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.