Victory by Joseph Conrad
Meantime Heyst and Lena, walking rather fast, approached Wang's hut. Asking the girl to wait, Heyst ascended the little ladder of bamboos giving access to the door. It was as he had expected. The smoky interior was empty, except for a big chest of sandalwood too heavy for hurried removal. Its lid was thrown up, but whatever it might have contained was no longer there. All Wang's possessions were gone. Without tarrying in the hut, Heyst came back to the girl, who asked no questions, with her strange air of knowing or understanding everything.
"Let us push on," he said.
He went ahead, the rustle of her white skirt following him into the shades of the forest, along the path of their usual walk. Though the air lay heavy between straight denuded trunks, the sunlit patches moved on the ground, and raising her eyes Lena saw far above her head the flutter of the leaves, the surface shudder on the mighty limbs extended horizontally in the perfect immobility of patience. Twice Heyst looked over his shoulder at her. Behind the readiness of her answering smile there was a fund of devoted, concentrated passion, burning with the hope of a more perfect satisfaction. They passed the spot where it was their practice to turn towards the barren summit of the central hill. Heyst held steadily on his way towards the upper limit of the forest. The moment they left its shelter, a breeze enveloped them, and a great cloud, racing over the sun, threw a peculiar sombre tint over everything. Heyst pointed up a precipitous, rugged path clinging to the side of the hill. It ended in a barricade of felled trees, a primitively conceived obstacle which must have cost much labour to erect at just that spot.
"This," Heyst, explained in his urbane tone, "is a barrier against the march of civilization. The poor folk over there did not like it, as it appeared to them in the shape of my company--a great step forward, as some people used to call it with mistaken confidence. The advanced foot has been drawn back, but the barricade remains."
They went on climbing slowly. The cloud had driven over, leaving an added brightness on the face of the world.
"It's a very ridiculous thing," Heyst went on; "but then it is the product of honest fear--fear of the unknown, of the incomprehensible. It's pathetic, too, in a way. And I heartily wish, Lena, that we were on the other side of it."
"Oh, stop, stop!" she cried, seizing his arm.
The face of the barricade they were approaching had been piled up with a lot of fresh-cut branches. The leaves were still green. A gentle breeze, sweeping over the top, stirred them a little; but what had startled the girl was the discovery of several spear-blades protruding from the mass of foliage. She had made them out suddenly. They did not gleam, but she saw them with extreme distinctness, very still, very vicious to look at.
"You had better let me go forward alone, Lena," said Heyst.
She tugged, persistently at his arm, but after a time, during which he never ceased to look smilingly into her terrified eyes, he ended by disengaging himself.
"It's a sign rather than a demonstration," he argued, persuasively. "Just wait here a moment. I promise not to approach near enough to be stabbed."
As in a nightmare she watched Heyst go up the few yards of the path as if he never meant to stop; and she heard his voice, like voices heard in dreams, shouting unknown words in an unearthly tone. Heyst was only demanding to see Wang. He was not kept waiting very long. Recovering from the first flurry of her fright, Lena noticed a commotion in the green top-dressing of the barricade. She exhaled a sigh of relief when the spear-blades retreated out of sight, sliding inward--the horrible things! in a spot facing Heyst a pair of yellow hands parted the leaves, and a face filled the small opening--a face with very noticeable eyes. It was Wang's face, of course, with no suggestion of a body belonging to it, like those cardboard faces at which she remembered gazing as a child in the window of a certain dim shop kept by a mysterious little man in Kingsland Road. Only this face, instead of mere holes, had eyes which blinked. She could see the beating of the eyelids. The hands on each side of the face, keeping the boughs apart, also did not look as if they belonged to any real body. One of them was holding a revolver--a weapon which she recognized merely by intuition, never having seen such an object before.
She leaned her shoulders against the rock of the perpendicular hillside and kept her eyes on Heyst, with comparative composure, since the spears were not menacing him any longer. Beyond the rigid and motionless back he presented to her, she saw Wang's unreal cardboard face moving its thin lips and grimacing artificially. She was too far down the path to hear the dialogue, carried on in an ordinary voice. She waited patiently for its end. Her shoulders felt the warmth of the rock; now and then a whiff of cooler air seemed to slip down upon her head from above; the ravine at her feet, choked full of vegetation, emitted the faint, drowsy hum of insect life. Everything was very quiet. She failed to notice the exact moment when Wang's head vanished from the foliage, taking the unreal hands away with it. To her horror, the spear-blades came gliding slowly out. The very hair on her head stirred; but before she had time to cry out, Heyst, who seemed rooted to the ground, turned round abruptly and began to move towards her. His great moustaches did not quite hide an ugly but irresolute smile; and when he had come down near enough to touch her, he burst out into a harsh laugh:
"Ha, ha, ha!"
