"Can't? Well, no I can't. It's a pity. Perhaps it would have been the best way," said Heyst, in a tone which for him could be called gloomy. "Unless one could forget the silly business altogether." His faint playfulness of manner and speech returned, like a habit one has schooled oneself into, even before his forehead had cleared completely. "But why are you looking so hard at me? Oh, I don't object, and I shall try not to flinch. Your eyes — "
He was looking straight into them, and as a matter of fact had forgotten all about the late Morrison at that moment.
"No," he exclaimed suddenly. "What an impenetrable girl you are Lena, with those grey eyes of yours! Windows of the soul, as some poet has said. The fellow must have been a glazier by vocation. Well, nature has provided excellently for the shyness of your soul."
When he ceased speaking, the girl came to herself with a catch of her breath. He heard her voice, the varied charm of which he thought he knew so well, saying with an unfamiliar intonation:
"And that partner of yours is dead?"
"Morrison? Oh, yes, as I've told you, he — "
"You never told me."
"Didn't I? I thought I did; or, rather, I thought you must know. It seems impossible that anybody with whom I speak should not know that Morrison is dead."
She lowered her eyelids, and Heyst was startled by something like an expression of horror on her face.
"Morrison!" she whispered in an appalled tone. "Morrison!" Her head drooped. Unable to see her features, Heyst could tell from her voice that for some reason or other she was profoundly moved by the syllables of that unromantic name. A thought flashed through his head — could she have known Morrison? But the mere difference of their origins made it wildly improbable.
"This is very extraordinary!" he said. "Have you ever heard the name before?"
Her head moved quickly several times in tiny affirmative nods, as if she could not trust herself to speak, or even to look at him. She was biting her lower lip.
"Did you ever know anybody of that name?" he asked.
The girl answered by a negative sign; and then at last she spoke, jerkily, as if forcing herself against some doubt or fear. She had heard of that very man, she told Heyst.
"Impossible!" he said positively. "You are mistaken. You couldn't have heard of him, it's — "
He stopped short, with the thought that to talk like this was perfectly useless; that one doesn't argue against thin air.
"But I did hear of him; only I didn't know then, I couldn't guess, that it was your partner they were talking about."
"Talking about my partner?" repeated Heyst slowly.
"No." Her mind seemed almost as bewildered, as full of incredulity, as his. "No. They were talking of you really; only I didn't know it."
"Who were they?" Heyst raised his voice. "Who was talking of me? Talking where?"
With the first question he had lifted himself from his reclining position; at the last he was on his knees before her, their heads on a level.
"Why, in that town, in that hotel. Where else could it have been?" she said.
The idea of being talked about was always novel to Heyst's simplified conception of himself. For a moment he was as much surprised as if he had believed himself to be a mere gliding shadow among men. Besides, he had in him a half-unconscious notion that he was above the level of island gossip.
"But you said first that it was of Morrison they talked," he remarked to the girl, sinking on his heels, and no longer much interested. "Strange that you should have the opportunity to hear any talk at all! I was rather under the impression that you never saw anybody belonging to the town except from the platform."
"You forget that I was not living with the other girls," she said. "After meals they used to go back to the Pavilion, but I had to stay in the hotel and do my sewing, or what not, in the room where they talked."
"I didn't think of that. By the by, you never told me who they were."
"Why, that horrible red-faced beast," she said, with all the energy of disgust which the mere thought of the hotel-keeper provoked in her.
"Oh, Schomberg!" Heyst murmured carelessly.
"He talked to the boss — to Zangiacomo, I mean. I had to sit there. That devil-woman sometimes wouldn't let me go away. I mean Mrs. Zangiacomo."
"I guessed," murmured Heyst. "She liked to torment you in a variety of ways. But it is really strange that the hotel-keeper should talk of Morrison to Zangiacomo. As far as I can remember he saw very little of Morrison professionally. He knew many others much better."
The girl shuddered slightly.