Victory by Joseph Conrad
Two candles were burning on the stand-up desk. Mr. Jones, tightly enfolded in an old but gorgeous blue silk dressing-gown, kept his elbows close against his sides and his hands deeply plunged into the extraordinarily deep pockets of the garment. The costume accentuated his emaciation. He resembled a painted pole leaning against the edge of the desk, with a dried head of dubious distinction stuck on the top of it. Ricardo lounged in the doorway. Indifferent in appearance to what was going on, he was biding his time. At a given moment, between two flickers of lightning, he melted out of his frame into the outer air. His disappearance was observed on the instant by Mr. Jones, who abandoned his nonchalant immobility against the desk, and made a few steps calculated to put him between Heyst and the doorway.
"It's awfully close," he remarked
Heyst, in the middle of the room, had made up his mind to speak plainly.
"We haven't met to talk about the weather. You favoured me earlier in the day with a rather cryptic phrase about yourself. 'I am he that is,' you said. What does that mean?"
Mr. Jones, without looking at Heyst, continued his absentminded movements till, attaining the desired position, he brought his shoulders with a thump against the wall near the door, and raised his head. In the emotion of the decisive moment his haggard face glistened with perspiration. Drops ran down his hollow cheeks and almost blinded the spectral eyes in their bony caverns.
"It means that I am a person to be reckoned with. No--stop! Don't put your hand into your pocket--don't."
His voice had a wild, unexpected shrillness. Heyst started, and there ensued a moment of suspended animation, during which the thunder's deep bass muttered distantly and the doorway to the right of Mr. Jones flickered with bluish light. At last Heyst shrugged his shoulders; he even looked at his hand. He didn't put it in his pocket, however. Mr. Jones, glued against the wall, watched him raise both his hands to the ends of his horizontal moustaches, and answered the note of interrogation in his steady eyes.
"A matter of prudence," said Mr. Jones in his natural hollow tones, and with a face of deathlike composure. "A man of your free life has surely perceived that. You are a much talked-about man, Mr. Heyst--and though, as far as I understand, you are accustomed to employ the subtler weapons of intelligence, still I can't afford to take any risks of the--er--grosser methods. I am not unscrupulous enough to be a match for you in the use of intelligence; but I assure you, Mr. Heyst, that in the other way you are no match for me. I have you covered at this very moment. You have been covered ever since you entered this room. Yes--from my pocket."
During this harangue Heyst looked deliberately over his shoulder, stepped back a pace, and sat down on the end of the camp bedstead. Leaning his elbow on one knee, he laid his cheek in the palm of his hand and seemed to meditate on what he should say next. Mr. Jones, planted against the wall, was obviously waiting for some sort of overture. As nothing came, he resolved to speak himself; but he hesitated. For, though he considered that the most difficult step had been taken, he said to himself that every stage of progress required great caution, lest the man in Ricardo's phraseology, should "start to prance"--which would be most inconvenient. He fell back on a previous statement:
"And I am a person to be reckoned with."
The other man went on looking at the floor, as if he were alone in the room. There was a pause.
"You have heard of me, then?" Heyst said at length, looking up.
"I should think so! We have been staying at Schomberg's hotel."
"Schom--" Heyst choked on the word.
"What's the matter, Mr. Heyst?"
"Nothing. Nausea," Heyst said resignedly. He resumed his former attitude of meditative indifference. "What is this reckoning you are talking about?" he asked after a time, in the quietest possible tone. "I don't know you."
"It's obvious that we belong to the same--social sphere," began Mr. Jones with languid irony. Inwardly he was as watchful as he could be. "Something has driven you out--the originality of your ideas, perhaps. Or your tastes."
Mr Jones indulged in one of his ghastly smiles. In repose his features had a curious character of evil, exhausted austerity; but when he smiled, the whole mask took on an unpleasantly infantile expression. A recrudescence of the rolling thunder invaded the room loudly, and passed into silence.
"You are not taking this very well," observed Mr. Jones. This was what he said, but as a matter of fact he thought that the business was shaping quite satisfactorily. The man, he said to himself, had no stomach for a fight. Aloud he continued: "Come! You can't expect to have it always your own way. You are a man of the world."
