Victory by Joseph Conrad
Schomberg felt desperation, that lamentable substitute for courage, ooze out of him. It was not so much the threat of death as the weirdly circumstantial manner of its declaration which affected him. A mere "I'll murder you," however ferocious in tone, and earnest, in purpose, he could have faced; but before this novel mode of speech and procedure, his imagination being very sensitive to the unusual, he collapsed as if indeed his moral neck had been broken--snap!
"Go to the police? Of course not. Never dreamed of it. Too late now. I've let myself be mixed up in this. You got my consent while I wasn't myself. I explained it to you at the time."
Ricardo's eye glided gently off Schomberg to stare far away.
"Ay! Some trouble with a girl. But that's nothing to us."
"Naturally. What I say is, what's the good of all that savage talk to me?" A bright argument occurred to him. "It's out of proportion; for even if I were fool enough to go to the police now, there's nothing serious to complain about. It would only mean deportation for you. They would put you on board the first west-bound steamer to Singapore." He had become animated. "Out of this to the devil," he added between his teeth for his own private satisfaction.
Ricardo made no comment, and gave no sign of having heard a single word. This discouraged Schomberg, who had looked up hopefully.
"Why do you want to stick here?" he cried. "It can't pay you people to fool around like this. Didn't you worry just now about moving your governor? Well, the police would move him for you; and from Singapore you can go on to the east coast of Africa."
"I'll be hanged if the fellow isn't up to that silly trick!" was Ricardo's comment, spoken in an ominous tone which recalled Schomberg to the realities of his position.
"No! No!" he protested. "It's a manner of speaking. Of course I wouldn't."
"I think that trouble about the girl has really muddled your brains, Mr. Schomberg. Believe me, you had better part friends with us; for, deportation or no deportation, you'll be seeing one of us turning up before long to pay you off for any nasty dodge you may be hatching in that fat head of yours."
"Gott im Himmel!" groaned Schomberg. "Will nothing move him out? Will he stop here immer--I mean always? Suppose I were to make it worth your while, couldn't you--"
"No," Ricardo interrupted. "I couldn't, unless I had something to lever him out with. I've told you that before."
"An inducement?" muttered Schomberg.
"Ay. The east coast of Africa isn't good enough. He told me the other day that it will have to wait till he is ready for it; and he may not be ready for a long time, because the east coast can't run away, and no one is likely to run off with it."
These remarks, whether considered as truisms or as depicting Mr. Jones's mental state, were distinctly discouraging to the long-suffering Schomberg; but there is truth in the well-known saying that places the darkest hour before the dawn. The sound of words, apart from the context, has its power; and these two words, 'run off,' had a special affinity to the hotel-keeper's, haunting idea. It was always present in his brain, and now it came forward evoked by a purely fortuitous expression. No, nobody could run off with a continent; but Heyst had run off with the girl!
Ricardo could have had no conception of the cause of Schomberg's changed expression. Yet it was noticeable enough to interest him so much that he stopped the careless swinging of his leg and said, looking at the hotel-keeper:
"There's not much use arguing against that sort of talk--is there?"
Schomberg was not listening.
"I could put you on another track," he said slowly, and stopped, as if suddenly choked by an unholy emotion of intense eagerness combined with fear of failure. Ricardo waited, attentive, yet not without a certain contempt.
"On the track of a man!" Schomberg uttered convulsively, and paused again, consulting his rage and his conscience.
"The man in the moon, eh?" suggested Ricardo, in a jeering murmur.
Schomberg shook his head.
"It would be nearly as safe to rook him as if he were the Man in the moon. You go and try. It isn't so very far."
He reflected. These men were thieves and murderers as well as gamblers. Their fitness for purposes of vengeance was appallingly complete. But he preferred not to think of it in detail. He put it to himself summarily that he would be paying Heyst out and would, at the same time, relieve himself of these men's oppression. He had only to let loose his natural gift for talking scandalously about his fellow creatures. And in this case his great practice in it was assisted by hate, which, like love, has an eloquence of its own. With the utmost ease he portrayed for Ricardo, now seriously attentive, a Heyst fattened by years of private and public rapines, the murderer of Morrison, the swindler of many shareholders, a wonderful mixture of craft and impudence, of deep purposes and simple wiles, of mystery and futility. In this exercise of his natural function Schomberg revived, the colour coming back to his face, loquacious, florid, eager, his manliness set off by the military bearing.
"That's the exact story. He was seen hanging about this part of the world for years, spying into everybody's business: but I am the only one who has seen through him from the first--contemptible, double-faced, stick-at-nothing, dangerous fellow."
