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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVictory - PART FOUR - Chapter EIGHT
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Victory - PART FOUR - Chapter EIGHT Post by :almills Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph Conrad Date :June 2011 Read :1776

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Victory - PART FOUR - Chapter EIGHT

PART FOUR: CHAPTER EIGHT


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 fun 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--what?"

"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!"

Content of PART FOUR CHAPTER EIGHT (Joseph Conrad's novel: Victory)

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