"And you?" Heyst interrupted him unexpectedly. "How do you define yourself?"
"I, my dear sir? In one way I am--yes, I am the world itself, come to pay you a visit. In another sense I am an outcast--almost an outlaw. If you prefer a less materialistic view, I am a sort of fate--the retribution that waits its time."
"I wish to goodness you were the commonest sort of ruffian!" said Heyst, raising his equable gaze to Mr. Jones. "One would be able to talk to you straight then, and hope for some humanity. As it is--"
"I dislike violence and ferocity of every sort as much as you do," Mr. Jones declared, looking very languid as he leaned against the wall, but speaking fairly loud. "You can ask my Martin if it is not so. This, Mr. Heyst, is a soft age. It is also an age without prejudices. I've heard that you are free from them yourself. You mustn't be shocked if I tell you plainly that we are after your money--or I am, if you prefer to make me alone responsible. Pedro, of course, knows no more of it than any other animal would. Ricardo is of the faithful-retainer class--absolutely identified with all my ideas, wishes, and even whims!"
Mr Jones pulled his left hand out of his pocket, got a handkerchief out of another, and began to wipe the perspiration from his forehead, neck, and chin. The excitement from which he suffered made his breathing visible. In his long dressing-gown he had the air of a convalescent invalid who had imprudently overtaxed his strength. Heyst, broad-shouldered, robust, watched the operation from the end of the camp bedstead, very calm, his hands on his knees.
"And by the by," he asked, "where is he now, that henchman of yours? Breaking into my desk?"
"That would be crude. Still, crudeness is one of life's conditions." There was the slightest flavour of banter in the tone of Ricardo's governor. "Conceivable, but unlikely. Martin is a little crude; but you are not, Mr. Heyst. To tell you the truth, I don't know precisely where he is. He has been a little mysterious of late; but he has my confidence. No, don't get up, Mr. Heyst!"
The viciousness of his spectral face was indescribable. Heyst, who had moved a little, was surprised by the disclosure.
"It was not my intention," he said.
"Pray remain seated," Mr. Jones insisted in a languid voice, but with a very determined glitter in his black eye-caverns.
"If you were more observant," said Heyst with dispassionate contempt, "you would have known before I had been five minutes in the room that I had no weapon of any sort on me."
"Possibly; but pray keep your hands still. They are very well where they are. This is too big an affair for me to take any risks."
"Big? Too big?" Heyst repeated with genuine surprise. "Good Heavens! Whatever you are looking for, there's very little of it here--very little of anything."
"You would naturally say so, but that's not what we have heard," retorted Mr. Jones quickly, with a grin so ghastly that it was impossible to think it voluntary.
Heyst's face had grown very gloomy. He knitted his brows.
"What have you heard?" he asked.
"A lot, Mr. Heyst--a lot," affirmed Mr. Jones. He was vying to recover his manner of languid superiority. "We have heard, for instance, of a certain Mr. Morrison, once your partner."
Heyst could not repress a slight movement.
"Aha!" said Mr. Jones, with a sort of ghostly glee on his face.
The muffled thunder resembled the echo of a distant cannonade below the horizon, and the two men seemed to be listening to it in sullen silence.
"This diabolical calumny will end in actually and literally taking my life from me," thought Heyst.
Then, suddenly, he laughed. Portentously spectral, Mr. Jones frowned at the sound.
"Laugh as much as you please," he said. "I, who have been hounded out from society by a lot of highly moral souls, can't see anything funny in that story. But here we are, and you will now have to pay for your fun, Mr. Heyst."
"You have heard a lot of ugly lies," observed Heyst. "Take my word for it!"
"You would say so, of course--very natural. As a matter of fact I haven't heard very much. Strictly speaking, it was Martin. He collects information, and so on. You don't suppose I would talk to that Schomberg animal more than I could help? It was Martin whom he took into his confidence."
"The stupidity of that creature is so great that it becomes formidable," Heyst said, as if speaking to himself.
Involuntarily, his mind turned to the girl, wandering in the forest, alone and terrified. Would he ever see her again? At that thought he nearly lost his self-possession. But the idea that if she followed his instructions those men were not likely to find her steadied him a little. They did not know that the island had any inhabitants; and he himself once disposed of, they would be too anxious to get away to waste time hunting for a vanished girl.
