Morrison's partner first got all there was to get out of him, and then, and then—well, as good as murdered him—sent him out to die somewhere!"
"You believe that of me?" said Heyst, after a moment of perfect silence.
"I didn't know it had anything to do with you. Schomberg was talking of some Swede. How was I to know? It was only when you began telling me about how you came here—"
"And now you have my version." Heyst forced himself to speak quietly. "So that's how the business looked from outside!" he muttered.
"I remember him saying that everybody in these parts knew the story," the girl added breathlessly.
"Strange that it should hurt me!" mused Heyst to himself; "yet it does. I seem to be as much of a fool as those everybodies who know the story—and no doubt believe it. Can you remember any more?" he addressed the girl in a grimly polite tone. "I've often heard of the moral advantages of seeing oneself as others see one. Let us investigate further. Can't you recall something else that everybody knows?"
"Oh! Don't laugh!" she cried.
"Did I laugh? I assure you I was not aware of it. I won't ask you whether you believe the hotel-keeper's version. Surely you must know the value of human judgment."
She unclasped her hands, moved them slightly, and twined her fingers as before. Protest? Assent? Was there to be nothing more? He was relieved when she spoke in that warm and wonderful voice which in itself comforted and fascinated one's heart, which made her lovable.
"I heard this before you and I ever spoke to each other. It went out of my memory afterwards. Everything went out of my memory then; and I was glad of it. It was a fresh start for me, with you—and you know it. I wish I had forgotten who I was—that would have been best; and I very nearly did forget."
He was moved by the vibrating quality of the last words. She seemed to be talking low of some wonderful enchantment, in mysterious terms of special significance. He thought that if she only could talk to him in some unknown tongue, she would enslave him altogether by the sheer beauty of the sound, suggesting infinite depths of wisdom and feeling.
"But," she went on, "the name stuck in my head, it seems; and when you mentioned it—"
"It broke the spell," muttered Heyst in angry disappointment, as if he had been deceived in some hope.
The girl, from her position a little above him, surveyed with still eyes the abstracted silence of the man on whom she now depended with a completeness of which she had not been vividly conscious before, because, till then, she had never felt herself swinging between the abysses of earth and heaven in the hollow of his arm. What if he should grow weary of the burden!
"And, moreover, nobody had ever believed that tale!"
Heyst came out with an abrupt burst of sound which made her open her steady eyes wider, with an effect of immense surprise. It was a purely mechanical effect, because she was neither surprised nor puzzled. In fact, she could understand him better then than at any moment since she first set eyes on him.
He laughed scornfully.
"What am I thinking of?" he cried. "As if it could matter to me what anybody had ever said or believed, from the beginning of the world till the crack of doom!"
"I never heard you laugh till to-day," she observed. "This is the second time."
He scrambled to his feet and towered above her.
"That's because, when one's heart has been broken into in the way you have broken into mine, all sorts of weaknesses are free to enter—shame, anger, stupid indignations, stupid fears—stupid laughter, too. I wonder what interpretation you are putting on it?"
"It wasn't gay, certainly," she said. "But why are you angry with me? Are you sorry you took me away from those beasts? I told you who I was. You could see it."
"HeavensI" he muttered. He had regained his command of himself. "I assure you I could see much more than you ^ould tell me. I could see quite a lot that you don't even suspect yet; but you can't be seen quite through."
He sank to the ground by her side and took her hand. She asked gently:
"What more do you want from me?"
He made no sound for a time.
"The impossible, I suppose," he said very low, as one makes a confidence, and pressing the hand he grasped.
It did not return the pressure. He shook his head as if to drive away the thought of this, and added in a louder, light tone:
"Nothing less. And it isn't because I think little of what I've got already. Oh, no! It is because I think so much of this possession of mine that I can't have it complete enough. I know it's unreasonable. You can't hold back anything— now."
"Indeed I couldn't," she whispered, letting her hand lie passive in his tight grasp. "I only wish I could give you something more, or better, or whatever it is you want."
He was touched by the sincere accent of these simple words.
"I tell you what you can do—you can tell me whether you would have gone with me like this if you had known of whom that abominable idiot of a hotel-keeper was speaking. A murderer—no less!"
"But I didn't know you at all then," she cried. "And I had the sense to understand what he was saying. It wasn't murder, really. I never thought it was."
"What made him invent such an atrocity?" Heyst exclaimed. "He seems a stupid animal. He is stupid. How did he manage to hatch that pretty tale? Have I a particularly vile countenance? Is black selfishness written all over my face? Or is that sort of thing so universally human that it might be said of anybody?"
"It wasn't murder," she insisted earnestly.
"I know. I understand. It was worse. As to killing a man, which would be a comparatively decent thing to do, well— I have never done that."
'Why should you do it?" she asked in a frightened voice.
"My dear girl, you don't know the sort of life I have been leading in unexplored countries, in the wilds; it's difficult to give you an idea. There are men who haven't been in such tight places as I have found myself in who have had to—to shed blood, as the saying is. Even the wilds hold prizes which tempt some people; but I had no schemes, no plans—and not even great firmness of mind to make me unduly obstinate. I was simply moving on, while the others, perhaps, were going somewhere. An indifference as to roads and purposes makes one meeker, as it were. And I may say truly, too, that I never did care, I won't say for life—I had scorned what people call by that name from the first—but for being alive. I don't know if that is what men call courage, but I doubt it very much."
"You! You have no courage?" she protested.
"I really don't know. Not the sort that always itches for a weapon, for I have never been anxious to use one in the quarrels that a man gets into in the most innocent way, sometimes. The differences for which men murder each other are, like everything else they do, the most contemptible, the most pitiful things to look back upon. No, I've never killed a man or loved a woman—not even in my thoughts, not even in my dreams."
He raised her hand to his lips, and let them rest on it for a space, during which she moved a little closer to him. After the lingering kiss he did not relinquish his hold.
"To slay, to love—the greatest enterprises of life upon a man! And I have no experience of either. You must forgive me anything that may have appeared to you awkward in my behaviour, inexpressive in my speeches, untimely in my silences."
He moved uneasily, a little disappointed by her attitude, but indulgent to it, and feeling, in this moment of perfect quietness, that in holding her surrendered hand he had found a closer communion than they had ever achieved before. But even then there still lingered in him a sense of incompleteness not altogether overcome—which, it seemed nothing ever would overcome—the fatal imperfection of all the gifts of life, which makes of them a delusion and a snare.
All of a sudden he squeezed her hand angrily. His deli