She looked at him, uncomprehending. He cut short his laugh and said curtly:
"We had better go down as we came."
She followed him into the forest. The advance of the afternoon had filled it with gloom. Far away a slant of light between the trees closed the view. All was dark beyond. Heyst stopped.
"No reason to hurry, Lena," he said in his ordinary, serenely polite tones. "We return unsuccessful. I suppose you know, or at least can guess, what was my object in coming up there?"
"No, I can't guess, dear," she said, and smiled, noticing with emotion that his breast was heaving as if he had been out of breath. Nevertheless, he tried to command his speech, pausing only a little between the words.
"No? I went up to find Wang. I went up"--he gasped again here, but this was for the last time--"I made you come with me because I didn't like to leave you unprotected in the proximity of those fellows." Suddenly he snatched his cork helmet off his head and dashed it on the ground. "No!" he cried roughly. "All this is too unreal altogether. It isn't to be borne! I can't protect you! I haven't the power."
He glared at her for a moment, then hastened after his hat which had bounded away to some distance. He came back looking at her face, which was very white.
"I ought to beg your pardon for these antics," he said, adjusting his hat. "A movement of childish petulance! Indeed, I feel very much like a child in my ignorance, in my powerlessness, in my want of resource, in everything except in the dreadful consciousness of some evil hanging over your head--yours!"
"It's you they are after," she murmured.
"No doubt, but unfortunately--"
"Unfortunately, I have not succeeded with Wang," he said. "I failed to move his Celestial, heart--that is, if there is such a thing. He told me with horrible Chinese reasonableness that he could not let us pass the barrier, because we should be pursued. He doesn't like fights. He gave me to understand that he would shoot me with my own revolver without any sort of compunction, rather than risk a rude and distasteful contest with the strange barbarians for my sake. He has preached to the villagers. They respect him. He is the most remarkable man they have ever seen, and their kinsman by marriage. They understand his policy. And anyway only women and children and a few old fellows are left in the village. This is the season when the men are away in trading vessels. But it would have been all the same. None of them have a taste for fighting--and with white men too! They are peaceable, kindly folk and would have seen me shot with extreme satisfaction. Wang seemed to think my insistence--for I insisted, you know--very stupid and tactless. But a drowning man clutches at straws. We were talking in such Malay as we are both equal to.
"'Your fears are foolish,' I said to him.
"'Foolish? of course I am foolish,' he replied. 'If I were a wise man, I would be a merchant with a big hong in Singapore, instead of being a mine coolie turned houseboy. But if you don't go away in time, I will shoot you before it grows too dark to take aim. Not till then, Number One, but I will do it then. Now--finish!'
"'All right,' I said. 'Finish as far as I am concerned; but you can have no objections to the mem putih coming over to stay with the Orang Kaya's women for a few days. I will make a present in silver for it.' Orang Kaya, is the head man of the village, Lena," added Heyst.
She looked at him in astonishment.
"You wanted me to go to that village of savages?" she gasped. "You wanted me to leave you?"
"It would have given me a freer hand."
Heyst stretched out his hands and looked at them for a moment, then let them fall by his side. Indignation was expressed more in the curve of her lips than in her clear eyes, which never wavered.
"I believe Wang laughed," he went on. "He made a noise like a turkey-cock."
"'That would be worse than anything,' he told me.
"I was taken aback. I pointed out to him that he was talking nonsense. It could not make any difference to his security where you were, because the evil men, as he calls them, did not know of your existence. I did not lie exactly, Lena, though I did stretch the truth till it cracked; but the fellow seems to have an uncanny insight. He shook his head. He assured me they knew all about you. He made a horrible grimace at me."
"It doesn't matter," said the girl. "I didn't want--I would not have gone."
Heyst raised his eyes.
"Wonderful intuition! As I continued to press him, Wang made that very remark about you. When he smiles, his face looks like a conceited death's head. It was his very last remark that you wouldn't want to. I went away then."
She leaned back against a tree. Heyst faced her in the same attitude of leisure, as if they had done with time and all the other concerns of the earth. Suddenly, high above their heads the roof of leaves whispered at them tumultuously and then ceased.
"That was a strange notion of yours, to send me away," she said. "Send me away? What for? Yes, what for?"
