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She looked at him, uncomprehending. He cut short his laugh and said curtly:
"We had better go down as we came."
She followed him into the forest. The advance of the afternoon had filled it with gloom. Far away a slant of light between the trees closed the view. All was dark beyond. Heyst stopped.
"No reason to hurry, Lena," he said in his ordinary, serenely polite tones. "We return unsuccessful. I suppose you know, or at least can guess, what was my object in coming up there?"
"No, I can't guess, dear," she said, and smiled, noticing with emotion that his breast was heaving as if he had been out of breath. Nevertheless, he tried to command his speech, pausing only a little between the words.
"No? I went up to find Wang. I went up"—he gasped again here, but this was for the last time—"I made you come with me because I didn't like to leave you unprotected in the proximity of those fellows." Suddenly he snatched his cork helmet off his head and dashed it on the ground. "No!" he cried roughly. "All this is too unreal altogether. It isn't to be borne! I can't protect you! I haven't the power."
He glared at her for a moment, then hastened after his hat, which had bounded away to some distance. He came back looking at her face, which was very white.
"I ought to beg your pardon for these antics," he said, adjusting his hat. "A movement of childish petulance! Indeed, I feel very much like a child in my ignorance, in my powerlessness, in my want of resource, in everything except in the dreadful consciousness of some evil hanging over your head—yours!"
"It's you they are after," she murmured.
"No doubt, but unfortunately—"
"Unfortunately, I have not succeeded with Wang," he said. "I failed to move his Celestial heart—that is, if there is such a thing. He told me with horrible Chinese reasonableness that he could not let us pass the barrier, because we should be pursued. He doesn't like fights. He gave me to understand that he would shoot me with my own revolver without any sort of compunction, rather than risk a rude and distasteful contest with the strange barbarians for my sake. He has preached to the villagers. They respect him. He is the most remarkable man they have ever seen, and their kinsman by marriage. They understand his policy. And anyway only women and children and a few old fellows are left in the village. This is the season when the men are away in trading vessels. But it would have been all the same. None of them have a taste for fighting —and with white men too! They are peaceable, kindly folk and would have seen me shot with extreme satisfaction. Wang seemed to think my insistence—for I insisted, you know—very stupid and tactless. But a drowning man clutches at straws. We were talking in such Malay as we are both equal to.
"'Your fears are foolish,' I said to him.
"'Foolish? Of course I am foolish,' he replied. If I were a wise man, I would be a merchant with a big hong in Singapore, instead of being a mine coolie turned houseboy. But if you don't go away in time, I will shoot you before it grows too dark to take aim. Not till then, Number One, but I will do it then. Now—finish!'
"'All right,' I said. 'Finish as far as I am concerned; but you can have no objections to the mem putih coming over to stay with the Orang Kaya's women for a few days. I will make a present in silver for it.' Orang Kaya is the head man of the village, Lena," added Heyst.
She looked at him in astonishment.
"You wanted me to go to that village of savages?" she gasped. "You wanted me to leave you?"
"It would have given me a freer hand."
Heyst stretched out his hands and looked at them for a moment, then let them fall by his side. Indignation was expressed more in the curve of her lips than in her clear eyes, which never wavered.
"I believe Wang laughed," he went on. "He made a noise like a turkey-cock."
"'That would be worse than anything,' he told me.
"I was taken aback. I pointed out to him that he was talking nonsense. It could not make any difference to his security where you were, because the evil men, as he calls them, did not know of your existence. I did not lie exactly, Lena, though I did stretch the truth till it cracked; but the fellow seems to have an uncanny insight. He shook his head. He assured me they knew all about you. He made a horrible grimace at me."
"It doesn't matter," said the girl. "I didn't want—I would not have gone."
Heyst raised his eyes.
"Wonderful intuition! As I continued to press him, Wang made that very remark about you. When he smiles, his face looks like a conceited death's head. It was his very last remark—that you wouldn't want to. I went away then."
She leaned back against a tree. Heyst faced her in the same attitude of leisure, as if they had done with time and all the other concerns of the earth. Suddenly, high above their heads, the roof of leaves whispered at them tumultuously and then ceased.
"That was a strange notion of yours, to send me away," she said. "Send me away? What for? Yes, what for?"
"You seem indignant," he remarked listlessly.
"To these savages, too!" she pursued. "And you think I would have gone? You can do what you like with me—but not that, not that!"
Heyst looked into the dim aisles of the forest. Everything was so still now that the very ground on which they stood seemed to exhale silence into the shade.
"Why be indignant?" he remonstrated. "It has not happened. I gave up pleading with Wang. Here we are, repulsed! Not only without power to resist the evil, but unable to make terms for ourselves with the worthy envoys, the envoys extraordinary of the world we thought we had done with for years and years. And that's bad, Lena, very bad."
"It's funny," she said thoughtfully. "Bad? I suppose it is. I don't know that it is. But do you? Do you? You talk as if you didn't believe in it."
She gazed at him earnestly.
"Do I? Ah! That's it. I don't know how to talk. I have managed to refine everything away. I've said to the Earth that bore me: 'I am I and you are a shadow.' And, by Jove, it is so! But it appears that such words cannot be uttered with impunity. Here I am on a Shadow inhabited by Shades. How helpless a man is against the Shades! How is one to intimidate, persuade, resist, assert oneself against them? I have lost all belief in realities. . . . Lena, give me your hand."
She looked at him surprised, uncomprehending.
"Your hand," he cried.
She obeyed; he seized it with avidity as if eager to raise it to his lips, but halfway up released his grasp. They looked at each other for a time.
"What's the matter, dear?" she whispered timidly.
"Neither force nor conviction," Heyst muttered wearily to himself. "How am I to meet this charmingly simple problem?"
"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 forebod