"That was the only name I ever overheard. I would get as far away from them as I could, to the other end of the room, but when that beast started shouting I could not help hearing. I wish I had never heard anything. If I had got up and gone out of the room I don't suppose the woman would have killed me for it; but she would have rowed me in a nasty way. She would have threatened me and called me names. That sort, when they know you are helpless, there's nothing to stop them. I don't know how it is, but bad people, real bad people that you can see are bad, they get over me somehow. It's the way they set about downing one. I am afraid of wickedness."
Heyst watched the changing expressions of her face. He encouraged her, profoundly sympathetic, a little amused.
"I quite understand. You needn't apologize for your great delicacy in the perception of inhuman evil. I am a little like you."
"I am not very plucky," she said.
"Well! I don't know myself what I would do, what countenance I would have before a creature which would strike me as being evil incarnate. Don't you be ashamed!"
She sighed, looked up with her pale, candid gaze and a timid expression on her face, and murmured:
"You don't seem to want to know what he was saying."
"About poor Morrison? It couldn't have been anything bad, for the poor fellow was innocence itself. And then, you know, he is dead, and nothing can possibly matter to him now."
"But I tell you that it was of you he was talking!" she cried.
"He was saying that Morrison's partner first got all there was to get out of him, and then, and then — well, as good as murdered him — sent him out to die somewhere!"
"You believe that of me?" said Heyst, after a moment of perfect silence.
"I didn't know it had anything to do with you. Schomberg was talking of some Swede. How was I to know? It was only when you began telling me about how you came here — "
"And now you have my version." Heyst forced himself to speak quietly. "So that's how the business looked from outside!" he muttered.
"I remember him saying that everybody in these parts knew the story," the girl added breathlessly.
"Strange that it should hurt me!" mused Heyst to himself; "yet it does. I seem to be as much of a fool as those everybodies who know the story and no doubt believe it. Can you remember any more?" he addressed the girl in a grimly polite tone. "I've often heard of the moral advantages of seeing oneself as others see one. Let us investigate further. Can't you recall something else that everybody knows?"
"Oh! Don't laugh!" she cried.
"Did I laugh? I assure you I was not aware of it. I won't ask you whether you believe the hotel-keeper's version. Surely you must know the value of human judgement!"
She unclasped her hands, moved them slightly, and twined her fingers as before. Protest? Assent? Was there to be nothing more? He was relieved when she spoke in that warm and wonderful voice which in itself comforted and fascinated one's heart, which made her lovable.
"I heard this before you and I ever spoke to each other. It went out of my memory afterwards. Everything went out of my memory then; and I was glad of it. It was a fresh start for me, with you — and you know it. I wish I had forgotten who I was — that would have been best; and I very nearly did forget."
He was moved by the vibrating quality of the last words. She seemed to be talking low of some wonderful enchantment, in mysterious terms of special significance. He thought that if she only could talk to him in some unknown tongue, she would enslave him altogether by the sheer beauty of the sound, suggesting infinite depths of wisdom and feeling.
"But," she went on, "the name stuck in my head, it seems; and when you mentioned it — "
"It broke the spell," muttered Heyst in angry disappointment as if he had been deceived in some hope.
The girl, from her position a little above him, surveyed with still eyes the abstracted silence of the man on whom she now depended with a completeness of which she had not been vividly conscious before, because, till then, she had never felt herself swinging between the abysses of earth and heaven in the hollow of his arm. What if he should grow weary of the burden?
"And, moreover, nobody had ever believed that tale!"
Heyst came out with an abrupt burst of sound which made her open her steady eyes wider, with an effect of immense surprise. It was a purely mechanical effect, because she was neither surprised nor puzzled. In fact, she could understand him better then than at any moment since she first set eyes on him.
He laughed scornfully.
"What am I thinking of?" he cried. "As if it could matter to me what anybody had ever said or believed, from the beginning of the world till the crack of doom!"
"I never heard you laugh till today," she observed. "This is the second time!"
He scrambled to his feet and towered above her.