"That's because, when one's heart has been broken into in the way you have broken into mine, all sorts of weaknesses are free to enter — shame, anger, stupid indignation, stupid fears — stupid laughter, too. I wonder what interpretation you are putting on it?"
"It wasn't gay, certainly," she said. "But why are you angry with me? Are you sorry you took me away from those beasts? I told you who I was. You could see it."
"Heavens!" he muttered. He had regained his command of himself. "I assure you I could see much more than you could tell me. I could see quite a lot that you don't even suspect yet, but you can't be seen quite through."
He sank to the ground by her side and took her hand. She asked gently:
"What more do you want from me?"
He made no sound for a time.
"The impossible, I suppose," he said very low, as one makes a confidence, and pressing the hand he grasped.
It did not return the pressure. He shook his head as if to drive away the thought of this, and added in a louder, light tone:
"Nothing less. And it isn't because I think little of what I've got already. Oh, no! It is because I think so much of this possession of mine that I can't have it complete enough. I know it's unreasonable. You can't hold back anything — now."
"Indeed I couldn't," she whispered, letting her hand lie passive in his tight grasp. "I only wish I could give you something more, or better, or whatever it is you want."
He was touched by the sincere accent of these simple words.
"I tell you what you can do — you can tell me whether you would have gone with me like this if you had known of whom that abominable idiot of a hotel-keeper was speaking. A murderer — no less!"
"But I didn't know you at all then," she cried. "And I had the sense to understand what he was saying. It wasn't murder, really. I never thought it was."
"What made him invent such an atrocity?" Heyst exclaimed. "He seems a stupid animal. He is stupid. How did he manage to hatch that pretty tale? Have I a particularly vile countenance? Is black selfishness written all over my face? Or is that sort of thing so universally human that it might be said of anybody?"
"It wasn't murder," she insisted earnestly.
"I know. I understand. It was worse. As to killing a man, which would be a comparatively decent thing to do, well — I have never done that."
"Why should you do it?" she asked in a frightened voice.
"My dear girl, you don't know the sort of life I have been leading in unexplored countries, in the wilds; it's difficult to give you an idea. There are men who haven't been in such tight places as I have found myself in who have had to — to shed blood, as the saying is. Even the wilds hold prizes which tempt some people; but I had no schemes, no plans — and not even great firmness of mind to make me unduly obstinate. I was simply moving on, while the others, perhaps, were going somewhere. An indifference as to roads and purposes makes one meeker, as it were. And I may say truly, too, that I never did care, I won't say for life — I had scorned what people call by that name from the first — but for being alive. I don't know if that is what men call courage, but I doubt it very much."
"You! You have no courage?" she protested.
"I really don't know. Not the sort that always itches for a weapon, for I have never been anxious to use one in the quarrels that a man gets into in the most innocent way sometimes. The differences for which men murder each other are, like everything else they do, the most contemptible, the most pitiful things to look back upon. No, I've never killed a man or loved a woman — not even in my thoughts, not even in my dreams."
He raised her hand to his lips, and let them rest on it for a space, during which she moved a little closer to him. After the lingering kiss he did not relinquish his hold.
"To slay, to love — the greatest enterprises of life upon a man! And I have no experience of either. You must forgive me anything that may have appeared to you awkward in my behaviour, inexpressive in my speeches, untimely in my silences."
He moved uneasily, a little disappointed by her attitude, but indulgent to it, and feeling, in this moment of perfect quietness, that in holding her surrendered hand he had found a closer communion than they had ever achieved before. But even then there still lingered in him a sense of incompleteness not altogether overcome — which, it seemed, nothing ever would overcome — the fatal imperfection of all the gifts of life, which makes of them a delusion and a snare.
All of a sudden he squeezed her hand angrily. His delicately playful equanimity, the product of kindness and scorn, had perished with the loss of his bitter liberty.
"Not murder, you say! I should think not. But when you led me to talk just now, when the name turned up, when you understood that it was of me that these things had been said, you showed a strange emotion. I could see it."