Page images
PDF
EPUB

I tell you straight. Never! Have I looked at you? Tell me. It was you that began it."

In truth, Heyst had shrunk from the idea of competition with fellows unknown, with Schomberg the hotel-keeper. The vaporous white figure before him swayed pitifully in the darkness. He felt ashamed of his fastidiousness.

"I am afraid we have been detected," he murmured. "I think I saw somebody on the path between the house and the bushes behind you."

He had seen no one. It was a compassionate lie, if there ever was one. His compassion was as genuine as his shrinking had been, and in his judgment more honourable.

She didn't turn her head. She was obviously relieved. "Would it be that brute?" she breathed out, meaning Schomberg, of course. "He's getting too forward with me now. What can you expect? Only this evening, after supper, he—but I slipped away. You don't mind him, do you? Why, I could face him myself now that I know you care for me. A girl can always put up a fight. You believe me? Only it isn't easy to stand up for yourself when you feel there's nothing and nobody at your back. There's nothing so lonely in the world as a girl who has got to look after herself. When I left poor dad in that home—it was in the country, near a village—I came out of the gates with seven shillings and three-pence in my old purse, and my railway ticket. I tramped a mile, and got into a train—"

She broke off, and was silent for a moment.

"Don't you throw me over now," she went on. "If you did, what should I do? I should have to live, to be sure, because I'd be afraid to kill myself; but you would have done a thousand times worse than killing a body. You told me you had been always alone, you had never had a dog, even. Well, then, I won't be in anybody's way if I live with you—not even a dog's. And what else did you mean when you came up and looked at me so close?"

"Close? Did I?" he murmured unstirring before her in the profound darkness. "So close as that?"

She had an outbreak of anger and despair in subdued tones.

"Have you forgotten, then? What did you expect to find? I know what sort of girl I am; but all the same I am not the sort that men turn their backs on—and you ought to

Jcnow it, unless you aren't made like the others. Oh, forgive

me! You aren't like the others; you are like no one in the

world I ever spoke to. Don't you care for me? Don't you

see?"

What he saw was that, white and spectral, she was putting out her arms to him out of the black shadows like an appealing ghost. He took her hands, and was affected, almost surprised, to find them so warm, so real, so firm, so iving in his grasp. He drew her to him, and she dropped ler head on his shoulder with a deep sigh.

"I am dead tired," she whispered plaintively.

He put his arms around her, and only by the convulsive ovements of her body became aware that she was sobng without a sound. Sustaining her, he lost himself in the afound silence of the night. After awhile she became still, i cried quietly. Then, suddenly, as if waking up, she ed:

You haven't seen any more of that somebody you ight was spying about?" !e started at her quick, sharp whisper, and answered

very likely he had been mistaken.

f it was anybody at all," she reflected aloud, "it dn't have been any one but that hotel woman—the ord s wife."

rs. Schomberg?" Heyst said, surprised. is. Another one that can't sleep o' nights. Why? Don't 3e why? Because, of course, she sees what's going on. seast doesn't even try to keep it from her. If she had he least bit of spirit! She knows how I feel, too, only ao frightened even to look him in the face, let alone er mouth. He would tell her to go hang herself." some time Heyst said nothing. A public, active conth the hotel-keeper was not to be thought of. The is horrible. Whispering gently to the girl, he tried in to her that as things stood, an open withdrawal e company would be probably opposed. She lis

his explanation anxiously, from time to time presstiarad she had sought and got hold of in the dark.

"As I told you, I am not rich enough to buy you out; so I shall steal you as soon as I can arrange some means of getting away from here. Meantime it would be fatal to be seen together at night. We mustn't give ourselves away. We had better part at once. I think I was mistaken just now; but if, as you say, that poor Mrs. Schomberg can't sleep of nights, we must be more careful. She would tell the fellow."

The girl had disengaged herself from his loose hold while he talked, and now stood free of him, but still clasping his hand firmly.

"Oh, no," she said with perfect assurance. "I tell you she daren't open her mouth to him. And she isn't as silly as she looks. She wouldn't give us away. She knows a trick worth two of that. She'll help—that's what she'll do, if she dares do anything at all."