"Dangerous, is he?"
Schomberg came to himself at the sound of Ricardo's voice.
"Well, you know what I mean," he said uneasily. "A lying, circumventing, soft-spoken, polite, stuck-up rascal. Nothing open about him."
Mr Ricardo had slipped off the table, and was prowling about the room in an oblique, noiseless manner. He flashed a grin at Schomberg in passing, and a snarling:
"Well, what more dangerous do you want?" argued Schomberg. "He's in no way a fighting man, I believe," he added negligently.
"And you say he has been living alone there?"
"Like the man in the moon," answered Schomberg readily. "There's no one that cares a rap what becomes of him. He has been lying low, you understand, after bagging all that plunder."
"Plunder, eh? Why didn't he go home with it?" inquired Ricardo.
The henchman of plain Mr. Jones was beginning to think that this was something worth looking into. And he was pursuing truth in the manner of men of sounder morality and purer intentions than his own; that is he pursued it in the light of his own experience and prejudices. For facts, whatever their origin (and God only knows where they come from), can be only tested by our own particular suspicions. Ricardo was suspicious all round. Schomberg, such is the tonic of recovered self-esteem, Schomberg retorted fearlessly:
"Go home? Why don't you go home? To hear your talk, you must have made a pretty considerable pile going round winning people's money. You ought to be ready by this time."
Ricardo stopped to look at Schomberg with surprise.
"You think yourself very clever, don't you?" he said.
Schomberg just then was so conscious of being clever that the snarling irony left him unmoved. There was positively a smile in his noble Teutonic beard, the first smile for weeks. He was in a felicitous vein.
"How do you know that he wasn't thinking of going home? As a matter of fact, he was on his way home."
"And how do I know that you are not amusing yourself by spinning out a blamed fairy tale?" interrupted Ricardo roughly. "I wonder at myself listening to the silly rot!"
Schomberg received this turn of temper unmoved. He did not require to be very subtly observant to notice that he had managed to arouse some sort of feeling, perhaps of greed, in Ricardo's breast.
"You won't believe me? Well! You can ask anybody that comes here if that--that Swede hadn't got as far as this house on his way home. Why should he turn up here if not for that? You ask anybody."
"Ask, indeed!" returned the other. "Catch me asking at large about a man I mean to drop on! Such jobs must be done on the quiet--or not at all."
The peculiar intonation of the last phrase touched the nape of Schomberg's neck with a chill. He cleared his throat slightly and looked away as though he had heard something indelicate. Then, with a jump as it were:
"Of course he didn't tell me. Is it likely? But haven't I got eyes? Haven't I got my common sense to tell me? I can see through people. By the same token, he called on the Tesmans. Why did he call on the Tesmans two days running, eh? You don't know? You can't tell?"
He waited complacently till Ricardo had finished swearing quite openly at him for a confounded chatterer, and then went on:
"A fellow doesn't go to a counting-house in business hours for a chat about the weather, two days running. Then why? To close his account with them one day, and to get his money out the next! Clear, what?"
Ricardo, with his trick of looking one way and moving another approached Schomberg slowly.
"To get his money?" he purred.
"Gewiss," snapped Schomberg with impatient superiority. "What else? That is, only the money he had with the Tesmans. What he has buried or put away on the island, devil only knows. When you think of the lot of hard cash that passed through that man's hands, for wages and stores and all that--and he's just a cunning thief, I tell you." Ricardo's hard stare discomposed the hotel-keeper, and he added in an embarrassed tone: "I mean a common, sneaking thief--no account at all. And he calls himself a Swedish baron, too! Tfui!"
"He's a baron, is he? That foreign nobility ain't much," commented Mr. Ricardo seriously. "And then what? He hung about here!"
"Yes, he hung about," said Schomberg, making a wry mouth. "He--hung about. That's it. Hung--"
His voice died out. Curiosity was depicted in Ricardo's countenance.
"Just like that; for nothing? And then turned about and went back to that island again?"
"And went back to that island again," Schomberg echoed lifelessly, fixing his gaze on the floor.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Ricardo with genuine surprise. "What is it?"
Schomberg, without looking up, made an impatient gesture. His face was crimson, and he kept it lowered. Ricardo went back to the point.
"Well, but how do you account for it? What was his reason? What did he go back to the island for?"
"Honeymoon!" spat out Schomberg viciously.