"You seem indignant," he remarked listlessly.
"To these savages, too!" she pursued. "And you think I would have gone? You can do what you like with me--but not that, not that!"
Heyst looked into the dim aisles of the forest. Everything was so still now that the very ground on which they stood seemed to exhale silence into the shade.
"Why be indignant?" he remonstrated. "It has not happened. I gave up pleading with Wang. Here we are, repulsed! Not only without power to resist the evil, but unable to make terms for ourselves with the worthy envoys, the envoys extraordinary of the world we thought we had done with for years and years. And that's bad, Lena, very bad."
"It's funny," she said thoughtfully. "Bad? I suppose it is. I don't know that it is. But do you? Do you? You talk as if you didn't believe in it."
She gazed at him earnestly.
"Do I? Ah! That's it. I don't know how to talk. I have managed to refine everything away. I've said to the Earth that bore me: 'I am I and you are a shadow.' And, by Jove, it is so! But it appears that such words cannot be uttered with impunity. Here I am on a Shadow inhabited by Shades. How helpless a man is against the Shades! How is one to intimidate, persuade, resist, assert oneself against them? I have lost all belief in realities . . . Lena, give me your hand."
She looked at him surprised, uncomprehending.
"Your hand," he cried.
She obeyed; he seized it with avidity as if eager to raise it to his lips, but halfway up released his grasp. They looked at each other for a time.
"What's the matter, dear?" she whispered timidly.
"Neither force nor conviction," Heyst muttered wearily to himself. "How am I to meet this charmingly simple problem?"
"I am sorry," she murmured.
"And so am I," he confessed quickly. "And the bitterest of this humiliation is its complete uselessness--which I feel, I feel!"
She had never before seen him give such signs of feeling. Across his ghastly face the long moustaches flamed in the shade. He spoke suddenly:
"I wonder if I could find enough courage to creep among them in the night, with a knife, and cut their throats one after another, as they slept! I wonder--"
She was frightened by his unwonted appearance more than by the words in his mouth, and said earnestly:
"Don't you try to do such a thing! Don't you think of it!"
"I don't possess anything bigger than a penknife. As to thinking of it, Lena, there's no saying what one may think of. I don't think. Something in me thinks--something foreign to my nature. What is the matter?"
He noticed her parted lips, and the peculiar stare in her eyes, which had wandered from his face.
"There's somebody after us. I saw something white moving," she cried.
Heyst did not turn his head; he only glanced at her out-stretched arm.
"No doubt we are followed; we are watched."
"I don't see anything now," she said.
"And it does not matter," Heyst went on in his ordinary voice. "Here we are in the forest. I have neither strength nor persuasion. Indeed, it's extremely difficult to be eloquent before a Chinaman's head stuck at one out of a lot of brushwood. But can we wander among these big trees indefinitely? Is this a refuge? No! What else is left to us? I did think for a moment of the mine; but even there we could not remain very long. And then that gallery is not safe. The props were too weak to begin with. Ants have been at work there--ants after the men. A death-trap, at best. One can die but once, but there are many manners of death."
The girl glanced about fearfully, in search of the watcher or follower whom she had glimpsed once among the trees; but if he existed, he had concealed himself. Nothing met her eyes but the deepening shadows of the short vistas between the living columns of the still roof of leaves. She looked at the man beside her expectantly, tenderly, with suppressed affright and a sort of awed wonder.
"I have also thought of these people's boat," Heyst went on. "We could get into that, and--only they have taken everything out of her. I have seen her oars and mast in a corner of their room. To shove off in an empty boat would be nothing but a desperate expedition, supposing even that she would drift out a good distance between the islands before the morning. It would only be a complicated manner of committing suicide--to be found dead in a boat, dead from sun and thirst. A sea mystery. I wonder who would find us! Davidson, perhaps; but Davidson passed westward ten days ago. I watched him steaming past one early morning, from the jetty."
"You never told me," she said.
"He must have been looking at me through his big binoculars. Perhaps, if I had raised my arm--but what did we want with Davidson then, you and I? He won't be back this way for three weeks or more, Lena. I wish I had raised my arm that morning."
"What would have been the good of it?" she sighed out.
"What good? No good, of course. We had no forebodings. This seemed to be an inexpugnable refuge, where we could live untroubled and learn to know each other."
"It's perhaps in trouble that people get to know each other," she suggested.
