« PreviousContinue »
had a feeling that by the force of his eagerness even the darkness and the silence could be made to yield something to his eyes and ears.
He noted the stars, and stepped back again into the dense darkness. He resisted the growing impulse to go out and steal toward the other bungalow. It would have been madness to start prowling in the dark on unknown ground. And for what end? Unless to relieve the oppression. Immobility lay on his limbs like a leaden garment. And yet he was unwilling to give up. He persisted in his objectless vigil. The man of the island was keeping quiet.
It was at that moment that Ricardo's eyes caught the vanishing red trail of light made by the cigar—a startling revelation of the man's wakefulness. He could not suppress a low "Hallo!" and began to sidle along towards the door, with his shoulders rubbing the wall. For all he knew, the man might have been out in front by this time, observing the verandah. As a matter of fact, after flinging away the cheroot, Heyst had gone indoors with the feeling of a man who gives up an unprofitable occupation. But Ricardo fancied he could hear faint footfalls on the open ground, and dodged quickly into the room. There he drew breath, and meditated for a while. His next step was to feel for the matches on the tall desk, and to light the candle. He had to communicate to his governor views and reflections of such importance that it was absolutely necessary for him to watch their effect on the very countenance of the hearer. At first he had thought that these matters could have waited till daylight, but Heyst's wakefulness, disclosed in that startling way, made him feel suddenly certain that there could be no sleep for him that night.
He said as much to his governor. When the little daggerlike flame had done its best to dispel the darkness, Mr. Jones was to be seen reposing on a camp bedstead, in a distant part of the room. A railway rug concealed his spare form up to his very head, which rested on the other railway rug rolled up for a pillow. Ricardo plumped himself down cross-legged on the floor, very close to the low bedstead; so that Mr. Jones—who perhaps had not been so very prn
foundly asleep—on opening his eyes found them conveniently levelled at the face of his secretary.
"Eh? What is it you say? No sleep for you to-night? But why can't you let me sleep? Confound your fussinessl"
"Because that there fellow can't sleep—that's why. Dash me if he hasn't been doing a think just nowl What business has he to think in the middle of the night?"
"How do you know?"
"He was out, sir—up in the middle of the night. My own eyes saw it."
"But how do you know that he was up to think?" inquired Mr. Jones. "It might have been anything—toothache, for instance. And you may have dreamed it for all I know. Didn't you try to sleep?"
"No, sir. I didn't even try to go to sleep."
Ricardo informed his patron of his vigil on the verandah, and of the revelation which put an end to it. He concluded that a man up with a cigar in the middle of the night must be doing a think.
Mr. Jones raised himself on his elbow. This sign of interest comforted his faithful henchman.
"Seems to me it's time we did a little think ourselves," added Ricardo, with more assurance. Long as they had been together the moods of his governor were still a source of anxiety to his simple soul.
"You are always making a fuss," remarked Mr. Jones, in a tolerant tone.
"Ay, but not for nothing, am I? You can't say that, sir. Mine may not be a gentleman's way of looking round a thing, but it isn't a fool's way, either. You've admitted that much yourself at odd times."
Ricardo was growing warmly argumentative. Mr. Jones interrupted him without heat.
"You haven't roused me to talk about yourself, I presume."
"No, sir." Ricardo remained silent for a minute, with the tip of his tongue caught between his teeth. "I don't think I could tell you anything about myself that you don't know," he continued. There was a sort of amused satisfaction in his tone which changed completely as he went on. "It's that man, over there, that's got to be talked over. I don't like him!"
He failed to observe the flicker of a ghastly smile on his governor's lips.
"Don't you?" murmured Mr. Jones, whose face, as he reclined on his elbow, was on a level with the top of his follower's head.
"No, sir," said Ricardo emphatically. The candle from the other side of the room threw his monstrous black shadow on the wall. "He—I don't know how to say it—he isn't hearty-like."
Mr. Jones agreed languidly in his own manner:
"He seems to be a very self-possessed man."
"Ay, that's it. Self—" Ricardo choked with indignation. "I would soon let out some of his self-possession through a hole between his ribs, if this weren't a special job!"
Mr. Jones had been making his own reflections, for he asked:
"Do you think he is suspicious?"
"I don't see very well what he can be suspicious of," pondered Ricardo. "Yet there he was, doing a think. And what could be the object of it? What made him get out of his bed in the middle of the night? 'Tain't fleas, surely."