Perfectly still, his eyes downcast, he suddenly, with no preliminary stir, hit the table with his fist a blow which caused the utterly unprepared Ricardo to leap aside. And only then did Schomberg look up with a dull, resentful expression.
Ricardo stared hard for a moment, spun on his heel, walked to the end of the room, came back smartly, and muttered a profound "Ay! Ay!" above Schomberg's rigid head. That the hotel-keeper was capable of a great moral effort was proved by a gradual return of his severe, Lieutenant-of-the-Reserve manner.
"Ay, ay!" repeated Ricardo more deliberately than before, and as if after a further survey of the circumstances, "I wish I hadn't asked you, or that you had told me a lie. It don't suit me to know that there's a woman mixed up in this affair. What's she like? It's the girl you--"
"Leave off!" muttered Schomberg, utterly pitiful behind his stiff military front.
"Ay, ay!" Ricardo ejaculated for the third time, more and more enlightened and perplexed. "Can't bear to talk about it--so bad as that? And yet I would bet she isn't a miracle to look at."
Schomberg made a gesture as if he didn't know, as if he didn't care. Then he squared his shoulders and frowned at vacancy.
"Swedish baron--h'm!" Ricardo continued meditatively. "I believe the governor would think that business worth looking up, quite, if I put it to him properly. The governor likes a duel, if you will call it so; but I don't know a man that can stand up to him on the square. Have you ever seen a cat play with a mouse? It's a pretty sight!"
Ricardo, with his voluptuously gleaming eyes and the coy expression, looked so much like a cat that Schomberg would have felt all the alarm of a mouse if other feelings had not had complete possession of his breast.
"There are no lies between you and me," he said, more steadily than he thought he could speak.
"What's the good now? He funks women. In that Mexican pueblo where we lay grounded on our beef-bones, so to speak, I used to go to dances of an evening. The girls there would ask me if the English caballero in the posada was a monk in disguise, or if he had taken a vow to the sancissima madre not to speak to a woman, or whether--You can imagine what fairly free-spoken girls will ask when they come to the point of not caring what they say; and it used to vex me. Yes, the governor funks facing women."
"One woman?" interjected Schomberg in guttural tones.
"One may be more awkward to deal with than two, or two hundred, for that matter. In a place that's full of women you needn't look at them unless you like; but if you go into a room where there is only one woman, young or old, pretty or ugly, you have got to face her. And, unless you are after her, then--the governor is right enough--she's in the way."
"Why notice them?" muttered Schomberg. "What can they do?"
"Make a noise, if nothing else," opined Mr. Ricardo curtly, with the distaste of a man whose path is a path of silence; for indeed, nothing is more odious than a noise when one is engaged in a weighty and absorbing card game. "Noise, noise, my friend," he went on forcibly; "confounded screeching about something or other, and I like it no more than the governor does. But with the governor there's something else besides. He can't stand them at all."
He paused to reflect on this psychological phenomenon, and as no philosopher was at hand to tell him that there is no strong sentiment without some terror, as there is no real religion without a little fetishism, he emitted his own conclusion, which surely could not go to the root of the matter.
"I'm hanged if I don't think they are to him what liquor is to me. Brandy--pah!"
He made a disgusted face, and produced a genuine shudder. Schomberg listened to him in wonder. It looked as if the very scoundrelism, of that--that Swede would protect him; the spoil of his iniquity standing between the thief and the retribution.
"That's so, old buck." Ricardo broke the silence after contemplating Schomberg's mute dejection with a sort of sympathy. "I don't think this trick will work."
"But that's silly," whispered the man deprived of the vengeance which he had seemed already to hold in his hand, by a mysterious and exasperating idiosyncrasy.
"Don't you set yourself to judge a gentleman." Ricardo without anger administered a moody rebuke. "Even I can't understand the governor thoroughly. And I am an Englishman and his follower. No, I don't think I care to put it before him, sick as I am of staying here."
Ricardo could not be more sick of staying than Schomberg was of seeing him stay. Schomberg believed so firmly in the reality of Heyst as created by his own power of false inferences, of his hate, of his love of scandal, that he could not contain a stifled cry of conviction as sincere as most of our convictions, the disguised servants of our passions, can appear at a supreme moment.
"It would have been like going to pick up a nugget of a thousand pounds, or two or three times as much, for all I know. No trouble, no--"
"The petticoat's the trouble," Ricardo struck in.
