« PreviousContinue »
sound of them more than the sense. He did not know what to say, either from want of practice in dealing with women, or simply from his innate honesty, of thought. All his defences were broken now. Life had him fairly by the throat. But he managed a smile, though she was not looking at him; yes, he did manage it—the well-known Heyst smile of playful courtesy, so familiar to all sorts and conditions of men in the islands.
"My dear Lena,” he said, "it looks as if you were trying to pick a very unnecessary quarrel with me—of all people!"
She made no movement. With his elbows spread out, he was twisting the ends of his long moustaches, very masculine and perplexed, enveloped in the atmosphere of femininity as in a cloud, suspecting pitfalls, and as if afraid to move.
“I must admit, though,” he added, "that there is no one else; and I suppose a certain amount of quarrelling is necessary for existence in this world.”
That girl, seated in her chair in graceful quietude, was to him like a script in an unknown language, or even more simply mysterious: like any writing to the illiterate. As far as women went he was altogether uninstructed and he had not the gift of intuition which is fostered in the days of youth by dreams and visions, exercises of the heart fitting it for the en
counters of a world in which love itself rests as much on antagonism as on attraction. His mental attitude was that of a man looking this way and that on a piece of writing which he is unable to decipher, but which may be big with some revelation. He didn't know what to say. All he found to add was:
“I don't even understand what I have done or left undone to distress you like this."
He stopped, struck afresh by the physical and moral sense of the imperfection of their relations—a sense which made him desire her constant nearness, before his eyes, under his hand, and which, when she was out of his sight, made her so
ague, so illusive a promise that could not be embraced and held.
"No! I don't see clearly what you mean. mind turned towards the future?" he interpellated her with marked playfulness, because he was ashamed to let such a word pass his lips. But all his cherished negations were falling off him one by one.
“Because if it is so there is nothing easier than to dismiss it. In our future, as in what people call the other life, there is nothing to be frightened of.”
She raised her eyes to him; and if nature had formed them to express anything else but blank candour he would have learned how terrified she was by his talk and the fact that her sinking heart loved him more desperately than ever. He smiled at her.
“Dismiss all thought of it,” he insisted. “Surely you don't suspect after what I have heard from you, that I am anxious to return to mankind. I! 1! murder my poor Morrison! It's possible that I may be really capable of that which they say I have done. The point is that I haven't done it. But it is an unpleasant subject to me. I ought to be ashamed to confess it—but it is! Let us forget it. There's that in you, Lena, which can console me for worse things, for uglier passages. And if we forget, there are no voices here to remind us."
She had raised her head before he paused.
“Nothing can break in on us here,” he went on and as if there had been an appeal or a provocation in her upward glance, he bent down and took her under the arms, raising her straight out of the chair into a sudden and close embrace. Her alacrity to respond, which made her seem as light as a feather, warmed his heart at that moment more than closer caresses had done before. He had not expected that ready impulse toward himself which had been dormant in her passive attitude. (He had just felt the clasp of her arms round his neck, when, with a slight exclamation-"He's here!" --she disengaged herself and bolted away into her room.
Heyst was astounded. Looking all round, as if to take the whole room to witness of this outrage, he became aware of Wang materialised in the doorway. The intrusion was as surprising as anything could be, in view of the strict regularity with which Wang made himself visible. Heyst was tempted to laugh at first. This practical comment on his affirmation that nothing could break in on them relieved the strain of his feelings. He was a little vexed, too. The Chinaman preserved a profound silence.
“What do you want ?" asked Heyst sternly.
“Where? What do you mean? Boat adrift in the straits ?"
Some subtle change in Wang's bearing suggested his being out of breath; but he did not pant, and his voice was steady.
It was Heyst now who was startled and raised his voice.
"Malay man, eh ?"
Wang made a slight negative movement with his head.
“Do you hear, Lena ?” Heyst called out. “Wang says there is a boat in sight—somewhere near, apparently. Where's that boat, Wang ?”
“Round the point,” said Wang, leaping into Malay unexpectedly, and in a loud voice. “White
“So close as that ?" exclaimed Heyst, moving out on the veranda followed by Wang. “White men ? Impossible!"
Over the clearing the shadows were already lengthening. The sun hung low; a ruddy glare lay on the burnt black patch in front of the bungalow, and slanted on the ground between the straight, tall, mast-like trees soaring a hundred feet or more without a branch. The growth of bushes cut off all view of the jetty from the veranda. Far away to the right Wang's hut, or rather its dark roof of mats, could be seen above the bamboo fence which insured the privacy of the Alfuro woman. The Chinaman looked that way swiftly. Heyst paused, and then stepped back a pace into the room.
"White men, Lena, apparently. What are you doing?"
“I am just bathing my eyes a little,” the girl's voice said from the inner room.