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pie like you and me. A gentleman is better than an employer, but an equal partnership against all the 'yporcrits is the thing for you and me. We'll go on wandering the world over, you and I, both free and both true. You are no cage bird. We'll rove together, for we are of them that have no homes. We are born rovers!"
She listened to him with the utmost attention, as if any unexpected word might give her some sort of opening to get that dagger, that awful knife—to disarm murder itself, pleading for her love at her feet. Again she nodded at him thoughtfully, rousing a gleam in his yellow eyes, yearning devotedly upon her face. When he hitched himself a little closer, her soul had no movement of recoil. This had to be. Anything had to be which would bring the knife within her reach. He talked more confidentially now.
"We have met, and their time has come," he began, looking up into her eyes. "The partnership between me and my gentleman has to be ripped up. There's no room for him where we two are. Why, he would shoot me like a dog! Don't you worry. This will settle it not later than to-night!"
He tapped his folded leg below the knee, and was surprised, flattered, by the lighting up of her face, which stooped towards him eagerly and remained expectant, the lips girlishly parted, red in the pale face, and quivering in the quickened drawing of her breath.
"You marvel, you miracle, you man's luck and joy—one in a million! No, the only one. You have found your man in me," he whispered tremulously. "Listen! They are having their last talk together; for I'll do for your gentleman, too, by midnight!"
Without the slightest tremor she murmured, as soon as the tightening of her breast had eased off and the words would come:
"I wouldn't be in too much of a hurry—with him."
The pause, the tone, had all the value of meditated advice.
"Good, thrifty girl!" he laughed low, with a strange feline gaiety, expressed by the undulating movement of his shoulders and the sparkling snap of his oblique eyes. "You are still thinking about the chance of that swag. You'll make a good partner, that you will! And, I say, what a decoy you will make! Jee-miny!"
He was carried away for a moment, but his face darkened swiftly.
"No! No reprieve. What do you think a fellow is—a scarecrow? All hat and clothes and no feeling, no inside, no brain to make fancies for himself? No!" he went on violently. "Never in his life will he go again into that room of yours—never any more!"
A silence fell. He was gloomy with the torment of his jealousy, and did not even look at her. She sat up and slowly, gradually, bent lower and lower over him, as if ready to fall into his arms. He looked up at last, and checked this droop unwittingly.
"Say! You, who are up to fighting a man with your bare hands, could you—eh?—could you manage to stick one with a thing like that knife of mine?"
She opened her eyes very wide and gave him a wild smile.
"How can I tell?" she whispered enchantingly. "Will you let me have a look at it?" Without taking his eyes from her face, he pulled the knife out of its sheath—a short, broad, cruel, double-edged blade with a bone handle—and only then looked down at it.
"A good friend," he said simply. "Take it in your hand and feel the balance," he suggested.
At the moment when she bent forward to receive it from him, there was a flash of fire in her mysterious eyes—a red gleam in the white mist which wrapped the promptings and longings of her soul. She had done it! The very sting of death was in her hands; the venom of the viper in her paradise, extracted, safe in her possession—and the viper's head all but lying under her heel. Ricardo, stretched on the mats of the floor, crept closer and closer to the chair in which she sat.
All her thoughts were busy planning how to keep possession of that weapon which had seemed to have drawn into itself every danger and menace on the death-ridden earth. She said with a low laugh, the exultation in which he failed to recognise:
"I didn't think that you would ever trust me with that thing!"
"For fear I should suddenly strike you with it." "What for? For this morning's work? Oh, no! There's no spite in you for that. You forgave me. You saved me. You got the better of me, too. And anyhow, what good would it be?" "No, no good," she admitted.
In her heart she felt that she would not know how to do it; that if it came to a struggle, she would have to drop the dagger and fight with her hands.
"Listen. When we are going about the world together, you shall always call me husband. Do you hear?"
"Yes," she said, bracing herself for the contest, in whatever shape it was coming.
The knife was lying in her lap. She let it slip into the fold of her dress, and laid her forearms with clasped fingers over her knees, which she pressed desperately together. The dreaded thing was out of sight at last. She felt a dampness break out all over her.
"I am not going to hide you, like that good-for-nothing, finicky, sneery gentleman. You shall be my pride and my chum. Isn't that better than rotting on an island for the pleasure of a gentleman, till he gives you the chuck?"
"I'll be anything you like," she said.
In his intoxication he crept closer with every word she uttered, with every movement she made.
"Give your foot," he begged in a timid murmur, and in the full consciousness of his power.
Anything! Anything to keep murder quiet and disarmed till strength had returned to her limbs and she could make up her mind what to do. Her fortitude had been shaken by the very facility of success that had come to her. She advanced her foot forward a little from under the hem of her skirt; and he threw himself on it greedily. She was not even aware of him. She had thought of the forest, to which she had been told to run. Yes, the forest—that was the place for her to carry off the terrible spoil, the sting of vanquished death. Ricardo, clasping her ankle, pressed his lips time after time to the instep, muttering gasping words that were like sobs, making little noises that resembled the sounds of grief and distress. Unheard by them both, the thunder growled distantly with angry modulations of its tremendous voice, while the world outside shuddered incessantly around the dead stillness of the room where the framed profile of Heyst's father looked severely into space.
Suddenly Ricardo felt himself spurned by the foot he had been cherishing—spurned with a push of such violence into the very hollow of his throat that it swung him back instantly into an upright position on his knees. He read his danger in the stony eyes of the girl; and in the very act of leaping to his feet he heard sharply, detached on the comminatory voice of the storm, the brief report of a shot which half stunned him, in the manner of a blow. He turned his burning head, and saw Heyst towering in the doorway. The thought that the beggar had started to prance darted through his mind. For a fraction of a second his distracted eyes sought for his weapon all over the floor. He couldn't see it.
"Stick him, you!" he called hoarsely to the girl, and dashed headlong for the door of the compound.
While he thus obeyed the instinct of self-preservation, his reason was telling him that he could not possibly reach it alive. It flew open, however, with a crash, before his launched weight, and instantly he swung it to behind him. There, his shoulder leaning against it, his hands clinging to the handle, dazed and alone in the night full of shudders and muttered menaces, he tried to pull himself together. He asked himself if he had been shot at more than once. His shoulder was wet with the blood trickling from his head. Feeling above his ear, he ascertained that it was only a graze, but the shock of the surprise had unmanned him for the moment.
What the deuce was the governor about, to let the beggar break loose like this? Or—was the governor dead, perhaps?
The silence within the room awed him. Of going back there could be no question.
"But she knows how to take care of herself," he muttered.
She had his knife. It was she now who was deadly, while he was disarmed, no good for the moment. He stole away from the door, staggering, the warm trickle running down his neck, to find out what had become of the governor and to provide himself with a firearm from the armoury in the trunks.