He had resumed his noiseless, feline, oblique prowling, in which an observer would have detected a new character of excitement, such as a wild animal of the cat species, anxious to make a spring, might betray. Schomberg saw nothing. It would probably have cheered his drooping spirits; but in a general way he preferred not to look at Ricardo. Ricardo, however, with one of his slanting, gliding, restless glances, observed the bitter smile on Schomberg's bearded lips--the unmistakable smile of ruined hopes.
"You are a pretty unforgiving sort of chap," he said, stopping for a moment with an air of interest. "Hang me if I ever saw anybody look so disappointed! I bet you would send black plague to that island if you only knew how--eh, what? Plague too good for them? Ha, ha, ha!"
He bent down to stare at Schomberg who sat unstirring with stony eyes and set features, and apparently deaf to the rasping derision of that laughter so close to his red fleshy ear.
"Black plague too good for them, ha, ha!" Ricardo pressed the point on the tormented hotel-keeper. Schomberg kept his eyes down obstinately.
"I don't wish any harm to the girl--" he muttered.
"But did she bolt from you? A fair bilk? Come!"
"Devil only knows what that villainous Swede had done to her--what he promised her, how he frightened her. She couldn't have cared for him, I know." Schomberg's vanity clung to the belief in some atrocious, extraordinary means of seduction employed by Heyst. "Look how he bewitched that poor Morrison," he murmured.
"Ah, Morrison--got all his money, what?"
"Yes--and his life."
"Terrible fellow, that Swedish baron! How is one to get at him?"
"Three against one! Are you shy? Do you want me to give you a letter of introduction?"
"You ought to look at yourself in a glass," Ricardo said quietly. "Dash me if you don't get a stroke of some kind presently. And this is the fellow who says women can do nothing! That one will do for you, unless you manage to forget her."
"I wish I could," Schomberg admitted earnestly. "And it's all the doing of that Swede. I don't get enough sleep, Mr. Ricardo. And then, to finish me off, you gentlemen turn up . . . as if I hadn't enough worry."
"That's done you good," suggested the secretary with ironic seriousness. "Takes your mind off that silly trouble. At your age too."
He checked himself, as if in pity, and changing his tone:
"I would really like to oblige you while doing a stroke of business at the same time."
"A good stroke," insisted Schomberg, as if it were mechanically. In his simplicity he was not able to give up the idea which had entered his head. An idea must be driven out by another idea, and with Schomberg ideas were rare and therefore tenacious. "Minted gold," he murmured with a sort of anguish.
Such an expressive combination of words was not without effect upon Ricardo. Both these men were amenable to the influence of verbal suggestions. The secretary of "plain Mr. Jones" sighed and murmured.
"Yes. But how is one to get at it?"
"Being three to one," said Schomberg, "I suppose you could get it for the asking."
"One would think the fellow lived next door," Ricardo growled impatiently. "Hang it all, can't you understand a plain question? I have asked you the way."
Schomberg seemed to revive.
The torpor of deceived hopes underlying his superficial changes of mood had been pricked by these words which seemed pointed with purpose.
"The way is over the water, of course," said the hotel-keeper. "For people like you, three days in a good, big boat is nothing. It's no more than a little outing, a bit of a change. At this season the Java Sea is a pond. I have an excellent, safe boat--a ship's life-boat--carry thirty, let alone three, and a child could handle her. You wouldn't get a wet face at this time of the year. You might call it a pleasure-trip."
"And yet, having this boat, you didn't go after her yourself--or after him? Well, you are a fine fellow for a disappointed lover."
Schomberg gave a start at the suggestion.
"I am not three men," he said sulkily, as the shortest answer of the several he could have given.
"Oh, I know your sort," Ricardo let fall negligently. "You are like most people--or perhaps just a little more peaceable than the rest of the buying and selling gang that bosses this rotten show. Well, well, you respectable citizen," he went on, "let us go thoroughly into the matter."
When Schomberg had been made to understand that Mr. Jones's henchman was ready to discuss, in his own words, "this boat of yours, with courses and distances," and such concrete matters of no good augury to that villainous Swede, he recovered his soldierly bearing, squared his shoulders, and asked in his military manner:
"You wish, then, to proceed with the business?"
Ricardo nodded. He had a great mind to, he said. A gentleman had to be humoured as much as possible; but he must be managed, too, on occasions, for his own good. And it was the business of the right sort of "follower" to know the proper time and the proper methods of that delicate part of his duty. Having exposed this theory Ricardo proceeded to the application.
"I've never actually lied to him," he said, "and I ain't going to now. I shall just say nothing about the girl. He will have to get over the shock the best he can. Hang it all! Too much humouring won't do here."