All this passed through Heyst's mind in a flash, as men think in moments of danger. He looked speculatively at Mr. Jones, who, of course, had never for a moment taken his eyes from his intended victim. And, the conviction came to Heyst that this outlaw from the higher spheres was an absolutely hard and pitiless scoundrel.
Mr Jones's voice made him start.
"It would be useless, for instance, to tell me that your Chinaman has run off with your money. A man living alone with a Chinaman on an island takes care to conceal property of that kind so well that the devil himself--"
"Certainly," Heyst muttered.
Again, with his left hand, Mr. Jones mopped his frontal bone, his stalk-like neck, his razor jaws, his fleshless chin. Again his voice faltered and his aspect became still more gruesomely malevolent as of a wicked and pitiless corpse.
"I see what you mean," he cried, "but you mustn't put too much trust in your ingenuity. You don't strike me as a very ingenious person, Mr. Heyst. Neither am I. My talents lie another way. But Martin--"
"Who is now engaged in rifling my desk," interjected Heyst.
"I don't think so. What I was going to say is that Martin is much cleverer than a Chinaman. Do you believe in racial superiority, Mr. Heyst? I do, firmly. Martin is great at ferreting out such secrets as yours, for instance."
"Secrets like mine!" repeated Heyst bitterly. "Well I wish him joy of all he can ferret out!"
"That's very kind of you," remarked Mr. Jones. He was beginning to be anxious for Martin's return. Of iron self-possession at the gaming-table, fearless in a sudden affray, he found that this rather special kind of work was telling on his nerves. "Keep still as you are!" he cried sharply.
"I've told you I am not armed," said Heyst, folding his arms on his breast.
"I am really inclined to believe that you are not," admitted Mr. Jones seriously. "Strange!" he mused aloud, the caverns of his eyes turned upon Heyst. Then briskly: "But my object is to keep you in this room. Don't provoke me, by some unguarded movement, to smash your knee or do something definite of that sort." He passed his tongue over his lips, which were dry and black, while his forehead glistened with moisture. "I don't know if it wouldn't be better to do it at once!"
"He who deliberates is lost," said Heyst with grave mockery.
Mr Jones disregarded the remark. He had the air of communing with himself.
"Physically I am no match for you," he said slowly, his black gaze fixed upon the man sitting on the end of the bed. "You could spring--"
"Are you trying to frighten yourself?" asked Heyst abruptly. "You don't seem to have quite enough pluck for your business. Why don't you do it at once?"
Mr Jones, taking violent offence, snorted like a savage skeleton.
"Strange as it may seem to you, it is because of my origin, my breeding, my traditions, my early associations, and such-like trifles. Not everybody can divest himself of the prejudices of a gentleman as easily as you have done, Mr. Heyst. But don't worry about my pluck. If you were to make a clean spring at me, you would receive in mid air, so to speak, something that would make you perfectly harmless by the time you landed. No, don't misapprehend us, Mr. Heyst. We are--er--adequate bandits; and we are after the fruit of your labours as a--er--successful swindler. It's the way of the world--gorge and disgorge!"
He leaned wearily the back of his head against the wall. His vitality seemed exhausted. Even his sunken eyelids drooped within the bony sockets. Only his thin, waspish, beautifully pencilled eyebrows, drawn together a little, suggested the will and the power to sting--something vicious, unconquerable, and deadly.
"Fruits! Swindler!" repeated Heyst, without heat, almost without contempt. "You are giving yourself no end of trouble, you and your faithful henchman, to crack an empty nut. There are no fruits here, as you imagine. There are a few sovereigns, which you may have if you like; and since you have called yourself a bandit--"
"Yaas!" drawled Mr. Jones. "That, rather than a swindler. Open warfare at least!"
"Very good! Only let me tell you that there were never in the world two more deluded bandits--never!"
Heyst uttered these words with such energy that Mr. Jones, stiffening up, seemed to become thinner and taller in his metallic blue dressing-gown against the whitewashed wall.
"Fooled by a silly, rascally innkeeper!" Heyst went on. "Talked over like a pair of children with a promise of sweets!"