"Bad conscience, perhaps," suggested Mr. Jones jocularly.
His faithful secretary suffered from irritation, and did not see the joke. In a fretful tone he declared that there was no such thing as conscience. There was such a thing as funk; but there was nothing to make that fellow funky in any special way. He admitted, however, that the man might have been uneasy at the arrival of strangers, because of all that plunder of his put away somewhere.
Ricardo glanced here and there, as if he were afraid of being overheard by the heavy shadows cast by the dim light all over the room. His patron, very quiet, spoke in a calm whisper:
"And perhaps that hotel-keeper has been lying to you about him. He may be a very poor devil indeed."
Ricardo shook his head slightly. The Schombergian theory of Heyst had become in him a profound conviction, which he had absorbed as naturally as a sponge takes up water. His patron's doubts were a wanton denying of what was self-evident; but Ricardo's voice remained as before, a soft purring with a snarling undertone.
"I am sup-prised at you, sir! It's the very way them tame ones—the common 'yporcrits of the world—get on. When it comes to plunder drifting under one's very nose, there's not one of them that would keep his hands off. And I don't blame them. It's the way they do it that sets my back up. Just look at the story of how he got rid of that pal of his! Send a man home to croak of a cold on the chest—that's one of your tame tricks. And d'you mean to say, sir, that a man that's up to it wouldn't bag whatever he could lay his hands on in his 'yporcritical way? What was all that coal business? Tame citizen dodge; 'yporcrisy—nothing else. No, no, sir! The thing is to 'xtract it from him as neatly as possible. That's the job; and it isn't so simple as it looks. I reckon you have looked at it all round, sir, before you took up the notion of this trip."
"No." Mr. Jones was hardly audible, staring far away from his couch. "I didn't think about it much. I was bored."
"Ay, that you were—bad. I was feeling pretty desperate that afternoon when that bearded softy of a landlord got talking to me about this fellow here. Quite accidentally, it was. Well, sir, here we are after a mighty narrow squeak. I feel all limp yet; but never mind—his swag will pay for the lot!"
"He's all alone here," remarked Mr. Jones in a hollow murmur.
"Ye-es, in a way. Yes, alone enough. Yes, you may say he is."
"There's that Chinaman, though."
"Ay, there's the Chink," assented Ricardo rather absentmindedly.
He was debating in his mind the advisability of making a clean breast of his knowledge of the girl's existence. Finally he concluded he wouldn't. The enterprise was difficult enough without complicating it with an upset to the sensibilities of the gentleman with whom he had the honour of being associated. Let the discovery come of itself, he thought, and then he could swear that he had known nothing of that offensive presence.
He did not need to lie. He had only to hold his tongue.
"Yes," he muttered reflectively, "there's that Chink, certainly."
At bottom, he felt a certain ambiguous respect for his governor's exaggerated dislike of women, as if that horror of feminine presence were a sort of depraved morality; but still morality, since he counted it as an advantage. It prevented many undesirable complications. He did not pretend to understand it. He did not even try to investigate this idiosyncrasy of his chief. All he knew was that he himself was differently inclined, and that it did not make him any happier or safer. He did not know how it would have acted if he had been knocking about the world on his own. Luckily he was a subordinate, not a wage-slave but a follower— which was a restraint. Yes! The other sort of disposition simplified matters in general; it wasn't to be gainsaid. But it was clear that it could also complicate them—as in this most important and, in Ricardo's view, already sufficiently delicate case. And the worst of it was that one could not tell exactly in what precise manner it would act.
It was unnatural, he thought somewhat peevishly. How was one to reckon up the unnatural? There were no rules for that. The faithful henchman of "plain Mr. Jones," foreseeing many difficulties of a material order, decided to keep the girl out of the governor's knowledge; out of his sight, too, for as long a time as it could be managed. That, alas, seemed to be at most a matter of a few hours; whereas Ricardo feared that to get the affair properly going would take some days. Once well started, he was not afraid of his gentleman failing him. As is often the case with lawless natures, Ricardo's faith in any given individual was of a simple, unquestioning character. For man must have some support in life.
Cross-legged, his head drooping a little and perfectly still, he might have been meditating in a bonze-like attitude upon the sacred syllable "Om." It was a striking illustration of the untruth of appearances, for his contempt for the world was of a severely practical kind. There was noth