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capacity for scorn to bear on it. It was immense. It ought to have withered this globe. I don't know how many minds he convinced. But my mind was very young then, and youth I suppose can be easily seduced—even by a negation. He was very ruthless, and yet he was not without pity. He dominated me without difficulty. A heartless man could not have
Even to fools he was not utterly merciless. He could be indignant, but he was too great for flouts and jeers. What he said was not meant for the crowd; it could not be; and I was flattered to find myself among the elect. They read his books, but I have heard his living word. It was irresistible. It was as if that mind were taking me into its confidence, giving me a special insight into its mastery of despair. Mistake, no doubt. There is something of my father in every man who lives long enough. But they don't say anything. They can't. They wouldn't know how, or perhaps, they wouldn't speak if they could. Man on this earth is an unforeseen accident which does not stand close investigation. However, that particular man died as quietly as a child goes to sleep. But, after listening to him, I could not take my soul down into the street to fight there. I started off to wander about, an independent spectator—if that is possible.
For a long time the girl's grey eyes had been
watching his face. She discovered that, addressing her, he was really talking to himself. Heyst looked up, caught sight of her as it were, and caught himself up, with a low laugh and a change of tone.
“All this does not tell you why I ever came here. Why, indeed ? It's like prying into inscrutable mysteries which are not worth scrutinising. A man drifts. The most successful men have drifted into their successes. I don't want to tell you that this is a success. You wouldn't believe me if I did. It isn't; neither is it the ruinous failure it looks. proves nothing, unless perhaps some hidden weakness in my character—and even that is not certain."
He looked fixedly at her, and with such grave eyes that she felt obliged to smile faintly at him, since she did not understand what he meant. Her smile was reflected, still fainter, on his lips.
“This does not advance you much in your inquiry," he went on. "And in truth your question is unanswerable; but facts have a certain positive value, and I will tell you a fact. One day I met a cornered man. I use the word because it expresses the man's situation exactly, and because you just used it yourself. You know what that means ?"
"What do you say?" she whispered, astounded. “A man!”
Heyst laughed at her wondering eyes.
“No! No! I mean in his own way.”
"I knew very well it couldn't be anything like that,” she observed under her breath.
“I won't bother you with the story. It was a custom-house affair, strange as it may sound to you. He would have preferred to be killed outright—that is, to have his soul despatched to another world, rather than to be robbed of his substance, his very insignificant substance, in this. I saw that he believed in another world because, being cornered, as I have told you, he went down on his knees and prayed. What do you think of that?"
Heyst paused. She looked at him earnestly.
"My dear girl, I am not a ruffian," he cried. Then, returning to his usual tone: “I didn't even have to conceal a smile. Somehow it didn't look a smiling matter. No, it was not funny; it was rather pathetic; he was so representative of all the past victims of the Great Joke. But it is by folly alone that the world moves, and so it is a respectable thing upon the whole.
And besides, he was what one would call a good man. I don't mean especially because he had offered up a prayer.
No! He was really a decent fellow, he was quite unfitted for this world, he was a failure, a good man cornered—a
sight for the gods; for no decent mortal cares to look at that sort." A thought seemed to occur to him. He turned his face to the girl. “And you, who have been cornered toodid you think of offering a prayer ?"
Neither her eyes nor a single one of her features moved the least bit. She only let fall the words:
"I am not what they call a good girl.”
"That sounds evasive," said Heyst after a short silence. "Well, the good fellow did pray and after he had confessed to it I was struck by the comicality of the situation. No, don't misunderstand me~I am not alluding to his act, of course. And even the idea of Eternity, Infinity, Omnipotence, being called upon to defeat the conspiracy of two miserable Portuguese half-castes did not move my mirth. From the point of view of the supplicant, the danger to be conjured was something like the end of the world, or worse. No! What captivated my fancy was that I, Axel Heyst, the most detached of creatures in this earthly captivity, the veriest tramp on this earth, an indifferent stroller going through the world's bustle —that I should have been there to step into the situation of an agent of Providence. I, a man of universal scorn and unbelief. ..."
"You are putting it on," she interrupted in her seductive voice, with a coaxing intonation.
"No. I am like that, born or fashioned, or both. I am not for nothing the son of my father, of that man in the painting. I am he, all but the genius. And there is even less in me than I make out, because the very scorn is falling away from me year after year. I have never been so amused as by that episode in which I was suddenly called to act such an incredible part. For a moment I enjoyed it greatly. I got him out of his corner, you know."
“You saved a man for fun—is that what you mean ? Just for fun ?"
"Why this tone of suspicion ?” remonstrated Heyst. “I suppose the sight of this particular distress was disagreeable to me. What you call fun came afterward, when it dawned on me that I was for him a walking, breathing, incarnate proof of the efficacy of prayer. I was a little fascinated by itand then, could I have argued with him ? You don't argue against such evidence, and besides it would have looked as if I had wanted to claim all the merit. Already his gratitude was simply frightful. Funny position, wasn't it? The boredom came later, when we lived together on board his ship. I had, in a moment of inadvertence, created for myself a tie. How to define it precisely I don't know. One gets attached in a way to people one has done something for. But is that friendship ? I am not sure what it