"I didn't talk with that disgusting animal," muttered Mr. Jones sullenly; "but he convinced Martin, who is no fool."
"I should think he wanted very much to be convinced," said Heyst, with the courteous intonation so well known in the Islands. "I don't want to disturb your touching trust in your--your follower, but he must be the most credulous brigand in existence. What do you imagine? If the story of my riches were ever so true, do you think Schomberg would have imparted it to you from sheer altruism? Is that the way of the world, Mr. Jones?"
For a moment the lower jaw of Ricardo's gentleman dropped; but it came up with a snap of scorn, and he said with spectral intensity:
"The beast is cowardly! He was frightened, and wanted to get rid of us, if you want to know, Mr. Heyst. I don't know that the material inducement was so very great, but I was bored, and we decided to accept the bribe. I don't regret it. All my life I have been seeking new impressions, and you have turned out to be something quite out of the common. Martin, of course, looks to the material results. He's simple--and faithful--and wonderfully acute."
"Ah, yes! He's on the track--" and now Heyst's speech had the character of politely grim raillery--"but not sufficiently on the track, as yet, to make it quite convenient to shoot me without more ado. Didn't Schomberg tell you precisely where I conceal the fruit of my rapines? Pah! Don't you know he would have told you anything, true or false, from a very clear motive? Revenge! Mad hate--the unclean idiot!"
Mr Jones did not seem very much moved. On his right hand the doorway incessantly flickered with distant lightning, and the continuous rumble of thunder went on irritatingly, like the growl of an inarticulate giant muttering fatuously.
Heyst overcame his immense repugnance to allude to her whose image, cowering in the forest was constantly before his eyes, with all the pathos and force of its appeal, august, pitiful, and almost holy to him. It was in a hurried, embarrassed manner that he went on:
"If it had not been for that girl whom he persecuted with his insane and odious passion, and who threw herself on my protection, he would never have--but you know well enough!"
"I don't know!" burst out Mr. Jones with amazing heat. "That hotel-keeper tried to talk to me once of some girl he had lost, but I told him I didn't want to hear any of his beastly women stories. It had something to do with you, had it?"
Heyst looked on serenely at this outburst, then lost his patience a little.
"What sort of comedy is this? You don't mean to say that you didn't know that I had--that there was a girl living with me here?"
One could see that the eyes of Mr. Jones had become fixed in the depths of their black holes by the gleam of white becoming steady there. The whole man seemed frozen still.
"Here! Here!" he screamed out twice. There was no mistaking his astonishment, his shocked incredulity--something like frightened disgust.
Heyst was disgusted also, but in another way. He too was incredulous. He regretted having mentioned the girl; but the thing was done, his repugnance had been overcome in the heat of his argument against the absurd bandit.
"Is it possible that you didn't know of that significant fact?" he inquired. "Of the only effective truth in the welter of silly lies that deceived you so easily?"
"No, I didn't!" Mr. Jones shouted. "But Martin did!" he added in a faint whisper, which Heyst's ears just caught and no more.
"I kept her out of sight as long as I could," said Heyst. "Perhaps, with your bringing up traditions, and so on; you will understand my reason for it."
"He knew. He knew before!" Mr. Jones mourned in a hollow voice. "He knew of her from the first!"
Backed hard against the wall he no longer watched Heyst. He had the air of a man who had seen an abyss yawning under his feet.
"If I want to kill him, this is my time," thought Heyst; but he did not move.
Next moment Mr. Jones jerked his head up, glaring with sardonic fury.
"I have a good mind to shoot you, you woman-ridden hermit, you man in the moon, that can't exist without--no, it won't be you that I'll shoot. It's the other woman-lover--the prevaricating, sly, low-class, amorous cuss! And he shaved--shaved under my very nose. I'll shoot him!"
"He's gone mad," thought Heyst, startled by the spectre's sudden fury.