"Perhaps," he said indifferently. "At any rate, we would not have gone away from here with him; though I believe he would have come in eagerly enough, and ready for any service he could render. It's that fat man's nature--a delightful fellow. You would not come on the wharf that time I sent the shawl back to Mrs. Schomberg through him. He has never seen you."
"I didn't know that you wanted anybody ever to see me," she said.
He had folded his arms on his breast and hung his head.
"And I did not know that you cared to be seen as yet. A misunderstanding evidently. An honourable misunderstanding. But it does not matter now."
He raised his head after a silence.
"How gloomy this forest has grown! Yet surely the sun cannot have set already."
She looked round; and as if her eyes had just been opened, she perceived the shades of the forest surrounding her, not so much with gloom, but with a sullen, dumb, menacing hostility. Her heart sank in the engulfing stillness, at that moment she felt the nearness of death, breathing on her and on the man with her. If there had been a sudden stir of leaves, the crack of a dry branch, the faintest rustle, she would have screamed aloud. But she shook off the unworthy weakness. Such as she was, a fiddle-scraping girl picked up on the very threshold of infamy, she would try to rise above herself, triumphant and humble; and then happiness would burst on her like a torrent, flinging at her feet the man whom she loved.
Heyst stirred slightly.
"We had better be getting back, Lena, since we can't stay all night in the woods--or anywhere else, for that matter. We are the slaves of this infernal surprise which has been sprung on us by--shall I say fate?--your fate, or mine."
It was the man who had broken the silence, but it was the woman who led the way. At the very edge of the forest she stopped, concealed by a tree. He joined her cautiously.
"What is it? What do you see, Lena?" he whispered.
She said that it was only a thought that had come into her head. She hesitated for a moment giving him over her shoulder a shining gleam in her grey eyes. She wanted to know whether this trouble, this danger, this evil, whatever it was, finding them out in their retreat, was not a sort of punishment.
"Punishment?" repeated Heyst. He could not understand what she meant. When she explained, he was still more surprised. "A sort of retribution, from an angry Heaven?" he said in wonder. "On us? What on earth for?"
He saw her pale face darken in the dusk. She had blushed. Her whispering flowed very fast. It was the way they lived together--that wasn't right, was it? It was a guilty life. For she had not been forced into it, driven, scared into it. No, no--she had come to him of her own free will, with her whole soul yearning unlawfully.
He was so profoundly touched that he could not speak for a moment. To conceal his trouble, he assumed his best Heystian manner.
"What? Are our visitors then messengers of morality, avengers of righteousness, agents of Providence? That's certainly an original view. How flattered they would be if they could hear you!"
"Now you are making fun of me," she said in a subdued voice which broke suddenly.
"Are you conscious of sin?" Heyst asked gravely. She made no answer. "For I am not," he added; "before Heaven, I am not!"
"You! You are different. Woman is the tempter. You took me up from pity. I threw myself at you."
"Oh, you exaggerate, you exaggerate. It was not so bad as that," he said playfully, keeping his voice steady with an effort.
He considered himself a dead man already, yet forced to pretend that he was alive for her sake, for her defence. He regretted that he had no Heaven to which he could recommend this fair, palpitating handful of ashes and dust--warm, living sentient his own--and exposed helplessly to insult, outrage, degradation, and infinite misery of the body.
She had averted her face from him and was still. He suddenly seized her passive hand.
"You will have it so?" he said. "Yes? Well, let us then hope for mercy together."
She shook her head without looking at him, like an abashed child.
"Remember," he went on incorrigible with his delicate raillery, "that hope is a Christian virtue, and surely you can't want all the mercy for yourself."
Before their eyes the bungalow across the cleared ground stood bathed in a sinister light. An unexpected chill gust of wind made a noise in the tree-tops. She snatched her hand away and stepped out into the open; but before she had advanced more than three yards, she stood still and pointed to the west.
"Oh look there!" she exclaimed.
Beyond the headland of Diamond Bay, lying black on a purple sea, great masses of cloud stood piled up and bathed in a mist of blood. A crimson crack like an open wound zigzagged between them, with a piece of dark red sun showing at the bottom. Heyst cast an indifferent glance at the ill-omened chaos of the sky.
"Thunderstorm making up. We shall hear it all night, but it won't visit us, probably. The clouds generally gather round the volcano."
She was not listening to him. Her eyes reflected the sombre and violent hues of the sunset.
"That does not look much like a sign of mercy," she said slowly, as if to herself, and hurried on, followed by Heyst. Suddenly she stopped. "I don't care. I would do more yet! And some day you'll forgive me. You'll have to forgive me!"