"Funny thing," Schomberg observed crisply.
"Is it? Ay, you wouldn't mind taking a woman by the throat in some dark corner and nobody by, I bet!"
Ricardo's dreadful, vicious, cat-like readiness to get his claws out at any moment startled Schomberg as usual. But it was provoking too.
"And you?" he defended himself. "Don't you want me to believe you are up to anything?"
"I, my boy? Oh, yes. I am not that gentleman; neither are you. Take 'em by the throat or chuck 'em under the chin is all one to me--almost," affirmed Ricardo, with something obscurely ironical in his complacency. "Now, as to this business. A three days' jaunt in a good boat isn't a thing to frighten people like us. You are right, so far; but there are other details."
Schomberg was ready enough to enter into details. He explained that he had a small plantation, with a fairly habitable hut on it, on Madura. He proposed that his guest should start from town in his boat, as if going for an excursion to that rural spot. The custom-house people on the quay were used to see his boat go off on such trips.
From Madura, after some repose and on a convenient day, Mr. Jones and party would make the real start. It would all be plain sailing. Schomberg undertook to provision the boat. The greatest hardship the voyagers need apprehend would be a mild shower of rain. At that season of the year there were no serious thunderstorms.
Schomberg's heart began to thump as he saw himself nearing his vengeance. His speech was thick but persuasive.
"No risk at all--none whatever."
Ricardo dismissed these assurances of safety with an impatient gesture. He was thinking of other risks.
"The getting away from here is all right; but we may be sighted at sea, and that may bring awkwardness later on. A ship's boat with three white men in her, knocking about out of sight of land, is bound to make talk. Are we likely to be seen on our way?"
"No, unless by native craft," said Schomberg.
Ricardo nodded, satisfied. Both these white men looked on native life as a mere play of shadows. A play of shadows the dominant race could walk through unaffected and disregarded in the pursuit of its incomprehensible aims and needs. No. Native craft did not count, of course. It was an empty, solitary part of the sea, Schomberg expounded further. Only the Ternate mail-boat crossed that region about the eighth of every month, regularly--nowhere near the island though. Rigid, his voice hoarse, his heart thumping, his mind concentrated on the success of his plan, the hotel-keeper multiplied words, as if to keep as many of them as possible between himself and the murderous aspect of his purpose.
"So, if you gentlemen depart from my plantation quietly at sunset on the eighth--always best to make a start at night, with a land breeze--it's a hundred to one--What am I saying?--it's a thousand to one that no human eye will see you on the passage. All you've got to do is keep her heading north-east for, say, fifty hours; perhaps not quite so long. There will always be draft enough to keep a boat moving; you may reckon on that; and then--"
The muscles about his waist quivered under his clothes with eagerness, with impatience, and with something like apprehension, the true nature of which was not clear to him. And he did not want to investigate it. Ricardo regarded him steadily, with those dry eyes of his shining more like polished stones than living tissue.
"And then what?" he asked.
"And then--why, you will astonish der herr baron--ha, ha!"
Schomberg seemed to force the words and the laugh out of himself in a hoarse bass.
"And you believe he has all that plunder by him?" asked Ricardo, rather perfunctorily, because the fact seemed to him extremely probable when looked at all round by his acute mind.
Schomberg raised his hands and lowered them slowly.
"How can it be otherwise? He was going home, he was on his way, in this hotel. Ask people. Was it likely he would leave it behind him?"
Ricardo was thoughtful. Then, suddenly raising his head, he remarked:
"Steer north-east for fifty hours, eh? That's not much of a sailing direction. I've heard of a port being missed before on better information. Can't you say what sort of landfall a fellow may expect? But I suppose you have never seen that island yourself?"
Schomberg admitted that he had not seen it, in a tone in which a man congratulates himself on having escaped the contamination of an unsavoury experience. No, certainly not. He had never had any business to call there. But what of that? He could give Mr. Ricardo as good a sea-mark as anybody need wish for. He laughed nervously. Miss it! He defied anyone that came within forty miles of it to miss the retreat of that villainous Swede.
"What do you think of a pillar of smoke by day and a loom of fire at night? There's a volcano in full blast near that island--enough to guide almost a blind man. What more do you want? An active volcano to steer by?"
These last words he roared out exultingly, then jumped up and glared. The door to the left of the bar had swung open, and Mrs. Schomberg, dressed for duty, stood facing him down the whole length of the room. She clung to the handle for a moment, then came in and glided to her place, where she sat down to stare straight before her, as usual.