He felt himself more in danger, nearer death, than ever since he had entered that room. An insane bandit is a deadly combination. He did not, could not know that Mr. Jones was quick-minded enough to see already the end of his reign over his excellent secretary's thoughts and feelings; the coming failure of Ricardo's fidelity. A woman had intervened! A woman, a girl, who apparently possessed the power to awaken men's disgusting folly. Her power had been proved in two instances already--the beastly innkeeper, and that man with moustaches, upon whom Mr. Jones, his deadly right hand twitching in his pocket, glared more in repulsion than in anger. The very object of the expedition was lost from view in his sudden and overwhelming sense of utter insecurity. And this made Mr. Jones feel very savage; but not against the man with the moustaches. Thus, while Heyst was really feeling that his life was not worth two minutes, purchase, he heard himself addressed with no affection of languid impertinence but with a burst of feverish determination.
"Here! Let's call a truce!" said Mr. Jones.
Heyst's heart was too sick to allow him to smile.
"Have I been making war on you?" he asked wearily. "How do you expect me to attach any meaning to your words?" he went on. "You seem to be a morbid, senseless sort of bandit. We don't speak the same language. If I were to tell you why I am here, talking to you, you wouldn't believe me, because you would not understand me. It certainly isn't the love of life, from which I have divorced myself long ago--not sufficiently, perhaps; but if you are thinking of yours, then I repeat to you that it has never been in danger from me. I am unarmed."
Mr Jones was biting his lower lip, in a deep meditation. It was only towards the last that he looked at Heyst.
"Unarmed, eh?" Then he burst out violently: "I tell you, a gentleman is no match for the common herd. And yet one must make use of the brutes. Unarmed, eh? And I suppose that creature is of the commonest sort. You could hardly have got her out of a drawing-room. Though they're all alike, for that matter. Unarmed! It's a pity. I am in much greater danger than you are or were--or I am much mistaken. But I am not--I know my man!"
He lost his air of mental vacancy and broke out into shrill exclamations. To Heyst they seemed madder than anything that had gone before.
"On the track! On the scent!" he cried, forgetting himself to the point of executing a dance of rage in the middle of the floor.
Heyst looked on, fascinated by this skeleton in a gay dressing-gown, jerkily agitated like a grotesque toy on the end of an invisible string. It became quiet suddenly.
"I might have smelt a rat! I always knew that this would be the danger." He changed suddenly to a confidential tone, fixing his sepulchral stare on Heyst. "And yet here I am, taken in by the fellow, like the veriest fool. I've been always on the watch for some beastly influence, but here I am, fairly caught. He shaved himself right in front of me and I never guessed!"
The shrill laugh, following on the low tone of secrecy, sounded so convincingly insane that Heyst got up as if moved by a spring. Mr. Jones stepped back two paces, but displayed no uneasiness.
"It's as clear as daylight!" he uttered mournfully, and fell silent.
Behind him the doorway flickered lividly, and the sound as of a naval action somewhere away on the horizon filled the breathless pause. Mr. Jones inclined his head on his shoulder. His mood had completely changed.
"What do you say, unarmed man? Shall we go and see what is detaining my trusted Martin so long? He asked me to keep you engaged in friendly conversation till he made a further examination of that track. Ha, ha, ha!"
"He is no doubt ransacking my house," said Heyst.
He was bewildered. It seemed to him that all this was an incomprehensible dream, or perhaps an elaborate other-world joke, contrived by that spectre in a gorgeous dressing gown.
Mr Jones looked at him with a horrible, cadaverous smile of inscrutable mockery, and pointed to the door. Heyst passed through it first. His feelings had become so blunted that he did not care how soon he was shot in the back.
"How oppressive the air is!" the voice of Mr. Jones said at his elbow. "This stupid storm gets on my nerves. I would welcome some rain, though it would be unpleasant to get wet. On the other hand, this exasperating thunder has the advantage of covering the sound of our approach. The lightning's not so convenient. Ah, your house is fully illuminated! My clever Martin is punishing your stock of candles. He belongs to the unceremonious classes, which are also unlovely, untrustworthy, and so on."
"I left the candles burning," said Heyst, "to save him trouble."
"You really believed he would go to your house?" asked Mr. Jones with genuine interest.
"I had that notion, strongly. I do believe he is there now."
"And you don't mind?"
"You don't!" Mr. Jones stopped to wonder. "You are an extraordinary man," he said suspiciously, and moved on, touching elbows with Heyst.