"You seem to have a very clear view of the situation," said Heyst, and received a warm, lingering kiss for this commendation.

He discovered that to part from her was not such an easy matter as he had supposed it would be.

"Upon my word," he said before they separated, "I don't even know your name."

"Don't you? They call me Alma. I don't know why. Silly name! Magdalen too. It doesn't matter; you can call me by whatever name you choose. Yes, you give me a name. Think of one you would like the sound of—something quite new. How I should like to forget everything that has gone before, as one forgets a dream that's done with, fright and all! I would try."

"Would you really?" he asked in a murmur. "But that's not forbidden. I understand that women easily forget whatever in their past diminishes them in their eyes."

"It's your eyes that I was thinking of, for I'm sure I've never wished to forget anything till you came up to me that night and looked me through and through. I know I'm not much account; but I know how to stand by a man. I stood by father ever since I could understand. He wasn't a bad chap. Now that I can't be of any use to him, I would just as soon forget all that and make a fresh start. But these aren't things that I could talk to you about. What could I ever talk to you about?"

"Don't let it trouble you," Heyst said. "Your voice is enough. I am in love with it, whatever it says."

She remained silent for a while, as if rendered breathless by this quiet statement.

"Oh! I wanted to ask you"

He remembered that she probably did not know his tame, and expected the question to be put to him now; but ifter a moment of hesitation she went on:

"Why was it that you told me to smile this evening in

le concert-room there—you remember?"

"I thought we were being observed. A smile is the best

masks. Schomberg was at a table next but one to us,

inking with some Dutch clerks from the town. No doubt

was watching us—watching you, at least. That's why I

:ed you to smile."

'Ah, that's why. It never came into my head." And you did it very well, too—very readily, as if you understood my intention."

Readily!" she repeated. "Oh, I was ready enough to 3 then. That's the truth. It was the first time for years y say that I felt disposed to smile. I've not had many ces to smile in my life, I can tell you; especially of

it you do it most charmingly—in a perfectly fascinat

ay."

paused. She stood still, waiting for more with the still

f extreme delight, wishing to prolong the sensation.

istonished me," he added. "It went as straight to my

s though you had smiled for the purpose of dazzling

elt as if I had never seen a smile before in my life.

ht of it after I left you. It made me restless."

id all that?" came her voice, unsteady, gentle, and

ous.

>u had not smiled as you did, perhaps I should not

ne out here to-night," he said, with his playful ear

of tone. "It was your triumph."

t her lips touch his lightly, and the next moment

jone. Her white dress gleamed in the distance, and then the opaque darkness of the house seemed to swallow it. Heyst waited a little before he went the same way, round the corner, up the steps of the verandah, and into his room, where he lay down at last—not to sleep, but to go over in his mind all that had been said at their meeting.

"It's exactly true about that smile," he thought. There he had spoken the truth to her; and about her voice, too. For the rest—what must be must be.

A great wave of heat passed over him. He turned on his back, flung his arms crosswise on the broad, hard bed, and lay still, open-eyed under the mosquito net, till daylight entered his room, brightened swiftly, and turned to unfailing sunlight. He got up then, went to a small looking-glass hanging on the wall, and stared at himself steadily. It was not a new-bor n vanity which induced this long survey. He felt so strange that he could not resist the suspicion of his personal appearance having changed during the night What he saw in the glass, however, was the man he knew before. It was almost a disappointment—a belittling of his recent experience. And then he smiled at his nai'veness; for, being over five and thirty years of age, he ought to have known that in most cases the body is the unalterable mask of the soul, which even death itself changes but little, till it is put out of sight where no changes matter any more, either to our friends or to our enemies.

Heyst was not conscious of either friends or of enemies. It was the very essence of his life to be a solitary achievement, accomplished not by hermit-like withdrawal with its silence and immobility, but by a system of restless wandering, by the detachment of an impermanent dweller amongst changing scenes. In this scheme he had perceived the means of passing through life without suffering and almost without a single care in the world—invulnerable because elusive.

« PreviousContinue »