In the latter's breast dwelt a deep silence, the complete silence of unused faculties. At this moment, by simply shouldering Mr. Jones, he could have thrown him down and put himself, by a couple of leaps, beyond the certain aim of the revolver; but he did not even think of that. His very will seemed dead of weariness. He moved automatically, his head low, like a prisoner captured by the evil power of a masquerading skeleton out of a grave. Mr. Jones took charge of the direction. They fetched a wide sweep. The echoes of distant thunder seemed to dog their footsteps.
"By the by," said Mr. Jones, as if unable to restrain his curiosity, "aren't you anxious about that--ouch!--that fascinating creature to whom you owe whatever pleasure you can find in our visit?"
"I have placed her in safety," said Heyst. "I--I took good care of that."
Mr Jones laid a hand on his arm.
"You have? Look! is that what you mean?"
Heyst raised his head. In the flicker of lightning the desolation of the cleared ground on his left leaped out and sank into the night, together with the elusive forms of things distant, pale, unearthly. But in the brilliant square of the door he saw the girl--the woman he had longed to see once more as if enthroned, with her hands on the arms of the chair. She was in black; her face was white, her head dreamily inclined on her breast. He saw her only as low as her knees. He saw her--there, in the room, alive with a sombre reality. It was no mocking vision. She was not in the forest--but there! She sat there in the chair, seemingly without strength, yet without fear, tenderly stooping.
"Can you understand their power?" whispered the hot breath of Mr. Jones into his ear. "Can there be a more disgusting spectacle? It's enough to make the earth detestable. She seems to have found her affinity. Move on closer. If I have to shoot you in the end, then perhaps you will die cured."
Heyst obeyed the pushing pressure of a revolver barrel between his shoulders. He felt it distinctly, but he did not feel the ground under his feet. They found the steps, without his being aware that he was ascending them--slowly, one by one. Doubt entered into him--a doubt of a new kind, formless, hideous. It seemed to spread itself all over him, enter his limbs, and lodge in his entrails. He stopped suddenly, with a thought that he who experienced such a feeling had no business to live--or perhaps was no longer living.
Everything--the bungalow, the forest, the open ground--trembled incessantly, the earth, the sky itself, shivered all the time, and the only thing immovable in the shuddering universe was the interior of the lighted room and the woman in black sitting in the light of the eight candle-flames. They flung around her an intolerable brilliance which hurt his eyes, seemed to sear his very brain with the radiation of infernal heat. It was some time before his scorched eyes made out Ricardo seated on the floor at some little distance, his back to the doorway, but only partly so; one side of his upturned face showing the absorbed, all forgetful rapture of his contemplation.
The grip of Mr. Jones's hard claw drew Heyst back a little. In the roll of thunder, swelling and subsiding, he whispered in his ear a sarcastic: "Of course!"
A great shame descended upon Heyst--the shame of guilt, absurd and maddening. Mr. Jones drew him still farther back into the darkness of the veranda.
"This is serious," he went on, distilling his ghostly venom into Heyst's very ear. "I had to shut my eyes many times to his little flings; but this is serious. He has found his soul-mate. Mud souls, obscene and cunning! Mud bodies, too--the mud of the gutter! I tell you, we are no match for the vile populace. I, even I, have been nearly caught. He asked me to detain you till he gave me the signal. It won't be you that I'll have to shoot, but him. I wouldn't trust him near me for five minutes after this!"
He shook Heyst's arm a little.
"If you had not happened to mention the creature, we should both have been dead before morning. He would have stabbed you as you came down the steps after leaving me and then he would have walked up to me and planted the same knife between my ribs. He has no prejudices. The viler the origin, the greater the freedom of these simple souls!"
He drew a cautious, hissing breath and added in an agitated murmur: "I can see right into his mind, I have been nearly caught napping by his cunning."
He stretched his neck to peer into the room from the side. Heyst, too, made a step forward, under the slight impulse of that slender hand clasping his hand with a thin, bony grasp.
"Behold!" the skeleton of the crazy bandit jabbered thinly into his ear in spectral fellowship. "Behold the simple, Acis kissing the sandals of the nymph, on the way to her lips, all forgetful, while the menacing life of Polyphemus already sounds close at hand--if he could only hear it! Stoop a little."